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Teaching Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

As teachers, we aim for our students to become more autonomous and confident as the year progresses. In addition to the content area that we are instructing and the academic skills they will need moving forward, educators also focus a great deal of instruction on essential life-long learning skills. Self-advocacy is one of these essential skills that students must master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. In addition to parents working to build self-advocacy skills at home, teachers can assist in that development as well by providing students with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood. And the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For some students, especially younger or inherently shy children, asking a teacher for help can be intimidating. Because of this, educators should equip students with multiple methods and strategies to foster self-advocacy and decision-making skills.

  • Teachers may choose to explicitly instruct students about what it means to be your own advocate. Depending on the age and needs of the students, the talking points could vary from classroom to classroom, but the take-away is the same: self-advocacy is all about speaking up for what you need and finding ways to obtain those needs with or without someone’s help.

  • Teachers should also be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Yes, self-advocates are expected to speak up; however, they are also expected to listen to the answer or response that they are seeking. Talk about how eye contact, body position, nodding, etc. are practices to enhance and demonstrate active listening skills. Remind students that, if listening attentively, they should be able to summarize or paraphrase what the other person just said.

  • For students to become strong self-advocates, they must be able to reflect and self-assess. Teachers should prompt students to consider their strengths and weaknesses as learners. The answers to questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” allow students to see themselves as learners in progress. This self-reflection also encourages students to recognize in which scenarios they will need to stretch their self-advocacy muscle by asking for assistance.

  • Students can also learn a great deal about how to advocate for themselves as learners by looking at their likes and dislikes in school. Ask students to not only list their likes and dislikes, but explain why they feel that way about certain activities. A student who admittedly hates reading because he struggles to remember what he read will begin to understand that comprehension, summarizing, and recall are skills that he may need help developing.

  • For students that are exceptionally shy or hesitant to speak up, self-advocacy can be a challenging practice. Encourage these reluctant students by providing alternative options for them to voice their questions, concerns, and comments. With the help of technology, teachers are able to poll students digitally and see their responses in real time. Teachers can also provide students with a question or suggestion box, in which students can convey their needs in writing without getting the whole class involved. Teachers can also help students begin to feel more at ease about speaking up for themselves by creating small group activities, partnered work, academic language frames, sentence starters, and call-and-response practices. These types of activities remove the intimidation factor and allow the more reserved students the opportunity to practice self-advocacy.

Discussing Culture at Home

Because cultural diversity is something that all children will be exposed to throughout their schooling, it is important for families to have a handle on the topic as well. Truth be told, an appreciation for diversity and cultural differences begins in the home. Why? Well, children learn from what they see, hear, and experience. Therefore, a parent’s opinion of their own culture or someone else’s is likely to trickle down to the child. Consequently, prejudice or animosity towards another’s culture can also be passed down. Like it or not, children can be predisposed to dislike others based on their beliefs, traditions, or values. This is why it is so important to have conversations about cultural diversity and appreciation early on so that children can have a strong foundation of respect for others.

  • You are your child’s first and best role model. Therefore, it is imperative that you think about how you speak to and about others. Be direct and deliberate about your appreciation for others. Remind your child that beauty is on the inside; it’s not correlated with any particular skin tone, body type, facial structure, etc. If you catch yourself saying something ignorant or insensitive, have an open and honest discussion with your child about how you were wrong in making that remark. Brushing it under the rug or claiming that you were “just kidding” only perpetuates the problem of ignorance. Seeing you correct yourself will demonstrate an important lesson to your child about owning up to and apologizing for one’s own cultural deficits.

  • Utilize the abundant options of children’s books available to introduce different cultures, religions, and lifestyles. Titles such as Where Does God Live?, Over the Moon, Don’t Call Me Special, and The Skin You Live In are great resources to begin conversations around identity, diversity, and respect. Introduce movies, music, and television shows that depict an array of different cultures, traditions, or family units. The more we expose our children to different cultures, the more they will begin to value their diverse classrooms, neighborhoods, and communities.

