The Third Wheel

3 Simple Things You Can Do NOW for a Better New School Year

Call me crazy (you wouldn't be the first one) but I love to walk out the door on the last day of my contract year with the start of next year in place. Sure, my things are in boxes shoved in every nook and cranny of the room so the custodians can clean and buff and make the building shine for fall, but there is nothing like the feeling of hitting the ground running those first few days back. 

Print labels. I always print all my labels for journals before I leave for the end of the school year. I know it seems silly, but it means I can quickly and easily prepare folders and journals in the fall. Since I am going to have to spend a good chunk of time taking all my things back out of boxes, it seems like a good trade-off to not have to fight with the printer while everyone else is trying to figure out how to get their labels to print on the correct side! Get the free version here or click the image to get the fillable set to personalize for your classroom. 

Make a shopping list. Before I pack up for the year, I start my shopping list for the next year. I always take a look for anything that is broken or that needs a better organizational system. I love doing this for two reasons. First, I can wait for sales because let’s be honest, what teacher doesn’t spend a ridiculous amount on their classroom each summer. And second, I hate the rush of people hitting the stores in August…plus what I need always ends up sold out.

Start planning the first week. I know what you are thinking. Is she CRAZY!?! We aren’t even done with this year yet, and she is planning for next year! Hear me out though. You did some activities during the first week of school that were super awesome, right? The kids loved them. You loved them. They were engaging and totally helped you build your class community. Plug those into your plans for next year…or at least make a list of them (and copies if you have some left over). Sure, the schedule might change, but won’t it be great to have a little less planning to do once you come back?


Want more great ways to get your new school year off to a great start? Sign up for my summer challenge, 6 Weeks to a Better School Year. The challenge starts in July, and you’ll get weekly emails with one task to complete to help make your school year run more smoothly! There will also be exclusive freebies! It is perfect for returning teachers and new teachers alike. 

Join 6 Weeks to a Better School Year NOW to have your best school year ever!

Solving the Problem of Teaching Problem Solving

Math aversion is all too common in our schools. Many students are indoctrinated with a fear of math from an early age because we fail to give them the tools to help them be successful problem solvers. The Common Core aimed to solve this by connecting different methods of thinking to the teaching of problem solving. Regardless of whether you are a fan of the CCSS or not, I am sure you can agree that we need students who are not afraid to take risks and try to problem solve in math. Here are a few things we know about these successful math students: 

Students who are proficient mathematical thinkers make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.  This may seem like stating the obvious, but as teachers know, perseverance can be in short supply in the elementary classroom.  It is up to us to teach students how to look at problems so they can figure out which strategies they want to use to solve the problems.  We also need to provide encouragement so our students will keep on keeping on when the answer doesn't make sense on the first attempt.  In order for our students to be independent problem solvers, we need to challenge them with difficult problems and then teach them to tools to discover how to solve problems for themselves.

Successful math students know how to reason abstractly and quantitatively.  They are able to see the problem as it exists in the big picture, but then they are able to solve it by applying the correct operations.  They pause along the way to check their thinking process to make sure it fits the problem they are solving.  As a simple example, there were 7 cookies on the plate and Jane ate 2.  How many were left?  A student should be able to picture cookies on a plate and then being eaten.  Then they should think, 7-2=5.  If they started to think, 7+2, they should know to backtrack because cookies that are eaten are taken away.

Strong mathematicians can verbalize their thinking.  The other side of this coin is to be able to critique the thinking of others.  It used to be enough to memorize a formula and be able to apply it, but to be truly mathematical thinkers, students must be able to carry on a conversation about the strategies applied to solving problems.

Proficient math students are able to model solutions to problems using mathematics.  For beginning students, this means being able to write an equation to correspond with a word problem.  As students grow, they will be able to use math to plan the logistics for a classroom party… There are 20 students in the class and everyone wants three cookies.  How many cookies do we need?  But Sam can’t eat cookies.  Now how many do we need, and what can we provide for Sam?  By the time students are in high school, they should be able to use geometry to design a functional structure. 

Good math students use the mathematical tools that are available to them correctly and strategically.  Tools can be mechanical tools such as protractors and rulers, or they may be technological tools like calculators and computer applications.

Mathematicians are precise.  They communicate clearly and precisely.  In addition to being able to explain their thinking, students also need to be able to concisely state why they used the operations and tools they did to solve the problem.

Strong math students recognize the structure to mathematics.  Young students should be able to see the communicative property of addition, and the relationship between addition and subtraction.  They can count the numbers of sides to a shape.  As students grow older, they will see the how the distributive property can be applied to break down more difficult multiplication equations, and they will see how drawing an auxiliary line in a geometric shape can help them solve geometry problems.

And, last but not least, successful math students can see how repeated calculations lead to repeating decimals, or how they translate to geometric formulas.  That brings us back to the beginning - mathematical students need to be able to see the big picture and the specific steps needed to solve the problem.

