If the World Was a Village…

15 Mar

Many of you have probably seen the “If the World Was a Village of 100 People” statistics. I’ve always found them very interesting, and they really put things in perspective in a straightforward way. Plus, my kids could always use an eye-opening lesson in acceptance and appreciation. So I made a bulletin board. If I do say so myself, it is one of the best bulletin boards I’ve ever made. All of the pieces are hand-made from decorative paper. It was the longest lasting bulletin board in the history of my school, a place where things get ripped off the walls on a day-to-day basis. If you have the time, I highly recommend using this as inspiration for a board of your own.


The Single Most Important Tool a Teacher Can Have

12 Mar

My college roommate took an education course for which the professor had one main objective: that each student in her class would not pass until they had made a yarnball. She hailed the yarnball as the single most important tool a teacher could have. My roommate, who was not very crafty and even less coordinated, claimed the professor was crazy and cursed her throughout the entire process. She looked like a kitten in a yarn store, tangled in a wooly web for days on end. I haven’t talked to my old roommate in years, but if I did I would tell her how right her professor was. I love my yarnball.

I use my yarnball for all sorts of things. Sometimes I do team building exercises with the kids at the beginning of class, and the yarnball is the perfect tool. When I’m calling on students for answers, I’ll toss them the yarnball. They’ll know it’s their turn, and then they’ll toss it to the next person. Sometimes we use it just for fun, for Silent Ball or other games. Sometimes I use it as a reward, if a student is doing really well and wants to hang on to the yarnball for the period. I’ve even tossed it at a kid when I knew he wasn’t paying attention…

Make a yarnball. You’ll figure out how to use it. Here’s the instructions.
**Your yarnball will come out the best if you COMPLETELY FILL the center hole with yarn…don’t just do a layer or two.

Don’t Be All Up In My Grill

11 Mar

Everyone who’s ever watched Seinfeld knows what a close-talker is. I, personally, have about a three-foot personal space bubble. When someone I don’t know that well bursts my bubble, it’s uncomfortable. Not only does it make me uncomfortable but it puts me in the awkward situation of trying to back up without insulting the person. Sometimes, the person is so imperceptive that they don’t pick up on my body language and they move into my bubble all over again. Interestingly enough though, personal space isn’t the same for everybody, and it varies greatly from culture to culture. In Asian cultures, particularly China, the concept of personal space is nearly nonexistent. Strangers regularly touch bodies when waiting in line, while people in Scandinavian countries, for example, need more personal space than we do. And anyone who’s ever taught kids with emotional or behavioral challenges knows that their personal space can be infinite. “Don’t touch me,” and “Back up” are phrases I hear in the hallways all the time.

Looking deeper at my streetwise students, I realized how much of their confrontational vocabulary and actions centered not only around their personal space, but more specifically around their face. Allow me to provide examples:

1. Knocking off someone’s hat: Not recommended, unless you are looking to start a fight. If you are, this would be an excellent way to do it.

2. “In your face” (exclamation): something you would shout after you just beat someone badly in anything competitive, for example if you just dunked on them on the basketball court.

3. In your face (verb): To be in someone’s face in not a good thing, and it will be requested of you to “Get OUT of my face.” You’re too pushy, you’re too close, you’re asking too much.

4. Mush: If you find that you got in someone’s face, you might get mushed. That’s the act of placing one’s hand on another person’s face and pushing the person backwards. If you see someone get mushed, sh**’s about to go down.

5. Grill: Can be used in 2 ways. You can grill someone, which means to stare them down. Will probably be met with “Why you grillin me,” unless it’s a member of the opposite sex, in which case it might be a compliment. OR, you can be “up in someone’s grill,” also bad. Similar to getting in their face.

6. Save face: Finally, what you might do if you realize you’ve made a mistake and now you need to cover it up. May or may not work.

This isn’t rocket science. Everyone knows not to touch someone else’s face unless you’re invited to do so. But it really got me thinking about our faces as this sort of portal into ourselves, the front door to letting someone in. So what do we do in our next art class? We make masks. On each others faces. Risky? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.

