Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Pop Culture Can Help Increase Student Engagement

Walking through the toy section of Target is one of my favorite things to do for two reasons. First off, I love to buy toys for my kids (Mrs. Kindergarten Guy is not as enthusiastic about this). Secondly, I love to buy things for my classroom that make my students go nuts. Recently, I was walking through a toy aisle at a Target, when I found a small, plush, Ryder (I was more thrilled than I should have been). many people actually know what I'm talking about when I say Ryder? Just Ryder? The four-year-old kid who was in the same aisle knew immediately and said, "Is that Ryder from Paw Patrol?" It was.

I love finding toys like this from popular cartoons. Paw Patrol, Wallykazam!, Team UmiZoomi, Bubble Guppies, Sofia the First, Octonauts, all of these are on my list. Of course, it helps that I have a five-year-old and three-year-old at home who are also into these shows (and when I say "into", I mean obsessed with). It also helps that any time I mention one of these shows in my classroom, the kids go nuts. If you want to really connect with the kindergarteners in your classroom, immerse yourself in their culture. I have no choice...I'm fully immersed anyway. I will say, though, that even if I wasn't already into the pop culture of five-year-olds, it would be worth getting into as a kindergarten teacher.

Do you know any of these guys? (You can find them on Nickelodeon.)

I refer to, or quote, one of these characters daily. We use them for anchor charts (Marshall, the Dalmatian from Paw Patrol was featured during Fire Safety Week). We listen to songs from their shows. I also use their iPad apps in my classroom. The apps are very well designed, very educational, and very engaging (if you just search the name of one of these shows on the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, you can find many options). The best part of using them, is the effect that they have on the kids. When the kids see these characters, they instantly want to be involved in whatever the activity is. When they see their favorite characters, the students become instantly engaged.

Besides cartoon characters, I try to stay current on what books are popular (specifically what characters from books). Pete the Cat, Elephant and Piggie, Charlie the Ranch Dog, and Fly Guy are favorites in my classroom. I use these characters the same way that I use the ones mentioned above. I read Pete the Cat Saves Christmas this week, and you could hear a pin drop in the classroom.

I feel that it's very important as a teacher to be aware of and in tune with the pop culture of my students. The characters, plot lines and stories are very important in the lives of our students (whether we like it or not) and, if used correctly, they can help increase student engagement in the classroom. These characters can make students want to read and write. They can help them to understand the intricate details of difficult concepts, just by giving them an image to spark their memories later.

I would encourage any teacher, at any grade level, to immerse themselves in the culture of their students. Watch some clips of their favorite shows, listen to some of their music, play their video games, read their books, watch their movies. You will amaze your students, you'll  really connect with them, and I think you'll find that it really does make teaching easier.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mini-Post: How Technology Can Increase Student Engagement

I was working on decorating the door of my classroom for the Christmas Door Decorating Contest at school this week, and was reminded of how important the use of technology is to my students. I was simply using an iPad to take their pictures, but you would have thought that it was the most fun and exciting thing in the world. They all wanted to see the pictures after I had taken them, and thought it was so neat that they were on the little iPad screen.

All of this reminded me of how important it is to use technology in as many different ways as possible in my classroom. Throughout the SDE Kindergarten Conference that I attended with my colleagues a couple of weeks ago, the speakers constantly mentioned "novelty" as a major way to engage students. It's easy, throughout the course of the school year, to settle into a routine and forget about changing things up, but your students will be more engaged if you show them different things as frequently as you can. Technology makes this really easy.

Augmented Reality (a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, providing a composite view...thanks Google) can constantly make things new and different for students. Teachers can use it to make a word wall interactive, linking letters and words to videos and computer-generated 3D images (the Aurasma app is my choice for this...look up some videos on YouTube like this's pretty awesome). AR, combined with new apps constantly being released, and the ease of creating student projects like slideshows and videos, makes using technology in the classroom a great way to keeps things new and different in the classroom. Constantly search the Apple App Store or Google Play Store to find what new apps have been released for education. Find technology blogs to follow that give ideas and classroom applications (Two Guys and Some iPads is one that I follow closely).

Use technology to continuously shake things up in your classroom, and you will find that your students are more easily engaged.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How ClassDojo Saved The Universe (Or At Least My Classroom)

Starting this year in my kindergarten class, I felt that I needed a very basic classroom management system...something that the kids could understand. I decided to go with your basic stop light pocket chart. Are you in green? You've obviously been good. Yellow? Watch yourself. Red? You've lost all control and are making terrible choices...punishment will be coming your way. This worked for a month or so. I wrote notes home to the parents of students who were misbehaving, and I only had a handful of students who ever reached that red pocket. The physical reminder of getting up, walking to the chart, and moving the card seemed to be doing the trick. I just didn't feel good about it.

Fast forward three months. With the encouragement of my principal, I started using ClassDojo for behavior management. Starting out, I gave students points for everything. You made eye get a point. You pushed your chair get a point.  You did not talk in the get a point. I felt like Oprah handing out her favorite things, except my favorite things were ClassDojo points. The kids loved ClassDojo. They picked up on it quickly, and loved collecting points. Especially when I attached weekly rewards to them: 20 points gets a sticker, 30 points gets a prize from the prize box, 40 points gets free iPad time, 50 points gets lunch with me in the room (oddly enough, this is the prize most sought after). Plus, the little monsters that they use as avatars are really popular (there's even a ClassDojo student app where kids can personalize their own). Behavior improved. It. Was. Amazing. I was able to reward the kids who were doing the right thing, instead of focusing on punishment for doing the wrong thing. Since then, we've adjusted, and settled into a routine of how the kids get points or lose them. I can't tell you how much better it makes me feel to be looking for the good things going on in my room, as opposed to being on the lookout for the bad things.

The Monster Magic is real, folks. Check it out here.

Now, ClassDojo offers much more than a classroom management system. I can track attendance, make behavior notes, and communicate with parents as well. Parents who sign up to use the ClassDojo parent app (using the code provided when you're logged into their website) can see their kids' behavior in real time. Little Johnny's helicopter parents can stare at that phone/tablet/computer all day, watching his points fluctuate up and down if they want. There is also a messaging feature, where teachers and parents can send messages to each other without exchanging phone numbers. This is useful for a variety of reasons ("How is Little Johnny getting home today?", "Little Johnny punched a kid and got sent to the office this afternoon." "Little Johnny forgot his glasses today, he will need to have them tomorrow."). Parents can stay in the loop, and teachers can avoid lengthy phone calls or notes home (not that I'm against those...but they are not needed for everything). 

ClassDojo turned things around in my classroom, as far as classroom management is concerned. It streamlined everything, made it easy, and made communicating with parents stress-free. It's a winner.