It's back to school season and Pinterest is blowing up with all of the cute classroom set ups and decorations. While I love Pinterest for finding innovative ideas and management tools, I kind of resent Pinterest too. As both a parent and a teacher, Pinterest ups the pressure to be "cute".
I noticed this as a parent a few years ago. With the advancement of sites like Pinterest, the level of expectation as a parent has increased. Suddenly you're supposed to take monthly pictures of your kids with cute little signs and have perfectly organized birthday parties and knit your child the perfect Halloween costume. At first you do might do it to see if you can or as a way to show off on Facebook to your friends. But then slowly, it seeps itself into our society that it's a requirement. That somehow in order to be a good mom, I have to make a 4 tiered birthday cake out of cupcakes because if I don't then my child will be deeply disappointed and scarred for life. Seriously? My kids are happy with cake and ice cream because it has a lot of sugar in it. They don't care how fancy it is. But we've trained ourselves to think they care.
Now if baking fancy things is your specialty, great! Share that gift with your kids if you'd like. I personally love to experiment in the kitchen and get an especial kick out of making something from scratch that I had to buy prepared before (cheese sauces, bread, pasta, granola bars, etc.) and I love sharing this with my kiddos. But I don't knit or sew. I don't make fancy halloween costumes. I don't plan over the top birthday parties. I don't use Pinterest to decorate my kids' rooms. And guess what? My kids are fine. They are healthy and happy and they know that mom loves them. There's no need to get into this "I can do everything on Pinterest" mode in order to prove you're a good parent.
The same is true as a teacher. Themes in particular seem to have taken over the world of Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers in the past few years. Teachers, especially in elementary, seem to think that they have to have a cute, color coordinated theme in order to teach their students. There suddenly have to be multiple, professional level bulletin boards and all of the baskets in your library center have to match or the kids just will not learn. Today I even saw a post in a teacher's forum on Facebook that said "I feel so bad. I'm a first year teacher and I can't afford to do a theme in my classroom." Seriously? This will be my 12th year of teaching and I have NEVER done a theme. EVER. My books are in mismatched baskets, labeled by genre, but not matching colored labels. I have no beautiful colored duct tape on my teacher's desk. My bulletin boards are neat and organized, but not fancy. And guess what guys? My kids learn, a lot, every single year.
And none of my students have ever said "Mrs. Raki, why isn't your room pretty?" Why? Because the kids don't care. They could care less what theme you've chosen. They care whether you care about them. They care about how you treat them. They care about the activities you do. They don't care what color your book baskets are.
Of course there are a lot of teachers who LOVE doing classroom themes and that's fine for them, just like knitting a Halloween costume for your kids is fine for those parents who just love to knit. My worry is the pressure that this puts on other teachers, who don't love it and especially teachers who are on a budget. Teachers already don't make enough money. We spend way too much of our own money already on books, storage, curriculum, and other things that help directly impact our instruction. Adding cute themes and bulletin boards requires teachers to spend more money and more time on things that aren't helping us do our job better. They're often just a way to "keep up with the Jones'" that is disguised as "necessary".
In addition to the pressure having a "cute" classroom puts on teachers, it is also a time drain. There is always so much to do and so little time as a teacher. More and more is being added to our plates every day, taking away from the time we have with our families and our personal lives. Designing super cute classrooms is something you can take off of your plate and still be a great teacher!
It’s time for recess!!!! Time for a break! Time to let the kids be kids! Time to breath for a minute, maybe even get a word of adult conversation with another teacher. Until the tattling and accidents start. We’ve all been there, and it happens in every classroom, but there are some things you can do at the beginning of the year to make recess safer, and more fun – for you and the kids!
1.) One of the best tips is to start out the year with double the normal recess time. This additional time will give the kids an adjustment period to get used to being back in school, while giving you more time to teach recess rules. It’s a win win situation. Start out by being very clear that for the first two weeks of school (or 3 or 6, or however long you think will be best for your class) there will be additional recess. Give students a specific date of when this extra privilege will go away, maybe even mark it on the calendar, because otherwise they will be quite upset when the schedule changes. Don’t expect to get a break during this time, this is the time to set the tone for recess, help students solve their own problems instead of tattling, make it clear what is and isn’t safe etc. Be on your toes now so that you can have a breather the rest of the year.
