Posted in classroom, reflection, teaching practice

Sweet Summer Time – A Year in Review

It’s officially summer break, and this teacher is so happy. I just finished (read survived) my second year teaching – yay! While this year was easier having the experience, it certainly had its challenges. Our district opened a new school, and I was part of the inaugural team. This not only meant a new team, but a new building, new admins, new curriculum opportunities, hundreds of new families, and kiddos that have never been in our district, following our rules and procedures. Next year (my third year), will certainly be easier since we will have indoctrinated the students and families to our ways.

Reflecting on my year, though, the newness of the school is not what stands out in my mind. Yes, I think the newness made us all feel more like a family, creating something together. And the kids sure got a kick out of all of “the firsts.” They got to be the first to play on the playground, the first to sit in their desks, many were the first to use their textbooks and classroom novels, the first to sit in the classrooms, scuff up the floors, sticker up the lockers, and bring laughter to the halls. But what really stands out to me are all of the experiences that I got to share with my students. Having finished my masters in December, I had buckets full of newfound time that I could dedicate to creating more engaging lessons. I discovered that creating a fun name for an activity is sometimes all it takes to turn a boring, run of the mill worksheet into the most anticipated day of the week, month, or even semester. We did two big activity days that the kids were talking about up to the last day of school: Review Olympics and Escape Room.

The first, “Review Olympics,” was a day of games meant to review concepts before our unit test. I stole activities and worksheets from other days, things I knew the kids had enjoyed and learned from, modified them for the current content, and told the kiddos we would be competing for The Olympics. They got together in teams of 4 and picked a team name, and then it was off to the games. The key to making every student participate, I found, was telling them that their team would be disqualified if not every student participated. I would not disqualify the team from every game, just the game they were lacking participation. While this sounds extremely harsh, I found that students were more likely to pull their lagging teammates along with the added incentive. Oh, and I also had real prizes that I picked up from the Target Dollar Spot (slime, fun erasers, notebooks, locker mirrors).

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Four students completing the vocabulary sort. These ladies worked so well as a team!

The activities, while involving a TON of prep (thank you to my kind, eager, helpful students for cutting and sorting many sentences and game pieces), were an easy and fun way to check for student understanding. They also allowed me to help students/groups one on one who were struggling with the content. The main activities I used were:

  1. Definition sort (seen above) – give students definitions of literary terms and words; they must then sort the words with the correct definition
  2. Part of Speech People Hunt (Kagan Strategy) – Part of Speech Search Sample
  3. Figurative Language Four (8) Corners – Due to the large number of “corners” and the congested room, each team sent a representative to the front. The representatives stood with their backs to the wall, could not run, shove, or otherwise impede the travel of the other participants. I read an example of figurative language and they went to the appropriate label. This was really fun to watch their brains work, especially on the idiom/hyperbole examples.
  4. Quizizz – This was an independent game. Each person must complete the quizizz (and then I could see their data for later remediation/support), but the team with the single highest score won the points. This helped to give the early finishers something to do. Since it was still essentially a team competition, they wanted to make sure that all players do well. If you haven’t created quizizz before, you need to. They are super easy, and the kids like them more than kahoot. (and they have fun memes!)
  5. Narrative Writing Grading – Because 6th graders get tested on narrative writing, I wanted to incorporate a narrative writing activity into the ACT Aspire Games. I gave students a writing sample and asked them to give it a grade. They used a rubric and collectively came up with a grade. The key for judging this activity was to give students a clear guideline to follow. I asked my students to, following the rubric, give the author 3 things he/she did well and 4 things he/she needs to improve upon.

I definitely plan on hosting the Review Olympics again next year. I need to be better at saving my supplies so that I don’t have to recreate them every games. But I honestly cannot think of a more engaging activity in my classroom.

What do you do in your classroom to review? What is the most engaging activity you lead this past year?

