The 12 Days of Catch Up

December 3, 2019

If you are a teacher that is buried in work and have so much to do that you fear you won’t see your winter break this year, then this is for you! Read on to find out how to catch up and get ahead before Winter Break starts.

A busy day at the office!

If you are like most teachers, you are counting down to Winter Break, even though you just returned from Thanksgiving Break.  Only three weeks to go, but so much to accomplish on your to do list!  And, as much as you’d like to be prepared for when you return, you are just trying to get to break without getting lost in the mountain of papers to grade, mid-year data reports and parents to call.  So, let’s talk about how we can break this down into manageable steps and get you organized and accomplished!  As teachers, we love our acrostics, so we will use GLEAM to organize our major teacher tasks and what they include. 

  • Grading—scoring work and logging the grades
  • Lesson Plans—going through standards and curriculum and organizing into daily lessons and assignments for students, as well as completing school-based required documents
  • Emails & Calls—communication within and outside of the school with stakeholders, whether it be other teachers, administration, parents or students
  • Actuating Data—testable data from benchmarks, data from computer-based programs, or looking at how students performed on assignments to determine if reteaching is necessary
  • Materials—Create & Copy student assignments, teaching tools or manipulatives and making printouts or photocopies as needed

Having a plan for when and how to accomplish these tasks can be very helpful.  Some will need to be kept up with for a few minutes daily, some will take longer and need done daily and some won’t need done as often.  I highly encourage you to accomplish the tasks every day just to stay on top of things.

I know that break seems forever away, and yet really isn’t that far, but if we buckle down now, you will be able to go on vacation without a care or worry and, if you are lucky enough to have a teacher work day upon return, you can spend it getting your room updated for the new year, watching videos to brush up on your skills, or helping another teacher, like the first year teacher that is losing their mind and buried under everything—hey, maybe you could share this with them!

Once you have conceded to working hard, block off your calendar with work time, but don’t forget to block off family time to enjoy festivities now.  You can choose between committing to longer work days if your weekends stay packed, weekends if your weekdays are packed, or break it into a combination that works for you.   If you cannot work in extra hours during the week, I would suggest keeping up with emails and calls daily, and grading 3 days per week, leaving you only lesson plan and prepping for your weekends.  No one wants to go back to work on Monday after grading, but after preparing a fun lesson, it may not be so bad.

So, here’s a sample of how you can spend your time to get caught up between now and break to allow for a more manageable schedule upon your return.  If you are working these on weekends, then you will need to combine days for the major activities, but still complete some of the daily tasks and smaller tasks.  I know it may be tempting to cut something—like calls home, but DON’T—especially the positive calls.  Making those every day between now and break will do wonders for the students’ motivation and the parent’s support during this hectic time. Making routine parent contacts, whether on a monthly basis or at least every term will have a huge impact on engagement for both parents and students.  Creating a call plan is something I usually tackle at the beginning of the year, so we will work that in, as well. I have also included a printable version of this checklist here to guide you and check off as you go!

The 12 Days of Wrapping Up Fall Term

Day 1–prepping Clear emailsOrganize papers to grade by assignment and stack with oldest on top, newest on bottom—include grading key with piles; divide into 3-5 sections, depending on how behind you are and how involved the grading isMake contact list of current grade concerns/missing work studentsCatch up on overdue lesson plans to include current week/next 6 days and try to keep it as simple & student created as possibleDay 2—the worst day Clear emails Bundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pile (we’ll catch those up after you’re current)Catch up on any overdue lesson materials needed for the next 5 daysBegin grading 1st section of papers organized yesterday & log in grade bookCompare updated grades against contact list and updateCreate a plan for students-missing work list, redo assignments, tutoring sessions, etc.Create a list of kids to make praise calls onCut both lists into 5 sectionsBegin making parent contacts with students with the most work due/lowest grade and don’t forget at least 1 positive callDay 3 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 2 kidsCreate lesson plans for next weekComplete 2nd section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update
Day 4 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 3 kidsComplete 3rd section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update  Day 5 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 4 kidsComplete 4th section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update  Day 6 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 5 kids (should be end of list of calls)Complete last of overdue grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and updateSketch basic plan for next lesson plans
Day 7 Clear emailsOrganize todays turned in work, add to bottom of pileCreate lesson plans through break, again try to keep it as student created as possibleCatch up grading for all of last weekCreate call list for any grade concerns/praise reports from grading pile (divide into 2 parts, if too many)Day 8 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and log them all (Update current call list, as needed)Make calls from list (at least part 1)Create lesson materials through breakDay 9 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and logUpdate call listMake calls from part 2 of list or calls from todayComplete lesson plans for the week after break
Day 10 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and logDaily calls (Create/complete call list from grading or observations for the day)Create lesson materials for the week after breakDay 11 Clear emailsDaily gradingDaily callsOrganize materials for week of return into folders or piles with labels of some sortLesson plans for return turned in/in file you need to locate upon returnCreate a calling plan for after break (i.e., 1-2 class periods a week for 4 weekly groups,  alphabetical listing divided into 20 groups, etc.)Day 12 Clear emailsDaily gradingDaily callsgive the classroom a good cleaningholiday shut down proceduresturn on out of office replies

So, how do you keep from getting buried again at the next end of term?  Try creating a routine!

If you are current, you can start here, but chances are you are not current if you are reading this.  These steps can be applied to managing your schedule any time of year, but why not now to start your new spring school term off on the right foot?  You can either work this into afternoons/evenings or work into weekends, depending on what works best for your life. Once caught up, it is easily manageable, just see what works for you.  For me, I stay within 2 days on my grading, daily clear emails and calls (I make contact with all my parents on a monthly basis and have for years), and prep my lessons a week in advance and run data reports once a week and schedule how I need to process it—whether it is conferences, calls, re-evaluations, etc.

 My usual day works like this, but you can work it in ANY order–

Start early and spend 1 hour before starting official work:

  • Check emails
  • Grade yesterday’s assignments
  • Grade late work
  • Make list of parent contacts for concern/praise (5 calls)


  • Actuating data from mid-year tests or weekly reports (I have computer-based course programs, so this allows me to get a quick snapshot of progress and it helps me better prepare)
  • Send text to 3-5 parents on my list to ask a good time to call today about progress update, or, if you have a text relationship with parent, go ahead and send text.  This count is based on secondary teachers with 100+ students.  If you are elementary or have a smaller number of kids, this can be cut down to a smaller number, but I still suggest a positive call daily and parental contact with ALL on a monthly basis in some fashion.  I usually prefer a voice chat for both praise and concern, but a text helps me make sure it is at the right time).

After School/Evening (1-3 hours, until tasks are done)

  • Check text replies and plan when to make calls
  • Organize the day’s work turned in for grading tomorrow and to ensure completion
  • Lesson work–work on lesson plans for next week on the first day or two of the week, the next day is to prepare the materials, day 4 is to copy/create, and day 5 is to assemble by day for drop files to run the next week.  If I can condense the time on easier weeks or lessons with less prep, then I start working on the following week.  If I am doing a project-based unit, I can sometimes plan and prep for a 4-6 week PBU in a week and then have less to do in future weeks or get further ahead into the next unit and only have to tweak things as I go)

Obviously, this schedule will vary based on your personal factors, but it can give you a good starting point to work from so you can keep yourself on track all year long and accomplish so much more than you realized you could. Remember, you may need to tweak it as life happens or as seasons change. I know beginning and end of term can always get more hectic than other weeks, so just do the best you can and take time to make memories and relax.

