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What Happens When Your Team Isn't A Dream?


What happens when your team isn't a dream? It has probably happened to all of us at some point in our careers. So what do you do?

Listen...'cuz you teach so hard.




WE TEACH SO HARD Episode 2 Keeping it Real on The First Day of School


Hey friend! Grab a cup of coffee and give us a listen as we discuss 1st day plans, tips and tricks. A new podcast episode is now playing HERE!




Back to School & The First Days' Razzle Dazzle...Feathers & Sequins Not Necessary




Give 'em the old razzle dazzle,
Razzle Dazzle 'em.
Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it,
And the reaction will be passionate
                                                                              -Billy Flynn (Fred Ebb/John Kander, "Chicago")

I used to feel a lot like Billy Flynn on the first few days of school. Billy Flynn is the flim-flam lawyer character in the musical "Chicago." The first day of school felt like opening night at the theater...a little bit of grease paint, some sequins, some feathers... and JAZZ HANDS! 

First impressions are important. As much as we'd like to pretend that they aren't, humans are wired to assess, analyze, and judge within seconds after meeting someone new. And as teachers, we want our students to like us. It'll make our jobs easier, they'll learn more, and we'll feel good about ourselves, because let's face it, we are surrounded by a society that often boos us off the stage. We need to feel good about ourselves. 


Teaching is, after all, a form of show business.
                                                                                            - Steve Martin 

So, I performed. Yes, feathered boas were involved. On the first day of school, I played music, I taught the routines...acted them out, I cracked jokes, and I had them laughing in the aisles. Which is fine and dandy, except I was exhausted half way through the day. And, no one nominated me for an academy award. 

About thirteen years ago (I'm a teaching dinosaur), it occurred to me that I was working harder than my students, and this epiphany changed my teaching life. My paradigm shift meant that my first day of school, and the days and weeks that followed, became student-centered instead of teacher-centered. 

Click to download the observation sheet.
Now, my first days of school look different. They are prime time for teacher observation. One of the things I do is engage my students in game play.  I do this because I want to see my students interacting with each other. I want to watch the social dynamics and how they handle challenge.
I use a visible thinking routine called See-Think-Wonder. I have recording sheets that I use.They're 11" X 17" pages, divided into squares, six to a page.  Each square represents a student. I record my student observations on these sheets, all week.

Before we begin playing games, I draw a looks like/sounds like anchor chart, and we talk about what cooperation and collaboration looks like and sounds like. Then, we play.  I've found a few games that work well for the first days of school. I try to choose games that are not heavy in content, but have a smidgen of challenge. I do this because I need my kids to be independent so I can watch them and not have to support them with academic content. While they play the games, I watch them and record what I see.  I try to get to each grouping over the course of game play. 

I'm watching for sportsmanship, emotional resilience in the face of loss, perseverance and empathy. I'm also looking for problem-solving skills, bravado or cockiness, confidence, self-control, or a lack of these traits.

10-20-30 is a great game for the early days in upper elementary. You just need decks of cards. That's it. Kids work with a partner (it's a cooperation game, not a competition game). The object is to try to get through a whole deck of cards by removing three at a time to make sums of 10, 20 or 30, but there's a twist that makes it hard. You can find the directions for this free game by clicking on the picture.

I created another game called "Operation Slam." In this game, students receive a page full of little circles. Inside each circle, there is a number. Students play in partners to color in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. They may string together as many in one number sentence as they can find. They record their number sentences on a recording sheet. When they find 3 or more numbers that can go together in an equation, they color them in on the circle sheet with their chosen colored pencil. The partner with the most circles colored in wins the game. Click on the picture!


Another game that works well is one I found from Tried and True Teaching Tools. I asked families to donate used Jenga games they were no longer using. I followed the directions and colored the ends of the blocks with permanent markers. The colors coordinated to task cards. When students pulled an orange Jenga block, they answered an orange task card. The cool thing about this game is that it's structured to provide support to the child who is "in the hot seat." Click on the picture view this game. 

After each game, we return to our cooperation/collaboration anchor chart that we created together. We discuss the game, but then we zero in on how we worked (or didn't work) with each other. We make a list of our "Be sure to's" for next time. We write class collaboration goals based on their self-evaluations. 

