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.

My Simplified Approach to an eLearning Station

Our eLearning station takes up a small wall in the dining room, just off of the kitchen and family room. Centrally located if he needs us, but in a low traffic area during the day.

August 2020

Since we decided to keep our son home for eLearning for the first term of 4th grade, I’ve been racking my brain and the internet for how to set up a learning area for him. I work from home already, but we quickly learned during the pandemic closure and 4th quarter of last school year that it is impractical for us to share my office.  Between my phone calls and zoom meetings and his zoom meetings and lessons, we were a constant interruption to each other.  We needed someplace for him. But where? And how? And his school has the students following their school day schedule, meaning he will need to be logged in to a certain place at a certain time for his lessons and for attendance, so we needed it to work with little effort or supervision on our part.

I realized quickly I was not going to be one of those Pinterest or YouTube moms that went all out.  No offense to them, it looks amazing, but that isn’t his learning style, our family’s living style, nor did it fit our budget for what we hope will be a short-term situation.  We needed simple and easy.  I also didn’t want to use the dining room table since that would mean having to put it somewhere when it was mealtime, and he would have to get up to get things when he needed them—way too inefficient for my taste.

I also made sure to include him in the decision-making process—what he wanted and didn’t want in the space, where he wanted to be in the house, decorations, etc.  With his input and my experience as both his mom and a teacher, we were able to come up with a plan.

What resulted was a compact area on a small wall in the dining room that has everything he needs in one location and is organized in a simple to use fashion that already embraced the toy system we use—cubbies that are taken out, used, cleaned up, and put away when finished.  It was also low on budget—including the school supplies he needed, we spent under $100.

Here’s a breakdown of our e-learning center.

DRY ERASE MESSAGE BOARD This will be used to post the date/day of the week, as well as daily quotes and inspirations for him each day. There are all sorts of websites with quotes for kids and we can tailor them to him or to what he has going on for this day. Having the day and date will also replicate the classroom and help him in finding what the online resources and dates are.

DAILY SCHEDULE This schedule came from his school with what time the classes are and where he should be.  It is color-coded to match the bins since he has two academic teachers this year so it will help him keep up with who is when. Our school gave us a general version and the teachers were really awesome and had one ready, so all I really had to do was adapt to fit on a clipboard (their version was landscape layout, I preferred portrait so that it would hang on the clipboard for easy reference.

COMPUTER He is going to be sharing my personal laptop with me, but we created his own profile and have been working with him, so he knows how to access his school’s site and the sites needed for his lessons.

IPAD & STAND The iPad is programmed with alarms for each of the start times for his schedule just in case he gets distracted—he is nine after all!  The stand we already had, but it gives it a home to sit on his workstation and be out of the way, and he has a clock and timer ready, if he needs it.

SUPPLIES CUBBY This is a top shelf for easy access.  He has a cup with pencils, highlighters, and scissors in the bin, as well as his paints, markers, crayons, color pencils, ruler, and whatever other supplies he may end up needing.  We also have a binder with notebook and plain paper for whatever they may need.

CLASS CUBBIES He has one for electives, one for his morning classes and one for his afternoon classes.  The textbooks and other materials will stay in here so he can find it quickly and easily or pull out all materials from it.  We have his notebook and folder for each subject that will be during that part of the day, as well.

LUNCH MENU He will have the same amount of lunch time as the students at school, so we needed a way to eat quickly that would allow him time to relax.  He and I sat down together and decided to create hot and cold options for Monday through Friday, make them slips, and he can fill them out on Fridays so we can grocery shop and restock. Every option can either be prepared in the morning before school or they are thing he has experience making or preparing independently, just in case our work schedules don’t allow us to break away at the same time, although we hope to be able to eat with him and socialize each day.

UNIFORM Yes, we are going to be those parents that make him wear a uniform each day—at least his school shirt.  We want him to keep the routine and have a “work mindset” by being dressed for the role he will be in.  As someone who works from home, I know that this routine and getting ready element helps me to mentally prepare for a workday instead of a personal day, and it makes a difference.

PRIZE BOX This was a must—he is in elementary school, and our school is a part of the PBS (positive behavior system) so we wanted to continue promoting that at home, again trying to maintain and simulate the routine for him. He isn’t much on toys, but he can get a piece of candy or a Molly Moo-lah at the end of a good day.

our Store inventory

MOLLY MOO-LAH This is our version of school bucks that our school also uses for PBS.  The students can earn them for various actions of responsibility and good behavior.  Our dog’s name is Molly, nicknamed Molly MooMoo, so she became our mascot.  We then created a list of items he can redeem them for.  At school, they can use them at the Bucks Store for various items or even dress down days.  We created ours to include dress down days, as well as prizes we can easily give including ice cream dates, dinner and a movie night, an extra week of allowance (he is saving for some bigger items) or an extra piece of candy from his daily prize box (we don’t do a lot of candy in our home, so this is a treat).

our Molly Moo-Lah!

It isn’t a perfect plan, and it may adapt as we go and find flaws or at least adaptations.  But he is set up to be independently successful in his day. If I happen to be busy and can’t break away or dad is working outside of the house that day, he is set up for self-guided success.  He may miss something or be late sometimes, and we will figure out why and it will be okay.  Our goal is for him to learn to take responsibility for his learning and to be a part of his routine and actively contributing to his own success.

