Sunday, July 23, 2017

Top 5 Organizing Tips for New Teachers

Organization for new teachers can be very difficult. In this blog post we will identify the top 5 organizing tips for the school year if you are a new teacher. By no means are these the only five, but they will get you started on having a great year.

  1. Make a list...
    A teacher's best friend can be a list. Make sure to start making lists of items you need to buy to decorate your classroom and things you want to do once you are in your room. If you are a new teacher, you will want to make your classroom your own. This would involve making a list of the decorations that you will choose to use for the school year.  Your list should also have the supplies you will need to get your classroom up and running. Click here or on the picture below for a free checklist that you can use to get started in your classroom.

  2. Have a calendar/planner...
    If there is one thing that a teacher cannot live without, it is a planner. This is your lifeline to what is happening in your classroom and building. It houses meetings, conference dates, student birthdays, and most importantly, those days you don't have to report to school! There are many different forms of planners that teachers use. In this digital age, many colleagues use online calendars such as Microsoft Outlook, or Google Calendar. But, if you like having something that you can page through and carry with you, the old-fashioned planners work just as well. Some like weekly calendars, while others like daily. It is all up to you, but you must have one to keep all the different events easy to find.
  3. Make sure rosters are ready to go...
    You will be collecting a lot of paperwork the first few weeks of school. There are forms that parents have to fill out, and you may be having students complete easy activities as well. Having class rosters available so you can track who has and hasn't turned in assignments or forms is a huge time-saver. It allows you a quick glance as to who still needs to turn in the papers. It also helps you spot early patterns of students who have difficulty completing work on time. It is better to catch this early in the year, then to wait until mid-year to try and correct it.
  4. Establish a routine...
    This is more for you, then for your students. Teachers tend to be creatures of habit. Anything that changes in a teacher's daily routine can be unsettling. So, we tend to follow the same routine every morning before school, upon arrival at school, and getting home at a reasonable time. If you know that there may be a before, or after school meeting, adjust your routine appropriately to fit in what you normally do. Yes, that may mean waking up earlier, but it will provide sanity for you in being able to follow your daily routine.
  5. Join Scholastic Book Club...
    Being a new teacher your classroom library is probably tiny or non-existent. Scholastic Book Club is a great place to start to build your own library. It would be a great idea to talk to some veteran teachers in your building who are already using Scholastic. They may have a coupon that you could use to get started that could give you bonus points towards ordering books. Once your students start ordering, you will be able to obtain some free books and your bonus points total will start to grow. Then you can use these points towards ordering books. In no time at all, you will be adding quality literature to your classroom library!

If you liked this blog post,, you will want to check out The First Year Teacher eBook with 29 pages of helpful tips for beginning teachers. This is a comprehensive and easy-to-read resource that will help any beginning teacher have a successful school year.
First Year Teacher eBook

You will also want to check out our companion guide: The First Year Teacher Resources which contains 40 different resources (printables) you can use your first year of teaching!

First Year Teacher: Resource Guide

Thanks and here is to a successful year of teaching!

Wise Guys logo red circle

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Importance of Student Self-Assessment

We know that "assessment" is a buzz word that we can't get away from...we talk about standardized testing.  About rubrics.  About standards-based assessment tasks.  About--YOU fill in the blank.

One of the often under-used assessment strategies is SELF-assessment.  This can be something as simple as a "thumbs up" if a student understands but can be far more involved and useful.  Interested in some of the brain research on this?  Check out this GREAT article by Jo Boaler!  Today I want to talk about some of the issues related to self-assessment--and to give you some suggestions on how to create a culture where students will be able to make the most of the opportunities you provide them.

