Friday, November 13, 2015

Quick Steps: Backwards Design Planning for the Year

Wondering how you can try to fit all your standards in before the year ends?  Look no further!  In Georgia social studies classrooms, we use the Georgia Performance Standards.  As a result, we know almost exactly what we need to teach & it's broken up into larger chunks.  For example, in 6th grade, our standards are divided by world region (Latin America, Canada, Europe, & Australia). Then, within each region, they are chunked into smaller groups (geography, government, economics, & history).  Here's how I was able to start my year with a plan to teach every standard before our state testing:

1) Get a calendar with large boxes for each day.
Before your start anything, get a calendar or planner for your school year.  I have also used electronic calendars thru Word, so use those if you like.  Those tend to be easier to share.  Pre-mark your calendar with all teacher work days, early release days, holidays, assemblies, standardized test days, etc.

2) Determine your units.
In Georgia, the state has come up with some suggested unit plans, so I took those & modified them to work with my resources/organization.  I have a total of 10 units, each chunked together in units that make logical sense.  Hopefully your standards are written in a way that makes them pretty easy to create unit chunks.

3) Give every day a standard (and if necessary, stretch your standards across several days to cover them adequately).
This can be tough if you've never taught before because you may not know how much time each standard will take.  Give yourself several "catch-up" days within the units in case something takes longer than anticipated.

4) Create/plan lessons that will cover that standard are quickly & efficiently as you can imagine.
Is it your first year teaching?  Have you been teaching a while but can't think of anything?  Start by Googling your standard (phrases from the standard or the standard number, such as "SS6H6a") and seeing what's available.  If that search is fruitless, then check out TeachersPayTeachers.  There is tons of great stuff on there!

5) Determine when you'll give your summative assessments.
Whether you're planning a test, quiz, project, writing assessment, or other type of assessment, try to determine when these would best fit within your calendar.  I usually pick two days in case I run late & need an extra catch-up day to get students ready for the assessment.  If it's a test, I also include 2 review days before the test which are reserved for, you guessed it, REVIEW!!!  :)  If you're hurting for an easy review activity, please check out my easy Teacher Review Lesson Plan.

6) Work really hard to try & stick with your plan!
This is going to get tough if you're long winded (like I can be!).  Sometimes you'll talk too much about certain topics & they'll go on forever.  Obviously, this can also be a good thing... But try & stick with your plan as best as you can.  If all else fails, revisit your calendar regularly to check your pacing & change things as needed.

7) Create your assessments before the unit begins.
I have thrown out many questions after I gave a test because I didn't cover it as I should have.  If you know what's on the test before the unit begins, you'll know exactly what topics you've got to cover in order to prepare your students.  If you've been teaching a while, this is probably a "duh" step for you.

8) Enjoy!
Obviously, this is a lot of work!  ...But it is comforting to know, even if you don't know exactly what you'll be doing next Thursday, you know what topic you'll be covering next Thursday.  It also gives you great information for parents when you can tell them the date of the test/assessment with plenty of notice.  Best of all, you'll rest assured that you were able to teach all of the standards before students were given a standardized test.

One last tip:  Be patient with yourself because it will take a year (at least) to really iron out the calendar.  You'll change your plan a bit each year and planning will get easier & easier as you go.  Let me know how it works!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Partner High-Level Questioning Review

By the end of the year in Obertopia, most of the students know their stuff!  This is a beautiful thing, but it makes reviews very difficult.  Advanced kids tend to be less engaged (BORED!) if they have to take part in a review when they "know everything".  As a result I came up with....


Step 1) I took a copy of an old study guide (I don't really give study guides anymore... We do study packets) that had a series of open-ended review questions.

Step 2) I spaced out the questions so there were about 4 questions per page.

Step 3) I printed the questions.

Step 4) I made 4 copies (I have 4 classes).

Step 5) I cut the questions so there was space (front & back) for many answers.

Step 6) I allowed students to choose their own partners (this NEVER happens, but this was for the final, so I let them choose.

Step 7) I told the kids my rules:
1. You'll have 1 minute to answer each question.
2. You have to read all the other responses that have been written before you write your answer.
3. You may not repeat anything that has already been said.
4. You must initial your answer once you're done.
5. Once the timer goes off, you'll pass your question to the next group (we covered who they would be passing to before we started).

Step 8) I pass out the questions so each partnership gets one.

Step 9) I start the timer & say GO!

I had more questions than I had partnerships, so I put some on my front table.  The first/last groups were told they'd be passing/taking from the front table.

The front table with the extra questions, soon to be in circulation!