2.) Before recess each day, go over the specific expectations of the recess, keeping it as simple and sweet as possible. Another teacher I worked with used to sum it up with: Be Safe, Be a Good Friend, Be a Good Listener.
Have the students recite the expectations every day, so that you know they are internalizing (or at least memorizing) the expectations. This way, when you have to have a discussion with someone who is not following expectations, you can go back to these expectations that have been clearly stated every day.
3.) As the days go by, you may want to take that moment in the beginning to reflect on what happened yesterday, and how recess could go better today. ie. “Yesterday, I noticed that some students were kicking rocks and making dust that made it hard for others to play. Let’s make sure that today we don’t kick rocks and make dust.” Let kids talk about problems they saw or had – they often see things that we don’t. And let them help come up with solutions to class problems, as they often they can come up with solutions that are just as good, if not better than ours.
4.) Split recess in half, with structured play in the beginning and free play in the end (or have two recess – one with structured play and one with free play). This gives kids who have a hard time selecting a game a chance to play in one that has been pre-selected. Often those students will continue the game into free play, while those who had another idea will switch games as soon as free play is announced.
During structured play time, introduce kids to playground games that everyone can participate in, like Duck Duck Goose, Four Square, different variations of Tag, Hot Potato etc. Often kids have never learned these games and so when it’s time to play, they struggle to come up with a game. If you introduce new games and their rules to the kids in the beginning of the year, you will often see these games come back later in the year during free play. Take time to pair up unlikely pairs during this time, so that kids get used to playing with everyone in the class.
During free play time, allow it to be FREE play. Students can play anything, with anyone, as long as they are being safe and kind. We all need a little time each day to just be us. This is a true brain break that can allow students’ minds to work better when returning to the classroom.
5.) Don’t be afraid to play yourself! I have gotten my best work outs by playing tag or jump rope with my students. It lets them see you in a different light, builds morale, models the importance of physical exercise and is great cardio-vascular work!
6.) Pair up with another class. If possible, have recess at a time when another class also goes. Do both structured and free play together, giving students a chance to work, play and socialize with a new set of kids. This also helps to reduce the “sibling squabbles” that happen later on in the school year, as kids get to know each other as well as they do their own siblings.
7.) Have a unique line up signal. I had a cowbell. You could hear that thing for miles, and the kids always knew when it was time to line up. One friend of mine had a duck call and another a train whistle. Anything that helps extract your students from the sea of students on the playground without having to call their names or waste your voice.
8.) If possible, schedule recess BEFORE lunch. I learned this when my school did a book study onThe First Six Weeks of School. What an amazing difference – they get all their energy out before lunch, making for quieter, calmer lunch periods – and happier lunch ladies. Then, they return to your classroom full, calm, happy and ready for work. After lunch, plan something quiet and productive like Writing Journals or Silent reading with Reading Response Journals, and watch the amazing work that can be done in the afternoon!
What is your best recess management tip?
t’s the beginning of the school year, time to teach, right? Wrong! For many teachers the beginning of the year means sitting down with each student and assessing them to build their base line for those data walls. While studies show that assessments shouldn’t be done until 3 - 6 weeks into the school year, when students have regained whatever they lost during the “summer slide”, we all know that many administrators want these assessments to be done by the 10th day of school.
Often we need to start assessing before we have even finished teaching procedures and routines, which means that the students who are not being assessed end up working on busy work in order to keep the class calm and quiet while we are assessing. So, how do we keep the other student engaged AND have a class that is quiet enough to do a quality assessment? Here are some ideas:
1. Whole class learning videos with graphic organizers – You know what science and social studies topics are coming up, start building up your students’ back ground knowledge by putting on a learning video about an upcoming topic. While students are watching, ask them to complete a graphic organizer – to keep them focused and quiet. You will get the ability to pull students one at a time for assessments, then when you start teaching this topic, students will have some background knowledge on the topic and you can show the video again, stopping to explain where necessary, without kids whining about wanting to see the end.
2. Autobiographies - Have students write an illustrated version of their life story. Tell them that spelling and grammar doesn’t matter – just try their best, but that you are looking to get to know as much as you can about them. This will make a great beginning of the year writing assessment, as well as a piece of writing that you can later use to help students practice revising and editing. Plus, you will get lots of information about your students that can help you form relationships and build in student led differentiation.
