Help! I’m Being Observed!

Some of us have been in school for awhile, for others its only been a couple of weeks, but whenever you started, it’s almost that time of year again: observation time. I’ll admit that this time used to strike fear into my normally confident teacher heart. I’ll even admit to still having twinges after more than two decades of teaching, but I don’t worry nearly as much as in the past.

My Advice

Don’t put on a dog and pony show. Don’t try to come up with an over-the-top, can’t-be-beat lesson. Simply teach whatever you would have taught, in the way you would have taught it, if there were no observation. In a nutshell, pretend the administrator/evaluator isn’t even in the room.

My Rational

First, it’ll make your life easier. Teachers have far too much to do already. I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t have the time or energy to come up with an elaborate lesson for no reason other than someone’s going to be watching. Do I sometimes teach what might be classified as elaborate lessons? Yes, but I plan them well in advance, prepare the students ahead of time, and schedule them when they’ll make the greatest impact in student learning.

Second, I barely have time to teach as it is and don’t need one more thing disrupting our learning schedule. Between state testing, fire drills, assemblies, field trips, snow days, and the myriad of other interruptions to our learning schedule, the last thing I need is one more thing delaying or changing our lessons.

Third, students of all ages are highly routine dependent. If you haven’t already figured this out, you haven’t been teaching long. Change one thing in the routine and it’s quite possible your students will react as though the world has suddenly started orbiting in the opposite direction. This is more of an issue for younger students than older, but even in the upper grades you’ll have students that do not deal well with change (and those that will suddenly call out, “Why aren’t we doing it how we normally do?” or something similar). A change in routine or procedure, or the introduction of a new activity, can also result in confusion. Students may not be reacting badly to the change, and may not want to make your life more difficult, but doing anything for the first time makes it more likely for things to go less than smoothly. Sticking to the familiar greatly lowers your chances of disaster.

Fourth, your administrator is likely already familiar with how you teach. Few administrators shut themselves up in the office all day. Most administrators can be found all over the school dealing with problems, talking to students, helping a teacher, and just generally being present. As they move about the building they observe what is going on in each room they pass. Long before an administrator enters a classroom for an observation, he/she already has a sense of whether or not the teacher is a good teacher. He/she also already has a sense of what type of classroom environment he/she will be entering. So even if you put together that perfect lesson, nothing goes wrong, and no students call you out, it’s highly probable your administrator will know things weren’t “normal.”

Conclusion

Bottom line: trust yourself and your abilities as a teacher. When it’s your turn to be observed, just do what you do best–educate! Things are much more likely to go well for everyone if you simply stick to your normal plans and routines. If they don’t go as perfectly as you’d hoped, it’ll be OK, your administrator will understand (he/she has taught a bad lesson or two in the past, too).

Whatchamacallit Context Clues

I think we can all agree that teaching students how to use context clues is important. I spend a lot of time on context clues with all of my classes, especially my lower proficiency level classes, but I have long had two recurring frustrations. The majority of context clues practice activities are made for young learners, and they almost always use nonsense words. Those two things are show stoppers for me and my older language learners, particularly my beginning level students.

Over the years, I’ve developed several different activities for my older students (middle school and up) that practice context clues that use actual English words:

These games are all wonderful in their own right, and we play them quite often, but I wanted something even more fun. Inspired by a game of Balderdash, I decided to make a context clues board game in which players would define real words that even native speakers weren’t likely to know.

I started by searching for names of objects that few, if any people, knew had names at all. Once I had compiled a list of them, I checked each word by looking it up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Not surprisingly, a few of the words had to be eliminated from my list because they have either been removed from our modern dictionary or were never recognized in the first place. You can download a free copy of my final list via the Whatchamacallit Glossary below.

The hardest part of the game creation process was the same as it always is: writing an example sentence for each of the 32 words remaining on my list. This time it wasn’t that I had to use the same word(s) over and over again, but that I needed sentences that would give enough clues about the meaning of the words so students could guess it without actually giving the definition. I wanted the sentences to be challenging enough to keep the game interesting, but not so challenging that my students became discouraged. Consequently, the sentences ended up being a bit longer than I would normally write for this type of activity.

After creating my playing cards with the sentences, I made sure to number them. This allows me to use the cards, along with the recording sheet I created, as a scoot activity and not just a board game. Game/activity versatility is important to me because the composition of my classes changes so frequently. I don’t want to be locked into a specific format or type of activity if it won’t be the most effective for a particular group of students.

I added in a copy of my standard zig zag game board, some place markers, and six sided dice, and we were ready to play. I tested the game with several different groups of students and found it worked with all of them, though my lowest proficiency students really struggled with it. The sentences were a little too linguistically complex for them and a few became frustrated. I wasn’t surprised when my intermediate students gave their approval to the game, but I was a bit concerned about my advanced students. I was afraid it would be too easy and they would be bored. I was wrong. The game was easier for them, but they still had to think about many of the words and thought it was fun to learn vocabulary their native English speaking friends wouldn’t know.

My students’ final assessment of the game was it is fun and something they’d like to play again. My advanced students asked if I’d make them copies of the glossary and came back the next week with stories of impressing friends with their extensive vocabulary knowledge. Hopefully your students will like the game just as much. Happy teaching, everyone!


Here’s the glossary download I mentioned:

If you don’t have time to make your own context clues game, try out one of mine:

Need digital versions of the games? I have those, too:

Or get a bundle with all of the games at a 20% discount:

What to Wear?

Making vocabulary practice interesting for students is not always easy, especially older students. While my adult students understand the value of repetitive vocabulary study, and thus are willing to participate, my middle schoolers were not always so accommodating. I did eventually find some culmination activities that were almost always a hit, such as Appetizing Adjectives for food vocabulary and Outfit on a Budget for clothing.

