Monthly Archives: February 2014

Beat Boredom with a Bus Ride

By Amanda Rogers February 28th, 2014 3:30 PM

“School is so boring.”

“I don’t want to be here…”

“Why do we have to do this?”

As a teacher, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one of these three comments from your time in teaching. If you are anything like me, those comments make your emotions bristle and your blood boil. You respond inside your head, “School isn’t boring! Of course you have to be here! And WHY are you learning this?” Hum, um, wait. That is actually a very good question.

Making sure that your students understand the “why” of what you teach is an essential part of learning. I have found that the best way to guide my students into understanding the “why” of what we are learning is by taking them on field trips. Thankfully, the list of resources that Washington DC has to offer (and most of them free of charge!) is staggering.

One of my favorite places to take my students is The Corcoran Gallery of Art. For my most recent trip, I worked with a docent at the museum to choose a tour that would align with what my students were learning in class. We settled on the “Five Senses” tour, which lets students look at and discuss art using their five senses.  The tour started at a series of stations, one of which was in front of a gallery painting.  At the station, students had the opportunity to touch and observe brushes, paints, and all of the materials used in making the piece. In addition to these art-related themes, the docent and I planned our own special twist to the content of the tour. We added information and interactions with a tour guide that centered on  animal habitats, supporting what students were already learning about in their general education classes.

museum sculpture

To say that the kids enjoyed the experience was an understatement. The students loved every minute of it, even the bus ride! I really enjoy watching my students in a setting outside of their regular school day, and this trip was no exception. I watched the way the students moved through the museum, soaking in all of the new sights and stimuli. I also noticed the way they interacted with the adult tour guide, expressing their interest in the art. I was proud of their questions, their ability to be independent, and their ability to connect the things we were learning inside our classroom walls to something in the real world.

This is just one example of the many, many field trips available to students and teachers in Washington D.C. As I mentioned before, many of the museums in Washington D.C. are free of charge. If you plan ahead, lots of them also offer complimentary bussing for your students. I encourage all teachers to plan a field trip. It exposes your students to things they might never see or experience. It connects your students to the world, and helps your students make connections to understand the “why” of what they are learning.

Please feel free to visit my blog for a recap of our trip to the Corcoran Museum.

Follow me on Twitter: @necityart

Plan your own field trips in Washington D.C here.

Amanda Rogers teaches visual arts at Langley Elementary School in Washington, D.C.


An Alternative Way of Looking at Student Success

By Angelique Kwabenah February 27th, 2014 5:00 PM

In many ways, working in an alternative school setting is similar to working in a regular school setting. You have the same elements at play, and many of the same actors: teachers, students and administrators.

However, there are some significant differences. Students who are enrolled in this type of school setting generally have not had much academic or behavioral success in other settings, and are coming into this type of school setting with very little to no motivation and limited or deficient academic skills. Therefore, teaching strategies employed in alternative settings are often more unconventional in order to reach all students.  Based on my experience in this school setting, I want to share a few strategies that have been successful in my classroom.

  1. Creating Mock Websites: One strategy that I use at my school to generate initial interest in instruction and to learn about my students is to have them create a mock-up website of themselves. The criteria includes writing a brief biography, creating a time line, and any other information that they want to share. This is an informal way to assess their writing and vocabulary, while also getting them involved in the instructional program in a manner that they view as relevant to their lives.
  2. Utilizing Current Events :This is another strategy that I employ to help students achieve academic success. In my experience, many students in alternative schools settings are lacking background experiences. Therefore, I subscribe to the New York Times “Upfront” classroom magazine and to Scholastic’s “Choices” magazine. Both of these magazines are high interest with low to moderate readability, focusing on topics that are of interest to teens like bullying, sports, and music. The magazines also provide teachers with online and print resources, which can be modified to meet the needs of any student in a given classroom and are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
  3. Visiting Museums: Museums provide a wealth of resources for all content areas and grade levels that will interest students in new and engaging ways. One example of an offering at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. is the “ What Happened Here?” activity. During the activity, students look at a series of news clips and pictures and select one to write a mock news article about. Each year I also attend the Teacher Open Houses for the Newseum, The International Spy Museum, and other museums in the area in order to obtain resources that can be easily integrated in an alternative classroom setting.