At first, the groups kept saying This is so easy and We have a full minute?!?  But soon..... Oh so soon... The whining began!  This is hard!  All the answers are taken!  Oh my gosh, I didn't have time to finish!!! I kept repeating the phrase You gotta think outside the box as they trudged on & had to think of less obvious, higher-level answers.

Here they are, thinking really hard!!!!
Here's a few more of them, getting frustrated as I take pictures while they struggle.

It really worked out great.  They were exposed to about 30 different higher-level questions in a very short amount of time.  They were all engaged because they were in small-groups (partners). By the end of class, they were reading about 14-15 other groups' answers before they could answer for themselves.  And I got to walk around peacefully as a true facilitator.  Magic!!!

Here are a few pictures of the finished questions:

Hope this is helpful to all you review-haunted teachers out there.  Tell me in the comments below how you might use this in your own classroom!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Trying to get ahead on a (mostly) lazy Sunday

My husband & I are exhausted when we get home, so dinner is usually a struggle.  This week, I'm trying to get ahead & make a few things in advance so I'll be more likely to stick to our menu for the week.

First of all, many of my recipes this week come from  It's a meal planning site that gives you the menu & the shopping list each week.  It requires a paid subscription (around $5 a month), but it's worth it for me since it removes a lot of meal planning stress.  Some of their plans also coincide with that week's sales (Publix for me) and this helps shave a little off the budget.

1st of all, we have way too many eggs in our fridge right now, so I'm going to go ahead & hard-boil some of them for breakfasts this week.

I told Ben to buy eggs even though I had eggs.  Whoops!
Cover eggs with cold water, bring to a rolling boil, remove from heat & cover, let sit 9-10 minutes then place eggs into ice water to stop the cooking process.  Ben peeled them once they were cooled.

There is also a beef stew on the menu for this week.  It's cooked in a slow cooker.  I'm going to go ahead & make it right now so we can eat it leftover on whichever night I'm the most exhausted.

I am looking to switch up my work lunches so I'm going to try salad this week.  I found this great post about pre-made jar salads and I'm pretty excited to try it.

My lettuce wouldn't fit in the jars once I'd included everything I wanted so...

...I put the lettuce in these containers & I'll mix in the 'jar ingredients' once I'm ready to eat

While I was putting my salads together, Ben went ahead & created his lunches.  Read more about his pre-made lunches by clicking here.

Once lunches were finished, I looked at my recipes & to pre-cut all of the veggies I could.

Had leftover celery (from stew prep) so I've decided to have ants on a log for breakfast this week.

Wrote it out on the wall so I won't forget what I planned for dinner each night.

Cutting the ends off the fresh green beans (for Wednesday's dinner).

Cutting the fresh squash for the roasted squash side dish for Monday night.

Ben pre-packed carrots for his lunches.

I pre-packed some grapes & some oranges.
Time to check on the stew!

Since it's looking a little soupy, time to add some corn starch.
I think that's all I'm good for tonight, so I'm going to call it a day & watch the Oscars.  Keeping my fingers crossed that I stick to our meal plan this week!  Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Built-In Open Pantry Shelves

Our pantry is tiny.  This is probably for the best since I tend to keep stuff long after it's usefulness has come & gone.  However, I wanted extra space to store things that usually end up as counter clutter.  For several years, I compromised with an inexpensive wooden shelf I purchased from IKEA. It did the job well, but it wasn't quite wide enough for the space (and it was a bit too deep). 

During my Christmas break, I started working on some built-in shelves I'd been contemplating for weeks.  Here is the space:
I mean, what is the purpose of this tiny nook besides built-in shelves?
Here it is from our library. 
I measured the width & depth of the nook.  41 1/2 inches x 9 inches.  For the supports (which I screwed into the studs) I used 2x3s.  I originally planned to construct & screw the 2x3 supports before attaching them to the wall (in a 'C' formation), but this didn't work out because my walls are not entirely plumb.  Instead, I attached the back support to the studs (you can see where I marked the studs with pencil after using the stud finder) and then attached the two side supports.  I could only find 1 stud for the side supports, so I added some additional support in the form of L brackets attaching the sides to the back support.  

Notice the tiny L brackets & my pencil stud lines on the wall.
The first one was the hardest.  I had a mini-meltdown & gave up for the night.  The next day was so much easier!

I couldn't wait to put on the first shelf board.
I cut my shelf board (1x10) to be a little over 41 inches.  I was okay with a little bit of a seam between the board & the wall because I planned on caulking all of the joints.  To save time & effort, I nailed the shelves to the supports, although screws are an option as well.  I did not feel like drilling pilot holes & switching bits over & over.  I was tired.

