Monday, September 30, 2013

Bringing Elementary Ways into the Middle School Classroom

I am an elementary teacher at heart.  Before teaching middle school, I spent nearly ten years at the elementary level, which gave me my foundation in best practice. There are so many powerful things that elementary teachers naturally do in their classrooms each and every day.  This post is in celebration of elementary teachers, with the hopes that a few middle school teachers out there will bring some of the elementary ways into their classrooms.

Here are three of my favorite elementary teaching practices and why I think they would work brilliantly in middle school too!

Flexible Grouping - One of the many wonderful things about elementary teachers is how they naturally differentiate instruction in the classroom so that they can reach a range of learners in all subject areas. Teachers at the elementary level achieve differentiation by working with small groups of students all the time. Small groups can and do work at the middle school level too! Personally, I use the information that I gather through pre- and formative assessments to learn exactly which students need help with which skill. Once I have this information, I group students into homogeneous groups so that I can help meet students' individual needs.  Using the 30 minutes per week that I have set aside for independent reading time, I can pull together small groups to work on various skills. Grouping students not only gives teachers the ability to help those who are struggling, it also gives students amazing self-confidence when they are given the extra time and attention that they need to be successful.  

Re-teaching - Elementary teachers know that it takes students different amounts of time to master new concepts and skills, so they often back up and re-teach their students. In my opinion, re-teaching should happen far more at the middle school level. Oftentimes middle school teachers are plowing through their content, keeping all of their classes together, but we leave kids behind that way.  I have found that exit slips or quick check-ins (informal assessment/quizzes) let me know when I need to stop and back up so that the majority of the students have the foundation that they need to move forward.  What about those outliers who aren't "getting it?" Think about pulling them into a small group as mentioned above.  

Parent Communication - My elementary teacher friends communicate with parents in a variety of ways such as sending newsletters through email, keeping a class blog, or updating their class website religiously. Parents seem to always know what is happening in the elementary classroom.  When kids go off to middle school, the attitude is often that students need to be responsible for communicating with parents about what is happening in school. Why is that? Don't parents of middle schoolers still deserve to know what is happening in their child's classrooms? There are lots of ways to communicate with parents is this day and age, thanks to social networking and other web-based tools.  (Read my post about my favorite way to communicate with parents through the app Remind101.)  If we want parents to be our partners, I think the communication needs to be maintained even when students reach middle school. 

There you have it. Three ways to bring a little elementary into the middle school classroom.  Kids are kids, no matter what their grade level in school. If you are a middle school teacher and you have never taught at the elementary level, ask if your administrators would allow you to visit a neighboring elementary school for a few hours some day. You'll be amazed at what they do and how good it is for kids! 

If you have experience as an elementary school teacher, please share some elementary practices that you feel would be beneficial in a middle school classroom.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Great Teachers Wear Orange

Teaching is hard. It's incredibly rewarding and fulfilling and exciting, but it is downright hard. Sometimes it is also hard to stay positive. As teachers, we want so badly to be the best that we can be, but teaching today is remarkably challenging. On top of our work in the classroom, there's planning, assessing, grading, and meetings. It's just. so. hard.


I want to stay positive, and I believe it is my choice. Although teaching will never be easy, I can choose to hold my head up high and be proud of what I do each day because I love what I do. I love being a teacher. So today, along with many of my amazing colleagues, we decided to show our commitment to our work, to our students, and to each other by wearing the color orange.

Why orange, you ask?

Orange stands for enthusiasm - something teachers must show to motivate, encourage and engage their students.

Orange stands for warmth - something teachers must spread to let students know that they have a heart, they are human and they care.

Orange stands for energy - something teachers must embody to share their positivity and passion with others.

Orange stands for success - something for which teachers continually strive to ensure that all students are learning and growing.

Orange stands for what all great teachers stand for.  If you agree, perhaps you will stand with us and wear orange too.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jot Dots - A New Approach to Summarizing

As a 6th grade language arts teacher, one of the learning targets that I am responsible for teaching my students from the ELA literature strand of the Common Core states, "provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments." (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2 ) To introduce summaries for narrative text, I began by having students read picture books which allowed students to practice essential reading skills in a non-threatening way.

Easy enough, I figured. I offered students a graphic organizer with a very popular summarization strategy known as the 5 W's + 1 H. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? 

It was an epic fail, as the kids say.  

One of the reasons the students struggled with their picture book summaries was because their topic sentence had a very narrow focus.  They would begin the summary with the "who" of the story, but that did not help them introduce the main idea of the story at all.  Luckily, my wonderful literacy coach mentioned a strategy to me called "Jot Dots" taken from the Write Tools.  I must say that after teaching it to my students, I am hooked!

The strategy begins by asking students to "Name it, Verb it, Give the Big Idea." Essentially, this is a formula for building a strong topic sentence. They name the book, choose an active verb and then write the big idea or theme for the story. (See the presentation below for a specific example of what this looks like for students.) What a simple, yet effective way to begin a summary! It was a hit with all of my classes when they realized how easily they could generate a well-written, focused topic sentence for their summaries.  

Next, I had the class write five "Jot Dots" which were notes of five words or less about the sequence of events in the story. Students practiced writing their Jot Dots so that they could organize the rest of the summary that would follow their topic sentence. Again, success!  Everyone had a plan of what they were going to write about, which built the students' confidence.  

Finally, students stretched the Jot Dots out into individual sentences so that they could elaborate upon each idea. Before long, the students had beautifully written summaries without breaking a sweat. The difference between using the 5 W's + 1 H and the Jot Dots was night and day!  
Below is the presentation that I used with my class.  If you teach summarizing, I urge you to try out this approach with your students.  I was blown away and I am sure you will be too!

Monday, September 09, 2013

Remind101: A New Approach to Parent Communication

When I started teaching over 10 years ago, just about every teacher I knew wrote a classroom newsletter that came home in the form of a piece of paper.  I am fairly certain that a good percentage of those newsletters ended up in a crumpled wad of recyclable material at the bottom of most kids’ backpacks.  To ensure that I was reaching my entire audience, I decided to use a smarter and far more revolutionary way of communicating with all of my students’ parents: email.  I mean, what parent doesn’t have an extra 5-10 minutes in their day to read an email lovingly crafted by that brand new, 20-something teacher who wants to tell you every single detail about what is happening during your child’s school day?

Well, I am a parent now myself, and I’ve got news for you…I do not have time to read all of the newsletters that I receive via email.  Because not only do I get newsletters from my kids’ schools - I get them from the religious school, sports teams and enrichment classes too.  Sound familiar?  Of course,  I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the communication.  I am SO grateful.  I just do not have the extra time in my day to read them all!  

Enter Remind101.  Where have you been all of my teaching career!?  This is a brilliant, web-based service with an extremely functional smart-phone app that allows me to text my students' parents, without ever exchanging a phone number.  Now  I can keep the lines of communication open with  bite-sized updates about what is happening in my classroom.  Quick to send - quick to read. Now I can be sure that my message is being read because it's only 140 characters, and even the busiest of people can find the time to read that!

If you are still sending email newsletters, I highly recommend making the switch. Busy parents like me will thank you!