Monday, August 24, 2015

First week in the books ~ 2015!

Just look at that sweet group of cutie patooties! I totally love them already. We are going to have so much fun this year... I can't wait to see what amazing things we learn from each other!

As first weeks go, ours flew by so quickly. I have to admit our first day had me a little their excitement we had a chattery group of kiddos. I wasn't sure if it was the classroom set up, getting to see old friends, or if we were in for a long chatty year, but by the end of the week we had ironed out most of the kinks to have a smooth running classroom. I am so glad that I did not chicken out and start the year with desks. I do believe these kiddos love our classroom setting as much as I do....*sigh :)

Just look at these book lovers reading away! One of our first goals was to really establish firm expectations for our writing and reading workshops, and I would say that we accomplished that. Of course we will need to revisit and maybe even make adjustments throughout the year, but we are off to a great start.


While setting up our reader's notebooks, I really stressed the importance of our reading record and our book status forms. These forms can tell me a lot about a kiddos reading when I call them up to conference with me. 

This example is one of my own reading records... if I ask the kiddos to read 40 books and keep a reading record, then I feel I should do the same. This is a mix of young adult and adult books which is what I tend to do throughout each year. 
There is so much I can learn about my young readers from this one form... 

Our book status form is an idea I took straight from the pages of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller. I fell in love with her philosphy of reading instruction with The Book Whisperer! Her books inspired me and gave me the courage to really reach out and teach reading the way I always envisioned it. If you haven't read these two books yet, you should pick them up as soon as possible!

In writing workshop we worked just as diligently to establish routines and expectations, and create a safe place to keep all of our fun and creative writing ideas.

Every year while creating these writing notebooks, I ask myself "why".... so much work and such a crazy-messy time but when I see the final products, I know exactly why I stick to it an have my kiddos create these.

One of our first entries into our notebooks is our Heart Map! This is another activity that can be wild and crazy, but I sure do love the results and the discussion.

Another of my favorites has become my students' weekly journals. This is a journal in which kiddos tell about their week and share their thoughts on school and their learning - and sometimes outside school events make their way in, too! They share these journal entries in the form of a letter to their families, and the exciting part is their families respond as well. The kiddos love that their parents have homework just like them.... my parents have always been so good to respond and participate with these, and the kiddos LOVE, LOVE, LOVE reading their responses. I will share more about these later. 

Look at this beautiful group of ladies that I have the privilege of working with every day!
Of course we had to do a silly pic :) ~ great things ahead for this group!

Well, I think that wraps up our crazy-busy first week! I am so excited for all the fun and learning we will have this year with this cute little group!

Happy Reading, friends!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Project Based Learning: Leap of Faith

Last spring when my principal pulled me aside and asked if my partner and I would be interested in doing project based learning with our class, my first thought was, "WHAT IS project based learning?"

Now, I had heard a bit of buzz about project based learning, but if I were to be perfectly honest, I had no true idea exactly what it entailed. So my first step was to hit the internet and do some research.

There was an overwhelming amount of information out there....often more than I could wrap my head around. 

Of all that I found, this short video from Edutopia gave me the clearest visual of what she was asking us to do, so this became our starting point. 

Real-world Connection

Our first step was to create a real-world connection... because this was our first attempt at project-based learning, we decided to keep it small. After researching project examples, we decided to create a brochure of our school, and our guiding questions to the kiddos became, "What would we need to include in a brochure to tell visitors as much as possible about our school, and how will we create it?" (For future projects, I would approach this as something that is more student driven...allowing students to create their own project.)

Mrs. Hanna came in and introduced the project to some very excited kiddos!

Core to Learning

Mrs. Whitt and I then sat down and discussed which Common Core Standards would be addressed in this project. The most challenging piece of this was to include as many subjects as possible within the project. 

Structured Collaboration

Students first browsed many examples of brochures, noting what the best brochures had in common and what each group felt was most important to include in their own.



Student Driven

After deciding what was most important to each group, they took off in their research. Here collaborative groups are looking through school scrapbooks dating back to the opening of the school, noting how it is displayed and written.

Students asked Mr. Dalton, the first principal at Southside, to come and share more of its history. Students took notes that they felt would be most important to their groups finished product and then worked with other group members to present it in the best way possible.

Groups had to be responsible to work throughout the building without interrupting the learning of other classes. This group is working together to create the map of the building that would be shared during their presentations. Maps had to include the length of each hallway and the distances from major points of interest within the building. Often you could find other groups interviewing students or taking photographs for their brochures. It became our job to monitor and guide them with questioning to the next step needed to create a finished product.
Multifaceted Assessment

Students had to email specific project requests to me. We would work together to revise and edit all requests to be appropriate and formal, and I would forward them to the appropriate parties.

