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!

There Are No Emergencies in Education

March 31, 2021

There are no sponsors for this article–I just raided my medicine cabinet

As teachers, we often feel a sense of urgency with the tasks we do. Deadlines, testing windows, end of term, personal goals set by us, parents or even students—so many things impose this on us. 

What if I told you that not everything is an emergency, would you believe me?

Because they are not. 

It is so important that we learn to set boundaries and stick to them so that we can maintain balance in our lives and avoid burn out. If we take the time to properly prepare for anticipated situations, we can avoid many of them. Here are some tips I implemented that have made this idea a reality for me.

Set Work Hours This one is huge.  You MUST have boundaries. You are not paid for 24/7 work, so stop giving it. If the amount of work needing done constantly pushes you over, keep a detailed activity log for a week or a month to analyze what you are doing and perhaps you can find some things to eliminate or do more efficiently.  Most teachers I know that work so much in the evenings or on weekends are also those always chatting during planning time.

Set Days/Times for Routine Tasks You know you have things that always need done—calls, planning, copies, grading, teaching, projects, tutoring, duty. If you set up days and times to complete these tasks, you will find yourself much better prepared and using your time a lot more efficiently. I made a video about this a couple of years ago (when I still made YouTube videos) that can talk more about this. Check it out here https://youtu.be/UT2-Utq9Jcw  That was one in a series on time management, so you can check those out, too.

Don’t Create Extra Work for Yourself Whenever possible, create templates or frameworks for the lessons you do, such as Mastery Menu tasks, that can apply to all kinds of lessons and they can choose how to show what they learned.  This also includes EXTRA CREDIT and MAKE UP WORK PACKETS.  Don’t do this!  Have a folder for a copy of every lesson you do and then you can make a make up work packet from that.  As for extra credit, they usually only want it from not doing prior work, so only offer existing work and, if they want a better grade, implement some type of redo policy to earn lost points back. This also reinforces the idea of revisiting missed learning to work towards mastery.

Don’t Let Another’s Urgency Become Your Emergency Just because someone else needs or wants it done right away doesn’t mean you do that.  Incorporate these into your routine tasks and tell them it will be done at that time.  Late work or work turned in to bring up a grade? Set up a grading policy—work is graded and returned in XX school days from day received.  Phone calls, emails and text messages returned within 24 hours—set up an autoreply on this one and include it in your voicemail greeting so they are aware of it. Many “emergencies” are often the result of procrastination, so by working in lesson planning, grading, calls, and projects into your daily routines, you will be able to address these on a weekly basis and defer it to that time.

Don’t Take Work Home If you plan efficiently, you can get it all done at work and force yourself to stick to those hours.  It can be way too tempting to work when we need to rest our minds and focus on other things.  This also means not checking emails and calls after hours.  If you create an internet phone account (Google Voice has a free option) then you can set up the do not disturb hours, so it won’t go through at that time.

Delete Work Related Apps Seriously, it will be too tempting to jump over and check your email after scrolling social media.  Delete your email, google voice, chat programs, whatever you have, and only be available during hours. If there is a true emergency, your Principal, Assistant Principal, co-teacher, or team will have your personal number and can reach you. But be sure they are aware of your boundaries.  If you aren’t sure what they are calling about, let it go to voicemail—you can always call right back.

Set appointments To Hold Yourself to These It can be easy to make excuses but setting up appointments to be at can not only help you stick to them, but it can also give you a reason to NOT do something thrust upon you at the last minute.  Find a walking or workout buddy, have a set dinner time, set up a standing coffee or dinner date with a friend or family member (or rotate who each week!), set up a date night with your significant other, make a self-care appointment for each week (yoga, manicure, pedicure, a chair massage, hair trim or wash and blow out—these are all options you can probably find for around $30 each and can work into your budget easily). These are all things you can do that will give you a reason to have to leave and help you mentally shift from work.

Apart from a true emergency, there is nothing that cannot wait until the time you set aside for it.  Your peace, your mental health, your family, your relationships—none are worth sacrificing to grade a stack of essays or prepare a lab for class. With that said, when people do ask things of you that don’t fit those boundaries, especially if you always have before, do not be rude about it, and don’t say NO, just get into the NOT RIGHT NOW mindset by letting them know when you will get it taken care of and to them. There is no need to create a riff in your workspace.  Instead, share with people what you are doing and why and you will probably find that they will probably support you, and some may even join you on your journey.