Vocabulary Practice Pack
Guess the Word Game

Vocabulary Practice Activities

We start out with many of the same vocabulary activities as our other studies: sorts, clip cards, spinner games, match up boards, etc. While I’m always trying to keep students engaged, I do find that using a standard set of activities helps them to concentrate on the vocabulary words and not the activity directions. That said, clothing vocabulary was one of the first sets to have a Guess the Word PowerPoint Game made to go with it, and my students love this game! I’ll be writing a post with all of the details (including step-by-step directions and a template you can use to make your own versions) soon, but for now you can see the community places version of the game in action in this YouTube video. It’s after these standard activities, when we get to the culmination activity, that the real fun begins though.

Outfit on a Budget Challenge

As a wrap up to our unit, I give students a challenge. Since I already have several good descriptive writing activities (including Describe That Picture and Descriptive Writing With Mr. Potato Head), I usually make the final product of this project a speaking presentation. When I have time, I prefer to do this project in two parts, but sometimes I have to skip straight to the second half in order to fit everything into a limited semester.

Part One

Students are told they are now all fashion consultants and it is their job to put together the perfect outfit for a given occasion. Students are placed into pairs and told to decide if they will be dressing a man or a woman. They then randomly draw an occasion card from my stack (part of the free download at the bottom of this post). Occasions run from very casual things such as staying home on a Saturday to highly formal events such as attending a wedding. Pairs are then given time to shop for the perfect outfit. Their outfit must include all outer clothing (no underwear), shoes, and accessories. No budget is given for this first part, but I do limit them to one or two websites to do their shopping (usually Amazon or Walmart).

As students are working, they take screen shots of the various pieces of their outfit and keep a running total of the cost. All of this is combined in a class Google Slides presentation. All pairs are allotted a single slide which must contain the occasion, images of the outfit components, and a grand total. Students then take turns presenting their chosen outfit to the class. They need to describe the outfit and explain why it is the perfect choice for the event which their fictional client will be attending. Limiting students to one slide, and requiring them to primarily fill it with pictures, helps break students of the habit of writing their speech out on the slide. Students begin to understand that presentation slides are there to support their speaking, not duplicate or replace it.

Part Two

For part two, students keep the same partner and occasion, but this time must draw a card from the budget pile (also included in the download below). Students once again design the perfect outfit, including all clothing except underwear, as well as all accessories and shoes, but this time they must do it within a certain budget. Since the budget cards range from $35-195, I will sometimes have two piles (casual vs. formal events).

The working and presentation aspects of the project remain the same, but students must include their assigned budget in the presentation, as well as the final total. Sometimes, depending on the age and math abilities of my students, I will even require them to figure and include sales tax in their final costs. This is an excellent culture lesson as many countries do not have sales tax or include it in the price you see advertised (and their math teachers love the extra practice with percentages it gives students).

Conclusion

This final project is a lot of fun and provides the students with practice in several different vocabulary areas: clothing, colors, numbers, money… It also requires some good descriptive speaking skills, something my students generally need to work on. When I don’t have access to technology available, I give students catalogs (yes, they’re still out there, you just have to request them) and a graphic organizer to help them prepare for their presentation. For the presentation itself, I either allow them to either skip the visuals completely or make a poster to share (often a small one we place on the document camera). The final outfits are always a lot of fun to see, especially the differences between the budgeted and unbudgeted versions! If you’re looking for a fun way to practice vocabulary and speaking skills, I highly recommend giving this activity a try. Happy teaching, everyone!

As promised, here is the download for the activity cards and graphic organizer, as well as links to the other vocabulary activities.

Getting Perspective

Helping students understand perspective can be difficult. It can be especially difficult helping them to see things from a perspective that isn’t their own. I have a writing mini-unit I do that helps with this process.

The first thing we do is discuss the definition of perspective and its synonym point of view. To help students truly understand this concept, I use a PowerPoint that I made based off a Chlloe article, Pictures That Show Just What a Difference a New Point of View Can Make.

In the article, Jade Kerr uses photos of familiar things and places, taken from unusual perspectives, to help us understand the difference point of view can make. I took these photos, and the descriptions given in the article, and paired them with photos of the same things and places taken from a more familiar point of view. The first slide has the familiar point of view with a title labeling the object or place. The next slide has the unusual perspective with the explanation text from the article. You can download the PowerPoint using the link below.

The students and I look at each slide in the PowerPoint, discussing the various photos and the difference perspective can make in how we view familiar objects and places. After looking through all of the images, the students get into pairs or small groups, choose one set of photos from the PowerPoint (I print out the slides and place them in plastic sleeve protectors, giving each group the set they’ve chosen as reference), and work together to write two paragraphs, one from each perspective.

The pairs/groups take turns sharing their paragraphs and we discuss as a class how the photo’s point of view influenced the way the students wrote each paragraph. This leads into a discussion of how an author’s perspective can influence a piece of writing and how fictional texts we’ve read in class would be different if told from another character’s point of view.

The final part of our mini-unit on perspective is to write fractured fairy tales by changing the perspective in some way. I start out by reading them the story of the Three Little Pigs (yes, even my adult students love having picture books read to them). Most of my students are familiar with the story and we take time to discuss any differences between the version I read and those they know from their own childhoods. Then I read them Jon Scieszka’s book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. We discuss how the story changes based on the new perspective. This leads into their writing assignment.

