We’re coming to the end of our second week of school, and what a two weeks it’s been!
I’ve learned so very much in the past two weeks. The kids are finally getting to a place where they know enough for us to really start learning. We’re practicing close reads, and they’re coming together quite nicely. We’ve made progress in math, but at the same time, we’re still struggling.
I’m figuring things out, and making tons of mistakes. I’m choosing to see these as “teachable moments” in order to create a classroom culture of risk-taking. I apologize for my mistakes and vow to do better. I think they like me better for this, though I wish I hadn’t made the mistakes in the first place. Still, I know what I teach my students: mistakes are evidence of learning.
The room is the same and different all at once. I shot a few pictures to share with you. First, I want to make sure you understand that these are real life pictures, taken right before I left for the day, but before our cleaning staff had come in. To an extent, I say this because I don’t want you judging things. But I’m also saying this because I’m very proud of how clean my students keep our classroom.
Here’s a shot of the library:
The book bins are a lot less organized than they were two weeks ago. I’m very much ok with that.
And here are some desks and my guided reading area:
We’re starting to get anchor charts up. The desks are certainly not in their original positions. My back counter is thoroughly messy, which is inevitable, I guess.
Getting the kids to make good choices is an ongoing struggle. The idea that it’s not all about punishments is new for some of these kids, I think. Example: at the end of math, I always have kids check their work on the math problems we did that day, checking what they got correct, circling ones that are incorrect. I told the kids this doesn’t go in my gradebook, it’s just so that we can see what we still have to work on. Still, I’ve got one student who fills in the answers as I give them to them, marking her answers all correct. I think I get the cliche, “all you do is cheat yourself”. If she had gotten away with it, I wouldn’t have known she needed help.
But we’re starting to create a community. They’re starting to trust me. Not all of them, but a lot of them. They’re making better choices each and every day. We’re coming along.
This week felt like a constant battle. Not at all with my kids, I fell in love with them. But a battle for my kids.
We were fighting, clawing, taking 4 steps forward and then 3 back. It was a constant struggle to get them to really get this week’s focus in math, place value.
It was good, but it was hard. We had our first math lesson on Tuesday, and it went well. The kids understood hundreds, tens, and ones brilliantly. After being so frustrated on Monday because of behaviors, I needed this win. It was short lived, though, because Wednesday was a disaster. I asked kids to regroup tens and ones, seeing that 27 could be 2 tens and 7 ones, 0 tens and 27 ones, or 1 ten and 17 ones. They didn’t get it, and they didn’t know there was anything to get. They were frustrated. I was frustrated.
So I backed things up on Thursday. And the lesson was still a colossal flop. Seemed like no matter what I did, it didn’t make sense to them. I called my mom. She helped me think about things differently. I texted with my old mentor who is now a math coach. She told me something I probably should have known from the beginning: unifix cubes.
Friday, we made progress. 90% of my students were able to get that 27 tens could be 2 tens and 7 ones or 27 ones. 6 students were able to figure out that it could also be 1 ten and 17 ones. Several more got it when it was explained to them by their classmates. It wasn’t perfect, but coming on the heals of so much failure, it was a definite win.
But mostly, this was week one of school. Week one of feeling like every day, I might completely fail these kids. I’m so incredibly scared of battle fatigue.
I spend a lot of my time experimenting. On any given day, some of my kids don’t get it, whatever “it” might happen to be that day. And so I have to do things differently. I have to change my approach. I have to get better at this whole thing. So I try something different. And it works or it doesn’t, and I adjust accordingly. Rinse and repeat. Until all of the students get whatever you teach them all of the time.
The problem with this sort of experimentation is that it assumes failure. And failure is so very hard to accept. For the obvious reasons. But also because of this: my failures as a teacher come at the cost of real students.
Sometimes, it just seems like it would be so much easier to believe that [singing at the top of my lungs] “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!!” To believe that I have no room for improvement. And therefore everything I do is the best it can possibly be. Any kids I don’t reach don’t matter.
