Always Running Out of Time? Apply Scarcity and Budgeting to Your Classroom

By Brian Rock

We’ve all been there. There was a cool project you wanted to do with your students, but you didn’t. Or there was a timely event going on, but you didn’t discuss it.

Because there’s so much to get through in one year, and there’s just not enough time.

Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. You’ll never make it through everything in that thick curriculum guide. The sooner you realize that, the better. You shouldn’t feel guilty about glossing over some things and skipping over others in order to spend time teaching what you really enjoy.

After all, that’s what your students are actually going to remember.

We’re Set Up to Fail by the Curriculum

When I first started teaching, I took a look at the curriculum guide for my course, Early U.S. History. It listed sixteen units, and we were supposed to cover everything from pre-colonization to the end of the 19th century.

It seemed daunting, but I tried. I moved as quickly as I could, but something always got in the way. There was an assembly or a fire drill, and I’d have to spend some time re-grouping. Or students bombed a test or were absent, so I’d have to reteach some things.

A few months in, I realized that I would never make it through everything. For a moment I panicked… until I realized that I was further ahead than the other teachers and they weren’t worried. As it turned out, everyone just accepted the fact that they would get through the Civil War, maybe Reconstruction if they were lucky, and that was that.

Everything else from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s just disappeared. It never happened. Because the Modern U.S. History teachers didn’t have time to go back and cover it. They had the same pressures that led them to teach as much as they could until they ran out of time somewhere around the modern civil rights movement.

When you look at the underlying standards, you realize this isn’t just a local problem for my school district. It’s based in policy.

New Jersey’s Student Learning Standards for Social Studies contain almost 200 discrete progress indicators. Someone thought this was a reasonable number of things to master over the course of two school years – approximately 360 school days. It’s not.

From the get-go, this is an impossible task. And once you realize that, it doesn’t feel so bad to make a conscious decision to gloss over something or skip it altogether.

Apply the Principles of Budgeting and Scarcity to Your Classroom

Early in my career, I didn’t worry much about budgeting. I made a decent salary, I paid all the bills, I led a good life. But when the end of the month came there usually wasn’t a lot of money “left over” to put into long term savings.

Eventually, I realized the error of my ways and put together a strict monthly and annual budget. Now I know how much I’ve allotted to spend each month on various things. When I run out, I stop spending. And lo and behold, I found that there actually was enough money to stash away for the future.

This is the principle of scarcity. You only have so much money, and you need to be intentional in how you spend it. Hence, budgeting.

The same principle applies to time in your classroom. You only have so many days in the classroom, and you know a certain percentage of that time will end up being eaten up by other things.

If you just go through the year, spending time willy-nilly, you’re going to run out. In the moment, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to spend an extra day or two here and there. But when you multiply that across ten months, you’ll have wasted entire weeks and robbed yourself of time at the end of the year.

Instead, be as ruthless about your classroom time as you should be about your household budget. Set out a strict timeline of when you’ll teach each topic. Mark it on the calendar – down to the day.

You can teach the same topic in one day, one week, or one month. It just comes down to making different decisions. So once you know you have exactly nine class periods to teach a particular unit, you can make the appropriate decisions.

No matter how much you might want to in the moment, don’t try to add a day, unless you’re willing to subtract it from another unit marked on the calendar.

How I Budgeted My Classroom Time

Once I came to this realization, I entered the next year with a strictly mapped out budget of my time. Miraculously, I made it through the entire curriculum guide and taught every one of those sixteen units.

I also felt really rushed and felt like I had glossed over a lot on the surface without getting into the details. So I started to tinker with things over the next few years. I combined a couple of units that were similar and taught them as one unit. I took a few of the less important units, and I combined them into a unit of independent study where my students chose topics to read, research, and present about. Then I took that extra time to focus on a few areas with much greater depth.

Eventually, I even carved out a few days each month to talk about current events. This is a critical part of social studies and civics, but it’s often seen more as an add-on than a must-have. So without planning, it could easily end up being a never-was.

