Live Like You’re on Vacation – Simplifying Your Wardrobe

June 10, 2021

As a busy mom, daughter and educator that can be a procrastinator, I am always looking for ways to get more done while doing less and to be more efficient, even if only a little bit. So, when seasons started to change and I knew I was teaching all summer again, but also working in vacations, I decided to make some changes to my wardrobe, and it has proven to be a huge success.

While I like the idea of being a fashionista, I tend to default to t-shirts and shorts, especially with working from home. But I do have zoom lessons and meetings, so still try to look professional.  I’ve always been intrigued by the minimalist capsule wardrobes or only a certain number of pieces, but never wanted to commit to that restricted a lifestyle. Living in Florida, fashion choices can be a challenge in the summer since it’s just so hot and humid. Also, with Covid restrictions lifting and travel plans returning, I wanted to create an easy style for whatever our plans were this summer, whether it was work, relaxing at home or travel. 

Last month while putting laundry away, I got this crazy idea to create a vacation wardrobe for the summer, and possibly continue this for each month/season.  My boundaries were making sure I had what I needed for professional work, house and yard work, exercise, date nights and relaxing at home or out and about. And it all had to fit into my suitcase if we went somewhere. I already do laundry every week to keep up with it, so I just made sure I had enough to get me through the week.

I started by pulling out my favorite items that I always grabbed to wear. Then I checked to make sure everything had a match and created a complete set, so the shirts had bottoms to go with, the skirt had tops, I had sweaters that went with everything since it can be cold in air-conditioned places—that sort of thing. Then I took everything else and folded it, placing off season items into a storage tote and in season items in an empty drawer in case I wanted to rotate something out.  I paired it down to 42 key items (insert Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference here, although this was not the targeted number originally!).  These items included shorts, pants, tops, dresses, sweaters, and swimsuits (socks and undergarments not included in the count).

I’ve been using this wardrobe for a month now and I absolutely love the simplicity of it.  I find myself wearing “cute” clothes more often instead of grabbing the trusty t-shirt I love. I have fewer decisions to make since each item has a coordinating item to default to and my closet isn’t so crowded, well, at least my side isn’t.  My husband’s is a whole other story!

While clearing my wardrobe has been a part of my ongoing minimalist journey, this decision wasn’t made for that reason, it was made to make my life simpler and to give me fewer decisions to think about. Reducing my mental clutter and decision fatigue has been a nice side effect of this change in lifestyle that has made my work and family life a lot less stressful and has inspired me to simplify other areas of my home in a similar “vacation house” style of having what I need and less decisions to make. It’s not always easy and something go into the donate box or holding box that come back out, but ultimately, I am free to worry about more important things, like where to travel to with my simplified wardrobe!

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Wrapping Up the School Year From Home – Tips for Distance Learners

May 27, 2021

It won’t take long, but this quick checklist can save you time later!

It has been a long and crazy school year, whether you have been at home or on a campus. For those of you that have been students at home, I thought it might be helpful to share some Teacher Tips to help you wrap things up for next year, whether you will still be working from home or plan to return to campus.  Taking these steps will help you start next year off successfully!

CLEAR MATERIALS Whether you purchased, printed, borrowed, or created your materials, chances are that you have LOTS of things collected from the year.  Start by pulling out all materials and sorting through them. What needs returned? What needs submitted? What needs retained for records? What can go? Can any of it be sold, recycled, or passed on? Making these decisions makes the next step of clearing them a breeze. Recycle or trash anything you don’t need.  Post any items for sale or donation on your local community board or drop at a local donation spot.  Anything that needs returned or submitted can be taken in one trip.  Finally, anything you need to retain can be put into a file folder or binder and marked for the school year. This would also be a great time to deep clean the space since it won’t be in constant use.

INVENTORY SUPPLIES Unless you graduated, you will need some school supplies next year, whether schooling at home or back on campus.  Take inventory of what you have and make yourself a shopping list now to pin to your fridge or bulletin board.  Then, you can shop sales all summer or be ready for the back-to-school shopping before school starts.