Students then choose a classic fairy tale, either one they already know or one from the collection of books I bring to class. They then change the perspective in some way, usually by changing the narrator of the story. The retelling of Cinderella from the step-sisters’ point of view, Snow White from the perspective of the Wicked Queen, and the Giant’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk are all popular choices. Sometimes the students choose to turn the villain into a misunderstood victim (as in Scieszka’s book), others they give an alternative motive for the hero’s actions, and still others choose to take the story in a completely new direction.

The entire unit usually takes about a week. Sometimes, if we have the time, we’ll spend extra time on peer editing and the revising of our writing, taking a full two weeks to complete it. It’s the perfect unit for immediately before or after exams because it gives students a bit of a break from the more serious nonfiction writing we usually do. Whenever we do the unit, it’s always a lot of fun and the resulting texts are some of my favorites to read and grade. I encourage you to try something similar in one of your classes. Happy teaching, everyone!

Connected Vocabulary

“Words are the most powerful thing in the universe…” (Charles Capps) I don’t know about you, but it seems I spend at least half of my instructional time on vocabulary. We know the old school method of assigning lists of words, requiring students to look up and copy definitions from the dictionary, and then quizzing them on those meanings does not result in actual acquisition of vocabulary.

For students to truly acquire, and be able to use, new vocabulary they need to see it in context and connect it to existing frameworks in their brains. Unfortunately, providing students with the necessary context and connections is not always easy. In this post I’d like to review for you some of the various vocabulary units and activities I use to help students truly learn and begin to use the vocabulary they need to succeed. I also have a few previously unmentioned free activities and resources to share with you!

Vocabulary Units/Sets

I have several different vocabulary units (for lack of a better term) I use. When working with preliterate and beginning students, I prefer my Phonics Based Vocabulary Units. When I was teaching with National Geographic’s Inside curriculum, I used academic vocabulary units specifically tailored to those books (level A and level B). With intermediate and advanced students who are in academically focused classes (not community education), I tend to use my 30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary program.

For more targeted vocabulary instruction, I have themed vocabulary sets. These sets tend to all use the same vocabulary activities and focus on 12-24 words each. I have sets for various themes including:

These themed vocabulary activity sets have come about because of specific needs for various units of study. The use of the same basic activities allows students the opportunity to concentrate on the vocabulary and not spend time and energy trying to understand the directions for the activity.

Vocabulary Activities

While we tend to use the same basic activities over and over again, there are a few that are standout favorites. These favorites include:

A newer activity that I dreamed up a couple years ago is Connected Vocabulary. To play this game, you need to number your vocabulary words from 1-6, 1-12, or 1-20. Each group will also need two number cubes that have the same value as the number of words in your list. You can find number cubes in all of the standard sizes (D6, D12, D20) fairly cheaply on Amazon. The student whose turn it is will roll the number cubes to determine which words from the list he/she will use that turn. The student will then use both words in a single sentence or explain one way in which the two words/items are connected (i.e.: A cat and a bat are both mammals. -or- Cat and sit both have only one syllable.). If successful, he/she earns a point and the student with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Vocabulary Glossaries

As previously said, looking words up in a dictionary and copying the definition is not the most effective means of gaining new vocabulary. But, as I talk about in the post Adding to Our Lexicons, sometimes it is necessary. When we do engage in “dictionary work,” I prefer to have students go beyond creating a list of definitions. Generally, I ask them to complete either a Circle Graphic Organizer or a Master the Term Graphic Organizer (both are free!). We then place these organizers into our own custom glossaries.

These glossaries aren’t fancy. They are three ring binders (usually one inch) that have construction paper dividers (trim to 9×11 inches) for each letter. Students then place the graphic organizers into the appropriate sections, alphabetizing the words as they go. At the end of the term, semester, or year (however long our class lasts), students have a custom glossary of the terms we learned together.

While the paper glossaries are great, some of my students preferred a digital version. In order to accommodate them, I created digital glossaries in PowerPoint to go with my 30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary, Academic Vocabulary (correlates with National Geographic’s Inside curriculum), and CCSS Math Vocabulary (third grade and seventh grade) sets. (Side note: if you are teaching with National Geographic’s Pathways series, you can get premade glossaries, and lesson plans, for each book in the Listening/Speaking and Reading/Writing posts.) I also created a general template that students could use to create their own personalized glossaries for any class, subject, or personal learning goal.

The general template includes a title page, a general table of contents slide (letters of the alphabet), a general word list slide for each letter of the alphabet, and a preformatted Master the Term slide. The title page simply says “Vocabulary Glossary” and provides a place for students to list the text or class. The table of contents has all of the letters of the alphabet and each letter is hyperlinked to the appropriate slide for that letter’s word listing. The general word list slides for each letter include a button that is hyperlinked back to the table of contents and a textbox for students to enter their words in alphabetical order. Each letter has one Master the Term slide already formatted with a Table of Contents button and a button to return to that letter’s word list.

To use the template, students need to enter their term on the appropriate letter’s word list. They then will want to copy and paste the preformatted slide to create a new slide for their word. They will complete the sections of the graphic organizer, creating the entry for the new term. Finally, the students will hyperlink the term from the letter’s word list to the appropriate graphic organizer slide. It seems a little complicated but it’s actually quite easy, and I’ve never had a student who preferred the digital glossaries and couldn’t understand what to do with minimal instruction.

This PowerPoint template is a free download just below the picture in this section. The file also translates well to Google Slides, so fear not if you prefer Google over Microsoft. Feel free to help yourself and use it with your own students.

Word Wall Spinner Challenge

As I share in my Spin & Spell post, I create custom spinners for various games and activities in my classroom using old CD and DVD discs. My father built me several spinner stands (directions for building your own are free) and my students love using them. I design my own spinners using Publisher and print them on Avery CD labels. Our word wall spinners are just another version. Since our word wall is a central feature of our classroom, one of our go-to time filler activities is Word Wall Spinner Challenge.

