Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Six Things (Almost) Every Teacher Would Love for Teacher Appreciation Week

I've known a lot of teachers in my life and they vary wildly in age, build, personality, interests, subject matter, and tolerance of stupidity. One thing that is very common among them, though, is their nurturing nature. The vast majority of teachers are givers, not takers. They don't often ask for much, get little in return for their efforts, but they thrive in an atmosphere of giving.

Teacher Appreciation Week should be the one time we get to ask for stuff, right?

Teacher Appreciation Week 2015 has already come and gone. We have a wonderful PTO made up of Pinterest-addicted moms who supplied us with highlighters ("You're the highlight of this school"), Fantas ("You're FANTA-stic"), lunch on Tuesday, and other goodies. The office staff brought us doughnuts on Monday, and the athletic director fed us wings and nachos on Friday. All in all, it was a pretty awesome week.

That being said, there are just a few things that most all teachers would love to have for Teacher Appreciation Week that we just probably won't get. But if you have connections to a higher power, here's a little wish list I've thrown together for Teachers Appreciation Week 2016!

1. The opportunity to go pee whenever we feel the need. I don't think non-teachers can truly appreciate how precious a bathroom break is. Even the stay-at-home mom crowd gets to go pee, albeit with the door open and an audience consisting of a toddler, a baby in a wrap, and the dog.

MRW I finally get to go pee after a loooong morning holding it in.
2. A day free from repeating ourselves. I don't mean repeating lesson plans during multiple class periods. That's a given... it comes with the territory, right? I mean repeating "get out a sheet of notebook paper" or "turn to page 72" or "Scantron machines do not read red ink" or "is your name at the top?" or "number your paper one through twenty." A day where we only need to say instructions once.


3. Two fifteen-minute breaks. Did you guys know this is a real thing? There are real, adult jobs out there where you get two fifteen-minute breaks during your eight hour shift? What is this shit?

(Oh, and to all of the non-teachers who are saying, "What about your prep period/recess time/passing periods? That's a break!" my little boy has something to say to you.)

Learning his rude hand gestures from a very young age.
4. Lunch time. My husband, who I love and adore because he is an amazing man and a wonderful father, gets to sit down for lunch every day for an hour. He has a lunch hour that usually involves him going out for lunch with some colleagues where they proceed to eat lunch in peace and not work. I mean seriously... what do you do just sitting there eating lunch in peace for a whole hour? I just keep thinking about how much work I could get done in that time...


5. One day where all other businesses have hours that differ from school hours. It is impossible to run errands as a teacher. Everyone has the same hours you do! You can't make it to a post office, an insurance company, or a bank unless you leave work on time. And really, who gets to do that? I have to work extra just to get to leave on time.


6. Blue jeans and comfy shoes. This varies wildly by location, but I would love it if we got to wear blue jeans and shoes with laces. We currently have that luxury every other Friday (pay day) and I swear to you the morale throughout the entire building gets a significant boost by just this little change in dress code. If I feel really ballsy next year, I might even suggest we get to wear jeans and tennis shoes for a whole week.

MRW I wake up and realize it is, indeed, Pay Day (a.k.a. Blue Jeans) Friday.

So let's have it. What's on your Teacher Appreciation Week wishlist for 2016? It's never too early to start thinking of these things. (If anything these happy thoughts will help push you through until the end of the school year!)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Test Prep Madness (and new printables!)

I live in Indiana, in the southernmost tip so that we're practically Kentucky. Actually, my region is known as "Kentuckiana" for a reason. We live right along the Ohio River. It's always been my home and it's an interesting region. The Indiana side where I hang out is primarily rural and known for small-town tourism. People come to our little neck of the woods to travel back to a simpler time. Since we are right off of the interstate we are littered with fast food joints and chain hotels, but if you're willing to travel just a few minutes away from the interstate, you'll find all kinds of local attractions - caves, historic buildings, family owned-and-operated businesses, restaurants featuring the finest local foods and wines. If the city life is more your style, Louisville, Kentucky is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Louisville is weird, in all the good ways. There are awesome museums, tons of dining options, and bourbon. You pretty much can't go wrong with museums, food, and bourbon.


I should also mention that where I live #ballislife.

