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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Building Rapport on Meet Your Teacher Night

I can't believe it's almost time to start thinking about going back to school!  That also means it's time to start designing your classroom, planning your curriculum, and getting ready for loads of back to school professional development.  But, there's one thing about back to school that has always made me feel uneasy in an sea full of excitement.  Meet Your Teacher Night.

Meet Your Teacher Night ranks high among pivotal times in the year, right alongside Back to School Night and Parent Teacher Conferences.  It is the first time most parents will meet you, and it's the first impression they will have for the year to come.  They will go home and chat about it with their spouse, and we all want that conversation to be one filled with happy hopes for the school year to come.  But how do we instill high levels of trust and confidence in parents when we have such a limited amount of time, are swamped with 25+ kids coming in, bringing supplies, and wanting to tell you about their summer vacation (or hiding in the corner, hoping not to have to speak to you)?  Here are some of my strategies, thoughts, observations, and best hopes for rocking Meet Your Teacher Night on a personal level and leaving parents with the best impressions possible.

Disclaimer:  This is what has worked for me.  The bottom line, though, is to be prepared and be yourself.  That will set realistic expectations and make you feel most comfortable.

We all want to be organized for our own sanity, but seeing an organized classroom will immediately put parents at ease.  The last thing parents want to see is piles and piles of papers strewn about the room, a messy teacher's desk, or cluttered areas.  I want to emphasize organization (or the illusion of organization) and clarify that having a classroom that appears organized is totally different from having a classroom decked out in Pinterest-inspired decor.  I promise you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that parents will notice a clean and calm classroom more than they will notice buntings and tissue poms (although those are just icing on the cake)!

This isn't a post about organization Meet Your Teacher Night (there are tons of great posts out there already), but there is a lot to be said about everything having a place, especially when students are bringing in supplies or other items for the school year.  Think through exactly where everything will go.  Avoid huge piles or bags full of supplies strewn about your room.  Decide if you will have community supplies or individual supplies, and know exactly where you expect them to be put on Meet Your Teacher Night.  Then, clearly articulate that expectation to students and parents, whether it's a note on their desk, instructions on the board, or clearly marked containers for each item.  This will also give parents and students something to do in case you can't get to them right away.

And when the going gets tough, and you just can't get everything organized before the big night, that's why architects made closets and cupboards, right? :)

Have an idea of how your year will start.  What can your students expect the first weeks of school? How will you be communicating with parents?  How will students communicate with parents about homework?

You most certainly don't need to have an entire year planned, but being able to throw out a few activities to the wallflowers who aren't looking too excited about the impending first day may be just what you need to get them excited.  "Joey, I can't wait to see you on Monday!  Wait until you see the All About Me Posters we are going to make."  Joey will look forward to those posters all weekend long, and mom and dad will know that you aren't flying by the seat of your pants (even if you are)!

This one goes right along with planned.  If you are new to a school, do your best to learn the ins and outs of the school before a parent and child ever step foot in your room.  This will enable you to answer as many parent questions as you can and instill confidence in them.  Where will you meet on the first day of school? What time is lunch?  Should we bring a water bottle on the first day?  What's on the menu for the first week of school?  Do we have PE the first day of school?  Many parents will want to know, and of course they will want you to have the answers, even when the request may not be reasonable.

Can't answer the questions that parents have, or you're not sure about something?  Admit it, but tell them you will find out the answer for them and let them know.  I always carried around a little clipboard with me, jotting notes about things I needed to remember to follow up on.  

I debated putting this one in here at the risk of sounding redundant, because aren't all teachers eager and enthusiastic at the beginning of the year?!  We know that the beginning of the year is HARD, HARD, HARD, and it is full of so much stress, and we are transitioning from weeks of lounging in the sun (right!? Ha!)... but remember that parents are about to give you their child for 7 hours a day.

They want someone who is excited to be there and enthusiastic about the school year--not verbally wishing they were still at the beach. (I know that most of us would still rather be at the beach, but I saying so to parents may not make the best first impression.)  Parents and students alike will love hearing about your summer adventures, but they will also relish hearing how excited you are about the new school year.

