Thursday, December 1, 2016

'Tis the Season!

December is here!

Ahh, this time of year is so full of love, excitement, and joy... and also a bit of exhaustion, dread, and angst! Anyone else feel this way?

I mean, don't get me wrong... I'm not all Scrooge-y about the holidays... but, I feel like they just sneak right up on you! You know, you're finally feeling settled from all the Back-to-School hoopla... your routine is in place, your kids are learning, you're in the GROOVE... and then, WHAM!! The holidays are here and it all gets thrown into a tizzy!

But, ready-or-not, the holidays ARE HERE... how do I know? Because...

My own children (ages 7, 5, and my 2-year old twins) are officially over-the-moon! Our beloved Jingle is back! Fingers crossed he helps to cut down on the whining and fighting that's been happening all up in here!!

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I am excited for this

It's easily one of my favorite writing assignments of the year!!

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Also, I already know what I'm doing for my students this year:

Our district is incredibly diverse, so I always try to stick with secular gifts and phrases. These FREE gift tags (which have an editable salutation by the way!) simply say "2017 is looking BRIGHT" and can be attached to a highlighter (something all my students need!) or any item of your choice.

Quick, easy, inexpensive, and perfect for any student regardless of his/her traditions and customs!

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So, what is happening in your classroom this December? I'd love to hear from you!!

Happy Teaching!!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Teachers Pay Teachers Cyber Sale is Happening NOW!!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

THE SALE IS ON!! Up to 28% off with the code CYBER2016. Everything in my store is on sale. Be sure to check out the following (already discounted!) bundles offered at some big savings. 

Get your shop on, my Friends!!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Practicing What You Pin - Testing Offices

If you celebrated Thanksgiving this week, I hope you enjoyed yourself!! I certainly did :)

I haven't shared a "Practicing What You Pin" lately, so I thought a post was due. This idea came from Pinterest so long ago that I can't even find the original pin! I know I've been using these for years, so I can only imagine how long ago I pinned it!

Anyway, what you see in this picture are my Testing Offices. They are simply two file folders stapled together that the kids put up when taking a test. 

Literally, the most simple idea in the world, but a great way to help kids keep their eyes on their own papers when they sit at tables.

Have you pinned, then tried, anything great this year? I'd love to hear about it :)

Happy Teaching!!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Teach This Lesson Tomorrow - State Farm Ads

I'm going to start a new series here on the blog called "Teach This Lesson Tomorrow." It won't necessarily be in a regular rotation, but when I teach a great, low-prep-high-interest lesson that goes over well with my kids, I'm going to share it here with you.

Last week, my students finished up a narrative writing unit. Since we only have a few days before Thanksgiving break, I didn't want to dive into another writing unit, so I decided that we'd do a few different writer's notebook lessons to shake things up and expand the kids' creativity.

The lesson that I did on Wednesday, I first tried in July with our summer learning students. It was the idea of my brilliant friend and colleague who serves as our district's teaching and learning facilitator for ELA and it uses these two State Farm commercials:

What I love about this lesson is that it really shows how much context affects meaning. This is an essential lesson for young writers because they often forget to add enough detail and background for their reader to completely understand their story. So, not only was this lesson a hoot, but it addressed an important skill.

How I Taught It: 

1. I typed up the dialogue from the first commercial, "Jacked-Up" on a PowerPoint slide and shared it with the students. (Ask me if I can share the slide? Go ahead! Ask! Sheepishly, I will reply... "I can't. I forgot to save it." Shakes head in shame. But, there are only a few dozen words, so it won't take you more than a few minutes to do!!)

2. I asked kids what they thought was happening in the dialogue (surprisingly, not one kid recognized the lines at first!). We discuss their ideas.

3. I showed the commercial, "Jacked-Up."

4. We shared what we noticed. (Exact same words, different settings/context so therefore different meanings.)

5. Repeat steps 1-4 with the "Wild Mustangs" commercial.

6. I discussed with kids the importance of context on our understanding of words. We talked about how many times meaning can get lost because we don't understand the context (this often happens with texts and emails... difficult to infer tone).

7. We brainstormed some words and phrases that can mean different things when said in different contexts/tones. (For example, "shut up" can be spoken in a mean and nasty tone where the speaker wants someone to stop speaking or making noise. Or, the speaker can say "shut up" when someone is telling them something surprising or unbelievable.)

8. The kids worked in groups to write a short conversation that could have two different meanings depending on context.

 9. They performed their skits for the class.

This was such a fun (and meaningful!) lesson. The kids had a blast, their skits were hilarious, and they are now better at recognizing the importance of building sufficient background and context to help their reader better understand their piece.

