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Ideas and Features For New Teachers 
and Veterans with Class

Volume 2, Issue 12

June 2006



A relaxing summer welcome to you all from the staff at StarTeaching.  

We'd also like to welcome Mr. Judge's class from Grand Valley State University.  Thanks for checking us out!

Remember to bookmark this page and to visit our website for more great articles, tips, and techniques!

Also, feel free to email this newsletter to a friend or colleague!  


Outdoor Writing 

by Frank Holes, Jr.
Middle School Teacher

In the spring especially I like to take the students outside to write.  This makes a nice contrast from the classroom and can be a great reward for good classroom behavior.  The favorite of my classes are journal writes, because students get to choose their own topics.  Whatever type of writing you choose, make sure your students incorporate their observations of the environment around them.

Brainstorming is the name of the game here.  We want our students to observe the natural world around them and then incorporate those details into a piece of writing.  I will often ask for 20 or more triggers (individual pieces of brainstorming) at each observation point.  Each write should increase the number of triggers so students are further challenged as they get better at observing. 

Before going outside, we discuss what to look for.  I tell students to use all of their senses.  Start with the sky, the clouds, sun, and wind.  Observe the temperature, the feel (and taste) of the air, and sounds around them.  Try to focus on nature, not man-made noises.  Then move down to trees.  Watch the leaves and branches move, check out the shapes of the trunks, and feel the texture of the bark.  Finally get to the ground.  Observe the soil, the sand or clay or dirt, and start checking out what is covering the ground.  Pick up the leaves, grasses, acorns, and twigs.  Describe each in detail, again using every sense.  Also watch for wildlife, be it birds, bugs, or other critters.  Remind students they are there to observe, not interact with nature, so no killing bugs or bothering critters.

You'd be amazed at the variety of observation/writing points there are around your school building.  I have about a dozen such places around the school building and grounds that my classes use.  Each takes only a few minutes to reach so we can easily travel there and back and have plenty of time to write all in the span of a class period. 

Generally students are quite spaced out, so I have to huff it around to check on their progress.  I make it a rule that students must be at east 20 feet away from any other student.  I remind students this is an observing and writing activity, not a discussion or talking activity.  

"It’s important to share the students writing, especially if you can do it outside.  Stop a bit early, gather the troops, and allow them to share"

The writing time I give students is about 15 minutes, from the observation to the writing.  Again, I like to use the Journal Writing technique.  I'll give students a prompt or two to get started if they have writer's block.  Otherwise, students choose their own topic and style for writing.  It may be a poem, song lyrics, a short story, a personal narrative, whatever.  As always, this is drafting, so expect SMUG mistakes (spelling, mechanics, usage, and grammar).  You can have your students clean up the writings (if you wish) when you return to the classroom.

It’s important to share the students writing, especially if you can do it outside.  Stop a bit early, gather the troops, and allow them to share (but be wary of requiring them to share!)  I allow students to read all of their piece, read selected parts, or just tell us about it.  Its non-threatening event, and try to give positive feedback - you can critique later.

I always have students pick up a few pieces of garbage on the way back in.  Each day will require a slightly different number of trash pieces depending on how much I see on the way out.  This helps teach the kids the importance of keeping their environment clean.  Your school administrators and janitors will appreciate it too.  And it only takes a few moments to do this, but imagine all the garbage your entire class can find!  Take your kids out even once a week for a few weeks and you'll be amazed at how much nicer your school grounds will appear.

Writing outside can be a fun and memorable educational experience for your students.  And this doesn't have to be an English only activity.  We've had our science classes observe and write about the outdoors, and our Social Studies classes go outside to write about the way society and the local community have changed.  Students will certainly appreciate the change of pace from the norm of the classroom


Be sure to check out our website for more on writing ideas and teaching writing in your classroom. Simply click the following link: http://www.starteaching.com/writing.htm



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Use Mind Maps to Improve Your Learning

By Royane Real

When you need to organize your thoughts, you probably write out all your thoughts the old fashioned way.  However, there is a technique called mind mapping which can help you organize your thoughts and help you understand the relationship of all the components. Try it and see. Many students find that the use of mindmaps helps them take notes more effectively and remember better when they study for exams.

The main problem with taking notes the traditional way is that this is a very passive process. Simply taking notes does not get the brain very involved in interacting with the information. If you can get your brain to get more actively involved in organizing the new material you will remember it better.

The following technique for note-taking is particularly effective for people who are highly visual. This method of making notes is sometimes called “mind-mapping” or making a “learning map”.  Although it takes some practice to use mind-mapping effectively, most people who use it find they can retain and remember far more information with a lot less work.

The essence of the learning-map (also known as “memory-map”, or “mind-map”) technique is quite simple. You will need a blank piece of paper, the larger the better. You will need at least one pen, more if you want to use a variety of colors.

You will be trying to fill the entire page with your notes, so it is important to keep the size of your writing quite small. With practice you should be better able to judge what size of writing will work effectively.

As you listen to the lecturer, or read the article you are studying, decide what you think the central theme is. For example, you might be listening to a lecture where you decide the central theme seems to be, “Conditions in Europe on the eve of World War 2”  Or you might be listening to a talk that has a central theme of “Strategies that plants use to survive winter”

Once you have decided what the central theme is, jot down the words in the center of the page, and draw a circle around the main theme. Don’t try to write down a sentence or a paragraph--just get down enough of the key words that will bring the ideas back into you mind.

Keep listening or reading, watching for the first main sub-theme.  When you come across the first major sub-theme, pick a spot on the page to jot down a few key words that sum up the sub-theme. Draw a circle around the sub-theme words, and then join your sub-theme circle to the main theme circle with a line.