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Posted in classroom, reflection

100 Days Smarter

Last week we celebrated the 100th Day of School. It seems crazy that I have already spent 100 days with these precious kiddos. Last year, a new teacher, every day seemed to be a struggle. I was still in school myself and was constantly overwhelmed by the demands that every teacher faces – lesson planning, grading, parent contact, after school duties, IEP/504 meetings, and the incredible amount of paperwork on top of the class time with my 6th and 8th graders. This year, I have figured out my system. I am no longer in school (yay!) and I have a plethora of plans and methods at my finger tips. Yes, I still have the endless planning, grading, and (groan) paperwork, but I look at it all through new eyes. “I have done this before,” I tell myself. “I know the material,” I tell myself. “I know these kids,” I tell myself. And now, reflecting on the 100 days that have passed, I am no longer giving myself a pep talk, I actually do know what I am doing.

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To celebrate the 100 Days of School, my students and I wrote limericks. We are neck deep in our poetry unit, finishing up this coming week actually, and my students have been creating their own poetry portfolios. The week of the 100 Days of School fell on our limerick week, and so what better way to share our memories than to write about them. This lesson was not very well planned. Honestly, I just told the kiddos to pick a memory and go. There was no modeling, no strict instructions. (“Write about the first week!” “Cut your paper in half!” “You can only draw one picture!” “You must use colors!”) I have a strong belief in student led learning, and so this activity was completely student driven. Some drew beautiful illustrations, while others wrote in pencil on their construction paper. The only 3 requirements I gave – it must be a limerick, it must be about school, and it must be on construction paper. My students even created the bulletin board. I was a bit upset that not every one of the 80 poems fit, but look at how beautiful our 100 days of memories turned out!20170202_171139

 

Posted in reflection

9/11/2001: Never Forget

We all remember where we were on this day 15 years ago. I myself was on my way to 7th grade. I remember distinctively hearing the news of the first plane crash before hopping in the van. When we arrived at school, every classroom was projecting the news. We sat there in English and then Social Studies watching as the horrific events unfolded. I remember watching as the second plane hit. I remember watching as people jumped from the buildings. I remember watching as the towers collapsed. Only after all of these events did the principal mandate all tvs turned off. Part of me wishes this had been sooner as these horrific images provided nightmares and have remained with me. Still, too, part of me is thankful that I was able to witness this historic day; it allowed the events to hold significance and create a connection.

Now as a teacher, I relive these events with my students. Last year was my first year teaching, and I was able to share with my 6th graders the events of September 11, 2001. Not only was I able to share the events from a historical perspective, but I was also able to share a firsthand account. None of my students were alive in 2001, and most had not yet fully understood this day’s significance.

I have come to realize that there are certain moments, both in life and in teaching, that stand out with great significance. This day is one of those days. My 7th grade memories hold personal meaning, while reliving the events through my students holds a new kind of meaning that only teachers understand. It is fascinating to see students’ responses. They have not experienced firsthand, and so rely on their teachers to give these events personal significance.

I now have a new memory of this day. I remember my students’ horrified faces as they watched the newscast I had seen 14 years prior. I remember their curiosity as they asked me questions about the day, about the war, about the terrorists. I remember reading their writings, infusing new personal connections to make this history come alive for them.

As teachers, it is important to bring history alive for our students. While this day is one of the most horrific days many of us have experience, our students have not and they will not understand its significance until we infuse our own connections, the impact the day had, and the overall significance.

Posted in reflection

Goodbye Summer

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gone are the days of finding turtles in the garden, back to the days of quick lunches, verbals, playground duty, and teaching young minds

I may not have met all of my goals for the summer, but my classroom is ready and that calls for a happy dance! I can officially go look at the new building on Monday, and I could not be more ecstatic. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the start of the new year. This summer was so relaxing – full of yoga, gardening, trashy tv, kitty snuggles, and the idea of books that I should be reading (in all honesty, I read 2 and a half) – and I wasn’t sure I was ready to give that up until I heard the new school was ready. That sealed the deal.