These tips can also apply or adapt to non-education career fields, especially in this new normal we are living in that is exponentially overwhelming to so many. Share this article with your friends, family members or coworkers, it may help them. I hope it helps you.

Building Relationships – Treating Students Like the Important People They Are in Your Life

March 23, 2021

Just working the phones on an average day

Today was my monthly call day for the week.  In my virtual teaching world, I have to have a monthly call to check in with my students and families working at home. It’s just what we do.  I always thought that what I did was the same as everyone else—until today.

I was talking with a student this afternoon. I teach a middle school career and technology course and always chat with them about their life, other classes, what’s happening in my life—you know, regular conversations we’d be having if they were in my classroom or passing in the hallway.  Last month, she had been assigned to read a book I hadn’t had a chance to read, and I asked her about it. She hadn’t gotten far, so I told her we’d talk about it on our next call. I made a note for myself and, today, when we were just chatting about life and school, I asked about the book, the assignments, and her thoughts.  We talked about her course work, too, but at the end of the call, she said something that caught me off guard.

I’m really going to be sad when I finish your class because I enjoy our conversations. None of my other teachers have ever talked to me every month like you do.

Whoa.

Really?!

I mean, not even factoring in this crazy Covid life we are living right now, how is having a real conversation with students not a part of our calls?

Then I realized, as teachers, we have so much to do, many are probably so overwhelmed and just trying to get it checked off and done.  Very much how students approach our assignments—get it done and move on to the next thing.

Several years ago, I made a shift in life to be more intentional in how I live. As a parent, a spouse, a human, a citizen, a Christian, and a teacher. That meant having real conversations with everyone. Making sure our chores and tasks we do at home, school and work were essential to forward progress and served a purpose. Designing lessons and presenting the assignments in a way that it showed the benefit it would present in life—and if it didn’t, finding a way to change that.

That fed into the phone conversations I have as we have shifted to a highly virtual world. Sure, we could talk shop and in 5 minutes I could be off the phone and log that we discussed their progress, grades and what needs done. But, instead, I block off 30 minutes for my calls. I text on Mondays to let my families know it’s Monthly Call time and send my calendar link to schedule it for a time that works, and I wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to cold call. And when I do, I ask if it’s a good time or if we need to schedule for another time. Most schedule and like being able to prepare thoughts and questions.  But we all thoroughly enjoy that chat with parent and student on speaker phone with teacher, chatting about life stuff, sharing stories and experiences, laughing, and connecting like friends or long-distance family. Sometimes, we talk for longer than that half hour window because we are enjoying the conversation.

I look forward to these talks.

They look forward to these talks.

Moms, dads, students—they all thank me for chatting and for taking the time. They ask about my family when I call.

These connections are vital to their social and emotional development. Not just the teens and tweens on my roster. Yes, they need to learn about how to have a conversation, plan and manage their time, and ask questions about what they are learning.  But the parents need the social and emotional connection. They need to know they will survive their child’s shift from child to adult. They need to hear the good their child is doing.

Even on my large group Zoom calls with some of my courses, I still strive to chat them up and make the connections. I post a joke of the day and a fun fact of the day.  I call each of them by name and ask how they are doing, what’s new, if they have some insight to share or question to ask.  Many don’t engage, but some do.

So, the next time you talk to your students or their parents, make it meaningful. Make it personal. Make notes and follow up.

I’m blessed to have these connections with students.  This is my 14th year teaching.  Some of my friends in life, were once students in my classroom, and I value the roll they have evolved into in my life and the small part I played in theirs as they grew into adults.

Make those connections. Even if it is only one a year—I promise, it’s worth it.

I’d love to hear your stories about those teacher-student connections, both as the student and as the teacher.

Tracking Like a STAR – How to Maximize Your Evaluation

March 12, 2021

Evaluations are a dreaded part of being a teacher.  We teach all day for 180 days a year but have only a handful of observations to catch us in action.  Some teachers just teach like a regular day, some prepare and ensure they hit every mark, some fall somewhere in the middle and make the effort to hit those marks, but don’t do too much out of the ordinary.  It’s the best we can do for Domains 1-3.  But what about Domain 4?