Let parents know that you will love their child.  This doesn't mean you have to be friends with students, but it means that parents need to know that you are human and will take good care of the most precious thing in their life.  Likewise, children need to know that they can come to you. The first days of school can be terrifying for some children, and many times, teachers are their only safety net.

When it comes down to it, if a parent feels like you will love and care for their child for the next 9 months, a fancy website or an organized classroom will be the last thing they are talking about.  Find a moment during Meet Your Teacher to get down on each child's level and talk to them.  Make it a point to find out something about each child and connect with them personally.  Again, they need to know you are human, too.

I'll never forget Sam or the lesson that Sam taught me.  Meet Your Teacher Night ended at 7pm and Sam walked in the door at 6:55.  As I finished chatting with other students and their parents, Sam and his mom quietly put away his supplies (per my directions on the board), placed a sticky note with his name on the last remaining desk, and started walking out the door.  I caught them just before they stepped out the door and introduced myself.  "I know you're ready to get out of here, so we will say hello on Monday" his mom told me.  But, I could see the nerves in Sam's eyes and I asked him to show me the desk he had chosen.  He stared at his desk as I knelt down, and he barely made eye contact with me as I made small talk with him.  Not making any progress with sweet Sam, I used my standard line. "So, Sam, how are you going to spend your last few days before school starts?"  His eyes lit up as he explained that it was his dad's birthday tomorrow and they would be spending the morning making cupcakes.  I told Sam how much I loved cupcakes and what a great son he was for doing that for his dad.  I told him I couldn't wait to hear more about the birthday celebration, and after a bit more small talk with his mom, I reminded him to have a great celebration and told him I'd be thinking of him and his dad tomorrow.

When Sam arrived at school on Monday, guess what he brought with him?  A cupcake from dad's celebration.  And that night, his mom emailed me to tell me how Sam had cried every first day of school since Kindergarten, but not this year.  And 9 months later, on the last day of school, Sam brought me half a dozen cupcakes from the local cupcake shop along with a cupcake cookbook.

And the lesson that taught me is how incredibly important it is to connect with every child from the very first moment you meet them.  Sam will always remember me as the teacher who loves cupcakes, and I'll always remember Sam as the child who clung to one little thing I said on the very first day I met him.

Share your tips and tricks for building rapport at meet the teacher night.  I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Back to School Math Freebie for my Fans!

I know it may feel a little premature to start talking Back to School, but some districts in my area go back toward the end of July.  That's less than a month away!  It's never too early, right?

Hop on over to my Facebook page and join more than 8,000 other educators sharing tips, tricks, and teaching ideas!  While you're there, click on Fan Freebies on the left hand side of the page to download this new and FREE take on Math About Me, a popular activity that blew up Pinterest last summer.  I adapted it to a task card game that you can use with your whole class, in small groups, as an early finisher activity, or as a Scoot activity!

Remember, it's easy to grab these free task cards at my Facebook page.  Enjoy the freebie and HAVE FUN!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cutting Corners with Interactive Notebooks

Teachers never stop working.  I know we hear it all the time, but now I have proof!  I posted a blog a little over a week ago, about The 5 Changes I made that Saved My Sanity, and that blog that I dreamt up in the middle of an early-morning shower is now the second most viewed post in the history of my blog.  In the middle of summer!  A teacher's job is never truly done!

Enough about my shock and awe and more about a simple, but incredibly useful, idea from one of my Facebook fans.  It was featured in my previous blog post, but it was hidden amongst all the other brilliant ideas from my Facebook fans.  This one in particular got a lot of attention on the post I put on Facebook, so I contacted the teacher who wrote the idea, and she was kind enough to give me a lot more information!  Denise Goshert is starting her 29th year teaching (!!).  She's taught in 2 states, 3 districts, and 6 schools teaching 4th and 5th grades as well as a gifted pull out program.  Here is her original Facebook Post, in response to me asking what saved their sanity this year:

Does it drive you crazy to see your students shuffling through the notebooks trying to find their next empty page?  Do they constantly leave empty pages between entries?  Do YOU hate having to spend time finding the page you are looking to assess?  Then, the cutting corners method will save your sanity, in just SECONDS!

