Monday, August 7, 2017

Back to School!

Back to School!

That exclamatory sentence can be taken a couple different ways - depending on your inclination.  Well, regardless of whether you are anxiously anticipating the start or trying to hold on to the last few weeks of summer and sanity, school is in the back of all of our minds; specifically, the amount of work that awaits us between opening week and the first day with students.

I turned in my master's capstone a week ago, and then had to immediately attend a department meeting with our administrators.  I had to creatively answer questions, since I seriously had not even thought about literature curriculum.  Everyone else had their curriculum maps there and I ... well, I'm a great talker so...

I went home and started going through first week activities, and decided to reuse a few.  I also found that I wanted to jazz several up to be a bit more engaging.  This year, I want all of my ice breakers and first week activities to be focused on the content areas - no generic "find someone who..." activities this year.  I plan to use the activities to assess basic skills that first week.  Note the word "basic."  I'm not trying to challenge to the point of tears before they even make it to the first Friday.

What I came up with is some pretty fun stuff that I think both my 6th and 8th graders will like.  This is what I created:

There are 18 different activities: 3 "getting to know you" pages, 3 book pages, 1 story elements page, 1 figurative language activity, 1 parts of speech activity, and 9 writing activities.  The writing activities include paragraph writing, summarizing, narrative writing, letters, personification, and a newspaper article assignment.  I'm so excited to have my kids complete these this year.  I will have the 6th grade lit classes complete a few, 6th grade English a few more, and the 8th graders will do a mix of everything.  Week one: ✓, ✓,  & ✓

Here are a few examples that I'm going to use to get the 6th graders started:

Fully aware they are Harry Potter themed.  If you haven't figured out that I have an obsession yet, then I don't know what to tell you.  Actually, I think HP is why I decided to teach literature.  More on that another day, as I am going to need another whole post to show you what I've been up to in terms of HP.  True love.  Always.  (You see what I did there?)

Anyway, I hope other teachers can find these useful.  This set is already up and ready for download in my TPT store.  Have a good night, everyone!


Back to School ELA Activities

Friday, July 14, 2017

Room Remodel Updates

So, as I mentioned awhile back, my classroom is getting a redo.  My room was quite small, but I actually really liked it that way.  The only problem was that when you put 30+ bodies in there, there was always too much talking because of proximity.  It's hard not to talk when someone's foot is on yours, or someone coughs on you, or someone breathed to loudly.... you get the picture.  Since I will also be teaching 8th graders as well, I needed more space.  Eighth graders are huge these days!

Although the room looks good, I'm struggling with how I am going to use the space.  I have lost my instructional, focus wall.  Here are some pics to explain:

So, this is my room the last week of school... A total disaster, but it was the last week...
It wasn't ideal with my desk space right in the front, but it worked great for using the smart board.
The bulletin board right next to the door was for student information: lunch menu, calendar, band lesson schedule, announcements, etc.  A little worried about losing that. 

This is what my room looked like on the last day of school (5 days later - miracle!)
Kids help clean and pack up rooms here, so it went pretty quick.
(My "little" was is standing in the doorway telling me
to hurry up.)

Here is what that wall looks like now!  Half of the wall is gone!

The room next door was only used for TAs and small group instruction, so they took half of it and added it to my room.  A small white board will be put on the half wall to replace the big one I'm losing for my smart board, and I will probably put my materials and turn in table underneath it.

So when you look at this picture, my desk area will now be next to the blackboard in the new space.  I thought I would be getting more storage space back there (I don't even have a closet), but they will be putting the student cubbies behind the half wall.  The kids used to have lockers in the hallway.  They were the only class to have lockers, which was a bit of a problem; but the bigger problem was that a parent complained that the lockers were too difficult for their child.  Seriously.  So the lockers are gone and all of the student stuff will be in that back corner.  And I don't get the book storage that I desperately need.  (Tear, sniff...)

This is the area where the student cubbies will be
and not my classroom library. ;(
I think that I will put the announcements on that back wall in the cubby area. 

Here's another angle of where my desk will be.
The chalkboard is from the other classroom.  I am going
to try figure out a way to cover it so that it will be a bulletin board. 
I know the rolls of cork are not that great - too thin to stick tacks into, and they crack.
The tiles are sooooo expensive and I would need about 40 of them.
Have to find a cheaper solution.