I hope this helped inspire you for your e-learning station and helped you realize it doesn’t have to be fancy or take up a huge amount of space. Good luck in your project!

Why I’m Grateful for the Pandemic

August 2020

A few minutes on the beach when we tried to catch a launch on the coast

My life goes ninety miles an hour most days and has for as long as I can remember. I have tried to slow down so many times, but things just continuously come at me that it feels impossible. I found myself searching for ways to simplify and slow down.  Minimalism has crept into my life and I have cut down on how much stuff we have, which helped a lot with time spent working in the house.  But, as a teacher, there is always work to be done and the brain doesn’t stop working just because the school building is closed. I prayed for life to slow down. And then the Pandemic hit.

I’m not saying it’s completely my fault or anything, but…over the years, I’ve heard it said about both prayers and wishes to be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.  As a former middle school Reading and ELA teacher, The Monkey’s Paw immediately comes to mind and reinforces this idea.  Yet I still prayed for this.  So, when things started shutting down around town and around the world, I found myself grateful for it and sought out to make changes to our lives that could continue even after the world returned to normal.

Family meals This is something we have always tried to make a priority, even after my mom moved in.  With eating out not an option for us during the shutdown, we capitalized on trying new recipes, planning more efficiently to cut down on grocery trips and orders, and being more consistent.  It really paid off for us.  We enjoyed themed nights and tried our hand at making things we’d normally have gone out for or just ordered.  Dare I say, we even like our version of many dishes better than what we get dining out and for a fraction of the price!

When we desperately missed the Bavarian pretzels and beer cheese of Disney, we got creative! Not a huge success, but a lot of fun and we will try it again!

Routines This one is a challenge for everyone, so I know we are not alone.  We live in a multi-generational household with morning people that go to bed early, late people that are up into the wee hours, light sleepers, and loud voices.  There has been some tension for us, to say the least.  But we have found that we get our rhythm by being aware of each other’s routines, which comes from conversations during family mealtime, and we have established a sort of quiet hours for each other.  We also maintained getting up at the same time each day, having breakfast, going for walks, and doing our chores on specific days or at certain times to keep that consistency.  All day pajama sessions or binge-watching Netflix or YouTube never once became our life, although there were a couple of days when we stumbled across a great series or channel…

Family spaces – indoor and outdoor We are blessed that everyone has their own rooms as well as having both a family and living room and offices for those that work from home. The joys of owning an older home with oddball rooms in various places came in handy! But we had a few spaces that we had never really defined since moving in two years ago. They were just filled with leftover furniture or temporary items.  We capitalized on our savings from gas, dining out and entertainment and invested it in our home.  We created a comfortable family room for movies and game nights, and we got real patio furniture that gave morning tea or evening dessert & drinks a place to be enjoyed.  We also took the time to declutter things by the end that we realized we weren’t using despite being home more, which had been our excuse for not parting with them in prior purges.  Another dream project of having a garden and backyard chickens finally came into fruition and we have thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment and delicious eggs from our lady yardbirds, although our greenthumb still needs work since we didn’t get much of a harvest.  Now that we can go out and enjoy more things, we still find ourselves staying home more often, planning nights in the family room or on the porch and enjoying our spaces, even when we have other options.

some of our eggs from one day–we usually get 2-4 from our 8 chickens, which isn’t too bad in this heat and some are not daily layers.

Personal Care Habit This one has been an ebb and flow thing in our home.  When the pandemic and shutdown first became a part of life, the weather was nice here in Central Florida, so the routine of an evening walk to see the sunset and talk about our day or dreams of life after was great.  But when the afternoon storms crept in and the mercury rose, it became darn near impossible to keep it up, so it fell by the wayside, as did our personal care.  Hair cuts got neglected and manicures and pedicures were non-existent.  But after a couple of months, we missed these and realized that we still needed them in our lives.  We couldn’t go out to a salon, but haircuts, mani’s and pedi’s could still be done, especially digging out some of those bath salts and scrubs we lovingly purchased on previous outings.  We shifted out routine to walks and runs to the mornings and just start our workday around 9 instead of 730, letting ourselves come alive a bit before sitting down.  It really sets the tone for a day of success when you’ve done 2/3 or more of your step goal before sitting down to work at 9AM! I also loved reading but rarely could find the time. With life slowing down, now there is time in my day to read for me as well as to spend time reading with my youngest.

enjoying lunch and my book on the porch during a lunch break from working

Day trips and vacations This was the hardest part for us to give up since we were always on the go.  We are passholders and live close to Disney, the Zoo, nearby gardens, and the beaches are a two-hour drive in any direction. We have family all over, love to camp and have only taken our youngest to about half the states in the country and hope to visit more.  With all of that dashed, it affected our daily life.  One way we coped was packing a picnic lunch and planning a loop drive to places.  One of my favorites was a drive to the coast, up a coastal road and back home.  It was most of the day, but it was amazing to see everything so clean and clear and with light traffic and few people, we didn’t even mind that we could only walk small sections.  We even ventured to Texas to see family by taking a camper and boondocking along the way.  We saw about a dozen people on the entire trip and only had to go into a couple of stores.

a geocache travelbug we helped along on our camping adventure

Now that we can get out and about more and things are opening, we are starting to go more places.  But we are nowhere near at the pace of life we previously were.  Our excursions may be once or twice a month instead of every weekend. We are more selective on what we decide we want to spend our time and money on.  We still don’t turn on the TV until later in the day on most days and we continue to enjoy our family dinners several nights a week.  I don’ think I want to return to the breakneck pace we used to live at, I’m just sad that it took a pandemic to force me to change. 

