Sunday, February 26, 2017

Real Talk for New Teachers (and anyone who teaches with one)

Recently I found a long-forgotten college assignment. During the most grueling and demanding literacy course of my undergraduate degree, we were ask to do an ACCNE assignment. ACCNE stood for Absolutelies (things we will most definitely do), Could-be-Cools(we might try), and Never-Evers (practices that we disagree with using). We were instructed to compile a simple list of teaching practices that would fit into each category. Upon re-reading my lists 14 years later, I was pleasantly surprised at how well I had adhered to my college idealism. Most of my never-evers were practices that I had avoided.

The one practice on my never-ever list that I had used was round robin, or popcorn, reading. I am sure you have read excellent articles like this one from Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy encouraging teacher to kick this strategy, among others, to the curb. I agree with her now and did as a college student. Then, why did I use it? 

I can remember as a brand new teacher feeling overwhelmed and under an enormous amount of pressure to perform and be a "real teacher." Teachers that I knew and respected used round robin reading. Honestly, I was just doing good to even hold small reading groups and keep my students who were not at the table engaged in any task at all. My management was mediocre and my experience was nearly none. Round robin reading made me feel like I could check small reading groups off of my list. It was easy. No planning required. I held my group, I heard students read. Done. 

As I became a better teacher, the little 22 year-old voice in the back of my head never stopped piping up. I was able to implement better, more student-friendly, research-based strategies at my table. Thank goodness. 

Fast forward to today. A wonderful and talented new teacher walks into my room and asks for advice. She has been attempting to implement Take-a-Break as the behavior system in her classroom. I successfully use TAB in my fourth grade classroom. She knows it hasn't been yielding the results she desires. And she has been asking the advice of other primary teachers who she respects. Sound familiar? 

She confides that she has been encouraged to scrap the Take-a-Break strategy for one or all of her students, instead opting for a "stoplight system" to track behaviors. I can sense her uneasiness about it, so I ask her "How do you feel about that?" She explains that she feels hesitant. She has bad memories of being on a similar system as a student. She goes on to share about how she knows which of her students will be "on red" more often than not and that she hates the idea of doing that to them. 

I feel that this scenario, like so many for new teachers, is complicated. Here is some wisdom for new teachers or anyone influencing new teachers:

1. Take the next best step
Make the best choice for your students you can at the time. I don't look back on my experience of using round robin reading as a failure. I was able to learn about my students as readers through the process. I was able to feel the discomfort of using a not-so-great technique. That makes me more empathetic to students. Round robin wasn't best practice, but I sorted out issues with the way I handled discipline and assigning center work during that time. Once those things were under control, I was more equipped to move on to meaningful work at the table. I also learned a lot about monitoring oral reading that I was later able to integrate into MIRP (Monitoring Independent Reading Practice). 

Making the next best step means doing your best at the moment. Make the choice that you can look back on and be proud, knowing you did the best you could. 

2. Give yourself grace
You are not going to have all the right answers at the beginning of your career. I won't tell you to not try to make every day the best possible. I know you will push yourself too hard and work too late. Instead, I will tell you to create systems that you can sustain. You do not need to make every single component of your classroom perfect within your first couple of years of teaching. Pinterest and Facebook are full of perfect photos of perfect classrooms. Believe me, so much of it is a snapshot of one moment. You do not need to laminate all the things. Sure, lamination is shiny and smells like heaven, but ain't nobody got time for that. For every photo of a perfectly executed lesson or bulletin board I post, about a hundred shortie pencils and empty water bottles and coffee cups lurk on my desk. Not to mention the pile of grading and unread emails.     

3. Listen to your heart
I am not saying that spotlight behavior systems are the devil. I am saying that if you are feeling uneasy about implementing a certain practice, there is probably a good reason. Be reflective. Find a teacher friend who listens to you and helps you figure out all the mysteries of the classroom for yourself. It would have been easy for me to tell my teacher friend exactly what I think about stoplight charts. That wouldn't have been as helpful as asking her what she thinks. If you are mentoring new teachers, this post could be help you hone your listening skills

4. Celebrate your successes, big and small
I was more than shocked to see how much my teaching in reality aligned with my teaching career in the abstract. If you are not lucky enough to have hoarded college assignments, take some time to make your own ACCNE list now. Which techniques, practices, and strategies would you place in each category? Look back at the end of the year (or 14) and see how you did. You guys, I even keep my old to-do lists. They help me realize just how much I have accomplished throughout the year. 