Let me know if you try this lesson! I'd love to hear how it goes!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Writing Intervention for Big Kids

I have so much to share with you about writing interventions, but first things first: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE NEW BLOG DESIGN?!?!? Please share your thoughts!

Every year, I meet lots of middle schoolers who struggle with writing. And every year, I play around with lots of different interventions to meet their needs. Last year, I made establishing sound writing interventions one of my big goals. I spent lots of time (and money!!) on resources that I could use, and by about March, I had something that I thought I was pretty happy with. This year, I'm starting off with those interventions that worked so well last year and I couldn't be happier with the results! In fact, I'm so pleased with how they are working, I feel confident enough to share my practice with my blog readers. I can say that these are definitely KID TESTED, TEACHER APPROVED!!

Creating a Time and Space for Intervention within your Classroom

I teach by myself. There are no aides, special ed teachers, BSI teachers... just little, ol' me! So, when I want to create and manage small groups, I'm on my own. This is hard. It would be so much easier if there was another adult in the room to help, but there is not, so I just have to deal! It's work, but it absolutely can be done!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Power of Bell-Ringers. Establishing a quiet and smooth transition into writing class is a great way to get started, but it also provides me with a window of time where I can pull a small group!

By mid-October, my bell-ringer time gets extended to 15 minutes. The kids get started immediately and are clear on the expectations during this time. Now the environment for working with small groups is set: the room is quiet and engaged, allowing me to focus my time on the handful of kids in my group.

I pull my kids to a table that I have set up in front of our classroom library. I have a "teacher station" at one end where I do my instruction.

I usually stream some jazz or piano music during this time so my group doesn't distract the rest of the class.

Establishing Interventions

In my district, by middle school, there are no longer district-mandated interventions in place. There are no clear resources for teachers to use or personnel to help. So, when we have a struggling reader or writer in 7th or 8th grade, it's the job of the classroom teacher to meet their needs.

In my tenure of working with middle schoolers, I've found that there are two types of students who need more support than my writing curriculum provides (and please remember... I am not a researcher/specialist/writer of books/etc. I'm just a teacher, like you, who loves my job, tries to do the best by my kids, and is compulsively reflective about what I see happening... to me, teachers are the best EXPERTS, but I know that we are hesitant these days to trust a "lowly" teacher and rather find ourselves relying on big publishers and educational researchers to show us best practices... I don't have lots of "data" to support what I'm sharing with you... just my actual observations I've made while working with real, live kids in an average classroom setting!!).

Type One: Students Who Struggle with Structure

The first type of students who need intervention are those who struggle with structure. These are the kids that can't organize their thoughts in a way a reader could follow. They simply write whatever their brain thinks at the time. They can generally stick with a broad topic, but because they are just writing whatever pops into their head at the time, there are lots of places where their writing veers off track and becomes confusing.

Here is an example written by a former student struggling with structure:

My dog Henry is my most special treasure. He is always there for me whenever I need him in sad times and happy. In many ways, he's my best friend. He has brown fur and a white chest. He is such a good dog to have around when you are sad because he always knows just how to cheer you up. His eyes are brown, like a Hersey bar. His favorite toy is a yellow tennis ball. Once he almost got hit by a car chasing the ball down the street. I have loved him ever since he was a puppy and we first got him. I was only 4-years old when that little ball of fluff was brought home by my parents to be best friends. His soft fur is always so smooth and warm when you pet him while watching TV on a cold night. He is my best friend and that is why he is my special treasure [sic].

This student is clear about his topic - his dog, Henry - but he cannot organize his thoughts. He is thinking about his dog and writes down everything he knows about his buddy exactly as it comes to his mind. Clearly, he has mechanical and conventional skills, and you can see evidence of where he is practicing what we learned in our mini-lessons and from studying our mentor pieces. But, because there is no organization, it is too difficult to follow and all of the skills he has are lost to the untrained, teacher-eye.

Kids who write like this need an intervention that focuses on structure and organization. Typically, I LOATHE teaching step-by-step process writing, but in cases like this, I'm left with little choice. The lessons that I put together for kids in need of this intervention consist of learning how to write a well-organized paragraph. Together, we will work on writing topic sentences, creating strong and clear supporting sentences, and finish up with writing a closing that sticks with our reader.

