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!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The 2014-2015 Calendar Pack is Here!

I've completed the FREE 2014-2015 calendar pack for your Sanity Saver (or however you choose to use it)!

This time around, I have both a PDF file and a Word document available in my account.

  • Easy to use! Just download and print!
  • No need to download any fonts.
  • Cannot be edited.
  • Created in Microsoft Word 2013, so it may look funky (or not show up at all) in other versions of Microsoft Word.
  • You will need to download the free font Rolina for it to look right (available here)
  • You can edit this version. (NOTE: please do not remove my copyright notice from the footer.)
As always, all of my free templates are available to you! Just click the tab at the top of the website that says FREE TEMPLATES FOR YOU to access them.

Happy Planning!

My Grading Philosophy and Trying Something Different

If there is one area of my teaching procedures that has been most contested (by parents), it is definitely my grading philosophy, particularly my use of weighted grades vs. total points grading. (That links to a really excellent article on the topic.)

During my first year of teaching I taught at a school where each department was meant to follow the same grading policy (a good idea, I think), so we managed this by using a weighted system. I no longer remember the percentages, but basically in all of our general English classes, you could count on tests being worth X% of your grade, homework worth Y%, and so on. It didn't matter if you gave a five-point test or a fifty-point test; as long as it was still categorized as a "test" in your grade book, it tied into the X%.

This is a system I have always liked and I continued using it when I switched schools (where it is currently not mandated that our department members grade the same way), despite the fact that very few teachers in our building use a weighted grade system.

This was my breakdown for the 2013-2014 school year.
Tests - 50%
Writer's Workshop - 25%
Homework - 15%
Quizzes - 10%

Pros to this setup:
  • I'm a firm believer that the student's grade is supposed to reflect mastery of the content, and tests are meant to assess for mastery. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to me that a large portion (half, in this case) of the class grade be assessment-based.
  • The percentages reflect the effort on the part of the student. Tests require the most effort, so they carry the greatest weight. Writer's Workshop (including all essay drafts, research skills, etc.) requires lots of time, effort, and mastery of skills that are tricky to assess on a standard test, so it was worth the second largest chunk of points. Homework and quizzes require less effort on the part of the student and, to me, are meant to be formative assessments rather than summative, so I didn't want them to tank a student's grade, but I wanted them to pack enough punch that the students took them seriously.
  • Weighting is very flexible. I don't necessarily have to promise 500 test points a quarter (out of a potential 1000 points, so I still have my "weighting"), with each test being worth 100 points. If I need to throw in another summative assessment, I can. If the test should really only be worth 80 points, no big deal. They are all still worth 50% of the student's grade.
  • My grade book software does the math work for me, so I don't really have to think too much about how many points something is worth. (How to properly assign points is definitely a topic for another post... I'm pretty opinionated on that too!)
Cons to this setup:
  • Sometimes you have a quarter that is really heavy on one particular category and really light on another. For example, when my students do their research papers, they get tons of grades in the book categorized as Writer's Workshop grades (25%) but very few categorized as Homework (15%). So if I goof up and only give them one or two Homework assignments, and they goof up and do poorly on those one or two assignments, that has a 15% impact on their grade. This can be problematic.
  • Students (and often their parents) just. Don't. Get it. They often struggle with figuring out why that one zero in the grade book had such a nasty impact on their grade or why a twenty point test is more relevant than a twenty point homework assignment.
[Honestly, those are the only two (albeit major) cons that I've thus far found with this setup.]

As much as I really like how well weighted grades work for me, I recognize that they sometimes don't work for my students and their parents. I'm nothing if not open-minded [in my humble opinion of myself ;) ] so this year I'm willing to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a total points/standards-based hybrid.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea, here's a great article on standards-based grading.