Happy Holidays!

How to Live Off of a Teacher’s Salary

Sometimes this is all we have left over at the end of the month, but that’s still something!

(or any other career you are in that is NOT about the money)

September 29, 2019

If you pay attention to education at all, you’ve probably heard that teachers are not paid a fair wage for the job that they do, and I’m not here to get into the politics, taxes and arguments on it. But I can tell you that that can cause a lot of aspiring educators to stray from the career field that desperately needs people who care for kids and their future to enter it.  Some will take the plunge into the career field anyway, but struggle to make ends meet and must work multiple jobs.  This is not ideal for so many reasons, but the biggest to me is that teachers need down time to rejuvenate their mind, body and soul so that they can give their best to their students—which means they have to have time for down time.  While many people and regulations are working diligently to provide better pay, benefits and conditions for teachers, they still need to live today with what income they have and can’t afford to wait for legislative changes or union negotiations.  Having been in the military at 18 and their pay scale, and a single mom a few years later while serving, I learned a few tricks to live well and spend little. Those techniques helped me after separating from the military as well as through 6 years in corporate America and a 13 year teaching career that have helped me avoid a second job to make ends meet. I did briefly work part time jobs to save for an upcoming vacation or to get a discount on a product I was already using. 

The first and foremost thing you need to do is have a budget.  Without one, you are setting yourself up for failure.  There are all sorts of resources available from books to apps to articles, and your financial institution may even offer some options.  If you want to create your own, start by tracking your spending—either using a spreadsheet or envelopes and cash for categories.  Sometimes just seeing where you spend your money can make you realize and adjust.  I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to this, especially with a love of travel.  I will research pay and cost of living in the areas we travel to and create a budget to see if we could afford to live there.  I don’t know if that is dreaming or a hobby, but it is always eye-opening, and often surprising, to see what we could afford to do if we decided to.  The big thing is to stick to your budget.  You can always budget for those splurge items like coffee and fashion if they are important to you, just find another place to save or use it as an occasional treat.

Next, it is important to live within your means.  If you aren’t making big money, then a big house, accommodation-filled apartment complex or new car may not be the best splurge.  There are plenty of nice places to live and vehicles to drive that can be within your means.  And there is always the roommate option.  I purchased a small, older home as a single mom on a teacher’s salary for a lot less than any rent in the area.  It served me well and I was sad when our family situation resulted in selling it and doubling our mortgage.  But that was after getting married, having another child and needing to take in a family member long term, so we were able to.  This smaller home also afforded me the option of traveling since I wasn’t “house poor” and forced to sacrifice what was important to me.

Another tip to help you immensely is meal planning.  It is so easy to get takeout, go out, or just pick things up at the market when you are out, but meal planning can cut a budget by half, depending on your current habits.  A simple calendar or notepad can help with this.  We meal plan, then purchase our meats from a local meat market in bulk.  Then we break them down into portions and freeze them.  We then stock up on frozen or canned vegetables, some basic dried goods, snacks and seasonings and we are set for the month.  I have been amazed at how much this has reduced our food expenses in our household.  And we still have room in the budget for going out or ordering take out on occasion when we have those nights no one wants to cook.  I also can’t recommend a crock pot enough.  Being a teacher is so demanding that some days we just don’t feel like cooking.  Starting something early in the day to have ready when you come home can be so amazing and a huge time and energy saver.  There are tons of crock pot cookbooks available as well as website or get creative on your weekends or summers.  Snack prep can be easy and inexpensive if you can bake, and stove top popcorn is easy, cheap and way healthier than the microwave stuff. If you are a single or small family, meal or sweets share and have others prepare dishes and swap with you.  This can also give you some variety to your meals and snacks as well as teach you new recipes or open your palette.

Don’t completely eliminate what is most important to you, regardless of how tight your budget is.  Travel was an important part of my life, so I didn’t have a fancy car or home and I lived on a tight budget and planned well.  I had friends, or friends of friends, all over, so I reached out to them and made travel arrangements based on what was available.  This allowed me trips to Europe, Hawaii, California, the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee, and all over the Southeast and Northeast regions without massive debt. In fact, the few times I didn’t have cash and put it on a credit card, it was paid off in a matter of months.  Sure, we couch surfed, camped, drove and stayed in inexpensive hotels or Airbnb’s, but we have fond memories of every one of those trips, so it was worth it. Some times I had to go without a trip during a vacation time so that I could save up for something bigger, but it was worth it.

If you get gifts from family or friends for holidays, you could ask for gift cards or a payment to a bill instead of more stuff.  This may not sound glamorous but stressing about debt isn’t either.  Getting a grocery store or gas gift card or knowing that your utilities are paid for during a month can be a huge stress relief.  There may be some people who give you a hard time about this, but if you explain to them what you are doing, it could help both of you.  Regardless of what they gift you, just be grateful and be sure you wear or use it, so they know you still value them in your life. This is not something worth severing ties over.

If you must go shopping or need household or clothing items, use a list and shop secondhand or borrow if it is short term or a one time event.  There are many times you can find something gently used or in need of simple repair and can save a ton of money.  Furnishing a new place can be a huge expense you can avoid when there are many places with items you could acquire to get by until your financial status changes.  And if you need an outfit for a special event, borrow it from a friend, coworker or family member—paying for a cleaning is going to be way cheaper, and they may even have the accessories to compliment it perfectly that you can borrow, too.

I know we are talking about living off a teacher’s salary, but I don’t want to end an article on finances without stressing two final points—make room for savings and life insurance.  In the military, we started out on day one ensuring that this was set up and taken care of. All your finance gurus tell you to start an emergency fund of at least $1,000 before committing to paying off debt and I think that is a great idea.  That was the hardest financial commitment I have ever made, but I was so glad I did, and it has made my life easier.  And life insurance is also a key factor that a lot of people don’t think about it until it is too late.  They don’t realize how affordable it can be, especially at a young age while they are still healthy or if you go with a simple accidental policy or burial plan.  It’s something to think about and prepare for early so you can forget about it and rest easy, and there are so many options out there on the marketplace.  You don’t have to leave a fortune behind for your loved ones, just enough to cover your expenses and any assets you may want to leave behind.  Sit down with a professional and they will tell you more.  As an educator, you already know the importance of planning ahead and thinking about the big picture, this is just another aspect of it.

If student loan debt is the major factor that is leaving you strapped each month, start doing research.  There are several loan forgiveness programs that are out there that you may be able to work towards.  I took advantage of this one and had a chunk paid off because I worked in a Title 1 school for 5 years.  And do the same if you are looking to pursue advanced degrees to move up in your career. You can also talk to your District about loan plans, find organizations to join that can help with scholarships or payments, or talk to the loan company and see about a refinance or deferment option.  Yes, you will accrue interest and pay for way longer than intended, but it gives you time to survive now and prepare for that by paying off a car or finding a roommate to offset living expenses that you can then allocate to your loans.

Finally, cancel subscriptions and eliminate fees from your life.  You can cancel your magazines and show subscriptions easily, and possibly get a refund if you have enough time left on it (then put it in savings or on a bill!).  You can also eliminate fees by making sure your credit cards are paid in full monthly if you do use them and many bank accounts don’t charge fees if you have direct deposit.  The next step is to unsubscribe from all the advertisement emails and hide them from social media feeds, so you won’t be tempted to add them back into your life.