I have spent the summer pondering classroom setups, classroom themes, classroom jobs, read alouds, the works. Early on I settled on a Reading Rainbow theme (80s babies rejoice!) I am still deciding on whether to go with a board that looks more like this with copies of book covers or if I should make the board interactive. I am leaning toward an interactive board that allows students to post on the rainbow when they finish a book.

Another addition to my room this year will be a word wall. My 6th graders last year had an extremely difficult time with parts of speech. The word wall will allow students to post new words into categories and will serve as a visual reminder when needed. We will do this when learning new vocab words and when discussing specific parts of speech. I introduced a word wall last year with adjectives and adverbs, and it was wildly successful.

Lastly, I plan to include classroom jobs this year. The idea that I keep coming back to is to have “at bat” and “on deck” – but I can’t have two themes in one classroom, can I? The jobs that I know I need are:

  • tech support (helps pass out, collect, plug in chromebooks) – 2 students per class
  • librarian (straightens books, checks in/out books) – 2 student per class
  • white board team (updates agenda, erases board) – 2 students per class
  • teacher assistant (collects papers, passes back papers, fills in absentee binder) – 2 students per class
  • supply team (passes out materials and collects materials) – 2 students per class

What are you planning for the new year? Any big changes? Anything you’re super excited for? I can’t believe summer’s almost over, but I’m so excited for the year to start!

 

Posted in books, reflection

A Community of Readers

Fostering a love of reading is of course a goal of all English teachers. This year I have had the wonderful privilege of teaching in a school where reading is treasured. We take time to celebrate books and stories. We carefully discuss plots. We pore over masterfully crafted sentences. And we enjoy the act of reading.

At first, this was a challenge for many of my students. They arrived on the first day eager to see friends yet less than thrilled by the mountains of new books we had accrued over the summer. These reluctant readers listened as we discussed summer reading books; some had read one while others proudly proclaimed that they had read nothing over break. But for every reluctant reader there was an adventure seeker, for books, after all, are adventures within pages.

We started off the year discussing reading expectations and how to choose a book. Every child would be expected to read for two full hours outside of school. Groans. Every child would be expected to bring a book to class every day. Groans. Every child would be required to complete three journals a week on these books. Groans. Every child would get to pick the books he or she would read. Wait. For real? Silence.

When we began watching book trailers and sharing our own experiences with books, students who had never completed a book themselves began finding books they loved. They became enchanted with the stories and authors. Students craved the monthly shipments from Scholastic when we added new titles to our shelves. And they were thoughtfully dissecting the themes, plot, characters, and writing within their journals.

Not all of my students left this year reading on grade level, but every one of them left with improvement in and a newfound love for reading.

In planning for next year, I have no doubts that I will continue the practice of book trailers and student book suggestions. This has become a perfect end of class activity that can get students out of seats and talking in front of peers. I would like to do more book tastings (think speed dating but with books; we did this one time before Christmas Break, and we all had so much fun, students left with new books, many outside their typical genre or topic). I will also, most certainly, continue to require reading journals. Not every student enjoyed journals or the prompts required, but every student benefited from them. The questions – EG: Which character would you most be friends with and why? Draw a picture of the main character’s house and explain why you included each element. What have you learned from this book? – encourage students to elevate their reading and provides an opportunity for them to apply their classroom skills to their outside reading.

While these items will remain constant within my classroom, I am unsure about the collection of pages read. As I stated before, I required each of my students to read for 2 hours outside of class. This was determined by a page per minute goal. Each student had an individual goal. Students logged their pages on a log sheet, and these log sheets were due on Wednesdays with their reading journals. In theory, this works, and it is pretty easy to tell who is reading and who is not. But in practice, many children filled in the sheet on Wednesday morning or happened to have the exact page goal every single week, despite never changing books (I didn’t know Charlotte’s Web had 1240 pages!) I haven’t determined what the best method for modification will be yet, and I plan on reading recent research to help make my decision. My current thought is to include page numbers on journal entries, making the assignment one instead of two.