Each shelf install was faster than the one before it. 
After a solid 6 hours, all the shelves were up.
The bottom two shelves are each 16 inches high, then two 12 inch shelves, and finally two 16 inch shelves at the top.

I was very pleased at this point, even though they weren't finished.

I used some all-purpose paintable caulk & I caulked every seam.

Wood-wall & wood-wood.

I finished caulking & gave it time to dry.  During this time, I drew my dividing line on the wall between trim color & wall color.  You can (sort of) see the line in the picture below (top right). 

The trim throughout our home is an off-white color (Behr color Rich Cream).  To give the shelves a built in look, I used the trim color to paint the shelves & wall from floor to ceiling.

I used painter's tape to keep the line clean.

 Finally done!  I was in pantry heaven!  It took all weekend, but it was worth it and I love the results.

I'll check back later & post some pictures of what they look like with stuff on them.

Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

3 Steps to Improve Classroom Management

Teaching can be so much fun!  ...And it can also be very stressful.  One of the things that used to stress me out the most was the potential for misbehavior.  I dislike hate LOATHE having to deal with classroom disruptions & misbehavior!  However, I stress a little less about it now since I have a plan of action.

Step 1: Create a culture of respect & community in your classroom.
From the first day of class, lead your students by being the model of respect.  Model respect with how you speak to the kids.  Model respect with how you address misbehaving students.  Reiterate, over & over & over, that you are all part of one family.  I really love kicking off the year by showing the Kid President pep talk:
After I show the video, I explain to the students why this video is so meaningful for me.  I post Kid President quotes around the room.  It is so important to model the behavior & love & awesomeness discussed in the Kid President video if you want to make it real for your students.  If you show the video, & the next minute you're yelling at a kid for doing something wrong, then your words about respect & community will mean nothing.
See more about building classroom community here.

Step 2: Make sure you recognize the good kids every day.
If I have a class of 30 students, and 28 are being AMAZING but 2 are causing a ruckus, then I will probably go home that day worrying about the 2 ruckus-causers.  I have to force myself to step back & recognize the good.
Here's an experiment: The next time you ask your kids to work on something in class, and a few kids are being silly, instead of 'getting-onto' the ruckus-causers, try a positive reinforcement approach--"I have just noticed that 25 of you are working so hard I really appreciate it!  I am so proud of you guys!"  You'll notice that the few who were off task will probably get the message & will start working because they want positive recognition, too.  It may not always get the ruckus-causers to work, but at least the kids who are working will feel proud because they will know you were talking to them.  :)
I also try to send home emails to parents whenever I see someone being awesome.  Parents are terrified to see a teacher email in their inbox... Until they see it's a positive note!  How fun!  They will really appreciate you taking the time to brag on their kid.
See more of my ideas for positive (and free) reinforcement here.

Step 3: Set clear expectations & follow-thru with consequences.
At the beginning of the year, I explain my expectations.  Then, every day after that, I follow-thru with keeping the kids accountable to my expectations.  If they don't meet my expectation, I tell them so.  I give an appropriate consequence.  I do this with love & respect.  What is your plan when they fall short of these expectations?  I put kids on my discipline board.  If the students notice that a student has not met an expectation, and you don't call them on it, then other kids will soon stop meeting expectations as well.

When you set your expectations, make sure you know (and explain to the class) why each expectation is important to you.

  • Why do you want to kids to be quiet while your teaching? (my answer: I consider it to be disrespectful if you're talking while I'm talking.)  
  • Why do you ask the kids to keep their hands to themselves?  (my answer: Do you like it when people put their hands on you?) 
  • Why is it a big deal to come prepared? (my answer: As an adult, if you come to work unprepared, your boss is going to see you as unreliable.)  

If you set an expectation, be ready to explain (in a meaningful way) why it is important.  If it's not important, consider letting it go.

Once I had a conversation with a fellow teacher & I was talking about a difficult task I was requiring my students to complete.  The teacher looked at me & asked, Are they actually doing it?  I said, Yes.  She looked a little shocked because we teach a lot of the same kids & she couldn't quite understand how I could get them to do this activity.  She asked What do you do if someone doesn't do it?  And my response was, They don't have an option.
Sometimes our kids are not going to do what we want.  Sometimes adults don't want to do what their bosses require of them.  This is life, people!

What are your tips for classroom management?  Please share them here & tell us about the techniques that help you deal with student misbehavior when/if it arises.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Middle Schoolers Want

Middle school kids are a special bunch.  This is why people say "God Bless You" whenever I tell them I teach middle school.  :)  If teachers can give students what they want, chances are they'll be more willing/able to give teachers what they want.  But what do they want?  I've got a few ideas...

