3 Things To Do NOW to Prep for Next December

Thursday, December 29, 2016
I'm the first person to breathe a sigh of relief on December 26th.  The thought of 364 days before the madness strikes again is my idea of holiday cheer.  With that said, there are a few things you have to do NOW in order to make next December in your classroom a little less mad.  Today, I'm sharing my 3 must-dos NOW so that 11.5 months from now can be a little more merry and bright...

1.  Don't throw away your Christmas cards.  I'm sure we all keep a few special cards, including all those photo cards, but if you're like me and you still receive a pile of regular, old-fashioned cards from relatives and people at church, save them.  And ask a few other people to save theirs for you too. You'll easily have a whole box of cards that could have gone in the trash and instead will buy you some sanity next year on the last couple of days before Christmas break.  Put the cards out with some white construction paper and let your students create cards for their families and friends by cutting them apart and using any of the graphics or words that they want.  My students LOVE doing this and I love watching them get excited about which ones they're going to use and hearing them read the inside messages to each other.

2.  Buy some thank you notes on clearance.  Whether you're lucky enough to find some like the oh-so-easy-to-use ones above that I ordered from Current last year or it's more classy, grown-up cards...  this is the time to stock up!  Being able to go straight to my desk drawer as soon as I receive that first gift instead of having to remember to pick up thank you notes after school or to bring them from home the next day is one of the best gifts I give myself in advance each year.

3.  Whether you teach novels year round or just at select times, having a good novel to rely on during December is a must.  There's something about digging into a good book together that helps students focus even during the craziest of times.  Don't wait until next Thanksgiving to prepare for teaching a novel during December.  If you wait, you might not be able to get a good deal on the book you choose.  Right now, The Last Holiday Concert by Andrew Clements is only $1 on Scholastic's website!  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is $3.00 or only 80 bonus points, os if you order a few each month, you'll have a class set by next December.  Both novel units are on sale 20% off now through Dec. 31st.


What Went Down: A Trail of Tears Project

Monday, November 28, 2016
"You're good with technology," one of my students said to me today as I rushed around between six groups of students using a dozen Chromebooks, trying out a new interactive website.  As I took pictures of their drawings, uploaded them to Google Drive, and shared with the group leaders while simultaneously trying to help them navigate the web and overseeing their actual work on some level, I didn't feel "good" at it at all times.  But, it did feel very good when we were finished.

Soft Rain by Cornelia Cornilessen is usually my most popular novel unit during the month of November.  It's a historical fiction novel about a little Cherokee girl on the Trail of Tears with her family and it's a must-read for social studies integration in my fourth grade classroom.  The discussions that ensue while reading this novel are always memorable, if difficult, as students are faced with the idea of social injustice, often for the first time.


In trying to provide students an outlet for their opinions and feelings, I developed a Trail of Tears newspaper group project, which I carried out for the third time in my classroom over the last week.  (In addition to being in the midst of reading the novel, I also did some background study of the Trail of Tears prior to this project.  I found some great resources from Jersey Girl Gone South and Bow Tie Guy and Wife on TPT.)  Whether you're able to read the novel or you're simply learning about the Trail of Tears in your classroom, this activity is sure to get your students thinking, sharing and creating.  You can download the student handouts for free by clicking here.

I begin this activity by showing my students a PowerPoint presentation I created explaining the concept of a one-page newspaper as well as the concept of bias.  Once students are put into groups for creating their newspaper from the time period of the Trail of Tears, I assign half the groups to write from the perspective of the white settlers and the other half to write from the perspective of the Cherokee.  The half who are assigned the white settlers' perspective always protest, which shows their empathy with the Cherokee and distress over this period of history.  However, I explain to the whole class the importance of seeking to understand why history happened the way it did so we can be aware not to repeat the regretful portions.  You can download the PowerPoint presentation for free by clicking here.

After viewing the PowerPoint presentation, students get into groups and complete their planning sheets, discussing together as they go.  Once they are ready, they create their newspaper on ReadWriteThink's website, specifically using the printing press student interactive.  This tool saves the project in PDF and can be saved to Google Drive on the Chromebooks.  It can also be saved as a draft during the process.

Other students can type their articles in Google Docs, then share with the student who has the printing press opened on their Chromebook to copy and paste.  Students with illustrations get my attention when they are done and I take a photo of their drawing which I upload to Google Drive and share with the group leader as well.  While it may sound complicated, it really comes together quite well and the students had a great time creating together!  I'm usually so busy assisting with the technology aspect that I don't have as much time to guide students with their ideas as I'd like, but it actually works out for the best because they have such great ideas on their own!

