Creating an Inviting Classroom

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I know.  I know.  I have been absent for a while.  This past year was bit of a trying year with a new administrator, school accreditation visits, and let’s be honest – motherhood of an 11, 9, and 3 yr old.  This year my first priority was about meeting the needs of my family and then my students…so blog, you were last place on the list of priorities. So, sorry!  BUT we can be friends again!  The great thing about summer is that teachers actually have time to THINK, PLAN, and RELAX.  Oh, we also get to use the bathroom when we want to…unless we have a toddler stalking us.  Anyway, one of my favorite things to do is write on vacation, so here I am…

Today’s blog is about creating an inviting classroom environment!  This is the time of year that teachers are thinking about changing things up, and change can be exciting!  It can also be rewarding when educators reflect upon how to make the classroom environment more inviting and welcoming for their students.  Think about it..imagine being invited over to a stranger’s home for dinner.  It’s a stranger’s home, because on the first day of school, you are a stranger to your students.  Now, imagine if this stranger’s home was dark and foreboding.  You couldn’t find utensils to eat with, and the plates were dirty.  Let’s not even talk about the look you get when you eat with your elbows on the table.  Yikes…..would you want to go back for dinner?  Well, children feel the same way about their classroom.  Yes, it’s their classroom, too!  They want to spend time in a safe, organized, and comfortable classroom.  Now, this OCD gal is not saying that your classroom should be neat and tidy all the time, because kids make messes.  Messes can be fun, and they are usually a sign that your students are participating in meaninful, student-centered learning.  However, our goal should be to have a classroom that kids want to stay in all the time!  Now, I know your classroom environment is not the main reason why your students keeps coming back, year after year, to visit.  It’s because of YOU.  However, YOU are the one who makes the classroom inviting for your students in the first place.

Here are some things to consider when creating your inviting classroom environment this summer:

1.  Do you have a classroom theme?  It’s not necessary, but it makes things easier when decorating your classroom.  Plus, who doesn’t love a classroom that makes a good, first impression?  Plus, themes are fun!  My own classroom theme is “The Class of United Nations,” but there are also so many other neat themes you can check out on Pinterest.  Check out my favorite sites for classroom theme ideas:

 

 

2.  Are you considering flexible seating this year?  Flexible seating involves giving your students a choice on how to sit in the classroom.  Students can use floor pillows, carpet squares, wobble chairs, scoop rockers, etc.  I found a GREAT post listing different kinds of seating at:

3.  Does your classroom management system promote positive reinforcement?  Trust me, I am a parent.  I believe that there are consequences for your actions.  However, take the time to read a post at:

There are other important components of an inviting classroom, but let’s start there for now.  Trust me…I’m not an expert.  I will never be one, because I am always changing and growing.  Teachers really get their best ideas from each other.  So, if you have any other fabulous ideas on how to create an inviting classroom environment, please respond to this post and share!

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher Blues

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This summer I will celebrate my 17th year of teaching. During those 17 years, I have been a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade teacher. I served as a Title I Resource Teacher for 3rd-5th grades, and I took one year off to substitute, as a pre-school teacher while my middle child was a baby.  I even enjoyed some time as an adjunct faculty college professor for Polk State College.   The purpose of listing my teaching experiences is not to brag or boast my resume, but rather it’s to admit that after 17 years of teaching, I still feel like I am growing, stretching, and resurfacing as a different teacher every year. There are still those ups and downs of not feeling adequate enough…not meeting the needs of every child. There are times I get the “teacher blues.”

You know the “teacher blues.” Sometimes, you question whether or not you are a good enough teacher. Am I doing enough for every child? Why isn’t this working? How can I do this better? Why are my scores so low?   Why can’t I think of creative and neat activities that are on Pinterest? Why don’t the parents understand how much I am doing for their children? Then, you find yourself comparing yourself to other teachers and wishing you could be just like them. Your feelings of inadequacy cause you not to ask for help or collaborate, because you don’t want to admit that you don’t have all the answers.

I have these “teacher blues” time to time, and I have to remind myself that when I feel this way that these are just “feelings.” Feelings are not always truth, and teachers should remind themselves that life is NOT perfect. Our students will sometimes struggle with concepts. Parents don’t always see the big picture. We don’t always have to do everything over the top like on Pinterest. Most of all, teachers are all different. I am different. I do not have the same strengths as another teacher, and that teacher won’t have the same strengths as me. If we let our “teacher blues” get the best of us, then we won’t be OUR BEST as teachers. We don’t collaborate. My students will not get the best of me if I let the “teacher blues” override me every time. Feeling inadequate takes away the confidence I need as a teacher to meet the needs of every child. It takes away the hope and idealism that I believe in as an educator.

