Deck.Toys

I was fortunate enough to be awarded grant funding to stock my classroom with a full set of kid tablets. My intention is to be a 1:1 classroom this year and put this technology to good use. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with these tablets, other than maybe allow students time to play on educational apps when they’d finished their work, but then I found an incredible online tool in the form of Deck.Toys. For those of you who read my Smoothboard post, Deck.Toys has the same creator, BoonJin. This platform allows teachers to create maps for students to work their way through – a bit like a treasure map with stopping points along the way. These decks can be as minimal or as thorough as you’d like. I put together an entire unit on one of mine. You can upload PowerPoints, videos, graphics, and even link to outside sites. There are also cool interactive “apps” you can put into your decks to give students practice on things like vocabulary, problem solving, etc. Some of these apps are even interactive, so students work together instead of being tied to the device for the whole time.

Sounds cool, right? It is. And I haven’t even told you about what I think is the best part: the data. The platform saves the student data so you can analyze it. Every slide the students go through records their responses and/or scores. You can build in quizzes or even have an app serve as a quiz. The deck scores it and then keeps that data for you to use and analyze. So. Cool.

The platform is free, but the free version is somewhat limited. The upgraded version isn’t too pricey, and it’s totally worth it (especially since many teachers may find that their department budget will cover the annual fee, or even the PTA, if you’re a member, will sometimes grant teachers small grants to do things like this).

BoonJin is still working on developing different aspects of the platform. He’s very receptive to ideas and suggestions, and answers questions promptly. There is a learning curve, though, but investing the time is worth it, to give your students an interactive, engaging experience.

Oh, and one more thing…once you’ve created your deck, you can sell them. Yep, that’s right. You can charge other teachers to use your deck. Or you can make your deck public and free. There are many free decks you can access without even having to make your own! Could this tool get any cooler?!

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Smoothboard Air

As I embarked on my search to free myself from the front of the classroom, I stumbled upon (thanks to my brother, who teaches English in Japan – shout out to Eric) an interface called Smoothboard. Developed by BoonJin, it’s a way to use the wifi connection between two devices with wifi capability to remotely control the master device. That doesn’t make much sense, so let me explain. In my classroom, I have a laptop set up on my AV table with my ELMO and projector. As great as all that technology is, writing on the board, working with the ELMO, or working from my laptop tethers me to the front of the room. Students are very difficult to manage from that far away. Any teacher worth his/her weight in salt knows that proximity control is the first line of defense against misbehavior. Kids do what they think they can get away with, right? I mean, most of them, anyway. So, there’s this seemingly dichotomous issue where I have to be near my students but also up in the front of the room teaching. Sure, not 100% of the time. There are circulation points built into the lesson when students do partner or independent work. I don’t want any of my readers to think that I just park my behind up in a chair at the table and talk, a la Peanuts teacher, for a whole period. But it is limiting to have to go back up to the front to work out an example, give a visual to answer a question, etc.

Enter the Smoothboard interface. First, I download the Smoothboard software (free, though you can pay to remove “ads”) onto my laptop. Then, I can take my tablet, smartphone, Surface, etc. and activate the Smoothboard interface so that my personal device (the tablet, etc.) controls my laptop. The interface also has the cool capability to use drawing tools, has graph paper, and other awesome features that let me teach from anywhere in the room. I can go over bell work, do examples, write whole essays, even, from my tablet right next to Johnny in the back of the room, who now is deterred from being his usually obnoxious self.

Look! I made a video!

 

How to Gain an Extra Set of Hands in Your Classroom

As a teacher, if I could give myself a superpower, it would probably be the ability to be in two places at the same time. That, or just never need sleep. Or be able to stop time. But definitely, being able to be in two places at once would be an amazing ability – especially in my own classroom as I teach.

I also wish I could re-teach every lesson for students who were absent. There’s no time for that, but it would make life so much easier if I could take the student aside when s/he returned and give the lesson from the day before.