On the wall with the door, I had a white board where I posted "I can" statements, materials needed, and agendas for each class.  I had it divided into 4 columns which worked slick.  Under the white board was the materials and turn-in table, and under the table was where we kept crates of their interactive notebooks.  Gone.  Here is the transformation:

Again, last week of school, so forgive the disaster.
Are you starting to get the picture of how small it is?

This is what it looked like on the last day of school.
While we were at the final, all-school mass, the building manager
already had the smart board taken down!
(My "little" again, not so patiently waiting)

And this is what it looks like now. 
My smart board will go under the clock. 
I'm going to have to cover the window in the door or the kids
will be looking at everyone walking by and not the board.

So, you probably notice I do have the bulletin boards next to the pole.  Well, those are my only bulletin boards.  The small one is for English materials, the larger one is for 6th grade literature.  I have no idea where I will put eighth grade stuff.  The wall to the right has a very shallow storage area for all of the lit novels, so, no wall space there, and the "new back wall" is weird - low windows that look into the library that are not the same size or centered.  Nothing will stick to that wall, so, again, no options to hang things.  Here are a few pics of the other two walls:

The wall of "No-Stick"
The only things that I have found to stick to it are 3m strips.  
Putty works for about 3 weeks or so and then needs to be replaced.
That gray thing on the right is my file cabinet and I had
a table next to the file cabinet as part of my teacher area.

The back on the last day before the final clean up.
Table cloths are hanging over the novel shelves to protect it from 
construction dust.  Didn't really work. (more tears)

One other change this year will be that instead of tables, I'm getting desks.  Again, not my choice but the principal didn't like how the tables made it difficult for kids to have their own space in such a tiny room.  

So, I am looking for ideas how to set up my new space.  It will be a bit awkward at first, I think, but if I really plan it out, I can make it work.  Please share if you have any suggestions!  I will post updates when I get started setting up in August.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Capstone that Ate the Summer

Oh.  My.  Capstone.

I have to finish my capstone.  I had planned to do it next spring, but then after some registration complications (not mine), I ended up in the capstone class this summer.  Without a topic.  And it's a shortened class due to summer term.

I scrambled like crazy because I was not prepared at all.  I had three potential topics floating around in my mind over the last three years, but when it came down to it, I made the decision based on time and the ability to complete the project while working.  Is that lazy or efficient?  Regardless, I do not feel lazy as this capstone is taking up all of my time.  In fact, it is eating my summer up right before my eyes!  My daughter was crying the other day because she said all I do is homework.  Stab.  Stab.  Stab straight through the heart.  After that, I decided that I would do the best I could with the time I have after she goes to bed, and that will have to be enough.  Summer is short and she is only 7 once.  In the end, it may not be perfect, or even my best work, but it will have to do.

So here is my research question:

I picked this topic for three reasons.  First, I teach middle school lit.  Second, our school is working with our fifth and sixth graders in a perseverance program that includes growth mindset.  Finally, I chose it because I have to rewrite the 6th grade lit curriculum anyway, so then I can make the curriculum writing my capstone project.  Boom.  Two birds.

There are only two weeks left of the class, and I should have the first three chapters complete by that time (introduction, literature review, and project description).  Fifty to seventy-five pages.  No sweat.

I'm hoping to get back to work on my TPT products very soon.  I'm finishing my Reading Strategies for Informational Text Bundle, and starting a back-to-school, literature pack.  I will also be sharing all of the work I develop for my Growth Mindset Literature curriculum, so that is something I am really looking forward to creating.

Tomorrow I hope to post pics of the room remodel!  It's coming along so I'm looking forward to figuring out how I will use it!


Friday, June 9, 2017

Rise to the Challenge: 2016-2017 Lessons Learned

2016-2017 Lessons Learned

I grew up going to public schools and never had a reason to think anything other than wonderful thoughts about public education.  But my years working in a large, urban school district with so many problems and too much administration had made me question my loyalties.  Public and private schools have more differences than just populations.  What I learned this year is how different the philosophies are, and how they impact the learning environment.