1) Laughter & Fun
This one is a no-brainer.  Of course they love laughter & fun!  The important thing here is to find the proper balance between fun & learning.  There will also be some kids who have trouble finding the line between funny times & learning times, so be prepared to have some one-on-one conversations with those kids.  

We had a good hard laugh about this one...

2) To be praised for something meaningful
Just like adults, kids love being praised for meaningful stuff.  Here's a great example:  When a kid tells me I'm a good teacher, I feel happy for a moment.  But when a kid says "You're a good teacher because you make learning easy"... Well, that sticks with me for quite a while.  I love when they specifically verbalize (or write) why they appreciate me.  It is the same for our students.
Some examples of meaningful praise:
  • You are so good at working with the people in your group.  That is going to help you so much in the future when your job requires you to work on a team.
  • I am really impressed with your leadership.  You set a really good example for the class at lunch when you picked up that trash that wasn't yours.
  • You are such a hard-worker!  I just love that I ask you to do something once & you get it done.  I am seriously impressed!
  • [To the entire class] I just want to say thank you so much to everyone who is already seated & working.  You are going to rock today's assignment. 
3) A purpose
Everyone wants to know their purpose for doing something.  Before I give students an assignment, I try to quickly explain how it will help them in the immediate future (quizzes, tests, etc.) and their long-term future.  I try to be as specific as possible as well.  Instead of saying "This will really help you when you're older", I try to tell them an exact instance when it may come in handy.  One of my favorites for social studies?  "When you're sitting around a table as an adult, eating dinner with your friends, and someone brings up a current event that relates to government/economics, you want to be able to join in on that conversation.  You'll want to know what to say when that time comes so you can look like you know what you're talking about."

4) To feel smart
A bad grade automatically makes a kid feel dumb.  But we know as educators a bad grade does not equal dumb!  Let's find a way to encourage them even when their grades are not as good as they could be.  For example, "You did GREAT on the timeline assignment.  Now we just need to find a way to transfer that success over to your quiz grades."

5) Respect
Have you ever had a boss that made you feel disrespected?  If your answer is "Yes", I'm willing to bet you didn't ever feel like going above & beyond for that boss.  Our students are exactly the same.  If they feel respected, they will do ANYTHING we ask them to do.  A class is a family, and family members should respect each other.

6) To be weird sometimes (& know that it's okay)
I am a complete weirdo.  This is serious.  From the first day of school, I will occasionally (and not always on purpose) do extremely weird things.  It keeps my students on their toes.  They don't want to be absent because they know they could miss a moment.  They listen when I'm speaking because I might just say the most strange thing they've ever heard.  This is hard to do if you're not naturally weird (we can't all be gifted in this way), but middle schoolers want to feel like they aren't weird... So what better way to make them feel that way than to be EVEN WEIRDER than they could possibly ever be?? 

7) Occasional spontaneity
This goes along with the weirdness.  Obertopia is all about inside jokes.  But our jokes are never ever planned.  They just pop up, out of nowhere.  A few weeks ago, a student was absent.  While they were gone, we (our homeroom) came up with this really weird thing we would do whenever a kid asked a question (I can't give you more details than that because I was sworn to secrecy).  When the absent kid returned, they felt out of the loop.  Now this is not something I'm happy about, but want my students to feel like they missed something while they were out.  We (of course) caught the kid up on the inside joke, but my students are a little less likely to miss school (unless they are seriously sick or are having some kind of other emergency--in that case, please be absent!)

The kids who were in my room when this happened had a pretty amazing time... As did I!

8) To be known
I try to look out for the wallflowers.  Some kids are SO quiet (while others are VERY loud!).  How often do our quiet kids go the entire day without someone saying their name?  Without someone saying, "How have you been?" or "I think you are a really cool kid."  Middle schoolers really want to feel like someone knows them and loves them just the way they are.

9) A sense of belonging
EVERYONE wants to belong.  But this desire is SO strong in middle schoolers.  They are trying to figure out who they want to be, and this makes them really vulnerable.  If we can make them feel like they belong in our classroom, they will feel ownership & will do all they can to make it the best it can be.  In Obertopia, "We are a family.  You may not always like your family, but you will always love your family."

10) To learn meaningful things
This goes with purpose.  Students will learn thousands of things while they are in middle school.  THOUSANDS!  Sometimes I sit in a desk while my students are working and I try to think about what their day looks like.  They enter 6 different classrooms and learn from 6 different teachers.  How do they keep it all straight??  If I can teach them something meaningful, then they'll 1) Be more likely to remember it 2) Be more likely to carry it into their 'real life' and 3) Think about it outside of my classroom.

That's all I've got for now.  What stories do you have to share that give your students ownership in the classroom?  I'd love to hear from you!