The only equipment needed is one of two CD spinners with various challenges on them that relate to the word wall. Which spinner we use depends on how we’ve organized our wall. Since we often organize by part of speech, the second spinner is not very challenging since most of the sections ask the student to find a word of a specific part of speech. The included challenges are:

  • Find two rhyming words.
  • Choose a word and define it.
  • Choose a word and use it in a sentence.
  • Find two words with the same number of syllables.
  • Find two words with short vowel sounds.
  • Find two words with long vowel sounds.
  • Find two synonyms.
  • Find two antonyms.
  • Find a noun/verb/adjective/adverb.
  • Find a word that has a prefix or suffix.

To play, students take turns spinning and attempting to complete the challenge. If they do, they earn a point. Sometimes we have a race and two students compete the be the first to complete the challenge.

The CD spinner stand building plans are a free download from my Teachers Pay Teachers store and the CD label templates are a free download above. (The link is just below the picture of the spinner stand.) The PDF file will print out two copies of each spinner label. I will often put a label on each side of the CD so the people sitting behind the spinner can see what was spun as well.

Conclusion

I try very hard to provide as many opportunities as possible for my students to see words in context and practice using them. Are there other things we do to foster these connections? Of course, but the ones included here are the most common and successful thus far. I hope you’ve found at least one new idea to use in your classroom. Happy teaching, everyone!

Helpful Resources for Students

Helpful Free Resources
Free Games To Practice English

One of the most frequent requests I get from students, especially now that I’m teaching mostly adults, is for resources they can use to practice English on their own. Understandably, since they are paying a fair amount of money for classes and books already, my students are most interested in free resources. In early 2021, I shared some resources I’ve made for students in the posts Student Reference Tools and New Resources for a New Semester. I brought most of these reference links and downloads together into two posts, each with the resources specifically geared toward the curriculum we use (Pathways by National Geographic, Listening/Speaking and Reading/Writing). This week I’d like to share with you two of the resource lists I use for more general requests. These lists are not tied to any specific curriculum and are broader in their application. The resources included in these lists would be appropriate for upper elementary through adults, with a few being applicable to lower elementary as well. You can see previews of each resource to the side here and the link to download the PDF file is below each image. Let’s get into some details about each file.

Helpful Free Resources

This compilation contains links to ten different resources for all different types of helpful sites.

  • Word Hippo–an extremely helpful online dictionary/thesaurus (also an app) that also includes pronunciation, translation, and word form options
  • Khan Academy–not just for math anymore, there’s a great section for grammar learning and practice
  • DuoLingo–a free website/app for learning English, particularly helpful phrases and basic vocabulary
  • KnightCite–helpful for citing references in MLA, APA, or Chicago format while writing
  • ESL Cyber Listening Lab–listening activities with comprehension exercises
  • Read & Write–an extension that will read websites and online documents aloud in the Chrome browser
  • Creating Recordings–two different options for when students need to create a recording or video
  • YouTube Channels–three different channels great for learning and reviewing grammar, vocabulary, and more

Each of the ten resources includes a link to the website, links to the app in the Google Play and Apple stores (where applicable), a brief description of why it is useful, and a logo or picture to help students ensure they’re in the right place (especially when they can’t use the direct link for some reason and try to locate the site by name).

Free Sites to Play English Practice Games

Practicing anything is more fun if it can be done in a game format. There is also a growing amount of research supporting the idea that we learn more through play than study alone. It is no surprise that my students prefer to play games rather than complete workbook style exercises, so I’ve compiled this set of eight sites to allow them to do just that. Some of the sites are geared more towards younger learners but my students haven’t minded. We have a good relationship and they know from our time in class that I respect them. Once again, each of the eight sections provides a link to the website, links to the app in the Google Play and Apple stores (where applicable), a brief description of the site (including if it is geared toward children), and a logo or picture to help them identify the correct site. The included sites are:

  • Jeopardy Labs–Jeopardy games to practice just about anything
  • MES Games–games aimed more towards children for practicing vocabulary and basic grammar
  • Educa Play–great for older learners to practice vocabulary and grammar
  • English Club–organized into sections for grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation and geared toward older learners
  • Review Game Zone–more difficult to navigate with older style games but still free and useful for practice
  • ESL Games+— definitely aimed at children with games for basic vocabulary and beginning grammar
  • Quizlet–make your own vocabulary sets or use the premade ones, also an app
  • Free Rice–practice English and help feed the world’s hungry through a partnership with the World Food Program, also an app

Conclusion

Since students need to be able to click the links, distributing paper handouts wouldn’t be nearly as helpful as providing the PDFs digitally. For this reason, I place them in our Blackboard class (or Moodle, Google Classroom, Padlet…) so my students can download the files for use whenever they need. My students have really appreciated the PDFs and tell me they’ve enjoyed being able to practice on their own. They were frustrated by not knowing if they could trust the sites they found to be accurate in the information and answers they provided and this relieved that stress. While there are many other excellent free resources in existence, I chose to keep the lists short so as not to overwhelm students and these are the ones I found myself recommending most often. I hope your students will find it as helpful as mine have. Happy teaching, everyone!

Morning Bell Work

One of my education professors used to stress the importance of keeping students focused in relation to classroom management. She used to say, “If you don’t have a program running, put on a commercial or the students will air their own show and it’s guaranteed to be a drama.” I very quickly learned she was absolutely correct, and the time of the day students were most likely to get off track was the beginning of class.