As hard as it may be to live off a teacher’s paycheck, there are many others that have it so much worse.  I know there are many paychecks out there that are just not livable wages in today’s economy, a sad factor that is the result of things that could be an entire article on their own.  And we cannot compare today’s lifestyle to those even 50 years ago.  Most American’s daily lives require them to have a car, cell phone or internet service in their home and trying to live without it is not an option for some.  Having a vehicle to drive is a must in most areas because of how urban sprawl has occurred and the lack of adequate public transportation outside of major cities, among other reasons.  Add to that rising insurance and fuel prices and people often find themselves in a pickle.  While car and bike share programs are growing, they are still not everywhere.  Cell phones are another factor we face as an expense that was once a luxury and, for many is a requirement because of work.  Internet is something many need for work or education and this adds to their expense.  You could investigate bundling a home phone and internet to live without a cell phone, or care for your phone and avoid contracts and always purchasing new phones.  I have inherited or bought used phones from friends that upgrade to save money.  There are some financial situations where there may not be an easy answer, so if you have those extenuating circumstances, reach out to your finance institution to talk to a planner to help—many offer this as a free service.  You can always hit the used bookstore or the library (free with a utility bill or ID showing residency!) and find financial planning books to help you out. And did you know that the local library has movie rentals and computers with internet access you can use for free, possibly avoiding those expenses ENTIRELY?

I hope that at least one of these has helped you find a way to save money and make your financial life a bit better.  Teachers do so much, they shouldn’t need to worry about there financial situation all the time.  I’d love to hear about something you have found that works well and your own personal success stories!

A basic list of our monthly expenses from our budget. We track everything in both a money program and a spreadsheet.

Ten Social Superpowers To Teach Our Kids

September 22, 2019

Kids these days catch a lot of flak for how easy they have it compared to prior generations.  If you’ve spent even an hour in the presence of a kid recently, you will realize that they handle a lot, and most of them do it surprisingly well.  They have had so much exposure to a global life at an early age through technology, the media, or our ever-traversing populations in most areas, not to mention the information they are exposed to in school.  Designated adults in their lives do so many things to give them what they think they will need in life and they do a fantastic job considering how busy their own lives are these days.

But as someone who has worked with kids in various ways for four decades now, there are a few things that used to be commonplace in prior generations that are lacking these days, whether through lack of practice or because technology has created a new version of something old and needs to be adapted.  For some, it is a displacement because it isn’t a cultural norm and so many cultures have blended together, losing social traits along the way.  But we must remember that social interactions these days are a culture all of their own, and the culture of conducting business, whether it is going to school or making a purchase, has established certain a etiquette that, when followed, just make the transaction go well for all parties involved.

With that being said, I have compiled a list of the ten traits that, if incorporated into our lives and those of our children, would ease tensions in some scenarios.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or just interact with them socially, you can play a part in this.  And it doesn’t have to be formal lessons, either—model these behaviors consistently, talk them through what you do and why (all people LOVE to know the why about something, especially kids), create opportunities to practice, and gently correct them when you see them not doing it right.  Not only will they benefit from more positive interactions with people of all ages, they may find that things get a tad bit easier when they do them.


Any student that has ever been in my classroom knows that this is my number one rule.  Be respectful of everyone and everything in all that you do.  I find it pretty much covers it all and provides for a pleasant working environment for any age and in any setting.  I encourage them to be respectful of everyone’s time and to be on time and prepared, to be respectful of people’s money by caring for the resources being provided in our classroom or in their home, and respectful of themselves because they deserve to learn at their own pace, have a voice and the chance to form an opinion for that voice to be used towards. I also think this includes things like turning off your cell phone while in a group setting and not looking at your phone when interacting with others.  I feel like respect can be interwoven in each of these below, but I wanted to point it out all on its own.


People are so busy these days, they often immediately start a conversation without so much as a hi, hello, or what’s up with a pause for a greeting to be returned.  Remembering to do this can go a long way in establishing the equality and mutual exchange between parties.  We can help with this by saying a simple hello when the kids get home or come into our classroom or place of business.  It doesn’t have to take long, but it is a kind acknowledgement of each other’s presence and could lead to a real conversation between people.  There are some cultures in the world that will think a person rude for not doing this and may not even conduct business with them.  I had this experience when visiting Paris a couple of times and, finally as I was leaving, a Parisian informed me that our ‘keep to ourselves’ American way of not saying hello when we walk in is why we are dubbed rude by so many other countries. This opened my eyes and now I try to make it a habit wherever I go.

Eye contact

Making eye contact while speaking and listening to someone is a great way to show you are listening to each other and giving each other your attention.  This can be true in a one-on-one conversation or even in a large conference with a guest speaker.  Looking at the person that is talking will go a long way in both you getting something from what they are saying and them in knowing what or how much to say while talking.  In some cultures, making eye contact can be seen as challenging one’s authority or as disrespectful.  However, when conducting business eye contact can establish trust, honesty and sincerity in the transaction. The best rule of thumb in this scenario is to know your audience and be aware of norms where you are–in other words, do a bit of research on the background and national culture if you are unsure and it isn’t your own.


Simple gestures of kindness can go a long way in showing someone they are important and valuable in the world.  Using manners is one of those gestures.  Coughs, sneezes, burps, loud voices—these are all things that have a time and place, but generally a public setting isn’t the best place to let them reign, so try to minimize them.  Saying bless you, excuse me, please, thank you, holding a door for someone coming up behind you or with their hands full, offering a hand to someone carrying too much, helping the elderly cross a street, or a short person reach something up high (me, I need this!) are some examples, but there are so many more.  There is debate on using ma’am and sir in different circles, but I have found that most people appreciate when they are called these–learning to read people can help with this.  At a minimum, use yes instead of yeah or no instead of nah, and avoiding exclusive head nods or uh-huh’s and uh-uh’s will show that you have some manners.


Be on time.  We must make every effort to be on time to what we attend. We’ve heard the expression that time is money, and if you think about how fast-paced our world is today, there is a lot of money being lost when someone waits even just a few moments on another.  With technology at our fingertips, calendars can be set up and even include alerts for when to leave based on traffic.  I have often heard the expression ‘to be early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late’ and it is a good practice.  Arriving a few minutes early can let you say hello, get a feel for where things are located, get a good parking spot or seat, use the restroom or people watch as others arrive.  As a book lover, I find this can be a great time to get in a chapter all to myself.  Not to mention that no one likes the flustered feeling of arriving late and always feeling behind, or when everyone’s eyes are on them as they make a tardy entrance, however unintended.  This factor is a common reason why medical offices are often running behind—that person that showed up right on time for their appointment but had to do their paperwork.


Keeping calm when everything around you isn’t is not an easy habit to establish.  Learning that sometimes things happen that are beyond our control and are just not worth getting upset over can be very valuable to your health and sanity.  When we rush, mistakes can happen.  So, if we learn to take our time, be patient if things don’t go as planned and be understanding of obstacles, it can go a long way.  I live in Central Florida—theme parks and traffic are a part of daily life for me.  I am always amused by the people rushing to get to a line to stand in, yelling at people that are not doing something at a rapid pace because they themselves are running late, or darting through traffic at an unsafe speed for whatever reason.  If they slow down just a little bit, they may find that they still get to wherever it is they are going, but so does everyone else, and we are all in a good mood. If you lack patience, be early and allow for things to go awry, and relish the extra time when they don’t.