Coming off of yesterday’s failures, I was hopeful but apprehensive about today. And it was amazing. The kids had a much better idea of what was expected of them, and while their behavior was still not what I want, it was definitely moving in the right direction.
The kids came in this morning, completed their morning work, grabbed the book boxes and started reading. There was a little bit of chit chat, but really, it wasn’t bad and it was easily corrected. This is us during our math lesson this morning, exploring place value:
Here’s what I love about this picture. In this moment, my classroom was noisy, but productive. Kids were working in self-selected groups – exploring, thinking, working their little butts off. I was guiding, facilitating, but never teaching. Today was exhausting in its own way. But mostly, it was energizing. I got the kids to work harder than me!
Yesterday was the first day of school for me, and it was a doozy. I’m just beginning my fourth year teaching, which in NC means that I no longer have a “probationary” teaching license.
So… you’d think I’d know what I’m doing by now…
But yesterday certainly proved that I do not. I was impatient and ill-prepared. I underestimated just how radical my classroom management approach would be for these kids. And perhaps even if I hadn’t, the first day of school was bound to go poorly. It was just too different from everything my kids know.
I was reading a teaching blog recently (I forget which one, but in general, it’s one I really enjoy), and the author said something to the effect of… “Whatever you do, make sure your students know that you’re in control in your classroom, not them.”
Now maybe this is my foster parenting background coming out, but it seems like kids need control. That’s why they push so hard to exert it in really illogical ways (e.g., refusal to eat a food they typically like). I want kids to feel in control, because being in control makes us feel secure. My sister and I were talking about guys that pick you up and how much we despise this. It puts them in control of our physical selves, and they doesn’t feel good. At all. I assume my students feel the same way.
I want every single student to know they are in control. Of their physical selves. Of their academic future. Of their choices. They make choices. They accept the consequences. They are in control. If their behavior is deemed “unacceptable” by me or the school, then it is our responsibility to implement healthy boundaries (i.e., consequences).
Example: One of my students was talking in line yesterday. This violates a school rule and potentially disrupts the classes that we walk past. So it’s my job to teach her, guided her to making a better choice, and if necessary, implement an appropriate boundary if the behavior continues. So I leaned down and whispered to her, “Who could you stand in line so that it would be easier for you to stay quiet?” And she looked up at my with this look on her face like I was the craziest person she’d ever met.
This approach to classroom management is so very different from what most of these kids know… and I know that it will take time for them to get used to my style. And I know that it will take time for them to learn self-regulation. It will take time, but I’m confident that the effort will be well worth it.
So the first day of school was full of kids misunderstanding me. And for some reason, I was blindsided by this and quickly became impatient. I’m so thankful for the way kids will let you start fresh each day.
I’ve finally got my classroom in order, which is good since the kids are coming tomorrow.
Let’s revisit my priorities this year. I wanted a flexible learning space that allows students multiple different seating options. These are:
Window space (remember that ledge from before?)
More traditional desk/table space
More relaxed seating options (couch, chair, beanbag, etc.)
I wanted space for students to work independently, in small groups (2-3), in larger groups (up to 6, for guided reading or guided math), and a place for us to meet as a whole group.
So let’s take a look…
I projected different Adventure Time images and traced them onto paper. That’s how I got that crazy image of Jake the Dog and the Adventure Time logo on the cloud. This is great because it allowed me to edit out the sword that’s typically in the logo.
Let’s take a look inside:
This is a good overview of the classroom from the door. You can see most of the desks are in groups of three to allow for small group collaboration. I also got a deal on a used couch and painted a coffee table my husband had inherited from one of his friends during his bachelor days.
To the left:
Because I’m not assigning desks (in fact, I’m just shy of having enough desks for every student, and one is being used as pencil sharpening station), I needed another place for students to store their stuff. These cubbies are color coded by group (there are even more on the other side of the closets), as are the handles to the closets. Color coding with duct tape is one of my favorite things.
