Lit Up

Spotlight On: Teaching Practices, Strategies, and Growing Pains and Pleasures

Research Unit


Note to Self

In my own classroom:

-Students will keep writing portfolios.

-There will be an organized system for turning work in/picking up make-up work.

-Students will write assignments down in planners.

-Students will have some time for reading independently in class, but I will structure it as a reward system to help them value that time.

-Students will know the purpose of every worksheet and so will value the work that they do. They will be required to keep each assignment and turn in a unit binder at the end of each unit.

-I will set the standard that you do not come to class unprepared and you do not start chatting 3 minutes before the bell rings. I must be firm and consistent to set this standard.

-Students will feel a sense of community in our classroom.They will want to share stories and we will have some time for them to do that.

– I will be firmer, I will know when to draw the line, I will be able to have fun with them and reign them back in because I am the teacher and I don’t need them to like me like a friend. I need them to respect me and my class whether or not they like me.

Shift in Focus

With spring upon us, I have seen a change in my school.  The quiet, young, and innocently fresh faces that showed up in my classroom back in August have become talkative, energized, and confident beings.  Who are these kids? Where did they come from?  While I know that the sunshine has something to do with their absolutely kinetic energy, I also like to think it has something to do with what’s been happening in our classroom throughout the year.  We have created a community, a place where they come and share and learn every day, a place where they have been frustrated, excited, distracted, and engaged, and a place where they have gotten to know me, each other, and themselves a little better.  Of course, as this is all happening, they are going through major biological, social, and emotional changes as well which makes my job both harder and more interesting in many ways.  I have a chance to work with students who are in a flux.  They have come beyond elementary school, and they are headed towards high school, but before they can reach those major milestones, they must pass through the enigma that is a middle school setting.  I have had a student climb on a bookshelf in the library, and I have had a student write a poem that brought me close to tears. I have had a student refuse to do any work and threaten to run out of the classroom, and I have had students engaged for an entire period.  Every day, I walk into the classroom not knowing what will happen.  And that’s just one of the things I love about this job.

The job fair this past Wednesday made me reflect on how I view myself as a teacher.  Having to write a resume and cover letter means needing to have confidence in yourself.  I feel like I still have so much to learn and so much that I haven’t experienced yet that it was hard for me to talk myself up and talk up the things that I HAVE done.  The shift in my classroom, the comfort level of the kids, that shows me that I have done something worthwhile here. When kids come in and want to tell me about reading the Hunger Games or compliment my haircut or say, “Guess what??” and let me in on their lives just a little, I know that I have done something meaningful. I’ve been invited to enter into their world and affect it somehow.  This knowledge boost my confidence and reminds me how utterly important my job is.  When kids are getting antsy and don’t want to answer my questions or sit in their desks, that means I go back to the drawing board and come up with a lesson that lets them move. Last week during the PSSAs, I mentioned that I planned a “Tableau” process-drama activity to get them moving instead of just reading for an entire period after testing all morning.  Today during a discussion, I invited students to share personal experiences with ants in order to help them connect to our story. I knew I was losing them as I read aloud, so I stopped reading briefly to break down what was going on in the story – we had an impromptu discussion about what it means to be responsible, how it’s different (or how it’s not) to care about an ant versus a cat or a tree or even your shoes.  Their minds are ready to be tapped, but it’s a matter of shifting your focus and teaching to their minds instead of teaching through your plans.

Thus, my epiphany of the week is not that I’m “imperfect and that’s okay because growing is a messy process” but that I’m flexible and willing to accommodate my plans to address the needs and wants of my students.  I’m not just good at reflection, I’m good at acting on that reflection because I want to and because it matters. Focus shifted.

Happy Friday.

PSSA Reflections

Station Shenanigans

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, I implemented six stations in my classroom.  The idea came up a few weeks ago between my mentor and I because I wanted to utilize more technology in the classroom. However, I was hesitant to schedule computer time or secure the set of laptops our school allegedly owns because of the extra time that would be associated with laying down rules for their usage and all of the time wasting aspects that laptops might add to the classroom dynamic. In addition, with 5 periods spread throughout the day, I was worried about the batteries dying, and planning for the classes to be doing different things on different days all for the sake of laptop time simply did not seem worth it as we rush to finish a novel so we can start a research project so we can start our final unit on Greek mythology. Overall, I simply did not see the benefits of laptops outweighing their logistics which is a necessity to the use of technology in the classroom.