In a very tiny area we have raging IU, UofL, and UK fans (and a small handful of dorky Purdue fans*). Although our UK fans don't typically light couches on fire... you have to go to Lexington to see that shit.


March Madness is a huge freaking deal around here. People eat, breathe, and shit basketball in springtime. As soon as the brackets were released, they were EVERYWHERE in my school building. You couldn't turn a corner or glance at a room full of students without seeing one. I had students who were incessantly researching teams, googling stats, and fanatically following game scores.

If they put half as much effort into their academics, the whole bunch of them would graduate with honors. I found myself thinking about this often, long after the devastation that was UK losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. (Did you know that there are people around here who get championship tattoos before their team has even left the gate?)

So there we were... mid-April... in the throes of test prep. Our poor elementary and middle school counterparts were already in test-taking hell... we had just been packing the bags for our journey. I had been reviewing essential language arts skills ever since we returned from spring break. We were taking benchmark tests every Monday, doing vocab work on Tuesdays, reading comprehension practice on Wednesdays, some kind of mash-up of grammar and crying on Thursday, and honing our essay-writing skills on Fridays. We were doing this week. after week. after week.

So as of two weeks ago, I was feeling really burnt out and I knew that if I was feeling it, the kids were definitely feeling it. We needed a change of pace in a bad way. We had just finished looking at some released test essay prompts and the released student writing from years past, and a girl in class casually remarked how she really wanted to do well on the essay because she's really competitive.

Competitive. Competition. Teams competing for fame... glory... doughnuts...


As soon as my classes cleared out for the day, I began tackling this idea that was just starting up in my brain.

I need teams. I need rules. I need enthusiasm. How can I get their enthusiasm? We need just enough energy to get through this last long haul. Prizes are good, but that's not enough. I need... March Madness.

I called my competition ECA MADNESS, since that's the test my kids take. I decided that since I teach four sections of general English 10, that we would be broken up into four regions, with four teams from each region, starting us at the "Sweet 16" point in the bracket system. Students would have to choose their team members and fill out an entry form, including their team name and their mascot. I'd use to determine the "seeds" and how they were placed on the bracket. But answering test prep questions wasn't going to be quite enough. I needed something else.

So I brought in a Wii.

The kids lost their minds (in a totally awesome way) when I introduced the competition to them. They were in it to win it. That competitive spirit permeated the atmosphere of the room as they started coming up with ridiculous team names and mascots. By the end of the day, nearly the entire sophomore class with buzzing with excitement over this. They were discussing t-shirt designs and test-taking strategies, Wii bowling tricks and context clues, bracketology and essay outlines. We started with in-class competition, narrowing it down to our Elite 8, then our Final 4, where only one team remained from each class period.

Here's how I chose to do game play:
1. Each team had to answer a question. The Sweet 16 questions were fairly simple, and as the tournament has progressed, I have upped the level of difficulty. The questions went up on my Smart Board and they had sixty seconds to answer the Sweet 16 questions (vocab and context clue related) and 90 seconds to answer the Elite 8 and Final 4 questions (reading comprehension).
2. If the team answered the question correctly, they got 10 points. They also got the chance to play Wii bowling. They were allowed to bowl one frame and they got additional points for the number of pins they knocked down (1 point per pin. I didn't have any kind of a bonus for bowling a strike.)
3. If the team answered incorrectly, they did not earn points and they did not get to bowl.
4. They had sixty seconds to answer the simple questions, and ninety seconds for the more complex reading comprehension questions.
5. The team with the highest score moved on in the bracket.

The competition got intense. Suddenly kids who never gave a whistle before about being able to answer a multiple choice question were absorbing any tips I had to offer. The results of this one-week competition have been spectacular! When a question would go up on the board the room would get silent as the kids leaned in, staring at the question. The competing team would mutter under their breaths to each other, analyzing the question, eliminating answers, until they were able to come up with a solution together. The teamwork was impressive, and I was thrilled to see them using these skills that I just knew were going in one ear and out the other a week prior. These kids were able to work through very difficult questions - questions that would have seemed impossible to them a week ago.

