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Voices from the BAM Radio Community sharing their thoughts, insights and teaching strategies.

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back to school shopping

I'm a little late on this, since most retailers rolled out Back to School displays months ago and are currently starting to clear those out so that they have room for Christmas Sale displays. But I always mean to write about this because like so many things from which people can make a buck, Back to School shopping has gotten out of hand.

So as a father and a professional educator of several decades, I have an important message to parents about your back to school shopping.


People are trying to get you to panic. Do not do it.

In some cases, the pitch is strictly commercial. Which is fine. That's what businesses do. Work your way into Office Depot's Back to School offerings. Everything you could conceivably or inconceivably need is here, with the exception of the Winnebago needed to cart all of this stuff to school, because for a place like Office Depot, Back to School is Christmas and Mother's Day wrapped up in one revenue generating package.

But here's the non-business Great Kids website, offering parents a list of Back to School necessities that may also necessitate a second mortgage (if, as a parent, you are able to afford a house in the first place).

Back to School supply lists seem to have the longevity of cockroaches, surviving unchanged over centuries. For instance, like many other sources, Great Schools includes this on their list of "basics."

Scissors (blunt ended for younger kids, pointed for older ones)

Um, no. Do not send your older children to school with pointy-ended scissors. And while Great Kids recommend highlighters, they do acknowledge that these "are probably unnecessary for kids in kindergarten through second grade." Yes, because five-year-olds have a tendency to highlight walls and desks and their own faces.

What about a site like Real Simple, the website/magazine devoted to helping wealthy folks make their consumption less conspicuous?  Their "essentials" list includes an art smock for elementary and pre-school students. Okay, fine. My own children had art smocks at home (from the popular dad's Old Shirts brand). But essential for school? I'm imagining twenty-five children arriving on the first day and asking the teacher, "Where do I put my smock."

And glue. Specifically glue sticks. Every single list has glue sticks on it. Do we have a national epidemic of Unglued Things in Schools?

Oh-- and these. I see them on lists, in stores, in the mall. Everywhere, in fact, but in actual classrooms:

The worst notebooks ever! You can't make mistakes, and when you rip one page out, another one falls out, too. And if you've taken important notes elsewhere, you can't add them to this, unless-- oh, wait!! NOW I understand the glue sticks!

Backpacks, folders, organizers, twelve different kinds of writing utensils, seventeen different kinds of bound and unbound paper, lunch boxes, a dictionary and a thesaurus!! Cozi gets a bonus point for putting a flash drive on their list, but most lists are composed of the same classic items that Great-Great-Grandma's mom was guilted into buying for Back to School.

So, parents, here's my Back to School to-do list for you.

Step One: Wait

Prior to the first day of school, do not buy anything except things you want your child to have. If your child is organizationally challenged and needs the world's most aggressive trapper-keeper, go ahead and get it. If you and your child agree that a Phineas and Ferb lunchbox is essential to get off to a great new start, I applaud your good taste. Go for it.

But if you are eying the glue stick display or the utility box loaded with 143 colored pencils strictly because you think the school will put your child back on the bus if she shows up without those items, just wait.

Neither my wife (elementary) nor I (high school) expect students to show up on the first day with anything other than a sleepy smile and a hopeful attitude. If the school actually needs your child to bring anything to school, they will tell you. Backpacks may have to fall within particular guidelines. Teachers may want particular notebook configurations. And every school now comes with its own batch of tech requirements.


Talk to your child's teachers before you need to. Go to open house. If scheduling is tight, make a phone call or an e-mail. Let your school and your teachers know what your expectations are. These are easier conversations to have when you're not in the midst of a child-related crisis. The school or teachers may give you the impression that they are too busy to have a non-critical conversation with you. Too bad for them. Have it anyway, but be focused and businesslike. Whenever dealing with teachers and schools, it's helpful to remember that we measure time out in very short increments. "Just one more thing," may mean nothing to your schedule, but to your child's teacher it may mean the difference between getting to pee or not today.