Each cubby has the workbooks purchased by the district and a clipboard (jk, I’m actually 3 clipboards short, but I’m hoping to pick these up throughout the year). Clipboards were donated by my mother, who has trouble getting rid of things that are perfectly fine unless she knows they’re going to a good home. I’m glad my classroom qualifies. The clipboards were really important to me since I know I wanted the kids to have the option of working on the carpet, standing up, whatever.
You can also see my gray filing cabinet. This holds all of my resources, sorted by unit, student paperwork, etc. It will also house my desk during the day when it’s plugged up to the interactive whiteboard (thus all the cords). These three desks here are meant to be independent workstations. Next to the cubbies are some of those cardboard cubicles, so students can create privacy, as desired.
The desk up front that’s currently holding boxes of student portfolios (more on this approach once I see if it actually works) is intended as a timeout desk.
The green bulletin board will house my math interactive word wall. The bulletin boards on the front of the closets will become a shrine to the tested seven literacy skills. Basically, each closet door will include an anchor chart of the skill, a graphic organizer (or multiple, if necessary), and question stems. This is going to be a MUCH bigger version of my graphic organizer wall last year.
Rotating to the right a little…
Here you can see all the small group “tables”. I have 4 groups of 3 desks, which should be good for small groups. You can also see the coffee table which will work as a small group and/or independent workstation as well. On the far right, there’s a group of 6 desks, which is intended for interventionists and other faculty pushing in to help meet the needs of these students.
You can also see 3/4 of my gorgeous windows. These are my favorite part of my room. While they make for some crumby photos, they face South, allowing us to avoid using fluorescent lights most days.
You can also see my classroom library in the far corner. Here’s a closer view…
This green bulletin board will have my ELA interactive word wall. Current anchor charts will hang on the blank wall by the windows.
The baskets are organized by reading level from A to U+, with some reading levels being grouped together. While my library is certainly a work in progress, I’m pleased that levels L-P (“on grade level” is M-P) all get their own baskets, so I think I’m moving in the right direction. Additionally, the big white bins house the content library (Fables, Science, Social Studies, and then a bin of fun books). And the latest addition to the library is the small blue bin on the left. This houses my small, but growing, collection of Spanish language books. Since I have 2 students who have been in the country less than 1 year, I’m excited to have this.
You can also see my color coded book boxes. These are the Ikea boxes everyone is always talking about. I picked them up sometime last year, because I knew I was going to be moving towards book boxes sooner or later, and our nearest Ikea is 3 hours away.
The two sets of rolling drawers (purchased over the last few years from big lots) will hold my word work activities and a few other independent activities (vocabulary puzzles, VersaTiles). The paper organizer on top of the bigger one will hold various types of paper (lined, scrap, copy) as well as handouts (graphic organizers, reading passages, etc.).
Since this is also my whole group meeting space, you can also see my Ikea easel. I love this easel. Seriously, the best $15 I ever spent last year. I use it when I’m making anchor charts, doing number talks, modeling anything. It’s got a whiteboard on one side, chalkboard on the other. I don’t use the chalkboard, but I do use the inexpensive paper roles frequently.
From the front of the classroom looking back (door is to the right in this picture)…
Here’s my guided reading table, and my back cabinets. These cabinets will be filled with literacy anchor charts, specifically ones that support guided reading, so the students will be able to use them during guided reading.
This area also doubles as my teacher “desk”. The counter has all of the resources I need at my fingertips, while the cabinets and drawers have all sorts of other resources (books, paper, pencils, etc.) that we’ll need throughout the year. The book boxes will be used to hold the resources for each guided reading group.
Another shot of the guided reading area, this time from the door.
The double sided shelf holds all of our math manipulatives and games. It will also function as a “standing desk”, since it’s just the right height for most of my kiddos. Just beyond that, you can barely see a lone desk that has my sharpening station. And below the full length windows is the ledge my kids love to sit and work at.