As for my new teacher friend, I think we found the perfect plan for her to move forward in the new year. I won't go into details about what she decided, but I will say that the solution is all hers. We will be talking about it again, not because her plan will fail, but because she is a relentless professional who is always looking to be better. I am sure you know someone just like her. I am proud to call her, and you, My Teacher Friend. 

If you are interested in seeing the Take-A-Break area, in my fourth grade classroom, click here

Ready to implement Take-A-Break? Here is my Ready to Print and Editable Product on Teachers Pay Teachers. 

Why I Don't Need a Behavior Chart

Behavior Management is a tricky thing to learn to do. As a new teacher, I went through all of the wrong methods. While I never used a clip chart, I did the marble jar (failure), the group points (another failure), and tallied on a clip board (also a failure).

I took away recess and sent kids to the office. Those things worked sometimes, but never for my repeat offenders. Calling parents worked sometimes, but it was damaging to my relationship with parents after calling home became my only tactic. All of these failed behavior management attempts had two things in common. 1. They didn't work consistently. 2. I was exhausted because I was doing all of the work.

And then my behavior salvation was revealed to me through a Responsive Classroom workshop. Now, Take-a-Break is now the ONLY BEHAVIOR SYSTEM I use.

Here are my observations about why all of those other strategies failed me:

  • I was tracking behavior, not helping students internalize the social skills
  • I wasn't teaching replacement behaviors
  • I was the keeper of the behavior decisions, not the students
  • I wasn't building relationships or community as a part of my system
  • My consequences included no buy-in from students
  • My reminders and behavior tallying was meant to help, but it was still demoralizing 
  • The same kids were in the same trouble for the same behaviors, every day. 

I teach big kids, fourth and fifth graders. Take-a-break is a wonderful, respectful, student-centered strategy to help all students manage their own behavior. I have seen it work in Kindergarten all the way to 5th grade. Here is how it works.
  1. The teacher sets-up a comfortable and friendly area for students to use when they need to self-regulate emotions or behaviors
  2. The teacher provides a structure for how to use the area through modeling and practice
  3. The teacher provides students with feedback to help them use the area to internalize behaviors and feelings

You can see the below that the fanciest part of the area I use is the fern, which has since died. Horticulture is not my strength. Good thing my husband took that class with me in high school! Since he isn't at school regularly enough to keep my plants alive, I have since replaced the fern with resilient succulents. Drought resistant succulents. 

the red cushion sits atop an overturned crate. The crate is just short enough to slide into the bottom shelf. We tuck the cushion beside it. 

yellow shelf courtesy of the hallway dumpster pile at the beginning of the year

Mirror pilfered from empty classroom. You could also add a hand mirror to your area. For emotional awareness. 

You can see that we sign-in on the clipboard in this one. 

A five minute timer helps. In the basket we keep fidgets, thera-putty, and writing utensils. The clipped forms are filled out for the second break a student takes. I got wise and had them printed on carbon paper to help me avoid making a copy to send home. 
Sound easy? Like all behavior management systems, it requires consistency and discipline on the part of the teacher. Once I got some momentum, I was able to find a few things that help me be the best disciplinarian I could for my students.

Here are a couple of quick guides for implementing Take-A-Break.

Some additional tips: 

  • Avoid appointing a "king or queen of Take-a-Break"
    • Even your most well-behaved student has some things to work on. Talk to the class about your expectations that all students work on a behavior goal. 
  • Front Load for Behavior Success
    • When you notice a behavior that is a problem in the classroom (recently some of my students have gotten into the habit of talking back when I ask them to do something, for example) bring it to the class in your morning meeting. Let students know that you will be paying especially close attention to this kind of behavior and that they should be aware of it. If they need one, they will be asked to take a break. 
  • Normalize Emotion Management
    • Make sure students know that managing strong emotions is hard for you sometimes too. I recently had a student gently suggest to me that I might need to take some deep breaths. He was right. I did, and then I thanked him for the reminder. My students bring this incident up all the time when someone is struggling to use their thinking brain instead of their emotional brain. 
Ready to implement Take-A-Break? Here is my Ready to Print and Editable Product on Teachers Pay Teachers. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Win a $25 Teachers Pay Teachers Gift Card

Hey Teacher Friends! You have the chance to win a $25 TPT gift card. Check out the Rafflecopter to be entered. You have until 1/9/17 to enter. I can't wait to see who wins. What better way to ring in the New Year than loading your cart with goodies!

