100 Years Old on the 100th Day

Saturday, January 30, 2016
I teach big kids for a reason.  I’m not crafty, I barely do decorations at my house, much less in my classroom, and I’m the last one to decide what my students are going to make for Mother’s Day.  I love teaching math, reading, and writing, but ask me to turn to my files on holidays and seasons and I'll just laugh.

However, a couple of years ago I had to up my game a bit when I realized our new colleague on the fourth grade hall was a former kindergarten teacher in every sense.  I knew when she was hired that she had that soft kind of voice that only exists in octaves foreign to me and I noticed right away that she called her students, “friends” in contrast to my, “Hey, guys, listen up!!”  But none of that intimidated me like her ability to turn every special date on the calendar into a major, celebrated, fun event. 

When she painted pumpkins in the fall, I rolled my eyes.  When her students each had a stocking hanging in the classroom come December, I scoffed.  By the time February rolled around and she asked what we liked to do in fourth grade for the 100th day of school, I said, “Um, I don’t know.  Write math problems that equal 100?”  But of course, that wasn’t going to cut it and by this point, I had realized the truth in the old statement, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”   At this rate, soon I was going to be known as the boring 4th grade teacher if I didn’t change my ways.

Working together, we’ve found ways to transform celebrations that I had always left to the primary teachers into events that upper elementary students enjoy and will remember.  I have to admit it’s fun and I look forward to sharing some of our shenanigans with you all through this blog.  One of my favorites we tried out for the first time last year was using a free app called Aging Booth to change our students first day of school photos into how they might look when they’re 100 years old.  On the 100th day, we put them on their desk in the morning and asked them to write a “bucket list” of 10 things they’d like to do before their 100th birthday.  We then attached the lists to the photos and displayed them in the hall.  The whole school was talking about the 4th grade classes’ old people photos!  I can’t wait to do it again this year next week.

Some of the other teachers thought we were brave to include our own "old people" photos out in the hall, but I think that was the kids' favorite part.  Besides, it's an easy sacrifice to make while my age still rounds to 30.  I may change my tune in a few years.  

I was never a total Scrooge before, but I’m thankful for the ways our resident former kindergarten teacher helps me see things in a new, more exciting light.  But don’t worry… I haven’t completely lost my head.  I still will not EVER be caught showing The Polar Express the week before winter break.  That one I WILL leave to the primary teachers. The thought of hot chocolate in my classroom makes me cringe...  


The Truth About Teachers and Snow Days

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Here in North Carolina, we’ve just had four snow days due to four inches of icy mess.   This whole concept is rather annoying to a few groups of people: parents of school age children, Northerners and teachers’ spouses who have real jobs.  But as for my dog and me, we’ve gotten along just fine with it by the fireplace.

There is nothing more attractive than the recorded voice of the school system spokesperson on the other end of the line.  (Except maybe for the man at the UPS store who has been making me 100 free copies a month this school year, and COLLATING and STAPLING them to boot…that’s pretty sexy too).  For a teacher, the adrenaline rush that comes with that “no school” phone call (ironically) ranks right under the high we feel on the first day of school. 

What is it that makes us equally excited for the first day of school and an unexpected day off from school?  This ambivalence of feelings sums up the contradictory nature of this job.  We work from sun up to sun down for 180 days a year in exchange for those 100 days of summer.  We pour our efforts and resources into those few kids who need the most help in exchange for one or two of them making the growth we’re hoping for.  We grade endless papers and pen thoughtful feedback that may or may not ever be read by the student or their parents.  We prepare for conferences only to be stood up, especially if it’s scheduled for 7:00 am.  And we write out perfect winter lesson plans only to scratch them out continually with the changing forecast. 

Perhaps there is no less predictable job.  We can plan out every second of every day, but the truth is we aren’t any more in charge of our classrooms than we are of the weather.  It’s all about our students: their moods, their behavior, their effort, their participation... we’re at their mercy whether we want to admit or not.  So we learn to be flexible and we adjust- every second of every day.   And the truth is THAT’S when we’re at our best- when we’re winging it, because that’s where our experience lies.

