MAT Blog

Preparing for Your First Classroom Observation

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 25, 2014 9:36:41 AM


Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a first-year teacher, classroom observations can be anxiety-inducing. But they don’t have to be! By taking the following advice from veteran teacher and author Julia Thompson, you can feel more confident, relaxed, and open-minded both before and during your classroom observation:

  • Be proactive: If you don’t have a copy of the observation criteria, make sure that you get one. Usually these can be found in the faculty manual, but if not, your administrator should be more than happy to provide you a copy.
  • Keep your lesson simple: This should go without saying, but observation day is not the time to play a video, issue a test, or begin with a long writing prompt. Just keep it simple. Elaborate activities like skits or student debates may backfire—plus, they do little to highlight your instructional skills.
  • Give your students a heads-up: You should inform your students that there will be a visitor and that you would appreciate their cooperation. At the same time, tell them to be natural and act like they normally would.
  • Accommodate the observer: Select an unobtrusive place for your visitor before s/he arrives. And don’t forget an extra copy of your lesson plan and any additional worksheets, too. The observer will want to follow along with the lesson.

You’re probably wondering about the criteria the observer will use to evaluate you. Although it may vary, chances are that your observer will look to see if you have:

  • Followed the district’s curriculum
  • Prepared and fulfilled objectives for the lesson
  • Presented/facilitated accurate and appropriate information
  • Demonstrated an understanding of the material
  • Made use of available class time
  • Kept students on task
  • Allowed time for transitions between activities
  • Employed a variety of teaching strategies
  • Demonstrated effective questioning skills
  • Used an assessment instrument for the lesson
  • Motivated your students to succeed
  • Established the relevance of the lesson
  • Provided timely feedback
  • Monitored and assisted students
  • Interacted in a positive way with students
  • Maintained an orderly classroom
  • Minimized disruptions
  • Incorporated critical thinking into the assignment
  • Enforced classroom rules
  • Delivered clear instructions
  • Projected a professional image

Despite the fact that constructive criticism is helpful, even necessary, it is still one of the most difficult aspects of being observed and evaluated. You may find it challenging, but do your best to come to your post-observation with a professional, open-minded attitude. Here are some of Thompson’s suggestions to help you make this conference a positive and productive experience:

  • Go into your evaluation conference with paper, a pen and an open mind. Be prepared to hear criticism, but resist the temptation to internalize it or take it personally
  • Listen objectively. Most of the criticism will probably start to cover issues you have started to address yourself. If you find yourself becoming defensive, stop and make an effort to remain open-minded
  • Listen more than you speak. Ask for advice and suggestions for improvement, then listen carefully, write them down, and follow them
  • After the conference, when you have had an opportunity to correct some of your weaknesses, keep the administrator update on your progress. S/he may schedule a follow-up meeting or observation, but if not, we suggest that you invite your administrator to stop by your class and see the progress you’ve made.

Tags: Classroom Observation

5 More Engaging Activities for Early Finishers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 24, 2014 9:46:14 AM


As a student, I was rarely the first to complete my tests or in-class exercises, but when I was, I held onto my work until it was collected. Why? Because I didn’t want to be “rewarded” with more work. In other words, I didn’t want to select a time-killing ditto from the teacher’s filing cabinet.

If I didn’t want to work on dittos while the rest of the students completed their work, I know that my early finishers probably don’t either. So I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be fun, creative, meaningful and self-directed learning activities that are not only unique enough to meet the needs of individual learners, but also push them to engage in higher-order thinking.

I recently posted a collection of 10 of my favorite activities for early finishers, but since then I’ve added a few more to my list.

5 More Engaging Activities for Early Finishers

Get it in writing: Set goals for the rest of the week
To keep students motivated and self-reflective, I like to have them complete goal-setting worksheets every week. These are simple writing exercises that ask students to set a learning goal and outline the steps they will take to achieve it.

Students have until Friday to submit the assignment, but if they complete their work early, they can take advantage of this free time by completing this goal-setting worksheet (If this worksheet doesn’t work for you, Worksheet Place has a nice collection of alternatives).

Listen, learn, and report
Another option my students have is to listen to a 15-Minute History podcast or watch a Crash Course episode and document what they learned in one paragraph. This activity is ideal for history students, but I think English students will also find it useful and entertaining.

Find a new book
My students used to always complain that they couldn’t find books that they liked, so I did a little bit of research and came up with five different websites that recommend books based the reader’s taste.
Book Wink, Whichbook, What Should I Read Next?, and Goodreads are my students’ favorite sites, but other worthy mentions include Book SeerandYour Next Read.