Culture for honesty and risk taking

One thing I have definitely discovered is that if students don't feel "safe" in our classroom environments, there is no way for them to open and honestly assess themselves.  It's hard to admit that you don't understand when the culture stresses speed, accuracy, and competition.  The more we can strive to develop a "team" feeling of collaboration where we, as teachers, can model risk taking, how we handle mistakes, how we assess ourselves, and so on--the easier it will be for students to be honest about their own struggles.  We should CELEBRATE mistakes in our classrooms!  The research supports this.
Making mistakes can actually grow the neural connections in our brains.  ADDRESSING the mistakes makes them even stronger.  Teach your children this!  Make it not only safe, but DESIRABLE.  Consider doing activities where mistakes are inevitable.  Ask students to share which problems were most challenging and how they tackled them.  Ask students to share errors they found and how they went back to find the mistakes.  All of this can contribute to this culture of collaboration and learning.  I recently wrote a blog post that goes into more detail if you are interesting.  Just click the image below.

Give them the language

If we DO want students to participate in a classroom culture such as this, we need to give them the language to do it.  Providing sentence stems and other anchor charts that give them phrases to use to help them communicate their level of understanding can go a long way.  This can be more "general" information for them like a list of accountable talk stems like..."I'm not sure I understand" or "Could you explain that again?".  Sometimes we might want to be more specific to the content we are studying.

If we truly want students to be able to honestly assess themselves, they need to know what it is that they are trying to accomplish!  It needs to be more specific than "I can multiply big numbers." or "I can comprehend what I read." What does that look like?  In what contexts?  We need to get better at breaking down these huge ideas for students so they can do a better job of monitoring their own progress.

One area where this is particularly challenging is in those more "behavioral" elements of our classroom life....reading habits, partnering skills, and so on.  In math, there is a whole set of standards geared toward getting teachers to more explicitly teach these "math behaviors" to help students be successful.  That being said, it's sometimes easy to attach ourselves to the easy words in these standards--words like "accuracy" and "precision" and "perseverance".  If you do a deep dive into these standards, you will see there is much more to them than that!  I've spent a lot of time breaking down reading and math into these small, measurable goals for students that make it easier for them to talk about and measure their own progress.  Early in the school year, I focus more on overall behaviors.  We brainstorm what they are, we talk about them, we share examples of them, and then we practice self-assessing them.  We use these checklists multiple times and really try to make the language in them a part of our daily conversation.

student self-assessment
As the year goes on and I start to dig into the other more complex standards, we do the same thing.  Rather than tell students that they need to "Use Appropriate Tools Strategically", I think it's important to break that down with them so they really know what that means.  Since taking the time to do this, I have seen a DRAMATIC improvement in students' reflectiveness AND skill level!  It is worth the time investment!  
math practice standards anchor charts
I hang these "focus charts" up when we are really digging into one of the standards but then students keep a copy of the self-assessment checklist so they always have access to it.  We can pull those out to review at any point.

Goal of improvement

I think what taking the time to really dig into these standards--whether they be content standards or "practices" standards--allows students to start to set some realistic, attainable goals.  When a child is reading below grade level and we set their goal to be reading AT grade level, that is pretty daunting!  But if we can set their goals to be more attainable...perhaps it starts with something like:
Similarly, by always including a part of the assessment where students can express what they did WELL as well as set a growth goal, it forces them to acknowledge where they are strong in addition to identifying areas where growth is needed.

Interested in the checklists shown above?  Just click the image below.  My reading goal resource can be found by clicking HERE.
Thanks for stopping by!  Check out more teaching ideas by visiting...

Follow me on...
Instagram @Fourthgradestudio
Twitter @FourthGrStudio

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

7 Basic Writing Lessons Every Teacher Should Teach

Analyzing writing curriculums, planning writing workshop and teaching writing lessons can be overwhelming.  You might think, how am I going to fit everything in and produce successful writers? Where do I start?  What skills do they need?  This post will share the 7 BASIC WRITING LESSONS that every teacher should teach! With this basic knowledge, students will be able to perform other writing assignments more effectively.