Domain 4 is about our teaching practices and what we do that goes beyond basic planning, teaching, grading, and communicating.  It’s the one where we can get recognized for the things, we see that need done beyond the minimum and we do them.  I know very veteran teachers that don’t do this. But are you doing everything you can to get recognized for them?  Have you ever been close to the next level but couldn’t think of or prove something to get that bump?  I have and it sucks.  I was .001 away from a Highly Effective rating one year, a year I didn’t track so my “what I did” email was brief.  And their email is usually very casual, so we don’t even think of it being something of such value to us. But it is!

When I was working on my master’s degree, we were required to do projects and track them and their outcome.  It was daunting work, but in doing them, I realized I kept better records and had that data at the end of the year to share with my supervisor and increased the outcome of my evaluation because I had evidence of being a highly effective teacher.  At that point I decided it was worth continuing every year.

I knew it couldn’t be too complex or I’d never do it.  But I needed something beyond my post it notes collection of tracking. I created a simple tracking sheet and included updating it into my weekly routine.  I stuck with the STAR acronym since it made sense. It stands for Situation/Task—what I noticed or identified; Actions—what I took to improve the situation; Results—the outcome of my actions. It is clear and concise and captures all aspects of the process, plus it’s easy to share with my evaluating supervisor.  Here’s an example of an entry I did about starting this process and sharing with others:

So, with end of year evaluations coming up, take the time now to gather your notes and think about what you have done and fill one in for this year.  Here’s the link to a blank STAR tracking form I created to share.  Be sure to create a new copy and save the blank one to reuse each year and don’t forget to calendar appointment yourself to update it as well as shortcut it for easy to find access!

I know some of you may be reluctant to put in the effort because some evaluating supervisors don’t like to give out Highly Effective ratings.  Many don’t because they don’t want to have to answer for a high number of them.  I don’t get that argument.  I would want to show off my amazing teachers, be an example for the education system, and show our stakeholders that we are doing amazing things.  And with the documentation provided in this method, it can back up administrators in giving those evaluations out and perhaps change the Education System mindset from expecting a bell curve to recognizing greatness and rewarding it. In the business world, when a location has high performing employees, they become a model for what should be done—let’s do that with education.

So, keep being amazing.  Keep making things better for teachers, students, parents, schools, communities. Then be sure you are writing it down to share and get credit for all you do. You are worth it!

Note: If this is something you are interested in sharing with your team or school, contact me to schedule a Zoom meeting or I can record my training and share with you.

The Book that Changed my Classroom Discipline Procedures

February 27, 2021

My first teaching job was 6th grade Reading and I had no idea what I was doing.  I had been military, then corporate while I worked through a business degree, but when I realized that life was about making money and not so much helping people and limited how much time I got to spend with my family, I changed paths and got my teaching certificate. Then I started interviewing.  I’ll never forget that job fair. I interviewed with dozens of schools. The one that ended up hiring me asked why I thought I could teach middle school without experience.  My answer?  I figured if I could handle pilots, I could handle them.  She smiled and thanked me.  Ten minutes after leaving the job fair, I had a job offer.

I started teaching when my oldest son was 9 years old and in 4th grade. He was a pretty good kid, but in typical fashion, challenging at times as he was finding his way.  I was raised in a very disciplined household with prior military parents and, as I said, had also been military.  Plus, I was a single mom, I had more on my plate to handle than I probably could.

By my third-year teaching, he entered middle school and was the same age as the kids I was teaching.  He was challenging—they were more so. It was a rough school where the kids had life experiences and situations I had never heard of and was developing a major respect for the fact that they came at all, but I knew I had to figure something out since the typical discipline system had little to no impact on them.  I had a student I will never forget.  Mom had 4 kids and my student was her oldest and lots of trouble. After several calls from me about issues, she finally said, with exasperation in her voice and a crying baby in her arms, ”I don’t care what you do, just don’t get him sent home to me”.  That hit me hard. I had to reach this kid and so many others.  And, while PBS (Positive Behavior Systems) are great, they are long term and don’t deal with problems that really can’t be ignored.  As a reading teacher and lifelong learner, I did what I always did–I turned to books.

