Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Favorite Things #4: Stress Balls

    We've all had that student (or twenty) who is just a little too fidgety.  Some have ADD, but others are just kids-- because after all, we are dealing with kids here.  These are the kinds of kids who drive teachers crazy: they drum on their desks, ask 10,000 irrelevant questions, poke classmates, and cause general dismay and chaos in the classroom.  I'm kind of a fan of these kids.  They make things interesting; I will never be able to say I'm bored at work.  But they can also be disruptive to other students, so what do we do with them?  

   In college, a professor showed me Wikki Stix, which are basically sticky pipe cleaners.  Students can manipulate them and play with them quietly at their desks, so they are occupied without becoming a distraction.  I'm sure these are great, but I don't use them for two reasons: 

1. As a first-year teacher, I spent a huge portion of my pay on classroom supplies.  The cheapest pack of Wikki Stix is about $10 online, so I wanted a cheaper alternative.

2. Because Wikki Stix are bendable and stick to just about any surface, they're great for molding into shapes.  I teach high school.  I really didn't want to imagine the {shapes} that some of my students might create . . . and the uproar that could cause in a classroom I'm already working hard to keep in order.

That leads me to Favorite Thing #4: Stress Balls.

   I ordered these cute apple-shaped stress balls from School Specialty about a month into my first year teaching.  I got two of them for about $3 at the time.  I ordered them with a particular student in mind, one who was a constant fidgety challenge but not a bad kid.  When they arrived, I told him my expectations for him: if I noticed he was becoming a distraction, I'd just hand him a stress ball.  That was my silent clue to him that he needed to manage his behavior, and that he could occupy himself with the ball.  I made it very clear that if the ball started to be a distraction of its own (if, for example, it managed to fly across the room), I would take it and we'd have to find another solution.  It was like a magic ball.  I think my student appreciated that I was working to find a solution that worked for both of us, rather than just sending him in the hall. He respected the system, and I never once had to take the ball away from him after giving it to him.  Most importantly, it never took time or disturbed others.  I would silently grab it from my desk and hand it to him.  He'd immediately focus his attention on the ball and off of whatever he had been doing.  Most of the time, other kids didn't even notice.  

   I have used these two stress balls for years, with many students.  It's one of my favorite classroom management tricks, because it's so simple and easy.  I strive to create a friendly atmosphere in which my students feel liked and respected, and this system definitely keeps kids out of trouble and in that friendly zone.

Cheap, easy, non-disruptive . . . how much better does it get?
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Importance of Teacher-Friends in Preventing Burnout

   I'm so enjoying this summer, and the easygoing productivity that comes with it.  I've painted the living room and hallway in my house, made some lesson plans, read several novels, and done lots of cooking.  It's nice to be able to accomplish things, but do so in a relaxed way.  One thing I love about summer is the freedom to spend my time as I choose-- and today, I'm choosing to spend some quality time with good friends.  Teacher friends, to be exact.  I had lunch with an old friend today, who recently became a colleague.  We spent our time talking, and a lot of it was, honestly, about school.  We compared techniques and ideas, and made plans to do some classroom thrift shopping together next week.  Tonight, I'm heading to a fun get-together with some of my favorite people ever-- most of whom are part of "the lunch crew" at school.  

Homecoming Week festivities with some of my faves

   Thinking about our time spent together reminds me of the importance of having a tight-knit group of friends at school.  We live in a time when teacher-stress is rampant: think standardized tests, complicated new evaluation systems, more and more security concerns, and the ridiculous habit some politicians have of blaming teachers for our nation's problems.  Many young teachers are sprinting out of the classroom before the ink even dries on their first year's grade book.  There is a lot of information out there about how to manage teacher stress and prevent burnout, but I can tell you firsthand that the best thing new teachers can do is to establish a close relationship with a group of colleagues.  