Of course, there is always going to be the group who names their newspaper "What Went Down" and advertises the new invention of toilet paper... But laughs like that are what keep us coming back to this teaching gig day after day and year after year!


What Won't Change

Friday, November 11, 2016

I've spent the last eight years encouraging my students to respect our President and to be proud of and thankful for our country and the freedom it represents.  That won't change.  I'll do the same for the next four and the four after that.  It's the right thing but that's not the only reason I do it.  I truly believe in this country and all it stands for.  Eight years from now, some of my students will be old enough to vote.  Two election cycles from now, they'll be the ones rallying on college campuses and blowing up social media.  The sentiment I reflect to them matters.

Maybe it's because I've spent too much time digging through social studies textbooks but in my mind, it's simple.  We have a political process, a system of checks and balances, and a country founded on freedom and democracy.  That won't change.  Yes, there are intricacies to that (like the electoral college) that were put into place for a reason whether all of us have taken the time to study and understand all the reasons or not.  There are hundreds of laws, codes, policies and processes that were painstakingly designed to build and protect the greatest country the world had yet seen.  It's worked beautifully for 240 years and I, like President Obama (see below), believe that won't change.

I worry about what my students will remember when they think back on that crazy election when they were in fourth grade.  Will they only have memories of nasty political ads and news reports of protestors in the street?  Will they remember the adults in their lives as being either obnoxious about their opinions or shying away from the subject altogether?  Will it be all about two incredibly divisive candidates, or will we somehow be able to bring this all back together?

I plan to show this clip to my students next week and I hope if you are a teacher or a parent, you'll consider doing the same.  You win some, you lose some.  That's important stuff.  I'd add another tired but tried and true saying to the mix: "It's not about if you win or lose, but how you played the game."  Not only that, it's about continuing to play the game, whatever team or teams you're on, because as President Obama said, "We all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy."

I pray that won't change.

A few weeks ago one of my students asked me if whoever lost the election would become the vice-president for the person who won.  I'll admit I laughed out loud at the thought.  Either way it could've turned out, the idea of the two candidates working side by side was preposterous.  As I pulled myself together and finished up my explanation of running mates, I had a moment of reflection.  How sad that the thought of opposing political parties working together is so ridiculous, when I spend all day teaching ten-year-olds that they can learn to work with anyone.

At school, I often say, "Just because you aren't best friends, doesn't mean you can't work together."  Praying that somehow we'll learn from all this and that WILL change.


My No Dead Dog Policy (broken)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I've always had a policy against making my students read books where the dog dies.  I love a good dog book, but the dog has to make it in the end.  There may be sad or scary parts, but I always promise my students that in the end, the dog will make it.  I can't stand it myself otherwise so I don't want to put them through it.  When I wrote my unit for Stone Fox, I thought I'd never stop crying at the end.

I just broke my own policy.  I wanted to teach Love That Dog by Sharon Creech because really, has there ever been a better gift to an upper elementary classroom teacher than this book?  I mean, do you teach poetry?  Like not if your principal or curriculum coordinator is asking but REALLY teach poetry?  It's tough.  I always say I'm going to do a "poem of the week" or dig into some quality poems for comprehension but it's hard.  Love That Dog is an entire novel written in poetry form WITH real poems snuck in there.

My students loved the book and so did I.  I've had my unit on TPT for a while for free (click here for the Comprehension Packet) but it was the first chance I've had to use the unit myself.  My students truly enjoyed the book and were so excited that the actual poems referenced in the story were in the back.  They were so enthralled by Robert Frost that I'm going to be able to capitalize on that and do more AND they wanted to know if Walter Dean Myers (the poet invited to Jack's school in the book) was a real poet and were so excited to find out that he was!

I had to confess to my students midway through that I was breaking my policy on dogs dying.  I told them it didn't actually count since the whole situation with the dog is told in flashback form and the boy is writing about a past experience.  They didn't buy it and I don't blame them... They nearly cried when we read the part about Sky getting hit by the car.  Then, as if I didn't feel bad enough, they wrote poems like this for their constructed response on their final test.

Even if I did feel extra bad for breaking my own policy when I read that poem, I'd say it's a sure sign that the unit was a success!  I highly recommend the book to anyone who teaches upper elementary and is tired of pretending to teach poetry.  And loves dogs.  Especially the last part.


Who Will You Vote For?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"How old are you?"
"Why don't you have any kids?"
"Why are you wearing that?"

Students have asked me plenty of awkward and less than appropriate questions over the years.  I'm pretty good with a poker face and a diplomatic response.  But there's one question I've already struggled with this school year.

"Who will you vote for?"