The point is that you, as a teacher, care enough to be your best. That’s why you do question yourself. You are the person who cares about whether or not you are meeting your students’ needs. But at the end of the day, your students will remember you for being a kind, compassionate, loving soul. They will remember that you gave it your all, and that’s all we can do…give it our best. So, the next time you are feeling the “teacher blues,” just remember that: You.Are.Awesome.

Doing the Differentiation Dance

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Differentiated instruction. Right now, those words seem to be the current “buzz words” of education. However, differentiated instruction has existed since the one-room schoolhouse age when the teacher had to meet the needs of many children at all different ages. Trust me, college students research and apply differentiated instruction a lot while creating very detailed lesson plans with tiered activities! However, by the time we become actual teachers in the classroom, planning and implementing differentiated instruction can be a much more rigorous task.  It’s almost like an artistic dance…while juggling at the same time.

I always advise people to start small. I know this can be difficult with the changes in education. There is something “new” to implement every year. However, concentrate on one thing and make it “beautiful!” It’s so easy to implement something and have it crash and burn in such an ugly way that you want to cry for hours on your classroom carpet. Before something can be beautiful, it takes time to grow and cultivate. So, cultivate one thing at a time.

How about starting with differentiated reading centers? Teachers are really good at differentiating small group reading instruction, but how about those centers? Are your students struggling with centers? Could the reason be that some centers are not for everyone? Are they too hard or too easy for some kids?

Here are some tips for planning and implementing differentiated reading centers:

1. Assess your students periodically. Believe it or not, it’s okay to move students up and down levels throughout the year. If a child is demonstrating success in a guided reading group, then move that child! Also, your groups don’t always have to be based on guided reading level. Sometimes, it is necessary to have flexible reading groups based on skill. Change it up!

I use the Fountas & Pinnell BAS and Words Their Way assessments for guided and flexible groups:

BAS Kit

Fountas & Pinnell BAS Kit                   

Words Their Way Assessment

Words Their Way Elementary Spelling Inventory

 

2. Decide on the types of reading centers for your class. Some examples of researched and productive centers are: listening center, word building/phonics center, writing center, vocabulary center, technology center, word wall center, fluency center, buddy reading center, read to self center, etc. Some teachers choose to integrate the Daily 5 Centers in order to make sure all students participate in each center every day.

     Here are my differentiated reading center examples at this time:

Differentiated Centers - Low Group

Differentiated Centers - Medium Group

Differentiated Centers - High Group

 

3. Set up an organized system for students, so students know what are their centers and their locations.

Each colored folder represents a specific reading group for differentiation:

Reading Center Area

Reading Centers Station

Reading Center Bin with Leveled Color Bins

              Reading Center Bin               

Leveled Color Envelopes

Leveled Folders by Color

 

4. Provide accountability for the students. Students can even self-assess themselves!

     My students love using their Literacy Center Accountability forms:

Literacy Accountabilty Form

 

5. Have student exemplars for each center activity. The exemplars provide a visual example for the students, and it keeps them from asking you questions while you are working with a guided reading group!

    I just put my student exemplars in white binders:

Exemplar Bins

Exemplar Organization

Exemplar Binder

Student Exemplar Binder

Highlight the Vowel Exemplar  Voc Quiz Maker Exemplar Spelling Mural Exemplar

Like you, I am still cultivating my differentiated reading centers. I love getting ideas from other educators on how to make my centers “grow.” I hope you could find some ideas for differentiated reading centers in this post!  Let’s dance the differentiation dance together!

Websites for Center Ideas:

http://www.fcrr.org/for-educators/sca.asp (Florida Reading Center)

http://www.scottsboro.org/~flewis/SF%20Reading%20Street/Third%20Grade%20Reading%20Street%20Teacher%20Resources.htm (Reading Street Resources)
http://edtechteacher.org/10-ideas-for-creating-literacy-centers-with-technology-from-beth-on-edudemic/ (Technology Centers)
https://www.thedailycafe.com/daily-5 (The Daily 5)
http://www.busyteacherscafe.com/literacy_centers/index.html (The Busy Teacher’s Cafe)
http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/balancedlit.php (Laura Candler)

Setting Priorities in the New Year

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After a long hiatus from posting any blogs, I have returned with my feelings, thoughts, and words.  This school year brought a lot of changes with a new administration, set of new students with different needs, and the necessity to spend more time with family.  I chose to place priority on the important things of life this school year, and that is so important to being an effective teacher.

Burn out is so common among teachers, especially teachers who are so dedicated and committed to reflecting upon their instruction and making it better.  Time is spent researching strategies, planning effective lessons, organizing necessary materials, and loving on each student.  We are the first ones to arrive at school and the last ones to drive away from the parking lot.  Sometimes, our weekends are spent in our classroom.  You know who you are…you are the teacher who cares so much, and you feel like if you aren’t committed with your time, then you must not be as effective or care so much.