  • Show your children that learning about how others live can be fun—and tasty! Incorporate a few new menu options to give your child a taste of another culture. Make it a family event and get the kids cooking in the kitchen. Talk about how certain foods or meals are used for specific celebrations in other parts of the world. Then, mark the calendar and prepare to celebrate holidays and events like Cinco de Mayo, the Chinese New Year, Fat Tuesday, or the Special Olympics. You can also help to make connections to other cultures by equating your own traditions with others’ traditions. For instance, if your child is having a sweet 16, discuss how that party might be similar to a bar mitzvah or Quinceañera.  

Teaching Inclusion in the Classroom

General education teachers are tasked with keeping many balls in the air, which is half the fun of working in a classroom—there are so many constantly moving and evolving pieces for which to account. One of these essential pieces to ensure equitable learning for every student is inclusion. Of course, this term is nothing new to educators—we work to create an inclusive environment on a daily basis. What might be new, however, are the many ways in which we teachers can look at inclusive practices. Since every child is different, we must continue our exploration of strategies and practices that best suit the needs of all students.

One best practice that supports inclusion is to vary the output of information. By this we mean that teachers should relay content and instruction in different ways. Some students, especially those with auditory processing difficulties, find that verbal instruction is hard to grasp. To ensure inclusion for these students’ special needs, teachers should try to present information in visual or tactile ways, in addition to the verbal instruction. Depending on the class or lesson, this might take the form of a demonstration, video, or hands-on activity. Some skills or lesson objectives may even lend themselves to a more kinesthetic or tactile approach. Even students without an auditory processing deficiency would find it confusing to listen to a verbal explanation of cursive letter formation. A demonstrated approach to writing using clay, beads, shaving cream, etc., makes more sense.

Similarly, when teachers are introducing concepts like grammatical conventions or figurative language devices, an audio or visual approach might work better than a written explanation of how a properly formatted sentence should sound. Teachers should also practice inclusion by encouraging students to demonstrate their learning in various ways. This means that, not only is the presentation of information different for each child, but the means by which a student exhibits mastery should be individualized, as well. Some students might prefer to write a formal, organized research paper to convey their knowledge of a subject, while others might feel most comfortable presenting a visual demonstration of their topic. The key is to provide multiple opportunities for students to display their knowledge so that everyone’s learning styles are being incorporated.

Another way to look at inclusion is to utilize multiple means of engagement. For students with attention issues, memory difficulties, or other learning disabilities, engagement in the classroom can make all the difference. Engagement might mean listening to music to identify metaphors, similes, or narrative voice. A film study might help students understand a new culture or part of the world. An analysis of a slow motion field goal might help students understand kinetic energy, velocity, or other properties of physics. The point is, when students are engaged, learning not only flourishes, but behaviors and attentiveness increase, as well. Engagement also assists with moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Inclusion, with regard to engagement, means that teachers are not only teaching with methods for each type of learner, but also appealing to each learner, so that memory of the information or skill can solidify. In order to provide engagement, there must be a level of interest on the student’s end. As different as each student’s learning style may be, so may be their interests.

This is where building relationships with students becomes essential for inclusion. Cultural inclusiveness provides students with a platform to express themselves on a more personal level. This also promotes a positive classroom environment, one in which students feel heard, understood, and accepted. Cultural inclusion allows students to see beyond themselves, as well, which fosters perspective-taking.

Tips to Improve Reading in the Classroom

Not surprisingly, reading is one of those activities that students either love or loathe. As much as it can be difficult to get a bookworm to put the book down for a second, it can be equally challenging to get a reluctant reader to pick one up. So how can we improve reading skills for both our avid and unenthusiastic readers? The strategies and methods are just as different as the students themselves.

For Reluctant Readers:

Allow reluctant or struggling readers to use digital aids to improve comprehension and ease the stress correlated with fluency and decoding. Listening to audiobooks is a proven method to encourage and boost struggling readers. Explain to students that they must follow along while listening to the text. Many audio tools also allow students to highlight, mark, or pause the reading in order to define difficult terms or make notes along the way. This process allows students to actively engage with the text without relying solely on their own reading skills. While some argue that listening to books on tape is not actively reading, educators know this to be false. These digital tools, such as the audiobook, are simply scaffolds to allow for different avenues of comprehension. Yes, students are following along, but the audio also acts as an added support for comprehension, which can be very encouraging for struggling readers.