It doesn’t matter which subject or grade I am teaching, it doesn’t matter if it is first or third period, the first few minutes of class are always some of the busiest and most chaotic. The best way I’ve found to deal with this, and to prevent my students from starting with drama straight away, is to have a very regimented program for them to follow. This was never more true than the year I taught a self-contained middle school class for beginning English language learners. Teaching middle and high school is rough when class starts badly, but at least it’s generally limited to 40-55 minutes and then you get a reset. On the other hand, elementary teachers know how hard it can be to get through a full day of school when things start off on the wrong foot. By the time I taught the self-contained middle school class, I had been away from the elementary model for well over a decade and had forgotten some of the more important routines. I’d become lazy about things such as bell ringers and some classroom procedures. It only took a week or so to remember why they were so important and I quickly hit the reset button, developed a whole new set of routines and procedures, and spent a week teaching them to my students. The one that I spent the most time on was our morning routine, bell work being the cornerstone of it.

I settled on a standard list of tasks students needed to accomplish every day. Students could choose the order in which they did them, but all needed to be completed by a specific time, usually about thirty minutes after the start of school. The next thirty minutes we spent going over various parts of the work, as I’ll describe below. Since I was teaching all subjects, I used this time as an opportunity to practice foundational skills (most of my students had large gaps in their education) and vocabulary. Our standard list consisted of:

  • Math Fact Practice: I used the free version of XtraMath for this. Students had to complete their daily practice, which the site personalized to them based on their initial assessment and previous work. As students progressed through the various fact families and skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), we tracked their progress and they earned rewards such as extra screen time, alternative seating choice, and homework passes. I could access their progress and participation reports at any time online, making my job a lot easier.
  • Math Vocabulary Practice: This was a journal I’d printed and students kept in their math folders. Each week had a single vocabulary word as the focus. Each day the students would complete a single problem related to the target word. The vast majority of the problems were word problems, which gave further review of math vocabulary, and much needed practice with word problems in general. I started out using the seventh grade version, but the gaps in my students’ education were too great to complete the problems independently. I quickly switched to the third grade version, allowing them to do the work independently and fill in some of the gaps we weren’t able to address during our regular grade level math lessons. During our thirty minute work review session, one student would be responsible for going over the day’s problem. This meant that if a student made a mistake, or didn’t understand the problem, he/she had the chance to correct it, or copy it, from the board. As students were discussing the answer, I observed to be sure students weren’t consistently doing nothing and simply copying the answer every day. Every Friday I’d collect the journals and do a quick spot check to be sure they’d completed that week’s work.
  • Language/Grammar Practice: This was a half sheet of paper I’d place on their desks before they arrived each morning. I made a full week’s worth of copies each Friday, usually from an Evan-Moor Daily Language Review book. One student (different from the math vocabulary student) would be responsible for going over the answers to each day’s review sheet. That student was also responsible for collecting the papers and placing them in our “I’m finished” box for me to do a quick check later. Once again, I observed and walked around the room making spot checks to be sure students were making and effort to complete the sheet and not simply waiting to copy the answers from the board.
  • Reading Practice: This was another sheet I placed on their desks each day before they arrived, and again I generally copied it from an Evan-Moor book, this time Non-Fiction Reading Practice. Occasionally I’d use a different text from NewsELA or CommonLit, something specifically related to what we were learning in science or social studies, but not always. Once again, a different student was assigned each day to go over the answers to the comprehension section and collect the papers for me to look over later while I made spot checks of student work.
  • Writing Prompt: Even though it almost never changed, I always listed the daily morning tasks to be accomplished on the board. The one part of this list that changed daily was the writing prompt. Students had their own personalized journals (notebook paper folded in half and stapled inside wallpaper covers) in which they wrote their responses. Each Friday I collected their journals and looked over their entries, giving quick feedback on specific grammar, punctuation, or other writing conventions we’d been discussing in our ELA lessons.
  • Academic Vocabulary: On Monday students would receive their graphic organizer for the week and I’d put up the first word’s card. Each day I’d add a new card to our vocabulary clipboards (half page clipboards located next to our word wall). Students were responsible for copying the definition from the display card, reading my example sentence, and writing one of their own. During our work review time, I’d randomly call on several students to share their sentences and we’d discuss the day’s word, adding its card to our word wall. Each Monday, at the end of our review time, students would complete the vocabulary quiz for the previous week’s words.

This routine ensured students knew exactly what to do upon arrival to my classroom each day and got our days off to a positive start with an immediate focus on learning. An hour of each day (30 minutes to work, 30 minutes to go over the daily checks) seems like a lot of time to “lose” on morning/bell work, but it was far from wasted. Students reviewed a lot of important skills, worked to fill in gaps in their academic knowledge, and practiced leading a group and speaking skills. I had the opportunity to take care of things such as attendance, get in some student conferencing, and answer a lot of questions about various subjects. During work time, I also made sure to meet with each student who would be going over the answer(s) to either the math vocabulary problem, language/grammar practice, or reading practice. This ensured he/she was confident in his/her answers, and would give the correct answer(s) to the rest of the class. Being the person in charge of of going over a particular item was a highly sought after thing, and students would often argue over who got to take someone’s place if he/she was absent. My principal was always impressed at how smoothly things went and how confident my students were in front of a group, despite their low proficiency with English.

When I don’t teach a self-contained class, I still start with some type of bell work. Almost all of my classes do the academic vocabulary work, and the others vary based on class focus. Some classes focus more on writing, others on reading, and still others on grammar. No matter what the focus, even the shorter time (usually 10-20 minutes) yields the same benefits. I would highly encourage any teacher, no matter the subject or grade level, to consider what type of “assignment” would make a good start to your class. Happy teaching, everyone!