3. Board Games – You know all those games that you never get to pull out? Now’s the time to pull them out and teach kids how to play them. Take a minute to go over the rules of each game before you have kids play them, and then split them into groups to play games like Scrabble, Dominoes, Yahtzee and Battleship. Students will work on cooperation and problem solving while you get your assessments done. Extra bonus - later on in the year you can pull out these games for early finishers or to reuse with academic rules.
4. Math Projects to Review last year’s skills – Have students work on real life math projects – like my Ice Cream Shop project or Designing a Dream School. Choose a project that is just below your instructional level, so that they can do the entire project independently, building confidence and reviewing key math skills, while not boring students so that they get distracted.
5. Reference book scavenger hunt – Split kids into groups and have students to find information with the reference books in your classroom or library. Ask students to find the meaning of key vocabulary words using the dictionary, synonyms and antonyms using a thesaurus, bordering countries or states using the atlas and fun facts using the encyclopedia. The group that finds the most items wins a small prize (like a no homework pass), and the quietest group gets 10 extra points. This gets kids looking through reference materials they forget about acting up and start working with each other and then you can pull kids one at a time for assessments.
6. Puzzles – Jigsaw and self correcting – Puzzles build critical thinking and problem solving skills. Having students work on any type of jigsaw or self correcting puzzle will get students using their noggen and staying focused, and hopefully quiet, while you are assessing.
7. Let the Kids be the experts – Most kids think that they are experts at something. While you are assessing, tell students that they will be teaching the class about something they are an expert at (can be anything, video games, dinosaurs, making a peanut butter sandwich, whatever!) and this is their time to create their lesson plans. When all of the assessments are done, take a day or two and let each kid teach the lesson they created. The kids will get a chance to be the teacher – every students’ dream, you will find out what kids are interested in and what they already know about, and how they are at public speaking. But best of all, students will be so busy planning their lesson, that they won’t have time to interrupt you while you are assessing their classmates.
8. Read & Review Classroom Library Books – Give students time to read several books from the class or school library. After students have read a book, let them rate and critique the books with my Book Review Bookmarks. Hang the bookmarks around the library so that students can make an “informed decision” the next time they choose a book.
9. Explore apps or websites to be used during the school year – All year long, we are in a rush for students to use this technology or that one for a specific project, but students rarely get a chance to just “fiddle around” with apps and websites. However, children (and adults for that matter) often find that they learn more about how to properly use an app or website by “fiddling with it”, so take this time to let students play around with apps and websites you’ll use later in the year. Students will be excited to “play on the computer” while you know they are really building background knowledge that will be used in future assignments.
10. Fast fact practice – Two months off means most students have forgotten their math facts – well not forgotten, but they certainly aren’t as fast as they were in May. Use this time to let students practice their math facts with dice and card games, or laminate math fact quizzes and let them use a dry erase marker to race each other or a timer.
How do you keep the other students engaged while you complete your assessments?
Differentiation is a key part of teaching, no matter what type of school you teach in. Normally when we discuss differentiation, we discuss ways to meet the needs of our low achieving students who have deficits or gaps that need to be met. The high achieving students, who are doing well already, are rarely differentiated for unless they become a behavior issue due to boredom. Unfortunately this often means that students who are doing well often never meet their full potential. This is particularly true in lower income or lower achieving schools or classrooms where there are more low achieving students than high achieving ones.
Every student in your classroom has a right to be pushed to their full potential, no matter their level. As a teacher though, there are only so many hours in a day, so how do we differentiate for our highest achieving students? Here are ten strategies to help you meet those students' needs:
1.) Allow students time to work on their individual deficits, even if they aren't academic. High achieving students are NOT great at everything. Even your best student will have weaker areas. For some students it is handwriting or spelling. For other students it is social skills or athletic ability. When they have finished their work, give them additional time to work on these weaker areas. Students might be given additional time to practice cursive writing or they may use the internet to research different ways to stay physically fit. Allow students to weigh in on where they are weak and encourage them to to use their time to help fill in these gaps for themselves.
2.) Let students expand out instead of up. If a student is doing very well on 2nd grade standards, it is often the case that we go ahead and give them 3rd grade standards. While this is an okay strategy, often there is more that can be done within their own standards if we allow students to dig deeper.