Boy, did I find a great one!  It’s called Have A New Teenager by Friday by Dr. Kevin Leman.  I’ve loaned it out so many times, I don’t even know where my copy ended up, but now I just recommend the title whenever I hear of a teacher or parent struggling with their kids and teenagers.  I even use the techniques in it with other interactions that could be tense and see my kids using it in their own interactions.

It essentially breaks down the elements that create the struggles and, therefore, the discipline issues, analyzes the WHY behind it, then teaches you about giving choices and taking away the power struggle.  I’m not even kidding—the very first time I tried it with my own kid, it worked. When I applied the strategies to my own classroom, it worked even better. Our school tracked referrals and discipline issues and mine cut in half.  The Dean actually came down to my room to find out if I’d just given up or what and was shocked. 

My favorite story to share about how well it worked was with my own son.  I don’t even remember the offense, but it needed addressed since that behavior needed to stop.  Instead of the typical grounding from video games, which he was prepared for, he was given the choice of discipline options—a week without personality t-shirts or a week without basketball shorts, two items that were essentially his entire wardrobe.  He begged to just be grounded from electronics or something else. After what seemed like hours, he finally chose personality shirts since he didn’t really have any other clothing options, then muttered I’m never going to do that again, that was  tough; I didn’t want to give up either. Victory!

While it hasn’t been perfect every time, it helps a lot, and it has been over a decade since I read and started applying the strategies. My youngest is now 9 and has been raised with choices so that, when told directly to do something, it elicits less resistance.  And, while I have been a virtual teacher at an online school for over a year now, I managed to maintain low discipline referrals throughout the years, usually only for major infractions.  In my virtual classroom, I still apply the techniques when discussing assignments and giving choices. I may be wrong, but I feel like it contributes to keeping my non-worker and dropped course counts lower.

And my oldest son?  He graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice and is headed towards a career in law enforcement. And his brother hopes to follow in his footsteps so they can be partners someday.

You can find this book at any online retailer, new and used book stores, even audio books carry it.

Why I Stopped Failing Students – and How You Can, Too

January 29, 2021

When I started teaching in 2007, I was the hard teacher that had no issues failing a child that wouldn’t work or didn’t complete all their work. It took me about ten years of teaching to realize that, at least through middle school, it was a pointless standard to uphold and I decided to create a “guaranteed C policy” in my classroom.  As a result, student engagement improved and I stopped working so hard. I continued to refine this policy each year and found it to be successful. So I thought it was time to share with you.

First, ask yourself why we fail a student? Because they don’t complete their work, right? End of story. But what if we kept digging into our thought process?  Shouldn’t a classroom be a place for learning to happen, exploring many different methods of executing a task? Thomas Edison’s response to failing was that he didn’t fail, he found ways NOT to do something. In his case, a lightbulb. So why do we hold students, especially in Kindergarten through 8th grade, to a standard higher than that of one of the greatest innovative minds in history? If you can think of an answer, you’re better than me.

Sure, students need to learn to work, to complete the tasks, and do all the things. It’s a life skill that will benefit them in all the do. But every single person learns at different rates and through different experiences. And it is easy for a middle school student to feel deflated or defeated and give up. So, I say we focus on creating an environment focused on learning and mastery of foundational and lifelong skills, not the grade on a report card.

I open my grading policy conversation with parents and students by asking ”What if I can guarantee you a C or better in this class—would you put in the work to focus on learning?” And of course, the answer is a resounding yes, with piqued curiosity for me to explain.  And it is as simple as this:

DO EVERYTHING I ASSIGN, ANSWER EVERY QUESTION, FOLLOW EVERY DIRECTION, AND TRULY TRY WITHOUT GIVING UP.

Yep, that’s it.  Now, it’s that simple for them, but it does take some preplanning as an educator to make it happen.  Here’s how.

  • Vary the assignments graded in the week and weigh them, either by points or by percentages (however you create your gradebook) to equal a minimum of 70%.
  • Build in opportunities for self-check and redoing until mastered when they get to the next level, as well as allowing for collaboration. This lets them test ideas out and hear how they sound out loud.
  • When they get to demonstrating mastery, be sure they have all the tools they need for this. Notes, examples, feedback.