On Monday, we are doing the final competition. It's The Doom Brigade from 5th period vs. the Hungry Hippos from 2nd period. The Doom Brigade is a rag-tag group of intelligent misfits that often spend their time in the corner of the classroom discussing video games and sketching comics. This team has not missed a single question in competition so far. The Hungry Hippos are bright students, but they have to work hard to do well in school. They're just not great test-takers. But their hearts are set on this and they are doing very well.

Monday's competition will be a close call. All of my students will take one final practice test, but they will be doing it with their teams. They will have reading comprehension, vocab, and grammar questions, and they will have to outline an essay, all in forty-five minutes. I want them to use the team mentality on this last test, because I think we're to the point where they won't learn much more from me... but there's still a lot to learn from each other. After I score the tests, Hungry Hippos and The Doom Brigade will get to bowl one frame for each correct test question, and we'll have our champion. As promised, the winning team will get a dozen doughnuts of their choosing.


I decided that this whole system worked too well to not share with you. I'm confident I am not the first teacher to come up with this idea, but I did a lot of leg work with this and now I want to share it with you! I've made it more generalized, so it's titled Test Prep Madness instead. Whether you are prepping your students for a standardized state test, PARCC tests, or just want to spice up your final exam study routine, I hope you will find this as inspiring and fun as we did.

The PDFs are ready to print. I've also included Word Document versions that can be edited with your preferences. The bracket starts at the Sweet 16 level, but you could always alter this and start at the Elite 8 or whatever works for your classes. I've also included the rules that I gave to my students as a Word document. Feel free to edit as you see fit and print away! I only ask that you keep my copyright at the bottom of the pages :)

Test Prep Madness Bracket - PDF
Test Prep Madness Bracket - Word Doc
Test Prep Madness Entry Form - PDF
Test Prep Madness Entry Form - Word Doc
Test Prep Madness Sample Rules - Word Doc

I would love to hear some of your test prep success stories! How do you help your students prepare for unit tests, finals, or even the Big Dance tests?

*I should mention that I'm married to a dorky Purdue fan and half of my family are dorky Purdue fans. I love dorky Purdue fans. This is good-natured teasing... except during basketball season. Then it gets hella vicious.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

12 Things No One Told You About Parenthood - The Teacher's Edition

Liam - one week old

Liam - five months old
I have been a mother for five months now, and my life has changed in so many ways. I was warned about so many things, most of which have indeed happened. I never knew I could operate on so little sleep. I didn't shower regularly for a little while. I have been covered in baby bodily fluids at various times. Netflix streaming was a lifesaver. I stare into the contents of my son's diaper as intently as a mystic gazes into tea leaves. I never knew I could love someone I've known for such a short time the way I love my little boy.

I do wish someone had warned me about postpartum hair loss... I've been learning all about that one the hard way.

Anyway, as a perpetual researcher and experience-seeker, I think I was pretty well prepared for the complete disruption to my personal life that the arrival of my son brought... at least as prepared as one can be for something that is a complete game-changer.

What no one told me about parenthood, though, was how it would seriously affect me as a teacher. So, if there are any teachers out there who are expecting a new member of the family, I'd like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things I have learned as a first time mom/teacher.

You will have to work really hard at making yourself look presentable for work until you get back into the swing of things. I had an emergency c-section that was followed six weeks later by gallbladder removal surgery. I lived in pajama pants and tank tops for two months. My boobs were frequently hanging out in those early days, and my little guy was a happy spitter so I perpetually smelled like baby vomit. The idea of looking professional upon returning to work was daunting to say the least. It took a long time to get back into the habit of wearing grown up clothes and brushing my hair.

You will need double the time to get out the door that you used to need. I’m very fortunate in that my sister comes to my house in the mornings and stays with my son all day. I’m spoiled, actually. But even though I don’t have to get Liam ready for the day and take him somewhere, it still takes double the time to get out the door. Feeding the baby, changing him in the morning, getting all of my pump parts together, making sure bottles are ready for the day, wiping the spit up off of my outfit… these things take time.

When you return from leave you basically have to start at square one. I was vaguely prepared for this. For my own comfort, I decided to ease back into the classroom routine and basically treated the first few days like they were the first few days of school all over again. I didn't realize my students would need this as much as I did. Even though I feel like my maternity leave sub and I were in sync in a lot of ways and she was totally awesome with the kids, it was very unsettling for my students to switch teachers in November and switch back at the end of January. It took a little while to reestablish some of the classroom basics.