In Denise's words, here is how she has used the "Cutting Corners" method with her students with great success.  Thanks again, Denise!

Cutting Corners
By Denise Goshert

I've used the "Cutting Corners" method (my students chuckle at the pun) for years with writing/journal spirals, workbooks. 

So this year since I decided to try Interactive Notebooks in Math with my 5th grade Honor Students & 5th grade Social Studies/Science I thought it would work just a great. I have students use spirals that are on their supply list. 

First, when students are labeling (or decorating) their cover, it's important that they do NOT write name (or anything important or want saved) in the upper right corner. I have students write name in lower right corner - having to grade so many, it's easier if I am able to locate name easily. Likewise, if anything is glued on the inside cover they don't write on the upper left corner. I also teach students to keep the top right margin cleared on every page. This is the corner that will get cut. Yes, the cover gets cut too. 

For my interactive notebooks for SS/Sci, students write what was Learned on the Left (ie vocab, questions, etc.) and Reflect on Right for each lesson. I collect spirals 1-2x a week. Since we give letter grades on report cards I grade each lesson. After the assignment is graded, I cut the upper right corner so it's ready for next lesson. 

For Math since we do standard based scoring, I collect the notebooks prior to unit test to give a rubric score for effort. Corner gets cut ready for next unit. 

I also cut corners in students Writing Rough Draft spirals at their last Informal Teacher Conference. 

The cutting corners makes it so easy for students to find the next available page to use. Just put thumb on the upper corner (which is the next available page) & flip. They love when I show this trick. They are in awe it's so cool to see their faces when I say ta da & flip. Then they all try it. ��

It has even saved my most disorganized student. He/She may take moments to locate actual spiral (lol) but once found it's a cinch to get to the correct page. 

For me, it's a lifesaver. Grading all those spirals - half the battle was locating the current assignment to grade. Now I just place my thumb on upper right corner, flip & ta da. 

I do the cutting as it also reminds me whose I've graded in case I get distracted in the middle - yes that happens. Lol!

It works so well that quite a few of my students use this organizational method on their Assignment Books. Love it!

I set all this up with my beginning of the year routine & procedures. 

There are 2 Drawbacks:
1 - a great deal of little triangular scraps but I just make a pile & scoop in trash can. 
2- & this one is important. There are some students who are actually dramatized when their pages get cut. It's not all students but it's happened with students who tend to be perfectionists as well as those on the spectrum.  For this reason, I start with my own spiral capturing them with the ta da. Then I do spend time explaining the reason. For my perfectionist they usually get hooked on the organizational piece if it. For my students who I know have IEPs or 504s I approach respectfully, give them a chance to try my ta da. Then ask if they are ready to try theirs. These helps ease in to it. I learned this the hard way when I first started and just showed then began clipping. We went to PE & when I returned I found one of my students (just diagnosed that summer) in the trash can taking out "his" corner to tape it back. My heart sank for him. So I helped him replace it (he didn't want new spiral) & then talked to him. He smiled & went off to PE. A week later he came up to me & asked if I could cut his corner. ��

When I contacted Denise, she was so gracious in sharing.  She says her motto is "Use, Adapt, Delete" and she encourages collaboration and sharing among teachers.  Denise, after our correspondence, I KNOW it would be an honor to be teammates with you.  Your students and colleagues are lucky to have you!

Friday, June 13, 2014

5 Changes That Saved My Sanity

A week out of school, I am finally starting to feel human again.  I'm relishing the moments I have with my kids, and I'm taking some time to do some things for me.  But, I also have to say that this has been the easiest transition into summer that I've ever had, and I think that has to do with the fact that it was one of the best school years I have had.  Not only did I have an amazing group of students this year, but I also implemented some changes in the way I did things that truly saved my sanity.  As teachers begin to plan for next year (because we never truly stop planning, do we?), I thought it might be helpful to share those changes I made.  60+ fans of my Teaching With a Mountain View Facebook fans also shared their ideas, which I have added to the bottom of this post.  Read on and plan on for next year!  Be sure to share your sanity-savers in the comments section so we can all benefit!