I like a lot of the ideas that go along with standards-based grading, but I'm not ready to go all in yet (and I'm quite certain my not-so-progressive corporation wouldn't be wild about it either). That's why I'm trying a hybrid this year to see how it goes. It's definitely a big experiment. I'm still in the process of designing this, so bear with me. These are some of my ideas.
  • Use a total points system. No weighted system. Help students to keep track of their points in class so it is very clear to them why they have the grade they have. Student data-tracking works great in parent-teacher conferences.
  • Use a list of quarterly standards to guide my teaching (as always). Break those standards into student-friendly objectives (as always).
  • Create formative assessments (homework assignments, exit slips, etc.) for each objective. Make each one of these work W points. (Like, 10 points, and use this 10-point scale to show mastery of the objective.)
  • Create formative assessments (quizzes) to assess groups of learned objectives. Make each one of these worth X points.
  • Create large summative assessments for each standard. Make each worth Y points.
  • Using the standards list, create a quarterly pre-test and post test that tests all standards. Make this worth Z points.
If I do this right, I should be able to come up with a total number of points available for each quarter and it should still technically be "weighted" without all the weird percentages. I feel like this system would also cut back on any kind of "trivial" grades and make the grade all about content mastery.

What do you guys think? Any tips to improve on this idea? Think it will crash and burn? What are your grading philosophies?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


During my absence, I received tons of wonderful emails, comments, and questions! I wanted to take the time to address some of those questions in one post.

Would you be willing to share a copy of your procedures? As a new teacher I am still learning how to be very specific. :) –Mitchell and Lyndee McKay
I’m in the process of putting together a post on this one, and it will include my own classroom procedures. Stay tuned!

What font are you using (here)? I MUST add it to my collection! –sewgirly
It’s called Rolina and it is available FOR FREE from! (Since I use it SO frequently, I did donate to the creator.) You can find it here.

Can I have a copy of your template for the Absent Binder/Sanity Saver/Yellow Sheet/etc.?
All of my FREE templates are available to you! There is a link on the right sidebar that says LOOKING FOR FREE TEMPLATES? Click that image and it will take you to my account where you can get all that stuff! If you are looking for something more colorful or that uses funky fonts, you can check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I recommend the To-Do lists! I use them EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Thanks so much for sharing your creativity with us! I used your calendar and lesson plan templates all year and absolutely LOVED THEM!! I thought I downloaded the calendar in a Word format so I could make it into a 2014-2015 calendar for this year but nope… :( Do you have a file available in a Word doc so I can rework it?? Thanks! –Lisa
My 2013-2014 calendar pack was only available as a PDF because formatting it just right is tricky and I figured a PDF was just simpler for those who would rather be able to just print. I will be uploading the 2014-2015 calendar pack very soon and I will include an editable Word document as well this time. :)

Stephanie, I wondered if you have new comments about how you taught vocabulary last year. How did it turn out? Did it achieve what you thought? –Tammy Trusty
Oh vocabulary, thou art as loathsome as a toad! I would say I made progress on the vocabulary front, but I have yet to achieve my goal of vocab lessons that are not tedious, boring, and useless. There’s a post coming soon about this!

Do students have to make up bell ringers? –Sub Teacher
No, not exactly. My bell ringer procedure for 2013-2014 consisted of doing the daily vocab card (required work that did have to be made up), and then they did silent reading Mondays through Wednesdays and timed free writes on Thursday and Friday. I basically just had to keep an eye on them to make sure they were reading on reading days (and that reading ultimately culminated in quarterly projects anyway) and I rarely had to “babysit” on writing days because they loved doing free writes. Those free writes weren’t worth points, so absent students didn’t have to make them up.

What part of Indiana are you in? –Starla
I live in the very southern part of Indiana that is basically northern Kentucky. :) I’m just a hop, skip, and a jump from Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the part of Indiana with all of the giant hills. It's always been my home. <3

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Teaching While Pregnant: A Lesson Learned

The last five months can basically be summed up by this picture of my sweet puppy dog.

Note: that brother is human.
Well... that escalated quickly.

Yup, it turns out that the mister and I are expecting our first (non-fur) baby. He'll be here in November! My husband loves calling him our little turkey.

Do you find this as awkward/cruel/hilarious as I do or am I just judgy and sleep-deprived?
We found out about the end of life as we know it this big adventure into the wonders of parenthood during Spring Break. I was about six weeks along and feeling crazy horribly ill and like I couldn't possibly sleep enough.

So, like so many other teacher ladies of the past and as so many will do in the future, the show went on and I continued my teaching career while sucking on Jolly Ranchers and mints like my life depended on it and throwing up into my classroom trashcan during lunch.

