Friday, July 31, 2015

Prenatal Timeline Activity

In keeping with my theme of short group activities (can two days be a theme?), here's another one that's been really successful.

Before we dive into prenatal development, I like to do a little formative assessment to get an idea of what they already know, and what they think they know, and what they have so very, very wrong. For this activity, I divide them into groups and send them back to the kitchens (as I've mentioned before, this gives them lots of counter space, and gets them up and moving). Then each group is given a set of cards (color-coded to match their kitchens, of course!) that contain week numbers and a description of something that happens during the prenatal period. I ask them to work together to take their best shot at matching up the week with the correct description. (These really aren't the best pictures, but it gives you a little something to visualize.)

I then walk around so I can hear them discussing each item and where they think it belongs along the timeline and why. I get so much information about their prior knowledge, their thinking process, their communication skills... it's really a fantastic assessment! In addition to those benefits, it gives me a really clear idea about what misconceptions I need to work on clearing up as we go through the unit (and believe me, there are A LOT - but if you teach child development, you already know that!).

By the way, if you don't have white boards for group work, you absolutely must get some. The kids love them and they are fantastic for quick group work and all sorts of spontaneous activities. Love them!

p.s. Tomorrow's the big day for releasing oodles of materials to share!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Play-Doh, Child Development, and Take-Out Boxes

So over a year ago I posted about using brightly colored take-out boxes (available at your local craft store) for project supplies, and promised to write about how we used the Play-Doh I stored in them in a later post. Well, here's the later post!
To review, the take-out boxes are not only a fun storage container, but being sealed and opaque they are also great for "secret" supplies and surprise projects. One thing that many students struggle with is understanding the differences between physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development (in particular they have a hard time teasing out social and emotional). In fairness, they are all of course interrelated, but I need them to understand each as a stand-alone as well. Because they have such trouble, my challenge is to take these abstract concepts and make them as concrete as possible, so I thought "Why not have them make physical representations of each?"

I divided the class into groups, then sent them back to the kitchens so they would have lots of counter space to work with (and also to get them physically moving around, get those brain juices flowing!). Each kitchen was given a take-out box (in the color that matched their kitchen, of course), which they were delighted to find contained Play-Doh! I explained that even though they were in groups they would each be making their own creations (haha to those who thought they could just watch! Boy, lots of exclamation points in this paragraph!). We quickly reviewed the different areas of development, and then I said "Okay, everyone create something with your Play-Doh related to physical development." And off they went! We did a few rounds each of physical, intellectual, social, and emotional. Check out some of their ideas:

I walked around as they worked, and asked them to explain what it was they produced and how it was related to that area of development. This was an important component because:
  1. not all of them were great Play-Doh artists and I'm not always the best mystery solver
  2. some of the creations could be applied to multiple categories so I wanted to hear their reasoning for their choice
  3. it forced them to not only think about what they were making but how they could explain what they were making to someone else
  4. viewing others' creations and listening to others' explanations deepened their understanding of the concepts and helped them apply the concepts to a wider range of objects/ activities/ relationships/ etc
They learned, they started performing much better on other assignments/ assessments related to areas of development, and we all had fun. And, I got to use the awesome color-coded take-out boxes! Slam dunk!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Food for Thought: Bell Ringers

I do like using bell ringers - you know, those little writing prompts or activities at the beginning of class that get kids thinking about what they'll be doing today (while you're taking attendance and juggling 4 million other things); but it took me a while to find a system for them that I really liked.

I started out with the students writing them on notebook paper. This was useless. Either you have to collect a million pieces of paper a day, or they lose them. Even if you say "Keep the same paper all week; put it in your folder" or whatever, it's doubtful that will help. Then of course the paper itself is torn, crumpled, spilled on, chewed on, whatever.

So when I moved to binders, I placed a little packet of bell ringer sheets in with everyone's syllabus, etc:

This worked so much better! Clean, hole-punched paper that stayed in the rings. Beautiful.

Downsides: It wound up taking a good bit of room up in the binders. I was confined to boring lines and three sentence responses. I had to keep track of how many should be recorded every time I graded. I had to keep a list of the prompts handy for weeks after they'd been used. 

Then I moved to folders, and decided I wanted a weekly sheet that they would keep in their folders. I would graded folders every week, and this sheet would be removed from their folders every week. And I didn't always want to be confined to boring lines and three sentence responses. So I came up with these:

Each week had a different little food icon at the top, different shapes throughout the page, and the variation allowed me a variety of prompts. I would give the students blank ones like the one above, add the prompts to the page and project one each day:

Love this system! I used them in every class, not just Foods (though I of course changed out the title of the class). It provides a lot of flexibility, and is fun to boot. Check out these happy guys:

I know, I know: you're now irresistibly drawn to these and are thinking "Man, I've gotta make some awesome bell ringer sheets like that." Awww shucks, thanks! But don't. I'll be putting over a semester's worth of these bad boys up along with a ton of other new stuff as part of a very special bargain by the end of the week. Stay tuned!