Group conversations

We often get together with groups, whether it is for an informal chat, an impromptu discussion on the sidewalk, or an organizational meeting working for a goal.  One of the challenges is giving everyone a voice and allowing time to process things.  Learning to listen with the intention of learning what the person has to say can go a long way in accomplishing a goal.  So often we talk at or over others without actually hearing what they had to say, and this can be for a variety of reasons—dominance, disrespect or pure excitement about an idea (I’m so guilty of this one).  There is much to be said for listening to what other’s say and waiting to speak.  In many groups, the person that hasn’t spoken will be given a chance to talk and asked directly by the group leader, but if not, it can give time to process and create a chance for a follow up message or conversation so that the other person can speak.  There will be times where it will be necessary to directly ask for a chance to speak, and that is okay, just do it kindly so that it keeps an equal balance of power within the group.  Dominance is a fast way to shut down a conversation, as is insulting those around you.  Keep in mind, I am not saying their shouldn’t be a leader in a group chat, but it should be to keep focus and share attention equally, not lead the conversation. If you find that you disagree with someone, be clear that it is the idea and not the person, and be ready to leave a subject for later if it is clear that opposing sides won’t merge.  I’ve seen too many relationships damaged from arguing over opposing sides to a situation and it just isn’t worth it.

Pride in work

The work you do represents you and creates the impression others will have of you.  Everything you do should be done to the best of your ability for this reason.  It doesn’t matter if it is cooking dinner, cleaning a toilet, running a fortune 500 company or completing an assignment for class.  You should make your best effort to do it completely and correctly.  This also is a sign of respect for those that must interact with your work product.  As a teacher, I have students that rush through work or don’t complete work they are turning in.  This takes me five times longer to grade because I must give feedback, contact a parent, hold a conference, make documentation.  Not doing a complete job the first time also uses more of your time because the task will have to be redone or could cost them their job and make it difficult to get another one. We see this when a patch is poorly done in haste on a busy road, a meal or beverage is incorrectly prepared, or a place of business is is organized or even dirty. Taking the time to complete something to the best of your ability and properly the first time will go a long way in showing your clients, supervisors, or peers that you pay attention and do quality work.

Electronic communications

Emails and text messages seem to have all but replaced letters and phone calls, understandably because of how quickly things can be tended to. But learning which to use when and how they differ is important.  A text message should be for something quick  when an interruption can’t be made, or time is not of the essence.  If it is time sensitive, a phone call or visit may be best.  An email should be much like a letter, a complete thought organized and pieced together and with the intent of patiently waiting for a response.  It should have a greeting, a body with a clear and organized message, a salutation and a signature.  Again, my teacher experience has shown me this is a lost art.  I will find a full inbox with several emails from one student sending a series of single line messages only a few minutes apart, hastily seeking a reply to their question that could have easily been answered by a text message or, worse, was resolved before I got to the message because they found the error while waiting for the reply–possibly meaning they hadn’t really made much effort to find an answer on their own prior.  If you must send an email, proofread it and let it sit for a few minutes before sending in case another idea pops into your head.  If you send weekly emails to people, keep a notepad to gather thoughts throughout the week of non-urgent ideas that could be compiled into one. This is a huge way of showing you respect their time and to ensure that something doesn’t get missed because it was buried in their inbox.

Being Prepared

Bring what you need with you and make sure it is usable.  If you are attending a conference or class, expect to have paper and pencil at a minimum, and any other items required like computers, textbooks, completed research or work product.  I learned something in the military that has always stayed with me—two is one, one is none.  If there is something you must have to continue, have an extra.  This could be a charger for electronics, a pen or pencil, or even a bottle of water or snack if you know it will be a long meeting or event.  I have seen many times where there was a delay for everyone because someone had to find a pencil to write with, knowing they were coming in for a writing task or would be taking notes. If it is a paid event you are attending, be sure to have your ticket or proof of purchase or the funds handy to pay.  I am often surprised when I see people walk up to a show or take-out restaurant, wait in line then look at a options to decide when it is finally their turn, then must find their money to pay for it.  Being aware of what you are going into and preparing for it in advance can increase everyone’s take away from the event and save you some glares from onlookers.

Some of you may realize that you already do many of these yourself and are passing them on to younger generations. Some of them may not apply to you. Just remembering to be respectful of other’s time and personal investment in a situation can go a long way in showing that you are making the effort, and that is a superpower that everyone can have, regardless of age, location or situation.

My Freaked Out Teacher-Mom Moment

September 16, 2019

This week I did something I never wanted to do as a teacher mom—I freaked out over my 3rd grader’s benchmark test score.  I straight up panicked. He scored fine on the math test, but his reading test was low, and has been in a steady decline since he started school. I knew the test score didn’t reflect my kid’s ability, but I also knew that it was going to impact his education.  My boys are 13 years apart. It’s just the way it worked out.  The experience has had pros and cons, but it’s been mostly good.  The best part has been seeing the long-term outcome of our parenting choices on our oldest as we are faced with the same choices with our youngest. They are very similar.  And the biproduct of the gap is that our youngest has learned how to communicate and interact with people in different age levels because he spends time with his brother and friends.  In other words, he’s advanced because of his life experience.

My kids have always been the ones that would sit down and read every book on their shelf curled up on the floor for the afternoon to get lost in the world of reading.  They have incredible imaginations that can run away with the simplest idea.  They can read a book and spend the rest of the afternoon creating the world they read about with crafts, blankets and furniture moved about.  Sometimes, any grown-ups in proximity are drawn into their imaginary world and, even if I am vacuuming or doing laundry, I may have to “swim” through the room or watch out for bubbling lava rivers as I am doing it.  If they go outside, they explore and find creatures, sticks and rocks that will entertain them for hours.  I won’t lie, they could easily spend that same time zoned out watching TV or playing video games.  But when we set boundaries of how long they can watch and require free play time, their brains take over. It’s amazing!  But, somewhere along the lines, something happened.

My kids are not typical.  We travel often and expose them to history and science from an early age.  They are curious about the world and we get excited to share the world with them.  We talk to them like we would someone our age, we just may take the time to explain things they don’t have the background on.  Because of that, they have always known more and interacted with people differently than kids their own age.  That doesn’t translate well into the education world.  I struggled with my oldest constantly being labeled a behavior problem because he’d finish his work and wouldn’t want to do the busy work or sit quietly and wait.  I was told he had ADHD and needed medication by a doctor that refused to work with us on behaviors or help him deal with the loss of a close family member that happened at the same time as a behavior change.  I became an educator when he was in 4th grade because I loved reading and wanted to share that love and its realistic applications with kids before they were permanently put off from it.  He made it through high school, did well, and is nearly done with college and starting to work in the career field he loves.  He never revived the love of reading that was slowly taken from him because of required reading that was only ever applied to tests or essay writing. He never really learned in an academic sense how to apply what he read, so he struggled with study skills because, with standardized testing, there is no studying-it’s all about testing technique and anticipating what the question wants you to show you know and then choosing that.  Testing isn’t even about right and wrong answers, it’s about the most correct or accurate choice based on what the test creator thought.  I once read about an interview of an author who had an excerpt used in a standardized test that asked students what the author was most likely feeling when they wrote it and the author that wrote it couldn’t even choose from the answers provided.  How do we prepare kids for that?  More importantly, how do we support that notion that standardized tests can accurately measure what was learned that year when they have never had a real chance to apply, process  and reapply to a proficient level beyond an hour a day?