TRANSITION WORKSTATION Unless you will be doing some sort of summer learning program at home or online, chances are you won’t need to keep the workstation set up all summer.  Use this time to store away anything that won’t be needed (clean it first, you’ll thank me!) and set up the space for gaming, online lessons, or crafting this summer. Repurposing the space will keep from wasting valuable real estate in your home and allow you to truly relax this summer. Plus, if it’s a shared workspace with someone else still working, it will be a help to them.  This is also a great time to talk about how the space will be used next school year and plan for any changes that may need made so you can begin planning or save up for them now.

TRANSCRIPTS Depending on what type of home school choice you made, it may be your responsibility to collect those transcripts and submit that documentation to your local home school/distance learning office yourself.  This is the time to take care of it and you don’t want to be surprised when you go to start the next grade that there is no record of completing this one. 

PLANS FOR NEXT SCHOOL YEAR Whether you are returning to campus, remaining distance learning, or transferring to another school, whether by promotion or change in venue, be sure all parties are aware and planning for it.  Talk to your student about the plans so they can be aware, or even part of the decision, and prepare for it now.  Talk to the school and be sure they know your intentions. If you are leaving one location for another, they will need to get records sent over and waiting until the start can delay entry or be a very long wait. If you are returning to on campus, you will want to make sure they have a seat for you and your records to start smoothly and be prepared.

I know you are just ready for summer to start so you can relax and have one less BIG thing to worry about but taking an extra day or two now to get these things resolved will make it a much more restful summer!  Enjoy that break, you deserve it!

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Setting Up for Success – Plan a Weekly Date with Yourself

May 21, 2021

When it comes to getting things done, I have found there are 2 camps of people—the Procrastinator and the Prepper – although some people can fall somewhere in the middle.  Most of the time, I am somewhere in the middle. I will prep to an extent, but then fly by the seat of my pants and am in it for the adventure.  Work is something different for me, though, especially with teaching, and especially as a virtual teacher where I am pretty much in control of my schedule.

I have a variety of life experiences and many different types of supervisors that have helped me learn how to manage my time effectively, from making a list of 6 things to do each day, to making sure I have something to do at all times, even if the job isn’t busy.  In short, I adopted the work smarter, not harder mentality of working.

With those ideas in mind and struggling my first semester, I learned to set up a weekly date with myself to plan out my week.  I tried several different methods and days to accomplish this and have gone through so many types of planners. I have finally streamlined my process and have used it all school year and have found it to be easy to use, quick and not a dreaded task each week.

I chose to have my weekly date on Friday mornings and spend 30 minutes completing this task.  I sit down with my Outlook Calendar that is part of my work email, which saves me money and time since this is where my meetings and appointment calls are already plugged in—more about how to print that later.  First, I review my week so far and see what I still need to accomplish that day. If there’s anything I can’t fit in that isn’t time sensitive, I just move it to the next week. Then, I start planning the week.  I find it helps to create recurring tasks that I know I have every week to do—grading, email, reports, even my workouts and lunch time is plugged in since I will work straight through!  I start with fixed time things like appointments from my personal calendar, times I meet with my students and classes, training sessions, meetings, etc.  Next, I adjust any recurring tasks that may overlap or are flexible. Then, I look for gaps since some days are slower than others and can plug in projects or personal development tasks, I have on a backburner that I want to tackle. I do have blocks of time each week just for personal development and projects so I can continuously focus on refining my craft.  Finally, I set work hours for each day and put them in the calendar, too. My hours vary from day to day since I have some early schools, late parent calls, my schools are on block schedules, so the time of classes changes every other day, so I flex my time.

a screenshot of what the printout will look like

Now, I am ready to print my schedule since I like to have a checklist.  I simply choose the print option for my Outlook Calendar (Ctrl + P is the fastest way) and choose the weekly agenda style. Once printed, I like to highlight the day and hours I am working, then highlight the fixed appointments I can’t miss.  I also white out the weekend days to create a notes section so as I think of tasks for next week or future project/personal development ideas, I can jot them down and address them on Friday and avoid getting lost in distraction.