Be Ruthless With Your Time This Year

So as you go through this school year, be ruthless with your time.

You have a finite number of days, and you can literally count them up and mark them out on a calendar. Every day that you use now is a day that you won’t have later.

Ask yourself, “What’s really important in my class?”

Then allocate your school days accordingly. Spend more time where it matters most, and budget less time where it matters least. Stick to your calendar, and only make adjustments where you’re willing to make a corresponding adjustment somewhere else.

When you appreciate the principle of scarcity and budget with that in mind, you might just find that there is enough time in the year after all.

Brian Rock is a social studies teacher in New Jersey. He writes a blog about civics education – The Civic Educator. You can find plenty of ideas to incorporate civics into your classroom in the post, “How to Teach Government in a Fun Way: Six Ways to Bring Civics Alive.” You can also follow the blog on Facebook and connect with Brian on LinkedIn.


What Should Teachers Do About E-Cigarettes at School?

By Frankie Wallace

E-cigarette prospects have been around for a while, usually as a means for people to quit smoking. But over the past few years, they’ve become somewhat of a trend within youth culture. Teenagers and those who are barely legal have begun vaping tobacco ad nauseum. Some argue this is a good alternative to smoking, but many of these kids never smoked cigarettes in the first place. This, combined with the fact that there isn’t really much known about the long-term effects of vaping, makes it a cause for concern. 

Of course, kids engaging with tobacco is still illegal, and schools have had to stand up to the rise of e-cigarettes and vaping within their student bodies. The disciplinary actions differ; for instance, punishment for a student vaping tobacco may differ from a punishment for vaping THC. However, the majority of educators agree that there should be a way to curb e-cigarette use within their educational environments.

For legitimate action to be taken, educators need to understand where this vaping culture has come from. Doing so will help them discern ways to engage with it. Additionally, is there any research or science behind the effects vaping may have on someone’s brain or body? For  parents and educators, these are the necessary steps to take and questions to ask.

Vaping’s Rising Popularity Among Teens

Though vape culture has received a lot of public backlash in the media, it would seem that it’s more popular among teens now than ever. According to studies by the University of Michigan, 2018 saw a whopping 1.3 million additional student vapers from the previous year. Why now, and why amongst teenagers?

The appeal of vaping to youth comes — at least in part — in how it’s marketed. Since vaping’s rise to popularity, flavors like pop rocks and gummy bears were influencing kids to get involved with it. For some, this may beg the question of who these products are actually designed for. If that sounds like a stretch, then consider the fact that studies are still coming out today confirming that flavors play a major factor in why young people start vaping.

Packaging also has a lot to do with this. Take Juul, for instance. As Vox summarized, “[Juul] designed an e-cigarette that could easily be mistaken for a USB flash drive and can fit in the palm of the hand.” Experts believe that this — along with the double dosage of nicotine within the product — contributes greatly to its rise in popularity among youth.

The Negative Health Effects of Vaping

Most people know that smoking is dangerous. Things like the DARE campaign and the Truth Initiative have been letting people know for years. At large, these movements seem to be working, and smoking rates have gone down for adolescents. That may be because smoking, by and large, has been rebranded to children as bad for them. They know that the practice is correlated with lung cancer and that it affects their respiratory system. Therefore, they’re even less surprised to learn about its tendency to disrupt sleep schedules and cause fertility problems, on top of many other negative health consequences. In general, kids know that smoking is just unequivocally bad for them.

Vaping doesn’t have as thorough of a documented history, and since it was long presented as a means to stop smoking, its image has been somewhat protected. The more it has been studied, the more negative health suspicions have been confirmed. The research shows that vaping poses the same health risks that smoking does, and that e-cigarette substances sometimes include carcinogenic and harmful organic compounds.