Make sure that the Lexile level matches the ability of your reluctant readers. Many students find reading to be discouraging, especially if the level of the text far exceeds their ability to comprehend. Numerous educational applications are available now to help teachers sift through texts and find appropriate levels for all readers. Some apps even provide variations of the same story or article for on, above, or below-grade level readers. This allows all students to read and comprehend the same text, so participation is not an issue.

Appeal to individual interests by providing student choice. As much as possible, students should be provided with texts that engage them and relate to them personally. Yes, the end goal would be for students to embrace reading as a means of exploring new things. However, for reluctant readers, it is all about the incentive to buy in. Charming their interests is a great way to bring enjoyment to an activity that they don’t necessarily love.

For Avid Readers:

Encourage students to explore texts that challenge their current level of comprehension. Voracious readers embrace the opportunity to increase their own vocabulary by encountering more challenging texts. Not only do unfamiliar terms pique their interests, but the complexity of sentence structures or plotlines also helps to stimulate learning and engagement for strong readers.

Allow strong readers to take creative liberties with their writing assignments. Since writing and reading abilities are reciprocal, a strong reader will likely flourish in writing, as well. Provide enrichment by having strong readers extend a novel, poem, or short story. The idea here is that fanfiction not only boosts writing skills, but also encourages advanced reading skills such as close reading, mimicking voice and tone, making interpretive predictions, etc.

Provide time for reading and exploring new texts in class. Obviously, avid readers are happy any time they are able to indulge in their favorite hobby during class. But, more than just silent reading for the sake of it, small bits of class time devoted to reading for pleasure is a great way to foster literature circles or book talks. Socializing over a beloved novel is a way for advanced readers to dig deeper into inquiry-based methods and learn to analyze texts on a more progressive level.  

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Middle Schoolers

With the prevalence of smartphones, middle schoolers have almost constant connectivity and sources of information. Today’s middle schoolers may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events; however, with the current state of affairs for national and global news, it is important that preteens are receiving accurate, appropriate information. As much as we want all kids to be properly informed, they must be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Much like the qualms with social media, middle schoolers are equally vulnerable when it comes to today’s current events. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with middle school-aged students.

Be cognizant of the inevitable biases present in news media. Middles school is right around the time that students begin to learn about performing sound research, obtaining evidence, and citing sources.  Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, adolescents need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is likely a newer concept for middle schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that middle school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Middle schoolers should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for middle schoolers.

International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for High Schoolers

With the almost constant connectivity and media availability for today’s adolescents, high schoolers have the option to remain in the know at all times. Especially today, while major national and global news stories are constantly rolled out, students should have no issue staying informed. However, like all technology and social media, students need to be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with high school-aged students.

Be aware of the inevitable biases present in news media. Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, teens need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility unreliability. Hopefully, by high school, students have experienced and completed enough research assignments to identify credible sources. However, when it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that high school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Of course, Wikipedia, every high schoolers favorite resource for “research,” can be helpful, but only if students fact-check the links and sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia pages.

Teens should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for high schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Behavior Management

A few years in the classroom has taught me a lot in terms of managing behaviors. I can honestly say that behavior management can make or break a classroom environment. As amazing as your planning and delivery might be, without the proper management in place, an unruly classroom will derail any lesson. If you have hit a speedbump in your management style, which happens to even the most seasoned teachers, consider these pointers:

Be the adult.

When it seems that your buttons are being pushed from all angles, remember that these are children or adolescents with whom you are dealing. There is no negotiating unless you feel the need to open that door. When students push back, keep your head and say something like, “I’m sorry you are upset, but I gave you my answer. This conversation is over.” This lets them know that you are in charge and that no amount of effort on their behalf is going to change the decision you have made—because trust me, they will try to convince you otherwise. Once you have made your decision, close the door on negotiating, begging, guilt-tripping, etc. Be sure to stand your ground—the second that you go back on your word, you’ve lost. Explain that no amount of disrespect or anger is going to help their cause, regardless of how much they argue, question or try to manipulate you.

