Looping: Focusing In, Rather Than Stressing Out

It became apparent to me in late September that trying to teach at the same pace of a “regular” school year was NOT plausible, even if I had the world’s most responsible and eager students. My district is currently still fortunate enough to be able to teach using a hybrid model (students attend school two days a week in-person, 3 days a week virtually). The hybrid model has given us the opportunity to still have class discussions, the students time with friends, and have some semblance of normal during these restricted times.

This model does not, however, give teachers enough time to cover the same material with students, as it would place an enormous amount of learning on the shoulders of my middle school students. Even with posting YouTube tutorials on class topics, expecting all students to be able to manage their own time when working virtually was quickly becoming a train wreck. Some students didn’t even bother to log in to our school platform and watch the videos I had made at home the night before, so I was having to re-teach the concepts in class. There isn’t much that is more frustrating to an educator than spending their off-contract hours creating content that students don’t even bother to watch.

At the beginning of October, I decided to make a change. We had only been in school a month, and I was already feeling burn out. (Relatable? I’m sure).

As we all say, we know our students best. And I knew without a significant shift in my teaching and my mindset, neither I nor my students were going to make it through the year.

So, I trashed the expectation that I could cover everything. I took that impossible standard and threw it right into the hypothetical basement of my mind and I narrowed down my focus to the few skills that I KNEW my students needed most to function in the following year’s English course. On their in-person days, we covered specific, new material. They wrote notes on it, we looked at examples of great writing samples connected to the topic, and they had lively discussion on the topic as a class.

Then, I started looping.

What is looping? It is a WONDERFUL technique where students learn an initial topic on an in-person day, and do group practice as a class. Then, on virtual days, I would assign either weekly or biweekly, an assignment that retargeted what was learned in class. In the month of October, I introduced four concepts to my 7th graders (Characterization, Plot, Simile and Symbolism). Over the course of the month, I would rotate between those four concepts and give them engaging assignments that had them (unknowingly) looping back to those four topics.

When I noticed that all of my 7th graders had simile DOWN, I didn’t reassign it the last week of October – instead, I looped the other three concepts in its place. In November, I added Conflict to their loops. December I will add Theme. Each month I try to add one or two additional concepts, continuing to loop the previous concepts until I notice that the students have mastered them.

We may not be covering even CLOSE to the same amount of material that we once did – but my students are really GETTING the concepts. The students aren’t feeling overwhelmed by new information, and I am not pulling my hair out when they come to class having not consumed the required material. Everybody wins!


Setting Boundaries To Become An Optimal Educator

Boundaries create solid lines for everyone to respect, and allow for professional conversations to take place about tough issues. They give everyone a break at times, so no one has to feel drained or over-drawn. Boundaries allow people to take a step back and assess situations without being reactionary.

So, why are there teachers who find themselves answering demanding emails at all hours of the night? Teachers who feel so drained they can barely function throughout the day?

Fear.

Teachers fear that by setting boundaries for the parents demanding special accommodations for their child, that the parent will write in to the school and get them in trouble.

Teachers fear that setting boundaries on the demands of admin outside of their work day will have severe repercussions for them later down the line.

Teachers fear that setting boundaries for overly needy co-workers may damage their otherwise great relationships.

Teachers fear that setting boundaries means that a student will slip through the cracks, if only they had exerted that extra effort.

Teachers fear that setting boundaries for their family means that the distance between them will grow ever greater, the exact opposite of what they want right now.

Teachers fear that setting boundaries for themselves means that they won’t be a good enough teacher/spouse/parent/friend/employee.

I’m here to tell you, as a teacher who feared all of the above and still set forth firm boundaries, that none of the negative outcomes happened. In fact, I was one of the few teachers who did not get the overwhelming burn-out that so many of my co-workers had after this past spring semester. So, if you’re feeling like the demands of the world may crush you, please read through a few of my tips for setting boundaries.

Email Overwhelm

Issue: Receiving an overwhelming number of emails everyday.

Solution: Turn off notifications for your email to your cell phone and others devices. I found that doing this reduced my stress levels by nearly half – I simply wasn’t worrying about emails because I just didn’t see them on my phone the second they came into my inbox.

Schedule in two (or three, if needed) set times per week day that you check your email. I choose to check my email once mid-morning, and once late afternoon. Some emails receive an immediate response if it is a simple issue, and other emails I take a 24 hour break to reflect on before answering. A thoughtful response is far superior to a reactionary response.

Issue: Constant emails demanding immediate response.