What have you done to help foster a reading environment in your school? How have your students responded to reading requirements? I look forward to hearing your suggestions!

Posted in reflection, teaching practice

Best Laid Plans

In the beginning of the year I had so many hopes, but one of my biggest was writing workshop. I had laid out plans of pre-writing activities, drafting, peer edits, polishing, and publishing. Since our school has access to chromebooks, I had imagined this all taking place on Google Docs to ease commenting, editing, submitting, and finally grading. I mapped out our first writing assignment, scheduled time for students to work independently and in groups, and had even incorporated mini grammar lessons for each writing workshop day. What could go wrong, right? This plan was flawless!

As none of my fellow teachers had led writing workshop before, I was left to the throws of the internet to find helpful resources. My colleagues came to me for advice, which was both encouraging and frightening. It affirmed my belief that writing workshop can help reaffirm the concepts taught in the classroom along with useful life skills such as cooperation, trust, constructive feedback, use of google applications, organization, and time management. On the flip side, however, I had never taught writing workshop before – after all I had never taught ANYTHING before – and so I was just going off of what I knew to be successful in my own education. I did have some research to back up my methods, but I was mainly going off of what I had experienced myself.

When planning my students’ writing workshop, I remembered my own experiences – the collaborative “book” publications from my 5th grade years full of family anthologies, the hands on writing and editing from my 7th grade years full of colorful poetry, the essay writing from high school full of literal cutting and pasting, the thesis writing from college (Faulkner, you still hold a dear place in my heart…) full of more cutting and pasting and highlighting and editing and peer corrections. This education was full of everything that writing is meant to be – individual yet collaborative, hands on yet intellectual, draft upon draft upon draft, and finally sharing. I pored over these memories to determine what made them successful for me and my classmates and determined that there were many factors at play:

  1. Hands on – students, especially in middle school, need a hands on approach to learning. They need to be able to get up, move around, feel, hear, and manipulate their learning. Yes, writing involves pencil and paper, but why can’t it also involve scissors and glue? Why can’t we occasionally break out the crayons and markers for pre-writing and brainstorming? This allows all students to access their best ideas in a way that makes sense to them.
  2. Collaborative – middle school students crave peer interaction. Writing – all writing – needs to be personal expression; we as educators are grading personal expression. But students want to hear the validation from their peers. They want to make sure that their ideas are in sync with their neighbors. They want to hear what their neighbors have to say. They want to help their neighbors. It is our job to facilitate this interaction so that the collaboration stage is useful for all students and maintains the personal expression without straying into group expression.
  3. Published – publication can take many forms within the middle school classroom, but ultimately students crave a final, polished product. Middle school students want to see their work come together, just as we all do. A simple collection of individually written poems put together within a self-created book can be published. Conversely, local print shops publish student work in hard bound covers for a long-lasting memory.
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The basis of our writing workshop – I modified to include Prewrite, Draft, Peer Review 1, Individual Review, Peer Review 2, Proofreading, and Publishing 

So, with all of these ideas, what went wrong? I believe that a perfect storm crashed in upon my writing workshop. Focusing on my 6th graders, I notice that time management was a huge challenge. I began our first workshop by handing out a time line with weekly instructions. We reviewed this timeline together, and then students were to get writing. Each week we reviewed the day’s task and what that task looked like. My students, however, either rushed through each step or lagged severely behind. They did not see the importance of each step and could not wait to work on the computers (note – my students were unable to type their documents on the computer until after their 1st peer edit). They were convinced that their friends had seen every grammatical error possible and therefore did not have to complete the proofreading step. They spent more time chatting about after school activities during peer review than draft edits.