The benefits of having this weekly date with yourself is helping to find a balance of your work and personal life.  I do NOT work weekends and rarely work more than my 8-hour day unless I choose to.  Plus, I only have to think about it one time, then it’s just checking things off or adding in scheduled calls to a block I already have set aside.  This means I have less distractions and more time on task during my week, plus I can anticipate any gaps or conflicts by merging my work and personal calendars.  Since I am not a morning person, this helps me start my day on task and organized, and I can eat that frog right away!  (Not familiar with the Eat the Frog concept?  Check out the blog post from last year here.)

A couple of other things I do along with this include filing that calendar page away in a folder just in case I ever have to show my work hours and tasks. Also, I reset my workspace daily by clearing my desk, and twice per week I clean my office and keep it decluttered since a busy day can make a huge mess!

In reflection, which of these practices do you already use?  Which could you see yourself using?  Do you still have questions or need more help? No problem!  Comment below or find me on Twitter @AddictedtoTeac1 and in Facebook I have a group called Addicted to Teaching. I’d love to chat more and help you out!

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My Favorite Lesson to Teach – The End of Year “Letter to My Future Self”

May 13, 2021

Throughout the year, I always try to embed learning opportunities for my students to grow as a person or reflect on who they used to be.  At the end of the school year, it can get so busy and we need mini-lessons that can take one day here or there to fill in.  I started this one my very first year and, while I have adapted it for the grade I am teaching, or even used it for a beginning of year lesson, I have always fallen back on it. 

It’s pretty simple really, I have the students write a letter to their future self.  For my 6th graders, I would have them write it to themselves going into high school, then I would collect them and seal them up, with a promise to find them and deliver it as they were headed to high school. I live in an area where students move frequently, so this did prove challenging.  I later adapted it to seal it after adding a personal note to it, then returning it with a “Do not Open Until” instruction.  For my 8th graders, it was upon graduation.  So this time of year is exciting since I have students do this as an activity, and I have former students opening theirs and reflecting—and many reaching out to me.

So what do they write about? I do make a plan sheet for them to capture who they are now—favorite music, style, books, TV shows, best friends (boy/girlfriends), foods, places, goals and dreams both personal and professional, what they think they will be doing and a bit of advice for their future selves that they hope they don’t lose focus of through high school.

I collect them all and give a participation grade, but I also add a personal note to it as a motivator, a funny story or memory, or some personal touch.  Then I seal it up and tell them to stash it away or give to a parent. Many pin it on a mirror or wall, tuck it in their yearbook, or give it to mom or dad to hold onto until graduation.  Some open it right away, they can’t wait 4 years.  Some forget about it or lose it.  But several keep them and many reach out to me.  I love it! 

Because so many students have stayed in touch, courtesy of social media or their parents being or becoming friends of mine, I am able to get a reminder out to some of them and they spread the word. It is my favorite lesson every year and I always look forward to teaching it.  I think it is what I miss most about being in the classroom, too.

It can be fun to build those memories, strengthen those bonds and give them something to reflect on when they reach this milestone.  Keep in mind, you don’t have to add a personal note!  This can also be adapted to a first day of school lesson and they open on the last day, or so many other variations. 

If you are looking for an activity for the end of the year, I encourage you to give it a try.

Teacher Appreciation Week – From the Other Side (and about Delta Kappa Gamma)

May 6, 2021

I’ve been an educator for 14 years, doing the hard work and getting that week of treats and sweet thoughts from our PTA, administrators, students and community organizations and restaurants that come with Teacher Appreciation Week. This year, though, with being a virtual teacher, I was able to be on the other side and do something for the teachers of our community through my local teacher organization, Delta Kappa Gamma.

Our organization is a blend of teachers, coaches, administrators and retired educators, and our local chapter is no different. Which means that we have several people with the task, the time, or both of planning rewards for our teachers, and we like to sponsor a couple of schools for at least one day with breakfast or treats. 

