Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Teacher Blues

There's nothing quite like the first days of school during your first year teaching.  You've been setting up and decorating your classroom unit it is just perfect.  You've spent the summer pouring over resource books, standards, curriculum maps, until that's all you can think about.  You've created these amazing activities for your students, that you know they will love.  Then it begins.  It's not at all what you've expected.  You've visualized it hundreds of times in your head and know what should be happening in your classroom, but it's not even close.  Maybe half your class has behavior issues or even more than half are severely below grade level.  You've probably found a student or two that acts as if they really don't care, or maybe a student who gets worked up over everything.  You may have already had your first run in with a parent:  you're too easy, you're too hard, you give too much homework, you don't give enough homework, why did you give that grade, why did you discipline my child-you get the picture.  There's also a chance that you're feeling a bit overwhelmed at the amount of paperwork you're responsible for.  It doesn't just stop at grading papers, there is RTI, EIP, IEP, 504s, discipline logs, parent communication logs, and of course data, data, data.    You've probably also had the very best lessons completely fall apart, and you have no idea why.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

I happened to come across this image of the phases of a first year teacher and felt like it was a great visual representation my feelings my first year teaching. 

I'm not going to lie and tell you that it will ever be easy, but you'll definitely find that it does get easier.  There is no doubt that my first year teaching was my hardest year.  I've written some of my thoughts on how to not just survive, but enjoy your first year teaching.  This will be my tenth year, and I still have a lot to learn, so I'm definitely no expert.  I've just been fortunate enough to have wonderful role models during my teaching career, and I've learned a lot through my own mistakes.

1.  Procedures-The importance of procedures cannot be emphasized enough.  My first year teaching I thought that one or two days of going over my classroom procedures would be just right for my fourth graders.  WRONG.  Classroom procedures such as:  how to enter the classroom, sharpening pencils, turning in homework are VERY important and should be taught and practiced.  However, they are not enough.  You also need to spend several days teaching procedures in your content areas.  For example, in reading you'll have to teach:  how to choose a book, how to act during independent reading, when should you abandon a book, etc.  Every little thing has to be taught and practiced, or you'll spend the entire year correcting behavior rather than teaching.  I've found that it takes me a good ten days to teach procedures for reading, writing, and math workshop (each subject has its own set of procedures).  If you've seen my First Days of Math Workshop, you know that I break down every little part of math workshop into a series of procedural mini lessons, because that's what makes the year run smoothly.

2.  Consistency-This is one of those things that sounds easy, but it's really not.  It's important for students to learn at the beginning of the year that you mean what you say.  Don't argue with students, don't negotiate, and don't yell or threaten.  Simply follow through with your discipline plan.  As you write your rules and consequences, be certain that you will be able to enforce your rules and will follow through with all of your consequences.  I've also learned not given chance after chance for students to correct their behavior, because students will find just how far they can push until they've reached their limit, and they'll continue to push those boundaries.

3.  Confidence-I really do believe students and parents can smell your fear.  Even if you have to completely fake it, act as if you've got it all under control.  This is one I had to learn the hard way.  I quickly found that if students and some parents feel that they can run all over you, they're going to try it.  The smallest things such as body language and posture can go a long way, as well your tone when you speak.   It's okay to be flexible and willing to listen, but don't constantly second guess every decision you make.  You are a professional and expect students and parents to treat you as a professional.  

4.  Don't Compare-This is so difficult, but try not to compare yourself with other teachers.  It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like everyone else has it altogether, and you're the only one barely treading water.  That's not true.  I've yet to meet a teacher who honestly thought they had it all figured out.  We all struggle and have those days when we hit our limits and are totally and completely frazzled.  Don't worry if someone else always has a cuter bulletin board or amazing work samples in the hallway.  That is not what makes an amazing teacher.  It's okay to learn from others, but don't try to look at teaching as a competition.  Focus on your students and their need.  The rest will come.

