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Terry Decker


"As long as I get our self starts done first thing in the morning, says Terry Decker, I feel that I've done the basics for the day. They really make a difference to students' basic skills acquisition."

If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Decker, a seasoned educator, began using self starts -- prepared daily skills activities -- nearly twenty years ago, because they were academically appropriate and they got her students actively engaged in learning in a quiet, productive way first thing every morning.

The fourth grade teacher at Vern Patrick Elementary School in Redmond, Oregon, soon discovered, however, that the activities often lacked real accountability -- and an assessment tool.

"I feel that students need to be assessed for acquisition of basic knowledge and skills," said Decker. "Assessment also makes students take an activity more seriously. The more I used the self-start activities, and the more I looked at their alignment with state core curricula, the more I wanted to fine-tune the activities to address state standards."

Terry Decker's fourth graders sit on their desks for a "Sparkle" correction game.

When Decker first arrived at Vern Patrick, she shared with her colleagues the self starts she had developed. They began to use them as well, providing suggestions to help her refine the activities and make them less time-intensive to score. With her colleagues assistance, Deckers self starts became an integral part of their morning routines.

Goals for the self starts include:

  • Mastery of map and atlas skills, including basic knowledge about map keys, locating information, continents, oceans, and United States geography.
  • Development of thinking skills in looking at analogical relationships in words and ideas. (This is especially helpful for English-language learners.)
  • Daily practice of math problem-solving strategies, with an emphasis on verification (solving the problem in more than one way).
  • Development of competence in language conventions and grammar to the point that there is transfer to students' own writing.

"Students enter the classroom and pick up the daily self start. They then are free to work with other students seated at their table [group of desks] to look up, discuss, and search out the correct responses," explained Decker. "They have about 20 minutes to complete the work. Then we play a game we call Sparkle to correct the self start."

During the game, Decker's students sit on top of their desks. Taking turns in order, each student gives one answer (or makes one correction). If the response is correct, the student stays atop his or her desk. If the answer is incorrect, the student is sparkled he or she must get down from the desk and continue to check answers. In language arts self starts, if a student makes the final correction in a sentence, the next student in order is sparkled, so an element of luck is involved. Students who are still on top of their desks at the end of the correction process receive "Decker Dollars" for their effort.

"My students love working together to do the self starts," Decker reports. "The activities allow strugglers to feel capable, and Im available to guide them if they get stuck. They especially love playing Sparkle -- being rewarded for finishing and for correct responses."

A variety of resources -- maps, atlases, globes, dictionaries, and sometimes calculators -- are required for students to complete Decker's self starts. She offers incentives to encourage students to get right to work, to complete their work, and to be ready to correct their papers in a timely manner. Students also must take completed self starts home to study in preparation for Friday assessments

Its important to keep the correction process moving, Decker notes. "It's fun, if it's fast; boring if it drags," she said. "Having students trade papers for Sparkle is a good way to increase the likelihood that they will be ready on time. Although I don't correct each day's work personally, I do circulate, and I know whos not finished. There need to be incentives and consequences for those who frequently dont finish or for those who dont make corrections."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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