This year, because of how my schedule worked as a virtual teacher, I was able to carve out time to volunteer at one of the schools and be on the giving side and take on some of that responsibility from our veteran members that are enjoying retirement and travel. It was nice to chat with other teachers, tell them they were appreciated, listen to their stories, and talk about our organization, for those that were interested in it.  As an educator, most of us are used to doing the talking, and I am no different, so it was nice to be in the listening seat and let others share.  If you ever get a chance to volunteer for something like this, I highly recommend it.

As for our organization, Delta Kappa Gamma, we are always looking for Professional Woman Educators (and aspiring ones in school for education, or in another field but tasked with educating and training!). We are an international organization with chapters all over the world. We support not only educators, but each chapter takes on additional focuses within their community and the education system to support. We also attend trainings, conferences and gather for meetings and social events to continue to build our bond as friends.  This organization was founded in 1929 by 12 women who wanted to help women in the profession at all levels be better prepared.

If you are an educator, in the classroom or even retired, and interested in learning more, go to the organization’s website at https://www.dkg.org/ . You can click on ABOUT US to find a local chapter to visit and learn more before committing to join, or if you are local, reach out to me and I will help you with our chapter or another within our District.  We would love to have you!

“And the Award Goes To…” Using Testing Season as a Growth Mindset Life Lesson for Students

April 29, 2021

Testing season is upon us, and that can be stressful for both student and educator.  But do you know what other events are big this time of year? Award shows!  Several years ago, I noticed how bad my students’ test anxiety was getting and wanted to shift their mindset. While I was thinking about it one evening, a commercial for some awards show came on and it showed someone’s acceptance speech, talking about all the hardships they overcame, and it inspired me.  This could be a great lesson for my students!

I was a Reading/ELA teacher, so did have to work it to “fit the curriculum”, but it wasn’t too much work and the kids really enjoyed it.  Here’s how I broke it down for a lesson:

STEP ONE: Have the kids word splash in groups or on the front board 2 separate ideas—one, what they are nervous about with testing and two—test strategies and tips for doing well.  This lets them see that their fears and concerns are probably the same as others and get ideas from others about ways to deal with it.

STEP TWO: Have them work in small groups/collaborative pairs to think of what they can do to lessen the stress and be prepared to overcome those things. Streamlining the word splash to things that relate to them helps focus their ideas.

STEP THREE: Have them independently brainstorm where they started from in their skill sets throughout school and the year, personal challenges they’ve faced that may have made it challenging, what they as an individual think success will look like and how they will feel when they reach their goal.  And tell them to remember those shout outs to people that supported them (ahem—YOU!) Encourage them to set more than one goal to create multiple levels of success opportunities.

STEP FOUR:  Show some of the most inspirational, moving, and, of course, school and age appropriate, speeches you can find online, just in case some aren’t familiar with award shows or don’t recall how they are done.

STEP FIVE: Have them write an acceptance speech!  Then they can record a Flipgrid video to post to the class board for you to watch and reply to! (If you aren’t familiar with Flipgrid, research HERE to find out if it may be a good fit for you). If you don’t use Flipgrid, they can use their cell phones or class computer to record and send an MP4 file, or you can have a camera set up in a corner for recording. I would avoid having them present in front of the class since some can have some pretty personal fears and knowing others won’t know might make them more inclined to share if they won’t be judged. Be sure to tell them only YOU will see it, unless they choose to share. A bonus could be to have them do it dressed up at home, or with a podium or fancy background in the classroom to jazz it up!

Be sure you give feedback, thanking them for sharing and supporting their ideas to work through it. Encourage them to save the video and watch it the day before testing to reassure them.

I love this approach since it creates a growth mindset and allows them some self-reflection.  Have data, old assignments, test scores, etc., and their word splashes from brainstorming in step 1 handy to help guide them since some may not think that big or may not be very growth-minded and may need guidance.