So, back to my youngest and his test scores.  He has been on a steady decline as a “proficient” reader since starting in kindergarten.  Yes, his grammar and spelling are a struggle, but no one really uses formal language anywhere except on a test, so can we really blame kids for this?  Especially since, having taught reading and English myself, I know how little time is made available to teach it to the point of automaticity in their daily use, and those that do use proper grammar are often chastised for how they talk.  But the other part is that the test is based on fiction reading.  My kid is a non-fiction junkie.  He may not be able to tell you the plot sequence of Charlotte’s Web or Harold and the Purple Crayon, but ask him about animals, nature, geology, or robots, and he will dazzle you with what he knows and can create.  He used to love fiction but he can’t use the information, so it is a fight to get him to read it unless he discovers a new series that draws him in for a while (shout out to the good librarians that talk to kids and make this happen!)  The test doesn’t align with my kid’s skills in this grade because he has different interests.  That means he will be pulled from an enrichment class where he builds, creates and learns social skills to get remedial training on analyzing fiction reading.  I don’t remember the last time that knowledge was useful in real life—trying to decide if Janice would ever get to reconnect with Jason doesn’t count, does it?

So now I am faced with the challenging decision. Do I penalize my kid and take away his enjoyable reading to make him read as a chore, further perpetuating a hatred for institutional learning but reinforcing that, if he doesn’t do his best it has consequences? Do I devalue the institution and tell him it doesn’t matter?  Do I opt out from testing which puts more work on his teacher to develop a portfolio so that he can be promoted—and in a district that doesn’t even recognize opting out as a legitimate option, potentially impacting my career as an educator.  Do I sacrifice our disposable income to pay for private school, even though most are caving to testing for the sake of public funding or capsize as a result of a lack of money?  Do I sacrifice my career and family’s lifestyle to home school him myself?  I honestly don’t know the right answer and I feel like the fate of his entire future rests on how I decide to handle this decision right now in his 3rd grade year.  He wants to be a scientist and inventor when he grows up.  To me, that is a field where creativity and a foundation on real world knowledge would be quite useful.  But that is also a field that requires higher education and many more tests.  How do I teach my darling 8-year-old to “play the game” to get where he wants in life without taking away the innocence and excitement about the world around him?

If you got to this point thinking I had an answer, I don’t.  I think I lucked out with my oldest.  But we did reach the point of having to teach him to “play the game” and it scares me we will have to do the same.   I remember starting seeds in my kitchen for a garden and then transferring them to the beds once they sprouted and it was time to plant.  I had one carrot seedling struggling and was not as big as the rest, but I planted it. At harvest time, I pulled up all the carrots, including the “runt” that never really took off.  Turns out that, even though it looked puny and weak and probably would have been pulled if I had to thin the beds, it had the best-looking carrots with the most flavor out of all of them.  If we rely on testing each year to tell us how our kids are measuring up, they may never live up to their potential. I fear that kids like mine that are the outliers and think and do differently will be thinned out and never let to reach their chance to shine because they won’t realize they can.  I want my kid to realize he can, and to help others shine, as well.  So, if you are a parent that is living through these same things, realize that you are not alone—many of us have this experience. We may make respond well to the situation, we may choose poorly and not.  Do the best you can for your kid but let them live with their choices.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Creating an Office from a Closet

A work space doesn’t need to be large, just a functional one. This closet worked perfectly.

September 7, 2019

Like most moms, I seldom prioritize my own needs over those of my family’s until I reach a breaking point.  Due to unplanned circumstances, our family ended up moving into a home that was twice the size of what we were living in and my mom moved in with us.  It worked out well in that we had a game room for our boys to have their computer/video games and toys, a living and family room, and another bonus office.  But when my husband started a new job working from home, our “shared” office space became a challenge since he makes a lot of phone calls and I write and make videos.  I tried using various places around the house, but there was always some kind of distraction, or sound and light issues.  I loved filming outside, but between crazy Florida weather or the noises of a busy suburban neighborhood, sometimes it would take an hour to get a decent 15-20-minute video.  My frustration levels were at an all-time high.

I was talking with—okay venting to—my adult son about the situation and my frustration.  He pointed out that we had a large hallway walk in closet that was just a drop spot for stuff that could go other places and that it was a nice size for a small office/studio area. I saw the potential in his vision and set to work in relocating and planning the space.

The first task was to clear the closet out and find a home for everything.  The winter coats and suitcases were able to fit in our separate closets, the pantry items and card tables were able to find a home in the laundry room, and the donation drop box items went to the donation center and we just found a smaller box and another spot to put stuff we clear out.

Once that was done, I took measurements and started scanning the web and Pinterest to get a vision for what I wanted.  A home office/recording studio wasn’t something I found readily available, but by pulling ideas from larger scale set ups of each, as well as elements and color schemes that appealed to me, I was able to create an idea of what I wanted.  I made a list of items I would need: a desk, a rug to go over the hard surface floor, storage, sound paneling, lighting, office materials and decorations.  The next step was creating a budget and finding items that would fit that budget.  I did a lot of online comparison shopping and store wandering before finding what I was looking for on Amazon and at Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Target and having a realistic idea of costs.  I also scavenged the house and my own stash of supplies and décor in my classroom for the little touches that could save me money.  I settled on a budget of $1000, hoping desperately for it to be less since this was all that was in my rainy-day fund.  Here’s a breakdown of what I purchased and spent.  I am happy to report I was WAY under budge and able to keep money in my rainy-day fund for another day!

  • Paint Lowes $25.18
  •                 Paint color from Lowe’s HGTV Home/Sherwin Williams Web Gray SW7075 (flat)
  • Rug Target $59.49
  • Desk Amazon $106.99
  • Storage 6 cube organizers Wal-Mart $28.24 each x 2 ($56.48)
  • Storage boxes Target $4.99 each x 6 ($29.94)
  • Cork boards Target $11.39 each x 2 ($22.78)
  • Acoustic panels  Amazon 3 12 packs $16.90 ($50.70)
  • Letters  Amazon 4” & 2” $21.98
  • Borders  Amazon $21.13
  • Backing (gift wrap) Hobby Lobby $4.99
  • Desk lamp  Target $14.99
  • Floor lamp already owned
  • Dog bed Pet Supermarket $13.99
  • Stapler/Tape dispenser $7.59 & 4.99 ($12.58)
  • Camcorder/cell phone camera—gift/already owned
  • Decorations—already owned
  • Odds and ends (glue, rollers, etc. $40-50 ish)
  • Light ring with phone mount $39.99
  • TOTAL costs: $531.21

My first step was to paint the room a fantastic grey color I found after going cross-eyed with colors and samples and I settled on one I found at Lowe’s called HGTV Home/Sherwin Williams Web Gray SW7075 (flat).  My husband, the photographer, applauded my choice for being an 18% grey that works well on film.  Hurray for luck being on my side. 