   My "lunch crew" is a group of fellow teachers from my school.  Obviously, we eat lunch together-- but we share a great deal more than that.  We've been through divorces, marriages, births, deaths, celebrations, and heartbreak.  We talk child-rearing and husbands and shopping . . . and you know what?  We even talk about teaching.  And our students.  Shocker!  We rally together to help one another in the classroom as well as out of it.  It's common for us to share lesson plans and classroom management ideas.  We discuss difficult classroom situations and learn from one another, and it just makes us all so much better.  

   I adore my job.  I honestly believe I teach in the best darn school on the planet, and a major reason for that belief is my colleagues.  I've been through some difficult situations in my career thus far-- angry parents, students in heartbreaking situations, and an often overwhelming workload.  Sometimes I understand why young teachers leave education behind for higher-paying (and easier) professions.  But I will absolutely not be one of them.  One reason for that is the relationships I've built with my colleagues.  Without a support system, anything will crumble.  So if you're new to teaching (and even if you're not), go find yourself some teacher-friends. But I bet they won't be as great as mine. 
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Friday, June 21, 2013

Stuff They Should Teach in College: Dealing with Make-Up Work

   Kids don't come to school.  Am I right?  Seriously, attendance issues are the worst.  No amount of my lecturing or cajoling will convince teenagers that near-constant school attendance is really necessary.  I'm not one to complain about the kids, because I adore them.  Really I do.  But one thing I will complain about a lot is make-up work.  It is a thorn in my side, a Kanye in my TSwift, and a cramp in my style every day. Every teacher I know agrees; it's a never-ending battle.  How do we keep up with, organize, and grade student make-up work?  This should be its own course in college. 

   My first year of teaching, I was oh-so-sweet a complete pushover and accepted any and all make-up work at any point before the end of the grading period.  This meant that most kids turned in nothing until the final three days of the grading period, leaving me looking a bit like this on the day grades were due.  Obviously, that had to end. Also obviously, I am a phenomenal artist.  And purple.

   Then I started creating a make-up work binder.  I put the binder on top of a file cabinet in my room, and used tab dividers to organize it by class period.  Then, I typed up a note detailing what we had done in that class at the end of every day, and put those inside.  I put extra handouts in a labeled file, and kids were responsible for collecting and completing their own make-up work.  This only took a few minutes, but I found that I often forgot to do it.  I also have the worst memory ever, so trying to do this the next day (or even several days later) was nearly impossible.  I liked it because it put the responsibility on the students, but I found that about 70% of the time, they just didn't bother.  I teach mostly 9th graders, and it seems like they may be used to things being handed to them more directly.  

   I used this system for several years, but I became increasingly frustrated with it, so I changed my system mid-year this year.  I know, it's crazy to change in the middle.  Life was crazy this year.  (Thanks, NBPTS.)  

  I changed to a system, inspired by this pin, which requires students to jot down a list of make-up assignments for their peers.  The handout I created (which is a more grown-up version of the one I saw on Pinterest) looks like this:

Feel free to use this in your own classroom, friends!

In theory, this is awesome:  it moves more responsibility from myself to the students, and saves me some work.  In reality?  In the hustle and bustle of the start of class, I forget.  The kids forget.  I am hoping to stick with this system and just stop forgetting everything all the time, but I'm always on the lookout for improvements.  

Any suggestions?  I'd love to hear what others do.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Favorite Things #3: Reward Stickers

I know what you're thinking.  "Wait-- I thought M was a high school teacher.  Surely she's not really writing a post on reward stickers."  Oh, but I am.  Reward stickers are one of my favorite things in the classroom, even at this level.  

I put reward stickers on every test, quiz, or major paper for which a student earns an A.  

There are those who are staunchly against the use of any kind of reward system, especially in secondary levels.  Their argument is that students must learn intrinsic motivation, so that academic achievement becomes its own reward.  But guess what?  It's not.  To be honest, is my sticker really their motivation?  No.  It's a fun, silly way to give them a quick pat-on-the-back for their efforts.  No harm done.

Here's why I love them:

1. They're super cheap at the Dollar Tree . . . 

even if you have to watch out for hilarious misspellings:
This sticker is definitely not terrific.