Alternative Education is not for every teacher, but those of us who teach in these settings have to find a way to reach every student. We choose to teach in this type of school setting because we enjoy the challenge of helping students find success by any means necessary in unconventional settings. By utilizing resources that are real, relevant and related to the life experiences of our students, we are making connections and moving our students toward higher levels of academic success.

Angelique Kwabenah is a Reading Specialist at the Incarcerated Youth Program in Washington, D.C.

Using the Goldilocks Parable to Impact School Culture

By Sean McGrath February 26th, 2014 11:30 AM

Every day, there are unscientific surveys that seem to point an accusatory finger at my generation – the so-called Millennials – and inculpate us for just about every social ill and societal moor. Why don’t millennials have relationships? Because we’re “selfish narcissists“. Why are we depressed? Because we have a “strong sense of entitlement.” Why are so many members of Generation-Y unemployed? Because we’re frustrated at work and expect more of our employers and society. While some people think that these traits are troubling our workforce and threatening the country’s future, I’d argue that it’s these very traits that are going to change our world, especially in the classroom.

From childhood, we millennials have been exhorted from all corners of the country – from our parents’ advice, to teachers, and even commercials – not to settle for something that doesn’t fit us; to strive for something better. We were the first generation who grew up not only reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but watching them on loop in our VCRs. This repetition and inculcation of the story’s moral has become a parable for our lives: If you don’t like the culture of your job, and you can’t change the culture of your job, change your job until you find a culture that’s right for you.

When I finally began visiting colleges, I went to seven before I found the one that was right for me. I went on ten job interviews before landing my first job, and sat down with six principals before I was handed the keys to my own classroom here in DC. We are, admittedly, idealists. We want our jobs to be like a pair of pants and fit us well. Those fashion-savvy among us wouldn’t settle for too-baggy or too-high slacks, so why should we expect that our jobs be any different?

In addition, we are a generation of doers, a generation that wants to take on the responsibilities to advance goodness in the world. We see it as our civic duty, and we take this mentality with us into the classroom. It’s not enough for us to become teachers and then say, “Okay, I’ve done my part in educating kids.” We are obsessed with progress, we thrive on moving things forward, we make sure to ask “why?” and we encourage our students to do the same.

These traits have been on display since joining DC Public Schools five years ago. I have been a team lead, a social media ambassador, a liaison to an Afghani embassy, a presenter at a conference, a member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet, a sponsor of Student Government, a Geoplunge! coach, a baseball coach, and a disc jockey at school dances. Not to mention the five classes of U.S. History I teach per day. These positions obviously bring me great joy, but the reason that belies that joy is that connection, that fit that I mentioned earlier. The reason why I love my job, and why I strive to do more than the bare minimum, has little to do with money or incentives (though those both help, especially around the holidays). Instead, it is about feeling that connection to a school or a district solves that Goldilocks parable- we want to get it just right. I feel a sense of connection to my community and a greater sense of self-worth. Moreover, human beings are social creatures who crave communal acceptance. As a teacher, that doesn’t mean throwing down the latest slang in class or wearing fashionable clothes to class. It means sending the message, through your work, your lessons, and through your commitments to the school, that you are a part of a community of learners just like your students.

I’m fortunate enough to have a wonderful administration that encourages me to build my role of a teacher into one that is challenging and rewarding. Sometimes, as was the case at previous jobs, that didn’t happen. I often had to claim minor victories, such as when I convinced a former principal to get teachers to start using online grade books. These mini-wins affirm the notion that progress is inevitable, and I implore all teachers who care about their school culture as well as their students to take part in this great culture shift. Change that old pair of pants for one with a better fit. It’s what’s been happening on the macro-level within DCPS for the better part of the decade.

Sean McGrath is a social studies teacher at Stuart Hobson Middle School and a member of the 2013-14 Chancellor’s Teachers Cabinet.


“As College Graduates Hit the Workforce, So Do More Entitlement-Minded Workers.” University of New Hampshire,, 17 May 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Denny, Judy. “Millennials Rising the Next Great Generation.” Rev. of Millennials Rising, by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Federal Consulting Group, Oct. 2004. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. 