So let’s talk structures for a moment…
The first week of school, I’m going to force my kids to try every different workstation in the classroom. And then I’m going to force them to reflect on their learning in each of those workstations. I’m hoping this will guide them in making good choices in the future.
Each of the workstations has a small tin (thanks, Target dollar spot) filled with highlighters, red pens, sticky notes, and index cards. Pencils will be communal, which I generally dislike. I just couldn’t see a way around it without giving the kids desks to hold the pencils in.
Now, let’s talk cost…
Easel, book boxes, book baskets, metal paper organizers (2 in teacher area, one in library), and plastic drawers were purchases from previous year.
Coffee table and the rug it’s sitting on came from mine or my husband’s young single days (here’s where I love my husband’s hoarding tendencies… and our large attic).
Couch: $40 (thrift store)
Spray paint to refinish coffee table (2 cans of blue, 1 can of sealant): $12 (Lowe’s)
Large dish pans (4): $12 (Big Lots)
Small green and blue plastic bins (6): $18 (Big Lots)
Drawer organizers (6 small, 1 large): $9 (Big Lots for the pencil baskets, Target for big organizer for my stuff)
Supply tins (7): $7 (Target)
And we’re done. For just about $100.
Will report back on the efficacy of all these changes.
Pictures will come in part 2. Here, I’m going to be talking about the pedagogy I’ve been exploring as I’ve been setting up my classroom.
First, let me start by saying that we still have 2 solid weeks before school starts. The last time I had my classroom set up this early was the year that I got married (tomorrow’s our anniversary), and I didn’t want to worry about school stuff on our honeymoon.
Now let’s get into the down and dirty of classroom setup. I didn’t totally hate how I had things set up last year. I was planning on moving my guided reading station and my classroom library (in order to expand storage for both). My focus in terms of professional development is ELA, so expanding the physical footprint for ELA related spaces was a pretty natural step.
And then I read this. I was really challenged by this question: “What if we completely emptied our classrooms and created a new environment that felt inviting, comfortable, and highlighted all of the things we feel are key to student success?”
How much of my classroom setup is because I’ve always had it that way. Because “this is how we’ve always done it”. And that because just isn’t good enough for me.
So I imagined a space for my students. I thought about (and researched) what would help them learn. I took what’s worked in the past and I kept it. The stuff that didn’t work, I got rid of.
Things that worked in the past:
Students working in pairs and/or groups of three: Very small groups allow for collaboration without needing a lot of management on my part to ensure the students don’t end up arguing over things.
Students working on the ledge by the window: This is weird, but my students really loved working here, probably because of how the sun beat down on the backs, and were generally very productive here.
Content Wall: This was created way too late in the school year, but was very helpful once it was up. You can learn more about it here.
Large Groups of Students: This is really a personal preference of mine, or perhaps a weakness in classroom management, but I just can’t handle larger groups of kids (4+). Somehow, they always end up turning into arguments or other off-task behavior. Since I spend time with small groups whenever I’m not teaching whole group, I just don’t have time or ability to manage these better. Towards the end of last year, we developed a very strict policy of no more than 3 in a group, and it worked well.
Anchor Charts: We created a lot of extremely helpful anchor charts last year, but then I had no real way to display them.
Lack of Access to Manipulatives: Philosophically, I’ve always believed students should have access to manipulatives, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to manage this.
Crowded Classroom: My students and I both do best when we have plenty of space to move. This is hugely important on those awful indoor recess days. But it’s also important so that students can freely move around the room throughout the day. But fitting 20+ student desks, two small group tables for me and an interventionist to work with students at, and a whole group carpet area into a classroom is no easy task.
And then I started planning. Here’s what I wanted in terms of groupings:
Students working independently
Students working in small groups (2 or 3)
2 teachers to pulling groups (up to 6 students) simultaneously
Here’s what I wanted in terms of spaces:
Window space (remember that ledge from before?)