As elementary math teachers, we are building the foundation of mathematical thinking in our students.  The cornerstone of mathematical thinking is problem solving.  However, without purposeful, repeated practice many students do not have the opportunity to develop into strong,capable math students. Looking for tools to teach problem solving? Click here for my favorite tools and resources.

How to Waste Your Planning Period in 5 Easy Steps

Planning period…those precious minutes set aside to get stuff done. Based on the name an outsider would suspect those precious minutes would be devoted to crafting those beautiful lesson plans full of engaging, hands-on activities. Let’s be honest. We do those at home….on a Saturday (or Sunday) night….in our pajamas. The reality is 50 minutes is far from enough time to plan quality lessons and get everything ready to pull them off. That doesn't make those minutes any less precious. There are parents to email, websites to update, folders to stuff, papers to copy, and the list goes on and on. I, however, have found that I am completely horrible at getting stuff done in the 50 minutes I get daily. Between team meetings, IEP meetings, parent conferences, and everything else I find I barely have time to hit the restroom before it is time to pick up my class for the rest of the day. When I do have that rare planning period to actually plan, I never seem quite able to get anything done. 

1. Stop by the office. No really, I dare you. Walk through the office door, and somehow time speeds up. I am pretty sure they have a secret machine that fast-forwards time, but that’s just a theory. It doesn’t matter what you come into the office for originally. Forty-five minutes later you are deep in a discussion about someone’s absences or class placements for next year or something equally as unimportant (at least for that moment).

2. Use the copy machine. I am not sure about you, but the copy machines at my school have an attitude. You ask them to do anything and you are likely to face grinding gears and the dreaded paper jam. This is especially true if you are in a hurry. I am pretty sure they design those things to sense when I have a list of things to do. Maybe it is a reminder to just chill and be in the moment….or maybe it is someone’s sick way of making me slowly lose my mind all while pulling crumpled, ink-filled paper from within the labyrinth of drums and gears. I tend to think it might be the latter.

3. Check in with someone on your team.  I can almost guarantee the complete loss of your entire planning time when you do this. Somehow it turns into a competition of which teacher has had the craziest morning…or a discussion about the crazy parent email that arrived at 3:00 AM about something totally out of your job description (C’mon, parents! If you can’t figure out how to get your child to shower…I certainly can’t either. I am still working to get my own kids bathed and in bed at a reasonable hour.) If it doesn’t turn into one of those, it will certainly turn into a discussion of something one of you has planned to do tonight or over the weekend. If you really want to plan during those minutes, just say no to pit stops.
4. Try to update your website. I tried so diligently to update my classroom website weekly. I love keep parents informed as to what we are doing in class. However, I have never had a planning period when I didn’t spend more time trying to fix something that has gone funky with the site longer than I actually spent writing the update. Seriously, how is that possible? 

5. Call a parent. Okay, this one is actually a good one to get something crossed off your to do list. However, it is still totally guaranteed to suck up those 50 minutes. By the time you get the parent on the phone and have the discussion, you will always have at least 1-2 follow-up things to do. Sometimes it is gathering resources to send home…or to check in with a colleague (see #3)...or even just to document the phone call to show you are meeting your evaluation requirements for parent-teacher communication. It just never goes fast!

The truth is the only way to really use your planning effectively is to have it pre-planned…and to immediately put your head down and walk at warp-speed back to your classroom after dropping the kids off. Despite knowing this, I could rarely pull it off. Thank goodness I had two whole days for planning each week…you know, the weekend. 

Building an idea bank with reluctant writers

One area I really pride myself in is writing. I am by no means an instructional expert in this area, but I help kids find the parts of writing they love and to build from there. I have  had many reluctant writers come through my door. A vast majority leave excited to write. I feel like there are two reasons for this. First, I spend a good amount of time working on idea generation and helping the kids keep their own record of ideas. The second is that I build in unstructured writing time where they can write about whatever they want in whatever format they prefer (even comics or graphic novels for my artistically inclined friends). Together these two things have made a huge difference in my students' enthusiasm for writing.

Image credit: cristina_conti | Dollar Photo Club 2015

  1. Make a Heart Chart. This is a great visual tool, and it lets the kids really focus in on the people, places, and things they love. I like to use our heart charts as a jumping off point for memory recall. Here's an example of my heart chart from this year. From there I can generate lots of great ideas by thinking about the special memories I have with each item in my chart. Got this version of the heart chart as a freebie quite some time ago. Can't remember where...but if it is yours let me know so I can give you credit for this awesomeness! 

2. Draw it! This year we designed the title page of our writing journals to be images and "fancy words" (as my kids would say) that show all the things we love and are special to us. They aren't full fledged ideas at this point...just a visual list we can use later to start breaking into how to get to ideas. After showing them mine, they were so eager to play with different lettering and images. I was totally impressed with how much thought went into their ideas. I was even more impressed when I saw a few of my really hesitant writers going back later to add ideas and use it to start writing. Here's an image of my title page before I added color and more design.