2. They're cheesy.  I love that I can simultaneously be ironically funny and complimentary to my kids.  Teenagers love silly humor, especially in the form of a winking rainbow that says, "Great job!"

3. They're harmless.  I'm not rotting kids' teeth with candy, or spending tons of cash, or handing out billions of homework passes.  They're happy little high-fives.  Somehow, I doubt that I'm really undermining their sense of motivation.

4. I teach about 100-110 kids every day.  It's nearly impossible to connect with every single one of them every single day, and this helps with that.

5. The kids love them.  I don't fully understand it, but every time I hand back tests or papers, the first thing I hear is, "Hey-- I got a sticker!"  "Me, too!"  "Aww, man! I was one point away from a sticker."  No one is ever devastated not to get one, but there are certainly a few smiles when they do.

I even had one student who was, shall we say, the last one you'd expect to care about things like this . . . but she painstakingly peeled each sticker off its test and stuck it to her binder, so that she had a running collection.  It was adorable.

How do you reward students for good grades?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Favorite Things #2: Pinterest

Here's to the second post in my Favorite Things series-- Pinterest!  

Pinterest is really one of my favorite resources as a teacher.  It's absolutely full of new ideas for lesson plans, organization, and stress and time management.  I'm borderline obsessed.  

I'll never forget when a favorite student approached me and said, "Umm, I saw your Pinterest boards.  There are people who have to go to rehab for Pinterest addiction.  Do you think you have a problem?"  Haha!  Probably.  I have boards dedicated to both main subject areas I teach, one for my new newspaper class, one for blogging, one for interactive notebooks, and one for general classroom ideas.  I also contribute to a few group boards dedicated to teaching.

a screen shot of part of one of my eight classroom-related boards:

I could probably write for days on this topic, so I'll limit myself.  Here are my Top 10 Favorite School-Related Pins that are tried-and-true in my room:

1. Black-Out Poetry, in which kids black out everything on a book page except the words they choose for their poem.  It's very visually appealing, and gets even the most anti-poetic kids writing beautifully.

2. Boggle for the SmartBoard-- I adapted this to an old-school bulletin board and used it for extra credit all year.  The kids LOVED it!

3. Remind101 (See my post on Remind101 here.)

4. After-School Routine Checklist, which I used this year and it made my life so much easier and more organized.

5. New-Student Welcome Kits:  I got so many new students mid-year this year, and these kits made it quick and easy for me to get them started.

6. SuperTeacherTools, a website which allows teachers to make class lists, random name generators, interactive games, seating chart makers, countdowns, etc.

7. What Teachers Make, an incredible video in response to that question, "So what do teachers make?"  Seriously-- teacher power.  Watch it.

8. This pin, which inspired my current (and favorite ever) classroom layout.

9. Turning Teacher Distress into Eustress.  This made my crazy-difficult last year a bit easier.

10. Visual Writing Prompts from Tumblr.  Too cool!

Stay tuned in a few weeks for another top 10-- the Top 10 Pins I'm Most Excited About for Next Year.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

National Board Certification: What Was I Thinking?-- or, The Real Purpose of NBPTS


  As I've said before, I am currently a candidate for certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).  It's a voluntary advanced teaching credential, based on five core propositions about what constitutes an "accomplished" teacher.  It costs $2,500 to apply, and takes an estimated 400 hours of work to complete the certification process.  In other words, it's the hardest thing ever.  Seriously, getting my Master's degree was far easier.

  In addition to all the time and money, only about 40% of candidates pass the first year.  Although it isn't necessary to re-do the entire process the second time around, it has to be incredibly frustrating to work so hard, only to turn around and do it again.  Never mind that the money I paid already made my teacher-wallet cry.

  The certification process consists of two chunks-- a 4-part teaching portfolio (complete with videos of my classroom in action, samples of student work, and somewhere around 10,000 pages of writing), and an assessment test.  I completed the portfolio in May, and took my test two days ago.  Somehow, I also signed myself up for a graduate course just for fun in April and May.  It goes without saying that I performed a huge happy dance as soon as I recovered from the post-traumatic stress disorder exhaustion caused by the process.