Remain calm.

Similarly to standing your ground, teachers must remember to try to remain calm and keep cool—even when the students are not doing the same. Easier said than done, I know. We teachers know all too well that emotionally engaging in an argument or tiff with a student is never beneficial. Again, you are the adult. The conversation ends when you end it; no need to fuel the fire. As much as we are inclined to be kind, supportive, and nurturing towards the young people in our classrooms, we must remember that we do not need to seek their approval. Every student will not always like you all the time, but building a respectful relationship is what matters most. When you start to feel bad or guilty about managing behaviors strictly and swiftly, remember that being their friend is not your prerogative.

Wield power with responsibility.

Frame every decision so that it is in the best interest of your students. Demonstrate fairness to the class by explaining that you are not making decisions just to assert control or power. They need to understand that teaching is a decision-making role that involves a great deal of responsibility. Teachers are responsible for the safety and education of every student—so any behaviors that disrupt that must be redirected for the good of the whole. Yes, students will have plenty of opportunities to make their own choices, but for now, they need guidance from the adults in the room. They may not show it, but they will eventually understand your sound reasoning.

Recognize trends and triggers.

Finally, gauge emotions and recognize triggers for your many students. After years in the classroom, teachers are masters at recognizing behavior patterns, trends, and triggers for different personalities and age groups. So, take mental note of when a student begins to exhibit frustration. Isolate the root of the emotional response and act on that—they may be whining about homework, but the frustration may stem from a lack of confidence, knowledge, or patience. Of course, every student is different. So it is important to manage behaviors accordingly. What works for one student may not work for another.

Homework Ideas for Teachers to Try

Too often, homework assignments get a bad reputation for being tedious, repetitive, or unnecessarily lengthy. As educators, we aim to provide work that is rigorous, purposeful, and engaging. The last type of task we want to assign is an irrelevant or disconnected assignment used solely as “busy work.” Homework is meant to allow time to practice and reflect on the skills or concepts that we have been teaching in class. Of course, assignments cannot always engage every student on every level. However, a few different strategies can ensure that, as much as possible, students bring home tasks that hold their attention, assess their skills, and promote reflective practices concerning their learning styles.

Provide opportunities for student choice as often as possible

This could mean that students are given the option to choose from a list of assignments, all with the same objectives or learning goals. The idea behind this is simple: the manner in which students exhibit their learning is not what matters. Providing options that boost engagement can often enhance learning. Assignment options can range from a paragraph or collage to a PowerPoint or Adobe Spark page. With a wide range of possibilities, students are able to play to their strengths. A tech-savvy student and an artistically-inclined student can both exhibit knowledge of the content or skill, but produce different representations of their knowledge. This allows students to focus on the same learning goals and participate in the same instruction, while allowing them to differentiate the product that they create.

Permit students to opt-out of homework they have mastered

Along with student choice should be an opportunity to “opt-out” of certain assignments—for instance, a student that aces an algebra practice test may be given the option to opt out of the night’s homework involving the same concepts. This idea supports the notion that busy work not only lends itself to boredom, but also has the potential to lower motivation and determination. If a student has proven mastery of a concept, rote or redundant practice is unnecessary.

Create a weekly or monthly calendar of assignments

This not only helps teachers with their planning, it also assists students with organization and proactivity. The calendar acts as a visual or digital reminder of assignments that are coming down the pike. Be sure to include the date that the task was assigned, as well as the due date. Double check that a week’s worth of assignments is balanced and reasonable—i.e., something that students can realistically accomplish in the timeframe given. Encourage students to cross off tasks as they are completed. Also, allow students to submit work prior to the due date. This way, students that struggle with disorganization or misplacing papers can rid themselves of the assignment before it disappears.

Hold a homework session during lunch

This can be as frequent as needed, but once a week is a good start. Allowing students to have a quiet place to work is a benefit to them and you, as well. By working through an assignment with students, teachers are better able to gauge the effectiveness of their instruction. A lunch session also allows students to ask questions or voice confusion over a particular homework task.