Solution: Be upfront with parents, administration, students and co-workers that you have set Office Hours (example: 10 AM to 11 AM). When working virtually, I gave one hour per day for checking email. Everyone was to give me 24-48 hours to respond to emails, as per the email I sent to all after a full month of losing my mind trying to answer everyone Mid-March. Most emails would receive a quick response, but I built in that time boundary in case I was busy – or overwhelmed.

Issue: Losing track of parent correspondence in email

Solution: Create a folder in your inbox labeled “Parent Correspondence”. Every time a parent emails you, click and drag that email into the folder. That way, it’s not clogging up your inbox, but yu have it in a nice folder to return to in case you have need of it.

Issue: Administration wants me to contact home about students missing work

Solution: While this isn’t email related if you need to call home, it can be solved using an app called Remind. I did not want my personal cell phone number to be out in the sphere, so our district downloaded an app called Remind. This sends messages to students and parents like a text message, but it does not reveal your cell phone number. This ensured that I reached parents and students directly instead of relying on them checking their email.

If a phone call was a must, then I would dial *67 before their phone number to block my contact number from coming up.

Student Work

Issue: Students emailing right before a deadline to say they have technical difficulties

Solution: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part” became my mantra to students messaging me fifteen minutes before an assignment was due to tell me they were having technical difficulties. When I set deadlines and due dates, I made sure to build in buffer time for my students without reliable internet. However, the students not turning in work were also my chronic “no-work” students before the pandemic. So, I set a solid expectation that the responsibility was on THEM to complete work well in advance, especially if they had poor internet, and to reach out to me IN ADVANCE to set up alternate submissions. Tough love, but it cut way back on students waiting until the last minute.

Issue: Students are submitting work with nothing attached to the assignment

Solution: Set the expectation that students need to double-check any work submitted. I had a rush of students hitting the submit button with no work attached. At first, I thought it was my issue, but I found out that students were being dishonest and just hitting submit, hoping the teachers were just giving 100% without truly reviewing the work. When I found out, I sent out a mass communication to students and parents explaining that all work is due on the due date – and they were responsible for making sure everything was included. Students no longer tried to turn in incomplete work, and it saved me a LOT of trouble tracking down kids to ask them to please “resubmit”.

Technology

Issue: Co-workers are reliant on you to answer their techy questions. Many educators still weren’t sure how to use a Google Doc in my district when the pandemic hit. They were lost and completely overwhelmed with the idea of tackling technology. Many of them reached out to their more peers who had dabbled with the tech world, and became very dependent on them – further overwhelming their techy peers.

Solution: Redirect co-workers to YouTube tutorials on the basics for your platform. There are tons of them out there, especially now. If you are feeling awesome, make your own tutorials for the more frequently asked questions. Get the contact info of your district’s technology person, and send that to whoever needs tech help. Have them seek out your district’s librarian, who often is a wizard at tech. Slowly release the responsibility of their learning into their own hands.

Issue: You’re spending too much time on your computer

Solution: Do not work outside of your contract hours (only allow very special exceptions).

Set notification reminders on your phone or smart watch – every 50 minutes, the research says your brain needs a 5-10 minute break. Stretch, take a lap around the house, drink a glass of water, anything to get yourself out of work mode for a moment.

Wear blue-light blocking glasses when you are at your screen and checking your phone.

Batch grading: Wait until you receive all (or most) of one assignment before you sit down to grade them. This saves SO much time when compared to grading assignments as they come in. This will also cut back on the time you’re clicking between tabs.

Create a folder on your bookmark bar that has every major site you need to open each day. When you right click the folder, and hit “Open All”, everything you need to start the day is available for you. Again, shaving seconds that turn into minutes (and eventually hours) with this virtual learning.

As said before, only check email during designated time slots. Less time spent worrying over other people’s demands, more time focused on what’s important for you and your students.

Issue: A parent wants to be notified every day of their child’s assignments.

Solution: Parents probably aren’t aware of how many students are on your roster. This seems like an innocent request, but is truly daunting for you, as it adds one more thing onto your list of demands. Create a weekly “agenda” that you send out to all students/parents via Google Classroom (or whatever platform your school uses). Inform students/parents of where this is located, and let them know they are responsible for checking it. Unless you have tons of extra time, I would not agree to individually email each student’s parent with the assignments.