Then, when they're at music, art, p.e., or recess, I cozy up with my observation sheet. I reread my notes. I may have written, "Tommy bragged to Ben about winning."  I move to the "think" part of the See-Think-Wonder routine. What do I think about that as a teacher? I know this may sound pretty lame, but it's not. In fact, when you give yourself a chance to really reflect on what you saw and heard, the revelations about your kids can be startling. 

For example, I might think that Tommy is actually insecure because he needs to brag. I might think that Tommy might have a problem with his emotions when he loses. I might think that Tommy is really competitive. 

After I do this thinking. I write questions that come up about my kids. For example, I wonder how Tommy would act if he played a game with a younger buddy. I wonder what Tommy's home dynamic is and how he navigates it. I wonder if Tommy is a perfectionist. I might ask, "What is important for me to remember when I teach Tommy?"

This is the See-Think-Wonder routine. I teach this routine to my students, and they use it throughout the year. However, in this instance, I use it to help me think more deeply about my kids. You can probably guess what I do next. The first week observations I do inform the classroom community and procedure lessons I teach the next week. And so the show must go on...with my kids as the stars.

There's no business like show business.
                                                          -Irving Berlin

P.S. Feathered boas still rock my lessons, but now my students wear them!


I use these resources to begin my school year. I hope they can help you as well.




Be sure to check out these other back-to-school posts from the phenomenal teacher authors below!


A Fresh Start: 4 Ways to Foster a Sense of Belonging


A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. 
                                                                                              -Brene Brown



It's the start of a new school year, and I'm excited and anticipating another great adventure...the smell of new crayons, a new drawer of neon post-its, a rainbow of Flair pens, my pages of idealistic lesson plans, and my new kids. The beginning of a new school year is my favorite time of year, and I suspect it's part of the reason that autumn is my favorite season. It's a fresh start. For everyone. 

It's a fresh start for school-loving kiddos who come to school so ironed and perfect that I suspect their underwear was probably starched and pressed. It's also a fresh start for the kid who walks in wearing a threadbare t-shirt and holey jeans. You know the type. The kid who drums constantly. The one who, a month into the school year, you can tell what kind of day you're going to have by the way his hair is standing up on the back of his head. The fifth grade girl who comes perfectly coiffed, but has so much insecurity coursing in her veins that it takes your breath away. It's a fresh start for those kids, too. 

Every classroom management guru will tell you that the most important thing you can do is to form relationships with your students. It's vital for their emotional well-being and their learning.
Children need to belong. The despair and isolation felt by some of our kids is heartbreaking. So how will I foster a sense of belonging in my new classroom this year? How will I give my kids a fresh start? One starfish at a time. Remember that story?

'...there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!'...the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said 'It made a difference for that one.' 

In the first month of school, I have lunch with every child in my classroom. It's a private lunch. I give each child an invitation. The day of the lunch, I set out placemats for us. I provide a sweet treat for dessert, usually cookies. My student brings his/her hot or sack lunch to the classroom. I have my lunch with me. We eat together and talk. That's it. Nothing earth shattering. But it kind of is. 

I've seen the most challenging students bask in the one-on-one attention.  They want to be liked by me. They want to feel that connection. THIS WORKS. Seriously. 

If you haven't tried this yet, please think about it. It's a game changer. You can snag some free invitations for this here

We all do back-to-school projects. We do them for a reason. They help us observe our students doing different tasks, they give our kids a chance to communicate about themselves, and if they're well thought out, they can give our students a sense of belonging. 

I do a writing/art project with my students called "Where I Belong." We begin by reading about Australian Aboriginal peoples. This gives me a chance to watch my students interacting with nonfiction text. We use a visible thinking routine to think through the article. They write a summary of the short informational article I provide them. Then we begin to talk about where we feel a sense of belonging. This concept of belonging is intrinsic for Aboriginal peoples. 

We brainstorm a list of places and then practice stretching the details of our list, until students have written a poem about where they belong. 

Finally, we create a piece of artwork to go with our belonging poems. The artwork is associated with the informational article we read about Aboriginal rock art and the significance of hand prints. When we share with each other, we do so in a popcorn style. 

We stand around the room in a big circle. One person begins by reading a line from his/her poem. Someone else jumps in when they feel like it, reading one line. Then another, and another. What occurs is a whole class improvised poem about belonging. It's a goosebump moment. Afterward, we display our poems and artwork for the school to enjoy. 





You can find the "Where I Belong" project below. Click on the picture to see it in more detail. 