Update: Packets of these bell ringer sheets are available in my TPT store if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ah, Junior High Kids...

A souvenir from my days of teaching junior high. This was an unprompted note:

My recollection is she was very sweet for about two days, then returned to her former ways. I'll always have those two days... and the memory of this note.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Specific Wrong Assumption

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a few of my first year mistakes, #1 being that I assumed my students knew more than they did. Flipping through some photos in an old folder, I came across one that reminded me of a big example of this. I assumed that my students knew the difference between dish towels and dish cloths. One is obviously much bigger, right? And would be a real pain in the neck to wash with, right? And a dish cloth would be way too small to dry with, right? Sigh. Every grade level, every school, every year, somehow these seemingly obviously details escaped a significant number of students in my classes. After a while I even began to point out "Look, one of these is much bigger than the other"...... made no difference. They still somehow got them backwards and used the wrong ones. Here's what finally solved that problem:

I started skipping dish cloths altogether and just went to Handi Wipes. Problem solved. Crazy, I know, but you gotta do what you gotta do! Never had a problem after I started using these. If you've never used them, they work just as well as regular dish cloths, and yes they are washable. And cheap, too! The only issue I ever ran into with them is if kids threw them in the wash with little clumps of yeast dough stuck to them - then they'd have to be thrown away, because they'd get all gnarled up in the wash. But cheap to replace! By the way, I highly recommend using bar mop towels. They're wonderfully absorbent and students won't need to use as many for each lab.

Related: for you newbies out there, you can NEVER have too many dish towels and dish cloths! If you have parents* who want to make donations, a little extra money in your budget (hahahahaha), or you're given a small WalMart or Target gift card and aren't sure what the best investment is, go for towels!

*Or fellow teachers/staff members. I worked with a lady once who asked what kind of supplies we needed for the kitchens because she loves to shop over the summer and doesn't really have people to buy for anymore now that her grandchildren are grown. Don't ask questions - just ask for towels!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Maintaining Teacher Balance

I'm taking the lead from Michelle over at Big Time Literacy and completing today's Big Time Blogging Challenge: Maintaining Teacher Balance.


One of the biggest things that helped me was rearranging where I completed certain tasks. Specifically, I tried to get as much grading as possible completed at school, and saved lesson planning and preparation for after grading or at-home work. For one, who enjoys grading? Forcing myself to do that first helped quite a bit - as they say, when you have a bucket of frogs to swallow, swallow the biggest one first and the rest go down nice and smooth. Two, that meant schlepping a whole lot less stuff back and forth between home and work (and let's be honest, how often does that grading bag go unopened in your home?). Three, you can do a lot of the lesson pre-planning in your head while making dinner, vacuuming, folding clothes, etc, rather than just staring at a screen at work or rummaging through TPT hoping for inspiration.

Nightly Routine

A scrambled morning leads to an off-kilter day. One way to make your mornings go much smoother is to prepare as much the night before as possible. Before turning in I made sure my clothes for the next day were laid out, lunch was packed, school bag was packed, breakfast dishes were out, running clothes were laid out if I planned to run in the morning (or I just slept in them - you get out the door much faster that way!), etc. That way if everything went according to plan, my morning was easy-peasy. If weird things came up (power outage, dropped glass - happened twice my last year of teaching - that had to be cleaned up, pets escaping into the garage, whatever) I was much better equipped to handle them and didn't get set as far behind. This goes even better if you can spend time on Sunday doing extra meal prep!


This is one of those things that we all know is super important but we tend to relegate it to the "if I have time" category. Probably the number one benefit I derive from exercise is better sleep - we all need better sleep! I'm also a morning runner, so it's a great start to the day: I get those endorphins going and feel like I've already accomplished something first thing. And it just makes me feel better about myself, which is going to make me a more pleasant person. I've also heard some rumors that it does something good for your heart, lungs, metabolism...

Social Life

Who has time for a social life during the school year - at least one that doesn't involve basketball games, concession stands, or school dances? For me, I made Friday nights a "night off" - no grading, no lesson prep, no researching... just an evening with the husband. Then I'd try to get as much accomplished on Saturday as I could, to free up my Sundays for relaxation (ugh, Sunday night work is the WORST!). My closest girlfriends live in Chicago, about an hour's drive for me. A few years ago I made a commitment to myself to get up there once a month. It didn't work out every single month, but it made a huge difference in my stress level and overall happiness meter when I was able to spend at least a few hours up there for brunch and girl talk.

Looking Forward to...

Tying in with the last one, I found it's a huge help to plan things to look forward to. They don't have to be big events - even planning a coffee date with a friend a couple of weeks out is enough. By setting plans it forces you to break out of your teacher persona, forces you to leave the piles behind. And, when you're feeling overwhelmed by all that you have to do, it gives you a bright spot in the near future to look ahead to.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Docs Teach - a Great (Free!) Resource

Have you heard of Docs Teach? It's an online tool hosted by the National Archives that holds thousands of primary documents (and pictures, audio, video, maps, etc) along with a myriad of interactive lesson plans and activities based on those documents. You can even design your own activities based on documents of your choosing.