Most importantly, tell them that it is okay if they fall short of their goals. Share with them times things didn’t work out for you. Share stories of others you know (teachers, friends, former students, or even famous people) without using names of experiences that didn’t turn out how they expected, but they went on to find success.

We, as educators, know that this is one day and may not show their best ability if it is an off day, but the stress of how high stakes these tests can be to our career and their future can distract us from what is the most important thing—that they show up, show what they have learned and give their best effort. Remind them of this often and you will be doing a huge favor for their future self!

Going Green in Your Classroom – Earth Day Inspired Ideas (I’ve used these!)

April 22, 2021

My favorite Earth Day meme I’ve been sharing for years on Social Media. No idea who gets photo credit, but they rock!

This week, we will celebrate Earth Day, an annual event started in 1970 to inspire people to clean up our planet and make conscientious decisions in our everyday life. We see community celebrations, clean ups and crafts dedicated to this, but how can you apply this mindset to your classroom’s everyday practices.  Here are some ideas that I have tried out or were inspired by others.

Recycling bins. I’d be missing an opportunity here if I didn’t remind you to recycle in your classroom. Many communities have recycling pick up and can get bins for your classrooms and do pick ups at your school.  This will take some habit reformation since many students may use it as a trash can, or may not know what goes in it, so be thoughtful about your student population as you use this. 

Recycling markers, mechanical pencils, pens, and highlighters. There are many places that offer this service for *FREE*. Crayola allows you to ship boxes of dried markers directly to them for recycling. It is currently halted due to Coronavirus but subscribe or check in regularly to the Crayola Colorcycle site for it resuming. Staples also offers this service, so check with your local store to see how they are collecting them right now.

Create New Crayons from Old Ones. This is such a fun activity to do and a great use for old crayons!  Of course, you can find recycling programs for crayons, like those for markers, but in classrooms that go through crayons quickly, it’s much more fun to make your own! Just remove wrappers, cut into small pieces, and drop them into a muffin tin and bake in the oven until melted. Let them cool completely then pop them out!  And it’s okay if you don’t have a lot of one color, blended colors make for interesting combinations.

Change your lighting. If you are lucky enough to have windows, why not open those blinds and use natural light?  Not all lessons need reading light and fluorescents can be harsh on the eyes and those bulbs are terrible in the landfill!  You can also opt for LED lamps strategically placed around your room, so they use less electricity and last longer.  Plus, they create a more comfortable atmosphere, making your students feel at home.

Unplug that Tech cart.  If you have a technology cart for laptops or iPads, don’t leave it plugged in all the time.  You can plug it in after they are used to recharge, then unplug it until they all need charged again.  Same for your desktop or work computers.  It can be helpful to use a power strip for these so you can just flip a switch or, check your cart—some have a switch to turn off the power to the cart for this very reason.

Neglect the copier. Do you really need to make a copy for everyone, or will a class set work?  Does it need to be a full sheet, or can you make it a half or quarter sheet and cut it? 

Alternatives to copies.  Maybe your activity doesn’t need a copy at all, and you can use chalk or dry erase—a large one in the classroom, or small personal ones.  Your local home improvement store has dry erase and chalk boards to purchase.  Some of them can cut them into the 25-30 boards you need, although some are getting away from it, so you may need to do this yourself or enlist the help of someone you know that has tools.  Not an option? No problem!  Get sheet protectors and plain paper and DIY a set for yourself!  The benefit of this method is that you can drop a marker and a scrap of cloth (recycle that t-shirt, towel, or leftover fabric!) and now it’s all set for use.

Simplified supplies. If you plan well, you can get buy with not needing a ton of supplies in your classroom by using recycled items that are collected or saved, or by reusing the same item in a variety of ways. This will not only stretch your supply budget since you can order in bulk, but it will cut down on how much you must store, clean and inventory—and pack at the end of every year!