In theory, this process should work perfectly, so what went wrong? I believe that one problem is that I didn’t give my students another chance. After this first failed attempt, I let the writing workshop go by the wayside. We had too many other standards to teach and this had flopped, after all. But as I mentioned before, writing is where it all comes together, so shouldn’t this have been the one thing that stayed? My initial plan was to teach grammar through writing, and why didn’t I stick to that plan? I hate that I siloed my instruction, but as I began planning each day, week, month, unit, it was just easier to lose the writing workshop. Writing workshop, after all, was harder. Harder to plan, harder to prepare, harder to create procedures, harder to teach. But within this list of “harders” is the reality that writing workshop is important.

Looking forward, I plan to rekindle the writing workshop with a few minor tweaks. I had required every student last year to have a Writing Workshop Notebook. These notebooks were to stay in the room and be used only for writing workshop. We used them a grand total of once. I am still working on what we will do for next year – currently I am pondering the idea of an interactive notebook for all things English, and writing workshop projects will be housed in folders within the classroom. These folders will solve a couple of problems. One – students will not forget writing materials in their lockers or at home. Two – parents will not be required to buy materials that we may or may not use throughout the year. This will allow students to cut, paste, glue, color writings (see above) without the fear of ruining their precious Writing Workshop Notebook. Three – these folders will be seen as a brainstorming area, with all final products living on Google Docs or other various formats.

I have toyed with the timeline, and I am pondering shorter projects. I believe that writing workshop can and should be a collaborative time, but should also be a personal time for writing and expression. Many of my students pleaded for more free choice projects and fiction writing. I would love to offer these projects next year, and may do so within the interim between required writings. My hope is that these projects student led, while I will provide guidance, are mostly driven by student interest. This will allow students to write what they like and will keep us practicing our workshop procedures.

I would also like to incorporate an author’s chair next year so that students can share what they have written. This will be an addition to the publish step. Students will be able to give and receive feedback. They will also be able to hear other projects that their peers have accomplished.

 

Posted in reflection

Quilts, Cupcakes, and Kitties

With the free time that I have stumbled into this summer, I have found
myself searching for projects. I had forgotten what it was like to just sit. I had forgotten what I even used to fill my time with. And then the projects started rolling in. I rekindled my love affair with quilting, a romance that has dwindled in the past 2 years. I discovered where the phrase “grew like weeds” originated while working in the garden. I once again baked cupcakes and cookies. I found myself at yoga on a Monday morning. And, on top of the list of projects (and occasionally cleaning the house), I still found time to just sit.

In my rush to finish my masters and my drive for perfection within my classroom, I had lost a sense of what I needed to re-energize. I had forgotten how creativity, manual labor, and the sweet scent of baked goods can heal a soul. This summer I have been reminded how important it is to take time for me, for my interests. I have been shown how much happier and productive I am if I do something for myself.

All to often during the school year, I found myself up before the sun to prep my classroom and materials. Not only that, but I also found myself grading, planning, printing, and emailing well into the evening. And if I was not doing one of those tasks, I was mulling over my lessons and procedures, worrying that I had not reached every student. I had dreams about IEPs and nightmares about adverbs and adjectives. My sleep was restless because I was not able to turn off.

So far this summer, however, I have felt rested every morning. My grammar nightmares have ceased, and the only thing disrupting my sleep is a hungry, cuddly, curious kitty. Her favorite thing to do is wrestle toes, jump in and out of boxes, and watch birds from the windowsill.

 

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a girl and her box

Next year I plan to take more time for me and my family. I can only be my best self if I have time to unwind, re-energize, and let the creative juices flow. I don’t know that I will find time to quilt once the school year starts, but those cupcakes and cookies will be a monthly, if not weekly, occurrence (trust me, gluten free baked goods CAN be delicious!) In the last few months of school, I began to make a schedule for myself with grading and planning goals. These goals allowed me to stay more focused on the reality of what I could accomplish. I still worried, pondered, and adjusted plans at night, but no longer did I fret over a stack of ungraded papers. This schedule and goal list is a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I will ever be able to completely leave it all at school, but I will strive to focus more on what I enjoy in my time off.