The following skills are not only effective in upper elementary, they are often needed at the middle school level for review or the primary level for differentiation.  So yes, every teacher should teach them! If you start with these 7 fundamental skills, it will set the expectations for your writing lessons and assignments throughout the year!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the basic skills and what order should I teach them?

Sentence Structure

1.  Complete Sentences

2.  Fragments

3.  Run-ons

Paragraph Writing

4.  Topic Sentences

5.  Relevant Details

6.  Transition Words

7.  Closing Sentences

How much time should I dedicate to teaching these fundamental skills?  
I recommend one day for each skill.  If you spend a whole writing block for each skill, students will benefit from the practice.

How do I teach each skill?

First:  Start with an anchor chart explaining the skill.  

Second:  Provide examples.  Students can share examples too!  

Next:  Students should take notes.  I love using Interactive Writing Notebooks to take notes.  Research supports the use of interactive notebooks through studies on multiple intelligences, the brain and note taking.  Here are a few videos to Set Up Interactive Writing Notebooks.

Click photo for the Upper Elementary Version.  A Primary Version is also available.

Then:  Identify the skill.   Provide practice sheets and task cards for students to practice identifying the skill in sentences and paragraphs.

Last:  Apply the skill.  Students should have the opportunity to write their own sentence or paragraph to apply the particular skill.

What if I can't fit the lesson in one writing block?
If you can't extend the days to complete them, there are other ways to get the whole lesson in. You can put practice sheets or task cards in a center, or you can have students apply the skill for homework or morning work the next day.  

What if my students, some of my students, or absent students can't do interactive notebooks?  
Make a small anchor chart to put in their notebooks with the same information!  If you don't have a printable poster, take a picture of the anchor chart you used in class and print them off!

I hope you found this post helpful and helps your students become successful writers this year!  If you would like to see what to put on your anchor charts for each of these skills.  I have a series of STEP-BY-STEP WRITING BLOG POSTS.  Sentence Structure starts HERE.

Connect With Me!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Using Take Home Folders for Parent Communication

Even in the middle of the summer, I still find myself thinking about the upcoming school year and what I can do to make it even better than the last. Today I thought I would share one of the routines that I use that keeps me in constant communication with my students' parents: Weekly Take-Home Folders!!!

Take-Home Folders have been such a valuable tool for me ever since I started teaching. They serve as a way for me to communicate with my students' parents throughout the year. They allow me to share their children's work habits, behavior, and grades on a weekly basis, while also sharing important school and classroom information. I prep them every Friday, send them home every Monday, and ask for them to be returned before the end of the week, so they can go home all over again!!

Here is how I use them in my classroom....

On the LEFT SIDE of the folder, I include graded tests, assignments, projects, etc. Attached to the top of these, I staple a Weekly Progress Report to share students' work habits and behavior. On this side, I also include any important papers that need to be filled out or signed (permission slips and such!). I ask parents to go over their children's scores and progress reports, and then sign the progress report to show that they have seen everything. This comes back to school in the folder.

On the RIGHT SIDE of the folder, I include routine classwork and homework assignments and any school flyers that need to be sent home. Everything on the right side should be kept at home.

People are often surprised that I put the time and effort into putting these folders together and sending them home each week. But for me, the benefits definitely outweigh the effort it takes to keep up this routine.

First of all, parents always know how their children are performing. There are NO SURPRISES come parent conference time. Also, it gives parents a chance to have important conversations with their children about their work habits, behavior, and even about what they are learning in school. Lastly, it keeps me accountable for grading and reporting, and provides a record for me when I sit down to do report cards and conference with parents.

If you would like to download the labels that I use for my Take Home Folders, as well as a copy of my Weekly Progress Report for FREE, visit my teacher shop by clicking on the cover pic below!!

This routine is a MUST for me each year! Paired with a weekly group e-mail, this is my main form of communication with parents, and it's been a HUGE success every year!!!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

4 Ways To Make This School Year Different

As teachers, we strive to improve every year. If you had an usually rough year last year, or just want to improve, this post is for you!

