What I Know About Struggling Students (Part one)

                                              By: Penny Hanley Fish

Teacher helping struggling student

I have taught struggling students for many years in both self- contained and general education classes.  Over the years, I have used many techniques to help my students achieve success in school, gain confidence in their abilities and become motivated to learn. There are several important issues that I have learned to consider when working with struggling students (more than can fit in this blog).  Based on my experiences, below are two of the more important ones  and well worth the time and effort!

Struggling students do not learn well in whole group instruction.

Most struggling students have attention, processing, and/or memory problems.  If you observe a classroom with a teacher conducting a whole group lesson, you will find that the “smart students” are paying attention and answering questions.  The struggling students are daydreaming, looking under their desk, tying their shoe, asking to go to the bathroom, becoming discipline problems, etc.  Naturally, there has to be some whole group instruction, but it should be as limited as possible. I have always used whole group instruction to give an overview of the lesson, present the independent work and centers, and review classroom rules.  I then break into centers rotations with three to five students in each group.  I usually rotate centers every 20 minutes with younger students.   One center is the teacher table.  I use that time to teach the skill/lesson to three to five students at a time.  You would be surprised at how quickly students can master a skill when you have a captive audience. Sometimes the “smarter students” will understand the skill in 10 minutes, during which time I give them an independent activity to finish at my table and I move to another location to work with a student who needs additional help.  I use one center for independent seat work so students can practice the skill just learned (or review previously learned skills)  and at least one other center that incorporates social studies or science in order to connect literacy standards for content area instruction.  The key to successful centers is to make them interesting and relevant while consistently enforcing the rules.

Struggling students often have no intrinsic desire to learn.

Whether it’s due to lack of parental support, past failures, frustration, or just being unmotivated, we need to supply the desire for some students.  Find something they do well and use it to help them find a reason to learn.  I had a first grade student who was as yet unidentified SLD in reading.  He was frustrated, angry and disruptive.  I discovered he was really good at two things, drawing and helping other kids work the computer.  I made him the official computer helper (within reason).  All the other kids considered him the “expert” and it gave him a huge boost of confidence.  I also found opportunities to include drawing within my curriculum instruction.  His was always the best one, and other kids would ask him for help.  Every day when I worked with him, I used those talents as examples of why reading was important.  Look for every opportunity to make the struggling student feel successful and that will develop a desire to learn.

About the author: Penny Fish is a kindergarten and first grade ESE inclusion teacher at Triangle Elementary School in Mt. Dora, Florida.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood and Elementary Education as well as a Master’s Degree in Special Education and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership.     

Rethinking Writing Instruction

By: Betty Turso

What I consider to be the Bible of writing instruction, The Elements of Style by William B. Strunk and E.B. White, advises the writer to “make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.”  This seems clear enough but what, exactly, is a paragraph? Dictionary.com defines a paragraph as “a distinct portion of written or printed matter dealing with a particular idea, usually beginning with an indentation on a new line.”  The idea of the paragraph comes down to us from Alexander Bain, Professor at the University of Aberdeen in 1867.  Prior to that, there is little mention of the paragraph at all.  Furthermore, Arthur A. Stern’s experiments in the early 70s proved that paragraphing is arbitrary at best.  He asked 100 teachers to paragraph a 500 word passage.  Only five out of 100 paragraphed it as the original; he received responses of two, three, four, and five paragraphs. This led him reasonably to ask then why if a paragraph is a Teacher providing feedback on a student's writingdistinct unit of thought, cannot we recognize it? Writing instruction has changed little since Bain but with the advent of higher standards, it is time to think anew.   Instead of focusing on the paragraph, writing instruction should focus on the basic unit of writing: the sentence.

The first step then is to define the sentence. Dictionary.com defines a sentence as “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc., and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate.” That is a start, but Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa has the best definition of a sentence.  He defines a sentence as a sequence of words containing a subject and a verb that advances one or more propositions.   A proposition is a statement about reality that can either be accepted or rejected.  He likens a sentence to an iceberg.  The written part is above the water and all the underlying propositions are below the water.  For example, “ I am a teacher.”  The underlying propositions include: I exist, there is something we call a teacher, and I am one of them.  Most sentences imply a number of thoughts.  In fact, the basic unit of writing is the proposition, not the words or sequence of words. As Brooks points out, the simple clear sentence, “I like hamburgers, ” is loaded with a number of questions for the reader.  What do I mean by like?  What kind of hamburgers? Why do I want someone to know this? The point of teaching sentences from the standpoint of the propositions it advances is for the student to understand how sentences combine propositions to reveal information.   When this premise is understood, the student can put propositions together to express her own ideas.  Furthermore, a writer can control a reader’s reaction by controlling the way the propositions are revealed.  Additionally, instructing sentence writing from this point of view will improve the student’s reading comprehension because the student will begin to look for and understand the underlying meaning in written sentences.

Therefore teaching writing from the point of the sentence rather than the paragraph can give a fresh look at the pedagogy of teaching.