Ideas for A Clean and Healthy Workplace

Keeping a clean and healthy workplace or classroom is always a challenge.  I know for many, especially where a hundred or more people can rotate through during the day, this can be nearly impossible. But adding the concern on all our minds as we look at returning to a bit more normal life, especially amid the Covid pandemic, means we need to up our game.  So, let me share some ideas I’ve tried or seen for maintaining a healthy workplace or classroom and see if any will work for you or can be adapted to suit your purposes.

KEEP IT SIMPLE Many of us put in a great deal of effort to create a welcoming and homey workspace, especially in a classroom. Wall décor, comfortable furniture, knick-knacks and so on.  But this can be additional items to have to clean or move to clean.  I would suggest taking a close look at your space, determine what items you really need and would be worthwhile and hold up to frequent cleaning and store the rest.  You can bring it out later or rotate the items.  I stumbled into minimalism several years ago for health reasons and decluttered 70% of my home, then rolled that into my classroom.  I cleared so much stuff from my room that both my coworkers and my school leadership came by to ask if I was quitting.  But even with so much of it being cleared, my room was welcoming and functional.  My students told me that they felt relaxed in my room since there wasn’t so much around them. If much of what you must put up is school or district mandated, have a conversation with leadership to find out what can be adjusted.  I opted to digitize my required wall posted items and had a scrolling PowerPoint on repeat so it was always posted.  With that information, announcements, and our daily agenda all in one location, it made student life easier since they could come in, prep materials, and watch the board and get all the information.

SELF-REGULATED CLEAN UP No matter how clean an environment we start the day with, at some point, if someone passed through, it would need cleaned again.  Sometimes, we just missed them leaving and a new person coming in, other times, there just isn’t time and isn’t a health requirement, especially outside the food industry.  There’s couple of options for this.  One is to have a bottle of sanitizing spray cleaner and a batch of rags.  This is good for a small turnover area.  You can get cleaner from your supply order or any local store, shred an old towel or t-shirt into cleaning size scraps or purchase a pack of cleaning rags, then have a designated bucket for clean and dirty rags, then take them home and wash/sanitize as needed.  Another option is prepackaged alcohol wipes can be a great way to allow people to clean their area before or after use.  I have had these on hand for years in my classroom, especially in my computer lab areas.  I encouraged students to wipe down the equipment before and after use and, if they had a cold or sneezing and sniffling from allergies, it was encouraged to clean before leaving for the next one coming in.  I often ordered them with my supply order for the year, or you can find them online at Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2ZQltl5  for a reasonable price, this pack of 200 individually packaged alcohol wipes are only $6.25. In secondary, these will go fast, so check with your supply office to see if you can find larger quantities for a better price or go with the spray and rag option.

WRITING UTENSILS Most businesses and classrooms have a need for utensils for people.  While many carry their own with them to the classroom or to businesses, some will not.  There are a couple of options to choose from. First, you will need to decide if they need a pen or pencil to complete the tasks.  For pens, pick up an inexpensive pack of pens from any office supply location (Dollar Tree, Walmart and Target all have packs for a reasonable price) and then you can clean them—one idea I saw was to have a clean pen bucket and a place to put used ones that can be sanitized.  For pencils, take advantage of golf pencils so they are pocket sized and can be kept. You can find these on Amazon, as well, ranging from .04 to .06 cents per item—it’s cheaper in larger quantities.  You can get 144 for $8.69 here https://amzn.to/30DZiO9 or 864 for $38.99 here https://amzn.to/30A9Wpn

SUPPLY KITS FOR PROJECTS In some places, like a classroom, people may need to have access to something beyond a writing utensil or computer.  Since these tools can be useful in the learning process, we obviously don’t want to eliminate this element.  Some parents will be able to provide their children with their own supplies, but they may get forgotten or lost overtime, they may not get cleaned, they may run out and need replaced.  I found that keeping a kit for each student in the class with all the things they’d need to be very helpful.  I had a plastic pencil box with scissors, a ruler, highlighter, markers, etc. in the box that could be easily wiped down or sprayed with disinfectant and left to dry overnight.  If you have only one group coming through, these could be labeled with their names, so it limits contact and use.  If your classes rotate, having two class sets can be helpful so one can be sanitized and drying while the other is in use.  I would have these labeled either with the students using or at least the class periods/seat numbers so that limited contact could also be managed.  Then just have a place for clean and used ones to be deposited.  For math, science or other STEM classes, printable resources for rulers and protractors could also be helpful, then they can just be disposed of.  I know that not all teachers will have time to manage the supplies, so appointing a supply or sanitation manager to the task can save you that time.  I have always had a student or two that sanitation and organization was important to and they were eager to volunteer.

SEPARATE ENTRY/EXIT POINTS Having your visitors/guests/clients enter and exit in separate locations, especially at peak flow times, can also help manage room flow and proximity.  In some locations, you will have multiple points of entry and can just designated one for entry and one for exit.  If you happen to have an adjoining office or classroom, working with your neighbor to have one room be for entry and one for exit could work with this flow, but that will depend on when your groups will enter/exit or if you want that many people coming through your space.  If this is not a viable solution for your situation, just be sure you have a procedure in place, such as for those entering to wait until someone exits.