Here are my takeaways from my first year as a private school teacher, after many years working in public schools:

1. Consequences are a good thing.  Kids learn from their mistakes and come back stronger than ever.

2.  Kids will rise to high standards.  Don't make things easier for kids just because their life outside of school may be difficult.  Set high standards, teach them how to get there, let them learn from their mistakes, and no matter what, don't do it for them.  Shortcuts and freebies are a disservice to their growth and an insult to their intelligence.

3.  The future of America IS in good hands.  There are still respectful, hard working, and driven kids out there.  They will make good choices and lead us with intelligence and dignity.

4.  There are kids who still LOVE school.  Lots of them.  You just have to look in the right places.

These, of course, are just my experiences; but, I feel so inspired and rejuvenated by what I have seen at this school this year.  And, my experiences are directly linked to my past experiences in a school where expectations were low, consequences did not exist, and the students ran the school with violence, instead of the teachers and administration running the school.  And even though the school I was at before the awful one was considered a good school, I believe that consequences were not consistent or strong enough, and expectations were low.  I think that ANY kid can fall into the categories of my four takeaways if put in the right environment.  The public schools in my area need to go back to holding ALL students responsible for their actions.  Period.

The biggest thing I have found this year is the difference in curriculum between the public schools in my area and the private school I am at.  The private school curriculum for 6th graders is FAR more rigorous than the 6th grade curriculum I taught in the public schools. (My students this year had the exact same vocabulary development curriculum that I taught in 9th/10th grade in the public school). Why is that?  We all teach from the same standards?  My students don't know the difference so they just do the work.  They don't complain.  They are just excited to learn new things all of the time.  Lower expectations = less learning and less success.  Also, I think the kids are happier and more successful due to the amount of "non-tested" classes they take: classroom art (once a week) and studio art (1-2 times a week), music (2-3 times a week), phy ed (3 times a week), Spanish (2-3 times a week),  computer (2 times a week).  Of these classes, the only one the public schools had was PE, and that was at a minimum.  Maybe twice a week, but usually for only 1 semester or quarter.  Students in high school could take some of these as electives, but with no previous exposure, many kids just didn't take the classes or were just bodies in the space.  If music class is the thing that makes a kid love going to school, then this public school district was not for them.  It's sad.  We chose the private school for our daughter based on the "extra" classes; however, now that I have experienced it from a teacher's perspective, I am even more convinced that we made the right choice.

I know there are public school districts out there that are doing great things.  This is just my experiences in my area of our world.  The point is, change has been good for me.  It has reenergized and inspired me to be a better teacher.  Changing schools has restored my faith in the future.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Side are You on?

Today is one of those days that makes me sad as a teacher, a parent, and a curriculum writer.

I have recently noticed that there are two "teams" of teachers developing.  One team that seems to be fun, enthusiastic, and supportive of one another, and one team that is full of negativity; constantly accusing other teachers of not being good enough.  Let me explain what I mean:

Team 1 (aka the fun group):
These teachers seem to be super energized all of the time.  They have pinterest classrooms and either create or sell items on TPT (or other sites).  They are all about creating an experience for students that supports their learning.  They also seem to be the group that wants everyone to succeed - even other teachers.

Team 2 (the all business group):
These teachers seem to be so focused on the serious aspects of teaching - the problems of the world, AYP, the achievement gap - that they forget that learning can be enjoyable.  They also seem to be the teachers who are constantly criticizing the teachers from Team 1.

Now, these are just my simple observations in the community where I live and I teach.  As a parent, I prefer my daughter be in the classroom of Team 1.  This is how I remember school when I grew up in the 70s & 80s.  Rooms weren't super cute back then, but they were cute for the time period.  School was fun because the teachers were energetic, which got me excited about school.  I want my child to be excited about school.  Team 1 knows how to do that.

Here's where my sadness comes into today's post.  I received an email from someone about a blog post that was written by a Kindergarten teacher who is very against TPT sellers and teachers who use TPT.  He basically accused these teachers of not being supportive of one another because they are selling their products.  He also said that the content on TPT was not up to par.  (He also has never purchased anything from TPT).  His post had too many comments to count; many of them agreeing with him.  His "open discussion" was nothing more than a venue to gripe about teachers who decorate their rooms cute and who sell out on TPT by offering crappy content.  😓

Yep.  I have had items on TPT for awhile now.  I can attest that everything I create and sell I first create for my students to meet the standards.  Questions I routinely ask myself include:

How will this push my students to new understandings?
Am I meeting the needs of all of my students?
Will my students be able to demonstrate their new understandings?
Is this lesson meaningful and relevant?

