Saturday, August 4, 2012

Setting up the classroom

Today I spent part of my day putting together a variety of classroom documents. FYI: all my files are a little messed up due to the conversion to .doc. So if you want to use mine as templates, just know, they need some tweaking.

1. Classroom Noise Control
My inspiration.
Here's what I did and why:
I really liked this noise-o-meter. However, I didn't want to lose my catch phrase: "Are you in the zone?" The catch phrase is a positive sort of redirect and there are still a few kids who will answer "auto zone" which can be a silly bonding moment (as long as they then enter "the zone"). I used to have magnetic signs that I would slap up on the board under a "Are you in the zone?" sign. However, I liked the idea of the clothes-pin because I hate the space the signs take up when they aren't up. I never had a blue zone before, but I think it worked as an addition because whole class discussion requires some different rules than other zones (and it makes it feel like we're not frequently in a red zone). The image is taken from my word document. For once in my life I payed to get some quality clipart (after an attempt at drawing my own, which wasn't horrible but wasn't great). I'll cut out the parts and pieces and make them a little more aesthetic before hanging up on my board.

Science Activity.

2. First day activities: vs standing up and introducing the classroom via lecture.
My inspiration.
My treasure map! FYI, some of the text was flipped sideways in the linked file - the above is the real deal.

 I created the treasure map for social studies and in science, I created an observation activity related to the nature of science. Each was designed to allow the kids to figure some things out and for me to clarify and go over them debrief style. Much better suited to the time schedule I like to keep (Sam Bennett's workshop model). The social studies one is fairly straight forward, but the science one is a little sneakier. It includes a little info about me, about what we'll study, and some rules and expectations. For example, I like coffee (so there will be coffee beans in one box). Also, we use playdough as a learning tool, so that is in the touch box. There is some problem-solving. For example, the sound in the soundtrack will not be studied in class as I have a cd of frog sounds and we study earth science. Essentially there is more to that one than meets the eye.

3. Mission Statements

Social Studies.
My doors both open out, so the act of opening would hide anything on the outside and because they are usually open, students couldn't see them from the inside. Instead, I though I would make mine posters that go in the windows or on the walls. In social studies, covering the window (and making it double sided so it can be seen inside and outside the room) helps me with lockdown drills. In science, I could really put it I am debating locations. I am not into using the word love, so i changed the text somewhat. I think it stills conveys that I care. I am a minimalist when it comes to wall-art, but I felt these mission statements were the right touch.

4. Bathroom sign out (I used to have one of these, but my station needed an upgrade. I am trying to figure this one out. But here's the idea.

5. I also spent some time on an organizational binder. I will update you all on that later. I made some great calendar pages, planning pages (customized for my needs).

6. Curriculum mapping. More to come on that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Quickpost: Symbaloo

As teachers, we find cool websites with great activities, videos, or information on a regular basis. We bookmark them for later and.....never see them again. It's time for this to change. Chances are, if you are at the forefront of the technology train you already know what Symbaloo is. If you're like me and you lag a little behind, this post is for you (and especially for my mother, who has been frustrated by this issue).

Now, I jumped on the pinterest bandwagon a couple months ago. However, I now find that like my bookmarks, it has become too full, I need to rearrange and create new categories and the pages get long. I do, however, like the visuals that help guide me in finding the sites/information I need. Symbaloo is the perfect marriage between pinterest and bookmarking.

In symbaloo, you can customize your "buttons." For example, you can select photos which are meaningful and will help you recognize what you're looking for. Also, the webpage doesn't need a picture to create a button (a serious downside to pinterest as I have tried pinning many unpinnable pages - and it's a lot of work to manually create my own pin). Buttons can also be color-coded. For example, I could color all professional organization webpages green, or have literacy links in pink.

If I have too many links, I can create tabs called webmixes (which are like folders in bookmarking or boards in pinning) and have specific sets of links. I can even create buttons on my homepage that forward me to different webmixes (if I have a lot and don't want to scroll through them all). Essentially, it's visually friendly, well-organized, and adaptable. There is even a button I can put in my toolbar so I can create buttons in just the same way I pin or bookmark (right on the webpage I'm at - vs heading back to symbaloo to tediously create something new).