Alternative Seating

Alternative seating is not something I learned about in school, university, or even student teaching. When I was going through all of those stages, classrooms had very limited seating options. There were carpets in the lower grade classrooms, elementary desks (the kind that the top lifted up and you kept your books inside), upper grades desks (the kind with a wire basket under the seat for your books), lab tables with stools, and that was about it. So alternative seating was something I learned through trial and error.

Alternative Seating Fails

As I’m sure you know by now, or will soon learn, not everything you try in your classroom will be a success. I have certainly had my share of, “This was a much better idea in my head,” alternative seating moments! Here are some of the things that did not work in my classroom:

Scoop Chairs

These chairs may work fine with the youngest students, but my students found Scoop Rockers to be incredibly uncomfortable. I tried to get the largest, strongest scoop chairs I could find, but they just didn’t make the cut. Even my third and fourth graders declared them too small and uncomfortable.

Stools

Stools were also not a hit with my students, especially my middle schoolers. While they all thought they were great in concept, and even helped write the request for funding, the students quickly abandoned using them after they arrived. We tested several different types: adjustable height wobble stools, stackable round stools, and rectangular metal stools. They were all fun for a time but very quickly students started complaining about their backs getting tired and starting to hurt. Everyone agreed: if they are going to sit on something for any length of time, it needs to have a back to lean against.

Tire Chairs

This one was such an epic failure that it never even made it into my classroom. I’d seen cute pictures of chairs made from old tires and lots of videos about repurposing old tires into chairs and thought it’d be a fun addition to my classroom. I very quickly learned several things: old tires are not easy to come by, it is nearly impossible to get them clean enough to work with, and the DIY directions are much more complicated than they look. While I have no doubt there’s a person out there with more talent and patience than I have who can make this work, I did not want to put in the effort required or risk not getting it clean enough and having some student ruin his/her clothing.

Alternative Seating Successes

I’ve had plenty of other alternative seating failures, but those were my three largest. The good news is that I’ve had far more successes than failures. Here are some options my students have loved.

Bungee Chairs

One year the PTA had some extra funds and gave teachers the opportunity to submit proposals for their classrooms. I told my students that if they completed the proposal form, I’d submit it on their behalf. Bungee chairs were one of the things they asked for and received. I will admit that when I saw them my first thought was, “Those look like the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever seen.” My students loved them though and would fight over the chance to sit in them for the entire class period, even going so far as to pull them up to our group tables for whole class instruction time. One day I was tired and told them if they didn’t stop fighting, I would take the chair and sit in it so none of them could use it. Being middle schoolers towards the end of the day, they didn’t stop fighting and I ended up with the chair. By the end of the class period I was so convinced I looked for and bought myself a bungee desk chair (that I still use and love years later).

Saucer Chair

The other thing the students requested in their proposal was a couple of saucer chairs. These were highly sought after as well but this time I wasn’t surprised. Many of my friends had papasan chairs when we were children and I loved sitting and napping in them. The saucer chairs my students chose were perfect because they were foldable and easy to move around the room. These too were dragged up to our group tables for whole class instruction time, making for some very crowded tables!

Body Pillows

My reading corner consisted of an area rug and a bunch of pillows. One year I tossed a body pillow with a fun colored cover into the reading area just for fun. It quickly became the most popular pillow in the reading area. Sometimes students would take it out of the reading area, toss it on the floor somewhere, and lay on it during independent work time.

Arm Pillows

Another popular option, especially in classrooms with carpeting, were arm pillows. Most of the time they lived in our reading corner, but they tended to travel around the room as well. When working in small groups, one group would inevitably grab all of the arm pillows and move to a different corner of the room, leaving the regular pillows for whatever group was in the reading corner. They were also a hot commodity during independent work time because students could put their phone in the small side pocket and listen to music while they worked in a corner by themselves.

Short Table & Cushions

I mentioned this option in my post about Out of the Blue Favorite Classroom “Supplies.” I rescued a short table from a trip to the dumpster one year and it quickly became a popular place for students to work on their computers, or when they needed to write and use a textbook at the same time. Students would sit on chair cushions and my last class of the day would simply toss them on top of the table so the custodians could easily sweep around and under the table.

Tall Table & Chairs

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, another popular option was the counter height table and chairs. What always made me laugh was it was my shortest students, often those whose feet couldn’t reach the chair’s foot rest, who were most attracted to this table. This was easily the most expensive option and we only had one because it was donated by a family who was returning to their home country. If you want something similar, you might see if someone is getting rid of a tall dining room table set. Such a set would also allow for small groups to work around the table.

Teacher Desk

The final option was one that surprised me greatly, an old teacher’s desk. It had been placed in my classroom because I was supposed to be assigned an assistant that year. She quit to take another job very early in the year and was never replaced. One day during independent work time a student just sat at the desk. The next day another student chose to sit there. Very soon it was one of the more sought after locations to work. To this day I have no idea why an old metal desk was so popular, but they enjoyed it and it was free!

Do I think alternative seating is a necessary thing? Absolutely not, especially if you have to fund it yourself and are just starting out. It will never make my list of recommended classroom supplies, but it is fun to play around with if the opportunity presents itself. Whatever you end up doing in your classroom this year, I hope you have a great one. Happy teaching, everyone!

Back to School Activities — Ice Breaker Alternatives

It’s the end of July, and that means teachers in the USA (and other parts of the world) are starting to plan their first day/week activities for the school year. If you, like me, hear the words, “Let’s do an ice breaker.” or “Let’s do a get-to-know-you activity.” and want to run for the hills, then this post is for you.