This is the third presidential election of my teaching career, and I always used to be excited for those teachable moments that only come along once every four years.  For reasons we all can understand, this year feels different.  This campaign has been especially divisive, and for those of us who aren't staking signs in our yard and poking fights on Facebook daily, we're mostly just trying to stay out of the crossfire.

It's most desirable to avoid the subject of this election altogether, and I'll admit I've faced that same temptation in my lesson plans.  When it came time to change out a bulletin board last week, I knew I had a pile of election materials saved up from 2008 and 2012.  However, I found myself procrastinating the task, trying to think of something different for a focal point in my classroom for the next month.  I mean, who really wants to be reminded of the upcoming election more often than every time we drive down the road, get on social media, or watch television?

Last week, I got my hair cut and my stylist asked me how deeply I delve into the political arena with my students this time of year.  I told her I obviously keep my personal opinions out of it, but I try to educate them on the process and the positions of the different parties.  One of my fundamental beliefs about public education is that it's our responsibility to teach students how to be functional, contributing members of society.  And whether we like the current system or not, learning to be an active voice in our political system is a big part of that, whether we're preparing future candidates or, at the minimum, teaching the importance of voting.

While this year's election isn't my favorite topic, personally or professionally, that is no excuse for avoiding the subject.  I'd dare say avoiding the subject is how we ended up in this position in the first place.  For those of us who aren't thrilled with either candidate, perhaps we should consider what we're doing to inspire, support, and educate the future world changers that are entrusted to us as children.  It takes learning about the process to want to be a part of it.

I'll admit I've been procrastinating this task so far this school year, but I've got the next six weeks to make up for it.  I finally drug out those bulletin board supplies yesterday so we can started.  Who's with me?  In the meantime, I'll keep my fingers crossed for all of us on upholding those poker faces and diplomatic responses...


Best First Week Ever

Saturday, September 3, 2016
When I first started teaching, I wondered how teachers did their jobs before the Internet.  A few years later, I got a Promethean board installed in my classroom and couldn't imagine how I ever taught without it.  (What's an overhead projector??) In recent years, I feel this way about Teachers Pay Teachers.  We are so fortunate to live in a time where so much technology and resources are right at our fingertips.  Day in and day out, it's not just me teaching my students but also other experienced, enthusiastic educators whose products and ideas I snag from TPT and their blogs.  I left my classroom yesterday afternoon feeling it had truly been my best first week ever!

Of course we started the week with some obligatory getting to know you activities.  We used a fun K-6 time capsule resource from Mrs. Dessert.  The students listed some facts and favorites on the front and wrote letters to themselves on the back.  My teammate even gave me the idea to spice it up with some other pieces of data, like foot size, height, and multiplication fact knowledge.  We put all our findings in big brown envelopes that we'll open during the last week of school.

While we worked on our time capsules, we enjoyed root beer floats after cracking the code on an activity from my all-time favorite teacher-author, Deb Hanson!  This may have been the biggest hit of the week as students solve reading and math puzzlers finally ending up with clues like, "What part of a plant grows under the earth?" and "What is an antonym for sink?" When they realized we were going to enjoy root beer floats next, they literally jumped up and down!

We spent a lot of time on growth mindset activities this week, as I found out last year that AIG students are just as susceptible, if not more, to getting stuck in a fixed mindset.  I see this problem a lot in math, where primary math has always come easy to these students.  The first time they're faced with a math problem they can't do in their head, many of them shut down.  We used resources from one of my favorites, The Teacher Studio, as we also dug right into partner work in math with her Thinker Tasks.

Not only did we get right into math, of course I wanted to dive right into reading (my favorite)!  We began one of my novel units on the third day of school--Sarah, Plain and Tall- get it FREE here like over 10,000 people already have!  We also began one of Deb's units on Genre (I consider myself on a first-name basis with her even though I only met her once at last year's TPT conference). We complemented our genre study with my very first book tasting, which I modeled after this blog post from another one of my TPT favorites, Teaching with a Mountain View. I, like her, snagged a new Book Tasting Resource from Head Over Heels for Teaching in order to pull this off.  Read more about this worthwhile lesson in an upcoming post.

It truly was the best first week ever, and I think my students agreed.  One of my more athletic boys said to me on Friday afternoon, "You know what's weird about me this year?"  I said, "No, what?" and he answered, "I actually want to come to school!"  We all work hard, especially during the first week, but THAT, my friends, is why we do it.

Hope some of these activities might give you some ideas to make it the best first (or second or third) week ever for you and your students as well!