So what did that look like? I made sure the tasks are weighted by level of learning. Here’s what I mean:

  • In *DOK 1/introduction and recall level, everything is based on completion that lets them try again—a ticket out the door, notes completed, matching activities.
  • For *DOK 2 or 3/changing the variables level, give some risk of getting it wrong, but offer support like collaboration, open notes, phone a friend or ask a teacher passes (these are fun to reward with on recall/introduction days when checking for understanding)
  • For *DOK4/applying to other areas level, have them create something using the skill that they have control of the platform so they can use skills they already have mastered to work in the new skill. Using technology such as music, PowerPoints, videos, and photographs, allow drawings, comic strips, songs, collages, or a million other ways to check for mastery of a standard (Google alternatives to writing assignments for inspiration). Not everything has to be a writing assignment.

My method was to have 3 grades per week. One was a participation grade—note checks, ticket out the door, etc. that earned them an A just for doing it. The second was a check for understanding assignment that I would grade but gave 60% for completion and the other 40% came from accuracy—then I gave them a chance to correct to earn those lost points back. The third was a standards mastery task that they got 50% for completion and the other 60% was from accuracy that, if missed, they could correct to earn half their lost points back. I also provided a rubric for them so they could self-assess and have an idea where they were at. I would give feedback and mark the rubric when given back so they knew what to fix. If you are doing the math, here’s a breakdown: 100% + 60% +60%=220%/3= 73.3%. So even if they never go back and attempt to correct, they still get their C.  But, by doing ALL the work to get to that point, they increase their learning potential, and many do go back and try for at least some of the points.

I also found it helpful to clear grading every single week so they stayed on top of things and knew where they were.  With digital grades now, it’s much easier than when I printed grades each week with a student code number/name to post for them to check.

I do realize that, at some point, failing does need to be a part of the educational since it is a part of life, but who decided they should fail starting so early in life?  I personally feel that should apply from 10th -12th grades, possibly as low as 9th grade, since K-8 are mostly foundational skills, especially looking at common core standards.  If we fail children in elementary and middle school when they are trying and still learning, we can inadvertently instill a fear of failing into them that will establish a comfort zone that will be hard to break free from.

How can you adapt your methods to increase their confidence and have a classroom focused on learning, rather than grades?  If you want to try this method, but are drawing a blank at how to apply it, let me know and we can brainstorm together!

*DOK is Based on the teachings of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. Here’s a great video that makes it simple to understand *DOK is Based on the teachings of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. Here’s a great video that makes it simple to understand using a chocolate chip cookie analogy.

Life Lessons from a Dog: Luna and the Cone

January 22, 2020

Luna and her Cone

Luna is our newest family member.  We adopted her in August, a couple of months after our oldest doxie, Angel, passed away.  Molly, our remaining doxie, was quite lonely without her lifelong pal and our 9-year-old son had desperately wanted a dog to be both a cuddle buddy and a playmate. Our lifestyle doesn’t accommodate large dogs, despite my dreaming, and my allergies are often a source of contention. So, when we found Luna, a 3-month-old shih-poo (shih tzu mixed with poodle), she was a perfect fit for that tall order. Her energy has been a source of stress for Molly and Reba, my dad’s dog that joined the household a couple months later, and she has kept us laughing as she has learned to be a dog from them and find her place in the family. We continuously work on her basic commands—she’s a total work in progress.

The week we brought her home – she wasn’t much bigger than our Guinea pig

Last week, she reached the 6-month milestone, and it was time for her to be spayed, plus she had a toe that needed tended to, so this was the perfect time. She came home, groggy, and unhappy, and in a cone with orders to wear it for the next 2 weeks until she returned to have stitches removed.  We, like many houses, call it her “Cone of Shame”, much like Dug from Up.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick clip of Dug and his Cone of Shame.

The ride home from the vet after surgery. I was not her favorite hooman

In typical puppy fashion, when they don’t like something, the struggle to escape it—and she struggled hard.  After a day or two, though, she stopped and accepted it, learning to do all the things she loved with it, and even adapting it to her advantage for scooping up toys, treats and food. It even proved a great assistant for digging, her favorite hobby.

As I sat with her this morning, it occurred to me how much I can learn from this little fluffy ball of cuteness and energy, which brings me to this posting.  Life rarely goes as we envision it. The older we get, the more our conversations shift from our dreams and aspirations to the things we always wanted to do but had to sacrifice. Sometimes it leaves us frustrated, sad, or even bitter because of the void of what we feel is missing from our lives. I know I get that way from time to time, especially after all the obstacles 2020 brought us.