If you, unlike me, love ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities, may I suggest that you consider mixing some of these alternatives into your routine as well? While I agree that getting to know our students is important, relationship building is the key to a successful classroom environment, I’m not convinced that ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities are the way to go. Some students, especially older newly arrived students (be they newly arrived from another country, state, city, or even school across town), want nothing more than to blend in and be accepted as one of the group. Many students, newly arrived and not-so-newly-arrived, need time to become comfortable with new people/groups before being able to open up, even about seemingly inconsequential things. Thus the dilemma: how do we get to know our students, build a positive classroom environment, and have a smooth/fun transition back to school? I have a few suggestions.

When I first started teaching, I couldn’t imagine “wasting” an entire day, week, or even longer teaching routines and procedures. I quickly learned this time is far from wasted and I couldn’t afford NOT to invest it in these activities. Thus, on the first day of ever class, the first thing I do is start teaching routines and procedures. I then like to start trying to get a sense of where my students are at academically. While reviewing previous grades and administering pre-tests have their value, I don’t think it gives me the best reading of students’ actual abilities. Too many students are nervous when they know they’re being assessed and this leads to inaccurate data. Instead, I prefer to get students engaged in a game or other fun activity that allows me to observe and get a sense of their speaking skills, as well as their reading and possibly even writing abilities. In no particular order, here are five of my go-to first week of school activities that allow me to practice routines/procedures with students, have some you-don’t-have-to-reveal-anything-about-yourself fun, and start to get a sense of where they are at academically.

Silly Shorts

I wrote a complete blog post about this game in April of 2021, and it is always a hit with my students. I love it as a first week of school activity because it can be used with any age or proficiency level (remember, I teach ESL) student. It doesn’t take more than one or two turns for students to start to relax, and before they know it everyone is laughing and having fun. There is no reading or writing required, but it an excellent way to get a feel for students’ speaking abilities, sentence level grammar, story formation skills, and general vocabulary.

Mr. Potato Head

This descriptive writing activity is so much fun (students frequently request to do it again) and it gives me the opportunity to assess students’ writing skills, vocabulary, and get them practicing several different classroom routines/procedures (individual work time, materials passing out and returning, handing in work…). This is also a great first week of school activity because it can take as little as one block class period, or as many as three to four classes to complete. Get the full details in this blog post from January of 2021.

Proverbs from Around the World Game

This board game is especially popular with my intermediate to advanced immigrant students, and would be great for a world history, geography, or other social studies class. The goal of Proverbs from Around the World is to be the first player to reach finish. Players advance by reading a proverb and explaining, in their own words, what the proverb means/teaches. The game includes 40 different proverbs cards, so there is no fear of students having to repeat a previous student’s answer. My students always get excited when they find a proverb from their home country/language. They also enjoy discussing similar proverbs they know to those on the cards.

Paraprosdokian Board Game

Paraprosdokians are figures of speech in which the second part of the sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, causing the reader/listener to reevaluate their understanding of the first part. They are often quite humorous as well. In this game, students read a paraprosdokian and then have to, in their own words, explain why it is surprising or unexpected. It’s a great way to give students lengthier, unscripted speaking practice and the linguistic complexity of these figures of speech provides enough challenge for advanced English language learners and native speakers alike. The surprising nature of the sentences never fails to get students laughing and talking amongst themselves.

Oreo Science & Math Madness

This is the most academically focused of the five activities, but it is so much fun my students never notice they are reviewing a lot of important skills. Many of my students struggle with creating their own graphs, as well as communicating in written form the data presented in a graph. The activity is cross-curricular and involves students in the full writing process, as well as speaking, data collection, graphing, and drawing conclusions. When we do the full activity, it takes us two weeks and they get a review of the scientific method as well as fraction, decimal, percent equivalents and conversions. If you don’t want to spend two weeks on this activity, it’s a lot of fun to simply brainstorm different ways to eat an Oreo (my students and I highly recommend actually trying each out) and then having students conduct a survey of their friends and family. You can create the graph as a class and easily complete the activity in two days.

Whatever activities you choose to use for the start of the school year, I hope you have a good one! Happy teaching, everyone.

Out of the Blue Favorite Classroom “Supplies”

I am a big proponent of NOT buying a lot of stuff for your classroom, especially as a novice teacher. I also recognize that I’m a bit of a hypocrite in this area as I have A LOT of teaching materials and love getting new things for my classroom. Some things I’ve purchased, tried, and not been impressed with. Other things get the job done but never become favorites.

What I’d like to share with you today are some of the things I’ve used over the years that have become absolute favorites for one reason or another. I hesitate to call them supplies, as you don’t actually need any of them (the only “must have” classroom supply is a dedicated teacher), but they are all great for one reason or another, as I’ll explain. So, in no particular order, here are ten of my favorite out of the blue classroom “supplies.”

Stikki Clips

Over the years I’ve had classrooms with all different types of wall surfaces: painted brick, unpainted brick, painted cinderblock, unpainted cinderblock, poured cement, sheetrock… What they all had in common was a prohibition against damaging them in any way, shape, or form. Stikki Clips have been my best friend for hanging things on all of these walls. These wax clips go up easily, remove cleanly, and are reusable. For larger, heavier objects, I simply used more clips.

Lava Lamp

One year, for who knows what reason, I decided to put a lava lamp on my desk. I turned it on when I arrived in the mornings and it would be warmed up and moving by the time students arrived. After students left for the day, I’d turn it off for the night. What I never expected was effect it would have on my students, and even myself. There’s something very calming about watching the bubbles in the lamp form and rise to the top. Even my most energetic students would settle and be more focused after a few minutes of watching the lamp in action. There were even times I caught myself just sitting and watching the bubbles for a few minutes during my prep period, lunch, or after students had left for the day.