I have purchased products off of TPT for years.  I have purchased a few items that did not meet my needs.  Does that mean that it is crappy, like the blogger and commenters claimed?  Of course not!  Does that mean that they did not put effort and energy into creating something that helped their students meet the standards?  No, again.  The Team 2 teachers seem to be so down on the Team 1 teachers.  It is as if they think that they know everything, and that they are the only teachers doing a good job.

As I have posted in the past; I don't do cute.  I just don't.  Do I mind it? Of course not.  The only thing that bothers me is when decorating seems to take front and center stage, rather than content, but I have only seen that once.  But, as I remember from my childhood, plain old worksheets that had purple printing from the school ditto copy machine did nothing for my engagement.  In fact, they didn't engage me whatsoever.  I have worked in both settings: the super cute and the all business all the time districts.  Here is what I have noticed:

The kids with the TPT/Pinterest teachers were far more engaged than the kids in the All Business schools.  I recently left a large urban district.  The kids were disengaged in every classroom.  In my classrooms, as soon as I started sprucing them up, the kids noticed and interacted with me more.  They participated.  One 10th grade student I had last year actually commented about my room to me at the end of the year.  She told me that she didn't trust my blond hair and energy at the beginning of the year (because this is the ALL Business district), but that by the end of the year, she realized that the energy I put into my room and activities showed that I was "pretty cool."  She said she realize that I cared about them and that she learned more that year than any other year.  Huh.

The sad thing is, I left the district.  I personally could not handle the negativity anymore.  The tearing down of teachers who wanted to make learning meaningful and special for their kids.  The mentality of "I am the only teacher doing it right" drove me crazy.  Even the principals were in on it.  How is that helpful?

Here is my plug for TPT:

I work in a system that is continually cutting teachers, paying them poorly, and expecting teachers to contribute a very high amount of their own salary to the classroom.  My second year of school I spent nearly $250 on Kleenex alone.  I couldn't make my car or student loan payment, but my students could blow their nose.  Why is it bad if I make something to sell to other teachers to help pay for things that my students need to be successful?  When the district won't pay for it?

I have also turned to TPT many times when I did not have the time to create something.  I knew what I wanted to use to jack the lesson up a bit, and I was able to find it online.  The texts and curriculum that districts provide are usually bare bones, with very little provided to help with differentiation.  I use TPT as a means to find methods of differentiation that I maybe wouldn't have thought of.  When you consider how much districts spend on curriculum, you would think that they could be more than just a set of books, workbooks, and a teacher's manual.  The way I see it, me spending my own dollar on a product on TPT makes their curriculum better.

I have yet to see a teacher put "crap" on TPT.  Maybe I've just been lucky.  At any rate, this blanket mentality of TPT sellers being only in it for the money and not for actual teaching is too common among the All Business set.

What makes me sad is that both groups accuse each other of not being supportive.  The All Business set says that teachers who sell their items are being selfish.  The Super Cute team thinks that the All Business set is not supportive of them trying to provide pencils and whatnot for their students by selling on TPT.  Meanwhile, nothing gets accomplished.

When it comes to which side I am on, I find that I am right in the middle.  I believe that cute and fun can coexist with challenging, meaningful instruction.  I want to engage kids, and if that means once in a while shopping on TPT or sprucing up my room, I will do it.

Am I saying that education isn't serious business right now?  Absolutely not.  But I'm also saying that teachers need to do what works for them, and not expect everyone else to find the same methods as fantastic as they do.  Different doesn't mean bad.  Isn't that what we teach kids?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Already Planning for 2017-2018

Summer vacation here for us, and I'm already planning for next year!

After a trip to the zoo this morning, I grabbed a lawn chair and got to work organizing my ideas for next year.  I realize that this is a little crazy, but I want to get started when my thoughts are still fresh.