According to the Surgeon General, who proclaimed the practice to be unhealthy at the end of 2018, vapers also risk pieces of metal, diacetyl, and chemical compounds ending up in their lungs and body. Vaping seems to be neutral at its best, and incredibly toxic at its worse. To top it all off, most teens who vape end up smoking anyway.

What Should Teachers and Educators Do?

Some schools have made the choice to crack down on vaping by serious means. In Caldwell County, North Carolina, high schoolers caught vaping on campus and at school events are immediately given out-of-school suspensions. Middle schoolers are given a similar punishment, but their first offense results in an in-school suspension rather than out-of-school.

El Dorado police officer Kurt Spivey, however, has a different way to handle this. Spivey teaches a class every Saturday for students caught with nicotine or tobacco. He reported that the number of attendees in his class has grown by 30 kids due to the prevalence of vaping. What’s notable about Spivey is his point to educate students about the dangers of nicotine and tobacco, even in e-cigarettes.

This approach is a reminder that the differing perceptions between e-cigarettes and other types of tobacco are at the heart of why students may see a disconnect between vaping and smoking. E-cigarettes are essentially new products that need to be studied more. What we do know about their health effects is generally negative, and therefore that information should be circulated. Rather than keeping kids naive, they should be introduced with the facts about e-cigarette use.

Each teenager, school, and family is different, though. The questions being asked by authorities need to be tackled on a case-by-case basis, including:

  • What should the punishment be for students caught vaping?
  • Should schools treat vaping the same as other types of tobacco?
  • Should parents or guardians take legal action against those who introduced vaping to their teens?

While it grows in popularity, vaping will continue to be researched. However, we already know that the practice is not harmless, and it’s worth keeping teens away from. As we learn more, education and preventative measures will improve. Until then though, each case will have to be handled with more caution and empathy.

4 Great Visual Teaching Tools for Science Teachers

By Anica Oaks

Employing just the right visual teaching tools can make a critical difference between science teachers bringing their material brilliantly to life before their students’ eyes and watching them grow frustrated and overwhelmed by the difficult concepts. Reluctant or struggling learnings may need to process information through a different channel for the lessons to stick. After all, around 65 percent of the population is comprised of visual learners. When you consider that humans visually process about 90 percent of all information in any given environment visually, that makes sense. The knowledge you present may not always inherently electrify the classroom all by itself, but recognizing and playing to your students’ strengths can keep them engaged.

Memes

Chuckle and roll your eyes if you want, but these ubiquitous visual gags are naturally sticky ideas ideal for making any notion easy to instantly recall. Try setting up a moderated classroom subreddit. Encourage students to use any of the countless online meme generators available now to creatively repurpose existing templates toward what you teach. Next, let them comment, upvote and reply with their own memes to each thread. It may sound ridiculous and even shallow to elder generations, but this is a downright devious way to sneak learning into the same motif kids choose to riff on sports, anime, video games, and life’s generally ridiculous minutiae.

Infographics

Depending on your school’s scheduling philosophy, you likely have roughly an hour to 90 minutes for your students to digest your planned lesson. Any scientific discipline has its dry-but-essential subject matter rife with weedy swamps of complex concepts, formulas, and key memorization. When you drop this stuff into a visually appealing infographic, you distill intimidating blocks of data into a digestible layout that anyone can understand at a glance. Depending on exactly how you plan to present it, animation and eye-catching graphics alongside charts, maps, and embedded videos will make the information leap even more vividly into the eyes and minds of visually oriented learners. You might be amazed at just how user-friendly and intuitive many template generators are nowadays, too.

3D Print Models and Virtual Reality

True, the surest path into many students’ minds may pass through the eyes. Still, so many scientific disciplines confront the most foundational physical laws governing the universe. It also just so happens that many visual adept pupils are also highly receptive to tactile input. A 3D-printed replica of an elemental particle, internal organ, or mineral fragment may shed light on and familiarize students with key characteristics and concepts no simple diagram or photograph could present with as quite as much immersive, up-close detail. 