Donegan, Ryan. “The Numbers Behind Why Millennials Are ‘Generation Frustration.'” The Huffington Post,, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014 

Woodman, Dan, Dr., and Johanna Wyn, Dr. “We Love Labels, but Should Know the Limits before Libelling Gen Y.” The Sydney Morning Herald., 10 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Student-Teacher Relationships: The Cornerstone to a Successful Classroom

By Amanda Jonas February 19th 4:45 PM

 “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Thich Nhat Hanh

A student told a lie about me. Marcus* told his mother that in math small group, somewhere in between teaching changing improper fractions to mixed numbers, that I had called him a bad name. He even went a step further, telling his mother that I hated him and picked on him constantly.

How could Marcus get it so wrong? How could I hate any kid? I was the teacher that took kids out for fro-yo after school and the teacher that kids wanted to sit next to on the bus. Had Marcus missed the memo? What made him feel this way?

The very next day, Marcus did something even more confusing. He came up to me after school, gave me a huge hug, and said, “You know. Even though I get mad at you, you’re still my favorite teacher in the world.” If I could insert that confused emoticon face right here, I would.

This befuddling incident led me to some serious deep thinking. What was the difference between a student who writes, “Ms. Jonas, you are like a mother to me and a long lost big sister” on his or her homework and a student like Marcus?

The simple answer is relationships. Although I had fostered positive and strong relationships with most of my students, there were some students, like Marcus, for whom I had not yet had the opportunity.

In my experience, relationships are the cornerstone to any successful elementary classroom. Someone once told me “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Yeah, it’s cheesy, but it is 100% true. Having a strong relationship with your students, one where they know beyond a doubt that you care about them, not just academically, but as people, is incredibly important.

For anyone that doubts this theory, think back to the last time you had a coach or a boss that you knew disliked you or didn’t seem to believe in you. Now, think back to a time when you had the opposite: a coach or boss that not only liked you, but knew about your interests and dreams. Now tell me who you worked harder for, and who you trusted more to lead you?

I fear that sometimes in this high stakes, results driven climate, we forget that we are inherently nurturers of the soul as well as classrooms teachers. I recently met with my master educator who noted how warm and supportive my classroom felt. My master educator made a comment about how much my students were participating, unafraid to ask questions or make mistakes. When kids feel supported and loved, and know that someone will be there for them until they get it right, they feel safe enough to take academic risks.

While the results of these relationships are wonderful, they are not always easy to forge or maintain. It would be a complete lie if I told you it is easy to form strong relationships with every child who crosses the threshold of your class. There will be those children who seem difficult to reach or others, like Marcus, where you have no idea where you stand with them. The interesting thing is that the students who seem to give you the hardest time are almost always the ones who crave a loving, supportive teacher-student relationship the most.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA), a child’s poor relationship with even a kindergarten teacher can set a child up for lower academic achievement up through eighth grade. Conversely, when teachers build strong relationships with students, they are less likely to act out or display defiant behavior. The reason? According to the APA, those students act out less because they know and trust you. Relationships are crucial especially when they are hardest won. The APA is a tremendous resource on how to foster and build relationships with even our most difficult students. With their help and some of my own experiences, I have complied a short list of relationship building tips.

You can’t fake it!

Fake it till you make it may work in show biz or passing off Sears as Hugo Boss until you can actually afford it, but it does NOT work with kids. Believe me, kids can tell how you feel about them. No matter how difficult or how many Hail Mary’s you need to say before class, you must learn to love every single one of your students.

What about that one kid…

Even with your most challenging kid, there is always something to find in them that you can latch on to. Those are the kids who need you to be there for them the most, and often times their little outbursts and tantrums are really just their attempts to get someone’s attention the only way they know how. The APA says that especially in urban, high poverty schools, teacher student relationships are crucial because they build resiliency in students and ultimately lead to higher academic achievement.

Is it too late?

It’s almost February, you might be thinking. There are only 5 months of school left, 4 if the polar vortex strikes us again and we have a month of snow days (wouldn’t that be terrible?). Is it too late to repair broken relationships or to foster ones I haven’t even started yet? The answer is absolutely not. The APA found in a study of over 4,000 poor and minority students that in only five months, students whose teachers worked to build stronger relationships had higher grade point averages than their peers whose teachers did not make that same effort.