My favorite plans for this type of writing come from Michael Friermood. His Fact-Based Opinion Writing products are geared toward teaching elementary students (grades 3-5) how to write a good opinion paragraph, and they are PERFECT for my struggling 7th graders. They also lack a lot of the "cutesy" images that you find with products for this age group, so my big kids don't feel like I'm making them do "baby stuff." (I do not use the stationary he provides for the final writing piece... it's adorable, but it would be pushing in with my kids! So, we just do our paragraph writing in our intervention notebooks!)

My plan is to pull the intervention group for one week (at 15 minutes a pop, this comes to 1 1/4 hours of learning). Long before I ever pull a group, I work hard to make sure that my lesson is broken down into five succinct 15-minute increments. Since time is so precious, you need to make sure not one minute is wasted! I can say that it takes me much longer to plan for a small-group lesson than a 50-minute whole-class lesson because efficiency is so crucial. The first few times you plan a small-group lesson, don't be surprised if your timing is mess. It definitely takes practice to be an effective small-group instructor!

After their week is up, then I send them back to completing the bell-ringer at the start of class. I will watch them closely and conference with them lots to make sure that I am seeing a transfer of skills. If I don't, then it is likely that I will put them back in an intervention group in a few weeks to practice again.

This intervention model will continue all year. Right now, I have 8 intervention students in one writing class, and 6 in another. By the end of the year, those number should reduce to 3-4 and 2-3. Never in all my years of working with small groups, have I had 100% of my intervention students "graduate" from small group. Don't be frustrated if this is the case! If you can improve 50-60% of those kids, then consider that a huge success!!

Type Two: Students Who Struggle with Motivation

The next group of kids that I work with are those who struggle with motivation. These are the students who complain a lot about not having anything to write about, spend more time doodling or coloring in their notebook than writing, and who will write the absolute bare minimum for any writing assignment.

Many times, these kids produce too little for me to gauge whether or not they also need help with structure. But typically, once I can get them writing, they will likely find themselves in a small group for structure work :)

Come October, after we've spent lots of lots of time list writing, the kids who are still struggling to get their pencils moving find themselves using a very special Interactive Writer's Notebook called "Musings from a Middle Schooler."

This product contains loads of interactive writing pages that will motivate even the most reluctant writers. The pages can be printed out and glued into a marble notebook. (Most often, I'll have the kids create their own... I don't always have them use all the pages, rather I let them pick and choose the ones they like!).


Table of Contents page

Table of Contents cont. and an "All About Me" page

"My Life Story in Two Pages"

My Favorite Thing


I created this project just last school year and it's been an absolute smash! The kids (especially my boys!) LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it! In absolutely no time, they are writing like crazy. And once I can get their pencils moving it doesn't take me long to get them producing some actual pieces.

I don't necessarily pull these kids and work with them in a small group. The first few days, we will assemble our books all together at the back table, but then they go right back to the big group. Rather than do the bell-ringer with the rest of the class at the start of the period, they will work in their "Musings" notebooks. Fifteen minutes of that is usually enough to get them into writing mode for the rest of class.

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So, that's how I make writing intervention work in my classroom. Phew!! That was long, folks!! I apologize for my wordiness and I am grateful if you stuck it out until the end! Also, I'm sure that I've left out some crucial details of my practice, so please do not hesitate to ask me any questions you still have!

Do you have any good intervention tips or strategies that work for you? I'd love to hear about them. Drop me a comment and share!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Loud Is Your Classroom?

Next week is my first formal observation (we have two per year as tenured teachers). The administrator observing me is pretty new to our building. I’m getting to know her and she’s stopped into my room a few times just to chat with the kids, but she’s never observed me before. When completing my pre-observation questionnaire, I always pause at the question: “Is there anything else you want me to know about your classroom?” but I especially give pause if it’s a new administrator coming into my room.

After a few moments, I write, “My room is kind of loud. In the forty minutes you are with me, you will experience periods where there is lots and lots of talking. Please know, that this is how I like it. When they are talking, I know they are learning. Yes, you will hear, ‘What are you wearing to the dance on Friday?’ and ‘Are you going to the game tonight?’ But, if you focus on everything they say between those statements, you can see that their talking leads to learning. They are sorting out their thoughts, using the words of their peers to build their own thinking, using others’ ideas to fill in the gaps of their own understanding. They are looking for assurance that others think similarly to them. They are learning to gain confidence in and defend themselves when someone doesn’t agree. This cannot be done in silence. Please know, I create and encourage the space where this can happen. I know it can get a bit loud at times and I know that for some, the noise level can be a bit… uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry that it looks like I don’t have any control over them, but I’ve watched my classroom for years now and I know FOR SURE that their talking is a good sign that learning is happening.”

Two students reading and "text-mapping" together.