For example, it is tempting to move students who have mastered addition with regrouping problems into multiplication. But is there more they can do with addition with regrouping? Can they develop their own word problems with this skill? Can they complete error analysis on problems completed incorrectly? (Some error analysis problems like this can be found in my Addition with Regrouping Tiered Activities at the Fix it Level.) Can they create a video teaching others how to solve problems like this? (You can find a Video Creation Planning Sheet and Rubric at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.)
This is also true with reading. Often we push students to read harder and harder books because they can. While reading new books is wonderful, students often run into books with more grown up situations than they are ready for. Students can learn about new vocabulary and new ideas from reading additional books on their own grade level as well, or by digging deeper into the books the entire class is reading. Perhaps that student can do an author study and read additional books from the author of the book you are reading in class. Perhaps that students can be a topic and read multiple books about that topic. Students might be encouraged to do a self-guided novel study using my Student Selected Novel Study Packet on a novel that is really interesting to them.
3.) Allow students a chance to teach. Some students really enjoy being peer tutors. Others do not. However giving students a chance to teach others will expand their own thinking and memory of a topic. We remember 95% of what we teach. For students who do not want to be a peer tutor in person, they can easily create video tutorials, using my Video Creation Planning Sheet. Either way the process of teaching will help students further process their learning.
4.) Give early finishers ongoing projects to work on. Often high achieving students become the "I'm done." students. They finish work quickly and then become bored. Or because they know they will finish early, they become distracted and socialize instead of putting forth their best effort. Alternatively, some will rush through things because they are used to being done early and having time to chill. Having ongoing projects can help alleviate these behaviors by making sure students are always busy with quality activities. Some projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store that work well for this are:
- Mystery Book Reports
- Informational Trade Book - Book Reports
- Country Study Reports
- Math Projects
- Biography Projects
- Self Selected Book Studies - Fiction or Non-fiction
5.) Use technology to develop a PLC for students. Just like teachers need to connect with other teachers, students need to connect with other students. High achieiving students often have few peers in their school who are on the same level as them. As a teacher, you can allow students to connect with other high achieving students around the world using websites like Edmodo. Students may also connect with adults in a field of interest for them. For example a student who is very interested in science, may contact a scientist at the local college. Once students have made an initial connection, they may write penpal letters or e-mails with these people, giving them a chance to interact with someone who will push their brain to new levels.
6.) Provide puzzles and brain teasers. Higher achieving students often enjoy solving a puzzle that seems unsolveable. Puzzles and brain teasers challenge their brains to process at a higher level than normal school activities. Of course puzzles and brain teasers are great for all students, so I usually call them "early finisher activities", leaving these activities open to everyone, but accessed mainly by my high achieving students. Some of my favorite puzzles are my Math Tiling Puzzles, which work on basic math standards, but take it to a higher level of understanding.
7.) Allow time for community outreach. Social skills are often one of the hardest skills for our highest achieving students. One of the best ways to encourage social skills like empathy and compassion is to encourage students to work in the community. Within the classroom, this could be as simple as a letter writing campaign to soldiers or children who are in the hospital. Or students could leave larger community outreach projects like food and clothing drives for the needy.
8.) Give time for individual interest projects. Genius projects or passion projects are a great way to allow students to truly pursue their own interests while still building on their literacy skills. While these projects are great for all students, high achieving students will be able to dig the deepest. These students may also use these projects as an "early finisher" activity. The great part about individual interest projects is that they can be completely individualized. Students can learn another language. They can learn how to design a YouTube channel. They can study fashion design. They can literally study any topic that is interesting to them.
9.) Keep expectations high, but achievable. Be careful when working with your high achieving students to not set the bar too high. While we want to stretch students, we sometimes forget that high achieving kids are still kids. They don't want a bunch of extra work. They want to be interested. And they still don't have the same understandings as adults. So keep your expectations high, but still make them kid appropriate and achievable for your students.
10.) Provide time for creative thinking. For some reason we often stretch our high achieving students in standard school subjects, but we forget about the arts. Art, design, music, dance, drama and programming all use different parts of the brain. Giving students a chance to be creative also feels more fun to students, which makes them less resistant to extra work.
No matter which of these strategies works best for your students, the important thing is to be sure to differentiate your instruction for these highest achieving students just as we do for our lowest achieving students.
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