So, if you are looking for a solution to the bookmarking problem, try Symbaloo (which has a separate educator login at

Update: You can also create "webmixes" (tabs) which can be shared with students. :)

The Flipped Classroom: Glow or Grow for Education?
When I first read the term "flipped classroom" on Edutopia's homepage, I had no idea what they were referring to. Of course, as an inquisitive soul, I needed to find out. So I clicked the link and ended up here. As I began reading, I realized I was actually familiar with the concept (I don't live under a rock, after all). For those of you who need to be familiarized with yet more educational jargon (since we are inundated with familiar concepts disguised by unfamiliar jargon), here is what I discovered after reading:

The "flipped classroom" is a classroom in which traditional "lecture" activities occur at home so that "homework" and activities can occur in the classroom with teacher guidance. The idea is that the important learning comes from the trying to apply the concepts, not from the lecture, and that this gives the teacher more time to help students troubleshoot and practice the right way, versus going home and cementing misunderstandings in their learning. In theory it is a great idea - I would love more time for "perfect practice" and "troubleshooting" in my classroom!

Here's how teachers tend to make it happen:
  • podcasts (soundbites and videos that can be played online or on ipods)
  • youtube videos
  • web pages
  • presentations (powerpoint, prezi, etc.)
  • educational technology (there are a multitude of companies that give teachers the software to easily create educational videos - follow the Edutopia link above to see a few)
Reading the list, do you see the same problem that I do? Access to technology is not available for every student (or every teacher). I teach in a rural community and have several students who don't have internet or computer access at home. I already balance demands from my principle to create more online/digital assessments with a lack of technology in my classroom, and a lack of available technology outside the classroom for my students. This is a problem I can handle (and also one for another day), but how would I manage the demand when their daily learning would require this?

A Principal's Reflections:
Now, when I read about the "flipped classroom," my mind went a couple places. 1) Math teachers at the high school in my district are already using this model, 2) there are non-technological ways to provide "teaching" outside the classroom without using technology, 3) long-term goals for "viewing lectures" can help alleviate the time crunch. Let's address these one at a time.

Obviously this model is achievable as teachers around the U.S. (and the world?) are using it, including within my district. Our high school has some advantages to making this model work that could be applied to other schools if they decided to implement this. ELO or extended learning opportunity is available daily at the high school. It is built into the schedule and essentially computes to 30 minutes before lunch (or as a reward for students with great grades - they get to add this 30 minutes to their lunch). This means not only do students have time built in to get extra help and ask questions, they have time to grab a computer and watch the video (as long as enough computers are available - although I think some teachers could devote this time to doing a daily showing of the video for interested students, alleviating this problem as well. As mentioned by other troubleshooters - it is definitely in the interest of student time to pick a specific subject area to focus on (or alternate video days), as there just isn't time to watch a video for every class every night.

Student time constraints aside, some teachers have been using the flipped classroom model since long before the invention of youtube or podcasts. The edutopia article does mention that homework and tech aren't necessary in creating a flipped classroom, though it doesn't go into detail. Here's my thoughts: Once upon a time, there was a great technology known as the textbook. Teachers assigned readings and students came back to class with questions, information, and knowledge which could help them begin to apply what they learned in class. There are many teachers which still do this (and I student taught with a man who used this in conjunction with making podcasts available online - which students listened to by choice rather than imperative). With this in mind, printing presentations or lecture information for students to go over outside of class is another option (made somewhat difficult by paper/printing limits given to teachers).
I personally struggle with assigning learning in this way because some students at the 6th grade level simply lack the reading skills and/or confidence to access the learning at home (and for that matter, would flounder with a podcast where they cannot ask questions. As a solution, I use the workshop model. This I will accredit to Sam Bennett - though I am no expert on this, she was the one who familiarized me with this idea as a formal concept at the Colorado Council for the International Reading Association annual conference in 2011. Basically, short lecture at the beginning of class, or even letting kids work through the "teaching" during a warmup time before you start activity time with them. Honestly, one of the teachers I worked with during my practicum used this model and he was definitely the teacher I try to emulate daily.

So now I think it is time to describe what I mean by "long-term goals for viewing lectures." What I mean here is I don't think you need a lecture daily. For example, you can give the students their take home lecture (be it podcast, video, or whatever) and give them a goal a good week away to have previewed it. Maybe students have a chapter to read every week, or need to watch their video before Monday of every week. This gives them plenty of room to find a time that works for them. I like the idea of having something like this due every Monday. Then Monday can be a quick review, mini-trouble shooting session and we can spend the rest of the week going more in depth and working through the kinks.