Although we started the project with a number of forms to help the students maintain accountability and help me assess throughout, it quickly became clear that sharing our documents through Google Docs was a much more appropriate way for Mrs. Whitt and I to measure progress.


We assessed groups and individual students throughout the project and within the final presentations and projects. 

A few finished brochures.....

This group interviewed students from each grade level asking, "What do you like about Southside?"

Students learned about and created QR Codes to direct readers to important web pages. 

This group approached me about interviewing the superintendent of our district. My first step was to ask what they wanted to ask, and when they couldn't answer, I sent them back to the drawing board. Later they emailed these questions to me, and I have to admit to being impressed. When I asked them how they came up with these questions, they told me they researched "good interview questions." I was very proud, and they were just as proud when Dr. Thurman responded to their email.

This group spent a considerable amount of time with the formating of the panther in the background and how to line it up with their content. Their focus and determination really drove them and kept them busy for a while. This part of their project took more collaboration/ facilitation from me, but with them guiding me, we reached their goal. You may not be able to see it, but their text is a guide to what your student should know at the end of each grade level. 

When it came time to present, the students decided they wanted to meet their guests in the hallway and shake their hands, welcoming them to the presentation.

Each group worked out how they would present to a room full of elementary administrators AND our school superintendent. We were all nervous, but it was so fun to watch them shine for a job well done. 


Our presenters!

Although this was our first experience with Project Based Learning, I found it to be an amazing learning experience for not only the students but for Mrs. Whitt and myself as well. Letting go and allowing students to guide their learning was at times a leap of faith, but like I have said before, I have often found that when I am willing to take that leap, the kiddos are willing to meet the challenge. The students were very proud of their accomplishments and many were more than excited to share their finished projects with the guests at the presentations and later with their families.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

What I love most about my classroom

I am so excited and nervous to join Caitlin at Journey Through Elementary for her fun linky.

I saw her post this morning and as I thought about it, I could not think of one thing that I love more than anything else or that I haven't ALREADY SHARED in the last two posts.... I know I am driving you guys bonkers with the room posts...

Here, I talked all about my new learning environment, and I could hear the collective groan from here if I mentioned it again so soon.....and here, I went on and on about how excited I was for this year's classroom reveal. 

So there was the rub...what could I share that I had not already shared in the past week that wouldn't be like beating a dead horse.

Then it hit me, and I hope Caitlin can forgive me for taking liberties with this because I know that every single teacher that will link up with her, including her, will feel the same.

What I LOVE MOST about my classroom.... are all the amazing kiddos I share it with each year.

Have you seen those lovely signs all over Pinterest.... What I love most about my classroom is who I share it with! Everytime I see that I think how absolutely perfect and how do I get me one of those!

Those of you that have followed me for a bit, or even just this week haha, know how hard I have worked to make everything about my room inviting and comfortable for us. I know that you realize how much I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE our new setting, and how excited I am to be in it everyday. 

But really.... what matters... what I love... are those sweet kids. I know that loving them, reaching them, is ALL that matters. They are what drive me to be the best teacher I can...they are what drive me to create the best environment I can...and in the grand scheme of it all....they are my most favorite thing about my classroom.

Now there ARE about a million other things I love about my room, and you can read the last two posts to get a feel for them if you haven't already.... I thought I would spare my faithful followers the broken record. ;) 

Just be sure to stop by Journey Through Elementary to check out what others are loving about this upcoming year.

Happy Reading, friends!

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Friday, August 7, 2015

Why I Tossed my Tables

There was I time I thought I couldn't love my classroom any more than I already did. Yes ~ I am one of those people that obnoxiously loves what I do. I love where I work and the people I work with.  And I LOVED my room.  I often called it one of my most happy places. Walking into my room always made me smile!

As much as I loved my space and the kiddos that I shared it with each and every day, there was a part of me that always thought it could be better. There were small things here and there that just didn't work as well as I thought they could. 

I loved our cooperative learning tables, but they took up so much room. It felt like we were navagating around a sea of tables, and often the journey would be treachorous with jackets or bags in the way. Other times, the kiddos would not even sit at them at all, preferring to sit around the room during our reading and writing workshops. 

The students that could find their comfy spot and begin reading or writing were often the most focused, leaving those that were at the tables to be reminded to get back on track. I knew there had to be a better way to do these things, but I didn't know how.

Last November changed that for me...I attended the annual Arkansas Reading Conference with my friend, Dawn from Teach to Each. During our two days of visiting and learning at the conference, Dawn told me all about her plans to pull the desks/tables from her room. 

Wait! What? We can do that? No tables? No desks?

Where would the kiddos work? What would they write on? We can do that? 

You mean the kiddos can have freedom to move around and get comfy? Learn in a way that is suited for them? READ, READ, READ the way I do at home, all snuggled and comfortable? We can do that?