I offered them an out. If they felt really uncomfortable, they could use a plastic face mold instead of another person. But most of them paired up and got to work. We called them “Emotion Masks,” because after they created the mask on their classmates face, they later added details to show a certain emotion of their choice. We got some amazing results and I couldn’t believe how well they worked together. Smearing Vaseline and plaster strips on someone else’s face was taking a big risk for some of these kids, and yet they worked together and didn’t even get mad when plaster water dripped down their necks. I’m not naive…if their partner had been up in their grill the next day, all bets would have been off. But for 45 minutes, to be in their face was finally ok.

Get the full lesson plan here!

MacGyver Would Have Made a Great Teacher

10 Mar

If I had to define myself using only 3 adjectives, I would choose these:


Given the economic situation at my school, I found myself having to be resourceful a lot. While I think this may be a common trait amongst teachers, I was wondering how resourceful I really was in comparison to everyone else. If I’m going to say that I’m resourceful, it had better be true, right? So I checked out what Wikipedia had to say about being resourceful. Interestingly enough, there is no entry for the word itself, and instead Wikipedia offers alternative entries that might apply. Here are some highlights:


Frugality: acquiring goods and services in a restrained manner. Frugality is a philosophy in which one does not trust “expert” knowledge that claims to know what is in the best economic, material, or spiritual interests of the individual.[2]

MacGyver: The story of MacGyver follows the intelligent, optimistic, laid-back, resourceful secret agent Angus MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson. He prefers non-violent conflict resolution where possible, and refuses to use a gun. MacGyver’s main asset is his practical application of scientific knowledge and inventive use of common items.

Odysseus: in Greek mythology pronounced /oʊˈdɪsiəs/, was a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Odysseus is renowned for his guile and resourcefulness, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning. He is most famous for his Trojan Horse trick.

Hmmm. OK, if a=b, and b=c, than a=c, right? If I’m resourceful, and resourceful means MacGyver, then I’m basically Mrs. MacGyver, correct?

Maybe not, but sometimes at school it felt like it. Our school, in need of light, color, cleanser, and a few air fresheners, had a stockpile of old bulletin boards that had long ago been taken down and piled in a back room. We had NO supplies to do any real painting…no canvas, no good paints…so I seized the opportunity to make do with what I had. I asked the custodian to wheel a couple of the boards down to the art room so that we could turn them into murals. I explained to the kids that I was sick of people walking into the school and saying how depressing and gross it was. I told them that I was tired of everyone knowing that the “Bad Kids” went to this school, and expecting it to be a negative experience. I said it was our responsibility to change people’s minds when they walked through the door, and show them what we were really about.

And that was it. They were off and running. Kids who had never doodled on a notebook were turning 5’x5′ boards into inspirational messages for all to see. I was pretty impressed. And I didn’t even need a Trojan Horse to sneak in the life lessons…they figured it out for themselves.

Get the full lesson plan here!

8 Ways Not to Start a Class

9 Mar

I wrote this lesson with a friend of mine when we were going to school to get our certifications. While we were learning about the lesson plan writing process, a lot of time was spent discussing the “Initiation” of a lesson, or rather, what were you as a teacher going to do to get your students interested in learning for the period? What was your “hook?” We were told that if you came prepared with a great initiation, then the rest of your lesson would be successful. So, I thought for a few minutes about how my teachers used to initiate lessons when I was in school, and whether or not they succeeded in capturing my attention. Here’s what I came up with:

1. “Take out your books and open to page 65.”
(Wait, what? What page did she say? I turn to my neighbor and ask them, but they didn’t hear either. Shoot. I’ll just pretend like I’m following along.)

2. “Does anyone remember what we learned yesterday?”
(Do you? Aren’t you the teacher? I don’t think I should be held accountable if you’re not going to be.)

3. “Well, the photocopier was broken this morning, so why don’t you just go ahead and read the next chapter on your own.”
(Yes! I love it when the copier is broken. Now, I can open my book and pretend to read while I write a note to my friend. Probably about boys.)