TURNING IN WORK PRODUCT In an office or a classroom, there is a lot of material that can get passed around.  If access to electronic devices are an option, this can be a great way to minimize contact.  If paper items are a must, student created work could be best so there isn’t a lot of passing, then have a designated drop spot on the way out the door or, for small groups, have clipboards they keep all their completed work product on and can hang on a board or put in a drop spot at the end of the day.  You could have their graded work to return as well as the new work for the next day on the boards as they come in.  Another alternative to check for understanding without additional paper, you can use dry erase boards that are in their kits.  A cheap way to make these is with a sheet protector and piece of paper!

EFFICIENT CLEANING For some of you, this may be a given, but if not, let’s talk about how to clean efficiently.  The best method is to work from top to bottom and from back to front, or your exit point.  Start by making sure clutter is kept to a minimum or that everything is put in its place first.  Then, simply start at the top in the location farthest from your exit. For example, I would start at the back of my room and disinfect my computer station, then stack the chairs and sweep that section out.  I would then move to the reading station and clean the books and return them to the shelves, clean the shelves, and sweep the floors to the pile from the prior section.  I continued to the cubbies, the supply counter, then finally the student desks and stack those chairs.  Finally, I would go and spray all the stacked chairs with disinfectant as  I was leaving so that I didn’t have to breathe it in, and it would clear by morning. I would speak to your custodial staff about the floors—some would sweep and mop anyway, but I had some that just didn’t have time for both and, if I swept, they would make sure it got mopped.  When all else fails, you can take care of it or see if there is a volunteer student or parent that may be willing to help and save you time. Have all your supplies with you and work your way out of the space.  Be sure to have someplace to deposit your cleaning materials and clean your hands when you finish. 

DON’T BRING IN MORE THAN YOU NEED This is straightforward.  The more you bring in, the more you’ll need to clean.  Since my classroom always had a lot of traffic, I got out of the habit early from bringing in much other than my lunch, car keys, and ID tag.  I kept my emergency meds on sight in case I needed them.

DON’T TAKE WORK HOME This is a hard one for teachers.  Don’t do it.  First, your job is stressful enough and you are ON a lot.  Your time off is for your family, your mental and physical restoration, or anything you want it for.  If there is grading or planning, allocate time for that before or after work.  I gave myself an extra hour each day to complete these tasks and I assigned tasks to certain days.  Check out the blog I did on this topic here managing-your-time-effectively or you can watch the video (back when I had time to make videos) here A2T Assigning Daily Tasks .

HANDWASHING We will all be doing a lot of this and soap can get expensive to replenish.  Maybe you will be blessed with parent donations or can order a large refill bottle with your supply money or get lead money to purchase.  Perhaps you will just purchase on your own.  If you are looking for a less expensive alternative, grab some inexpensive bar soap and your potato peeler from the kitchen drawer.  Scrapings will be all they need for single use washing and can be tossed if any is left, eliminating a soap dispenser to clean.  For storage and distribution, get a small set of tongs to grab a piece from the container and avoid reaching in.

I hope some of these ideas have helped or inspired you.  I’d love to hear any of your ideas, tips and tricks that work well so I can share them with others!  If you are looking for other ideas, I blogged about this at the start of the epidemic in March, so have a lot more classroom specific tips at maintaining-a-healthy-learning-environment

For other ideas, tips and tricks for your classroom, check out my blog at www.addictedtoteaching.com or check out past YouTube videos by finding me at Sonya Barnes – Addicted to Teaching

Building a Plan B into Your Lessons

It happens, all too often.  We spend hours sorting out all the fine details to make a lesson perfect and something goes wrong, and we don’t have time to compensate for it.  Technology fails or ends up unavailable.  None of the copiers are working.  We must double down on students since our buddy teacher had to leave for an emergency.  Half the class is out for a field trip or with the stomach bug that is going around.  A student ends up in ISS/OSS and need their work provided.  A student with a long-term absence due to medical issues or a family emergency but needs to be able to keep up with schoolwork. A global pandemic impacting education and forcing us to adapt to some students learning in brick and mortar while some will be in e-learning situations, and we may be responsible for teaching both. These things can completely throw off our lessons and leave us with a potential lost day of learning for our students.  But learning doesn’t have to be derailed if we take just a bit of extra time to think outside of the box and plan ahead.  Here’s a few ideas to do this.

EMBEDDED TECH ELEMENTS Building in elements into our lessons that are digital work product or completion can be a great way to prepare for alternative scenarios.  We also often use videos from YouTube and other resources to help our students, so having these embedded into a PowerPoint or Google Slides Show can be a great way to have them available for whole class, small group, independent, or distant learning needs. 