Think this could only work for history and government classes? Well, of course you don't, you know how interdisciplinary FACS is, but here's a random sample of items you could find:

  • An activity about the School Lunch Program and the Federal Government, including photos from the Great Depression, original advertisements for the school lunch program, school lunch recipes from 1946, letters from PTA presidents
  • Documents from an interview with a Montgomery Ward's executive as part of a Federal Trade Commission Home Furnishing Investigation on sewing machines
  • A letter to FDR from a recently unemployed woman arguing that married women with employed husbands are stealing jobs from desperate single women
  • Weekly family food supply plans published by the USDA in 1921
  • Resources on Civil Rights, child labor, drunk driving, food labels, unions, taxes, interior design, architecture, social security, environmentalism... and so on
There's even an app, for you 1:1/BYOD/Cart people! My brief blurb doesn't do it justice - take a few minutes to browse around Docs Teach, I'm sure you'll not only be impressed but will immediately be able to think of all sorts of ways to use it in your classroom. Below is a short video to give you an overview. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

First Year Mistakes

I've been thinking about some of the mistakes that I made as a first year teacher: partly inspired by a "Reflections" post I read over at Big Time Literacy (great blog, by the way, check it out!), partly due to an influx of emails I've recently received from FACS teachers preparing for their first year this fall. Why not share?  Here are three biggies that come to mind:

1. I assumed that students knew or knew how to __________.

The biggest mistake I made as a new teacher was overestimating what my students already knew or knew how to do; boy was this eye opening! Some examples:

  • Measuring spoons and eating spoons are different
  • How to tie a knot
  • How to use a microwave
  • 3/4 cup, teaspoon, tablespoon, etc = 1/2 + 1/4 
  • What "boiling" means
  • Trash goes IN the trash can, not in the near vicinity (okay, some snark in that one)
  • How to summarize (this planted the initial seed for eventually seeking a Reading Specialist degree)
  • What a textbook "index" is
  • How to properly open a container
  • How to wash dishes
  • Proper way to hold scissors
I could go on for quite some time, but you get the idea. Over time I learned to assume nothing - though I'd get the occasional "duh" or eye roll, it helped immensely in making lessons and activities go smoother.

2. I didn't think out/properly explain how exactly I wanted students to __________.

Alternatively titled "Woefully underprepared in the procedures department." This is huge in any classroom; in a FACS course it can absolutely be your undoing. Now we're all familiar with The First Days of School (really? You're not? Stop reading this and go order it from Amazon - I've even linked it for you), so I did have routines in place for the beginning of class, end of class, etc, etc. But when you're in the thick of things, you have to give directions for so many different activities during a single class period - again, especially in FACS - and you don't have lovely pre-made posters on the wall or previously practiced routines to refer to for everything. Think it through, boil it down to a few short clear steps, and repeat repeat repeat. Even if it seems like something is the most obvious common-sense thing in the world ("...put your trash in the trash can..."), include it in the directions. Incidentally, when I mastered this, I became a master at transitions, even on the fly.

3. I didn't have a plan for ALL THE PAPER.

I thought a few file folders would do it: a grading folder for each class, a handout folder for each class, then maybe a couple more for school documents and other things. Right? hahahahahahahahahaha. Seriously, that obviously didn't work. if you've spent time looking through this blog, you know that I became a paper Nazi. What worked most brilliantly for me was never physically accepting an assignment from students or utilizing trays/baskets/etc - once I moved to having them keep everything in their binders or folders life became much more sunshine and rainbow filled. This came in especially handy with those students who accuse teachers of losing their work. First of all, I've known a LOT of teachers who do frequently lose work (if this is you, some tough love: GET IT TOGETHER! Once you establish this reputation, you can never dispute a student who says you've lost something, even when everyone knows they're lying through their teeth! Also, you make life harder for the rest of us). But even though I don't believe I have ever actually lost an assignment, when you have paper everywhere (even if you somehow "know" your system) it does not inspire confidence, and kids can/will take advantage. When students have to submit all work in a folder or binder, this argument is null. An actual conversation from last year:

Boy #1: I turned it in, you must have lost it!
Me: (looking him straight in the eye, unflinching)   I.     Don't.     Lose.     Things.
Boy #2: She's got you dude. This one doesn't lose stuff.
Girl: No lie, look at this place. you know she's not like {other teacher} or {other teacher}.
Boy #1: (hanging head and sighing) Yeah, you're right. What did I do with that thing?

You can't pull that line off unless you have a seriously established reputation for organization.

There are plenty of other mistakes I made that year and in subsequent years, but fixing those made a huge impact on both my quality of teaching and quality of life. How about the rest of you - first year mistakes to warn the newbies about?