Practice a foreign language
I’ve toyed around with interactive language learning software like Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, but they certainly aren’t cheap. Purchased at a discount or even used, both programs approach the $300 mark. As an alternative, my early finishers have been using the following language-learning applications:

  • Gus on the Go ($3.99): This language learning app gives users the choice of learning 24 different languages.
  • Little Pim (Free) gives students a choice of learning eight different languages. Little Pim allows us to create profiles for students so we can track and assess their progress.
  • French Words for Kids ($3.99) provides 240 word-picture-audio combinations that teach students how to spell and pronounce French words.  Students cannavigate their waythrough three levels of difficulty
  • Duolingo (Free) uses timed practice drills, images and sounds to teach students Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian.

Research your family history
Many students know very little about their family history, but they can easily find out by using a free website called FamilySearch. Founded in 1894 and funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Family houses 2.5 billion names and is dedicated to preserving family records at absolutely no cost.

Photo credit: I like / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Tags: student engagement

Press Pause: A Simple and Effective Classroom Management Strategy

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 22, 2014 9:39:32 AM


Whether we’re out on a first date, or interacting with new acquaintances at a party, most of us tend to dread silence and awkward pauses in conversation. While we may not welcome silence in social situations, Rob Barnes, author of The Practical Guide to Primary Classroom Management, would argue that silence, when used deliberately and strategically, can be one of a teacher’s most effective classroom management tools. So what is Barnes’s Dramatic Pause Strategy, and how do we put it into play?

The critical feature of the dramatic pause strategy is to use a deliberately-placed stop immediately following a strong attention signal (this could be a clap, a bell, a sharp rap on your desk top). The idea is to maintain your pause and silently insist by using eye contact until all chatter and fidgeting stops.

If chattering persists, say—and repeat—something like, “I can’t see everyone’s eyes.” Now pause, repeat the phrase with slight surprise in your voice, and insist.

A note about your signal: Let’s say your strong signal is to clap your hands…in this case, always be sure that the pace of your clap is slow and dramatic. Otherwise, your three loud claps will really seem like one. Clap your hands at a pace of one loud sound per second, followed by a one or two-second pause before instructions. If the pause seems uncomfortably long, you’re probably executing the strategy just right!

A common error some beginning teachers make is getting sucked into responding to student questions after they issue their strong signal. The key is to ignore these questions and keep strictly focused. If you want to add a gesture, make a non-verbal “stop” or “pause” signal with your hand so that the student sees it. You’re not being rude, you’re simply saying, “Not now.” The last thing you want to do is encourage students to gain your attention when you’re trying to gain theirs!You need full attention, nothing else.

Remember, if you put up with chatter and speak loudly over your students, they will eventually conclude that you are willing to compete with them. Some teachers actually pause for extra effect once they have got attention. They also stretch a mid-sentence pause as long as they can. This is only acting, but it has a strong controlling effect on a class.

Tags: classroom management

A Simple Classroom Management Strategy: Turn Questions into Statements

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 18, 2014 9:58:12 AM


Although the effect teachers have on student behavior is crystal clear, the way in which teachers elicit the kind of behavior they want from students often appears elusive—especially to those entering the classroom for the first time.

Most teachers strive to be positive and polite, so very often they use subtle, open-ended questions in hopes that students will get the hint and change their behavior. Here are a few examples from Rob Barnes’s book The Practical Guide to Primary Classroom Management to help illustrate what I mean:

  • A beginning teacher who wants a student to take out her books might say, “Julie, would you like to get your books out, please?” to which the student might reply, “Nope. I’d rather read this comic book right now.”
  • A beginning teacher who wants a student to stop standing on his chair might say, “James, are you sitting properly? To which James might reply, “Yes, actually. I am.”

Eliciting the type of behavior we want our students to engage in starts by turning questions into statements. Notice how easy it is for students to skirt or respond sarcastically to open-ended questions:

  • “Would you like to get your books out?” (No, not really!)
  • “Are we all ready?” (No!)
  • “Can you sit properly?” (No! Yes! Probably!)
  • “Would you like to sit somewhere else?” (No!)
  • “Can you make less noise?” (No!)