Why I Hate the First Day of School

Monday, August 29, 2016

I love, love, love teaching, but I hate the first day of school.  I surely wish we could fast-forward to mid-September.  We'd all be comfortable with each other, we'd be teaching academics instead of rules, and for goodness sakes the supplies would be labeled and put away.  I breathed an audible sigh of relief today once I managed to successfully store the umpteen tissue boxes my parents graciously sent in.  I mean that "gracious" sincerely; I'm so fortunate to work in a school where the parents care, support and donate more than we even ask for.  But for today, it's a lot to sort out!

I generally have a good sense of time without having to look at a clock.  I think it's a teacher superpower.  But on the first day of school, I haven't the foggiest notion what time it is.  9:30 feels like 2:30 and suddenly at 2:30 I realize I haven't even told them what's for homework.  And the idea of students not coming to the classroom until the usual time in the morning?  Understandably, that's a joke.  I get it- parents want to walk their kids in, but why do I still think, in my head, that I have until 8:05 to get prepared for them?  I was just starting to write on the whiteboard this morning while going over some last minute things with a new co-worker when they made the announcement they were letting the kids in.  My co-worker literally went running out of my classroom mid-sentence, blurting, "I still needed to pee!"  And it was on... 

I am also fortunate in that many of my parents label their kids' supplies for them before they even send them in.  You'd think this would make desk organizing a cinch on the first day.  But, no.  Apparently which folder is for which subject is a potentially life altering decision.  It takes forever.  Today, I finally put a time limit on it and said, "Okay, shove it all in your desk.  We're moving on!" Last year, I actually had a student ask me to help him sort his folders into rainbow order.  This same child couldn't have told you where even one of those folders even was one month later.  

I'd be curious to know if any school has ever gotten every child home correctly on the first day.  If so, they deserve to go ahead and call the first day of school the last and close down for the year, because they have arrived-- THAT is a school of perfect staff members, parents and students.  I'm pretty sure it's a mathematical impossibility and we're all just rolling the dice each year hoping we aren't the lucky (guilty) ones with a stranded student or two.  

There are many petty reasons I hate the first day of school, but the main one is deeper than that.  These kids aren't "mine" yet.  They think they want to be, and I know they already are, but it takes some time to sort it out.  I've read their files, but that doesn't tell me what I really need to know.  It takes time to learn their idiosyncrasies and their fears.  I don't yet know their strengths so I can work to bring them out.  I haven't yet figured out what makes them laugh or how they look right before they're going to cry so I can try to stop it from happening.  I can't wait until the time I really know them and they are more than just a name on my roster.  

Sometimes this takes a couple of weeks and other times it takes more like a couple of months.  Based on the comfort level I felt in my classroom today, I'm thinking it's going to go quickly this year.  I hope if I've learned anything in these past ten years, it's that-- how to make kids feel comfortable from day one.  Because really and truly, we all hate the first day even if we love school.  It's boring, it's long, it's awkward, and there are a lot of menial tasks to accomplish.  But it's also necessary so that we can enjoy days 2-180 living, laughing, and learning together.  Bring it on!  


It's That Time

Tuesday, August 16, 2016
This morning I woke up at 6:30 and couldn't go back to sleep.  I'm not a morning person so that can only mean one thing-- it's time to go back to school.  If you are a morning person and can't use the fact that you're all caught up on your sleep as a sign that it's that time, there are others:

Your car always looks like this.  You are constantly caught in a tug-of-war of whether to unload your car before your husband comments and knowing as soon as you unload, you'll feel the need to fill it back up with another haul.

The nightmares begin.  It's open house and you don't even know what grade you're teaching.  It's the first day of school and you aren't wearing a bra.  Or maybe it's the week before you can get back in your classroom and the mess you left behind is haunting your dreams.

You are torn between acting professional again and continuing your summer revelry.  A perfect example happened to me yesterday while I was trying to focus on completing a presentation for a workshop I'm helping lead next week.  Guess I won't have time to catch 'em all after all...

When you do return to your classroom, you are hit with the odd realization that just last week you were eating Pringles on the beach, and now you are wrapping that same Pringles can in contact paper.

Your texts to your husband have changed.  Instead of asking if he'd like to meet for lunch, all you want to know is what plug should go where so that you can avoid the "catching your classroom on fire" nightmare.

Last, but not least, you finally feel an urgency when you look at that bag of school stuff you brought home to work on this summer.  Now that you realize planning the whole next school year might have been a lofty goal, it's time to at least look at the first couple of weeks.

Ready or not, it's that time!  We can't deny the signs, nor can we deny that excitement that creeps in when we first walk back into our classrooms, whether we want to admit or not.  That's how we know we were made for this!