It might sound dramatic, but it's true…My life CHANGED when I implemented this early finisher system.  It was incredibly low prep (I could prep it once every month or two and be good to go), the kids were constantly working on meaningful assignments, and I no longer had children interrupting me asking what they should be doing.  There were two parts to this system, and you can really implement it any way you want to, with any resources you want, so long as you have an early finisher system of some sort.

First, I used my task card system.  If you read my task card blog, you probably read my popular post about using task cards for early finishers (If you haven't, you can read about it HERE and see how I updated it for the holidays HERE).  Students always had a recording sheet of cards they were working on, and I rotated the cards all year depending on the skills we were working on or the season.  They loved the variety of cards, and I loved that it was still hitting critical skills.

Second, I used my Think It Through packets.  I made one packet for the first semester and one for the second semester, and the kids were responsible for completing one page a week.  There are three activities per page, and they are primarily language arts or social studies related, so that was a go-to piece of work for them to do when they finished early during those subjects.  They knew that they had to do the assignment at some point during the week (I checked them every Monday), so it was the perfect assignment for students to pull out when they had an extra 2 or 3 minutes.  Every second counts, right?

The moral of this sanity-saver?  Have something meaningful for students to work on when they finish.  Keyword there is meaningful.  I  never wanted my students to feel like they I was just giving them something to do so they would stop asking me what they could do.

I have always had somewhat of a major scope and sequence for the year, but it has never really been redone since we transitioned over to Common Core.  I would find myself sitting down in February having a mini panic attack about all the things I still had to get done before state testing.  Likewise, I spent many a Sunday night trying to figure out what we were going to work on the next week.  

This year, I had a three-tiered planning system.  Stay with me here…I know it sounds overwhelming (3 tiers!?), but it SAVED me, and we finished all of our standards early and had time to do extra enrichment projects toward the end of the year.

Tier 1: A Grand Plan (aka Scope and Sequence). Back in August, I outlined everything for the year, as best I could.  We have a standards-based report card, so I took the standards from the report card and wrote down which standards we would grade, and thus teach, each quarter.  

Tier 2: A Monthly Overview. Toward the end of each month, I looked at where we were, and I took a monthly calendar (one for math and one for reading) and sketched out an overview of what we would be doing each week/day of the month.  If there was an activity I wanted to make sure we did, I added it here, but for the most part, this was a concept overview.  In January, I actually sat down and did the calendar for January-March since it was crunch time for testing.  I always breathed a big sign of relief when I had this part done.

Tier 3: Weekly lesson plans.  We aren't required to do any sort of formal lesson plans, but I thrive on having at least an overview of a plan.  This is where I got into the nitty gritty.  Sketched out anchor charts, wrote down homework, which pages we were working on in the notebooks, workshop rotation activities, etc. 

I use a full sheet of paper for every day of my weekly lesson plans.  This day template has been floating around our school for a few years after one of the teachers created it.  Now, many teachers tweak it for their class and their week and LOVE it!  I pull out my plans for the day and keep them nearby.
Here is a sample of the template I used when I taught 3rd grade (I taught mixed grade levels with a much different schedule the past two years).  I had a separate one for Mondays when I introduced new concepts and new skills and the rest of the days had the same template.  It's super easy to create your own using a table in Microsoft Word and putting in your own schedule.  
It was such a relief on Sunday nights to know exactly what I needed to be working on the next day, even if I wasn't completely planned for the week.

I have fallen in love with all things foldable!  I love, love, love them for student learning and organization.  In fact, I love them so much that when I saw my step-daughter come home from her first day of math summer school with jumbled notes on fractions, I had her re-do them using one of our foldables from this year.