I didn’t always feel this way…

For a million reasons, my first few years of teaching were difficult. Looking back, I attribute much of that difficulty to my interpretations of my students’ behavior. See, I went to a small, Catholic school. One class each of grades K-8, with no room having more than 20 students. We wore uniforms. We went to weekly mass. We were issued demerits. We wrote our spelling words 3x each nightly (more for cursive practice than spelling practice). We all stood and greeted every adult who entered the room in unison (“Good morning, Sister Melanie”; “Good afternoon, Father Frank”). We walked in lines everywhere. We had no special education/basic skills/ESL (likely a result from no teachers or programs for such rather than a true assessment of our student body). And we didn’t talk – ever! Like ever, ever – unless directed to do so.

When I started my first real teaching job – 6th grade – in a public school, it was a bit of a shock to my system. My grade school experience, combined with that tricky little filter known as “nostalgia,” made me pretty uncomfortable with what I was seeing, or should I say hearing. In a word, my kids were LOUD. Loud, and with a seemingly endless verbal word count for a school day!

It didn’t seem to matter what I did: shhh-ing, asking politely, giving “the eyes,” reinforcing positive behaviors (“I like the way Johnny put his math books away and got out his reading books without talking.”), yelling, threatening, punishing. There seemed to be nothing that I could do that made the talking stop.

Now, I want to explain that it wasn’t that my students were being disrespectful. They weren’t ignoring me when I was standing in front of the class giving instructions. They’d sit quietly for that. They didn’t talk during tests (at least not often!). But, anytime – and I mean anytime – they saw a break in my talking, their mouths were moving.

And this drove me absolutely crazy.

You see, somewhere along the way, I fell under the impression that all-day-long silence meant I was in control, so therefore, their talking meant that I was not. And more than that, I believed that silence meant engagement and so their talking meant a lack thereof. As a teacher, especially a brand-new one, this was just simply the worst. I mean here I was, working my tail off to do a good job. I was staying at school until 6-7pm at night; I spent all day on Sundays lesson planning; I was reading professional books and working toward my Master’s. I was trying so hard, and I was failing. My students, though sweet as could be, were disengaged and running the show in my classroom.

I was so bothered at what I was seeing, that I invited our districts’ TLFs (Teaching and Learning Facilitators) into my room to observe. I wanted some help on getting them quiet, especially during their independent working time when I was pulling small groups. Instead, what I got was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher.

After observing for a few hours, we met to discuss what they saw. “You know,” one of the TLFs said, “I know the noise is bothering you, but have you ever stopped to listen to what they are saying?”

“Um, no,” I said. “Does it even matter? They chatter all the time. It’s got to stop.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I know that it’s making you uncomfortable, but I think if you stopped and listened to what they were saying, you’d be much happier about the noise level.”

The other TLF spoke. “I was walking around listening to the kids doing their workbook page while you met with your small group.” (This was during a math class.) She continued, “They were not off-task. In fact, each and every student I watched and heard was completely ON-TASK. They were working through the problems together. They were talking out their ideas on how to solve one complicated problem in particular. They were trying different strategies and comparing their results. They were using each other as tools to help them problem solve.”

“This is what you want to be happening in your classroom,” the first TLF responded. “What you are hearing is the sound of learning.”

The sound of learning. How does learning have a sound? I thought learning could only happen in your head, in silence. How can this be?

Students working on a Venn diagram and constructed response question together.

The next day, I didn’t pull any small groups. Instead, I gave their kids their independent work tasks and walked around listening. I was so surprised by what I heard. Sure, there were off-task comments, but a lot of what I was hearing was relevant to the activity they were doing. They were learning! They were engaged! And more, when I came across a kid who was sitting silently, more often than not s/he was staring off into space, completely disengaged from what was going on! Oh, the irony! The kids doing what I had thought was “right” were actually the ones that I needed to be worrying about!

My classroom hasn’t been the same since. Yes, there are times when the noise makes me uncomfortable… it’s so hard to shake a belief that’s been with you for most of your life, but mostly the noise makes me happy. I know now that the noise is what learning sounds like.

Two students writing collaboratively.

So, tell me about your classroom? What does learning sound like in your room? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Whole is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts" - Focusing on the Small Stuff

A few weeks ago, we received our students’ PARCC scores (PARCC is the standardized test we take here in NJ). Thankfully, I work in a district where TEACHING is celebrated over TESTING, so opening the email was not a pressing matter. Rather, it’s there for us to check out, at our convenience, in the hopes of sparking reflection on how last year’s students performed and gaining a bit of insight about our current students.