4. “I have half a muffin left…does anyone want it?”
(I do!! I LOVE history class!!)

5.”We’re watching a movie today. No talking.”
(Ha! He didn’t say no passing notes. And he ALSO didn’t say we had to take notes, even better!!)

6. “Amy, you’re late. Where were you? We were going to start our lesson but now you’ve interrupted the whole class.”
(I forgot my book in my locker. Plus, I’m pretty sure YOU just interrupted the whole class.)

7. “Raise your hand if you are still confused about yesterday’s lesson.”
(Yeah, right. I’ve been confused since 2 weeks ago, I’m sure as hell not gonna raise my hand now so that the whole class can laugh at me.)

8. “When I call your name, say yes or no if you did your homework. Hold it up so I can see it!”
(Hmm. This homework from last week sort of looks like last night’s homework. I’ll hold this up instead and see what happens.)

Well. Seems like I spent most of the time trying not to get in trouble, and much less time actually learning anything. Since initiations really did seem important, my friend and I spent a lot of time coming up with ours. Our lesson was on negative space, and found object sculpture. Instead of stating the topic and handing out an informative packet, here’s what we did instead:

Students enter the classroom. Right inside the door, there is a clothesline strung up. Hanging from it, are plastic monkeys from a Barrel of Monkeys. One per kid, and attached to each is a slip of paper with each kids name on it (enabling you to take attendance without actually calling out names). Students are instructed to find their monkey and have a seat. “Today you will be building a habitat for your monkey. Under this sheet (spread out on table with found objects, or junk, underneath) you will find everything you need to create your habitat. When building your monkey a home, think about how he will use his surroundings. He will need to climb, sleep, etc, but he will also need enough room around each feature to be able to interact with his environment. This is your negative space. Take both the positive and negative space into consideration when building your habitat. At the end, display your monkey in his environment. Ready, set, go!” The sheet is then whisked away, and the students dive right in to find the “best” pieces of junk for their sculpture.

Of course, this lesson might not be for you. Maybe you don’t feel like building with found objects. That’s ok. But this lesson has always been wildly popular, and I believe it’s because of the initiation. The odd act of being given a monkey when you walk into class. The suspense of wondering what’s under the sheet. If you have a desire to get your students involved in learning instead of chowing down on muffins, I’d recommend putting some thought into your initiation. First impressions are everything, and a little plastic monkey would have made a big impression on me.

Get the full lesson plan here!
Get the Rubric

The Idea Man

8 Mar

My husband is an idea man. He is absolutely amazing at coming up with ideas. You give him a topic, he’s got an idea for it. The only problem is, he doesn’t want to carry it out. “Sounds like a lot of work,” he’ll say.

So this is how our marriage goes:

“Dearest husband, we haven’t seen our friends in a while. What can we do about that?”
“I think we should have a Halloween party this year! We can have a haunted house, and we can set up a mad scientist’s laboratory, all the food can be Halloween-y, and we can have great costumes!!”
“That sounds like a great idea! How should we do all that?”
“I don’t know Aim. Sounds like a lot of work. I just come up with the ideas.”

So then I set to work for about two months putting together the most impressive Halloween extravaganza you’ve ever seen. The backyard is transformed into a graveyard, the entire bar is served in a laboratory with bubbling broths and glowing specimens, and most of my Internet time is dedicated to Martha Stewart’s page of Halloween recipes. I get stressed out. I’m up late making fake brains and scary invitations. And all my husband says is “You’re spending too much time on this Aim. We don’t need all this. You always do this.”

Is he kidding me? He must be. Because when it gets down to the day of the party, he’s more impressed than all the guests combined. “I love it! It’s amazing. I would have never thought we could pull this together! We throw the best parties ever!”

But I do it to myself. It is true that the idea is half the work. So I keep going back for more. “I need a lesson that will really help my kids to face their fears, look at themselves, and really start to deal with some of their problems. Any ideas for that?”