We created foldables or took notes in our interactive notebooks for the majority of concepts I taught this year in math and reading.  Why did they save my sanity? Let me count the ways…

*The kids were engaged in learning.  They never groaned when we got their notebooks out, and they knew I was fairly strict on how much time they spent cutting and gluing.  My favorite saying while we were prepping for our notebooks was "CHOP CHOP!"  Get it?  
*The kids took ownership over their learning.  They knew they would need to reference the notes again, so they made them nice, neat, and organized.
*The kids used them instead of asking me the same question seventeen times.  Forgot how to multiply fractions?  See page 52 in your math notebook for a flow map and 10 examples.  Can't remember the different types of character conflict?  Look in your table of contents and see where we took notes and then you created examples about that.
*Absent yesterday?  Check out the teacher notebook and see what you missed!
*The notebooks are fabulous homework helpers.
*The reflection and proof pages in the notebooks are a FABULOUS piece of assessment evidence for standards-based report cards.  Bonus: It's not a worksheet or a test.  
*At the end of the year when it was time to clean out our desks and throw everything away, not ONE of their notebooks got thrown away.  I heard things like "Oh, I'll bring this to middle school next year!" and "How could I possibly throw all of this hard work away!?"

If you haven't looked into interactive notebooks, a quick google search or Pinterest session will tell you all you need to know about them and give you tons of free ideas.  Trust me, it's worth your time learning about them!

I swore to myself that I was done with reading logs.  You know the reading logs I'm talking about.  The ones that say "20 minutes" for every day of the month, written in the same pen color, hastily signed off by the parent, probably in the car on the way to school that morning.  I wanted real, honest to goodness accountability that my kids were reading 100+ minutes a week and not spending 1 minute filling out a reading log because it was due the next day.

I have always had a class Wiki (similar to a blog) in which I communicate with parents.  I posted pictures of things we were working on, homework and project updates, and other relevant information. This year, I created a student-only Wiki and used it as the basis for weekly reading homework.  Students logged in each week, read a reading response question I had posted, and then chose how they wanted to turn their assignment in.  Most posted their responses on a Padlet page I had set up for each week (SUCH a neat free resource, and you can password protect it, too), and others typed or wrote their answers and turned them in.
Here is the Wiki Page students used.  I use PBWorks to host my wiki.
The first week we used it was like a eureka moment.  All of the kids did their assignments, and they wrote exceptional responses for me!  At the beginning of each quarter, I looked at the concepts we were working on that week and wrote questions based on them.  Here are the first few reading responses they did last year:

Here's an example of what the top of the Padlet page looks like.  Each student posts their response below it.
*Find one cause and effect relationship in the book you are reading and explain how the two events (the cause & effect) are related to each other.
*In the novel you are reading, what is the theme of the chapter you are on (or the novel as a whole)?  Mention evidence or events in the book that support the theme.
*Select one character from your book and describe them using character traits and evidence from the book.  Remember, what do they SAY, how do they ACT, and how do they FEEL?

One more look at some of the responses.  As you can see, the responses varied greatly in length

My students have always set goals, but I, admittedly, never did a very good job of keeping up with them.  We had always spent a great deal of time writing the goals, making plans of action, and then never doing much with them.  After all, they had benchmarks that they had to meet, too.  Benchmarks that we are mandated to complete and goals that students "must" meet.

This year, I totally simplified it. Students had (almost) free reign over what they wanted their goal to be-- academic, behavioral, social, etc.  They wrote it on an index card and chose where they wanted to keep it. Some kept it taped to their desks, others in their binders.  I had a list of all of their goals as well, and it was in a sheet protector in the front of my teacher binder.  

When students were off task, it was so effective to simply ask, "is this helping you reach your goal?"  No matter what their goal was, off task behavior was not helping them reach it.

Another new part of goals that I implemented was quarterly goal conferences to check in with students on their goals and set new ones, if necessary. These check ins were only 3-5 minutes long, and I spread them out over about a month to get them all done.  There was no prep for the students, and they didn't know when I would be checking in with them, but I kept record of when I did.  After we met, the students had to bring their card home, show their parents and discuss our conference, then parents signed it and they returned it to school.  I felt like this was highly effective, low stress, but still held the students accountable.

On Facebook, I asked YOU what your sanity-saver was, and here is what you said saved your sanity this year...