The next step was ordering furniture and getting it assembled and in place.  I moved things around several times while trying to find a cohesive workspace that would record well.  Then, I shopped for lighting and sound paneling and worked at getting that installed.  That was a bit of a challenge as I didn’t want to ruin the walls by gluing them directly on.  I ended up hot gluing them onto the cardboard packaging it shipped in and affixing that to the wall with picture hooks, hot glue, or anchors (on the ceiling panels).  The sound absorption has proven to be a challenge as I didn’t want a completely soundproof cave, nor did I want a ton of dust collecting material since I have a severe dust allergy, so I needed the surfaces to be relatively easy to clean. I found a rug that could be steam cleaned and also strategically placed throw blankets on a shelf and hanging on the door when needed to help dampen the sound a bit.  Next, I played with the lighting and, while I found some great light boxes on Amazon, they proved to be too large for the space, so I opted to go with a light ring camera mount along with the lamps and overhead light that was in the space.  It isn’t perfect, but it works for what I needed and with my budget.  Finally, I scavenged for accessories that would personalize the space. 

I added a couple of bulletin boards, one of which became my dream board with pictures to inspire me and remind me of what I am working towards.  I also collected up artwork I had created at various painting parties and other mementos that would make me smile.  I also added a dog bed into the corner since our pups like to be wherever we are working.

My “mom cave” was a fantastic place for me to work and be inspired, as well as be left alone when I need to record or concentrate on work and I don’t have to stop the rest of the family from what they are doing or wait for the weather to cooperate.  I’m sure I will still create videos in other spaces, but it’s nice to have a go to place of my own, and one that was under budget!

Life update:  as this project has been in the works, life has continued to happen.  If your life is like mine, it happens at the speed of light and this summer has been twice that.  Shortly after getting the studio office set up, a great opportunity to work from home came up and I jumped on it.  Unfortunately, the closet studio was no longer the best space for working 8-10 hours a day, plus it was in a main thoroughfare in the house, so we came up with a new plan. 

Since my husband and I both work from home, we decided to commandeer the boys’ game room since it was larger and away from the family area so we can work and they can live at the same time, let our oldest have the old office and the closet studio became the toy room.  So, we spent a weekend swapping everything around and getting reset, but it is working out fantastically.  We have been able to make the space a shareable office that can double as a studio and, with the addition of a futon, it has actually made a great spot for the boys to come and sit and share their day with me when they get home while I take a break from work.  I know it will probably change again, but for now, it is inspiring and comfortable and exactly what we need to be productive.

The ABC’s of Communication

Sonya Barnes August 25, 2019

Have you ever travelled someplace that you didn’t know the language?  I have and it can be a very intimidating experience.  I recall times of hand gestures, broken words from the language I do know, and looking for another language we may coincidentally know to try and communicate, only for something to have been “lost in translation”.  Yet, even when speaking the same language, we often have communication issues for a variety of reasons.  That can lead to lost time, lost money and lost opportunity, not to mention the frustration from the experience.

Communicating with others is a key to being successful in any endeavor.  I have been blessed to have many leaders in my life and careers to teach me ways to cut down on miscommunication and increase successful outcomes when communicating with others.  When I taught leadership to middle schoolers, I broke it down into these three basic principles to make it easy to remember and execute and many of them found themselves going from being terrified to talk to a crowd to commanding the attention of those they were speaking on front of.  By knowing what and how they were going to share an idea, their confidence got a boost, making the information they shared that much stronger.  So, I thought I’d share these ideas with you here since many people have a fear of talking to others, even if they do so on a regular basis.  These can be applied to any situation whether it is deciding lunch plans or saving the world from impending doom.  So, let me break it down for you.

Articulation   In its simplest definition, speaking in a way that is fluent and coherent.  When you are speaking, whether it is to one or one thousand, young or old, you want to make sure your message is being shared in a way they will understand.  Before you speak or write, it can be a good idea to jot down your ideas you want to speak about and outline a few key words you want to share with your audience.  Again, be sure you are using language they will understand—don’t use fancy technical words if it is not an experienced worker.  On the other hand, don’t oversimplify what you are saying either.  New people will need to learn terminology, so just be sure it is used in a way that can be figured out or that you explain it somehow.

Brevity   Keep it short, sweet and to the point.  By nature, we love to tell stories and share personal experiences to help our audience understand what we mean.  Sometimes we may have an audience that appears confused or disengaged and we find ourselves continuing to talk, thinking it is due to lack of understanding.  A best practice to follow is to break it into steps, give an example, have a handout or checklist if it is more than three steps, and then be available for further explanation after the meeting or during the process to help those that may need more or don’t know what questions they have until they begin the process.  Many times, a presenter can do a great job activating an idea and building engagement and momentum, but drain the excitement by holding a meeting too long and not letting those folks get going. You want those folks to get going as soon as possible since they will help your team reach a goal.

Clarity   It is important to be clear about what you mean.  I have sat in meetings that the speaker never really stated the point of the meeting or training and we had to ask or guess at the end.  That meant that nearly everything we heard and learned during that training was lost and had to be asked about or retaught later.  This was a waste of everyone’s time and can easily be avoided by bringing things back to your main point regularly, especially if it is new.

These steps can be implemented in all aspects of life, whether it is a conversation with someone, teaching someone a new task or practicing tasks that have already been taught, or even persuading an audience to purchase or choose a product.  However, and with whomever, you are communicating, if you add these three principles into your pre-planning, you will find yourself becoming much more successful at it and, by extension, at ease with speaking to people because it will become less stressful.  Happy communicating!

Time saver Tip for Busy People: Create a Uniform!

August 17, 2019

If you ask most people, they hate the idea of uniforms.  It’s expensive and it doesn’t allow for individuality or personal expression are a few of the reasons given.  But, if you stop and think about it, uniformity is quite practical.  Many powerful world leaders say that they have adopted a uniform attire and only rotate through a few different colors or styles to cut down on the amount of micro-decisions they must make in a day, leaving their brain available for making more significant decisions.  Minimalism, in its most extreme form, has a few different premises about a small wardrobe such as capsule wardrobes, project 333 or the 100-item wardrobe, to name a few.  While these may be a good fit for some folks to follow, the fashionistas—or those of us that fall somewhere in the middle—may not be ready to go to that extreme but can still create a basic uniform if their career field doesn’t dictate one.  Check out some of these ideas that I have tried over the years and see if they fit your style or inspire you to come up with a new method.

The paired wardrobe  In this uniform concept, you marry all your clothing tops and bottoms as a set and hang them together on the same hangar.  This could even be taken to the level of hanging a necklace, scarf or other accessories to compliment it.  This will also allow you to take inventory of your clothing to make sure that everything is wearable and see if there are any holes in your wardrobe that may require a shopping trip.  When you need to get ready, you simply grab the hangar and get dressed with very little thought required.

The cataloged wardrobe When I was growing up, this was mom’s method of writing everything in her wardrobe in a notebook and tracking what she wore and when.  This allowed her to avoid wearing the same things repeatedly and ensure her wardrobe got a proper rotation.  To modernize this concept, it could be digitized.  A quick Google search tells me that there are several apps to choose from, but I haven’t tried any so will avoid steering you in the wrong direction.  If you have used one, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

The uniform wardrobe  If you work someplace that has access to polos or work monogram attire, this is a great option for business casual work environment.  This is the wardrobe I follow, and I have a handful of work logo polo shirts that I pair with cargo pants or khaki pants, or jeans if it’s a dress down day.  If your company doesn’t have this access, but they do have a logo you could get permission to use, there are several websites you can use to design and order your own or a local embroidery shop or seamstress can help you out.  I have used Vista Print for polos for an organization and a local screen printer for shirts for a club and uniforms for a team. The quality of both online and local were fantastic.  Sometimes they can give a better rate the more you buy, so talk to coworkers before ordering to see if they are interested.  For websites and local shirt shops, you can go online to their website or a shirt design site and design your shirt by uploading the logo and get a picture of it to share.