Turning questions into statements of need is more effective:

  • “Bethany. Sit with both feet on the floor, please”
  • “Be thinking of a question about this when you quietly go back to your seats”
  • “Think of what you need to do to be ready to sit on the carpet”
  • “I’ll be asking questions, so think about what you’ve just heard as you quietly make a start”
  • I’m looking for a quality start, so think about this work with mouths closed”
  • “Maximum concentration on silent footsteps before you move quietly to the carpet”
Whenever you use a statement, you have a much better chance of receiving the desired outcome. As Barnes points out, “Classes quickly realize a rhetorical question because experienced teachers do not use them—or if they do, the class knows better than to shout in chorus.” You also begin to demonstrate that you know what you want.

Tags: classroom management

Literature Circles: A Student-Centered Approach to Literacy

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 17, 2014 3:09:00 PM


Why do our students come to school? Yes, yes, of course because they have to, but why else? Is it because of you? Is it because of the mind-bending lectures we give? If you asked Michael Kahn (see his article, “The Seminar”) these questions, he’d tell you that there’s nothing intrinsically special about us or the textbooks.

No, what makes coming to school “worth it” for Kahn is the collaborative learning experience—or in his words, the “opportunity [for students] to engage in a fantastic dialogue, trialogue, multilogue with a fantastically varied assortment of consciousnesses.”

There are countless ways we can get students working together, talking and learning from one another, but literature circles are certainly one of the most effective. Not only do they encourage open dialogue, creativity and critical thinking, they also push students to take ownership of their own learning experience.

What are literature circles?
When we use literature circles, small groups of students gather for an in-depth discussion of a literary work. To ensure that students have a clear sense of direction and remain focused, each group member is given a specific task. For example, one student may be the designated artist; s/he is responsible for using some form of art to explore a main idea, a theme, or significant scene from the text. Another group member, the wordsmith, might be responsible for documenting important, unusual, or difficult words from the reading. Regardless of each student’s role, each group must collaborate as they read, discuss and critically engage with texts.

The circles meet regularly, and the discussion roles change at each meeting. When the circle finishes a book, the members decide on a way to showcase their literary work for the rest of the class.

To give you a better sense of what literature circles are—and aren’t—take a look at the following chart from Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide, Literature Circles and Response:


What is the teacher’s role in literature circles?
As Harvey Daniels explains in his book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, “the teacher’s main job in literature circles is to not teach.” Instead, teachers use mini-lessons, debriefing sessions and Socratic questioning techniques as they circulate the room, moving from group to group to evaluate student progress. As a facilitator, the teacher is never center-stage. In literature circles, the teacher’s role is supportive, organizational and managerial.

What is the role of each student?
There are a number of approaches you can take, but Daniels believes in introducing literature circles by using predefined roles that students take turns fulfilling. Although the terminology used to name the roles may vary, the descriptions remain similar.

Pam Chandler, a sixth-grade English, reading, and social studies teacher at Sequoia Middle School in Redding, California, defines the roles her students take on in literature circles this way:

  • Artful artist uses some form of artwork to represent a significant scene or idea from the reading.
  • Literary luminary points out interesting or important passages within the reading.
  • Discussion director writes questions that will lead to discussion by the group.
  • Capable connector finds connections between the reading material and something outside the text, such as a personal experience, a topic studied in another class, or a different work of literature.
  • Word wizard discusses words in the text that are unusual, interesting, or difficult to understand.

Teachers will want to begin by modeling the various roles within a small group in front of the whole class before sending students out on their own. However, you may be surprised to find out that once students are comfortable with the group-discussion format, you may be able to discontinue these roles altogether.

How do I evaluate students?
Literature circles are not intended to “cover material”— they are designed to empower students to take control of their learning experiences, to get them excited about literature, and to help them find creative ways to delve into books. Keeping that in mind, teachers who use literature circles do not use traditional methods of evaluation.

Because teachers are not at the center of attention, they are better able to engage in “authentic,” real-time assessment. This can include keeping narrative observational logs, performance assessments, checklists, student conferences, group interviews, one-on-one conferences, and the like.

Keep in mind that evaluation in literature circles is not just the job of the teacher. Just as we require students to take responsibility for their own book selections, topic choices, and reading assignments, we also want them involved in the record-keeping and evaluation activities of literature circles.

For a more comprehensive discussion of literature circles, check out both Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide Literature Circles and Response, and Harvey Daniels’s book, Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups.

Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, reading ability, reading teachers, student engagement, collaborative learning, Literature Circles

8 More Classroom Organization Hacks for Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 15, 2014 12:12:06 PM

We’ve always believed that the way our classrooms look and feel is a reflection of our personalities and teaching styles. Unlike cluttered classrooms, cheerful, well-organized learning spaces inspire us, keep us focused and—we happen to think—make us better teachers. Sprucing up your classroom can be costly, but we’ve found 8 more creative classroom organization hacks to help teachers save money, space, and time!

8 More Classroom Organization Hacks for Teachers

Classroom organization idea: Kelly from the Navy Stripe

Classroom organization idea: RubyChopsticks

Classroom organization idea: Ikea Hackers

Classroom organization idea: Infarrantly Creative


Classroom organization idea: Stark Bargains


Classroom organization idea: Trendy Tales of a Teacher

Tags: classroom organization

Drumming Up Excitement for Books: 10 Tips for Reading Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 10, 2014 9:26:51 AM

Why don’t our students love to read? Well, use your imagination and pretend you’re a student. You’ve only been reading for seven to twelve years—and most of what you’ve read has been assigned and tested. In addition to this, you’ve been asked to “discuss” and “close read” texts, create book reports, and answer comprehension questions based upon what you read. Sounds like a blast, huh?

These are only a few reasons why our students dislike reading, but rather than fixate on all the reasons our reluctant readers are reluctant, we’d like to suggest 10 simple ways reading teachers can drum up excitement for books!

Drumming Up Excitement for Books: 10 Tips for Reading Teachers

  • Niche book clubs are popular amongst adults, but why not start one (or two, or three) for students? How about a club that only reads scary and disgusting books? Or one that reads only sci-fi books with leading female characters? If each group only meets monthly (or bi-monthly), reading teachers should have plenty of time to keep up.

  • Instead of talking about good books, reading teachers might have more luck if they showed students good books. Stop by Scholastic’s site where you’ll find a nice collection of book trailers for K-8 students.

  • If you are reading a work of historical fiction, contact local re-enactor groups at historical sites in your area and invite them to visit your classroom.

  • The Internet may list every book that was ever written, but how do reading teachers help students sort through the clutter and find books they love? Answer: They teach them how to use book recommendation websites.

  • At our school, students can sign up for a half hour research consultation with a librarian. This is a one-on-one session in which students collaborate with librarians to flesh out their topics and find useful books and articles that relate to their topics.

  • Students and teachers both found this service to be beneficial—which got us thinking: What if we took the “research consultation” model and used it to create a “good book” consultation service where students pair up with a librarian to find books they’ll enjoy? Many students take advantage of this service and continue to be enthusiastic about it.

  • Show foreign films or watch movies with closed-captioning turned on. As many of us know, finding creative ways to focus reluctant readers on books, the very thing that evokes feelings of frustration, inadequacy and failure, is challenging. But films can capture students’ interest and stimulate their imagination in ways that books can’t.

  • One of our favorite things about visiting book stores is stopping by the “recommended reading” station. Every month, the bookstore employees select their favorite books and write up a short paragraph explaining why they made their selections. Try doing this with your students.

  • Invite the librarian to visit the classroom every month to talk about new arrivals and seasonal favorites.

  • Use Skype in the Classroom to connect with a real published author for free! Currently, you can Skype with Nancy Krulik, author of George Brown; Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay and Where She Went; Jane Kohuth, author of Duck Sock Hop!; C. Alexander London, author of An Accidental Adventure!; and many, many more published authors.

  • Subscribe to Children’s Books, a podcast series featured on The Guardian’s website.Every month features a new leading children's book author.

Photo credit: Vladimir Morozov / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tags: reading teachers, Reading, reluctant readers

Careers for Characters: A Book Report Alternative for Literature Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 9, 2014 9:50:30 AM

book report alternative
Love ‘em or leave ‘em, it’s safe to say that there are only so manybook reports one teacher can take in a lifetime, and our gut tells us that students would eagerly echo this sentiment! In the past, we’ve shared a couple of book report alternatives for literature teachers—having your students use Animoto to create a book trailer, or having them create a text-inspired Podcast—but we’ve also had a lot of luck with Shelly Mattson Gahn’s assignment, “Careers for Characters.” You can find this and a variety of other lessons in Teaching Literature in Middle School: Fiction

Gahn uses this assignment with her eight-grade students, but simple adaptations could make it appropriate for both older and younger students. Here’s how it works.

Careers for Characters: A Book Report Alternative for Literature Teachers

In this assignment, students will select a character from any novel or short story. Based on what they know about their character’s personality, talents, flaws, hobbies and interests, they must find a job for their character and draft a cover letter to apply for the position.