More traditional desk/table space
More relaxed seating options (couch, chair, beanbag, etc.)
So I started fitting my resources into this. I had desks and tables. I had the window space. I also have a wonderful classroom carpet. The standing space was a bit trickier, and absent a whole lot of money that I don’t have, I figured something out. I have a bookshelf that is right about the right size for my students to stand and work at. The last item on the list I considered to be optional. A great plus, if I couldn’t manage it, but we would all survive without it.
But one thing I had to let go of is a 1:1 student to desk ratio, because I just couldn’t have all these things and the space that I want. I want students to feel like they can move around the classroom without feeling like they have to stay at their desk.
My original plan was to get rid of all the desks and replace with tables. While I think this would have looked better when you walked in the room, it didn’t work for functional reasons. I had a plan to spread out the students on these tables and at the computer desks in my classroom come testing time, but then I found out they changed the requirements in our state for standardized testing, so the desks had to stay.
In the end, this worked better, because it let me create groups of a variety of size. 1 group large enough for our interventionist to pull a group of up to 6 students. And then a lot of smaller groups of 3 desks. This actually fits with the original design a lot better.
Some desks are not going to be used except for standardized testing. These got pushed up against the wall and will be used for storage, giving us more space in the classroom. In fact, it gave so much more space, that I became a bit more ambitious when it came to that last line item. I ended up pulling an old college rug down from the attic. Then my husband had an old coffee table that I made over with just a few cans of spray paint. And I thrifted a couch for the classroom.
So get ready… I’ve got just a few more details to get in place before I show you how it turned out. Get ready!
It always hits me during our July 4th adventure to visit my husband’s family. All of a sudden, about a month after school lets out, I get inspired. Motivated. Overwhelmed by the urge to pinterest.
And then the rest of my Summer is always a mixture of trashy television and a whole lot of work. Throw in a couple kids and you pretty much have the past couple of weeks for me.
So let’s talk about some of the changes that are going to be happening in good ol’ C-5 this year (assuming I’m not being moved).
First, I’m going to make a really big push for more parental involvement. Last year was an adjustment for me since it was my first time working with such a large Hispanic population, so the translations alone were new for me. Now that I’ve got that down, I’m hoping to do a little more to get parents even more involved. I’ve been doing a lot in the way of pinterest research on stuff to do for open house in order to engage parents all year. Lots of good freebies, but I can’t help but be struck by the lack of Spanish translations. I know I’m not the only one in this boat. And I really don’t like the idea of giving the English speaking parents a beautiful pinteresty form to fill out and the Spanish speaking parents something substantially less than because I made it. This needs work.
On the other hand, I did order some magnets with my information and our class website, so that parents can have that handy.
Oh, and I also created a class website. Obviously, the information will be in English, but I did add a Google Translate plugin so that non-English speaking parents could get an approximation, if nothing else. Far from perfect. Perfect would be my being fluent in Spanish. But it works.
Second, I’m experimenting with a flipped model for ELA. I went ahead and created the first two units of videos, which should take us to the end of October. I’m hoping to get a little more done, but I’ve got a lot of other things to juggle, so I’m trying not to pressure myself.
I’m hoping this will really help to engage parents in their student’s learning because they can actually participate in it. A lot of our Spanish-speaking parents are eager to learn more English and support their kids in any way they know how, so I’m hoping they’ll enjoy watching the videos with their kids.
Third, I’m going to really upgrade my guided reading game, including implementing a pretty thorough word study program. Our school is having us read The Next Step in Guided Reading this summer, and I’m obsessed. They have recommended word patterns and word lists organized by reading level so you know exactly what to teach every different level of kid. Beyond this, though, I’m going to be creating these resources from the ground up. Kept looking for good word study resources, but many of them are too focussed on specific words and not focussed enough on word patterns.
To be honest, I couldn’t care less if my students are good spellers. There are computers for that. What I do care about is whether they understand what spelling patterns mean while they’re reading. And sadly, even the simplest patterns are a struggle for so many of my students.