Well, two years ago, I got myself one step closer to achieving both those dreams. How, you ask? I’ll let you in on my secret: I videotaped myself teaching the lesson. Sometimes I did this before the lesson, and sometimes I did it during first period so I had it for the rest of the day. Then, I played the video and I was able to teach the lesson and walk around the room and troubleshoot (and manage behavior) without affecting pacing. I also put the videos up online for students who were absent, so they could watch the lesson and get the same instruction as their peers who had been in class. It was, I suppose, a variation of the flipped classroom.

I’ve not perfected the art of the video. I’m still learning new things. Just the other week, in fact, I learned that you can record your computer screen while talking as a function in PowerPoint (cool, I know, right?!). And, I figured out how to use a graphic tablet (very affordable on Amazon) to do real-time notes and handwritten lessons through PowerPoint’s “Mix” function. So, I’m still learning. But it’s made an AMAZING difference in my teaching and my students’ learning. It takes some prep work and time in the beginning, but it is SO worth it in the end. Have you ever done something like this? If so, what are some tips and tricks you can share to make it more successful? Thanks!

The Forever Diaries

My father died unexpectedly on February 1, 2016. As unexpectedly as one can lose a parent, I suppose. I always felt like we would have more time. I wanted more for my children and their relationship with him, but those expectations are gone, now. What it made me realize was how lucky I was to have my father for as long as I did. He saw me graduate from high school, graduate from college, get a job, get married, and have my first baby. He was there for me at the important times in my life, and his death made me think about what my children would miss out on if I died before they’d experienced the major milestones of their lives.

To combat that, I started something I call The Forever Diaries. I started an email and Google account for my children, and I send them emails and make them videos so that when I die, they have more to remember me by. I’ve done videos of me singing things like lullabies and the Happy Birthday song, and emails telling them things like what I would say to them on their high school graduation or wedding day.

I hope they never have need of these, but I know one day I will be gone, and at the very least, they’ll have videos and letters from me they can watch and read anytime they want to hear me say I love them. I wish I had a video of my dad talking to me and telling me he loves me. So, as morbid as it may seem, I hope my kids appreciate it one day.

Why I allow open-notes quizzes and tests

Every teacher has his or her own educational philosophies and teaching style. One of the things I’ve learned throughout my teaching career is that while good teachers learn from others and take bits and pieces from others to incorporate into their own classes, you can’t be another teacher. No two teachers are exactly alike, and trying to be a carbon copy of another teacher, no matter how incredible that teacher may be, isn’t going to be as effective as developing your own personal teaching style.

That being said, I learned a long time ago that I espouse some unique philosophies on education and teaching, and I run my classroom differently from most teachers I know. Which is fine. I would NEVER try to tell another teacher how to teach. I do not like it when others do that to me, so I don’t do it to them. Suggestions and tips are fine, but I shy away from saying things like, “You have to…,” or “You should…” Instead, if I notice a teacher is struggling or having a certain issue, I share with them, “What works for me is…” and let them adapt it for their own classroom.

If you read my blog regularly, you’re probably already aware of this: I assign seats in secondary classrooms. I don’t allow backpacks at desks. I grade through growth and gains. I accept late work. I rarely assign homework. I allow corrections. Many teachers disagree with my teaching style because that’s not what works for them. And that’s okay, as long as they don’t try to force me to do what works them.

In this vein, I offer another perspective that I have found to be quite rare in my educational experience: open-notes assessments. I’m not talking about a few here or there, I’m talking about every single classroom assessment being open book and open notes.

I can hear it now: “You must be joking!” But I’m not. Much like my philosophy on assigning homework, my perspective on assessments has evolved over the years. Here are the top five reasons why I now only give open-notes assessments:

  • It encourages consistent and high-quality note-taking skills. If my students know they will be able to use their notes on an assessment, they work harder in class to pay attention and write neatly so they can use them effectively later. Yes, they should be using them to study, but allowing them to use notes on an assessment provides another incentive to be on task and pay attention to detail.
  • It provides support for me when parents or administration questions a student’s grades. Much like my reasons for accepting late work, I find many arguments silenced when I tell a parent or an administrator that students are welcome to use their notes, and if they aren’t passing my assessments, it’s likely because they’re goofing off in class rather than writing down the key information.
  • Assessments should be authentic. Again, much like my decisions behind the assigning homework issue, I’ve really come to think critically about what purpose my assessments serve. I used to give assessments that were focused on rote memory skills. Could a student memorize a definition? Could a student memorize a formula? They didn’t focus very much on actual problem-solving skills or application. I realized I wanted to be more interested in whether or not my students understood the material. Had they internalized it? Could they render it useful in a given circumstance? I thought about how in the real world, if a student needed to find the circumference of a circle or develop a subplot in a story they wrote, it wouldn’t be in isolation. They would have access to and use various resources to find what they needed, and then use their knowledge of the concept to apply it. So I allow open-notes assessments because memorizing rote facts isn’t authentic.
  • Piggybacking on this idea is that both my teaching and my assessments are of higher quality because I allow students to use their notes. I have to carefully design my assessments so they don’t have problems that are too similar to what was given in the notes. I have to make sure that they present opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned and not just copy from what was shown in class. I have to be more creative and have more depth in my instruction and my assessments.
  • Because of this, I’ve found that allowing students to use their notes on assessments honestly doesn’t make that big of a difference in their grades. Aside from a few formulas that they have access to, being able to use their notes doesn’t change the outcome by much for students. If a student truly understands the concept, takes conscientious notes, and studies, s/he’s going to succeed on the assessment, whether s/he has access to the notes or not. If a student doesn’t understand the concept, or didn’t take good notes, or didn’t study, s/he’s not going to succeed on the assessment – and having access to notes isn’t going to change that. The previous 4 benefits still make it worthwhile, though, so I continue to allow open-notes assessments.

“But wait!” Some may shout, “What about the state tests? Students can’t use notes on those!”

I’m aware of that, and I remind students of that at every turn. Most states, however, give formula sheets on the math assessments, which reinforces the idea of authenticity. I have found, though, that on state assessments, my students consistently perform at or above the level of my colleagues who do not give open-notes assessments, which negates this argument.

Is there a right or wrong philosophy here? No. As is true with nearly all aspects of teaching, it’s about finding what works for you and your students and running with it.

Portfolios: How Those Plastic Milk Crates Became My Friend (and Helped Me Tackle Paperwork)

Portfolio grading is all the rage in elementary school. And I get it. I do. It’s the most accurate way to monitor student growth throughout the year. But elementary teachers only have one roster of students. In secondary education, portfolio grading is nearly impossible. With at least six different rosters of students at about 25 students each (if you’re lucky…), portfolio grading simply requires time that teachers do not have.

It is possible, though, to incorporate some aspects of portfolio grading in secondary classrooms. One way teachers do this is periodic, though perhaps infrequent, student conferences to go over writing, assessments, and general progress. That, too, consumes a lot of time, and depending on the makeup of your classes, may not be feasible, as it requires the teacher to be focused on one (or a small group) of students while the remainder work independently (alone or in small groups). I know I’ve had many classes that – despite my best efforts – would become a three-ring circus if I tried student conferences.

Several years ago, my district adopted a curriculum that strongly encouraged the use of portfolios in the secondary classroom. I’d been teaching long enough by that time to know I would not be able to implement it in the way it was intended, but I was determined to try something and see how much I could do. I fully intended to do some type of student conference at some point in the year, so I had to make sure I kept the record of student work in my possession. Because, let’s face it: if we gave our students their work and told them to hold onto it until later, we’d never see it again. Instead of handing graded work back to students, I began filing them in folders. I had to get creative with this because I didn’t have access to any filing cabinets that I could use hanging files with (and, looking back, wouldn’t have wanted to use it anyway), so I used the next best thing: milk crates.

Did you know that milk crates are the exact size to fit hanging file folders? Well, they are. I bought a bajillion hanging file and manila folders and made portfolios for each class. I let students decorate their manila folders (which they loved – even the high schoolers), and all their work went in there.