It’s always a good time to play – bringing me her toy this morning, in the hopes of a good tug and toss session

And then I realized that, if we embrace our challenges like Luna, accepting it and learning to use it to our advantage, we can be happy just the way we are, possibly happier.  I dreamed of traveling this beautiful country and around the world, but life keeps changing the course of that plan, no matter how hard I try to get back to it.  But life is pretty good most days. I have my faith, family, friends, a career I love that makes a difference, however small, and amazing memories of travels I have experienced, as well as books, movies and shows to watch to continue to learn about all the places I dream about. And I have a puppy, that is growing into one amazing dog, to sit beside me while I enjoy them, walk with me while I explore locally, and beg for a bite of every tasty experience I enjoy.  Thanks, Luna, for teaching me something today and inspiring me to share it with you.

My Goody Box Experience – A review of both thredUP and Stitch Fix

January 18, 2021

I don’t like shopping.  I know, crazy, right?!  Or, maybe it’s more I don’t like hunting.  I had no problem spending money when I would go shopping in my younger years, buying anything that appealed to me that fit both my available balance and my body.  But when I ran out of both credit and closet space, I realized I had to change some things.  I learned that, when I shop, I should have an idea of what I was looking for or shop to fill specific holes in my wardrobe.  But then I could never find what I was looking for. I eventually adopted a uniform for work, using shirts with my school’s logo on it, and didn’t sweat it. But when I left my brick-and-mortar school to teach virtually, I didn’t need them and didn’t have a budget for new school shirts, so used what I had.  My uniform has settled into t-shirts and either shorts or pants, depending on the weather.  Occasionally, a dress or nice outfit is thrown into the mix for zoom meetings or if I have an event after work, but not often, especially since I take breaks to go for a walk midday.

It reached the point it was time to jazz up the wardrobe, but I dreaded shopping .  Some of my friends and favorite YouTubers mentioned the mail order fashion goody boxes, and I wondered if that might be a way to go.  I settled on Stitch Fix and thredUP as my goody box options to compare them and share what I learned. Let me start with a little background on both.

Stitch Fix uses personal shoppers and special algorithms to find items at your price point to send you new items on a one time or recurring subscription basis, based on your profile you create—I chose every 3 months, I’m not looking for too many things and prefer over time for both budget and closet size reasons. You pay a $25 deposit for the clothes that, if you decide to keep anything, credits toward them.  I was surprised by how detailed the profile was and was lucky enough to get a referral credit to try it out for free for my first box (I did have to pay the difference for anything I decided to keep).  It arrived within a few days of submitting and I got 2 cute outfits—a black jumpsuit and a blouse, sweater, jeans, and boots, as well as with a card on how to work them into different looks.  Both super cute, but the jumpsuit ended up being way too long and, while I liked the look of the blouse, jeans, and sweater with the boots, I already had the boots in another color and wasn’t a fan of the style of jeans they sent, so only kept the blouse.  Processing was super easy—I logged in, selected what to keep (the blouse), gave reasons for what I didn’t like on the others to help my stylist for future boxes, and was charged the difference for what I kept (they do give a good discount if you keep everything, too!)  I then put them in a return shipping bag that was included and dropped it at the post office within the 3-day turnaround time.  Pretty simple.

ThredUP uses a similar process of a profile with lots of questions about style, pricing, etc., has you choose a subscription option (I chose 3 months for this one, as well), pay your $10 non-refundable deposit that also credits towards any items purchased and it arrived within a few days, as well.  The thing about thredUP is that it is consignment items that are in good condition—some of my items arrived with tags still on them! In this box, I had 10-15 items to choose from and a style card with these, as well. I had several tops in both long and short sleeves, shorts, pants, dresses, and sweaters. Anything I wanted to keep, the $10 went towards, then I simply put the other items back in the box they arrived in, affixed the label, and dropped it at the post office within 7 days.  I also went online to give feedback on what I like and kept (the long sleeve with buttons and the short sleeve blue) and don’t like for what I returned.  There wasn’t a way to choose what I was keeping and check out immediately, as with the other company, so I assume it will reconcile when the package arrives back to them (it had only been a couple of days over the holiday weekend at the time of writing, so I am not sure yet). I also love that, should I have good quality clothes I want to part with, I can also sell them through their company, too.