You can see that I’m focussing a lot of time and energy on reading. There is such a discrepancy between reading and math scores at our school, probably due in some part to our large ESL population. Our math scores are far from perfect, but the reading scores are just embarrassing. Also, I spent a lot of time last year on getting my math game up to par, and while it’s far from perfect, I did make a ton of progress. I’m sure if I can continue what I finally figured out by the end of last year, that will really help my students. On the other hand, I’m not sure I ever really figured out what works well with literacy. This year, I’m hoping to do that.
This week included end-of-grade tests for us. Kids who didn’t pass the reading will still have to take a retest. We’ll find out who those are this week. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in my brain.
Here are some thoughts to keep us grounded during the end of year stress:
My district is making a big push for three different instructional strategies: 1) Summarization, 2) Graphic Organizers, 3) Vocabulary.
My second year teaching, I really worked on summarization. Now, it happens without even trying. It’s not perfect, but it’s really helping my kids. This year, we’ve been breathing graphic organizers. My kids hardly do anything without a graphic organizer. Next year, it’s Mission: Vocabulary. My main focus will be on content-specific vocabulary, building off of what I’ve done this year.
Namely, I created an interactive vocabulary wall for reading, and another one for math. I finally got it up in March (only due to the nagging of administration, if I’m perfectly honest), and I’m kicking myself for not doing it earlier, because the kids love it and use it constantly.
The administrative requirement was to have all content vocabulary displayed on the walls so that everyone in the room could see it. In truth, I didn’t really love this directive because it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I was compliant, but frequently delayed getting new vocabulary up because it just wasn’t a priority to me. Truth. Just having the words displayed won’t ensure kids understand what they words mean, especially those words we used back at the beginning of the year. So I brainstormed a lot of different ways I could comply with this directive in a way that worked for me and my class.
Many teachers used pre-made vocabulary (4 to a sheet) with pictures and definitions that, in a lot of ways, are way better than mine. I had access to their source files and thought about printing them out myself. A few problems I had: 1) the vocabulary word itself was much to small to see from across the room; 2) I couldn’t figure out a way to visually organize these so that students could quickly find the words they needed in a given context.
So I pulled out all that awesome card stock my kids brought in at the beginning of the year (my team was smart enough to put it on the supply list before I was even hired for this position, go them!). Due to a plethora of snow days, one of our upper grades Instructional Assistants was trying to make up time by working in the evenings and helped me out a ton! And an idea was born!
The card stock was cut in half across the length. Then those sheets were folded hot dog style. Definitions and examples are beneath the flaps. They’re also color coded within the common core standards bands. Yellow: NF; Red: MD; Blue: OA; Orange: NBT; Green (not pictured): G.
The kids were so excited about this, and really understand where to look for things. This has been coupled with some really amazing crossword puzzles, cloze activities, and riddles (again, my team is awesome!). The kids spend so much time at this wall, looking for words that match the words in their activities. And they love it!
The ELA vocabulary wall is pretty similar. The colors are broken down into the different strands: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. Then within those categories, pastel and bright shades of the same color are used to indicate literature vs. informational texts. You can see in this picture, left is literature and right is informational.
Because I did this so late in the year, I did cut a few corners. For one, I didn’t include vocabulary for language or writing standards. A couple reasons for this: 1) This was a 10+ hour task with help, and I just couldn’t do it all; 2) If I was going to cut something, I knew it should be the least tested and the thing that comes most naturally to my students (more on why my kids are so awesome at language and writing later; but I swear, it’s purely by chance!). I know that’s not the best rationale in the world, but it’s the truth. There’s plenty of that around here. Next year, these will be added in, but since I was so late in getting these up in the first place, I focused on the essentials: reading and math. I’m looking forward to reusing these next year, so then adding on will be easy. Also, if I had kept up with it throughout the year, adding as I went would have been a lot more manageable.