The capsule wardrobe This wardrobe rotates by season but follows the fundamental idea of having a handful of interchangeable pieces that can mix and match for a variety of looks and styles.  I’ve used this in the past and love it for travel, but I quickly got bored with it for work.  I love that I don’t need a lot of pieces and can create a variety of looks by changing which items I pair together.

While there are many valid arguments to not wearing a uniform, I am still an advocate for them.  I am not a morning person and try to capitalize on every spare minute of sleep unless I am motivated to get up for a workout.  Either way, I don’t leave myself much time for planning.  I also prefer to dress for comfort rather than style, but I still need to look professional.  I spent countless mornings stressing over what to wear, and it set a tone of haste and frustration for my day.  When I started exploring a minimalist lifestyle, I had a closet jammed with so many clothes and knew that the 100 item wardrobe or the Project 333 would not be a good place to start and I’d have to eliminate too much or find storage for unused items for a capsule wardrobe.  Eliminating items I didn’t love and creating a uniform really made things less stressful, allowing me to easily dress for success with minimal frustration to start my day.  I also used the backwards hangar method to get an idea of what items I wore and didn’t wear, which made cleaning out at the end of the season a snap.  Helpful tip when clearing items out:  check with the local schools to see if any items could be used in their uniform closet.  Jeans, khaki, black and navy pants fit almost every school’s uniforms, dresses and dress clothing can be useful for concerts, recitals or competitions, and some will face a devastating loss and need to rebuild a wardrobe.  Shoes that are gently worn can always find a home there, as well.

As simple as this seems, I was pleasantly surprised at how much less stressful my day was when I didn’t have to make these decisions.  Since I work with teenagers that have to wear a uniform to school, this also made the conversations easier to have since I was modeling the expectation I had with them—I was essentially wearing the same uniform they were, so their arguments were lost on me.  And when it did come up in conversation, it was a great opportunity to share the idea that it simplified their decisions to be made in a day and reduced a bit of stress in their life.  Some agreed, but some still longed for the days of high school to choose their own clothing.  Although more than one has reached out to tell me that they missed uniforms once going on to high school and careers because it was another decision to make in a day.

Whatever you decide to do with your wardrobe, at least take this advice—go through and clean out your clothing when the seasons change, removing damaged items and either fixing or disposing of them, and make sure your closet is filled with clothes that make you feel comfortable and happy.  Every occupation has its stressors and they are much more manageable when you are not distracted by poorly fitted or uncomfortable clothing.  Not to mention, it’s a great opportunity to see if you need to plan a shopping excursion!

A Compassion Corner in the Classroom

Sonya Barnes                                                                                                         August 9, 2019

Our world today is filled with people struggling.  Our classrooms will also reflect that with students facing many struggles in their lives—some privately, some publicly.  Some of our students will have been taught how to help others, some will know what it is what they want to have people do to help them and will do those things for others, and some will have no model for what it looks like to be compassionate to others.  Education today is full of demands, and one of those is to help meet the social and emotional needs of the kids that are in our presence.  It can seem like a daunting task—something else to have to add to our to do list.  But it doesn’t have to be complicated, or even forced.  Try a Compassion Corner in your classroom.

Many times, when events happen in society such as holidays or community or family events, we may feel called to action and do an activity in our classroom.  But people need help, love and compassion every day and in many ways.  By having a Compassion Corner set up in your classroom, you can allow for that to flow from your kids at any time without prompting.  With regular, unscripted access, they will be able to act when they feel compelled and will learn how rewarding it can be for others.

It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  It can be a variety of paper, glue, scissors, crayons, markers, stickers, etc., and then drop boxes (think shoeboxes with slots in the top of them) for the designated recipients.  A few guidelines hanging above them and some class procedures of when and how to use the station, such as if they finish an assignment early or if they need a brain break, and you just let it go.  At predetermined times, you can go and empty the boxes and get them to the recipients.  I do suggest that you have them sign only a first name for privacy reasons, especially it they will be going to unknown recipients.

So, who can be recipients of your classroom’s compassion corner?  Well, there are always veterans deployed or ill in military hospitals that can use cheering up and most people are near a military base or guard unit, a VFW, American Legion or Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. First responders such as law enforcement officers, EMT’s and Firefighters work long hours away from their families, as well.  Nursing homes often have folks that don’t see their families often and would love their day brightened by a picture or card.  Homeless shelters are in many areas and may like to have a nice card or drawing to hang or distribute, some school districts even have a department devoted to helping them and distributing items in need—in our district it is called the Hearth Project.  There are foster children and children’s hospitals  in many major cities.  If you want to think more locally, think of other children or employees in the school that could benefit from being told they are appreciated or awesome.  Sadly, there are natural disasters all over the world and a note or card could help give them hope.  There is really no limit other than your own heart and the time you may have to distribute them.

You don’t have to start big; you could choose one or two organizations to focus on for the year or for the term.  But imagine the life lessons gained for the kids to have a chance to brighten someone’s day anonymously for absolutely nothing in return.  Imagine the change in their day when they can take a moment away from their own troubles or from a challenging assignment and be important to someone else.  Imagine the impact on the world by teaching children to have a heart for doing for others.  What a difference we can make.

Turning a Worksheet into an Activity

Sonya Barnes August 8, 2019

It doesn’t take much to go from worksheet to an activity that kids will enjoy and reach their learning objectives!

Teachers are a resourceful being.  To make a pop reference, we become as good at reinventing our repertoire as Prince did at reinventing himself throughout his career.  We have many things we have continued to use without really thinking about changing them up.  One of those go-to items could be a stash or worksheets you rely on to make copies and grade because you know it is a skillset your kids need.  But have you ever given thought to reinventing them?

In my previous article about beginning of year activities, I mentioned turning some of your ice breakers into activities to do with the kids, but you can use this premise for any worksheet that you have.  Converting it into an activity may take you a little time on prep, but, if done right, it can be laminated and reused throughout your school year as a rotation or a “done” activity to keep them proficient, as well as using it year after year.  So, let me walk you through the process of converting that worksheet.

Step 1: choose your worksheet This could be something new from a search online or a book you just purchased, or something you have had for ages that is falling apart or has been copied one too many times and needs to be revived. Maybe it’s an identify the part of speech, a scientific classification, an internet suffix identification, or a math symbol meaning, capitals and states/countries, or tools for the art or shop class.  Be sure it is one that will have a clear answer for each question.

Step 2: convert it to a new document The easiest and quickest way I have found to do this is to use a program like Word or Pages and insert tables. Excel is great for creating boxes in columns or rows, but isn’t as user friendly for inserting pictures or graphics and alternating text fonts like Word or Pages will be.  Put the text into the boxes for each question, answer, or part they will match.  I like to align my correct answers all next to each other to make it easier when I use my key.  You can enlarge and change the font to make it easy to read and visually appealing.  If you are tech savvy or have the time, adding graphics can be a nice touch, but it is not a necessity.  I also dedicate a box to a directions for use card and an inventory list, if needed, so it explains what to do and the parts needed for my students that do better with written instructions.  To help myself keep track, I will also try to label it with the standard or skill so that I can find it quickly.

