Thursday, April 6, 2017

Add a Little Happy to Your Testing Season

Hello Teacher Friend,

We have started the dreaded State Testing in my building. If your teaching assignment includes testing, you know that the little things can be the deciding factor on your outlook on the day. I choose to add as much happiness as I can to my classroom. Heaven knows that the paper-covered walls and ear-piercing silence can drive you over the edge.

I made this adorable testing sign to replace the one I had scribbled on a random piece of paper with a near dried up Sharpie. It is surprising how happy it makes me to have something pretty on the outside of my door while we test! Click here to download it!

My teammie and I also arranged breakfast treats for students for every day we test. You can see our sweet assortment of goodies.

Since we aren't allowed to keep encouragements on our desks during testing, my students tape them UNDER their desks. I know, sneaky:)

Here is a little freebie for you to use in your classroom. Click THIS LINK to download it. Use the arrow keys to see a preview.

I got my goodies prepped in less time than it took me to understand what to read aloud for each testing session. 

If you are ready for happiness overload, download the full set of State Testing Goodie Labels. Lots of options are included for healthy snacks, breakfast items, or candy and treats. What I use always depends on our testing schedule.

Test happy!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Writing Center that Even Big Kids Love

Howdy Teacher Friends,

I don't know about you, but as a teacher of intermediate students, centers has be one of the most time consuming and stressful parts of being a teacher that I have ever tackled. When I was in college, centers was basically viewed as a thing that only primary grades need worry about.

Fast forward to today. Centers is my favorite part of the day. My students work on math and literacy centers daily. One of the most difficult centers to plan for me has been writing. I have tried prompts, which failed because my most reluctant writers weren't interested in the prompts provided.

My favorite writing centers are for big kids are open-ended and easy to differentiate. My fourth grade class has a huge variation in reading skills. I am talking from 1st grade to 8th grade reading levels.  A center that meets all their needs, provides practice, and allows me to hold my reading groups is a tall order.

Enter sticker picture. It's as easy as this. Buy a bunch of stickers. Tell them to add a sticker to their paper and then draw a scene around it. (My rule is a maximum of two stickers) Have students flip their paper and write about the picture on the back.
Here is the inside of our center folder. 

Here are some precious and hilarious examples of sticker pictures in different levels of completion
I have been invited to the donut shop. 

shark and fancy shark

fancy shark wiritn
My "familie" went over the two sticker rule.

apple and broccoli
apple and broccoli writing

I can't wait to see the writing for this one. 
baby in a stroller using an emoji face 

nothing left on the breakfast buffet

when you see it
All of the work on writing that students do gives me valuable information about what they need help with and what they are already mastering.

Adding new stickers is a highlight of centers for me and the kids. I mean, who doesn't love a good sticker? But, where to find stickers without breaking the bank?
  • Michael's! That fun unicorn sticker book with 997 stickers was from Michael's. Original $9.99, plus my 40% off a regular price item coupon, plus my %15 teacher discount = cheap (I didn't keep my actual receipt). That sticker book is still available, as of April 2017. Beware. It has actual poop emoji stickers. A student of mine may or may not have showed said poop emoji on one of his assignments to the principal. Can you find it in the examples above? SMH. 
  • Old children's magazines like Girl's Life always have sticker inserts. Check with your school librarian (or even your students) for discards. 
  • Ask parents or add them to your supply list. One pack of silly stickers. Also, apologize to your office staff. They will get phone calls asking for clarification. 
  • The Dollar Tree. A while ago they had those emoji stickers that teachers were scouring the shelves for. Keep an eye out while you are there buying pool noodles for yet another teacher hack. 
  • Your cousin who is hoarding old Lisa Frank stickers. Just kidding. My cousin would NEVER EVER allow her "cleopatra kitty" to actually be peeled away from the backing. It is vintage. VINTAGE. Here is an Amazon link to some adorable Lisa Frank stickers. My 11 year-old self is swooning. 
Image result for vintage lisa frank stickers
I hope you are inspired to add this fun, easy, engaging, and hilarious center to your repertoire.

Happy writing! 

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.

CLICK below to enter! 
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Are you a Teacher Blogger or Teachers pay Teachers seller who wants to participate in giveaways like these to grow your store and social media?  Click here to find out how you can join our totally awesome group of bloggers!

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