But what happens to this kind of teacher?  They burn out.  They lose that energy that makes the classroom “come alive.”  Therefore, it’s so important for us to set our priorities in a way that doesn’t produce a “fizzle.”  As teachers, it’s so important to:

  •  Put family first.  Our family is our primary responsibility, and if we expect our students’ parents to put their kids first, then we must do the same.  We, as parents, are the primary teachers of our own children.
  • Make time for yourself.  Research continually demonstrates that rest and relaxation is important.  Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep.  Trust me…as a parent of three kids, I know this is so hard!!  However, even if it’s for an hour, do something for YOU!  The laundry can wait, and the papers really don’t have to be graded that day.
  • Learn how to delegate.  Use your parent volunteers.  Giving up control is hard, but your parents really want to feel a part of the school community.  Use them to file papers, cut out lamination, make copies, or even work with students.  You would be surprised how much students can learn from other adults.
  • Most importantly, know that caring is sometimes enough.  We put too much stress on ourselves as teachers.  At the end of the day, your student is going to remember you for whether or not you showed that you cared about them.  They might not remember the most fabulous technology lesson, exciting field trip, or phenomenal activity.  However, they will always remember if you demonstrated compassion and love towards them.

May all my teacher peeps have a wonderful 2016 school year.  May each of you take the time to set priorities this year in order to be a more effective teacher.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do.

The Mean Teacher

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Remember those middle and high school days when you accidentally caught the “Mean Girls” whispering behind your back while they thought you weren’t present?  Or people made fun of you, because you were the “overachiever” in school?  Or maybe you were the “most artistic” or “most athletic?”  Most adolescents don’t recognize jealousy and lack the wisdom and emotional security to rationalize through these awkward and painful situations.  However, as we grow older and mature, adults grasp a better understanding of the reasons behind adolescent malicious gossip, social hierarchy, and “Mean Girl” thinking.  One of the main reasons is adolescent insecurity.  As adolescents slowly mature into adults, their emotional banks are filled with more positive experiences to fill holes in their insecurities.  However, even as adults, we unfortunately haven’t resolved all our insecurities.  The “Mean Teacher” exists.

In the educational field, one would hope that adults, especially teachers would foster an environment of peace, collaboration, and cooperation…right???   We all know as teachers that we like to pretend that we are the perfect models of appropriate behavior, but the truth is that we struggle just as much with professional insecurity.  At times, we are the “Mean Teacher.”  Think about these scenarios for example:

1.  In a faculty meeting, the principal singles out one or two teachers who have done a fabulous job on an after-school family event.  The principal sings praises of the teacher, and instead of wanting to clap for those teachers, you want to scream “brown-noser!”  You and a few teachers may even gossip about those teachers behind their backs calling those teachers names…yep, even teachers.

2.  After standardized test scores are posted or the “data wall” goes up, you immediately look at the other teachers’ scores to analyze whether or not you or your grade level has the best scores – admit it.  When you or your grade level doesn’t have the highest scores, you start to discredit a teacher or grade level’s scores by discussing their classroom weaknesses.

3.  In parent conferences or “unofficial meetings” at the store, parents rant and rave about their child’s previous teacher.  You start to find yourself indirectly talking negative about the previous year’s teacher by discussing how the teacher didn’t adequately prepare their child for the current grade level.

Now, some of these scenarios may be exaggerated slightly, but they do happen.  WHY??  As educators, we should be the MOST confident and MOST secure in our positions as professionals.  We have the BEST job in the world, and our job is the MOST important!!  Why are we so mean sometimes????

There are several reasons why our profession can be competitive, vicious, and not collaborative.  First, our nation doesn’t pride itself on its teachers.  If you even glance at your Facebook or Twitter Newsfeed for the day, there is at least one meme, post, blog, or news article that slams a teacher.  Didn’t you know that the reason American kids can’t read, write, and do arithmetic is because of public school teachers?  Not to mention those Common Core Standards are the devil in disguise!

Next, our nation’s educational system places too much emphasis on data.  Data is a wonderful tool to drive instruction, and I think it should be used in the classroom for reflection and growth.  However, when schools display each grade level and each teacher’s data for everyone to see and then encourage discussion on “What is wrong with this data?” it facilitates an environment of competition and insecurity.

Last, schools don’t take the time to build an environment of friendships!  Teachers don’t even need to best BFFs, but they need to make connections and create bonds with one another.  When teachers actually meet with each other as a whole, it’s for rushed faculty meetings, long professional developments, urgent district announcements, or fired up union meetings.