Outdoor classroom. Whether your school has an outdoor seating area or not, taking the class outside can be great for them, and for shutting down your classroom. Do give your students a heads’ up so they can bring a towel, blanket, or folding chair, in case this is an issue for them. I loved doing journaling days outside since it cut down distractions and allowed them to separate from each other to think. They loved it so much, they asked for the option anytime it was an independent/partner workday, so many days my classroom was open to both.  Just be sure your administration knows your location and supports the idea with safety protocols.

Earth friendly cleaning. Many of us were routinely wiping down our classrooms pre-Covid, but now we do it even more.  While those bleach wipes can be convenient, they are terrible for landfills.  There are many plant-based cleaning products or DIY recipes all over the internet that you could find and keep in a spray bottle.  Then, just use old t-shirts, towels, or rags for cleaning and you can wash and reuse them. If you don’t have any, don’t buy new—go to your local secondhand store and repurpose towels, rags, or t-shirts from there!

There are plenty of other things you can do, such as starting a garden or compost pile at school, crafts from recycled materials (have you seen the buildings they have made from 2-liter bottles?! Check out some of those HERE. You don’t have to go big and do everything but do what you can.  Not only will it make a difference for the planet, but you’ll be inspiring future generations by example and create many teachable moments in your room.

If you are looking for craft ideas with your kids or students, here a link to 30 Crafts and Activities Using Upcycled Materials are the ones my son and I are currently working through this month!

I’d love to see pictures or hear about your classroom applications! Like and comment below or find me on Twitter @addictedtoteac1 or on Facebook in the group Addicted to Teaching.

Experimenting in the Kitchen: Cookie Dough Flautas

April 19, 2021

My oldest son and his girlfriend are coming over tomorrow night for Taco Tuesday dinner, a family favorite.  But I wanted to do something a bit more special since we don’t get to have dinner together as often now that he doesn’t live at home.  I remembered Tijuana Flats cookie dough flautas and thought it sounded good, but when I searched the internet, I couldn’t find anything.

I did some research on ingredients, and methods and settled on trying the air fryer. We found quick ingredients prepackaged so it only took about 5 minutes to prep and 5 minutes to cook, so these can be prepped and made quickly for any occasion. It was a hit with my boys, although we figured out a few things to do differently. So here’s a breakdown of the how to make them, for calorie info, just check the packages of your ingredients you choose.

*****EASY COOKIE DOUGH FLAUTAS*****

Ingredients:

10-12 Fajita tortillas

1 package of cookie dough of your choice

Follow the package instructions for the cookies.  Helpful tip: many recipes call for the butter to be softened but not melted, so check for that so you can set it out in advance.

Spoon a tablespoon amount onto a tortilla and spread as thin as possible. Then roll the tortilla tightly.

This was a first roll and with way too much cookie dough, so spread thinner and roll it tightly.

Preheat the air fryer to 350 degrees. We didn’t use any oil for this recipe.

Set the tortillas into the air fryer basket. Cook for 3-5 minutes.  Let cool for a minute or so.

Garnish with powdered sugar, drizzle with chocolate sauce, or, like us, do both!

We have a strong sweet tooth in this family and it was sweet to us, so I recommend cutting in half before serving (use a very sharp knife so you don’t squish them).

Enjoy!

Self-Care for Educators: With a Little Planning, You Can Get the Time You Need for YOU

April 15, 2021

I love my work set up, but that doesn’t mean I have to live here!

I am a workaholic by nature and a very goal-oriented person. I do not like to stop until I finish something, even if that means a very long work session.  If you’ve been in education for 5 minutes, you know we are never really finished.  I have had to work hard to set working hours and an end point to stop at, as well as breaking my goals down into chunks to accomplish realistically. But I am terrible at taking time for myself until I reach the broken and burned-out phase.  I push so hard that when I was a 10-month teacher with summers off, I found it was at least 3 weeks before I’d slow down enough to feel in control and not just caught up in momentum.  When I switched to 12-month in August of 2019, I gave up summers off and last year was tough without that time off and the disconnect.  I realized I had to do something different.