  So-- you might ask, "M, what were you thinking?"  Well, to be honest, I was thinking that the money that comes with NB certification is awesome.  I was also thinking that I sometimes miss being a student and making A's, so this is something I could do to bring back that feeling again.  Admittedly, I'm a bow-head: the little girl who sits at the front of the class and always raises her hand.  Otherwise known as a teacher's pet.

  The process put a huge strain on my life.  I was borderline psycho in the end, and I think my poor husband was bewildered at my behavior.  I know my friends and family were glad to see me finish so I'd stop whining.  But, and here's the real point for today-- the process also really, honestly, made me a better classroom teacher.  So while I was thinking about money and academic glory, and then whining about hard work and exhaustion, I was being challenged in ways I had never been before.  I had to learn to think about my classroom and my students-- and thus my own teaching practices-- in depth.  I learned how to better manage my time, how to think more reflectively about my work, and how to stop being so darn wordy.  The process certainly revolutionized what I'm doing in room 146 . . . so, pass or fail, I'd do it again.  It was worth it.

Let's see if I still feel that way when scores are released in November/December.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Favorite Things #1: Remind101

Welcome to my new series-- Favorite Things.

As I become more and more comfortable in my classroom and my career, I find myself starting to appreciate the day-to-day things that help me hold it together at work.  Those things include websites, office supplies, gadgets, apps, games, and books-- and I am a better teacher for all of them, big or small.  

In the spirit of Oprah, I want to share my Favorite Things with the world.  Unlike O, my favorite things are all under $20.00 (and most are free). . . because Ms. Winfrey makes slightly more money than your average schoolteacher, right?!  Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I break down the list of some of those favorite things and where you can get them for yourselves.

Favorite Thing #1: Remind101

Remind101 is a free communication tool for teachers.  It allows teachers, without ever sharing phone numbers or worrying about inappropriate behavior, to safely send text messages and emails to parents and students.  It's both a website and an app-- just sign up for a free account and set up your classes.  Once you've done that, print free flyers with instructions, and hand them out to your students/parents.  All it takes is a prescribed text message or email to a specific number or address, and they're registered.  Then you simply sign into your account (via a computer, tablet, or phone), type a quick message, and broadcast it to all registered students/parents for that class!

I used Remind101 for the first time this year, to rave reviews from parents.  I sent a text message each time I assigned homework, and made sure to send it immediately after the school day ended.  Students had a quick, non-invasive reminder from me, and parents stayed in-the-loop.  I also used Remind101 for reminders about events, permission slips, clubs, or weather-related changes.  

a sample of some of the texts I sent out to my 2nd period class 

Really, this site has become one of the best resources I have.  Of course, I had to make clear to my students that this is a service, not a requirement of me. If I forget to send a text or if it doesn't arrive, work is still due on time.  Honestly, though, that wasn't even a problem.  Kids were grateful for the reminder, and it made parents' jobs a little easier, I think.

I should note-- Remind101 is certainly not paying me to write this.  I'm just a huge fan.  But umm . . . if you want to send a check my way, creator @BrettKopf, I certainly wouldn't be averse to it!  ;)

Seriously, y'all-- go sign up!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How to Prevent Teacher Burn-Out-- The Summer To-Do List

School's out for the summer!  To celebrate, I'm going to kick off summer break by sharing my to-do list for summer 2013.  No, this isn't my list of the pages I plan to read and lessons I plan to revamp to prepare for next school year.  This is my fun list.  My I-owe-it-to-myself-after-that-crazy-year list.  My list of things to do simply because I will be a happier, better person for having done them.  

Summer Fun:

1. Read through all the novels in my Amazon wishlist.  Some of the ones I'm most looking forward to:

2. Spend some quality pool/lake time with my best girlfriends and my kids.

3. Catch up on my guilty pleasure, The Bachelorette.

4. Finally get to work on some fun Pinterest projects.  What's on the top of that list?  Sewing DIY curtains, painting a bright red front door, and finally organizing my house.