I never got around to student conferences that year (or any subsequent year #teacherfail), but the use of these milk crate files had an unexpected benefit: It lessened lost work. Both students and I had access to the work from throughout the year. This meant that they could use old assignments to study. It meant they could find and correct assignments for additional credit. It meant I had a student’s (mostly complete) work record at my fingertips, and I had ammunition for parent conferences. I brought the files with me and set them in front of parents who were demanding an explanation for a student’s grades. It shut people up pretty quickly when they saw the quality of work (and, in some cases, lack of work altogether) their child was producing. This was true for my administration as well, if they had questions about a student’s work or grades.

It’s an easy thing to implement, and it saved me a lot of time and headaches with paperwork. Now, they’re a staple in my classroom every year, and I even “hire” a paper captain to do all the filing for me. I have more time and energy to devote to teaching, which is, of course, the entire point.

Poetry in the Classroom: CCSS Practice for RL.7.5

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 7th-grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted the CCSS.ELA.RL.7.5 resource.

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. In this resource, there are 3 lessons. Lesson 1 is a teacher-modeled lesson. Lesson 2 is a collaborative lesson where the teacher leads the class. The students complete lesson 3 independently. This resource is, in and of itself, a scaffolding tool. It is designed to help students master standards in a gradual manner.

When I was working in my district’s assessment office on ELA exams, I searched high and low for standard-specific passages and questions after which to model our items. After copious and time-consuming searches, the only Common Core practice I was (and have since been) able to find is general and mixed-standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement.

I use literature in the public domain from reputable authors (like Kipling, Twain, and Hawthorne – this resource uses poems by Dickinson, R.L. Stevenson, and Poe), so you’re exposing your students to quality literature with targeted standards practice. It takes out all the prep and guesswork!

If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for this standard, come check it out!

Why I Stopped Letting My Students Have Their Backpacks at Their Desks During Class (aka the Backpack Bay)

In a long-ago post, I mentioned that one of my “hills to die on,” so to speak, was about backpacks in my classroom. Unless the school I work at has a no-backpack in class policy (and I did work at such a school that tried this policy one year), I can’t mandate that my students not bring their backpacks to class. That aside, I do have control over the procedures for my room.

I used to let my students keep their backpacks at their desks. They would put them under the desks, behind them on the chair, on their laps, or some would even hang them on the back of the chair. I got so tired of tripping over backpacks, constantly hearing students shuffle around in their backpacks, and having to reprimand students for trying to use their backpacks to hide that they were eating in class or using their phone. I was over it.

This is where the backpack bay was born. I cleared off a 2-shelf bookcase and started requiring students to store their backpacks there during class. They were expected to come into class and go to their seat, get out the necessary materials for the day, put their backpack on the shelf (or on the floor in front of the shelves if they were full), and come sit back down. At first, students don’t like this rule, but they get used to it pretty quickly.

I’m very strict about accessing backpacks during class. It’s permitted, but only one student can be at the backpack bay at a time. I also require students to keep any water bottles they may have in their backpacks. They can get a drink if they need to, but they aren’t allowed to keep the water at their desks.

I have received many compliments throughout the years I’ve done this from people who come in and can’t believe how easy it is to walk around my room! It also improves student focus and engagement because they don’t have their bag to mess around with all period.

I tried coat racks one year, but made the mistake of going for the cheap ones rather invest for the long haul, so they fell apart halfway through the year. After that, I went and got plastic storage tubs – big ones – and started using those. I have 6 and that was enough for even my largest class of 29. They held up beautifully.

backpack bay.PNG

One unexpected benefit of this rule was that I became better at time management (and my students became involved in it, too). I found I had to make sure I wrapped up my lesson in time to let students retrieve their bags and pack up before the bell rang. I kept better track of time and stayed on schedule more consistently.

If you think this might improve your classroom management, movement, and student focus, here are a couple of tips:

  • Make the bay at the front of the room. That way, you (and the whole class) can see whose bag is being accessed to prevent problems.
  • Be consistent with enforcement. If class has started and I see students whose bags are still at their desks, I’ll either go to them and quietly remind them to put their bag away or I’ll make a general statement about remembering to put backpacks where they belong.
  • Students like to keep their bags on the floor (not sure why), so think about requiring the bags to touch the wall so they don’t start sprawling into other floor space.
  • Think about allowing students to retrieve their bags in groups (perhaps by row or groups – if you use collaborative seating arrangements). You will have a huge bottleneck if you let all the students up for their bags at the same time.