About the author:  Betty Turso has been a teacher at John I. Leonard Community High School for the past 22 years.  She currently teaches English IV to Seniors but has a variety of experience teaching ESL, ESE Inclusion, AP, Journalism, Mass Media, and Advanced Reading courses.  She earned her Master’s Degree in English from Florida Atlantic University and achieved national Board Certification in 2000 and again in 2010.     

Behavior Management for the 21st Century Teacher

As a teacher I am always looking for ways to maximize effective classroom strategies, which not only engage students but also have a positive academic value. Using ClassDojo.com and GoNoodle.com has
transformed my entire classroom and teaching style. No more pocket charts showing happy or sad faces. No more getting up to change a student’s behavior color chart.

Welcome to the technology-driven 21st Century classroom!Mathematics

So what are these amazing transforming tools? ClassDojo.com is a behavior management tool individualized by the teacher to provide positive and/or negative (dojo) points to each student in the classroom. Teachers set up exactly what type of positive and negative behavior they can give points for. For example, I see a student working diligently on their morning work assignment and I give that student a positive class dojo point for being “on task.” Soon the entire class notices that I just gave a positive dojo point, not because I interrupt the class to mention it, but because I have my ClassDojo settings to sound for every positive and negative behavior point I give. Soon every student is working diligently and I didn’t have to say a single thing.

Students can pick from many avatars to represent themselves. Once the teacher gives each student an individual access code, students can change their avatar from home. What’s even more exciting as a teacher is that parents can access their child’s account and see what they are getting points for at school in real time. At the end of the week the top-scoring students earn a trip to my treasure chest.

Another excellent behavior management tool that I use daily is GoNoodle.com. This website is designed to provide students with quick and exciting brain breaks to either calm, energize or focus classroom behavior. It’s also a great way to do recess or physical education indoors. I use it before, during and at the end of a lesson depending on classroom mood.

For example, my class schedule had math right after lunch so I had to find a way to keep students motivated and focused. I used the “Freeze It” game and selected the addition or subtraction activity. It was only a minute but I found it helped my students focus during the lesson after they were able to get up out of their seats and move around. At the end of the day I had students get ready for dismissal with a Zumba activity. When the bell rang students left energized and greeted their parents or after-care leaders with enthusiasm instead of apathy.

In essence, my stance on educating students today is that unless students feel challenged, happy and confident to be themselves, you will be unable to reach their full academic potential. Luckily programs like ClassDojo and GoNoodle make our job as teachers much easier.

About the author: Zeny Ulloa is a first grade teacher at Kendale Lakes Elementary School in Miami-Dade County.  She is currently working on her Doctorate in Organizational leadership.

The Florida Department of Education is proud to host this public forum for educators to share information.  Material shared in this forum does not represent Department endorsement. 

Sub Tub: Preparing for the Unexpected

When I know I will be away from the classroom for the day, I prepare lesson plans in advance and gather activities for the substitute teacher. However, there are times when teachers have to take an unexpected leave of absence. Reasons can range from having to take care of a sick child to having to deal with a family emergency to feeling ill.

I remember during my first year of teaching being rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night due to severe abdominal pains. It turned out  my gallbladder was inflamed and I needed emergency surgery!

As I sat in the room waiting to be prepped for surgery, I thought about the fact that I didn’t have any substitute plans prepared. Since I couldn’t leave the hospital, one of the doctors was nice enough to let me use his computer so that I could email some plans to my grade group and let them know my medical situation.

From that moment, I learned that life can bring about the unexpected at any time and it doesn’t cut you any breaks just because you’re a teacher. I needed a backup system. That’s where the idea of the “Sub Tub” began.

The Sub Tub_1 

The “Sub Tub!” What’s inside?

Inside my Sub Tub is a binder with the following information: detailed lesson plans, attendance sheets, the dismissal schedule (telling which students are bus riders, car riders, etc.), the daily class schedule, a school map and the school phone list. I also have brightly colored folders for morning worksheets, reading worksheets, math worksheets, drawing paper and handwriting paper.

There are enough copies already made, and all the substitute teacher has to do is select the one(s) that he/she would like to use as instructed in the lesson plans. I also include several books to read and even disinfecting wipes.

The Sub Tub_3When creating the Sub Tub, I also thought about my former days as a substitute teacher. There were many times when the teacher didn’t leave any plans, or the plans weren’t clear. Often, there weren’t enough worksheets and materials and I wasn’t told where to get the needed materials.

So, it was my goal to make sure that I never caused a substitute teacher to feel overwhelmed and stressed when they helped in my absence. So far, the Sub Tub has been well received. I’ve had numerous substitutes leave me notes of how thankful they were I left such detailed plans for them, and how all of the materials were in one location.The Sub Tub_2

Investing the time to create a Sub Tub and keeping it up to date is well worth the effort. Anytime I need to take off or wake up feeling ill, I don’t have to worry about being unprepared. I just leave the Sub Tub out on top of my filing cabinet and that’s it.

This is one of the best tools I have used in my classroom, and I encourage all teachers to make one!

About the author: Keziah Massalene is a second grade teacher at Westside K-8 School in Kissimmee.