My thoughts? Both were a great experience. I got great products, had time to choose them at my convenience and was able to see how they paired with items in my closet already, and liked how easy it was to return items I didn’t want to keep.  They were both good quality items that were things I was normally drawn to or may not have picked for myself typically but liked getting to try them on. I didn’t opt for accessories in either profile, so other than the boots from Stitch Fix, can’t speak about jewelry, bags, shoes, etc. I like that both allow me to give feedback to my stylist for my next box so they know what I like and don’t like to pair with my profile.  I like that thredUP is second hand, so I feel a bit better about the items and don’t have to necessarily worry about production information or business practices on my conscience, but neither are producers, simply middle…people? I also like that thredUP sent more items to choose from, but I know that is cost based. I plan to get another box from both in April before deciding whether to keep one or the other, or cancel both, especially since I am only looking for a few new items to spruce up my wardrobe. I also want to add that they do sell items by the piece without going the goody box option.

If you’ve tried them, or any others, I’d love to hear your experiences!  If you want to learn more about either company, here’s a link to their ABOUT US information to learn more about their backstory and business practices:  Stitch Fix About Us  and ThredUP About Us

If you are looking to try them out, I have a referral code for you that will cover the cost of your first box deposit, and credit towards any items you keep, plus it earns me rewards for shopping.  They are linked below.

ThredUP referral code: http://www.thredup.com/r/UZP0VT

Stich Fix referral code: https://www.stitchfix.com/invite/x2fv8858dw?sod=w&som=c

Let me know your thoughts, either commenting here, or find me on Facebook (search private groups for Addicted to Teaching) or on Twitter (@addictedtoteac1).  Happy shopping!

Celebrate the Prodigal Student

January 12, 2021

Most everyone has heard the story of the Prodigal son from the Bible, where the father celebrates the son that was gone and returned, making the son that never left upset, until the father explains his why. But, as a whole, society rarely celebrates the prodigal anything. We have awards for Honor Roll, Perfect Attendance, Top Readers, Math whizzes, the fastest runner, the best athlete–people who excel right away and straight to the top. Those that don’t succeed right away or first are shunned. As educators, we have a chance, and a responsibility, to change that.

We need to celebrate the Prodigal student.

If you’ve been a teacher for even a single term, you know which one this is. The student that, somewhere along the lines “checks out” mentally. They are absent often. They don’t complete work and rarely, if ever, turn thing in. We invest hours in them. Calling home, tutoring sessions after school or during lunch, allowing extra time on work, providing guided notes–you name it. And then we eventually stop and let them fail, or find their own way.

But what if we didn’t?

What if, when the student engages, even for a fraction of a second, we celebrate them? We could brag about their accomplishment to them with an attaboy, a note, a call home, an email to the principal. And we can repeatedly do this without focusing on the past, especially since they cannot change what already happened, no matter what we say or do. Eventually, with celebrating these successes, they will give us more to celebrate, in most cases, until they cross the finish line and go on to the next class or grade. Even if we only get to celebrate some and they do eventually fail, though, can you imagine the impact of the seed planted with celebrating what they did instead of chastising what they didn’t do?

I started making this my focus in the last couple of years. I was listening to Toby Mac’s song If You Wanna Steal My Show on the radio one day, and it hit me that I didn’t need a stage, my classroom would do just fine to give God the same chance to work through me. (If you haven’t heard the song, check it out here). Then I wrote a simple prayer that is tacked to both my bathroom mirror and my clipboard that holds my agenda at work:

Dear Lord, Today let my words and actions be yours and what you need me to be in the world. Amen.

I read it several times a day. I say it out loud. And I finally started to live it. I have students that will go all term and not work, in spite of calls and texts and encouragement to make progress, then want extensions to finish when they realize that failing is upon them. And I do what I can to make it happen. I have worked beyond the end of my work day to be there for that student. I text every day to check in during the extension. I call when I see they are on something challenging, then send them a video that shows them how to do it if I wasn’t able to catch them and help.

When they turn things in, I send a celebratory text to mom and dad with them in the group text about what they accomplished–another step closer to success! I say. I know not everyone can, or will, take these extra steps, it’s just what I do. But everyone can celebrate those little victories and plant that seed of encouragement. I celebrate every student’s success, but my smile is a little bigger and my heart races just a little faster when it’ the kid I thought I’d lost.

