being a teacher, new year, organization

A Few Ideas for a Better Organized Year

Uncluttered space, uncluttered mind

Our school is under construction and dust covers most surfaces as we enter.  I have been in and out of my room, setting things up, getting excited, and yet, because of the construction there are a few things that I am not able to do yet.  The unfinished to-do list seems to haunt me everywhere.

Staying organized is something that most of us do well as educators.  We know that we are setting an example for the students, we know we have to stay on top of all of our piles, especially when we teach more than just one class.  Yet sometimes staying organized seems to be just one more thing to-do on our ever expanding to-do lists.  One more thing to get done before we can actually work.  That is why over the years I have adopted a few small ideas that help me stay organized in our classroom.

The 1 minute rule.  If something can be accomplished in under 1 minute then I do it right away, because all of those 1 minute things quickly add up to way more than 1 minute when left unfinished.  That means most papers get filed away, most things are put in their right places and short replies are given on emails.  This year I may try to expand it to the 2 minute rule.

Where does something want to be?  I pay attention to where I place things naturally in the classroom and set up organizational spots for those things.  This is why my students finished work is not by my desk but by the front.  This is why my book stamp is right next to my computer rather than by the books.  All of these seemingly strange places for things happened because I paid attention to where I naturally wanted to place things rather than where the room told me to put them.

Letting go of paper.  Paper can be a monster in itself, so I have learned to purge.  While I am nowhere near embracing a paperless classroom, I do feel better about the lack of files I have because there is less paper to sort through.  I don’t really use any type of worksheet so most of our papers are classroom sets of texts.

Solicit student help.  Students should feel like this is “our classroom,” which means they are expected to clean up after themselves.  They may seem self-explanatory but I have noticed that students often don’t see the same mess as I do.  So I point it out and I ask them for help.  The last 3 minutes of the day are also used to stack chairs, pick up, and reset the classroom.

Purging the big stuff.  In the past I had too much stuff in our classroom.  Taking a hard look at our furniture and what we did not use helps keep the clutter down.

Replying right away to email.  I hate having a full inbox so if something can be handled right away, I do it.  I don’t strive for inbox zero, but the emails I have in my inbox should be reminders not more things I have to do.

Set up for the next day at the end of the day.  I have a 35 minute commute and while I try to get there at 7 AM every morning, sometimes traffic does not agree.  Cleaning up my space and setting materials out for the next day means I don’t feel rushed in the morning.  Taking those extra few minutes the day before to get ready means that I can walk in and work on something else or even just catch up with a co-worker if I need to.

Don’t send that email.  With the ease of emails I think we sometimes send unnecessary ones.  I have tried to call people more to ask a quick question rather than send them that email.  I am aware that every time I send someone an email, I am creating another to-do for them.

Checking my mood.  I have found that if my work space is disorganized or cluttered, I get grumpier as a teacher.  So if I seem to be having one of those days where I am in a funk, my environment is almost always playing a role.  Therefore taking a moment to re-organize, file, or de-clutter will almost always help alleviate my stress level.

Leave notes for next year.  When a day is done, or a lesson, I try to leave a few notes for next year in my lesson planner or document, in case I end up teaching that same lesson.  That way things I think I will remember as I go to tweak something are actually remembered and the ideas are not lost.  Doing it at the end of the day also means that it does not become one more lingering thing to do.

The Bullet Journal.  My husband introduced me to this way of keeping track of to-do’s and other lists that I need to make.  I love the simplicity of it and have to adapted it to my own needs.  I also try to end most days with a “Happiness is..” list where I list all of the things that made me happy that day.  This helps me see the bigger picture at the end of the day and helps un-clutter my mind.

Keeping our classroom simple.  The less stuff you have, the less stuff you have to organize.  While our classroom may seem sparse to some, to me it means room to breathe and move.  Everything has a place and if something is not used, it goes.  Being mindful of the piles means that my stress level stays sane.