STUDENT CREATED WORK PRODUCTS Allowing students to create their own work product can be a great time saver and adaptive method.  Whether it is answering on their own paper, creating a digital product online and submitting digitally, or using resources on hand, like recyclable materials to construct something then take photos or videos with a smart phone and submit.  But some assignments need more guided structure that must be teacher created.  We often create our own resources or have digital items that were shared or acquired digitally, especially these days. If you are like me, you will make many of your consumables customized to the theme of the unit.  Some teachers may have those ‘copies of copies’ resources that have been around and are a good go to, so it may be a good idea to spend some time recreating them as a digital version.  With that said, many items we already use are digital already.  Turning them into a document that can be shared or into another digital tool such as a google form to respond to can help you check for understanding of learning goals. Taking a survey of our students at the beginning of the term can let us know how many prefer tech, how many prefer paper/pencil, or how many are fin either way.  This can help you prepare effectively for those copies you may have to have on hand.

PRERECORDED LESSONS This is a favorite go to of mine I didn’t discover until many years into my teaching career.  Did you know that PowerPoint has a recording feature built into it?  You can run the PowerPoint, record your lesson, and just press play when the class is ready to begin.  For students that are out, you can share it and they won’t miss a thing from the day—I would incorporate a ticket out the door for students to complete to ensure they were on task, whether it was done in the classroom or out of class as make up.  This can be a huge time saver for teaching new skills and ensuring consistency, and having it available for student access after the lesson can be a huge help for those that may not get it the first time—you can post it online with a time note shortcut list for them to find sections they may need to get to quickly if they don’t need the entire lesson.  It can also free you up to circulate the classroom to help those struggling with notetaking strategies or the concept itself, or to keep easily distracted students on task.

LEARNING MENUS Sometimes we have concepts or tasks that can be completed in a variety of ways or various orders.  By giving our students a “menu” to choose from will allow them to have control of their activities, but it can also make it possible to move the week around, should something come up.  This can be done with a menu of learning activities that have a weekly checklist with time allowances in different categories—appetizers (hook activities), side dishes (extension activities for those that learn differently or think outside of the box), the main course (could be one or two things to choose from) and dessert (a way to demonstrate mastery of the concept with a few ideas you give them, or creative control, depending on age or skill level of your students).  This can also allow them to choose learning partners, groups, or independent work, depending on their preference.  If you use this option, I would be sure to make it clear to students that this may not always be an option, but if they handle it well, it could be used often.  This often encourages self-governing to stay on task and behave since students often like control and this can eliminate power struggles within the classroom.

ROTATIONS/CENTERS This is often a go to of mine.  It can work in conjunction with learning menus, as a step building towards them, or as they are.  Most learning maps have students learning several concepts at one time, but it can be challenging to acquire, practice or demonstrate mastery of them individually.  By creating rotations/centers, it will allow for specialized practice, explicit teaching, or support for struggling learners and advanced learners to expand their knowledge.  What I like about this is that I could allow my advanced students to rotate in small groups throughout the week, but could easily become a whole group or independent learning concept if our calendar changed or the class needed adjusted for management in the case of struggling learners or behavioral management issues.

By incorporating these into my lesson plans, I am already ready for the unexpected.  Often, these could result in my being over planned and having additional materials ready to go for future lessons, the following week, review activities or concept assessments, or even emergency plans for myself or for a buddy teacher’s emergency absence.  If I have learned nothing else in my thirteen years of teaching, it’s that things will rarely go according to plan, and are even more likely to fall apart if I planned it as my only option.

We Make Our Own Dog Food…That The Family Also Eats!

No, we aren’t those uppity people that spoil our dogs with gourmet food.  Last summer, we got a kidney disease diagnosis for our 14-year-old doxie, Angel, and one of the potential causes was the bag of dry dog food we were feeding them.  The vet said it would be better for her if we could give her a homemade dog food in addition to starting her on a regiment of medications.  We didn’t expect her to make it to Christmas.  As we are rolling into summer, we still have her and, other than her hearing and vision a bit worse, she is a happy pup.  When she got a check up in December, her numbers were lower, so it seems to be helping her kidneys a bit.

Our recipe started out pretty simple—rice, chicken breast, mixed veggies.  We added in scrambled eggs a few months later when they started getting bored with the flavor. Last month, we noticed they were sleeping all the time and almost lethargic acting.  Since we weren’t sure if it was pollen or diet, we added in  blend of turkey and beef. Their spunk seems to have returned and they are enjoying the additional flavor.  The multiple flavors and textures also help us hide their medicine in, although we due add a dab of peanut butter for the pills to hide in if they aren’t eager for dinner to entice them a bit.

It takes us about 30 minutes to prepare and a batch lasts about a week, or less, if the family eats any of it.  Yep, you read that right.  It is a quick and easy “stir fry” recipe that heats up in about 30 seconds and is healthier than most of the other quick prep food. 

The best part is how much it saves us.  We buy everything in bulk and freeze it.  We purchase rice in 10-pound bags from our local store, but when we can, we will go to the local Asian store—the rice is better, and it helps a small business.  We purchase family packs of beef, chicken, and turkey.  The chicken breasts get frozen individually.  The beef (usually market ground) is split into ½ pound portions, and the turkey into ¼ pound portions, then we combine the beef and turkey portions into one bag that we will cook together.  We buy our eggs in bulk already, as well as a large bag of mixed veggies. With buying in bulk, it will last us about 2-3 months, depending on how fast it gets eaten, and we only spend about $50.  We do still buy a small bag of the dry dog food for an occasional treat, or if we will be gone for the day and may be home a bit later than typical dinner time.

So, I thought I’d share our recipe, in case you were looking for an alternative to packaged dog food, a special treat for your furry friend, or a cheap and easy recipe for you, or for you and your family.