Where do I start?

Kindness. Start with kindness and the mindset that you are vitally important to these children whether they willingly admit it or not. Take time to learn about who your students are and where they come from- more than surface questions like whether they enjoy reading or math more- and show a genuine interest in what they care about. Also, don’t be scared to be the real you around your kids. I am naturally a sarcastic, thoughtful and opinionated individual, and this translates into who I am in my classroom. My students enjoy seeing this part of me as their teacher, ultimately making us closer.


Kaufman-Rimm, Sara (2014). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. Retrieved from

Amanda Jonas is a 5th grade math teacher at Stanton Elementary School.

This Assignment Must Not Be Done Independently

By Earl Jones February 18th, 2014, 2:15 PM

As I reflect back on my days in college, one thing that comes to mind is how I became an independent student. I learned to do research on my own. I was able to study for and pass exams by myself. I spent hours doing projects with no help. I’m really proud of how self-reliant I became. Now as a teacher, I’m doing the complete opposite. Every day, I plan, strategize, and teach by collaborating heavily with other teachers.

A few days before the beginning of each unit, I sit down with the other 4th grade teachers at Bancroft Elementary School to plan our unit. For two days, we examine student data, create assessments, map out the overarching knowledge and skills required, write objectives, and plan differentiation.  Having other teachers next to me in this planning ensures that all students’ needs are being met and that instructional best practices are being shared. I remember sitting with teachers and practicing scaffold prompts, creating exemplar question responses, and incorporating sixth grade skills and standards to reach my high-flyer students. Because we had the opportunity to collaborate as a team, we were able to plan a solid poetry unit that catered to students at all academic levels.

I’m also in a unique position because I work at Bancroft Elementary, one of few DC schools with two teachers in every classroom. Collaboration with my co-teacher and other teachers on my team is key. Daily, we share resources, plan for small groups, and balance each other’s lessons. It’s important for the students to see that we are on the same page and are both using our efforts to help them grow academically.  The benefit for students is that they receive additional help with key skills while also receiving balanced instruction in English and Spanish, in sync with our dual-language model.

I am very grateful that DC Public Schools and Bancroft Elementary, in particular, value teacher collaboration. Through my collaboration, I’ve gained more content knowledge, acquired top-notch resources, and learned to analyze student data critically. Being able to work closely alongside such resourceful and motivated individuals has absolutely helped me to grow as an educator and has without a doubt been valuable to my students.

Earl Jones is a fourth grade teacher at Bancroft Elementary School.

Engaging Families During Individual Education Plan Meetings

By Jennifer Krystopowicz February 13th, 2014 11:10 AM

Fear. Dread. Anxiety. Confusion. These are emotions that some parents or guardians of students with special needs feel during their child’s individual education program (IEP) meeting. As a special education teacher, it is my responsibility to ensure that parents do not experience such apprehension because they are the driving force when it comes to supporting their child’s education. Having conducted over 90 individual education program meetings in DCPS, I would estimate that my last 40 meetings were most effective in terms of fully engaging participating parents or guardians. If I could go back in time and redo the other 50 meetings, I would incorporate the following guidelines to ensure a successful meeting with all family participants.

Before the Meeting:

  1. Before creating the letter of invitation, ask the parents or guardians what date and time is convenient for them to attend the meeting. In my experience, when they have the option to select a date based on their availability, they are more likely to attend.
  2. A week before the meeting, send home a rough draft of potential goals that you are considering to include in the IEP. This will give the parents or guardians a chance to understand and process what their child is learning and how their child will reach mastery. It also gives the parents or guardians the opportunity to prepare any questions they may have surrounding their child’s goals.