5.  Positivity-Surround yourself with positive coworkers.  Do everything you can to stay away from those people who constantly complain and/or gossip.  It's incredibly easy to get caught up in the negativity, and it will take away your joy of teaching before you ever realize you've been sucked in. 

6.  Don't Be Hard on Yourself-You have to give yourself a break.  I don't know if it's possible to be an expert in every subject area your first year teaching (or second, or third).  Find one particular area you want to excel in and throw yourself into developing your expertise in that area.  Each year you can continue to find new ways to improve and excel.  Don't be afraid to ask for help either.  If you're not sure what to do about a particular skill, ask your teammates or a mentor.  I've also found that most bloggers are genuinely nice people who would be happy to offer their advice as well.  I know I'm always willing to help in anyway I can, so just shoot me an email.   

7.  Balance-I think this is the hardest one for most of us, but it is essential.  You'll find that teaching completely consumes you.  It's what you do all day and think about all night.  I sometimes find that all of my conservations and even dreams revolve around school.   You have to force yourself to get away from it and take a break.  If you're like most teachers, you'll find that you could stay at school three and four extra hours and day and still not catch up on all there is to do.  It's simply impossible, because there will always be one more thing.  When you reach the point, where you're just going through the motions, take a break.  You've got to allow yourself to have some fun and to take an emotional break from the stress.  I've found that I'm at my best when I step away and allow myself to recharge and refresh. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Homophone of the Week & Reading Freebie

Do you ever have those moments where you wonder "Why didn't I think of that?"  That's what happened to me a couple days ago when I was working on my homophones chart.  Homophones are on of those things that drive my crazy.  Homophones have always been so difficult for my students, and I just don't think a week or two homophone unit is enough for students to get a firm grasp on using them correctly.  For the past several years, I've introduced one homophone a week to my students, and for just a minute or two each day, we discuss the homophone and practice using it in a sentence.  I also occasionally give a very brief quiz over our homophone of the week.  That part of my idea has been great, and by the end of the year I can see a difference with my students.  However, my system for displaying the homophones wasn't the best.  I've been handwriting them on a piece of chart paper, which would be fine if I had nice handwriting and a little artistic ability.  I also had replace my chart each week, and of course that was one of those little things that is super easy to forget about, and I'd find myself rushing to get it done at the last second.  It finally dawned on me to make printable posters that I can quickly change each week.  I laminated two pieces of black construction paper and printed and laminated the homophone charts.  Now, I can just Velcro or tape the homophones onto the construction paper each Monday, and I'm ready to go!

I did add these to my TpT Store if you're interested.  There are 36 homophone posters, a few different title page options, and a brief quiz for each homophone.

Now for the freebie!  This is just a very basic reading graphic organizer, but I really like using it with my students.  It's great for teaching story elements, and the layout is fairly easy for students to understand.  I also like that I can use it with any book, so it's very flexible.  You can click on the picture for your copy!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

College Football & Forgotten Freebie

Living in the south, there are few things that spark more passion and excitement than college football.  My husband has a countdown going for the first kickoff, and I know what we'll be doing most Saturdays from then through December.  We always try to make it to at least one Alabama game (his team) and one Florida State game (my team) each fall. However, I just don't think sitting in bleachers in 100 degree heat for a few hours sounds all that fun at 9 months pregnant, so we're skipping our games this year.

This passion is definitely carried over to the classroom as well.  In the fall, football is the one of the main topics of my students' conversations and thoughts.  Even if they know nothing about football, everyone has a favorite team, and a team that they just cannot stand.  ???  I've always had the philosophy of instead of trying to teach around this type of passion, find a way to use it to my advantage.  Why not combine what they enjoy with what they need to learn?  This thought lead to the creation of one of my newest products-College Football Math Task Cards.