Your students will become very attached to your little one. I think this is especially true if you already have a really good relationship with your students, although there were students I had not seen for a couple of years who were suddenly stopping by to see pictures of my offspring. I don’t usually volunteer updates on my son because I’ve always tried to avoid oversharing and I know some kids just don’t really care, but so many students ask about him on a regular basis. Any time my son experiences some kind of an achievement (He slept five consecutive hours! He farted like a trucker! He held his bottle by himself! He crapped out of his diaper and up his back!), there are students who take personal pride in this.

You will be asked regularly about your little one and you’ll run out of responses. Guys, I am SO BAD at small talk. Seriously, it is painfully difficult. I love it so much when my coworkers ask how Liam is doing, but I know I say the exact. same. thing. every time. Typical conversation goes like this:
     Sweet/considerate/polite coworker: “Hey! How’s the baby?”
     Me: (inwardly groans like Tina Belcher) “He’s gooooood. Ummm… yeah. He’s good. He’s… umm… growing.”
     Coworker: “Oh yes, they grow so fast.”
     Me: “Yeah…” *shuffles feet… backs slowly away*
     End conversation.
I need to work on my baby small talk. I’m really bad at this.

If you thought you didn't have “down time” at work before… well, you ain't seen nothing yet. This is ESPECIALLY true (from my limited experience anyway) if you are a breastfeeding mother. Pumping has become my own little Hell. The first week back the struggle was real, kids. Pumping was an uncomfortable experience and I was so stressed out by it that I wasn't really able to express a lot of milk. Then, when the milk would finally start to flow, I had to concentrate on thinking about the baby or the milk would stop. I’d eke out a meager few ounces and then I’d have to pack everything up before the bell. This has gotten much better, and I’m even able to multitask a little bit now (as in I can eat a snack because ain’t nobody got time to eat lunch and I can maybe answer a few emails) but any time I was ever in my classroom without students is now dedicated to pumping as much milk as possible to feed the ravenous beast that is my five month old. Admittedly, every day goes really, really fast now, but that’s because I’m constantly running. It’s exhausting.

You will rock the baby… even when he isn't there. I stand in front of my students and I rock the baby who isn't there. You would think I've got a baby in my arms swaddled in an invisibility cloak by the way I sway back and forth all day long. I never did this before my child entered the world. If I start feeling particularly anxious while at work (for any and all non-baby-related reasons) I start bouncing on the balls of my feet, because Liam finds bouncing to be very soothing when he’s upset. The kids have gotten used to it… mostly.

Congratulations! Your memory is now shit. Maybe it's sleep deprivation. Maybe it's hormones. Maybe it's new parent trauma. Whatever the case, you will not be able to remember shit. Ever. You'll have to look back at your lesson plans to remember what you did just yesterday.

MRW a student asks what we did in class yesterday.

You’ll revisit your lesson plans to cut some of the fluff in the hopes that will allow you a little more time with your little one at home. If you've read some of my previous posts, you know that I’m all about quality of assignments over quantity. I've never really been the nightly homework type. But that doesn't mean I haven’t been scouring my lesson plans, trying to figure out ways to trim a little fluff here and there to ensure just a little more quality time at home with my baby.

Your love for your students will change in a drastic way. Maybe this is due to my hormones still trying to level out, but my heart aches extra nowadays for my students who are hurting. I always felt sorry for kids who had it tough at home before, but now it’s just outright painful to hear their stories. I gave a student half of my lunch yesterday after she confided in me she hadn't eaten in three days because her mom had been wasted or asleep for the last several days and hadn't bothered to give the school lunch money. Normally, I’d be all, “Damn, that really sucks. Sorry kid. Have a granola bar.” This incident made me ugly cry on my way home from work and when I rocked my baby to sleep, I kept telling him over and over again that I would never ever ever do that to him. Before, my students were my crazy teenage students. Now I see them as someone’s kid.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, your tolerance for stupid will plummet. Again, maybe it's because I'm sleep deprived. Or maybe because I'm constantly starving from trying to feed myself and the life-sucker that is my sweet little boy. Whatever the reason, my tolerance for bullshit has dropped considerably. Some days I have to work really hard to keep my filter in check.