Here's an example of how I might do this. 6th grade students in Colorado have to be able to use map skills to problem solve, including the use of latitude, longitude, cardinal directions, scale, etc. So I can require they read the chapter on these map tools in the book. Then, on Monday, give them a basic warm-up asking them to tell me where something is located (identify the coordinates) or tell me what is located at such-and-such coordinates. Don't make it too involved. For this, I give them sticky notes. Then, when they are done, they bring me the sticky note. I glance at it quickly, if they answered correct I hand them instructions for a practice activity and keep the sticky, if they didn't I hand back the sticky and ask them to try again. Some of them will be able to work through where they went wrong on their own (I encourage them to solve problems themselves - I have a 5 minute no questions policy at the beginning of class to help them develop this practice).

The Flipped Classroom:

After 5-10 minutes for this, I go over it briefly with the class, often letting them explain their process to their peers. Then I may take the group that struggled during this formative assessment and we work on the practice activity as a small group. I guide them and they ask questions. Other students often work in pairs around the room. During times like this I either allow other students to come visit the small group table to ask me questions, or I have them write their names on the board in a list (and schedule time to walk away from my small group to go down my list, one by one).

Educator, Learner:
Keep in mind, this is just one activity, so I might organize a different workshop in a very different manner (ie, groups problem solving at tables as I float, once I split the room into "get it, don't get it, and kinda get it and the warm up was to sit in the appropriate area, individual work and I move systematically from one desk to the next checking understanding - you're teachers, you get my drift).  Back to my activity. The next day we might add a new skill to identifying coordinates....we might try plotting lines in coordinates. And the day after we might add scale. By the end of the week we can do quite a few things. All of these activities were based off of the single reading, but we scaffolded and built onto the skills gradually.

Thus, don't think students need to literally have the old-school classroom literally flipped every day with lecture at home and homework in class. That is not what the flipped classroom is. Anyways, that's what I gleaned. I hope that helps. :) Good luck!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back-to-school: preparation goals

If you're like me, school will start in less than a month, and you're starting to think about all the things you need to do.

Scholastic has a great checklist to get you started.

Here are some things on my list: (I will update and cross off with dates, as I complete them)

1. Write back-to-school letter. 7/18/2012 (file linked; be aware: google docs destroys file formatting)
2. Revamp organizational tools (more info to come).
3. Plan first week (what are my priorities and when - because face it, we can't fit it all in....I will probably devote a blog entry to this later).
4. Prepare for cross-country season (practice schedule, letters home, etc. - chances are, you have your own "cross country" obligation looming)
5. Pick a day for drama club informational meeting (yep, I am that crazy teacher who has more than one after school commitment)
6. Complete my application for the Literacy Fair funds (I am the VP for our local council for the International Reading Association).
7. Consider my goals for the year and maybe start doing a formal write-up to turn in to my principal.
8. Organize my science files (they are literally thrown in the drawer; thankfully social studies is neat and tidy)
9. Update website (which I have to postpone until I am trained on how to use the new website)

Pointers for writing a back-to-school letter:
  • Keep it short and sweet (Save the details for your syllabus - I give students 5 points at the end of the year if they still have the syllabus. Let them be responsible for this information).
  • Provide contact information (yes this is a website era - but parents are not always into that).
  • Throw a picture or two on there (makes it feel friendly).
  • Share your enthusiasm for getting to know their students!
  • Give a little info about you (what subjects you teach, extra-curriculars, some basic expectations).
  • Include a cut-off for signing and checking boxes. This can be complex or simple. Complex includes student learning styles, allergies, and whatever else you might want to know.
Obviously I am a secondary teacher with a separate syllabus that my students are responsible for (not a possibility for elementary level). We also do a parent night where we go in depth on expectations and allow parents to ask questions (without students present). Knowing this, I have a lot of flexibility in doing as much or as little as I want. My preference is to keep this short and sweet (I am a minimalist). I just want to make a quick connection, make sure parents have my contact information and give them an opportunity to feel comfortable with me. My photo makes it more personal, so they can recognize me in the hall or know they entered the right room if they are looking for me). It also provides a little extra information (like that I am married) without going into a whole long biography. I include the extra-curriculars so parents know that although I would like to be available every day after school, I have other student-focused obligations (I am not just an absentee teacher). In terms of my cut-off at the bottom. I have found that I tend to file these things away and rarely return to them, thus, again, I keep it simple. Basics: how would you prefer I get hold of you if I need to share a glow or grow (something your student did that was great, or something we need to work on), and if I can use student photos on the school website. This second one is already available in the files online - but I find it's easier to have my own set of these. I can file students into "use and not use files" so it's easy to double check and I can familiarize myself with the ones I can't use.