Let them be the kid that gets seen for doing something great. Everything we say and do for our students plants a seed. We hope that it’s in the lessons we teach and they will take the knowledge and skills into their future classes, jobs and lives. But what if it is a seed of hope, pride, accomplishment that is what they really need?

Be that teacher.

Celebrate the Prodigal Student.

Life and Teaching – Reflecting on 2020

Sonya Barnes                     December 24, 2020

I haven’t written in a while.  So much craziness has happened in my life this year, and most has nothing to do with Covid-19. My oldest son graduated college, transitioned into a new career field, and is looking to move out on his on now with his friends. My mom decided to move out on her own now that her health has improved, and she is retired so she can enjoy life at her pace a bit more.  My dad moved in with us and my stepmom moved with my brother, sis-in-law, and niece as they transition from one duty station to another, but not yet to Florida, like we hoped. Which means our move to be closer to them was pushed back, as well.  Projects around the house ensued.

We lost our 15-year-old doxie Angel, and welcomed a new Shih-poo, Luna and have been working on training her and helping our remaining doxie transition from being the little sister and everything buddy to the big sister with an annoying puppy.  And did I mention that my dad brought his rescue, Reba with him?  We also built a chicken coop and are raising 8 backyard chickens that have been a great source of eggs, a consumer of leftovers and scraps, and have brought hours of entertainment for us and the dogs.  Oh, and did I mention the extra-large Guinea pig, Java, that joined our family?

But we have family meals together daily, go for walks, play games and have family movie nights. We’ve been creative on travel with camping or focusing on outdoor areas. We have learned how much we enjoy being around each other all the time and how much busyness we had in our life that was unnecessary and we didn’t miss when we cut it out.

Around all of this, I have continued to gain more experience as a virtual teacher and my husband has slowly but steadily grown his handyman business and found a balance between work and family time. Add all of that to the pandemic and everyone facing unexplored territories, I didn’t feel I had the knowledge to guide anyone since none of us knew what we were doing or for how long—or the time!  But as time passed,  I realized a few things.

A rainbow right before it grew into a double rainbow just before sunset–a beautiful sight on one of our walks

One, I miss writing immensely. There is something powerful of taking an idea, expanding on it, and sharing it with the world, along with all the vulnerability that comes from that.  Two, it’ a great way to focus my thoughts and get time to myself—events that are very rare in my day. Three, and this is the big one that brought me back, so what if I am not an expert? So what if I don’t have great insight that will change your life? Right now, we need to share ideas, hear ideas, and explore new options, even if that means failing at something and starting over a new way. 

So, here’s the morsel we all need to hear: how is what you are doing in your classroom helping your students? Are they learning skills they will need in future classes or careers? Great! Are they learning techniques for adapting to new ways of doing something? Super! Are they exploring a way of life that could be an option for them in the future by working at home and learning to be self-motivated? Fantastic!  Are they getting a voice and your focused attention because a Zoom or Teams call can minimize distractions by muting people or viewing only the speaker? Gold! Maybe this is the chapter of their life where the lessons come from the relationships being built and learning to handle boredom and self-management, skills that are lacking from our always on lifestyle we live.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chance to talk to my students, whether it was about what they were learning, how to use it in school, how they may use it someday in life, or what is happening in life right now.  I’ve sent a text just to check in or to remind them of something due. I’ve even spent time just talking to their parents.  They needed someone to talk to that didn’t live under their roof about what they are dealing with or how to help their kids and, sometimes, I was the call at the time that they needed. It created a great bond and helped them through a challenging time, even if it was simply sharing a quick tip on balancing their schedule, answering a question or a weekly video snippet that gave them insight on the work due for the week. Those moments may be brief but can be very powerful.

So, as you enjoy your holidays and start thinking of your return to school and what you can provide that is meaningful to your students, remember to make time to take care of you and to teach them how to take care of them. What they learn from this major life event will shape the rest of their lives—how can you make that meaningful?

From my family to you and yours, whatever and however you celebrate, just celebrate.

Happy Holidays and all that jazz.

We grouped our trees together this year, kept the ornaments in the box to enjoy just the lights, but couldn’t forget my son’s train that he loves so much.