This approach to hands-on explanation also dramatically improves information retention by reducing cognitive loads, but if 3D printing is somehow out of the question, virtual reality simulations can create highly interactive spatial environments emulating numerous real or fictitious scenarios in which students can learn meaningfully and call upon knowledge practically in an unforgettable fashion.

Collaboration Spaces

At its best, scientific discovery and innovation is rarely the product of a single mind’s labor. More often, it entails a synergy of intellects collaborating for the good of expanding human knowledge. With that reality in mind, consider opening a collaborative online platform for your students. These dedicated spaces provide tools and shared feeds where your pupils can brainstorm, pose questions, discuss charts, and house multimedia assets. You can participate too by uploading your own images, text, documents, sketches, videos and links against a visually appealing backdrop of your choosing. Forums and discussion boards are wonderfully simple, but this is a means of encouraging teamwork in which students can teach one another in styles that suit them individually.

No two students’ optimal learning processes are any more likely to match exactly than randomly chosen strands of DNA. However, evidence would certainly suggest there may be something unexpectedly thought-provoking about the phrase, “Seeing is believing.” Teaching tools such as a stream table or infographic breaking down the elemental makeup of the human body will almost assuredly not detract from anyone else’s learning. In fact, it will likely reach unique students not as engaged by traditional lectures while reinforcing scientific concepts others may already grasp in a unique light. Everyone wins.

Movies, Word Finds, and Coloring Sheets

My daughter is in eighth grade now. She’s doing math I don’t remember and solved some problems the other night that I couldn’t help her with (luckily, Alexa could). She’s taking German and is all guten this and guten that when she gets home. She’s a programmer on her robotics team. She’s read “The Lottery” and “The Monkey’s Paw” in English class. She’s getting better at playing along with Jeopardy!

She has also brought home a coloring assignment and a word find during the first four weeks of school.

In sixth grade, we joked that one of her classes should have been called Watching Movies I’ve Already Seen.

I am supposed to be upset about this. The teacher in me (who gave up word finds and coloring sheets as assignments many years ago) should be outraged. I should follow the lead of many other teachers and parents who demand more of schools and post my disappointment on social media. Like Alice Keeler, I should decry the absent “depth of knowledge” and whine that my child had to waste 30 minutes of her Thursday night searching for German words in a soup of letters when she could have been spending quality time with her mom and dad (as if she has any interest in doing that). Maybe I should pen a diatribe to the offending teacher, explaining just how wrongheaded such assignments are. This is 2019, I could all-caps her, and this is UNACCEPTABLE. Or, if I were feeling especially peeved, I could take a photo of the word find and teacher-shame the woman on Facebook so all her friends can see what a terrible educator she is.

But I’m not going to do any of those things.

I’m not going to do them because I’m a teacher and I understand.

Also, I’m a human, and I get that too.

The Most Imperfect World Of Them All

Look, my wife and I weren’t thrilled about either assignment. In a perfect world, every task would push my child to get just a little better, a little smarter. Every activity would be tightly situated in a cozy “zone of proximal development” nook, a magical place where students are challenged just enough to stretch their abilities but not so much that they become frustrated and start throwing things.

I hear there’s also puppies, rainbows, and cotton candy there.

But teachers don’t work in a perfect world. Far from it. And middle school teachers may work in the most imperfect world of them all.

I am positive that the teacher who assigned the coloring sheet did not think to herself, “This is a killer task that will challenge my students.” Same for the teacher who handed out a word find as students exited her room or the one who showed movies every other Friday. So why did they do it?

It’s a question worth asking because most of the time people have reasons for doing what they do. We may disagree with those reasons, and they may have some underlying assumptions that are wrong. They might be operating under a debunked theory, like learning styles, or they might feel pressured into doing something they’d rather not do.