Oh, and I didn't tell a soul what was happening. I was very nervous during the early part of my pregnancy because of some family history. I couldn't bear the thought of dealing with a loss along with my students and colleagues. (I'm very pleased to report that we hit the 20 week mark last Friday, our second trimester anatomy scan went just great, and it appears that our little turkey is baking nicely.)

I did a lot of digging around the internet trying to find resources for pregnant teachers and *surprise surprise* there are very few. I just wanted someone who's been there during a time when I wasn't telling anyone about the atrocities happening to my body. (I didn't even tell my own mother until I was 11 weeks pregnant.) So, for those of you who are "in the family way" (or plan to be someday), allow me to share with you some tips for dealing with your first trimester while you're also dealing with the fourth quarter (or any quarter, really) of the school year.

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or anything remotely close to that. This is my first pregnancy and these are just the things that worked for me and my specific hot mess. Results may vary.

Tip #1: Figure out a way to stay hydrated.
My school's tap water tastes like shit. It made me gag before I was pregnant, so needless to say that sewagey tepid tap water would trigger a round of the pukes faster than chewing tobacco and the Trabant.

The only things that would make me sicker than the taste of that water were tuna fish and being dehydrated. My crazy body was like, "Woah, I'm low on fluids! We should probably do something about that. Let's try puking!" Seriously, you'll feel like crap if you are dehydrated. I ended up bringing my own water from home in a giant insulated cup and it had to be ICE COLD. That was the only way to keep it down. It was a pain, but it worked.

Tip #2: Don't eat "lunch"; eat snacks all day long.
This can be really tricky for a teacher. All the preggers books suggest that you graze all day like a herd out to pasture, but the reactions by your school administrators to eating in front of your students can range from a stern frown to a total "Hulk Smash" moment. Do your best to eat throughout the day, all day. When I sat down for a meal, it kind of went like this:

Not good. So, between passing periods, I snacked on a handful of trail mix, a couple of crackers, pretty much anything I could nibble on quickly that would stay in my system long enough to keep the nausea at bay for the next 45 minutes.

Tip #3: Rest whenever humanly possible.
Close your eyes during your prep period for a few minutes. Teach from a chair that allows you to roll around the room so you don't have to walk as much. Simplify wherever you can in your lessons without reducing quality. This is a good time to practice saying "no" to all of those extra hours you spend in the building. If you feel at your very best in the morning, try to make it in just a bit early and do all prep work when you feel well. If afternoons work better for you, try to squeeze everything in during that time. Trust me on this: you are going to be flat exhausted at the end of a school day. I still kept up theatre practices, but I had to shorten them substantially and I had to cancel some of the extra ones. My husband's memories of my first trimester basically consist of "she went to work, she came home, she slept." When I wasn't teaching, I was crashed out on the couch. If you are anything like me, you will feel as guilty as a hooker in church when you have to cut back on your obligations and do a lot more sleeping. I just had to keep reminding myself that I was making a human. It's hard work making a human!

Tip #4: Get help!
Find helpers however you can. I'm so fortunate to work in a building where students can sign up to be TAs (teacher's assistants). I'm even more fortunate to always have really awesome kids sign up to be my TAs. Those kids busted their butts last spring for me, and I was SO grateful to have them! I had them do all kinds of things that I just frankly didn't have the energy or the will to do. Assign any of your tedious or simple tasks to any helpers you have and repay them in cookies and funny stories about your life (that aren't TMI).

Tip #5: Spill the beans as soon as you are ready!
I finally felt comfortable telling my news when I hit the twelve week mark and life got a whole hell of a lot easier once I told! I told my principal first, then my teacher buddies in the building, then my drama club kids (who I see more than my own family and who were greatly affected by my pregnancy... they actually were terribly worried something was wrong with me!) and then I let the rest of the school find out organically. Once I told everyone what was up, life got better. My students are seriously amazing, guys. They were wonderful! They jumped up to help me any chance they got, they were better behaved because they were terrified of my crazy-ass pregnancy mood swings, and some of them were absolutely fascinated by the whole thing. My coworkers are pretty wonderful people anyway, but they were very patient with my pregnancy brain (I SWEAR TO GOD THAT IT IS A REAL THING AND IT IS STILL HAPPENING!!!). So share that awesome news, pregnant teacher-ladies, because school communities are wonderfully supportive!


Teacher-mommies and teacher-daddies, anybody have any other tips about dealing with first trimester fun and teaching?