So, what can we (me and you) do as educators to help STOP being a “mean teacher?”  First, place importance and pride on your job.  If you BELIEVE that teaching is the MOST important job in the world, then you will start to treat ALL teachers with respect and kindness.  You will understand that every teacher’s success leads to the success of all children.  When a teacher is praised, earns high scores, or gets a “promotion,” you will be happy and excited for that person.  Next, remember why you became an educator, because it wasn’t for high-test scores!  I know this is hard with pay for performance, school grades, and teacher evaluations based on scores, but things won’t change if our own mindsets don’t change first.  If administrators started praising improvement, then we might just see EVERY teacher earning a praise.  Imagine what that would do for every teacher’s confidence?  Last, try to remember that we are all in this together.  At the end of the day, the children are going to suffer the  most from the “Mean Teacher.”

 

Cooperation? Collaboration? How about starting with Conversation?

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Cooperative and collaborative learning can enhance our classroom instruction with structured, vibrant, and meaningful learning.  Research indicates that this type of learning is not successful without prior class building and team building activities to promote a safe, nurturing classroom environment.  Educators who initiate the school year with students getting to know each other and make connections through conversation foster a class bond.  This is the type of bond where there are tears at the end of the school year, because everyone will miss each other over the summer.

 Yet, teachers are the last group of people to attempt to form bonds with each other.  Think about it…remember the last time you sat in a faculty, team, or committee meeting when the silence was awkward?  Perhaps, only one or two people did all the collaborating while other people checked their text messages or graded papers?  Sometimes, we emulate the negative scenarios in our classroom of attempted cooperative and collaborative learning!

This is not always on purpose – just as our students don’t maniacally plan to destroy our cooperative learning lessons.  As a school faculty and staff, we don’t take the time to have conversations with each other.   How many of you know EVERY one of your colleagues’ names?

So, what can schools do to promote conversations with one another?  Here are just a few suggestions to enhance a school community of collaboration:

  1. Start the year with a social event for faculty and staff to get to know each other. This doesn’t mean a faculty meeting with one getting to know you activity.  Host an event where the sole purpose is to mingle and mix!
  1. Assign the SAME vertical teams for the whole school year. These teachers can really get to know one another on a different grade level.
  1. Provide “safe” areas for teachers to have conversations with each other. Most teachers’ lounges are filled with clutter, copy machines, etc.  It’s not a place to relax.  How about having a comfortable, decorated area that attracts teachers to socialize with one another?
  1. Create social events throughout the year OUTSIDE of school. Invite the family members of faculty and staff.  Make some connections.

At the end of the day, administrators and educators may have their “hands tied” when it comes to some of these ideas, but let’s start our conversations then with a simple, “Hello,” on the sidewalk.

Flip My What?

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Buzz words in education flutter in and out of our vocabulary through websites, blogs, Twitter feed, and other professional development conversations. Have you heard the buzz word, “flipped classroom?” Some of you are thinking, “Flip my what? My classroom can’t take another flip to end up in a flop!”

The flipped classroom model involves students preparing for classroom learning BEFORE teacher instruction or class discussion through the use of technology. The technology can include audio files, video clips, PowerPoint presentations, websites, and other types of media. Therefore, students equip themselves already with prior knowledge to participate in more meaningful and applicable discussion and activities in the classroom. Here are some benefits to a flipped classroom:

1. Students can take ownership and control of their own learning.

2. Teachers can spend more time with students in small groups or one-on-one instruction.

3. You can save time and stop repeating yourself, because lessons are recorded.

4. Substitutes and parents can have access to your lessons.

5. Educators have more time to differentiate instruction.

In order to implement flipped learning, an educator will need a “vehicle” for students to access the media for learning. The vehicle should be accessible at school and home. Last year, I had the opportunity to utilize Edmodo for a class of 2nd graders. Edmodo is easy to use, and my 2nd graders were able to use it for a variety of flipped learning. The students would watch the background videos and listen to the audio lessons either at home or during center time. Then, the students had a task to complete. During small group time or whole group, the students would share, critique, and discuss the task.

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This year, my school district has decided to implement Schoology. Schoology is more difficult to navigate; however, the benefits to a common “vehicle” promote Internet safety and consistency among the students. In addition, teachers can expand the “flipped classroom” method by being able to collaborate with one another on a common site.

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My flipped classroom experience has been a positive experience. I believe flipped learning gives me more time to work with my students who need remediation; provides enrichment for my high students; and facilitates me to plan better lessons and activities.

So, now that you are enticed by this buzz word, where can you start? Well, I had the personal experience of training myself through http://www.sophia.org. You can access a free on-line course on flipped learning through their site, and earn a free T-shirt. Educators can earn certification at: https://www.sophia.org/flipped-classroom-certification.

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