I've tried a lot of different things to prepare for going back to school. These 4 have made the biggest impact!

1. Overhaul your classroom management system.

One of the major things I've done recently is to make changes to my classroom management system. I used to save hundreds of classroom management pins to Pinterest every summer, and then spend weeks getting it all set up. 
  • Keep it simple. A complex reward system makes it easy to fall behind, and then students don't take it seriously. The best rewards are ones you can prepare before school starts and use seamlessly within your instruction.
  • Keep it positive! I hate behavior plans, and so do my students. Get a form ready for next year that has an area for student goals and self reflection. Ditch anything that has bad behaviors listed or negative consequences.
  • Keep rewards free. You're going to spend enough money on other stuff for your classroom. Any rewards you give students should be free. A few ideas I love are a V.I.P table, choose a seat pass, and a pass for extra reading time. One year I spent almost $200 on chips and candy from Sam's Club. Lesson learned.
Here is what my plan is for this school year:
  1. Print 500 note home postcards on Vistaprint ($15)
  2. Prep my Digital Brag Tags using a spreadsheet of all the sharing links from my Google Drive
  3. Continue morning meeting.
positive notes home classroom management idea
Click here to download the free template.

2. Get organized, and stay organized.

One of the biggest issues I have during the school year is staying organized. There's usually plenty of time to get organized before school starts, but once school is in session, it becomes impossible to keep up on it! 

Here is how I solved this problem in my classroom:
  1. Posted supply procedures: Next to each area in my classroom that students have access to, I posted procedures for the supplies. At the end of the day, we all reviewed the procedures for the area and checked to see if they were followed. We did this for a couple of weeks, and then I assigned students to do it for me. If there was an issue with an area, we addressed it as a class. My students were very good about following the posted procedures as long as we continued to review them. This saved me a lot of time having to go through and reorganize these areas myself.
  2. I got a teacher apron. Yes, it's super dorky, but I leave stuff everywhere. It got to the point where I would spend 10 minutes hunting for a pen I set down, just to find out that it was sitting on a student's desk. I had so many areas in my room where I kept stuff that it was overwhelming. I bought my teacher apron, and every morning I would go through it to make sure I had the correct supplies and it was cleaned and organized. Having one small area of teacher stuff to organize really helped.
  3. Create a sustainable class library system. My favorite way to do this is by having students input our books into Classroom Booksource. There aren't any bar codes needed or anything complicated. Students search for the title of the book and then click it to check out under their names. I keep an old laptop next to the library for just checking out books. When Scholastic orders come in, I have students trained to add them to the library and display them in our new book area (see below).
Our New Release Section

3. Set personal goals.

We get so wrapped up in teaching during the school year that sometimes we forget that we have lives outside the classroom. Set some personal goals for the year, like reading a couple of books, or spending some time at the lake one weekend a month. Setting (and keeping) personal goals will improve your attitude in your classroom. 

Here are some items you may want to include in your personal goals:
  • Not grading anything on Saturdays, or the whole weekend if you can swing it.
  • Leaving your classroom on time.
  • Making yourself a priority by doing something just for you once a month.

4. Give students ownership.

If you were constantly exhausted last year, chances are you were doing too much for your students. Let your students take on more responsibilities this year. 
  • Put students in charge of ALL classroom chores and prep work. 
  • Instead of grading every single writing piece or homework assignment, give them a self-reflection form and let them grade themselves occasionally. 
  • Give less whole group instruction. Students lose interest quickly, and whole group instruction is a lot of work for the teacher. Focus on small groups, centers, and open-ended activities. Project-based learning is my favorite instruction method. It allows for students to make choices, is real-world, and allows me to facilitate their learning instead of cramming it down their throats. Find more information on project-based learning here.

Have a wonderful school year this year, and don't forget to relax!