Good luck getting ready for the year!

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Exposition: Who is Ms. R.?

In high school.
Every good story has an exposition (you know, that bit at the beginning that tells you who the characters are and gives you some insight into their lives). I don't know about blogs, but I do know about stories. So I thought I would start mine right.

I grew up in a small town, which I hated and wanted to leave (as do most small-town girls). My dreams were many and extravagant, including world travel and an esoteric kind of fame. During college, I studied many different things: anthropology (archeology, cultural, and physical - I love them all), interior design, journalism, art history, natural sciences and a whole lot of other randomness. If there was one thing I never intended to study, it was education (because that was small-town and not-so-esoteric). At the end of all this learning, I knew one thing - I didn't like to do one thing.

I dig unique - faux-hawk anyone?
Thus, as I hunted to find a profession that suited me, I found my niche in the museum world. In fact, I managed to be selected for two top-knotch internships at some very nice natural history museums. There was one problem, however. This was 2008 and the economy was falling apart as I entered an extremely unstable field which often demanded a masters degree and faced massive job cuts. However, while working at the Draper Museum of Natural History, I discovered some things about myself. 1) I loved teaching, 2) middle school kids are awesome, and 3) lab work can be very lonely and repetitive.

A bird I prepared in the lab.
Word had already come that I was accepted for another position in Springfield Illinois at their natural history museum. Despite the amazing collections they had in their vaults (a veritable warehouse, whereas I was coming from an actual vault), I realized I did not want to take on a position in a lab only, particularly not one isolated from the day-to-day goings-on of the museum itself. I turned it down, and as my temporary position ended, I moved back home where I played house with my sister, who actually had a job, and ate up my savings to survive.

This one will become a flat skin with skeleton.
Still tentative about teaching, I continued to apply for museum jobs while also applying for my substitute teaching license and a masters program in education (during which I could also get my teaching license). No jobs arose, my substitute teaching license took many months to arrive, and meanwhile, I was accepted to the masters program. I started taking classes so I could get a few prerequisites out of the way (like all the U.S. history classes I had spent my college career avoiding). Any sub job that came my way I took - eventually leading to a full-time long-term position in preschool (which was awesome and I sometimes consider returning to). I made a bit of money (enough to pay for some of my classes).
Owl Program

I started my masters, took out a slew of student loans, and a year later found myself with a teaching license and masters degree. Due to the timing of my program, I didn't actually have the coursework to apply for my license until the school year was about to start. Thankfully, those small-town connections can be helpful. I received a job and because they back-date licenses, I was good to go as long as I applied before the first day of school. I took a personal day the Friday before the kids started to drive down my application. Eventually (months later), my license arrived, back-dated appropriately and I was now made legal.

Frog program - Japanese audience.
So here I find myself, 2 years completed, at a relatively new school within the school district I grew up, a small town girl again. I teach 6th grade social studies and science. What's more, I have since married my college sweetheart and we bought a house in said small town. We're staying. So much for plans. However, I also love it! Sometimes I still long for world travel, but I seek my esoteric fame within the world of teaching. I am one of those few sick teachers who absolutely LOVES planning and curriculum design. I don't love grading, and am horrible about keeping up on it.

Fox skull: completely reassembled (hit by car).
My favorite thing to do is create new simulation style activities for my students. And I love it even more when they love those activities as well. This year, we ended with my designed-from-scratch Caribbean Economic Simulation. I had students actually asking to keep working through the last day! I said, "That's the plan, guys!" while secretly doing a jig in my mind. They loved saving up so they could invest --> important standard hit (nail-on-head style).

Large dog skull - mastiff maybe?
So, that's my exposition. Take it or leave it. If you're intrigued, follow me as I turn room A105 into a mini-city; my journey into the world of the micro-society. This isn't a classroom anymore - it's a city! (P.S. I may occasionally talk about science - but this blog is for my social studies endeavor).

Disclaimer: I did not include photos of my own classroom because they are previous students and I do not have permission to publish. I'll work on making sure I have blog-friendly pictures in the future.