We may never know their reason, but it’s usually safe to assume that it’s not the one we’re ascribing. One of the more regrettable human characteristics is our propensity to assume the worst of others, even as we give ourselves pass after pass. After all, we know our motives and our reasons; we’ve lived with them our whole lives. But when a driver cuts us off, he’s an idiot who shouldn’t have a license, instead of a daydreamer who had an exhausting day with a 150 thirteen-year-olds.

This is Water

In 2005, the writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College. In his speech, “This is Water,” Wallace said, “The really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”

He warns the graduates that they “do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means.”  That large parts of adult life involve “boredom, routine, and petty frustrations.” As an example, he uses the kind of soul-destroying, after-work trip to the grocery store with which every adult is all too familiar. Wallace describes how many people choose to think in such situations:

“The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.”

And that, I would submit, is exactly what those who gripe about movies, word finds, and coloring sheets are doing. They are making it all about them and their kid.

Luckily, we can choose to think differently. More Wallace:

“If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”

It’s about compassion. Grace. Empathy. Understanding. Realizing that you are not the center of the universe and that other people make decisions just like you do. So that when they make a decision you find baffling – like assigning a word find to an eighth-grader for homework – you don’t instinctively think the worst of them. You choose what to think.

It is possible that…

The teacher wanted the kids to have something “fun” to do because they’ve been doing a lot of rigorous work in the classroom.

The teacher wanted an assignment that showcased artistic kids’ abilities instead of the usual assignment that allowed writers to thrive.

The teacher is under pressure to assign regular homework, but knowing her students are already getting a pile of homework from their other classes, she gave them something brainless that they could quickly finish.

The German teacher read this research that concludes word finds actually help with learning a second language.

The teacher gave students plenty of time in class to finish the coloring sheet but your kid screwed around and ended up having to take it home per class policy, so now it looks like “homework” when it really shouldn’t have been.

And, of course, there’s always the possibility that the teacher knew better but did it anyway.

You know, like that time you destroyed your diet because Joyce brought donuts to school.

Or when you smoked that cigarette even though you were quitting.

Or when you sucked down your fifth Long Island Iced Tea and hit on the IT guy at the staff Christmas party.

Or a thousand other decisions you’ve made in your life that you aren’t proud of but you forgive yourself because you were tired, or stressed, or angry, or hungry, or you just didn’t know any better at the time.

Forgive the Meatless Big Mac

It reminds me of something a friend of mine shared on Facebook recently.

It was a picture of a McDonald’s Big Mac, buns open to reveal no meat. Below the image, the customer, Rob Goddard, had written:

“So I go to McDonald’s since I’m sick and don’t feel like cooking, and order a Big Mac meal and head home. I get home and to my amazement, there’s no burger…on my burger.

Initially, I wanted to be upset, as a paying customer, and blame whoever it is that made the sandwich for such a stupid silly mistake. However, as someone who has worked in the service industry for a long time, I couldn’t help but laugh. It really made me reflect on some of my worst days where I’ve made silly mistakes and had to stand silently while getting screamed at by some angry middle-aged Karen lady about how stupid and uneducated I must be.

I headed back to McDonald’s to show them and get a corrected one and we all had a great laugh about it. I was happy to laugh with the staff and wait for a fresh one. We, as humans, all make mistakes and no matter how stupid or silly it may seem, it happens! Not every situation involving simple mistakes needs to be hostile or make the individual feel belittled. We have all forgotten to put the Big Mac on the Big Mac at some point. Be kind.”

So, the next time your kid comes home with a coloring sheet, or a teacher assigns a word find, or you find out that your child spent the last hour of school watching a movie you don’t see as particularly educational, maybe stop a second and, like Wallace recommends, choose to force yourself to think differently. Show others the grace, forgiveness, and understanding you regularly allow yourself.

Be a better human.

Why Teachers Need to Incorporate More Physical Activity Into Their Lesson Plans

By Frankie Wallace

Source: Pixabay

Finding a balance in the classroom can be difficult. Incorporating time for grammar, nutrition, mathematics, science, technology, and a plethora of other subjects is already hard all on its own. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, though, covering so many subjects without turning your class into a horde of zombie-children in the process can feel impossible. The lack of focus and increased levels of pent up energy that come with hours of trying to sit still and listen can be difficult to contain.