Nevertheless, that email took my breath away. My legs started to tingle and my stomach got queasy. I vowed that I wouldn’t open it, but my resolve lasted no more than 20 minutes. Before I knew it, I had printed it out and was pouring over it, with highlighters and Post-Its at hand. There were some great surprises! Kids who I knew had it in them, pulled it out… maybe not hitting it out of the park, but holding their own. But, unfortunately, those surprises could not wash away the letdowns. 

Those kids. Those kids who – despite our best efforts (mine and theirs) – just couldn’t hang come test day. They tried. Oh, did they try. I watched them. Taking their time. Making little notes on their scrap paper. Using every minute of the testing window. Oh, did they try. But… they only “partially met” or just “did not yet meet” expectations. (I do applaud PARCC for putting in that little “yet.” Kudos to appreciating the value of a growth mindset!)

Although I can honestly say that I’ve never felt any direct pressure about my students’ scores from anyone in particular – not my students’ parents, not my colleagues, not my administrators – the pressure is there. It is always there. It’s hard to explain… in fact, as I write this, I’m struggling to put into words what our “testing culture” has done to me, to my practice.

When I first started teaching, standardized testing was around, but it was of little concern. Every year, come May, we’d spend our mornings filling in some scantrons and our afternoons playing kickball outside. It was slightly inconvenient – the testing, not the kickball! – but really, no big deal. The following October we’d get our former students’ scores. Again, no big deal. Maybe (if we really looked) we’d find a pattern that might lead to a little reflection on our practice, but mostly, we’d look at the scores, nod in agreement – because honestly, any good teacher can tell you exactly how their kids will perform after knowing them for about a month! – and then file them away somewhere safe, waiting to be shredded when we clean out our desks the following June.

My how things have changed.

Despite my district’s belief that teaching matters more than testing, for whatever reason, I feel squeezed. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about how well I’ve covered a standard, or if that assignment was “PARCC-like” enough to provide adequate practice for the big test, or how I can improve their typing skills. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress over how that answer would be scored by PARCC or if that response could be deemed “off topic.” And not a day goes by, where I don’t look at a kid and think (gulp!) about all the things that he CAN’T do yet, rather than celebrate how far he’s come. Ooh, admitting that hurts. But, it’s my truth.

I’d say that maybe it’s just my ultra Type-A perfectionist personality. But, pretty much every teacher I meet – even those enviable Type-Bers who manage to maneuver seamlessly through the day despite their desk being covered, literally covered, in papers – these days feels the same.

Recently, I was talking to one of my favorite mentor/colleagues and she commented that, in her 30+ years of teaching experience, she’s come to find one thing to be true: in teaching, when it comes to kids and their performance: “The whole is LESS than the sum of its parts.”

I reflected on this idea. And before long, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is absolutely true. When I think about all the papers and tests and projects that I’ve graded over the years, they pale in comparison to what I watched a kid learn in the process of writing/taking/creating them. Final products, I realized, are always a bit of a letdown when you compare them to journey you watched a kid take to put it together.

Immediately, I refocused myself. I decided to be present for those little moments that occur along a kid’s journey and to stop staring at the destination on the horizon. The test is the test is the test. I can’t change it. I can’t beat it. I can’t fight it. It’s there. But, I don’t have to make myself crazy staring at it looming in the distance. Instead, I can focus on all those little wins throughout the day and celebrate all the things my kids CAN do.


When she wrote this, I overheard her say, "I wish the bucket was bigger. I have so many hopes and dreams!" Agh! My heart strings! So what if she struggled to write about every.single.idea that she had listed here! It sure was fun and eye-opening to listen to her dream about them.

And this...
Despite the fact that their final papers were just so-so, watching these two initial strangers work together, help each other, and become friends in the process, was everything. Overhearing things like, "I like your opening. Can you help me with mine?" and "It's cool how you started all your paragraphs with one word. I'm gonna do that, too!" is why I became a teacher!

And this...
Student: "When I was leaving my house this morning, I got the best idea for the last paragraph of my paper. I didn't have any real paper so I just grabbed this from my counter and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget."

Me: "Today is the day you became a writer."

It doesn't even matter how her paper will turn out! From this day forward, she is a writer, and nothing, certainly no grade or PARCC score, can ever take that from her.

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These moments... these PARTS are most certainly greater than their SUM. These everyday lessons, experiences, moments... no test score could ever measure them. And so, from now on, I simply will not let them.

Hope October is treating you all well. I have progress reports due next week. GAH! Where is the time going!

Happy Teaching!!