5. Plan (and go on) some fabulous weekend or day trips with my husband . . . since I never quite have the money for a beach trip with the girls.  Here are a few of our planned short trips for this year:

Of course, there's also an extensive list of real to-do's this summer . . . but all work and no play makes M a dull girl.  What fun are you getting into this summer?

Linky Party!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Seven End-of-Year Tips to Prepare for Next Year

My school district has only 2 days of school left for teachers.  Our kids finished Friday. Tomorrow we have some curriculum development meetings, and Wednesday we wrap it all up for the year. Summer is so close I can taste it . . . and I don't think I've ever wanted it more!

This is the best time I can think of to prepare for next year. Exam week and the work days to follow provide for lots of "down time."  Yes, there are exams to grade, but aside from that?  Not much.  Right now, this school year is fresh in my mind.  Why wait until August to decide to reflect on it?  I know, I know-- I am a huge nerd awesome at reflective teaching.  So, I am taking good notes about what I want to repeat / do differently / never-do-again-for-the-love-of-God next year. 

Seven Steps I Take During the Final Week to Prepare for Next Year:   

  •  Purge the paperwork.
I do a lot of throwing away this time of year.  This year I have thrown more away than probably ever before-- with the advent of file storage technology like Google Drive and Dropbox, I have no need to have file cabinets full of papers, nor do I need to even carry a jump drive around.  Take it from me; it's liberating to empty those brimming file cabinets of everything but the essentials.  When you've got it down to just what's absolutely necessary, organizing it becomes much less daunting.

  •  Make some sense of the insanity.
I don't know about you guys, but my end-of-year classroom, in spite of the valiant efforts of our wonderful custodial staff,  starts to look like it has been through a simultaneous tsunami/mudslide/volcanic eruption/earthquake.  Last week, there was a sock in the floor.  A cake pan on the table (not mine).  Five mechanical pencils, all broken.  A textbook belonging to a student no one has ever heard of.  Clean it up.  I, for one, put the kids to work when they all finish their exams.  They love to help, and it gets spic-n-span super quickly!  

Before . . .
Disgusting, right?

and after!

  •  Make a summer to-do list.
I'm at the point in my career that I don't have a massive amount of summer planning to do, but this is a list of some things that will make the new school year easier for me.   On my list:
general lesson plans for two new "preps" I'll be teaching, writing practice questions for my academic team, putting together a presentation on educational technology I'm presenting in August, and catching up on some school-related reading I haven't had time for. To keep up with all of this, I use Evernote, a free app that saves my notes and lists and makes them available to all computers and mobile devices.
  •  Make a list of ideas for back-to-school.

Here's mine. It isn't cute, or super neat, or even sensible to someone else-- but it will do the trick.  It's a place for me to jot down new ideas, a shopping list of school supplies, and reminders about where some files are saved.  I've even copied and pasted the text of a few relevant emails.  I will add to this all summer long, and lean heavily on it when work days begin in August.  
  •  Write a "Dear Me" letter to find in August.
This is way too nerdy for me to share . . . but basically, it is what it sounds like.  I write myself a letter, welcoming myself back to school.  In it, I give myself five or six tasks (read-- SMALL tasks) that need doing right away to be ready for the kids to return.  This list shouldn't be so long that it's overwhelming.  I also try to add some words of encouragement-- back to school time is scary, y'all!
  •  Plan a summer schedule.
I have also designed a summer schedule to ascertain that I don't lie around like a slug all summer keep me on track.  I'm not saying you need a military-style round-the-clock schedule, but it helps to dedicate a few hours per day or a day a week to school work.  I'm a serial procrastinator  so without planning a set time for work, I will find myself in August having done nothing.  Believe me, you'll feel a lot better when you return to school if you've gotten on top of the workload this summer.
  •  Pack a box of take-home stuff.
Really, there's no need to pack your entire classroom and lug it home, only to lug it back again in the fall, not having touched it.  Take a close look at your summer to-do list, and take only the necessities.  A box or two should do it.  I brought home a textbook for a new (to me) class I'll be teaching, along with some basic lesson planning materials.