WHY oh WHY hadn't I thought of that sooner at all? Oh my... I couldn't sleep for all the possiblities dancing in my head!

I must say that I am very blessed to have a principal open to trying new things, so I went to her practically bouncing in my excitment with this new idea about classroom design given to me by Dawn. My principal gave me the go ahead to open up my room, and I couldn't rip those tables out quick enough.

We started in that November with hardly any furniture and kiddos simply sitting on the available bean bags or the floor. Even though I left two tables and brought in a coffee table, most kiddos still chose the floor, and you know what? They LOVED it! I LOVED it! The whole vibe of the room changed, and the kiddos came in pumped and ready to get down to business.

As lucky as I am to have such a supportive principal, I was even luckier to have such supportive and giving parents. You see...when I decided to take out all of my tables and desks, it was not simply to make more room (though that was a huge plus) or have my kiddos sitting on the floor (though that is all they wanted to do) but because I only teach language arts, I could just picture a cozy cafe or a reading nook at Barnes and Noble. I couldn't get that picture out of my head. In February, one of my kiddo's parents donated furniture to our room. Not just any furniture - beautiful furniture! And other parents donated bean bags and pillows. It just grew and became an amazing classroom environment.

Throughout this new journey my kiddos and I began to notice quite a few changes. When I say our environment changed, I mean it didn't feel so much like a classroom but felt more like a home. Dawn talked about it too, here. But the magic of it was that not only did the quality of our space change: the quality of our learning changed AND the quality of our relationships changed.

That one student that had been moved to every table in the room to try and find a place he could focus ~ well he found it on his own. He picked his very own favorite spot and you could more than likely find him there everyday with a thick book in his hand. Most of the kiddos knew it was his spot, and because he was no longer interrupting their learning if he was there, they left him to his own devices. He and I developed a closer relationship when I didn't have to correct him so often, and the book recommendations I could make! He plowed through so many different series, and soon I was pulling him up to find new books on Amazon. He truly became one of my most favorite people because I could see him for who he was and not someone that had to be redirected ALL the time.

Friends that I had never sat together at the tables because I just KNEW they would spend all their time talking began to sit together. And you know what...they did talk. ALL the time, but it was about the things that we were learning about in my classroom. The academically stronger of the friends found ways to mentor and guide their friends in ways that the kiddos would have never let me do. Watching their friendships grow as they helped each other was so inspiring and enlightening to me as their teacher.

Quiet students that had been happy to sit wherever I placed them and follow the lead of others began to stick their necks out and try new things. It was like just having the choice to sit and work with whomever they wanted made them stretch out of their comfort zones, and I could see new leaders coming into their own by the end of the year.

Just the same, the students that often were the strongest and tended to bulldoze their way through conversations and relationships began to see that when people had a choice, they often didn't choose to sit next to someone that didn't value listening as much as speaking. They became better friends when they knew their friends had a choice to sit next to someone else. They became better little people when they could see how their behavior and attitude impacted those around them, especially if they ended up sitting alone because of those behaviors.

Seating in our room was first come first serve, so the tardiness stopped. Before, I couldn't count how many times kiddos wandered in late - DAILY! As the kiddos began to understand that the prime seating would be taken if they didn't make it in early, they began to come in early! As an added bonus, when they did come in, they went directly to their choosen spot and began reading. There was a point in time that although they had the same task, reading at the tables first thing each morning was challenging for them, and often students had to be reminded to stay focused. However, for whatever reason, I found that when kiddos could come in and sit where they wanted, they tended to get where they needed to be and began reading without the unnecessary visiting.

Watching the kiddos as we undertook this new and fun journey taught me as much as it taught them. I could see new friendships and strengths, both socially and academically, that I might not have ever seen. I discovered new strategies to guide their learning, and I gave a lot of the responsibility of student learning back to the kiddos.  The amazing part is the rose to the challange and accepted much of the responsibility, becoming better learners, learning what works for them.

But here is the kicker... through it all, I knew it could be even better. It became my mission this summer to do all I could to create my vision. Over time the vision has changed to become what it is now, but I COULD NOT be happier with the results!

I have tried to include as many different seating options as possible to address as many different learning styles as possible. I have tables for those that still need them and comfy rockers for those that prefer to snuggle in to read. There are soft and cushy pillows for those that want to spread out on the floor and stools that can provide hard writing surfaces for them. As I continue to learn about each new year of kiddos, I will modify and adjust the room to their needs, and each time I hope they come to love it as much as I do. 

Tossing those tables out of my rooom was the very best thing I ever did as a teacher; I only wish I had done it sooner! And YES, YES, YES ~ I love my classroom even more now than before!

Happy Reading, friends!

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