The solution, therefore, was to create stations around the classroom where some kids could use the laptop to create their comic while other students completed activities that touched on all the skills we’re incorporating into this unit.  My mentor and I decided upon these stations: Figurative Language, Vocabulary, Sentence Structures, Complex Sentences, Writing, and Comic.  The first four stations touched on the skills we’ve been learning in this unit while the last two focus on comprehension and analysis of the novel.  After my mentor and I settled on these stations, she reminded me to keep the tasks even for time at each station and she let me go to design the station activities on my own.

I wanted six stations to keep the groups relatively small for our classes of 30, but with the tasks I designed, I ended up realizing we’d need to do 3 stations a day to fit everything in. I created cooperative learning groups based on student performance and the results of a sentence structure pretest I had given the week before. I wanted at least one student who knew the sentence structures in every group to support the lower learners and to reinforce the skill for the higher level learners by having them reteach it.  Based on adding in a brief warm up/time to read directions/transition time, I determined each station should last for approximately 12 minutes, which was 36 out of our 48 minutes together. My mentor noted this time was short, but letting groups run overtime if they were on task and having transition time ended up making that approximately 12 minutes per station pretty accurate.  At the writing station, groups wrote collaborative paragraphs using a different point of view than the novel.  To keep every member accountable, I had them write their initials by the sentence they contributed to the entry and while one person was typing at the computer, the rest of the group was writing 3 sentences about what happens to a story when you change the point of view.  Each station was designed in this way – to have enough tasks for each group member to be doing something for the entire 12 minutes. I communicated this to the groups and as I walked around the stations, I checked that each group member was doing something, and if they weren’t, I suggested the tasks they might take on.  Each station had printed directions, a checklist, that laid out the jobs the students were supposed to have completed within 12 minutes.  The stations that I was worried might be short had asterisks that suggested another task students could begin if they had extra time. I hoped I had covered all my bases.

Of course, I had not because I am a novice teacher who was trying something new.  While the timing of each station was on, each group member had jobs he or she could have been performing, and the students seemed engaged in their work, they were not producing meaningful material.  12 minutes ended up feeling rushed and the students were completing the tasks simply to get them done. I needed to figure out a way to help them want to create quality work instead of doing it just to get it done. I could use suggestions on this front. 

My mentor said if she uses these stations again next year, she’d cut it down to 4 stations in two days to spend more time going over the directions as a class and hopefully the student would produce more quality work.  I think smaller groups might help too because the more people involved, the less involved they had to be. If only two people are working on something, there must be more in depth discussion as opposed to individual work that is thrown together. I ended up grading the station work very liberally due to student absences one of the days being unsure of how to measure the amount/quality of what they had done.  I kept the point value low since groups were receiving the same grade and I didn’t want them to complain that one had done more work than another.  In the future, I think I need to provide more structured materials at each stations (as opposed to the looseleaf paper students wrote on for these stations) that have a place for everybody’s names and contributions.  In that way, I can grade individuals instead of groups.  Or if I’m going to grade groups, I need to communicate that to the students so they know to motivate their peers and work together.

Overall, I’m glad I tried the stations because I think they did engage the students and helped me review some skills for the PSSAs as well as break up the monotony of a long novel unit, but mostly I’m glad I did the stations because I learned how to create successful stations that I can continue to implement throughout my career.

Grammar Instruction

“Some days are like that, even in Australia”

I don’t know if anyone else has ever read the classic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day, but I often think of it when I am having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, and I remember Alexander’s mom’s very wise words: “Some days are like that, even in Australia.”  When school is hard and I feel like I’m behind with my planning or my students look bored or they didn’t do their reading or I feel under-prepared for the day or drivers on the road are grinding my last nerve, I remember Alexander’s mom.  However, another comfort to me on rough days is the promise of better days to come.  The tough times always end and the difficult moments always pass.  So I try to never get too stressed or too mad or say something I don’t mean because I hope and know that before I know it, things will look brighter again.

Last week was hard. My motivation was lacking, and I grew frustrated with myself for that. I thought briefly about moving to Australia, but thankfully I reconsidered.  This week, however, I had two moments that reminded me why I’ve wanted to be a teacher since 3rd grade, before I even had any idea what I was getting myself into.