  • To get things rolling, lead a class brainstorming session. Select a character from a work the entire class is familiar with and compile a list of details to include in a model cover letter. Discuss the character’s talents, flaws, hobbies, interests and personality and jot down your students’ ideas on the board.

    Using the ideas your students generate in the brainstorming session, type up a cover letter and distribute copies to the class to use as an example.

  • Once students choose their own character, have them repeat the brainstorming exercise on their own. This will help them better understand and “get into the role” of their character.

  • Next, send your students to Your Free Career Test, a short online questionnaire that asks students questions that relate to career categories. Remind students that they are to assume the role of their character when they are filling out the questionnaire. Keeping this in mind, they should answer the questions based not on their own personalities, but on those of their character.

    Upon completion, your students will receive an assessment that assigns them to a career category and offers a bulleted list of example careers for their character.

    In addition to visiting Your Free Career Test, ask students to investigate the classified sections of local newspapers and websites like CareerBuilder and Monster to select possible job prospects for their characters.
  • In the next step, each student writes a cover letter from the character to the company offering the job. The letter should follow a business letter format and should be typed.

We like this assignment for a variety of reasons: Not only do students find it entertaining, it gives them the opportunity to explore a variety of resources while honing their creative writing skills. Although the career research in this project applies to a fictional character, students can use the same information to investigate their own career aspirations.

Photo credit: martinak15 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tags: book report alternatives, reading motivation, Literature Teachers,

10 of Our Favorite Classroom Organization Hacks for Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 8, 2014 9:31:49 AM

We’ve always believed that the way our classrooms look and feel is a reflection of our personalities and teaching styles. Unlike cluttered classrooms, cheerful, well-organized learning spaces inspire us, keep us focused and—we happen to think—make us better teachers. Sprucing up your classroom can be costly, but we’ve found 10 creative classroom organization hacks to help teachers save money, space, and time!

10 of Our Favorite Classroom Organization Hacks for Teachers


Classroom organization idea from: Leslie Carter



Classroom organization idea from: Play-Based Classroom


Classroom organization idea: Amy Oelschlager


Classroom organization idea: Lauren from Life in Middle School


Classroom organization idea: Christina


Classroom organization idea: Maureen Wong




Tags: classroom organization

the Best of the Week: Volume 13

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 3, 2014 2:44:51 PM


There’s never enough time to blog and reblog all of the interesting resources we find during the week, so we decided to start a Best of the Week List where we share all of the education-related blogs, articles, apps and resources we come across every week.

Reading and Language Arts
Six Word Stories (A nice collection of stories all written in only six words)
The Top 10 Most Read Books in the World
Vocab Monk (free vocabulary-building app)
Write About This (An iPad app designed to encourage creative writing as well as prompting narrative and opinion pieces)

History and Social Studies-Related Links
Timelines: Sources from History (A collection of timelines from medieval era to the present day)
Vintage Everyday (a neat collection of colorized photos from the first half of the 20th century)
60 Historical Oddities You Probably Don't Know
Chart Showing How 25 American Presidents are Related
99 Incredible YouTube Channels for History Buffs
40 Maps that Explain WWI
100 Legacies from World War I that Continue to Shape Our Lives Today
Smarty Pins (free geography and trivia game that uses Google Maps)
History of the 4th of July: Crash Course US History Special (a new Crash Course video on John Green’s YouTube channel)
Map of the Languages of Europe
Ready, Aim, Fire: Scenes From Early American Dueling
The Decade in Seven Minutes (video)

Classroom Management
Using Dialogue Circles to Support Classroom Management
Give Your Space the Right Design: Feng Shui Principles Transform a Classroom

STEM-Related Links
The Cause Of Mediocre U.S. Math Scores
What If Other Planets Orbited at the Same Distance as The Moon
Try Engineering (a nice collection of science/engineering games for students)

Technology in the Classroom
Edmodo Snapshot (A free tool that lets you mold Common Core to your standards)
The Digital Lives of Teens: "If You Don't Have a Plan for Them, They Will Have a Plan for You"
10 Good Ways to Integrate Mobile Phones in Class

5 Ways to Make the Most of Non-Teaching Time
Big Think (a YouTube channel full of short, thought-provoking videos)
Here’s How You Spend Your Days, America — in 10 Charts
Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.? (an interactive map)
Developing Good Credit Habits - A Game for Teaching Students Personal Financial Responsibility

Tags: The Best of the Week

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