They say meteorology is the only career that allows you to be continually wrong and keep your job.  I’d beg to differ and I’d add education to the list.  We rarely get it right the first time and I used to think by the fifth or sixth, surely my accuracy would improve.  But the truth is, I’ve never once gotten it exactly right- and that’s okay.  Because just like 4 inches of sleet got us 4 days off school the same way the 8-12 inches of snow they were calling for would have, a lesson that only gets taught halfway because so many students had questions still does the trick.  Sometimes the right thing isn’t what you planned or expected and you just have to go with your gut and do the best you can.

You can study all the models, watch for certain patterns, and write out that five day forecast lesson plan, but in the end, teaching is an inexact science.  Go easy on yourself, and next time the weatherman misses the forecast entirely and we miss out on a two-hour delay, go easy on him too.  We’re all in this together.


Where Are We Going to Find a Llama?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Kids are funny.  Not just a little bit funny- really funny.  There are a lot of ways I’ve developed as an educator in ten years of teaching, but let’s not discount my sense of humor as a major area of growth. Part of it is out of necessity but part of it comes from me.  I love to laugh.  I laugh with my students and sometimes, I laugh at them (if I can get away with doing so without them knowing).

My co-workers and I have often said we should’ve kept a notebook of all the funny hilarious experiences we’ve had over the years with our students.  So many escape me daily.  Retention and sharing of these laughable moments has improved some with the development of texting.  I’m sure my husband loves it when I interrupt his workday with a text retelling something funny that one of my students has said or done.  Often, the humor is lost on him.  But I’m hoping that won’t be the case for all of you.

By Friday night, we’re all in need of a good laugh.  Even if it’s been the worst week ever, there’s nothing we can do now but laugh about it.  In this spirit, I bring you a new staple on the blog: the Friday Night Funny.  Sometimes it may be a story, sometimes it may be a quote, and sometimes, like tonight, it may be a piece of student work. 

One of my favorite writing activities is the Great Eight bundle from The Teacher Studio.  The concept is that students are given eight minutes to write about a given topic.  I use it as practice after mini-lessons on paragraphs, topic sentences, supporting details, conventions, etc. It’s a great way to see what kind of writing a student can produce given a little freedom and a deadline. 

This week’s Great Eight topic was “pets.” I told students they could take it from there—they could write about types of pets, reasons to get a pet, their own pet, etc.  This particular student chose to write about his favorite house pet (a dog) and his favorite farm animal (a llama).  I wish I had thought to take a picture before I marked it up but it’s still pretty cute.  For some reason, his ending made me laugh out loud and I’m hoping it’ll do the same for you.  We shared in class today and he was so cute and expressive reading it out loud that I wish I could show you a video clip, but for the Friday Night Funny, this transcript will have to do.  Enjoy and have a great weekend!


How I Learned to Love (Teaching) Reading

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I love to read, but I used to hate teaching reading.  The basal textbook bores even me, concepts on the pacing guide are never as clear-cut I’d like, and besides, how do you teach reading to a nine-year-old who hates to read?  (I’m still open to suggestions on that!)

A few years ago, in light of less than stellar reading test scores, our principal encouraged our grade level to try something new.  She promised to support anything we were excited about doing as long as we could promise results.  It was the first time I’d been encouraged to think outside the box in this area and it didn’t take long for me to realize what was missing. 

Books.  Not textbooks, not guided reading books, not books that were written to be taught—books that were written to be READ, to be devoured, and to be discussed.  What my students needed were novels that would transform them, both as readers and as human beings. 

We also needed time.  The only way I knew to accomplish that was to simplify things, streamline my reading lesson plans.  Guided reading, in its truest form, wasn’t doing the trick for my fourth graders.  I was so busy trying to keep different groups on task and juggle five or six different books and readers that I knew I wasn’t really giving any of my students what they needed.  Furthermore, while I knew I still had to teach skills and concepts, I wanted to spend more time integrating them into novel study than I spent teaching them explicitly. 

