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

May 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Setting Up for Success – Plan a Weekly Date with Yourself

May 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

a screenshot of what the printout will look like

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

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

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

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

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

April 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the pups out for a walk

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in there, I work in a hair day

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

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

Take care, my friends.

Using Menus to Inspire Student-Guided Learning

April 9, 2021

an example of a menu overview from a class slide

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

sample planning guide for menu project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Like a STAR – How to Maximize Your Evaluation

March 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life 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.

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.