Your personal life will collide with your work life. I've always worked hard at keeping my personal life and my work life kind of separate. I always had this “leave your personal life baggage at the door” type of philosophy about going to work. Prior to Liam, I would go to work, switch into “Mrs. Richardson” mode, and I was in that mode until I got in my vehicle (at whatever ungodly hour that was) to go home. Now, I never fully switch out of “Liam’s Mommy” mode. I text my sister throughout the day for updates, look at his pictures, and call home before starting drama practice. I've also had to cancel a practice or two because my little guy was having a really rough day at home. “Liam’s Mommy” mode appears to be very permanent.

Hopefully this has provided you with a little insight if you're a first-time parent/teacher, or maybe it's been a bit of a throwback for you veterans. By the way, veteran parent/teachers... I salute you. I worship you. I admire you so very much. You are walking, talking proof that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't a train.

You're also proof my hair will probably grow back.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Smash Books

This year one of my biggest changes will be the implementation of interactive student notebooks. For those of you unfamiliar with this, the ISN is a classroom tool that is used for recording classroom notes, but it is also used to help students process new information. The idea is that it encourages students to be creative, independent thinkers while they practice new class skills.

My ultimate goal for our interactive notebooks is that the students will see them as a valuable reference guide and a tool they can use to be successful in English class.

I think calling them "interactive student notebooks" is a bit cumbersome, and I kind of thought that "ISN" was just another acronym to deal with (and God knows we don't have enough of those in education), so I've nicknamed our notebooks "Smash Books" named for these books used for storing mementos and ideas. I want my students' Smash Books to be both extremely useful and personalized.

I want to clarify that very few (if any) of these ideas are new or my own. I've done a LOT of research this summer and I've found loads of amazing resources online. Pinterest is amazing. One of my greatest resources was Sarah over at Everybody is a Genius so a lot of the ideas I'm implementing (and quite a bit of the wording!) are from her site.

What materials are we using for our Smash Books?
Each student is being asked to supply a composition book. I like these instead of spiral bound notebooks because I think they'll last a lot longer. They're hardier. There is a bit of a drawback in using the comp book because they are smaller than standard paper, so I'm having to learn some tricks to resize printables that I want in the Smash Book. More on that later.

To encourage the creativity of the Smash Book, I've brought some class supplies to the table. Remember these cute little bins I talked about briefly in yesterday's post?

Each pod's supplies bin is geared specifically towards maintaining the Smash Book. Each bin contains:

  • scissors (hopefully I'll obtain enough for each person at a pod eventually)
  • glue sticks
  • tape (which we'll probably use more than the glue)
  • a mini-stapler with extra staples
  • a couple of regular pencils
  • highlighters in multiple colors
  • colored pencils
  • fine-tipped markers
  • a ruler
  • a calculator (crazy how often we need these in English class)
  • hand sanitizer because germs
Each pod also has a larger empty bin under the desks for collecting scrap paper for recycling.

How are we using our Smash Books?
The Smash Book will be used for recording our regular classroom notes, but it will also be used to practice skills and work with new information.

For example, one of my early lessons is about how to annotate text while reading. The students will be putting a foldable on the left side that is a chart of annotation symbols, so that is new information. Then they will get a print-out of my Writer's Workshop guidelines to stick on the right side and they will annotate that text while reading it to practice the skill. Left side = reference. Right side = practice. I have a larger version of the above picture hanging in a prominent place in my classroom so the kids can reference back to it early on while we're still getting used to these notebooks.

How do we set up our Smash Books?
During the first full week of school (which I am totally calling "Boot Camp," a term I brazenly stole from Sarah at Kovescence of the Mind) we will be dedicating some time to getting to know our Smash Books. The basic set-up is pretty much identical to what Sarah from Everybody is a Genius does.