Like this post? Pin it using the image below!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

How to Use Really Bad Books in Guided Reading

If you do guided reading, you've probably encountered the problem of "the bad book." You know, a piece of literature of sub-par quality, an outdated or boring informational text, or a leveled reader from a bleh literacy program.

When you're stuck doing guided reading with a bummer of a book, check out these tips to still make your time worthwhile.

Maybe you're stuck with the text because it's part of your mandated curriculum. Maybe it was the only set of books at the level you need. Or maybe you were short on time and just grabbed the closest thing that looked like something to read, and now six pairs of eyes are staring up at you while you mutter, "Aw, crap," under your breath because you now realize you're holding a stack of books called What is Cyberspace? from 1995.

All hope is not lost. You can still pull off a great guided reading session using a bummer of a book.

Remember What's Important

In these situations, the most important thing to remember is to teach the reader, not the book. This will help you think of the book as simply a tool. It might not be necessary to have students read it all the way through, or even sequentially. We might even use only a section or two.

We'll simply use what we need to help our readers grow.

Here are some things you can do:

Mini Fluency Presentations

Have the students in your small group browse through their copy of the text. Ask them to each choose one page for themselves (about one to two paragraphs of text is the right amount), and they can't choose a page someone else chose.

Then give students time to read and reread their designated page quietly with the goal to work on their fluency. I like to tell students to practice reading their part like a news anchor would, or a sports broadcaster, over and over until it's polished just right. As students whisper read, check in with each of them, listening and coaching for a few moments.

Finally, have each student read their page aloud to the group with their best fluency. After each reading, ask the group to give the reader one specific compliment about their presentation. You might jot down a list of some of the important components of strong fluency for reference (i.e. automaticity/accuracy, phrasing, expression, appropriate speed).

Develop a Character

When a book's cast of characters leaves much to be desired, try this activity:

Have each student choose a character, either a main one or supporting, and develop a background report on him/her. They will need to use the information gleaned from the text as a starting point, so as not to contradict the book, but then expand from there.

I like to have students record their character report in the form of a web, with the character's name in the middle and branches extending out. The key is for students to use their imagination to add interesting layers and experiences to the character that the author didn't show.

Create Better Text Features

If you're using an informational text that is "text heavy," or looks as if the graphic design budget needed a boost, try having students create a text feature for the book.

Assign a section of text for students to read. Depending on the text, have students either design a better text feature than the one given, or create a new one using their understanding of the main text. I like to give each student a note card or large sticky note on which create their text feature.

You might have students fetch a few favorite informational books from the classroom library to open up and display stronger "anchor" examples of text features as students work.

Critique the Text

Helping students critique the text is my favorite way to make the best of a non-favorite book. After reading a section (or the whole text if it's short), I ask students to form opinions about certain choices the author made. Together we brainstorm alternative solutions and then discuss whether or not they would have made the book better. I try really hard to remain a neutral facilitator during the process, because ultimately I want students to decide for themselves whether the text is successful or not.

After trying hard to understand the reasoning behind some of the author's decisions, sometimes our feelings toward a book even change to the better!

Rank Elements

Go one step further in the text critique by asking students to rank certain elements of the text with those of other texts. For example, on a sticky note, have students write down the main character from the book, and then add four more main characters from different books. Then have students rank the characters on their list in different ways: Rank your list of characters 1 through 5 by how memorable there are; by how kind they are; by how by how similar they are to you.

Intrigued with using lists in guided reading? Read more on my blog HERE.

*   *   *

Clearly, using good quality, high-interest texts are preferable, but hey, sometimes you just get what you get.

If you're looking for additional reading activities, in a handy half-page reader's notebook format, to use within your guided reading sessions, check out my differentiated response pages for literature and for informational text.

For more reading and writing ideas, come visit me at my blog, The Thinker Builder. And while you're there, be sure to sign up for my FREE newsletter, and receive a mini-pack of my response pages as my gift to you!