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

March 23, 2021

Just working the phones on an average day

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

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

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

Whoa.

Really?!

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

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

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

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

I look forward to these talks.

They look forward to these talks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCupISfBEejlSrXzNPDhN7cg/featured?view_as=subscriber 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!