Step 3: print/copy/laminate Decide how many sets you need to create based on whether this will be independent, collaborative or a station/center activity and print/copy that many sets PLUS 2—a fully assembled set for you as a key and a cut up set for you as a demo.  Then get these laminated so that they will last you for many years and uses.  Be sure you do this well in advance to allow time for your laminating person to complete them as many schools have only one person responsible for this task and it can be time consuming.

a paper cutter and some paper clips turns these into a student friendly manipulative

Step 4: cutting and prepping as sets If you have volunteers, this is a great thing to enlist them for, especially since this task doesn’t have to be done in the classroom.  Don’t forget to keep one set whole to use as your key (you can use a dry erase marker to make notes or match answers, if need be. Cut your items into sets and bundle them.  This could be done in a variety of ways, but I prefer clasped envelopes or Ziplock bags so that I can label them, and they are easiest to keep everything together in.  I also suggest taking a permanent marker and numbering the sets and pieces.  Finally, I will tape the directions card and inventory list to the front of the envelope or inside the Ziplock bag (facing out, of course).  Several of my older sets, I just put the directions and inventory in with the cards, but it gets mixed in with the others at clean up and the next user may not find it right away.

An envelope makes an easy storage device and gives a place to attach instructions if it will be an independent activity

Step 5: using the sets  Now that you have them, they can be used as a hook, an assessment, a practice activity, a review activity, or anything in between.  If you use stations or centers, this can be an activity they complete together or independently.  Once we have used them in our main lesson and moved on from a standard, I have a drawer I keep them in and my students that finish early know that this is a place they can go and find something to do while others work.  These also make great activities for early release days or days when you may have a test or lesson that doesn’t take the entire block and you need a small filler activity.

Worksheets can be a valuable resource in checking a student’s mastery level of skill and there is nothing wrong with using them.  But, in my experience, I don’t always need a 30 minute long task that I need to then grade to see if they are ready to move on and converting it to an activity allows me to do this in 10 minutes before going on to a next level or a real world project or task that allows them to apply the skill for true mastery.  If you aren’t sure where to get started, there are many of these available online that you could download (skip steps 1-2) and jump straight to steps 3-5 to get started.  You also don’t always have to laminate them if you are short on time.  If you have older kids, you could hand them out whole and allow them to cut them, but, in my experience, cutting and assembling the sets will burn an entire class period that I would rather they spent working on the skill.

I’d love to hear which activities you have turned from a worksheet into an activity, as well as what subject area and grade level you used it at.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for videos and ideas for balancing life, improving your craft or finding inspiration

If you’d like to see a tutorial video on creating these, click the link to subscribe to my YouTube channel and turn on notifications to get notified when that video is posted this Sunday, August 11th! You can also like and subscribe to this blog to show some love and let me know to keep on sharing ideas!

Managing Your Time Effectively

How I get it all done in 3 simplified steps

Sonya Barnes August 1, 2019

Effective time management.  Good use of time.  We hear these buzz phrases often and we know what it means, but many of us struggle with the application and concept of what it looks like.  I’ve been blessed to work with and for several people that were great at this and trained me well.  I feel like I handle it pretty well, even though I still have my moments of lost days and utter confusion of what to do.  But I have taken several things from several places over the years and implemented them for awhile now and am quite proud that I have very few occasions of missing or forgetting something.  I have shared these with fellow educators over the years and thought I’d get this out there and share with a few more.  I will break it into a few different sections for easy application and will also create videos that break each step down into a visual, allowing you time to work them into your daily life so that you can not only get everything done that you need to, but also get more enjoyment out of life since you’ll accomplish more and stress less. So, without further ado, let’s jump in!

A generic version of my time zones – be as specific as you need to be!

Step 1: Assigning “Time Zones” Start with a weekly calendar that breaks each day down by hour increments.  Whether you find/create a digital version or create a paper one just comes down to your own preference.  Next, choose three different color markers or highlighters and assign a category.  I like to use green for WORK, blue for HOME, and pink for FAMILY/PERSONAL for association, but any color will work.  If you need to add additional categories such as self-care or a second job, then absolutely do so.  The final step in this category is to go through and color outline (or color fill if you are using a computer) and assign the times.  I usually start with my job since those hours are pretty set.  Then, I go through and sort out the remaining time for when I will complete home responsibilities like cleaning, cooking, errands, paying bills, etc. as well as the family/personal time for workouts, date nights, family outings.  There will be some weeks that this will vary, but for most of us, our weeks we are working are fairly straightforward.  I try and generalize this step so I can hang it on the wall, and it makes it easier to glance when I need to schedule something or decide whether to say yes or no to an invitation to something.

A simple post it in my planner reminds me of my tasks by day

Step 2: Assigning Task Days Now that I have my weekly calendar time zones figured out,  I can plug in my tasks.  If you are like me, you have some tasks at both work and home that are repetitive daily, weekly, or monthly.  Now is the time to go through and plug in when you will complete which tasks.  For example, in my job, I have lesson plans, copying, grading, parent phone calls, duty and meetings that routinely occur, so I assign them a day and time of day to do them.  I also will plug in a spot for monthly tasks to have a day, as well, such as data collecting or student chats so that they have a recurring time.  I do the same for home responsibilities like laundry, cleaning, yard work, shopping and bill paying.  I also like to leave a place holder spot for appointments so that I can plug in a doctor, dentist or hair appointment into that spot and it keeps the flow of our routine for everyone.  Family or personal time can get marked with a workout regiment or sports activities you routinely accomplish or would like to work in but have never found the time to do.

Digitizing everything into my Reminders app as weekly recurring tasks or calendar items can help on those super busy days

Step 3: Organizing and Digitizing It All This final step is crucial to making it stick and turn into a habit that will keep you organized and running a bit smoother.  In this step, I add the tasks to my digital calendar and invite relevant parties.  For example, recurring household chores or appointments get logged and I invite my spouse and children that have devices.  Personal or work-related tasks get added to my own calendar, but my family has viewing permissions of my calendar so that if they have something come up they need to schedule at an unexpected time, they know exactly how it fits into the schedule.  If you are not a tech savvy person or don’t use a digital calendar, then you can mark this in your lesson plan book, day planner or on a family command center calendar, or even just something as simple as hanging your color-coded and filled in schedule on the refrigerator or by the family calendar can help keep everyone informed.  Without placing this information somewhere that you will see it and be able to reference it, you will find it difficult to stick to it.  With my teaching tasks, I will write it on a post it note and tape it to my computer for a few weeks while I get into the routine, especially since it may vary from year to year, depending on my classroom assignments or month to month depending on my duty schedule.

This may seem like a very rigid and difficult thing to accomplish, but it will lend itself to a much less stressful daily life and a much higher productivity level.  I have been running this model for a few years now and have found that I take less work home with me, get more time with my family, and never miss deadlines.  All of these contribute to a happier and less stressful life.  It may take some tweaking to get it down to something that works with your lifestyle and if you don’t have as many directions to go in, you may be able to simplify some of it for your own habits.  Whatever you do, I hope that this helps you manage your time much more effectively.

If you are interested in the step by step videos to accomplish this, head over to YouTube and subscribe to my channel to get notified. I will have a video breaking down each step posted on Sunday, August 4th.