First came the blog: as I vlogged about last week, my students really got into the blog.  Not all their comments were meaningful or thoughtful, but there they were, online, and at the very least referencing our class novel.  Each time I log onto the site, a little butterfly of hope flits around my stomach, waiting to read that tiny orange blob: “NEW” next to a student post.  I talked to my students again about the blog this week, and when we went to the library, I told them they could get on computers and write away.  They jumped at the chance, and after 20 minutes, I actually had to kick them off the computers and ask them to please go do some independent reading, what the period was actually designated for.  The only clarification I made about their blog posts and comments was that they should be saying something meaningful about the book and responding to the actual question I asked instead of simply writing one line such as, “I think Catherine should run away.”  A couple students brought up some really provocative issues such as “Why did men get to be the dominant ones back then?” or “Catherine judges people before she meets them which makes me think about how I do the same thing. She should learn not to do that because she ends up being wrong, and I think maybe I could learn that too.”  One girl who is extremely quiet and shy in class wrote an awesome post about the character and related it to herself and her desire to be a free-thinker. I commented back telling her to keep rocking that free thinking and she replied, thanking me profusely with words and emoticons.  Had I not introduced the blog format into our classroom conversation, I might never have gotten to read some of these incredibly thoughtful student voices! I continue to think about the amazing possibilities of a classroom blog.  Today I told the students to post over the weekend to help them study for their test, and I will do my best to respond to them, especially if they have any questions.

The second thing that got me tingly excited is something that is yet to come.  As I plan ahead, I want to come up with new ways for students to interact with the novel/skill sets in class.  Because of limited technology, it sometimes feels impractical to incorporate computer-based activities into class. (Getting to the computer lab, showing students new technology, making sure they use it in a meaningful way…it often feels like there isn’t enough time in our schedule for this.)  However, this is the time in my intern career where I should be trying new things in a more sheltered environment where I have the immediate conversation and feedback with my mentor.  With that in mind, and the goal to include more technology-based creative activities in class, I considered the idea of stations.  In fact, Dr. Kajder mentioned this idea to me when she was showing us all the different websites we can use as technology resources.  I talked to my mentor, and we discussed how it might look/work in our classroom space.  We came up with the idea of 5-6 stations: 1) make believe comics station at my laptop 2) sentence structure station at the board 3) paragraph correction station at the Promethean board 4) reading guide/comprehension & analysis station 5) vocabulary station 6) ???   My mentor’s comment after we talked about this was, “Geez girl, you’re creating a lot more work for yourself!” And I realized – this is the work I don’t mind doing.  The stuff that gets me excited, that makes my mind race with possibilities and my eyes light up with the hope that my students might truly invest in these activities and reap returns from their investments, this is the stuff that matters.

So on those days when I want to move to Australia, I simply need to remember those moments I’m working towards, the moments that   reach and stretch and tug at my comfort zone and plop me safely down into new territory with gusto.

Meta Blog


Sorry my head is cut off :-\

Adjusting, Readjusting

Lately, my blogs have been about planning because my my responsibilities have shifted since I took over my 3rd class.  Now, instead of working with my mentor to create the plans, I create them on my own and show her what I came up with.  I much prefer this way of doing things because it’s giving me invaluable experience to come up with engaging material and learn how to structure a unit based on skills, vocabulary, and an overarching theme.  So far, I am using the overarching them to guide the connections the students make to the novel as we read.  We are somewhat limited with what we can do in class because we do so much of the reading at school.  My mentor has had experience with students not doing their reading out of class, so she prefers me to schedule most of the reading in class.  **My question for others is what experience do you have with students/reading in class/holding students accountable? I don’t mind starting the book in class by reading out loud so students all can get what’s going on, but as time goes on, I would prefer that they start doing some of the reading on their own so we can do more with the book than comprehension.  Are reading quizzes a good way to do this?

Planning ahead with a novel is key because you need to know when you’re going to give a test so that you teach everything that is on it before you give the test and include time for review.  However, when you plan ahead, you must also be prepared to adjust your plans as I learned today.  Because I teach the 3 morning classes and my mentor teaches the 2 afternoon classes, she follows my plans.  She tends to read more slowly and stop to ask more questions as she’s reading, so she isn’t getting through as much material as me.  It’s a reminder to me to slow down, add more formative assessments and activities into my plans as opposed to simply rushing through the reading.  Therefore, today my goal was to go through my plans for the next 2 weeks, which are already laid out, and flesh them out a bit more.  I wanted to make sure my reading goals for each day were cut down so that I can devote more time to the activities I have planned for each day.

Another thing I’m learning without my mentor modeling the timing of a lesson for me before I start doing it is that I must really improve my adjusting in the moment. I’m working on it because with 5 classes of the same material, I’m really starting to learn that each class has it’s own energy and ability levels that need to be considered.  Although I’m making one set of plans for everyone, each class needs to be treated as its own entity, something I’m still working on. Much of this new thinking is a result of realizing the way my mentor does things isn’t the only way to go. I agree with so much of what she does that I have just been able to mimic/tweak much of it, but I am really beginning to form solid ideas of what would be different in my classroom.  One of those differences would be: if I ever end up with 5 sections of the same class, I will get to know the students and start treating them differently!

Planning a Unit: Skills plus Theme

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