Each time you come across a new major sub-theme, write down a few key words to summarize the new idea, and draw a circle around those words. Then draw a line to join the sub-theme circle to the main idea circle in the center of the page. Eventually you will have a circle in the center with several spokes radiating from it.

The lines or spokes don’t have to be straight, and they can be of any length required. The “circles” don’t have to be circles; they can be squares, triangles, or oval squiggles if you prefer. You can use different colors to help you organize the ideas better.

As the speaker or writer continues to present his ideas, you will find that some of the ideas being presented are additional supporting details that clarify or illustrate one of the sub-themes you have already identified. In this case you will write these “sub-sub-themes” down using just a few words, enclose them in a circle or squiggle, and link them to their sub-theme with a line.

Eventually your sub-theme circles may have many spokes radiating from them as the author or lecturer continues to present his ideas. At a glance you will be able to take in the dominant themes of the talk and the underlying organizational structure of the ideas.

If you happen to have any ideas of your own while you are reading or listening to the lecture, jot them down as well. This shows you have your brain actively interacting with the material.

When you make a mind map or a learning map of all your notes, you create a very visual document that differs a lot from traditional methods of making notes for class.  People who learn very well visually will particularly benefit from the way that learning maps clearly show the relationships between main themes, sub-themes and supporting facts and ideas.

Try this method and see if this is the note-taking technique that works best for you!

About the author:
This article was written by learning expert Royane Real. If you want to improve your learning, get her new short report "Your Quick Guide to Improving Your Learning Ability" at


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Book of the Month Club:

The Five Dysfunctions 
of a Team

By Patrick M. Lencioni

Our June BOOK OF THE MONTH award is presented to Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  This short, easy to read book uses a simple storyline to describe how teams work effectively within a framework of positive attributes.  

The book is divided into two parts, the first being a short story of a new CEO in a technology company who must tear down and rebuild her executive staff.  The story illustrates the teamwork dysfunction model through the interactions of the various team members.  The second part of the book is a detailed look into the model itself and how teams can overcome the various dysfunctions.

The model used in this book to identify the dysfunctions of a team are represented in the graphic below.  These five issues are not separate entities, but rather build upon each other.  The first dysfunction, Absence of Trust, is at the bottom, is followed up the pyramid by the other four dysfunctions.  

Absence of TRUST is the unwillingness of team members to be open and vulnerable with each other.  Productive CONFLICT, as opposed to destructive fighting and politics, allows the teammates to discuss and resolve issues more quickly than holding back and making the COMMITMENT to enact the decisions.  ACCOUNTABILITY is lost when team members are not committed.  The RESULTS suffer as each team member cares more about his/her own individual goals rather than focusing intently on the team's goals.  

I've found this book interesting as both a teacher and coach.  The grade level staff in our middle school must work together as a team to ensure positive experiences for our students.  And our coaching staff has heated debates over issues, but must stick to our decisions when we leave the coaching office.  Both teams I belong to are tightly knit, because we trust each other, hold each other accountable, and we are committed to the results of the team.  

 “As difficult as it is to build a cohesive team, it is not complicated.  In fact, keeping it simple is critical, whether you run the executive staff at a multi-national company, a small department within a larger organization, or even if you are merely a member of a team  that needs improvement."   (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, p.185) 

You can order a copy of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by clicking the link to our affiliate, Amazon.com 

Have you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team?  Do you have comments you’d like to share with our readers about this book? Email your responses to editor@starteaching.com. Please type in BOOK CLUB READER RESPONSE in the subject line. Responses will be posted on our website with the StarTeaching Book of the Month Club.  All responses will be proofread, and may be edited for content and space before publication.




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"The Chicken"
By Gary Barnes

Themes on Life

Never let other people get in the way of YOUR dreams.

Once upon a time, there was a large mountainside, where an eagle's nest rested. The eagle's nest contained four large eagle eggs. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain causing one of the eggs to roll down the mountain, to a chicken farm, located in the valley below. The chickens knew that they must protect and care for the eagle's egg, so an old hen volunteered to nurture and raise the large egg.

One day, the egg hatched and a beautiful eagle was born. Sadly, however, the eagle was raised to be a chicken. Soon, the eagle believed he was nothing more than a chicken. The eagle loved his home and family, but his spirit cried out for more. While playing a game on the farm one day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed a group of mighty eagles soaring in the skies. "Oh," the eagle cried, "I wish I could soar like those birds." The chickens roared with laughter, "You cannot soar with those birds. You are a chicken and chickens do not soar."

The eagle continued staring, at his real family up above, dreaming that he could be with them. Each time the eagle would let his dreams be known, he was told it couldn't be done. That is what the eagle learned to believe. The eagle, after time, stopped dreaming and continued to live his life like a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.

The moral of the story: You become what you believe you are; so if you ever dream to become an eagle, follow your dreams, not the words of a chicken. 

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In This Week's Issue 

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Outdoor Writing

Use Mind Maps to Improve 
Your Learning

Book of the Month Club

Themes on Life:  
"The Chicken"

10 Days of Writing Prompts

Summer Book Sale for Teachers

Website of the Month


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10 Days Of


What are THREE reasons that people plant gardens?


Describe FIVE goals people have for working in the outdoors.


What does a person's love of the outdoors say about that person?


Describe THREE questions you still have about this week's lessons in class.


Why is planting a garden a sign of believing in the future? 


What are FOUR activities you can do in the water during the summer?


In a short story or poem, describe the refreshing feeling of a cool swim on a hot day.


Why do many Americans have a desire to live on or near the water?


How have outdoor summer activities changed over the past five years?


Create a 5 short fill-in-the blanks questions about what we learned in class this week.


10 days of writing prompts


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Designing and Running a Medieval Fair

Technology & Teaching: Setting up for Handhelds

Using Magic in Class

Preparing for Student Teaching (part 3)


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