Choosing Spices

Once you’ve been a professional educator for a few years, your toolbox gets pretty crammed with strategies/initiatives/systems/foci.  As a middle-school science teacher at a brand-new single-gender public leadership academy, I am expected to integrate each of the following into my lessons:

  • Inquiry
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math skills
  • Cooperative learning
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Best practices for teaching boys
  • Formative assessment
  • Global awareness
  • Technology
  • Problem-based learning
  • Leadership development

Now, I recognize that many of these overlap and it is both feasible and advisable to plan lessons that address multiple items from the list above.  But, that doesn’t lessen the stress of trying to keep all of these balls juggling in the air.  It is a real challenge that is shared by all teachers.

I look at these elements as spices that good teachers use to turn simple lesson plans into more effective and engaging ones.  And, as any experienced chef knows, the best dishes have just the right amount and mix of spices.  The key, learned through training and experience, is which spices work well with which dishes and other spices.

Lest you believe that I’m only writing to gripe about the challenges of my chosen career, let me explain.  Following in the footsteps of my friend and like-minded colleague, Russ Goerend, who has written several posts about his “workflow“, I have a solution.  Er, a partial solution.  It’s not elegant or sophisticated.  It’s not digital or electronic.  But, it’s inexpensive and simple.

I maintain index cards with ideas on them, like pre-reading strategies and cooperative learning structures, that I keep organized by type.  In a small index card box, I have color-coded sections for reading, inquiry, group work, tech tools, etc.  Each section has cards that list the name of the tool/technique and a short description of how it works.  If I have the time, I try to write the source from which I learned about the tool.  The box actually resembles a recipe box, keeping our little metaphor going.

When I sit down to plan lessons, tweak old lessons, or shift gears in class, I pull out the box and sift through the cards.  I try to put a card at the back of the section after I use it, encouraging me to try new things.  If something doesn’t work, I pull the card and try to take a closer look at a later time.  When it does work, I still put it at the back of the section because using the same spices over and over again gets boring.

This method forces me to remember all of the different initiatives competing for my focus everyday, while also maintaining enough variety to engage my students (and myself) full-time in the learning taking place in my classroom.  Just the right amount of the just the right spices.

How do you manage lesson planning priorities?

photo credit: enigmachck1 via photo pin cc
photo credit: hawkexpress via photo pin cc


Evernote: My Outboard Brain

I play with a lot of digital tools, including some that are not for use in my classroom but instead enhance my ability to stay organized and do my job better.  Ever since I synched my first PDA, a Handspring Visor, in 1999, I have slowly begun to outsource my memory.  Little by little, one appointment/contact/to-do item at a time, I have been utilizing the marvels of technology to take the place of actually remembering anything.

Some may argue that this move, which seems to be growing more common, will be the downfall of Homo sapiens.  I disagree.  I honestly feel happier and less tense knowing that I don’t have to remember to pick up bread after work or recall my mother’s telephone number.  My peace of mind stems largely from the emergence of “cloud” storage that has allowed me to keep my information in numerous, highly accessible places that are secure.

Evernote's interface for creating notes
Evernote's interface for new notes

My latest and most successful venture into Web 2.0 information management is the Evernote application and web service.  It is a remarkable set of tools that essentially capture all the important things that I come across in an average day and render them accessible and searchable.  Through the use of a web client, desktop application (Mac & PC), Windows Mobile program, and (best of all) iPhone app, I am able to store audio, photos, webpages, PDFs, text files, passwords, serial numbers, and countless other little bits.  They are encrypted and kept synchronized between applications.  There are dozens of ways that other people have been using it, but here are my five favorites:

  1. Capturing/storing notes from parents.  When a parent sends in a note asking for a conference or a phone call, it is often put in the child’s agenda book and I can not easily make a copy.  Now, I simply take a quick photo using my iPhone and store it in Evernote.  Within minutes, the servers have grabbed a copy, recognized the handwritten text in the note (mindblowing!), and synched that info back to my iPhone.  I can then search for the parent’s name or any other word in the note (or any tags that I gave it) to find it when I need it.
  2. Finding recipes and shopping for them.  I come across a lot of interesting recipes on line, and I can store them in Evernote as PDF files or by simply dragging the URL onto the Evernote icon in my Dock on my MacBook.  Then, in the grocery store, I can look up the ingredients that I need (and the quantities).
  3. Lesson ideas from everywhere.  I set up notebooks in Evernote for each major unit that I teach, and then I dump every lesson idea that I find in there.  This might be PDFs from other teachers or URLs from websites.  If I can’t get a digital copy, I just snap a photo and then try to create it myself.
  4. Sharing with students.  It is easy to create shared notebooks in Evernote that can be embedded on webpages.  I share funny stuff with my students via a shared notebook.  It includes photos from class, funny websites I come across, and even audio/photos of lessons that the can access from any internet-connected computer.
  5. Blog ideas.  Let’s face it: ideas for blog posts often come when you are least prepared to write them.  I store them in Evernote and then dip in there to find things to write about.  It might be a photo of something interesting that I have seen or a webpage that made me think.

The best part is that a limited version of Evernote is available for free.  There is a monthly upload limit that is probably sufficient for most casual users.  That is, those of you who still use your biological brain for remembering things.

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