Prize: $25 Teachers Pay Teachers Gift Card
Co-hosts:   An Apple for the Teacher
Rules: Use the Rafflecopter to enter. Giveaway ends 1/9/17 and is open worldwide.

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3 Easy Ways to Have a Happy Classroom TODAY!

Having a happy classroom is easier than you think. Here are some things you can do to promote positivity, connection, gratitude, and smiles in your classroom...tomorrow!

Having a happy classroom is easier than you think. Here are some things you can do to promote positivity, connection, gratitude, and smiles in your!
1. Greeting at the Door
I greet my students at the classroom door every single day. It gives me a chance to start our morning with a smile. They can choose to give me a hug, handshake, or high five. Some students come up with their own handshake to do with me, which is always fun.

My favorite part of greeting is that I get to check "the weather" of each of my students. I can tell if they are having a tough morning. While everyone else is unpacking, I can touch base with them and make any adjustments first thing.

This year I have taken it one step further by adding a student greeter with me each day. The student stands next to me and greets each person entering the room.

Tips for Success:

  • I often find that our Watch DOGS, parent volunteers, non-classroom teachers, or other visitors to the building comment about our greeting as they pass. Invite them to high five you and spread the good vibes. 
  • Find a way to add your student greeter that will be easy for you to keep track of. I send home a snack calendar. Each day, the snack helper is the student who stands with me to greet. They also begin the share and the game at morning meeting. One less thing for me to schedule is always a positive.  

2. Sunshine and Cloud
My classroom would not be the same without Morning Meeting. I attended a Responsive Classroom workshop at the beginning of my teaching career and was in love with the concepts. I teach upper elementary. My big kids ask for morning meeting every single day. If you are new to meeting, try this. Circle up. Choose a toy or some other "talking token" to pass around the circle. Each student takes turns sharing their Sunshine and Cloud.

A sunshine is something good. A cloud is something not so good. I use this share EVERY DAY we have meeting. Sometimes I add another component, like "share something you are grateful for" or another topic, but canceling sunshine and cloud would cue a chorus of groans. Students love to share and hear the shares of others. I get tons of valuable information about what is going on with my kiddos. Win-win.

Tips for Success:

  • My students are allowed two shares total. One sunshine, one cloud. Two sunshines. Two clouds. I allow students to pass if they prefer not to share. If someone wants to share but can't when it gets to be their turn we allow a "pass, come back to me." 
  • Try to find a way for students to show connection to the share without interrupting the sharer. I like to use hand signals. We make hearts with our fingers when we "LOVE" what they are saying. Linking your fingers in a chain symbolizes connection to the sharer. 
  • Keep each share to one breath. Students like the challenge and it makes them think about exactly what they would like to share. Keep the shares movin!  

3. Laugh together
I am more corny than funny. I love that about myself. This year, I am blessed to teach on a team with The Queen of Bad Jokes. She tells awful jokes so often that her students take pride in bringing her bad jokes. This has morphed in Joke of the Day. She also is completely obsessed with her banana phone routine. Every single time she sees a banana, which is more often that you realize, she talks into it. It is BANANAS (I know, I know). The banana phone is now "the thing" to do for every student who knows her shtick. Her love of laughter is contagious.

Tips for Success:

  • When in doubt, laugh it out. I cannot tell you how many times a little laughter has saved me from a possibly MAJOR behavior incident. Jokes are a great buffer for stress. 
  • Start with Joke of the Day. There are several awesome products on Teachers Pay Teachers or you can make your own. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Get Students Writing More and Build a Strong Community

Have you ever wished that your students had more to say in class discussions? If you are like me, you have stood in front of the class and used every single strategy you could think of to get a conversation going. With my class this year, I just have too many students who are not apt to speak up.

After a little lesson autopsy, I decided that I would need to find a more systematic approach. I had been reading the book, The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers . . . K-12 (Corwin Literacy) and had found many of the same ideas in it that I had previously heard about in workshops on online (think exit slips and dialogue journals). Don't jump to the conclusion that this book is just a repackaging of ideas though. It is so much more!

As I began to re-read my notes to find a technique that might help my students become more confident and prepared to share aloud, I ran across the section on the book about write-arounds. The next day, instead of asking my students to give an opinion about the story we had just read, I handed out an index card. I asked them to do a quick write in response to a question. They then switched their card with another student, who was responsible for responding. I had those two students talk about their writing after they switched, and then we shared aloud.