Common Core Practice for RL.7.4

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 7th-grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted the CCSS.ELA.RL.7.4 resource.

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. In this resource, there are 3 lessons. Lesson 1 is a teacher-modeled lesson. Lesson 2 is a collaborative lesson where the teacher leads the class. The students complete lesson 3 independently. This resource is, in and of itself, a scaffolding tool. It is designed to help students master standards in a gradual manner.

When I was working in my district’s assessment office on ELA exams, I searched high and low for standard-specific passages and questions after which to model our items. After copious and time-consuming searches, the only Common Core practice I was (and have since) been able to find is general and mixed-standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement.

I use literature in the public domain from reputable authors (like Kipling, Twain, and Poe – this resource uses poems by Dickinson, Frost, R.L. Stevenson, and Poe), so you’re exposing your students to quality literature with targeted standards practice. It takes out all the prep and guesswork!

If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for this standard, come check it out!

How I Lessened the Absenteeism Problem in Relation to Student Achievement

This isn’t an entry on how I got kids to come to school. If I had the answer to that, I’d have sold it and be retired. No, absenteeism is a reality within all teachers must live. Instead of lamenting the issue itself, time is better spent thinking up ways to mitigate the consequences of it. I think teachers can sum up the negative consequences of absenteeism in 2 words:

  • Instruction
  • Work

No one wants kids to miss school. It’s a hassle. They come back and teachers have to work overtime (more than we already do) to get that kid caught up. Because no matter how much you chant the mantra that it’s the student’s responsibility to take care of what they missed…it’s really up to you. Because until we can figure out how to reverse the student misconception that if they were absent they are excused from the work…we have to take matters into our own hands because ultimately, we’re judged on that student’s performance.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for a district or school that has either reliable technology or a digital platform, you could do what I used to do (up until semester 2 of the ’15-’16 school year) and have the absent binder. I used to print the forms and “hire” a student captain to fill out the appropriate information each day. This worked really well most of the time, but the students were unreliable sometimes (because: teenagers) and I ended up doing most of the writing. I eventually changed to keeping the document template on my computer and typing in the information each day (or week) and just printing it out and putting it in the binder for students.

This was a lifesaver. I trained my students to go to the binder when they returned and get any handouts they missed (also printed and available in the absent binder), the day’s bell work (starter, bell ringer, whatever you call it in your room), and record the assignment – both in class and homework, if applicable – they missed and only come to me if they couldn’t get what they needed from another classmate. And by “needed,” I mean the notes, questions about the assignment, etc. – not copying answers for problems. This saved me so much time in the long run and made things easier because students had something consistent. They didn’t stop missing school, but they made up their work more frequently and more independently, and that restored a lot of my sanity.

If you do have reliable access to technology (i.e. a desktop/laptop and the internet) I would highly recommend doing this electronically. I’m lucky enough to work for a district that purchased rights to use a digital interface for our grade book, and with it, come some really cool features. I am able to post anything I want in a “class feed.” Think of it as a type of Facebook page for my classes. Each class has its own. Starting 2nd semester of this year, I moved my absent binder to our web interface. I posted the weekly bell work, assignments, everything we did each day on that feed. I got a student desktop through a grant and then when students returned from an absence, I sent them to the computer to get what they needed from the class feed. They did the bell work question, took the notes (I uploaded pictures of my hand-written notes for each day or the PowerPoint lessons I did), did the assignment (I uploaded any specifics – what pages and which book were used, the worksheet if it was stand-alone, etc. I even started videotaping my lessons and uploading those to the feed so students could watch the actual lesson.  And, if it was distributed, I still had a stack of handouts for the entire quarter), and turned it in. Usually. This was so efficient and saved me time and energy (and sanity). It took some work on the front end, and I would fall behind sometimes, but my students would always seem to remind me – which was great; it meant they were looking for what they missed and couldn’t find it.absenteeism 1