Set the Boundaries – Make Them Non-Negotiable

Setting boundaries isn’t a communication block. It’s a foundation for respectful discourse, and a healthier you. You deserve to have your time respected, now that work has to invade your personal hours off-contract. Be your own loudest advocate to get some of your time back from your career. I could go on and on about this topic, but for now, I think I’ll let you absorb this much.

Teaching is a wonderful, fulfilling, amazing calling – but we must remember that we are more than educators. Setting non-negotiable boundaries will let us enjoy teaching for the long haul.


Best Back-To-School Short Story

Here in my neck of the woods, we don’t start school until the beginning of September. So, I take a large portion of August and just spend time reading and exploring texts to introduce to my kiddos! One text that I stumbled on a few years ago was Gary Soto’s “Seventh Grade” short story – and I knew it held the power of connection.

If you haven’t read it yet, it’s an adorable tale written from the perspective of a seventh grade boy named Victor. He is going to his first day of school with a mis-led best friend, Michael, and one GIANT crush on the kind, intelligent and “cute”, Theresa. As an adult, I smile at the tricky situations Victor gets himself into – but my students relate to the tale on ALL THE LEVELS.

After We Read It Together… Then What?

This is the perfect short story to begin the year, opening up discussion about the hopes and fears of my incoming seventh grade students, who I haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know yet. They laugh, they blush, they cringe at Victor’s predicaments, and it breaks the ice in a very simple way (without those painful, first day games).

First

I like to ask students a few simple reading comprehension questions to gauge where each student lies in September. This is the time that I can really tune my teaching in to the needs of the group. The key here is to only ask them a FEW questions – this should be more about them trusting you and opening up than grilling them on their skills.

Second

Then, I offer three “challenge questions” (completely optional) and I watch to see which of my students volunteer to try. These usually end up being my “grittiest” students, and it gives me more insight into their growing personalities. This also shows the other students that tough questions are doable – and effort is rewarded in my classroom with heaps of encouragement.

Last

Lastly, I tuck away the academics and I ask them three simple questions that are ALL ABOUT THEM. They get to reveal one hope they have for the year, a fear they secretly harbor, and finally to create a story about a time they might have tried to impress someone else. We, as a class, get to learn how that endeavor turned out when I ask for volunteers to share their stories! (I am always pleasantly surprised at how many of them want to share their “embarrassing” stories!).

Digital Resource for “Seventh Grade” that students can type in to answer questions!

If you plan to teach this short story at the beginning of the year, and need a digital resource (it can also be printed if you’re in-person), then head over here to my TpT store to get the questions I ask my students to kick off the school year!

What are your other favorite ways to kick off the school year? I’d love to hear about them!


An Organized Alternative (or Addition) to a Virtual Bitmoji Classroom

If you’ve been scanning the internet within the last few weeks, chances are you’ve come across some mention of “Virtual Bitmoji Classrooms”. Teachers far and wide have learned how to create classrooms in Google Slides to make virtual learning feel a tiny bit more like normal.

A very simplistic version of my Virtual Bitmoji Classroom

I chuckled when I first saw them – I have been incorporating my own Bitmoji into my Daily Agenda for years. I would change it everyday to match our lesson, or to make the kids laugh. My middle schoolers wouldn’t admit it, but I know they looked forward to seeing what shenanigans my Bitmoji was up to each day.

So, I didn’t jump on the Bitmoji Classroom bandwagon. I sat back, I kept doing my thing, and I watched as it became the latest trend. It was fun – and educators needed that mental break.

It wasn’t until one of my co-workers posted a short clip on their Facebook Story of a “menu-style” set-up that incorporated the Virtual Classroom that my attention was PEAKED. It was clean, organized and specific – not only for my students, not only for parents, but for ME!

Perfect Menu for My Organized Brain – and for the Students/Parents!

Now, I’m a deep lover of all things rustic so I created one that reflected that side of my personality. However, you can tailor this design to your own taste. The best part? If you LOVE those virtual Bitmoji Classrooms, you can still utilize it within the menu. If you DON’T love them, you don’t need to use them with this set-up!

Disclaimer: You must download the Bitmoji Chrome Extension onto your computer in order to create this menu or the Bitmoji Classroom!

Breaking Down the Buttons

Daily Agenda

Students will be redirected to my Virtual Bitmoji Classroom when clicking on the clipboard. This will show the day’s agenda, and have links to those assignments. I can also change my classroom constantly to fit the seasons, what we’re learning, etc.

Notes

This will redirect students to a Google Doc that has links to notes in various Google Slides. As we continue to work, this document will fill up and always be available to students to return to if they missed a day, need a refresher, etc.