Getting things done right away or as soon as I can means that nothing builds into a mountain.  Rather than wait for the weekend to assess that big pile of assignments, I start on it right away, chipping away so it gets done.  My students also tell me they appreciate the quick turn around, after all, they met their deadline for the project and would like to figure out what to work on now.  They cannot do that if my part isn’t done.

There you have it, a few ideas for staying more organized, especially if you teach 100+ students.  What are your favorite ideas for staying organized?

being a teacher, Literacy, organization, Reading

How I Teach English in the 45 Minute Timeframe

One of the question I am asked the most is how do you teach English in 45 minutes?  Not just reading, not just writing, but everything that English encompasses.  And I can tell you; it is not easy, nor is it perfect, nor do I have everything figured out.  The 45 minute block of time is the bane of my English existence.  Yet as I have figured out it is within our biggest problems that we find our biggest inspiration, and that is very true for this situation.  I have to try to make 45 minutes work while my students and I pine for more time.  In fact, this is the core of the book I am currently writing; how do you create passionate readers when you barely have any time to teach, let alone have conversations?

I am not alone in this quest to solve it.  Many great minds of literacy such as Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller have all helped shape my thinking.  As have countless English teachers that have trodden the path before me.  While I rest my class on a workshop foundation, I have had to make some tweaks to make it work for us.  So I thought I would share a few ideas here.

We start with 10 minutes of self-selected independent reading.  Every day of the year, almost.  This is the very last thing I will take away from our schedule.  From the second day of school this starts and the students know to “settle in and settle down” as they fall into their book.  I spend the 10 minutes conferring with 2 or 3 students, as detailed in this post here.  Students have done their own attendance, all I have to do is enter it.  Students can also book shop during this time.  A timer or my voice brings us back when the 10 minutes are over.

2-4 minutes of book talks.  I sometimes book talk the same book in all 5 classes or 5 different ones.  As the year progresses, students will also book talk their books to the class if they feel like it.  Inspired by Penny Kittle I do not just book talk books that I have read, but also new books that I am excited about.  These book talks are a must as students try to figure out who they are as readers and should be transferred to the students when possible so they can find their reading buddies.

10 minutes or less;  teaching point.  I used to do a full mini-lesson every day but my students asked me to please stop.  They made me see how varied their needs were so depending on what we are doing, most days we have a very short whole class discussion point or lesson.  My students have asked me to instead do small group lessons or one-on-one conferring/teaching based on needs.  The text that I most often use for a mini lesson is a picture book.  Almost all new concepts are introduced through picture books, before we move into nonfiction, multimedia or short stories.  Picture books allow us to get to the point quickly and in a way that allows all readers to access the text.  They also bring a lot of joy back into our reading community.  To see some of our favorites, please see all of the lists here.  

The rest of class time; student work-time.  Again, this looks different based on what we are doing, but most often I am either conferring with students as they come to me or I am going to them and doing coach-ins over their shoulder.  If we are doing book clubs then I listen in on conversations from the side, if students are writing then I most often confer with them at a side table.  All writing conferences start with me asking them what I should be looking for.  They need to be able to come up with a goal for me instead of just having me check “whether it is good or not?”  This is a great way to get students to take ownership over their writing and start to understand what they need to work on.  Reading conferences always start with “What are you working on as a reader?”

The biggest learning point for me has been to limit my teacher-talk in order to get students to have more time.  If we have a day where I know my teaching will expand beyond the 10 minutes, then I often tell the students that so that they know to expect.  That way they can also understand the purpose of the lengthier instructional time.  As far as figuring out which child needs what, which yes, is one of the biggest challenges, I have students self-reflect a lot, but I will also be using a sheet like this more often so that they can tell me what they need to work on.

I am not sure this post is even helpful, It could be about 30,000 more words or so, however, this should offer a small glimpse into what a typical day in our classroom looks like.  We do not do reading or writing separately but often have both in a day, what we do though is have different focuses for our quarters, so quarter 1 and 3 are more focused on reading explorations, whereas quarter 2 and 4 are more focused on writing explorations.  Please feel free to leave your questions in the comments if I can help in any way.