The Covid pandemic and shutdown in 2020 really taught me slow down and that it is very beneficial to make time for myself and to be by myself. I’m a 12-month virtual teacher, my son is a virtual student, and my dad is retired.  My husband is the only one that works out of the house. That’s a whole lot of together time that can be very overwhelming. I learned to find times to get a break and do things for myself or by myself, and it has been a huge help.

As life started getting busier as we gradually reopened, I found myself missing the solitude and extra downtime without outside demands, so I set my 2021 New Year’s Resolution to include more intentional time for myself, or to use the new term, self-care time. I decided to set time each day, week, month, and quarter intentionally for me to relax, rejuvenate, and recharge. I fill that time with road trips, pedicures, massages, hair appointments, hikes, trips to the playground, a coffee, meal, or dessert out with someone I want to catch up with. I also make sure they are budgeted so I don’t go broke.

Feeding peanut butter to 3 dogs at once CAN be done, if I get creative

Daily.  Every day, I have my devotion and prayer time, and I go for walks.  My goal is to walk for an hour a day, however that may break down.  With a young pup, this has become two thirty-minute walks a day to give her an outlet and training time.  I’ve also set the goal to start my day with prayer instead of my smart phone or scrolling social media, and I try to do my daily devotions over breakfast.  Sometimes this looks different, if my son wants to go for a walk or I’m chatting with family over breakfast, but most days I work all these in without issue.

Taking the pups out for a walk

Weekly. This one has been a challenge.  We are blessed to have parents that live nearby and help by letting us have one date night each week (and sometimes, an overnight or weekend!) It’s been great and took us several weeks to get used to not having the kids or to rush back to them.  We go gaming, walking around, get pedicures, go to dinner, play tourist somewhere—whatever we feel like doing.

In addition to date nights, I’ve been working to have one slow day, or Sabbath, to relax and do as little as possible, without filling it with technology (i.e., I avoid movie marathons or binge-watching TV for more than a couple hours). This could be a rainy day on the porch, a few hours out on the water, a road trip with no real destination, or time with family and friends talking, eating, playing games.  We are a very busy family, but most weeks I am getting at least a half day for this.

Monthly. This one has taken more planning and I am just getting to it.  Some months we have holidays and a build in long weekend, but not every month. I decided to sit down with my calendar for home and work and am picking a day each month that doesn’t have a holiday and works with my work schedule, and I am taking a day off to get a long weekend, even if we just stay home. 

Quarterly.  My goal is to take a week off each quarter to get away somewhere. For this, it took a bit more strategy and, truth be told, this was actually my starting point before I planned my monthly days off since I don’t take a long weekend in the months I take a week off.  I’m old school, so for this I grabbed our wall calendar and a highlighter, as well as my work and personal digital calendars.  First, I marked off the holidays and breaks we get built into our schedules from our work calendar. Next, I looked at our typical workflow and volume and what time is available on our team calendar. Then I looked at our family plans—family we want to see, vacations, birthdays, summer camps, our travel wish list—and started plotting.  I try to balance things out to maximize those brain breaks, then I submit my requests.  Can I tell you how excited I am that my husband and I will be off the week our son has weeklong day camp an hour from here this summer and we will get to play tourist and get time together in a fun area to explore!

Somewhere in there, I work in a hair day

I realize that time off is a blessing that most occupations don’t have, but in education, we do.  Most school districts offer personal days in addition to holidays, but there is this stigma against teachers that use them.  Stop letting that bother you!  You earn them.  They are a part of your salary and benefits.  You NEED them, why don’t you take them?

So, grab your calendar(s) and a tasty beverage (coffee, tea, chocolate Dr Pepper, wine) and plot your time off. Talk to your family about what you all want to do.  You can plan for a month or two at a time, or plan for the whole year.  Just plan something or you will constantly find yourself justifying why NOT to do it and feeling overwhelmed or exhausted by your day-to-day life. It will give you something to look forward to on those tough days and be a great reward. Refill the pot so you have something to give to others. It may be awkward at first, but you will get used to it and find yourself enjoying it.