  • First page = title page with the student's name, my name beneath that, followed by the class, the period, and the date we began the book (08/11 this year). (Bonus: this is the heading for all of the papers they turn in for my class because it's MLA so they will even be able to use the title page as a reference.)
  • The next four pages = the table of contents. Students will keep track of the topics and the page #. Again, it's supposed to be a reference item!
  • The next six pages = Words Worth Knowning. These are new words we learn that we will actually use throughout the entire school year. (Not to be confused with vocab terms that we learn long enough to pass a test and then blow off... gah...)
  • Inside of the back cover = another reference place. The students will glue in their Depth of Knowledge word chart and their writing rubric.
  • Last two pages = grade record sheets. With my new grading system, I want students to keep track of how they are doing on each skill they learn. They will record those there.
After the Words Worth Knowing section is when the actual page numbers and content begin.

So, that's pretty much where I'm at with our Smash Books right now. I'm really excited to give these a try!

What's your note-keeping method in class?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Classroom Tour 2014 and Changes in A104

If you've been around this blog for a while or if you've checked out my 2013 and 2012 Classroom Tours, you may notice an immediate difference in my room.

I've always been a "desks in rows" kind of teacher and now... well, definitely not rows! I've been calling them pods. There are currently four pods of six students and two pods of five students, though rumor has it my largest class (34!) is continuing to grow (!!) and I'm going to have to try to stuff at least one more desk in here (!!!) if not more!!!! (I hope the grave misuse of exclamation points accurately conveys my freaking-outness over these class sizes.)

Ah, yes, change is in the air in Room A104. It may be because my personality profile (according to the work of Jung and Briggs Meyers) identifies me as an INFJ so I feel a constant need to reflect and perfect. It may also be a little bit of nesting instinct thanks to being 25 weeks pregnant. Either way, I've gone hog-wild and decided to make several changes to my room, my curriculum, my class organization, and my grading policies.

Today is just a room tour (with a few sneak peeks at some of my changes I'm making) but I hope to elaborate on some of these changes over the next week or so before I return to school.

So, here are a few more full-room views, from my classroom door.

Here's a closer look at my bulletin board by the door.

1. Consequences List - I keep a list posted of the positive and negative consequences that follow choices made in my classroom. After a conversation with a student at the end of last school year, I realized that I do a really good job following through with the negative consequences and a LOUSY job with the positive ones (a.k.a. "rewards") and that made me fell like a total asshat, so that lead to one of my changes I'm making this year.

2. Classroom Procedures - I keep my classroom procedures posted all year too. A few people have asked about those, so I posted my own classroom procedures and consequences for your viewing pleasure.

3. Lanyard with Rosters - I found this idea somewhere over the summer and for the life of me I can't recall where, but it's a damn good idea. I printed off my class rosters, clipped them to the lanyard, and hung it up by my classroom door. Now, in the event of a fire drill, I can just grab the lanyard on the way out the door instead of hunting for my seating charts.

4. Class Rewards Card Poster - my solution to the positive consequences issue. Students will be issued rewards cards (just like you get at mall stores and gas stations). 10 punches = 1 filled card = incentives. Punches will not necessarily be easy to earn, though. I don't want them working only for incentives. I want the incentives to be a bonus. More details at a later date.

5. Skills Grading Rubric - part of my new grading plan that I was mulling over in this post. I took the idea and most of the wording from here at the Everybody Is a Genius blog. That chick is awesome and has inspired me greatly this summer. Check her out and give her some internet love!

Here are some more pictures of the same old thing, just updated labels. (My old ones were looking a little rough around the edges.)

My board calendar I love so well! I had to ditch the ribbon because it didn't stick well and it goes really fugly as the year went ont.

Homework grid

Homework trays, absent binder, book suggestions binder, paper storage...
Oh, see those pencil pouches in front of the absent binder? I finally put together some storage for the mini-whiteboard fake-whiteboards-that-are-actually-white-cardstock-sheets-stuck-in-a-paper-condom supplies.

Some new bins for handouts, right by the door.

New this year. This wall is doing double-duty as an early finishers wall and a supporting assignments wall.

This is the bin of supplies at each pod. The supplies bins (and the pod seating) found their way into my classroom with the decision to try doing interactive notebooks this year (which I am fondly referring to as Smash Books).

So, that's my room this year! Lots of changes. Are you making any changes to your room this year? Tell us about it in the comments below. I love hearing other teachers' ideas!