Gather contact information. Know who to contact about what, and how best to contact them.

Build partnerships

Some of the most effective work for Getting Things Done or Fixing Screwy Policies involve partnerships between teachers and parents. We know what is going on, but you are far more likely to be listened to. I can tell my boss that the new brown widgets are a terrible idea, but it's when the office starts taking phone calls from cranky parents that things will actually happen.

Where there is bad policy (and right now there is bad policy everywhere), parents and teachers have to build coalitions to fight back, as well as fighting back in their own ways. As a parent, you're going to have to find out who your allies are within the system.

Find out what the needs are

My school does not need glue sticks. On the other hand, the district stopped buying facial tissue for classrooms a few decades ago. My sister-in-law would send boxes of kleenex to school with her kids every month or so. It was greatly appreciated. Just ask a teacher-- what is something you're going to have to buy with your own money that I could get for you.

But mostly, relax

Despite what the world of consumer marketing is suggesting, there is very little that your child must absolutely have for the first day of school. There's little data to suggest that students who show up without art smocks and glue sticks all end up working for sub-minimum wage and living alone in a one-room apartment over a bar while eating cat food warmed on a hot plate.

What your child needs the first-through-last day of school is a positive attitude and support, along with constant reminders that school is important and that the child herself is a valuable and worthy human being. Yes, the ritual of Buying New Stuff for Back to School can be a great way to build excitement and enthusiasm for school, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Meanwhile, the school year is a marathon, not a sprint. I've seen hundreds of students hit that first day bright and happy and full of hope, fully intending that This Year will be different, but the dailiness of school wears it away. They don't need your support on just one day, but every day.

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Motivating students is probably one of the hardest things we do as teachers. Delivering content is meaningless without a student motivated to learn and apply it. During our workshops this is one of the most common topics that come up. While this is usually in the context of Mastery Learning the general advice I give us universally applicable to any instructional model.

While there are a lot of tips and tricks to motivating students, most of them come down to one simple philosophy: INCREASE STUDENT OWNERSHIP 


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i have been looking forward to this all day.

you are going to love this story.

you wait.

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Posted by on in General

Self-paced learning can be a great tool.

If you've ever tried to implement mastery or self-paced learning in your classroom, or attempted a long-term project that is student-centered, you've probably tried it (or are still doing it) because, frankly...these things work. Anytime you can make your classroom more student-centered and meet the needs of more students, you're going to increase achievement for your learners.

When self-paced learning goes wrong...

Regardless of how much positive data and research exists for learning that allows students to master material (by the way there is a lot...you can even google it if you want), even the best pedagogy can be destroyed by improper or poor implementation. As I work with schools and districts to implement mastery learning there is a common misconception that can cause this to happen. A lot of educators think that because students are accessing content or curriculum at their own pace that they are also supposed to learn on their own. This couldn't be further from the truth. Self-paced learning is NOT self taught.

Self-paced learning should mean more teaching, not less.

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teacher student

During our first official day back from summer break, the staff at my school spent some time discussing the value of developing relationships with students and the positive impact such relationships can have on the academic and behavioral progress of those children. Initiating such discussion is a daring move by our administration in this age of ultra-focused obsession on assessment data. Caring about the emotional wellbeing of children unfortunately has been, of late, ridiculed as being “soft” and a waste of valuable instructional time.

We have embarked upon the right path. Most of us were already somewhere along that road. In our grade level groups, we brainstormed activities and celebrations to fortify the relationships we will, most certainly form within the 180 days we share with our kids.

But building relationships is so much more than a one-time game or a certificate for good work. Those things are indeed worthwhile, necessary, and effective. However, forming a bond with your students (or with anyone, for that matter) takes time. For that connection to last, you need to work on the relationship every day, every week, every month.

There is no fool-proof “100 Ways to Connect” book of guaranteed strategies to use. No one knows the individual students you have in class better than you. No one knows the combination of the kids you have sitting before you. No one knows all of the tiny intricacies of each and every life represented in the confines of your classroom.

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