Florida’s Teacher of the Year Finalists Represent Outstanding Colleagues

Each year, the Florida Department of Education honors the top public school educators from across the Sunshine State. Florida’s 2015 state finalists have been on quite a journey to make it to our celebration, including being named both their school and district Teacher of the Year.

All five of these incredible educators are deserving of being named Florida’s top teacher. However, we would like to know who inspires you!

More about our finalists:

2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist - Lyndsey Matheny

2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Lyndsey Matheny

Lyndsey Matheny teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to students in her second grade class and third grade class. Her experience specializing in STEM education, has helped her to create more hands-on lessons for her students. Lyndsey represents Indian River County schools.

Watch Lyndsey explain how she helps students realize  mistakes are great learning tools at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlheZzayjmw.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Kevin Ford

Kevin Ford has lead the performing arts program at Tarpon Springs High School for the past 20 years, because he believes in educating the whole student: body, mind and soul. When he’s not in the classroom, he is directing the high school’s jazz band or marching alongside students in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Watch Kevin describe why he became an educator at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa38WohUNDw.


2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist- Daryl Cullipher

When Daryl Cullipher graduated from St. Augustine High School in St. Johns County, she knew she wanted to become an educator. But what she didn’t know was that just a few years later she would return to her former high school to inspire Florida’s next generation of educators.

Daryl is the leader of the teaching career academy at her school, which gives students hands-on experience in local schools. Watch Daryl talk about what this recognition has meant to her students at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiOLnlKrthg.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Jill Espinosa

Jill Espinosa of Flagler County will tell you that her favorite grade is Kindergarten, because her students come to school ready to learn and grow. The dedicated teacher often uses peer-to-peer learning in her classroom to help struggling students gain confidence.

Outside of the classroom, she often uses social media to interact with parents. Watch Jill describe how she helped one particular student gain the necessary skills to succeed in her classroom at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCT4uh8p7tY.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Christie Bassett

Our last finalist comes from Polk County where she has spent her entire career as an arts educator. When talking to Christie Bassett, it is evident that she uses her art assignments to enhance what students are learning in their core subjects.

When she is not creating art work with her students, she often sacrifices her lunch break to serve as a mentor. Watch Christie describe her heart-warming experience as a mentor at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fW50t8riTA.

The winner of the 2015 Macy’s/Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year award will be announced by First Lady Ann Scott during a special ceremony on Thursday, July 10, 2014.


Changing Course

Guest post by Brandon Clayton. A Leon County teacher for 11 years, currently teaching at Bond Elementary School. Mr. Clayton was the 2013-2014 Leon County Glenn-Howell Distinguished Educator of the Year. He is also the vice president of the Tallahassee Area Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

brandon2 - 2

Eight years ago, one of my third grade students went into foster care. I wanted to do everything in my power to help him through this tough time. As an educator, I believe I can change the course of a child’s life through helping him/her identify strengths that can be used to achieve success. I am sensitive to the needs of all children especially those who are involved with the child welfare system.

Based on my experiences, here are some ways educators can help children in their classrooms who are in foster care:


BE PATIENT. Understand that the child has been through a lot, but this does not give them an excuse to get out of work or misbehave. I had a new student once who had severe issues going on in his home and he was having trouble with his school work, specifically reading. When it was his turn to read aloud in class, he refused, threw the book across the room and slammed his chair back. I immediately realized this outburst was not to cause trouble – this kid was very embarrassed and he needed my support. For the next few weeks I alternated working with him individually and pairing him with a student in my class who was a strong reader. I made it very clear to him that this was not an on-going arrangement – very soon he would be reading aloud by himself just like the other students. This process gave him the self confidence he needed and over a period of time, his reading skills greatly improved.

Continue reading Mr. Clayton’s blog at http://blog.myflfamilies.com/2014/05/changing-course/.


Making Connections to Boost Classroom Instruction


Long before I began my teaching career, I worked as a switchboard operator at vending machine factory in Aurora, Illinois. Through the summers after high school, I worked a number of odd jobs, including driving a forklift and packaging textbooks.

Part of the time I was a relief switchboard operator and my sole job was to use electrical cords to connect one caller to another on a giant, high-back switchboard. I had to make sure that when a caller dialed the switchboard he or she was connected to the right person.

After almost 30 of years working on behalf of students, I still think about that job and how today’s teachers are often tasked with helping students and their families make important connections. Whether you’ve helped a student understand a real life application of what they’ve learned, sent home information to parents, or even helped the entire family receive additional services, you have served as a vital link for your students.

Last week I had the pleasure of announcing the finalists for the 2015 Macy’s/Florida Teacher of the Year Award. I can tell you that each one of these talented educators has helped students make connections between classroom knowledge and future goals and I know there are many more outstanding educators, like you, inspiring students to find their passion. I hope that you were able to spend this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week doing what you love and knowing that we truly appreciate you for it.

On behalf of the Florida Department of Education, thank you for being the invaluable link between students, their families and a lifetime of success.


Pam Stewart

Commissioner of Education