Draft Goals List

During the Meeting:

  1. Always begin the meeting by having every participant, including parents or guardians, share a positive comment about the student. This releases tension from those parents or guardians who view IEP meetings to be a stressful situation. My Special Education Coordinator does a wonderful job at this, always opening meetings with encouraging words about the student. For example, you can say “Maya is a self-starter who takes pride in her work,” or “Nicholas is a hard worker who always wants to help other students.”
  2. Sometimes, acronyms can be very daunting to parents and make them hesitant to engage in the information when they do not understand what the terms stand for.  When presenting the “Present Levels of Performance” to parents or guardians, take the time to translate what the TRC, Dibels, DRA, BIP, 504 etc. terminologies actually mean. It is essential to break down the scores into simple forms so parents or guardians have a full understanding of where their child stands both socially and academically. For example, don’t just tell parents or guardians that their child is reading on a level C. Tell them that their child is reading at the Kindergarten level and what those reading behaviors look like.
  3. After presenting each section of goals, ask the parents or guardians if they agree with the goals, would like to add anything, or if they have any questions. This will open the door for conversation and provide an opportunity for those parents or guardians who are hesitant to ask questions the time to do so.
  4. After you have covered all goals and sections of the IEP, offer a few suggestions about what the parents or guardians can do at home to support the child in mastering their goals. This enables parents or guardians to become an active participant in their child’s IEP. This is crucial because students with disabilities are already behind in academic areas and need all the reinforcement they can get to achieve academic success.
  5. At the conclusion of the meeting, express your appreciation to the parents or guardians for attending the meeting and supporting their child’s progress. It’s just as important to end the meeting on a good note as it is to start it!

After the Meeting:

  1. Keep open communication with the parents or guardians. Ask them how they are doing when it comes to supporting their child with their goals at home. Ask them if they need more ideas or suggestions.
  2. Celebrate success! Let the parents or guardians know when their child has mastered a goal. This can be done through a simple text, letter home, or phone call depending on the method of communication the parent prefers.

I am confident that this list will continue to grow over the years; however, these practices have enabled my parents to feel confident and fully engaged when attending an IEP meeting. A successful meeting occurs when the parents or guardians walk away knowing that the success of their child is a team effort and they are fully supported by the school to drive achievement.

Jennifer Krystopowicz is a special education teacher at Tyler Elementary School.

It is OK to Try and… Fail!

By Sara Arranz February 12th, 2014 4:00 PM

We, as teachers, may have the lesson planned, the standards posted, the goals clear, the materials set up, and students who are ready to learn. Everything may seem perfect in the morning… but suddenly something happens and nothing occurs as expected.

Lets visualize the situation: You are at a station with your students and something is telling you, “This is not working, my students are not engaged, nor focused, nor motivated, and they need something else. But what?!”

It took me a while to realize that every time this happens, I need to change something different: the pace, time, method, strategy, material or location of that activity, and it has to be at that very moment, without any delay. We cannot wait until the end of the activity when this happens, and we must observe and use our creativity to change the situation.

Thanks to DCPS, I am one of the lucky teachers participating in this year’s Education Innovation Fellowship sponsored by the CityBridge Foundation. This fellowship exposed me to a book by Eric Ries titled The Lean Start Up, which outlines how to build and sustain entrepreneurial businesses.

Many of these lessons also apply to schools, helping me to verbalize those changes that I was already making in my practice. The changes taking place in my lessons were innovations, and they were happening constantly. We teachers are entrepreneurs, and we are creating new things every second. With this comes additional risk, and failing is OK. As Eric Ries says in his book, if we notice that a strategy is not working as it’s supposed to, we can always pivot and find a better one.

What is not OK is to claim that, if an activity planned did not work, it was because the students were not ready. We must find the way to get them ready to learn, and we are the ones responsible for motivating them by using different methods. We have to try and test, see and change, adopt when it works and adapt when it does not.

The best thing about this kind of method is that we are supported. There are resources out there waiting for us to use them meaningfully. New technologies are one of the best. While some might say, “I use computers in my classroom, tables, the smart board…and my lessons are still failing,” we are talking about two different things here.

When I talk about technology, I am focusing on:

  1. How we use these resources
  2. The control of the use of these resources

I am talking about blended learning. There are four main models, all of which incorporate a combination of teacher-based instruction with digital-based instruction. I just started to learn about this type of learning, and I already know that this is the way to improve both my practice and my students’ way of learning.

As Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn say in the subtitle of their book, “Disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.” It may sound “disruptive” and extremely uncertain, but isn’t that what makes us entrepreneurs? so we must change the way that teachers teach in order to make our method the one that is most effective and successful.

Sara Arranz is a pre-kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher at Cleveland Elementary School.