Google Classroom

Our district is a Google school, so many of our writing assignments will be turned in through the Google Classroom app. This button directs each student to their specific GC class!

Missing Work

Students are redirected to a Google Doc that is updated daily with missing assignments. At the end of last year, my email was so clogged with parent & student emails asking, “Do I owe you anything?” that I knew I needed to find a better solution. Each group will be assigned their own Google Doc for missing work, putting the responsibility back on the students to check and get caught up when necessary.

Class Texts

This button has a link to a Google Doc with poems, short stories, novels, etc that students will need to access throughout the semester.

Request Help

This will be a BIG game-changer for better serving our students. Students will be redirected to a Google Form with three simple questions: What is the assignment you’re stuck on? What question/section is it? What exactly are you confused about/not understanding?

Targets

Our district requires that students rate themselves using specific rubrics on the ELA Common Core standard skills. So, I spent hours going through the standards and re-wording them into a student-friendly format. Now, students can use the highlighter function for PDFs and still rate their learning! If you would like this resource, click here.

Make sure you create a slide (like the one above) that has specific instructions for how to highlight on a PDF. This will keep the number of emails asking how to do it down to a minimum!
Contact Info

This redirects students to the slide right after my main menu, in which I have a picture of myself, the link to Remind, my email address, my classroom phone number, as well as my Office Hours and a small disclaimer to be patient (in more professional terms, of course).

Zoom

This button redirects students to the Zoom location where we will be meeting daily for our classes! If you prefer Google Meet, just change up the icon! That way, you don’t have to send out an announcement everyday in Google Classroom with the meeting link.

If you’re not a pro at designing in Google Slides, I have created a simple walk-through of how I designed this one below.

If you want to create a virtual Bitmoji Classroom, I would recommend this one – however, there are TONS of others out there!

Happy August, everyone!


Stop Focusing On The Empty Seats

The past few weeks, I’ve watched educator after educator nearly tear their hair out as they host video conferences with 20% attendance. They spend precious hours brainstorming, crafting, and transforming lessons into digital content. They are putting in more hours than a “normal” teaching week, and pushing themselves to learn new platforms like Kami, Kahoot! and Quizlet. They are fighting hard to find the quiet time and space (amidst other family members and children taking other classes of their own) in order to continue to show up for their students. They have a LOT of themselves invested in their weekly lessons.

Understandably, they then feel extremely bummed out when only a handful of their pupils pop in for the show. They get on Facebook teacher groups and gripe about the lack of students present, complain that only a handful of them are turning in work, and make assumptions about the students themselves.

That mindset? It’s worthless.

Stop focusing on the empty seats. Funneling your brilliant, hard-working and dedicated energy into the students who aren’t showing up, leaves very little for the students who are showing up. Let’s be real – you getting angry isn’t punishment for those students anyways. You only have limited amounts of emotional energy each day – don’t waste it. Instead, give it to:

-The kids who are setting an alarm and logging in to your school platform early, so they’re not late.

-The kids who have triple-checked your weekly agenda to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

-The kids who tucked themselves into a quiet part of their house to be sure they weren’t interrupted.

-The kids who are secretly craving this short time together with you and your class

You could be the one thing those students have to look forward to that day, the one thing that isn’t uncertain or scary. Seeing your face on the screen could be keeping them grounded, giving them small sense of normalcy. We, as educators, don’t know what each students’ home life is like – but we can provide every one of them with the opportunity to join us during the week to stay in contact, share their wins/fears, and to keep moving forward. Whether they choose to join or not is up to them.

We must remember, there is only so much that we have control over right now. We don’t have control over which students have internet at home. We don’t have control over which students are going to be self-motivated. We don’t have control over which students’ parents will have the time to encourage their learning.

All we can do is make our meetings encouraging, consistent and dare I say a little bit fun. We can be flexible and understanding in what we assign, and continue to ride this storm with our students. We can continue to be a safe place for them to land.

There will be kids who haven’t turned in a lick of homework. There will be kids who won’t bother to attend the video conference, even though they DO have internet at home. Those aren’t the kids who should soak up our attention right now. Those are the kids that we send a polite but encouraging email home to remind them of their student responsibilities, and pray that they acquire some semblance of priorities as time wears on.

It’s time for us educators to stop focusing on the empty “seats” in our video conferences, and to start pouring our love and effort into the kids who are showing up. These are the kiddos who are proving they care – let’s reward them for their resilience during this unprecedented time.