I am currently working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book titled Reimaging Literacy Through Global Collaboration is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being a teacher, books, organization, Reading

Small Ideas for a Better Organized Classroom Library

With 12 days left of the school year, they trickle in.  Some worn and tattered, others still as crisp as the day they entered our room.  Found in lockers, backpacks, discovered under beds and pulled after being accidentally shelved on personal bookshelves, our books are coming home.  The shelves of the library filling back up and all of our bins bursting at the seams.  So as I did another round of shelving, I put them back so I can assess our inventory, I realized that the organization of texts needed a little bit of attention.  That some of our categories were simply too large to really be useful.   After some inspiration from Penny Kittle – are you listening to the Book Love Foundation Podcast yet – and also from my colleague awesome Reidun, I had a few ideas for what we needed; goodbye gigantic shelf of one particular genre; hello sub genres.

So what has changed in our library the past few weeks?  (To see what else I do for library organization, go here).

Better picture book organization.  Our collection is vast, I am not sure how many we have, but I do know that it was taking me a good 10 minutes to find the particular book I needed at any given time.  Since I know that the students like to grab and put them back quickly, I devised a simple system; every picture book gets a letter corresponding to the author’s last name on its spine.  That’s it.  Now they are filed by the subgroup of the letter, however not alphabetically within the letter, and finding that one really great book is super easy.

Better non-fiction categories.   My students have not gravitated much toward non-fiction and I am partly to blame.  I read it but do not book talk it much and our non-fiction section was vast but not organized.  I re-arranged the bins, added all of our historical fiction bins to the same area and then introduced the following sub-genres:

True Tales – for all of those crazy but true stories of epic events that do not center around a single person.

Life Stories – for all of the extraordinary stories about unknown people.

Biographies – Different from life stories as they tend to center around famous people.

Learn Something – Want to learn about coding?  Dinosaurs? Sharks?  Archaeology or Atheism?  There is a book in this bin for you.

World War II and War History – I have separate bins for these because they tend to be a popular topic.

Better realistic fiction categories.  Another massive collection of texts, yet there are so many differences in books.  Some of the new sub-categories introduced were:

Death & Dying – A very popular topic in our library; three bins worth to be exact.  The students actually cheered when I told them of this new section – Thank you Ms. Bures for the idea.

The High School Experience – books centered around being a high school student in all of its sometimes glorious messiness.

Personal Struggles – Thank you everyone for all of the great suggestions of names for this category.  These are the books that have to do with eating disorders, suicide, sexual identity and any other struggle that a teen may go through.

Nature & Survival – When nature plays a key part to the plot, the story goes in here.

Other sub categories include Animals and Sports.  I will ask students what else we need.  I debated doing a relationship one, but fear that the label itself will steer some students away from the genre.  I am pondering this one still.

To place by author or not?  While I created a few new author bins, I am now wondering if I should dissolve them.  I have noticed that many of my students will not even glance at an author bin unless they already love that author.  But if all of the author’s books are in a bin by themselves then a student does not come across them unless someone book talks them.  So, perhaps I should not have author bins at all?  I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Next up fantasy and science fiction.  While I already created a Fantasy & Fairy tales bin (because I love Rump and A Tale Dark and Grimm so much), I know I want to add realistic fantasy, dragons, magic, and other sub-categories as well.  Same goes for science fiction, sub categories there will be space adventure, and dystopian texts among others.  My first step though is to ask the students what they would like.

All books are stamped on the inside cover with a genre designation underneath them.  So a book may have RF/D&D written in sharpie in it, meaning that it goes in any of the 3 Death & Dying bin.  I am not worried about which bin since they are all the same category.

While this is not a brilliant new idea, I thought I would share it because I wish I had thought about doing it sooner.  I am excited to continue to go through our library, continuing to make books attractive and easily found by the students, because in the end that is what all of this is about; shelving the books quickly so they can leave our classroom quickly, happily nestled in the hands of an excited potential reader.