This lesson was by far the best idea my idea man ever had. It was (of course) a lot of work on my part but the rewards far outweighed the trouble. My students bared a little piece of their souls to me, to each other. They really put themselves out there. It started with a very simple question:

“What’s missing from your life?”

No one said anything silly. No one suggested that the only thing missing from their life was being back in bed instead of being in my classroom. Instead, people started talking about their brother who had been shot. Or the fact that there was no food in the kitchen this morning when they were hungry. Or how their Dad had walked out before they were even born. They might not have had the artistic talent to create a masterpiece about it, but they each found their own way to make their point. Please, take a minute to check out the pictures of what we made. I love this quilt. It took a week after the actual lesson to wash and dry the pieces, fit them together, and actually sew it, but it was totally worth it. I’ll hang that quilt up in every classroom I ever teach in, just to remind me how lucky I am to have gone through this process with those kids.
Get the full lesson plan here!

Here is an idea of the photos I use in my “What’s Missing PowerPoint Presentation”

Action Painting Gets A Reaction

5 Mar

Jon hated making mistakes. When it came to something that was going to bear his signature, it had to be perfect. He had the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. It was like the calligraphy on a sophisticated invitation, sent only to the upper echelons for a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. Even so, I’d seen him rip up his paper repeatedly – not because he didn’t know the answer but because he didn’t like the way his writing looked. As a result, Jon hated art class. To him, art class was just an overload of mistakes waiting to happen. Our conversations would go like this:

“Miss, I can’t do that project. I mean, it’s a good idea and I don’t mean to disrespect you, but I can’t do that.”
“What do you mean you can’t do it?! Of course you can!!”
“No, Miss, I can’t. I’ll mess it up. I’ll work on it for three days and it’ll look really good and then at the very end I’ll do something to mess it up and it’s gonna make me so angry. I can’t deal with that.”
“Jon, I’ll help you. It’ll be fine. There’s no right or wrong in art.”
“There is to me, Miss. I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

And so forth and so on. To Jon there were no “happy accidents”. Having a paper with eraser marks on it was just as bad as the mistake was to begin with, if not worse. There was no way I was going to change his mind either. He was 18 and more set in his ways than a crotchety old man rocking on his front porch with a rifle in his lap to ward off rascally neighborhood kids. But I would warn Jon that I wasn’t going to give up, that I would find a way to help him break free of his fears and let go. He would shake his head and laugh, and shoot me an apologetic glance that said “good luck!”

So one day I greeted Jon at the front door with a big smile and a huge hug. “Jon!! I can’t wait for art class today!! I have a project that I made just for you!” He announced that he appreciated that, but he wasn’t going to do it. “We’ll see”, I said.

When Jon walked into the classroom, the entire floor was covered with old tablecloths and bed sheets, with some canvases lying here and there. “Take off your shoes”, I instructed. He said I was crazy, but politely obliged. “Today, you’re not Jon. Today, you’re Jackson Pollock. Do you know who that is? He was someone who didn’t care about things being in the perfect place. He was someone who made a mess and was proud of it. He was someone who became famous for doing everything wrong.” And with that I shoved a container of red paint into Jon’s hand and told him to have at it. He was reluctant at first, and gently made tiny splats from about an inch off the ground. But he got more and more daring. At one point I even took Jon’s hand in mine and showed him how to fling the paint at his canvas. By the end of the period, Jon was looking pretty happy with himself.

I decided to push it one step further. “Jon, how would you feel about letting the paint just drip straight from the container onto your canvas? Just pour it on there a little at a time.”
Jon looked at the paint, looked at me, took a deep breath, and said “I don’t want to ruin it.”
“You won’t. I promise.” And with that, Jon poured. And poured. Poured the entire contents of his I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter container right onto the painting.

I’ve never seen such a look of disbelief before. He was more surprised by himself than a toddler is by a Jack-in-the-Box. For a second, a fearful look of doubt started to creep over his face.
“Miss! I ruined it…”
“No you didn’t. It’s awesome. I love it. As soon as it dries I’m hanging it up above my desk. I mean, can I keep it?”

That painting was one of the last things I took down the day I left.

Get the full lesson plan here!