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Virginia Journal of Education

Pointers From the Pros

Virginia classroom teachers share some of their favorite instructional tips.

Where better to look for some useful instructional advice than to your colleagues, the people standing at the front of Virginia’s classrooms every day? The NEA website has a section entitled “Works4Me,” in which educators from across the country share their practical tips and insight. What follows on these three pages are effective classroom tips submitted by Virginia teachers. To check out Works4Me, visit In the meantime, hope you enjoy these words of wisdom:

Keep It Moving
Students are often slow to transition from one subject to the next. Requesting students to open their books to a particular page, to head their notebook paper, etc. can result in many minutes of wasted time. Instead, whenever possible I ask students to prepare for their next lesson just before leaving for recess, lunch, music, or art class. Because they want to go to lunch or recess quickly, they will open their books and head their notebook papers so they can proceed to recess, lunch, etc. Upon returning to the classroom, their desks are set with materials ready to begin the lesson right away. There aren't any wasted minutes or stalling!
--Elizabeth Wimmer, a special education teacher in Stafford County

A Non-Sticky Solution
I find it protects posters or cut-outs that will be hung with tape first to attach a flat piece of tape to the back of the item being hung. This way when the tape is removed, the poster will not be torn.
--Nancy Brooks, a retired kindergarten teacher in Newport News

Bountiful Binder
Families are often very overwhelmed by the special education process and the volumes of paperwork involved. Once a child is found eligible for my program, I give the family a three-ring binder with dividers. I label sections for eligibility reports, current IEP, past IEP, report cards and parental rights. I explain to families that this little gift is my way to help them to keep track of the papers they receive. It makes them feel better to know that I understand some of the feelings they are having about the process.
--Diane Postman, a special education teacher in Gloucester County

Can You Describe It?
This is an excellent way to develop skills in writing descriptive paragraphs. It also addresses the issue of using power words to start sentences. We proudly display the published work in the hall with the picture prompts. Have students fold a sheet of notebook paper into thirds so that they have 3 vertical columns. Label the left column “adjectives,” the middle column “nouns” and the right “verbs.” Provide nature scenes from calendars or magazines to generate ideas. Ask students to list, in the noun column, all of the nouns in the picture. Encourage the students to skip lines as they write, as this helps with organization and neatness. Then have the students list one or two adjectives beside each noun. Next they write a verb (present tense is best) to go with each noun. This part can be very challenging. Encourage students to use “action verbs” and “stretch” verbs beyond common ones. Insist on interesting, more sophisticated verbs. Runs could be sprints, gallops, etc. Walks could become trudges, lumbers, etc. Looks could become gazes, peers, etc. Encourage use of a thesaurus. Students will almost always begin the sentences with “There is,” so it is important to make a “rule” to prevent that from happening. Teach them to avoid boring words by starting each sentence with the words from their brainstorm sheet (i.e., Huge waves crash, or Fluffy, white snowflakes drift). Then show them how to add “when, where or how” to complete their sentences. Encourage figurative language. For example, mountains don't just sit on the landscape, mountains reach for the sky, mountains tower like skyscrapers, mountains stand guard. As an alternative prompt, bring in a beach chair, wear flip-flops and pretend to be at the beach to help students “see” a scene in their mind's eye. Students can bring in their own sunglasses to add to the mood. This is particularly fun as a winter activity when everyone, especially the teacher, needs a little sunshine.
--Colleen Anders and Barbara Hyler, elementary teachers in Chesterfield County

Stump the Teacher
Several years ago, I taught a sixth grade language arts class. Most of our spelling words came from the literature stories we read. A couple of times there were no words to use, so I had each student find a spelling word for me. They could choose any word from the dictionary, but they had to be able to pronounce it, give me the definition, part of speech, the origin of the word, and use it in a sentence. I then attempted to spell the word. Not only did this give students practice in all the uses of a dictionary, but also they could observe me model the steps in spelling a word: sounding it out, looking at the number of syllables, matching consonants and vowels to the sound. They loved it when they stumped me.
--Ann Duncan, a retired media specialist in Bedford County