3. Create (structured) a list of memories. Have your students number their papers from 1-10. For each number give them a different prompt and a number of ideas they need to generate. They should be able to answer the prompt in 2-3 words. For example, you might have them write their 3 favorite places or things for numbers 1-3. Numbers 4-5 might be wishes they have, and so on. This list gives them 10 things they are experts on that they can always refer to. I also love to use a timer with this strategy and tell them we are going to make the 10 item list in under 10 minutes...not sure why time works in my favor on this one, but they eat it up.

These three quick ideas are my favorite ones for getting students to really think about what they might decide to write about. Even the most reluctant writers LOVE the visual design idea generation. What do you use to help those students who don't like to write start brainstorming?

10 Simple Tips for Making Student-Led Conferences Work for You

The end of the school year that is! This time of year is always a flurry of activity, with state testing and spring conferences all falling practically on top of one another. Add that to the stress of keeping all your ducklings in a row as the weather gets warm, and it is quite a task! One way I have kept my learners engaged and motivated is by utilizing student-led conference for the end of the year. Here are a few tips and tricks I've learned along the way.

1. Consider if technology is the right choice. For years my students have taken on the all consuming task of creating a PowerPoint presentation to share with their families. Of course, this requires access to computers for weeks on end across multiple days, and there is always a cadre of slow workers that stress me out until the very last minute. Usually at some point the slowest end up dictating their thoughts to me as we wrestle with the other teachers over the precious laptop cart. If you are sharing computers, like we did in my grade level, you may have to consider alternatives.

2. Make a template. If you do decide to use computers to create your presentations, be sure to create a template in advance. My school uses Google Drive, and I love making my template in their and having the students make a copy and share it with me so I can keep track of their progress from anywhere. I liked to build in mini-lessons that corresponded with my media literacy standards to help break up the information and encourage them to go with a professional look. Having them shared on Google Drive made it really easy for me to check the projects to determine the next mini-lesson topic.

3. Look at alternatives. A mini-book is another great way to share information with parents during the student-led conference and it makes for a great keepsake. I get to cover the exact same topics as I did in my old PowerPoint template, but I don't have to fight with my colleagues over the computers and I also am free from the worries about my slow typists getting it done in time. One trick I've used for my mini-books is to hook plastic bags to a bulletin board so that each student can put in the pages as they finish them. This keeps them looking neat because they only take the page they are working on, and it never gets lost in their desk. I can quickly grab and staple when they are finished!

You can get a copy of my year end conference mini-book here. Its about 17 pages and full of great reflections about the school year.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice. I always start our practice time by talking about what a good presentations looks like. I model a poor presentation and have students identify my mistakes (like talking to my friends, mumbling, reading directly from the presentation, and not looking at the audience). I then repeat the exact same presentation in a well-done professional way. The students talk about which they'd rather listen to. Then I partner them up to practice giving their own presentations and critiquing one another. We slowly work our way from presenting to one person to presenting to a small group over the course of about a week leading up to conferences. I am always so impressed listening to them when they are presenting to their parents.

5. Schedule it out. I schedule my student-led conferences open-house style on the last Monday before school ends. By then I have had the chance to really conference with all my families that need one-on-one meetings, and this is a chance to celebrate the hard work. We usually schedule at 9:00 AM because the kids spend the first hour of the day setting up and doing one last practice round.

6. Create personalized invitations. I give my students about 20 minutes to design an invitation about three weeks before the conference. We talk about the invitation as a genre of writing and what information needs to be included. The kids get to design their own and take it home. This gives parents plenty of time to plan.

7. Bring treats. I always bring donut holes, coffee, and juice boxes. I set up a snack table near the front and teach my students to take their parents to get a snack when they are done presenting. The parents love to look through the journals or take another classroom tour with their child while they enjoy a snack.

8. Make a note. After they finish up, I add my secret page and bind the booklets. On the back page, I write each student a personalized note about why I enjoyed having them in class and how I am proud of their growth. I wish them a happy summer and a great year in the next grade. The kids see these for the first time at the conferences (or in the practice sessions before).

9. Give them options. One thing I love about this system is that by the time the big day arrives the students are ready to rock their presentations. I get to spend my time going around singing their child's praises and solving any technical or other issues. The kids own all the work! The other bonus of this system is if a parent cannot come to school, their child can still present at home! They have done all the practice and are well-versed to give the same presentation with mom and dad on the couch. Some of my shy kiddos prefer that do many of my dual working parents. The end of year conference is always a highlight. I get groups ranging from just one parent to mom, dad, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and the neighbors!

10. Clean it out. This is the perfect opportunity to clean house a bit. I start sending items home after these conferences. While I might pull a few pieces of writing to put in their folder for the next grade, I use this as my chance to send home the portfolios and other work samples I've collected. This makes one less thing they have to drag home in their 50 pound backpacks on the last day of school. I also use this as an opportunity to clean out desks. No we don't take our materials home, but we do throw away that old snack wrapper and all those tiny broken pencils in order to make our presentation area neat and clean because let me tell you, parents check!

And that's it! Easy spring conferences at an otherwise crazy time of year :) So now you know how I do it, how do you run your end-of-year conferences?

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