I've created 24 addition and subtraction task cards and 24 multiplication and division task cards for a total of 48 task cards that all have a football theme.  The word problems also represent 24 different college football teams, so hopefully your favorite team is included!  I have also search high and low for color combinations to reflect each of the teams, so each team has it's own unique look.  If you want to check them out, just click on any of the pictures.

I've also noticed that I'm becoming more and more forgetful each day!  Which is more than a little scary, because I tend to be scatterbrained in the first place!  I noticed that on a recent blog post, I has intended on sharing a Place Value freebie, but I never added it to the entry.  I am so sorry!  It is an I Have, Who Has.... game for practicing place value and forms of numbers.  My students always love playing this game, and hopefully yours will too!  Just click and picture and download!

Monday, August 20, 2012


Homework is one of those things that no matter what you do, it's really hard to make everyone happy.  I definitely don't believe in bombarding students with tons of homework.  I know how I feel when I get home from school, and the last thing I want to do is spend hours on extra school work.  I want my students spending time with their families, participating in extracurricular activities, and just playing at home.  Furthermore, I really don't have time to check hours of homework either.  However, we are under the lose expectation of giving about 30 minutes of homework a night (10 minutes per grade level).  My grade level plans together as a team so that we can try to be as consistent with our homework as possible.  The only actual homework assignments that we send home are for language (grammar) and math, and everything else is for students to either to study or read.  I've broken down our expectations for each subject area.  I check all homework but do record give grades on homework.  If I see that a student struggles with a particular skill, I make a point to meet with the student individually to review the skill.

Spelling-We send home spelling words on Monday and test students on Friday, and I'm happy to give parents ideas and handouts such as Spelling Tic-Tac-Toe boards that they can use to practice at home, but I don't require anything to be turned in.

Reading-Our only reading homework is a nightly reading log.  I think reading logs are one of the most controversial homework topics among teachers, and I can definitely see both sides of the argument.  I'd be okay with skipping reading logs altogether, but the majority of my team likes them, so I go with the flow:)

Science/Social Studies-The only thing we send home are study guides for science and social studies tests.  I occasionally offer projects that students can complete for extra credit, such as the 3 Branches of Government Project.  I'm thrilled that my students AND their parents LOVE these projects.  Some of them go way overboard, but as long as they're having fun and not stressing over, I say go for it!

Language/Grammar-This is a work in progress.  My plan is to create a spiral review worksheet similar to the math worksheets below.  I'm still working on developing a new pacing guide for the Common Core Standards, because I never want to give my students homework on something they have not practiced in class.  For now we are using a a combination of different skills practice worksheets.

Math-I send home a spiral review worksheet every Monday.  I start the year with very basic second grade review.

 Then as the year progresses, the questions gradually increase in difficulty.

As you can see, the worksheets are a combination of basic skills practice.  I tried to keep these worksheets focused on the skills that are essential for students to practice regularly. 

This is actually one of my oldest and most frequently revised products in my TpT Store.  I originally made these as a fourth grade teacher and then revised everything when I was moved to third grade.  This summer, I changed the questions again to align the worksheets with the Common Core Standards.  I've also added additional weeks, so there are now 26 weeks worth of homework assignments (assuming you send home one a week).  If you're interested, you can view the packet by clicking on the picture below.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reading Comprehension & Place Value

So how many of you are back to school?  I have to admit that I'm getting pretty excited, but I will definitely miss being at home.  I'm trying to savor and enjoy every last second of my summer break and squeeze in a bunch of fun last minute activities.  I've also tried to start getting my daughter back on some sort of schedule, because we have both become very spoiled to staying up late and sleeping late.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email asking me how I started the year with reading workshop.  The question really got me thinking about my first weeks of reading and even inspired a whole new unit!  Just like math, I start the year with procedures and behavior expectations for reading workshop.  We spend a ton of time on how to choose a book, what good readers look like, when to abandon a book, etc.  I know that there are tons of resources on the management aspect of reading workshop, so I moved on to my actual reading instruction.  In addition to fluency and vocabulary, I like to start the year with very basic comprehension strategies.  I feel like students have to be able to comprehend what they're reading before I can worry about more difficult skills such as author's purpose.   I usually spend an entire week on each of the following comprehension strategies:  visualizing, making connections, asking questions, drawing conclusions, and summarizing. I teach each of the strategies through the workshop model and love using picture books as mentor texts.  Once I teach these strategies, we refer to them all year long, so by the end of the year they are a natural part of reading.  I've compiled five of my favorite lessons for each strategy to create a reading comprehension strategies unit, which includes a total of 25 comprehension lessons.  If you want to check it out, you can click here or on the picture below.