Reaching Out Electronically
I help parents connect with their child's school experience by staying in touch with them via e-mail. I have found that 50 percent or more of my parents have e-mail either at home or at work. I send out a batch e-mail every other week to notify them of upcoming events and other important information. The parents can respond with questions, offer help or make suggestions. I've received many expressions of gratitude from parents for this extra bit of communication.
--Elaine Hawkins, a middle school teacher in Franklin County

We have kids who have reading abilities all over the charts. Some are as high as 12th grade and others are as low as first grade. We use three different spelling lists so students who are higher are always challenged and students who are struggling are working towards improvement. The spelling assignments include reading the words out loud, using the words in a sentence (both oral and written) and word sorts. We try to tie the spelling lists to other Standards of Learning, such as suffixes and prefixes. Students who are struggling have the opportunity to read out loud to a peer, teacher or aide for 10-15 minutes each day during independent reading time to practice fluency. When we can, we reduce or change the work for the students who are struggling. For example, we teach writing together, and when the students are typing paragraphs or papers, one of us pulls a student aside to read with, instead of that student typing the assignment.
--Hope Cloud and Leah Mullins, seventh grade collaborative reading teachers in Wise County

A Love Story
When I teach the elements and the periodic table, I incorporate writing across the curriculum. I have students choose one element that they're interested in and research it. After they've finished the research, they must then find another element that is compatible with theirs. Finally, the students write a love letter from their element to the compatible element, which includes all the attributes of the student's element, why the two elements would make a good couple, and a picture of the two elements. The kids really seem to get into this project.
--Linda Moccio-Webb, a sixth grade teacher in Chesterfield County

Play Ball!
This game works well with my students when reviewing material prior to a test. I bought a baseball game with four Velcro balls and a wall hanging (ground out, home run, etc.). When we are ready to review, I divide my class into two teams that are balanced by high, medium and low student abilities. Each team selects a captain and scorekeeper. I put all vocabulary words on index cards along with several home run, single, double, triple and pop fly cards. I place sheets of paper on the floor in the shape of a baseball diamond (1st base, 2nd base, 3rd base and home plate). I flip a coin to see which team is at bat first. Each student is given a randomly selected card from the stack one at a time as they bat. If they can tell me what the vocabulary word is, they can throw the four balls at the wall hanging. If a student gets a homerun card, a point is added to that team's score. If the student gets a single, he or she stands on the paper for 1st base, etc. The students love this game. I also give a treat to the winning team. This game is great for review!
--Victor Meadows, an eighth grade American studies teacher in Appomattox

Keeping the Peace
I use several techniques when students are disruptive in the classroom. I make it a learning experience for the students, reminding them that they need to raise their hands, stay in their seats, etc. If a student still has a problem, I whisper a conversation about the behavior and show only the student the behavior slip. I tell the student the referral is filled out and ready to be given to the principal. I leave it upside down on the student's desk and tell the student that if there are no more problems, he or she can rip it up and throw it away after class. This lets them have control over their behavior. For other situations, I take the student out in the hallway and bring a referral slip to show that I mean business. If I am going to write up a student, we discuss why and strategies that can be taken so it will not happen again. The student fills out the referral himself listing the discipline problem and the action taken. “Action taken” could be a conference, a call home, lunch or after-school detention, or a meeting with the principal, who chooses the student's consequence. Students usually choose after-school detention with me, and at the end of the detention we conference with the parent who picks up the student about why there was a detention and how to avoid it next time.
--Heather Burger, a sixth grade math and science teacher in Montgomery County

Put a Happy Face On It
Here's an idea I came up with to motivate students to turn in homework. I put large smiley faces on plastic bathroom cups and I place a cup on the students' desks that completed the homework. They know that if the principal comes into my class, he will know if they've done their work. The amount of completed homework assignments has greatly improved.
--G.J. Shipman, a seventh grade math and science teacher Caroline County



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