If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.





classroom management, classroom setup, organization

10 Easy Things You Can Change in Your Classroom Today

Let’s be honest, most teachers at the halfway point in the year are feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the great ideas they want to implement.  Our students are grooving, perhaps even getting a little too rambunctious, the routines are in place and yet it seems like there are so many things on our plate.  So I present to you 10 simple things to change to make your life a little easier….

  1. Assign jobs.  I have jobs for everything and they change weekly.  My students take attendance, pass back papers, run messages and help pick up the classroom.  They love to help, they know it is expected, and together we take care of our room.  I don’t have to hound people to do their jobs, at most I give them a reminder but it is a lot easier for me to say “Do your job” than remind 23 students to sign in every day.
  2. Be on a need to know basis.  My students don’t need to ask for permission to go to the bathroom or get a drink, just let me know either through a raised hand, a look or a gesture.  Class keeps going, students take care of themselves, everybody is happy.
  3. Have extras.  This year has been the needy year for markers and calculators.  Instead of asking whether they can borrow something students just grab whatever they need, put it back when they are done.  If they accidentally take it home, so be it.  I will have to find more then.
  4. If you can, plan right away.  After my morning math class my students leave for recess.  I take that opportunity to finish correcting fact tests and plan the next day’s lessons.  This works much better for me since what they are secure in or not is fresh in my mind.  The next morning the lesson is ready to go and we are picking up right where we left off, reveiwing, securing and deepening our knowledge.
  5. Keep a Google Calendar.  On our classroom blog we have a Google calendar where I put everything related to the classroom as soon as I know.  If I am gone from the classroom, it’s on there, if we have a large project due it is on there.  Parents know I update it faithfully and go there to answer their questions regarding upcoming events.  This has cut back on a lot of confusion and questions from everyone, plus I refer to it in later years.
  6. In fact, have a classroom blog.  Our blog is our hub of activity; upcoming events, extra project information, pictures, videos – all have a home on our classroom blog.  The students post there sometimes, I post often, and parents have a place where they can go for the information they need.  I showcase it on orientation and encourage them to add it to an RSS feed or get the email updates, this has cut back paper copies by a huge amount.
  7. Ask your students.  This has to be my mantra for our classroom.  Winter is here, colds are all around us and I am pregnant – all reasons that lead to less creativity in lesson planning.  Yet my students are still amzingly creative and have no problem sharing their ideas.  The problem lies in that we forget to ask.  So take 10 minutes at the beginning of a lesson and ask them what they would like to explore, what would they like to create and then actually listen to their ideas.  I promise you, you will not be dissapointed.  (And yes it can fit into your standards and goals no problem – those don’t dictate the path you take).
  8. Dance a little.  This time of year can be rather depressing, particularly with winter in Wisconsin, so to bring in a little bit of fun and a little bit of sun, we take 4 minutes to dance.  The students pick the song (I usually check the lyrics) and then we crank it up.  We get back to work right after with a smile on our face and tensions gone.
  9. Ask your papers where they want to go.  I used to have a very strict organizational system that required me to do a lot of thinking of where I put things.  I cannot tell you how much time I spent trying to remember where I had organized something to.  So one summer I decided to let my papers tell me where they wanted to go.  Those places now have trays in them for said papers and everything is in its place.  By letting your subconscious mind create your organizational system, things seems to stay organized.
  10. Follow the one minute rule.  I am a procrastinator when it comes to filing or dropping things off.  It seems like I always have something more urgent to do than to take care of whatever I have in my hand.  So now I live by the 1 minute rule; if it can be done in 1 minute, do it right away!  My room is cleaner, my emails are more quickly answered, and I feel on top of things.  I even do this at home, what a difference it makes in a home with a toddler!

So there you are; 10 easy things you can do right now to, indeed, make your life easier.  Do you have mroe to add, please do share.