Last year, I tried something daring. I was looking for an alternative recess idea. I wanted something that would appeal to many, that I could handle on a weekly basis, and that might break down the playground social barriers. I discovered a yoga resource for kids. 
I purchased the resource and printed and laminated it. I invited my kids to bring yoga mats to school, but I kept a few extras in case some didn't have access to one.  I created five stations around my classroom. Each station consisted of about 5-6 yoga poses and breathing exercises. Students rotated through the stations in 3 minute intervals. When the chimes went off on my phone timer, they moved to a new yoga station.

I began the session by reviewing the poses and breathing. Then, they rotated through the stations on their own. Sometimes, we played soft instrumental music. My kids ate it up, boys and girls! Some even chose to miss important recess soccer or basketball games in order to do yoga. My kids had a common goal: To do yoga together once a week! Our afternoons were calmer, as was their lunchroom behavior, and they interacted with students who weren't necessarily in their posse.
This yoga product isn't my own creation, but it's one of my favorite TpT discoveries. You can access it here.



The fourth thing I use to build community and a sense of belonging in my students is called The Gift of Gab. Every Monday morning, we sat in a circle on the carpet to share about our weekends. However, there was a catch. You could only share using one word! Check out the poster below to see how it works.

My students begged for this every Monday morning. It became one of our traditions. It helped me take their emotional temperatures after their weekend lives. They enjoyed the time to gab with each other, and we reviewed nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs! More importantly, they learned how to listen to each other respectfully. 
You can grab The Gift of Gab resource for free. Just click on the picture below. 


I wish you the best fresh start this school year, and I hope it's filled with a sense of wonder, community, and belonging.  Happy Back to School!


Vocabulary Instruction in the Reader's Workshop: Making the Pieces Fit


How do you fit it all in?
                                                                   -Concerned Teacher 

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I teach tier 2 vocabulary words. I developed a whole approach using research-based instructional strategies with a fun twist for increased student engagement. If you missed that post, you can read it here

After publishing, I received many questions via email and in my tpt store. Almost everyone asked the same question: How do you fit it all in? I get it. I really do. As classroom teachers, we're inundated with curricular and non-curricular demands daily, hourly, and some days by the minute. So your questions are valid.

How do I fit it all in?

I grappled with this question for quite a while before I found something that works for me. The school district I work for mandates 90 minutes for reader's workshop and  60 minutes for writer's workshop. I had to fit in word study (we use Words Their Way), as well as the academic vocabulary instruction. These two are not synonymous. Words Their Way teaches spelling patterns, phonics, and Greek and Latin roots. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  

Fitting it in felt like this in the beginning!
At first, I tried to keep all of the pieces of my reader's workshop intact. That means, I taught a reading strategy mini-lesson every day, my students read independently for at least 30 minutes every day, and I taught either guided reading or strategy groups every day. Then I tried tacking the vocabulary lesson on at the end of the session. I ended up not having time to share my mentor text with my kids. I had to have time to read aloud in my 90 minute reader's workshop block. That was non-negotiable. 

Then, I had my Elsa Moment. I let go of that impossible expectation. I really did. Because you know what? If I made my vocabulary lessons part of my cycle of mini-lessons and/or small group instruction, I was still teaching reading. Sure. I wasn't teaching the prescribed unit  mini-lessons, but my kids were still learning how to read. They were learning to read and comprehend hard tier 2 words that they encounter across all subject matters. Once I had that paradigm shift, I regained my sanity. Check out the chart below to see how I did it. 



Some important notes about this schedule...
  • Words Their Way practice occurred at home. It was a short homework task that students completed every night (5-10 minutes tops).
  • I teach 2 to 3 tier 2 vocabulary words every week.
  • I assess on Fridays, every other week. The assessments are quick and to the point. 
  • I'm not a fan of a "centers approach" in my 5th grade reader's workshop. Why? Experts say that kids need to read at least 30 minutes a day. Fifth graders should be reading 50-60 minutes daily. Guess what? It isn't happening at home. 
  • Therefore, the only other task during independent reading time is that my students complete a vocabulary thinking task in their notebooks. 
This approach isn't the only way to incorporate vocabulary instruction, but it is the schedule that has worked for my classroom. I would love to hear how you "fit it all in!" Share in the comments!



If you're looking for a way to teach tier 2 vocabulary words or want to pump up your word study practices, check these out. Just click on the picture!