That’s where good old physical activity comes into play. It may be a simple concept, but the idea of incorporating exercise into the classroom is a critical ingredient for education success. 

Why Physical Activity Matters

Physical activity is a necessary part of life. The act of moving around, stretching your legs and getting your heart pumping faster should be intimately integrated into a long day in the classroom. 

We live in an era where the general lack of physical health isn’t just a concern, it’s an epidemic. Over a third of American adults are obese at this point, with a staggering 13 million of their children following suit. 

But the importance of moving around and getting regular exercise doesn’t stop with the weight issues. Physical activity can also help prevent things like heart disease, depression, and even the possibility of developing hypertension.

In addition, many studies suggest that getting a healthy amount of exercise throughout the day leads to better test performance, focus, concentration, and overall cognitive development.

It can even improve sleep. However, regarding that last point, it’s best to allow for at least three hours between the activity and the actual act of going to sleep. In other words, many students will need to exercise before or at school if they’re going to get their physical activity in early enough to feel the benefits at night.

Hence, the need to get moving in the classroom itself.

Incorporating Physical Activity Into the Classroom

The question that still remains, at this point, is how to get your students exercising without inciting a riot. Here are a few suggestions, with the caveat that each of these ideas should be personally adapted to your own school, classroom, students, teaching style, and curriculum.

Have a Game Plan in Place

The first thing you should consider before incorporating more movement into your class schedule is how to do so without inviting chaos in the process. As a general rule, it’s advisable to introduce any physical activity into your classroom with clear rules and boundaries in place and communicated to the students. This will provide a straightforward structure within which the exercise can take place.

Take Breaks

One simple way to get your students up and moving is to create regular breaks. Finland, for instance, is well-known for providing 15-minute breaks every hour. The practice has reportedly led to impressive results. 

The idea of a break is just as good for you, as the teacher, as it is for the students. The ability to get a little bit of exercise can help ease the stress that so many educators cope with on a regular basis.

Related: One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

Incorporate Apps

If you’re at a loss for how to find ways to get your students moving, consider looking for apps that can lend a helping hand. At this point, many developers have designed apps with the express purpose of helping to facilitate movement.

For instance, the app GoNoodle enables students to dance to popular songs. The Sworkit Kids app is another great way to get everyone working out together. All it takes is a couple of Google searches to see the wealth of application-based options geared towards physical activity that is available.

Go for a Class Walk

Walking burns 40 times more calories than sitting. Big surprise, right? While it’s understandably not always an option, if you can plan a nature walk or even just a walk around your school on a daily basis it can make a huge difference. 

Try to tie it in with something you’re learning. For instance, if you’re teaching elementary kids, go outside and have them count their steps or jump a certain number of times while skip counting. If your middle schoolers are in the midst of studying kingdoms in biology, have them look for plants, bugs, animals, etc. and categorize them as they walk.

Work Activity Into the Curriculum

Another option is to look for other ways to work physical activity into your curriculum right in the classroom. Have students act out events from history class, create a dance that represents a formula or concept they’re learning, and so on. When students can combine hands-on activities with something they’re currently studying, it can make the process much more relatable and thus, easier to understand and retain.

Create a Pair of Fitness Dice

Finally, consider designing a pair of fitness dice specifically for the needs of your classroom. Have your students get in on the project, voting on activities to include. Then, use them to get everyone up and moving with a particular, dice-rolled goal in mind.

Moving in the Classroom

Rolling fitness dice, going for a walk, taking scheduled breaks, and incorporating exercise apps are all great ways to get things moving. However you go about it, though, the important thing to keep in mind is the end goal: to increase the health and learning capabilities of your students. Not only will they benefit physically from the added exercise, but they’ll likely also find it easier to sit still, concentrate, and learn.