Did it work?Yes (mostly)! Here's why.
  • My reluctant speakers were accountable for their part. They viewed the response as an assignment, not just another discussion to get out of
  • Everyone had a chance to try their ideas out on paper and then share in a smaller environment. They actually had something to say in the whole class discussion. The writing scaffolds the discussions for all students
  • I got to see what my students were thinking, and I really got a picture of the students who were struggling to write for such a short period of time
Here is what I learned: 
  • Most of my students needed much more informal writing built into their day. Those students who had a hard time getting the words onto the paper needed a low-risk venue to write more
  • My students struggled with how exactly you respond to someone else. I added an anchor chart the next time and it was a huge hit
  • I would never go back to the format I used for discussion before

Now, in the book you will see that a write-around is actually more "pass your paper to the left" than what I did, but I feel that Smokey and Elaine would be proud of me anyway. They inspired me to shift my teaching to include much more written conversation than I ever had before. I think that if you pick up the book, you will find that it is practical, friendly, and so easy to read.The authors are actual teachers, one high school, one elementary. They share helpful tips, excellent summaries, student samples, and model lesson to get you started. I love the section that describes classroom mail systems.This book helped me develop a more unified and student-centered approach to writing.

While I was re-reading The Best Kept Teaching Secret, I was also devouring You've Gotta Connect by James Alan Sturtevant. He shares a plethora of strategies for building close and meaningful relationships with students.

The thing about this book that I really love is that the overarching philosophy behind the book is that everyone can apply the techniques in the book to create strong relationships with students. The author shares personal stories to drive the points home and provides handy exercises for you to complete. I believe that without strong relationships, nothing else can happen. This book was a nice refresher for me. Many of the concepts in the book are things I am already good at doing. I enjoyed the confirmation and reminder of WHY I am doing those things. 

My problem about needing more informal writing and my desire to bond with students and help them become a closer community merged together. The "Book of,,," was born.

"The Book of..." is a topic journal to be used by the entire class.I was inspired by a single page that discusses the value of topic journals as a venue for students to connect, in writing. I created various books using composition journals. The Book of Pets and Animals, The Book of Food, The Book of Travel, etc. Students would write in the book. They could either free write within the topic, or use one of the prompts that I provided. Then, my favorite part. They can either place the book on my desk for me to respond, or they can pass it to a friend. We really focus on the ideas that Smokey and Elaine share about keeping the conversation going.

I have learned so much about my students through this activity. We like to write in our books during centers, but you could use it as a station or for fast finishers. While many people use group journals or topic journals as a classroom writing center, many of the available resources focused on specific prompts being responded to and compiled into one journal. While I feel that there is a place for this (I mean, who wouldn't love to have all of those completed prompts bound for students to read the work of others?!) I really wanted my "The Book of..." activity to be informal and full of choices. The goal is the write more and respond to others.

Here are some of my favorite things about "The Book of..." in my classroom:
  • It promotes a culture of communication and written conversation 
  • It is additional scaffolding for my whole class lessons and lifelong writing
  • I can be present in the pages to stir up controversy, model adult writing, and provide support
  • Students have the choice to write about the topic that interests them
  • Since the books are public, I can provide guidance about public versus private sharing
  • Students will be able to return (as is the tradition in my district for graduating seniors) and see their writing 
  • I can keep adding to the books each year, with new students adding to the work of former students.
Here are some recent examples from our Book of...

"It tastes like meat."

This wolf converstion is still going on with different students. 

You can create your own "Book of..." by adding prompts to the front of a composition notebook and providing the guidelines necessary for students to begin having conversations with you and each other. Add an anchor chart and then just get started!

Just the other day during a field trip to see our high school's production of Shrek the Musical, some of our students were caught in the hallway during high school passing period. They were terrified and exilerated. I suggested that they add the experience to our Book of School. Now the memory is preserved and those of us who were not with that group can share in the experience.

If you would like this resource ready to use, you can find it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I have a ready to print and an editable version.

Articles you might like:
A Mild Case of Fisheye by Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Student-Selected Work Displays Made EASY!

Why should you make your student work display student-selected?
  • Instant portfolio with student comments
  • Shows growth over time
  • Great for regular or student-led conferences
  • You always have a fresh display
  • Students take ownership of their work and actually look through graded papers
Displaying student work is a cornerstone for so many educational philosophies, inlcuding mine. I believe that by having a display of work that students have curated, you send the message that they are the best judge of what is THEIR VERY BEST. I have seen this play out through my work selection process year after year. 