Out of all this came my novel units.  I started from nothing and created them, question by question, quiz by quiz, and word by word.  What also came out of this was results!  Our test scores improved and much more importantly, our students got excited about reading.  We continued to teach guided reading by pulling our struggling readers into small groups and providing more support, and sometimes we taught two related but differently leveled novels at the same time (such as I Survived the Sinking ofthe Titanic, 1912 and Titanic, BookOne: Unsinkable).  But the fact that we were are all reading either the same or similar books makes everyone feel like they’re on the same team and, more importantly, enables me to take advantage of every teachable moment.  Now I love to teach reading!

My novel units are Common Core aligned and so easy to use.  My students love them too.  At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to use the same format all year long but it’s been three years and I haven’t had a student complain yet.  I’d love for you to try them in your class too.  There are several different freebies available on the tab above.  Please let me know what you think by providing feedback, and I’d love to hear what books you’d like me to put on my list for the future.   


The Night Before School Starts Back

Sunday, January 3, 2016
For you non-parent non-teacher types, tomorrow is just another Monday.  Perhaps you enjoyed a three-day weekend thanks to the New Year’s holiday but otherwise it’s just another Sunday night.  You’re waking up from a nap, watching some football, maybe finishing up some laundry…
For the rest of us, it is THE night before school starts back.  It’s the first day of school all over again, this time without the excitement of that first day, without the clean slates and shiny classrooms.  Tomorrow there won’t be any adrenaline to push us out of bed; there will only be the reality that we need to pack real lunches and plan acceptable outfits.  When we get there, there will be no introductions or icebreakers; there will only be the reminder that testing starts next week and we’ve got a lot to learn between now and then.  (So I know you missed your friends, but please, please be quiet and listen…)
There are parents who cannot wait to drop off in the car rider line in the morning and soak up the first peace they’ve experienced since before the blessed holiday season.  There are others who will be sad to let go of slow mornings and lazy days with their little ones, and still others who have no idea how they’re going to drag their kids out of bed since bedtime has been completely disregarded for the last two weeks. (I imagine my husband is feeling similarly about waking me up tomorrow.) And while I’m not part of the parenting world, I imagine that most parents experience a mixture of all those feelings.  (Don’t worry…snow days will set in soon…)
There are also different types of teachers.  There are those who left their classroom in perfect order with January’s lesson plans neatly typed out on their desk (okay, maybe there are only one or two of those but I’m thinking they may exist somewhere).  There are those of us who typed up our plans sometime last week so we could shake the feeling of impending doom but now we can’t even remember what we decided to teach tomorrow.  And I’m sure there are some of you who won’t even start those plans until later tonight, soaking up every last minute of denial possible.  (Cheers to you—I feel your pain!)
However, on the night before school starts back, it’s not the parents or the other teachers I find myself thinking about.  Instead, it’s those twenty little people who call me Mrs. Jones.  I haven’t seen them for two weeks and truth be told, I miss them.  I may need to remind myself of this feeling by 9:00 am tomorrow when I’ve already been interrupted twenty times and repeated myself twice that, but I’ve truly missed them.  I miss their smiles, I miss their ideas and funny comments, and I miss the feeling I have when I’m in those four walls with them just doing our thing. 
           I’m not sure but I think maybe that’s how you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to do… when you miss it when you aren’t doing it.   So if you’re a parent and you’re sad tonight because you’re sending those kiddos back to school tomorrow, be thankful for the chance to miss them.  Soak it up when they walk back through the door tomorrow afternoon.  If you’re a fellow teacher and you’re begrudging those lesson plans tonight, remind yourself what’s on that paper isn’t what really matters.  What does matter is the twentyish kids somewhere tonight who couldn’t care less what’s in your lesson plans.  All they know is that tomorrow they’ll be back in those four walls with you, doing their thing.

It’s our job to make it a place they are excited to come back, so let’s be ready…not with the perfect lesson plans or the right outfits, but with our smiles and in our hearts. That’s what the night before school starts back is all about.