One of the big changes I want to make next year is to add more informational text into our literature lessons.  When I worked in public schools, the push was for all nonfiction, all the time.  The only people that seemed to get to teach literature were high school English teachers.  I worked so hard to research nonfiction strategies and to develop new strategies that fit my students' needs.  I felt that leaving out fiction texts was creating an imbalance of reading skills, but I understood it (to a certain degree).  Well, now that I am at a private school, I've found that I'm not teaching anywhere close to the same amounts of nonfiction.  I added nonfiction connecting texts along the way, but I did not feel that these lessons were as artistically and authentically woven into the curriculum as I would have liked.  So, I will be spending the summer revamping the curriculum to make the connections between nonfiction and fiction both relevant and purposeful.  As I mentioned in an earlier post (the last one, maybe), I have so many different ones that I use, that I will probably have to wait until I assess the kids to make final determinations.  I love doing this sort of thing.

Anyway, that was way to long of a description to explain what this post is about.  As I think about how I want to teach the nonfiction parts of our units, I am going to have several active reading activities to meet the different needs of the kids.  To get prepared, I am recreating ALL of my strategy organizers in power point.  They print better, they look better, and I like them better.

I started posting some of the ones I created on TPT, and will post more as I get them done.  The ones that I am posting are easy to use with any subject area.  I am still thinking that I will try to create a bundle of my favorite reading activities that anyone can use for teaching nonfiction.  I will go into detail of each one in future posts, but here is what I have up on TPT so far:

I just finished the ABC Notes redo today.  Most people I know use this as a prereading activity, but I use it as a way to take notes while actively reading.  The kids write down all of the information the gather from the text on the chart.  Students can either record topic specific vocabulary that start with the letter, important people and places that begin with that letter, or create a phrase about the topic using a strong verb that starts with each letter.  I love using this note taking method.  Creating the phrases takes a good comprehension skills, not to mention great critical thinking skills.  When I introduce the activity, I usually "encourage" students to create at least 1-2 strong verb phrases, but by the third or fourth time using this method, I start requiring a certain number of phrases.  It is a great way to both challenge the kids reading and thinking skills and assess what students need some support (not to mention those that may need to be pushed a bit more).  Love this.

All of these activities can be found in my TPT store, and I will go into more detail about each in future posts.  I hope it is as much of a beautiful day wherever you are as it is here!


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Informational Text Reading Strategies Part 1

Since I'm usually one, if not the, only reading specialist in my schools, I am always asked by other content teachers for reading activities.  When I taught high school, we tried to introduce one strategy per semester that the whole school would use.  Now, this of course only works if everyone is on board, and when I taught public school, that was difficult.  People are often very set in their ways when it comes to teaching.  I had one principal who always said it so well.

"It doesn't matter what subject you teach.  We are all reading teachers."

It was still difficult to get everyone to buy into to teaching something differently or, teaching something they were not comfortable with, but we did have several teachers that made a true effort. (Thanks, chemistry team!)  From what I understand, that practice died when I left, which is sad.

I now work at a school where most teachers are willing to try new things to help the kids, so I hope to get this started again.  It really makes life easy if the kids all know and practice a certain strategy.  You only have to tell the kids what they are doing, and they can jump right in with very little direction.  

My Social Studies partner loves my activities, so I have started to redesign the activities to make them more current and easier to use.  The first one I gave her is perfect for Social Studies and Science; really any course that uses a text book.  I call this activity "Title Turn-around."

I love this activity, because gets kids reading with a specific purpose.  First, the student takes the chapter title, heading, or subheading of the section and turns it into a question.  For example if the heading is:

The Life of a Cell

The student would change the heading to:

What is the Life of a Cell?

After they write down the original heading and the new question on the graphic organizer, they actively read the passage to answer the question they created.  As they find the answers, they them down in the next column.  

Besides the "reading with a purpose" part, I LOVE the next added bonus of the activity.  By writing down the answers to the question, the students then have a note sheet to study from when preparing for tests or just reviewing before a class activity.  When they fold the paper in half, they only see the heading and question.  The student then tries to answer the question without looking at the other side.  Finally, the student can unfold the page and check their answers.  Genius.  

I can remember reading text book assignments as a kid, and I had no purpose for reading the pages.  In fact, I don't think I really learned anything while reading.  I wish I had known these techniques as a kid.  Not only would it have sped the process up, but I wouldn't have been half asleep while reading the chapters.  Engagement is gold.

I hope you like this activity.  I have it posted in my TPT store, along with a few other strategies.  Someone asked me to do an Informational Text Strategy Bundle, so I will probably work on it over the summer.  I will post another strategy soon!