I've also made these little exit passes that we occasionally use for our closing that tie into the comprehension strategies.  Students can use it as a bookmark as they read, as an exit pass, or an activity for reading groups.  Grab your free copy here!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Essential Questions & Spelling

I've added essential questions to my lesson plans for the past several years, but I had not thought about posting them in my classroom until the end of the year.  (There's nothing quite like a district focus walk to get me in gear to post what I'm supposed to be posting:)  Since it was the end of the year, and my last year using Georgia Performance Standards rather than Common Core Standards, I didn't do anything special to make them look appealing, which is not my style at all.  One of my summer projects was to make a third grade set of essential questions that were actually cute and student friendly.

I first made headings using several different fun fonts for reading, writing, language arts, and math.

I then made a poster for every reading, writing, language arts, and math standard.  I found that many standards required more than one poster, so I ended up making about 130 different posters.

I've since made 4th and 5th grade essential questions, and let me just say WOW!  Everyone should have to read the fifth grade standards, because that is some really tough stuff!  I don't remember my fifth grade math be anywhere near that difficult!

You can click on any of the links to see the posters on TpT:  third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade.  For all of you Georgia teachers I also made science and social studies essential questions posters for 3rd grade, which you can find here!


Now switching gears...I'd love to know what you all do for spelling.  I feel like I've tried a little of everything from Fountas and Pinnell's Word Study, Word Journeys, and Words Their Way.  It's one of those things that I haven't yet found the perfect system for me.  Right now, I've pulled my favorite elements of each program into my own version of spelling, but I'm not sure that's the best thing for me to do.  I did create a spelling pretest that I've found to be very useful, because it assesses a wide variety of spelling patterns and frequently used words.  You can click here for your free copy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Classroom Forms

I recently started cleaning out the files on my computer, which had gotten a little cluttered for me.  My dropbox was full, and I was starting to have a really hard time finding anything.  It was a little like Christmas to find all kinds of documents and forms that I had totally forgotten about!  Most of them are very classroom specific, but there are a few forms that I thought you mind find useful, and I'll share these forms as soon as I clean them up a little.

I've found that it is so much easier for me to have all of my students' contact information on one form rather than using the emergency contact forms we keep in our classroom.  I keep this right behind my desk, and it was so nice to have everything right there in one place.
I keep this form with my students' contact information, because I've learned how important it is to document every time I make a phone call.  I was really surprised at how many times I referred to it during the year.

My students take home a folder everyday.  I spend home all of my students' completed work along with any notes or handouts on Mondays, and I use the folder for homework, parent notes, any type of reading log or math fact log.  I use Nicky's Folders, which are absolutely WONDERFUL!  I love them!  They are very durable and will easily last a year or more.  They also have clear sleeves on the front and back, which are very handy.
I like to place a folder log in the front of my students' folders for parents to sign on Monday.  I do this because year after year, I would have parents tell me that they never received their child's work.  This helps me to make sure everyone is taking their folders home and that parents are seeing their child's work.  If I notice a couple of weeks go by and a particular student doesn't have their folder log signed, I make a phone call just to make sure everything is okay.
You can click on any of the forms above for a copy.  I've left all of the files above in Word, so you can make changes as necessary.  You may need to change the font on the files, since some of the fonts won't transfer unless it is installed on your computer.