Puppy Stir Fry

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of rice, prepared (white, brown, or a blend)
  • 1 large chicken breast, boiled
  • 2 cups of frozen mixed veggies, thawed
  • ¾ pound of lean ground beef and turkey
  • 6 large eggs, scrambled

Preparation:

  • Fill pot with measured water for rice, turn on high to bring to a boil
  • Fill pot with enough water to cover chicken, drop in chicken breast and heat on high to bring to boil
  • Put 2 cups of veggies in a bowl and cover with warm water to thaw
  • Brown beef and chicken, drain
  • By now, rice water should be boiling, so add rice, lower temp to low/medium heat, and cover to simmer per package directions
  • Scramble 6 eggs (in same pan as meat for added flavor, and less dishes)
  • Drain veggies
  • Mix beef/turkey, eggs, and mixed veggies in large storage bowl that will hold the stir fry
  • Drain chicken and dice or shred, depending on preference
  • Add chicken to bowl, mix
  • Add rice to bowl, mix well (I find it is easier to use 2 utensils and “toss” like a salad to get it mixed well without making a mess.  The dogs do NOT prefer this method, though, they like the mess to “sample” dinner).

Makes 14 1 cup portions

So that’s it, our family’s “Puppy Stir Fry” Recipe.  It’s a super simple way to feed from one person to the whole family on a budget, or to feed your dog for a week and give them fresh dog food instead of something packaged.  For some reason, they seem to like the fact that they are eating what we are . I don’t know how much longer we will have our dogs with us, but I do know that this recipe has given us more time with our oldest pup, so it is totally worth it for us.

Becoming the Teacher My Students Needed Me To Be

By Sonya Barnes    4/30/2020

Please like and comment on this article if it resonates with you.  You can also interact more frequently by following me on Twitter @addictedtoteac1 or join the conversation on Facebook in the group Addicted to Teaching.

I remember the days of kids not wanting to work, or fake working when they didn’t understand and avoiding asking for help.  They would do as little work as possible to just get done as quickly as they could.  I remember calling home to parents or students to be hung up on when they heard it was me or sent to voicemail so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.  Those moments truly made me an unhappy teacher.  I questioned everything about my practices and wanted to do better, sometimes even considering a departure from the profession entirely.

We hear so much about building relationships with our students, we were shown videos of students and teachers high fiving and fist bumping, with glistening tears in their eyes about their love for each other, but not enough on how to do that.  Sure, I’ve had a few students I’ve connected with over the years and am still in touch with as adults. But it’s rare. And, honestly, I’m not even looking for that with every student. But I would like an enjoyable professional relationship with every student that is positive and progressive in their learning.  It’s not too much to ask, is it?

By happenstance, I stumbled across the how this year.  I found a way to define it, break it down into reproducible steps and saw it succeed-although not 100% because, well, what is ever 100% in life? 

My school does PLC’s a bit differently.  Our principal lets us choose our area of growth to focus on, let’s us do the leg work on it and share about it in a video at the end of the year with our colleagues—and we do so enthusiastically.  It’s not very often that your mandatory learning for the year gets to meet you right where you are and be about something you want it to be about.

With carte blanche, my team decided we wanted to explore the area of Growth Mindset.  It has become such a buzz phrase in education, but, other than defining it, we hadn’t really gone in depth of how to expand on it since it started. We wanted to explore this and see if we, already happy, bubbly people in a positive work environment, could find a way to do it better. And, to be perfectly honest, we were the newbies at the school still learning a new job, so wanted something we thought would be pretty easy.

We had to start by posing a question, so here is what we posed:

Once that was done, we started digging into the research element. I won’t bore you with all the details (unless you are interested, then check out the snip or comment below or email me and I can send you some links!), but we found out some amazing things. 

The sources–if you can’t read them, I can send them

We were surprised to learn that growth mindset not only impacted student learning/teaching environments but could impact whether or not dietary changes or attempts to quit smoking would be successful. Whoa. Game changer. 

A coworkers response to a research post

We realized we needed to do more than we already were, though. Especially since our project required us to make changes and implement them to get data.  We already used the “positive sandwich” approach in student feedback on assignments, but we stepped it up. In fact, when we stopped being negative at all, we saw a whole new level of connection with our students and parents.

You see, by creating a safe and welcoming environment focused on learning and not perfection, learning truly happened. We worked hard at the old proverb of treating others the way we wanted to be treated. We didn’t like being told what we did wrong, we liked hearing what we did well and what areas we could improve on and how.  So, if we, as professional adults, didn’t like negative feedback, why on earth would our kids?! How would they learn positive feedback and growth mindset if we didn’t live it?!

A student that hadn’t worked in weeks would start a conversation apologizing but would quickly relax when asked if they and their family were okay, or about some challenge they’d been struggling with the last time we talked, or how I could help them get the outcome they wanted.  I stopped telling kids to redo work they messed up on, but told them what I liked, what they could do to earn back points lost and gave them the choice of doing it—and most did.

By telling them I wasn’t worried about the past since we couldn’t change it, but that I was worried about how they could succeed right  and in the future showed them that they are the most important thing, not something they can’t change, I changed their view of the task. It truly became one of those teachable moments.