Take care, my friends.

Using Menus to Inspire Student-Guided Learning

April 9, 2021

an example of a menu overview from a class slide

While the structure of school hasn’t evolved much since its inception, anyone who’s been in a classroom for a second year or more can tell you that the structure of a classroom has evolved immensely, even from year to year.  And not just from when we were students to when we became educators. Over the course of my educational career, it has changed dynamically, creating a need for us to constantly evolve with it.  I have rarely been able to use the same lesson two years in a row without tweaking it ever so slightly for improvements or changes in my classroom. And that is what led me to adopt a menu option approach to use in my classroom.

sample planning guide for menu project

A menu option doesn’t give total control to the students, but it does allow them to have some control over their learning—a great way to get student buy in and lessen conflicts and boredom, especially in middle school, where my educational experience has been.  Plus, it creates an automatic differentiation in your classroom where every student can succeed, which is our desired income, right? This method isn’t something to be used every day or in every case, some days may still be predominately teacher led or everyone doing the same activity. But when you can make it happen, this is a great method to use. Here’s an overview of what I do.

Day 1—teacher led: New topic—introduce, give background, chunk concepts, model, check for understanding often—interactives can be fun.  Students are taking notes as they go (best options are fill in the blank, highlight, or Cornell style notes).  With some concepts, I recommend 3 to 5 7–10-minute sessions, each with an interactive check for understanding where they are up and doing something with the new knowledge. Conclude with a ticket out the door or 3-5 question check in to see if they have the foundation.

Days 2 & 3—student led/teacher guided:  Quick check for understanding with a review they can interact with each other on—some students will have retained longer or more knowledge about it since the last class and this let’s them help each other.  Something competitive can be a great motivator—a relay, matching game, or technology-based game can be great for these since they are “fun” and will inspire student engagement.  Once you know they have retained it, they can now go onto a small group activity to continue to build knowledge and apply it.  This also allows for creating a teacher led group for those that may still be struggling with the concept.  Have a few options they can choose from based on learning and personality styles. Build in chances to correct mistakes to 100% are a huge bonus on these days and allow you to check for understanding.

Days 4 & 5—independent menu day: Students will use these days to create a product to apply what they have learned.  This will take them to the mastery level and apply the knowledge to a new topic, subject or area of life and do something with it.  Having a list of options they can use will allow them flexibility to use a medium they are comfortable with to truly see what they learned about this concept and how they would use it.

I based this on a five-day concept model, but it could easily be stretched or adapted for a longer unit, even scaffolding as you go to a bigger menu project at the end of the unit. I’ve used it for a 6-week research unit that coincided with testing. It was a great stress relief for both myself and the students since they tested on different days and times for somethings and always new exactly what they needed to do upon return.  No make-up work, no keeping track—I just adjusted the number of days in the model if I knew everyone had testing.

By using this method of teaching, I found that I was able to respect the differences within my classroom for learning styles, backgrounds, where they were starting from on concepts, their personal interests, learning disabilities and their personal methods of working.  It automatically created differentiation within my classroom.  I worked hard to make sure that there wasn’t an “easier” option and I created rubrics for each mastery task (TIP: use the same menu style for each concept so you can reuse rubrics and only the content has to change) I also found that, while it was more work for me to create up front, it made assessing throughout the unit a lot easier and quicker, so my grading turnaround time was lower. I could sort by product and grade quickly by scoring and noting on the rubric and returning that with it.

This method works with a lot of different course curriculums and at a lot of different levels.  I’ve used this in Reading, Language Arts, Leadership, Critical Thinking and Technology, and have seen teachers use this in History, Math and Science.  We have even used it on a grade-level project where students were working in multiple subjects on the project. I love the flexibility and it makes plugging in my lesson plans faster and easier since it follows a modeled pattern—also a plus for your students that thrive on routine but still want to exert control!

I’d love to see pictures or hear about experiences where you have tried this, so be sure to share in the comments below or find me on social media and share!