Lego/Puzzle Tables

One year I had a couple of extra tables and several extra chairs in my classroom. Since I always get new students as the year goes on, I set them up against the back wall of the classroom to start the year. When the first day of school rolled around, the classroom wasn’t 100% finished (yes, it’s ok if your classroom isn’t done the minute school starts), and apparently as I was putting things away the day before I’d left a jig saw puzzle on one of the tables and a pail of Legos and some baseboards on the other. At some point during the first day of school, a couple of students indicated they wanted to work on the puzzle. When I said yes, they happily dumped it out and started putting it together. Later, a couple of other students sat down and started building something out of Legos. I never did get around to putting those items away and the two “centers” became popular places for students to relax when they had free time.

Teacher Rug

The majority of my career has been spent in middle school classrooms, so carpet time wasn’t something we did. I’ve also spent a lot of my career teaching in older buildings with cement floors. One year I decided to cover up some damage to the floor in front of my whiteboard with an area rug. It wasn’t long before I noticed that my feet and knees didn’t hurt nearly as much as they had in years past. The difference that industrial carpet rug made was tremendous and I’ve tried to put one over the areas I stand/walk the most ever since. They do make specific mats for cushioning your feet, and I’ve heard good things about them (my father has them in his workshop and swears by them), but I’ve always liked the homier look of the area rugs.

Low Table / Cushions

Another year the custodian was throwing out a low table and he mentioned how it was too bad a perfectly good table was going to waste. On a whim, I told him I’d take it and he moved it to my classroom. Having no idea what I was going to do with it, I put it to the side of my classroom and just waited for inspiration to strike. The next day, a couple of my students took their computers over, sat them on the table, sat on the floor in front of them, and started to work. A couple days later, they did the same thing, this time grabbing pillows from our reading area on which to sit. That evening I stopped by the store and picked up some seat cushions, tossing them around the table when I came in the next morning. That table and cushions became one of the most popular locations for independent and small group work in my classroom.

Wallpaper Sample Books

Did you know that wallpaper sample books are generally thrown out every few months or so? I heard this and went by my local Sherwin-Williams store to ask about it. Turns out it is true and, if you ask the manager of the store, they will give them to you for free. After the managers at my local store got to know me, they started saving them for me. Wallpaper is more durable than construction paper and makes great covers for journals and other paper books. My students also loved using it in projects because there were so many more colors and patterns to choose from than construction paper.

Hanging Shoe Organizer

I stopped fighting the, “Why don’t you have a pencil?” battle long ago. I now issue every student his/her own pencil case filled with several pencils, pens, erasers, etc. My only rule is the case has to remain in my classroom (and if you run out of, or lose, your pencils before I replace them you are stuck with golf pencils until then). I have also issued students with their own sets of earbuds for use in my classroom at various times. While this generally solved my, “I don’t have a _____!” problem, it didn’t solve the problem of how to organize/store everything. My answer to that ended up being hanging shoe organizers. I started with the basic pocket form, but found that not everything fit easily inside of them. That was when I found organizers with larger, and more sturdy, sections for shoes. These worked perfectly. I labeled each section with a student’s name and he/she was able to grab his/her supplies at the start of class and quickly put them back at the end.

Hanging File Organizers

Trying to organize all of the papers that come across our desks is a never ending challenge! I finally settled on a system using hanging file folders. I’d have one row for each subject/period of the day and one column for each day of the week. On Friday, I’d make all of my copies for the next week and place them into the folders for the day I’d need them. It was then easy to grab the Wednesday third period folder at the start of that class and everything I’d need would be right there (and if I changed plans, I could just as quickly grab the needed folder from the row). It was also easy to toss in announcement fliers, notes for specific students, and even make up work–meaning I’d be reminded to pass out whatever it was when I opened the folder at the start of the class period. The last column was for paperwork that related to staff meetings, department meetings, and other general school business. This was an easy solution to my outgoing paper problem, and did not take up an inch of my very limited desk space.

Storage Cubes

As an ESL teacher, I taught five to six different classes every day. Elementary teachers know how hard it can be to keep supplies for that many different preps organized! The system I settled on was to have a storage cube for each class. At the beginning of a unit, I’d bring all of the various physical materials (task cards, games, manipulatives, etc.) I’d need from home and load up the storage cube. The cubes were all in an organizer next to my desk for easy access. As I used the material, I’d toss it in a tote to take home with me each night or week and be put away in my supply area. The system worked great–I always had what I needed and never had to waste time looking for it because it was in the labeled storage cube. One note: I learned the hard way that not all storage cubes are the same. The cheaper ones you can find at Dollar Tree and other stores do not last nearly as long. It is worth the money to invest in nicer cubes.

Rolling Milk Crate

As any specialist teacher knows, you don’t always get your own classroom. I have been the teacher who changes locations every 30-45 minutes. I’ve also been the teacher who has to travel between multiple buildings in a single day. This milk crate organizer was a lifesaver for me! I had enough room to put teaching materials, files, and books in the center section. The pockets kept all of my pens, sticky notes, and various other small supplies organized. The wheels saved my back and, as long as I didn’t overload it, it lifted in and out of my car easily while keeping things from spilling all over as I drove. I still use it from time to time when I have to take large or heavy materials back and forth to the college and adult classes I teach now.

As I said, none of these are “must have” classroom items. They are simply things that I’ve used over and over again, things that either made my job easier or my students really enjoyed. If you’re looking to try something new, or already have all of the basics, you might give one of these items a try. Happy teaching, everyone!