You know what else happened? Parents and students answered my calls, texts or emails. They knew my goal was to help, not judge, not make them feel bad, not point out the flaws. The students would call or text for something they didn’t understand and needed help with. And no matter how obvious the fix should have been or that I had a hundred other kids ask me THE SAME QUESTION that same day, I never made them feel bad. In fact, no matter how silly the overlook may have been, I’d downplay it as being something that was okay to not know since it may have been different than what we had known or just pretty hard to figure out. 

To truly embrace building those relationships, you’ve got to treat students as people and as equals, regardless of rank or responsibility in the infrastructure. You must respect their life and where they come from, what they are going through and be willing to walk through it with them to the other side.  You need to compliment them, celebrate their successes, and work together to solve the not YET successes.  Will it work every time and with everyone—I doubt it.  Who can make that kind of guarantee that isn’t selling something for 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping and handling?  But I can guarantee that you have no chance of seeing success if you don’t try.

So, start looking at how you interact with students, parents, coworkers, your own family—people.  Look for opportunities to focus on positives and celebrate successes or turn negatives into positives in the making.  You’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain, and you may find the payoff is in more than your day to day teaching interactions.

Ergo – what? Avoiding the Aches and Pains in your Workspace

By Sonya Barnes   4/11 /2020

I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or join me on social media: Facebook join the group Addicted to Teaching or Twitter follow me at AddictedtoTeac1. Don’t forget to like this article and let me know what you like about it so I will keep them coming!

With many of us  working from home to maintain an income, you may have noticed having more aches and pains than you normally have—especially people who are used to standing and moving around quite a bit, like teachers.  There are several factors that could contribute to this, and it’s not all stress related!  If you are sitting for an hour or more at a time and not using a proper desk or chair designed for sitting and working, you may have noticed back and neck aches, headaches, or trouble sleeping.  But you don’t have to deal with that!

Do you remember those typing classes you may have taken in middle school or high school that made you sit up straight, look straight at the screen, keeping your feet flat on the floor and your wrists off of the table?  That was ergonomics. Once our teacher graded us on it, many of us brain dumped that lesson and never thought about it again.  It took me getting carpal tunnel and tendonitis from hours of daily typing in a job, sending me into a brace for eight weeks and twelve weeks of physical therapy to relearn that lesson. 

In the corporate world, there is an ergonomics representative that trains people and checks for this annually, as well as making sure that desks and chairs as well as computer heights follow the guidelines.  But, when I transitioned into education, I never once heard or saw someone talk about it, unless they were the typing teacher.  As educators, we spend most of our time standing and pacing that little thought is given to how we sit.  In fact, if we are lucky, we may sit for a planning period or a training day, but not as a regular part of our day.  Now that so many are working on a computer, let’s go over the three areas to look at for your physical health.  Since I am a teacher, let’s use the acronym SPA to make it fun and easy to remember—Stretching, Posture, and Apparatus.

First, let’s talk about STRETCHING.  Starting and ending your workday with a few minutes of stretching will prepare your muscles for the work you are going to do and save you from injury or aggravation.  You can use simple basic stretches, engage in yoga, or a combination, depending on what aches and pains you may already have had.  You can find videos and tutorials all over the internet for these or take advantage of online yoga instructions for personalized guidance.  Just start at the top and work your way down.  The basics are neck stretches, shoulder rolls, arm circles, shoulder, chest and arm stretches, forearm stretches and flexes, lower back stretches, lateral trunk stretches, quadricep and hamstring stretches, calf and ankle stretches.  If you type or mouse a lot, I also recommend hand and wrist stretches and flexes.  I would recommend doing this both at the beginning and end of your day, possibly even midday, just depending on how long you are working and if you are feeling stiff and achy.

Next, let’s discuss your POSTURE while working on a computer, starting at the top down.  Your eyes should be on the screen, and the screen should be centered at eye level.  If you are using a laptop only, this won’t be as easy to do, so just make sure you aren’t straining your neck too far up or down.  Next, your back should be straight with your shoulders rolled back, but relaxed and not pulled up or forward—the best way to do this is to not put your back against the back rest and sit a little forward on the seat.  As for your wrists, they should be straight, floating above the edge of your keyboard or table surface and not resting on the surface.  Finally, your feet should be flat on the ground beneath you.  Pairing the correct posture with frequent breaks—every 20-30 minutes to stretch, walk around, and look away from the computer—is a best practice to avoid strain and stress on your body.

Finally, let’s discuss APPARATUS that can help take the strain off a long workday.  Since this is temporary for many, I will talk about alternatives with things that are around the home and won’t cost you a dime and put a bit more detail into this section!  For your work set up, you should have a well-lit room or a task lamp–the more natural light the better–to avoid eye strain.  Next, for proper monitor height, if you have a second monitor or keyboard, that can be most helpful in adjusting to the proper visual height, or even taking advantage of modern TV’s with USB hookups, can be helpful. Just be aware that TV’s give off a lot more blue light than a monitor will and can result in more headaches, a lesson I learned the hard way!  Next, a standing desk can be a great way to keep from those aches and pains of sitting too long.  Amazon and IKEA have some great options if you are looking to invest in a more long-term workspace—to include adjustable desks for both sitting and standing. The price usually starts at $100 and goes up. Next is a proper chair with back support and appropriate height. I found that a gaming chair is best for this since they are made for long term sitting.  Amazon or your local office supply store usually carries them, and they often have sales.  I also invested in a core balance disc (under $15 on Amazon) to help with core muscles and stretching and can even place behind my back to offer better posture support.  An alternative to a desk and chair is to opt for a standing workspace set up and you can add a box or a shelf made from leftover wood scraps you have around, or a countertop is a great option—just be prepared to clear out when it needs to be used for mealtime.  I also recommend a step of sorts to prop feet on and take the strain off your hips and lower back, especially if your legs don’t easily reach the ground like mine.  I purchased two monitor stands and used one for a footrest, or you can buy a true ergonomic footrest.  The free alternative would be to get a shoebox to rest your feet on.  If you are using a phone frequently, be sure to use the handsfree options whenever you can—either a headset or speakerphone setting, to avoid the aches of holding the phone all day.