You can see my student work display here. I have very limited wall space in my room. I created this display using boards I purchased at Lowes. I measured and added clothespins to them. Hanging them on the wall was as easy as adding some industrial Velcro to the backs of each board. I love how they turned out! 

Below is a close up of a piece of student work. This student selected a grammar magazine activity from her Thursday folder. I asked the students to write why they picked that piece of work. She says, "I like this piece of work because I was frustrated but I did it anyways." I changed the spelling for your ease of reading. Don't you just love that reason??! #growthmindset

Let's just briefly talk about how I have them prepare their Thursday folder to go home. They take their folder out of their mailbox. I use this one: Pacon Classroom Keepers 30-Slot Mailbox, Blue (001318) They sort all mail, placing flyers on the right, and work on the left. My newsletter goes at the top of the flyer pile. We wouldn't want that to be thrown away, now would we! ;)

After kiddos pick work and write their reason, they add the post it over the grade and slide into a sheet protector with the binder holes cut off. Some of the sheet protectors I have used are a cloudy finish. Those are not the best for this use. I use these: Avery Standard Weight Sheet Protectors, Pack of 25 Sheet Protectors (75530) Try to stay away from the "non-glare" versions. I add this step to make it difficult to flip up the stickie note. I don't want student grades to be displayed!Not only is privacy a big concern, the pressure to only display 100% grades is decreased. Some of my favorite work has been the work that students struggle through. I suggest using a darker color of Post-it note to make it even harder to see through. 

Teacher Hack: use regular old sheet protectors to keep graded work confidential

Here is my display all ready for back-to-school. When I have previously taught in a room with lockers, we added these sleeves to lockers with magnetic tape. 

anchor chart close-up
I make kind of a big deal about teaching the procedure for choosing work. I have a piece of silly student work that I use to share with students how they should write their reason. I also made up a quick anchor chart to get kids started if they are stuck. 
A case of the weasles! They love this.       
After the work is no longer on display, we file it away in a crate to share at student-led conferences in the Spring. I have students go through their work during the conference, highlighting the best of the best. It is always neat to hear students and parents comparing what was the best in August compared to March. 

If you need a resource to get students ready to share at student-led conferences, you can find my two themed conference packets in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. 

Rockin' Student Led Conferences
Find it here
SUPER Student Led Conferences
Find it here

Saturday, September 17, 2016

How to Make Teaching and Practicing Procedures a Pleasure

Procedures don't have to be painful. Try some of these ideas to spice up your procedure practice:

  • Vignettes- a vignette is a short scene in a movie or play. Write the name of several procedures on index cards. After practicing each procedure the first couple of times, distribute cards to groups of 4 or 5 students. Each group comes up with and performs a series of three still pictures that show the beginning, middle, and end of the procedure. No props allowed. Other groups call out guesses of which procedure they are showing. Tips: Start and end in a neutral position (feet shoulder width apart, hands at sides). Have students come back to a neutral position between each pose. This activity is particularly good for multi-step procedures. 
  • Beat Your Best: Some procedures lend themselves to being speedy. Say, you are practicing lining up. Time your class performing the procedure. The next time, challenge them to correctly execute the procedure in less time.
Displaying IMG_4277.PNG
I posted this to my instagram. My kids are still asking me to time them! You can follow me @myteacherfriend
  • Choral Response: Brainstorm ideas with your class that can serve as a summary of the procedure. My restroom procedure is as follows (my pass is a bottle of hand sanitizer):
    • The choral response could go:Teacher: Sign-out and Sanitizer. Exit Students:  Return, Sanitizer and Sign-in. 
    • At various times in the day, throw it in there. Choral responding is a research-based strategy to help students retain information. You can also use it with states and capitols or math facts. Two birds. 
  • Make a couple into songs. The librarian at my school sings a hallway song. "My hands are hanging by my sides, I'm standing straight and tall. My eyes are looking straight ahead. I'm ready for the hall." It is to the tune of Gilligan's Island. When she finishes the last word, the students are expected to be ready to go. 
  • Read a book about the procedure. Here are some of my favorites: 

 When to Whisper, Lacey Walker, Nonstop Talker , Decibella and Her 6-Inch Voice , My Mouth Is a Volcano!, Interrupting Chicken

I hope these strategies will help you and your students enjoy procedures!