Partnering these strategies, along with proper water intake, nutrition and exercise can help eliminate a great deal of the aches that come from working on a computer all day.  Especially when we are not in an ideal situation for those routine massages and chiropractor trips. 

I hope these tips help you find a healthier way to work, whether it be for long term or short term.  Taking many of these practices back into your classroom or office could be to your advantage!

Eating the Frog – A Taste of a Teacher’s World

One of the frogs living in my garden in progress posed for a picture with me

By Sonya Barnes 4/4/2020

I’d love to hear what your frog is!  Comment below or join me on social media: Facebook join the group Addicted to Teaching or Twitter follow me at AddictedtoTeac1. Don’t forget to like this article and let me know you like it so I will keep them coming!

There is a story from my childhood that comes up from time to time about when, after reading about the frog prince, I went outside, gathered a bucket of frogs and, one at a time, kissed the frog then tossed it over my shoulder and moved on to the next one when it didn’t turn into a prince.  I adore frogs, but the idea of eating one seems completely out of the question.  So when I was having a monthly chat with my instructional leader and she asked me about eating the frog, I definitely raised my eyebrows, before she went on to explain to me and encouraged me to share this concept with all of you.  So here I am.

Brian Tracy wrote a book on this catchphrase of Mark Twain’s, equating it to our modern day lives        and the tasks we do.  As educators, we have many things we must do regularly, and they are not always enjoyable tasks.  It took me many years to figure out effective strategies in my classroom for managing everything and that seemed to change from year to year depending on several factors from leadership to level of students in my classes.  When I moved virtual teacher and working from home, it became even more apparent that time management was incredibly important, especially with family home during the day when I was working. 

If you haven’t caught on my now, this phrase has little to do with literally eating frogs and everything to do with the figurative element of it.  You see, eating a frog is a repulsive idea and something we will put off if possible.  But the gist of this phrase is about taking on the most difficult thing to do and doing it first thing.  For me, grading has always been the bane of my existence—grading is my frog.  I have primarily taught reading and language arts in my career field, so grading meant reading a great deal of writing assignments several times checking for content and mechanics to help improve their skills.  I’d procrastinate on this task due to having so many other things to do and not wanting to, that I’d have a massive pile with hours of grading to do. Sometimes, I’d have so much when it was quarterly writing time, that I’d burn a personal day to spend grading just to have a quiet house to work in—and I’d still procrastinate.  I justified it by saying I was more effective if I graded at once, so I had the same mindset for all and wasn’t so subjective. 

Attempting to catch a frog in the garden was about as challenging as trying to eat the frog in my work day!

Now that I teach a technology course virtually, the grading isn’t quite as time consuming for each item, but it is still time consuming since many of my students will complete more than one assignment in a day and we have an expectation of grading within a certain time period.  This has helped me make sure I make time for it in my day.  I used to work it in when I could, sometimes leaving it to the end of the day, sometimes forcing myself to do it both in the beginning and end of my day. I even tried only grading every other day so that I didn’t have to deal with it as often but could still make the expectation. But after that conversation with my leader last month, I started grading as my first thing of the day every single day.  My brain is fresh and rested and I can start on it early before everyone in the house is awake and moving—which is much more of a distraction now that we are all at home during the Covid-19 orders. 

And do you know what I found?  It really does work.  Not only is my most challenging task completed, but it helps prepare me for the rest of my day.  I can then run an updated report to see the exact status of my students which prepares me for the phone calls I have to make during the day to students and parents.  If my student is successfully ahead and I call and they are stressed about some upcoming test or project, I can talk to them to plan around it. If they are behind or have a poor grade, we can talk about how to catch up or improve their grade and I know exactly what is needed.  It makes these conversations less about what they are supposed to be doing based on a checklist and makes it a more personal conversation about their individual learning and success. 

Considering parent calls were my second frog that I used to avoid in my brick and mortar days and now it’s a routine part of my day, finding this change has made those calls the most enjoyable task (second only to checking things off of my to do list!).  I can tell mom, dad, guardian, student not to stress or worry, we can do this together— do you have a plan or here’s a few options, which works best for YOU? 

This approach to my interactions has allowed me to be a blessing and they answer my calls, instead of the annoyance they send to voicemail.  When I have called home during this challenging time of everyone home and sharing devices, I have been able to be the calm and kind voice in their day.  I can hear the smile in their voice when they answer and saw me on caller ID or hear my name.  I want to be a blessing in people’s lives, so if that means I have to eat that frog every day, I will do so with a smile.

No frogs were harmed in the making of this blog.