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.


Gratitude for a Full Year

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is one of the longest words in the dictionary. Ironically, it means “a fear of long words.” Did you know that? I didn’t. Until today, when one of my 7th graders plopped a piece of paper ripped from a notebook with THAT word written on it on my desk. Then, they grinned.

Ya’ll, THIS. This is why we teach.

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Those moments of silliness amidst the chaos of students trying to navigate this world. Those moments you can make eye contact with a child who has gone out of their way to find an ironic and quite ridiculous word… just to share a joke with you. These are the moments that make me fall in love with this career over and over again. These are the students that make me look forward to going to work.

I have never touched on why I decided to become a teacher, long ago. Partially due to an obsession with fantasy novels and creative writing, I voiced my desire to become an author in front of my grandfather. He nodded politely, as most people of his generation were horrified by anyone getting a degree in “English”. Yet, I’ll never forget what he said to me when I told him, “I’d love to teach English.”

He said, “Don’t you ever give up on the bad kid. The kid that acts tough. The kid that doesn’t care. The kid that wants to drop out. Don’t ever give up on them. My teachers gave up on me – they thought I didn’t care about my future. But if any one of them had stopped me, showed that they actually cared, I might have stayed in school.”

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To this day, those words still ring in my ears. Some days are tougher than others, and some students are tougher still. Yet, I stay true to what my grandfather asked – no matter what happens in my classroom, the next day they get a fresh slate. You messed up, kid. Try again. Going to act out again today? Take your leave, I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe we’ll get it right then. And you better believe I let them all know, they’re loved. Sometimes that looks like tough love, but my students need a mentor more than they’ll ever need a cheerleader. Do you know that many of my students who I was “tough” on came back to thank me later? Food for thought.

I’ve been teaching for a little under a decade, and it’s been a little over a year since I began this teaching blog. It was always my hope to reach educators like you who wanted to try teaching content in a way that could reach all students. Over the last year, I’ve learned so many neat ways to create resources that snag these kids, suck them right in and get them LEARNING without them even realizing it. That’s the magic of teaching.

I am so very grateful to all of you for taking this journey with me. To those of you who have purchased my resources and share your experiences with me – thank you. You have no idea how much those photos and comments make me smile! There is nothing more worthwhile to a teacher than to know their hard work and dedication is being appreciated and loved.

To those of you who tag along for the blog posts that I send out haphazardly – thank you. It’s nice to know that somewhere out there, someone may be reading these words and using them to bolster their courage to face another day in this amazingly complex career.

I hope you all stick around for another year with me. Cheers – here’s to showing up as the best version of ourselves for all of 2020. 


9 Brain Break Activities to Incorporate In Your Classroom Now

I used to secretly blame children’s lack of focus on behavior, motivation, or poor upbringing. Katie can’t read for more than ten minutes without glancing down at her shoe, picking at her eraser, or staring out the window. This was frustrating to me, so I tried to find something or someone to blame.

But the truth is, we are an entirely unfocused society as a whole. Technology has reprogrammed our brains to quickly take in information. The skill of sitting quietly, comprehending slowly, reflecting and daydreaming has become nearly extinct. Yet, teachers are often asking students to complete activities that require such concentration.

Research shows that the average middle school student’s brain can concentrate on direct instruction for 10-12 minutes tops. With 40+ minute classes, the only way to get and keep the attention and engagement of middle school students (and all the way up to adults!) is to provide them with brain breaks. Brain breaks get students’ blood flowing, moving oxygen to the brain. This will not only let them relax for a few minutes, but research shows that students who take brain breaks produce higher quality work than students who are asked to work through an entire class period. Pretty cool!

First, I’ll share a list of the more fun brain breaks for the classroom. These are intended as complete breaks from the lesson. 

Silent Speed Ball

Find an area where you don’t mind students throwing a ball around. No one can talk or make a sound – being silent is the aim of the game.

The ball is tossed between classmates. Students cannot throw the ball back to the person who threw it to them. If a player misses the ball, talks or makes a bad pass, that student is out. The last two players are the winners.

Dance-Off

I love to pick some of the top hits that students are into for this brain break. Play the music and have the students dance (yes, this will be hilariously awkward). When the music stops, students have to freeze. Whoever moves, is out. Keep playing until there is one person left. Those students who are out are an extra pair of eyes to judge the others.

Heads or Tails

Write out a list of true or false questions (I write them on random life things so we’re still learning). If a student gets the answer wrong, the must sit down. The last student standing is the winner!

If students believe the answer is true, they place their hands on their heads.

If students believe the answer is false, they touch the floor.

Random Exercise

Create a list of random, easy exercises (such as jumping jacks, lunges, arm circles, etc) and have one student choose from the list. Students will complete the exercise to some music of your choice.

Stop the music randomly, and all students must stop their exercise. Whoever doesn’t stop in time must sit out. The last one standing is the winner.

Timed Chatter

Sometimes kids are just bursting to get a chance to chat with their neighbor. For this brain break, set a timer for three minutes and let them get up and chat with a friend. Ask them to use Cafe Voices (pretend they are sitting together in a coffee shop. Their voices are not loud, but also not whispering. Just, conversational).

Below are some educational brain breaks that sneakily keep kids learning as they get their blood flowing to their brains! 

Vocabulary Around the World

Get a list of the class’ most recent vocabulary words. I use Quizlet and display the definition on the SmartBoard. Two students stand next to each other and must call out the correct vocabulary term. Whoever says the correct word first moves on to the next students.

Once a student has gone all around the room back to their original seat, they are the winner.

Heads or Tails 2.0

Write out a list of true or false questions all based on subject matter that you have covered over the entire school year. This is a great review game as well.

If a student gets the answer wrong, the must sit down. The last student standing is the winner!

If students believe the answer is true, they place their hands on their heads.

If students believe the answer is false, they touch the floor.

Synonym Chase

Students should all be given a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker. The teacher asks all students to stand by their desk.

The teacher will write one word on the board, and students must write down the first synonym that comes to mind. Then, they must look around the classroom. Any student that has the same synonym written as them, they need to “link up” with. Those students can THEN work together to determine the next synonym.

Students that do not write a correct synonym must sit down. The game is over once all students have linked up together.

Memory Kerfluffle

Create a stack of cards with an example of one literary element on it. Around the room, place papers that have the different literary elements on them (on the door, on a cupboard, on the back table, etc).

The teacher will read the example out loud, and students must Shuffle (feet can’t come off the ground) to the literary element that they think it is. They must be touching the paper with their hands.

Any students who choose the wrong literary element must sit down. The last student to choose the CORRECT literary element each turn must also sit down. The game goes until one student is the victor!

 

 What are your favorite Brain Breaks?

 


My Greatest Mistakes As a First-Year Teacher

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

When I think back on my own journey towards becoming the warrior-teacher I am today, I laugh gently at myself for the mistakes I made along the way. Especially the mistakes I made with my very first group of students. Wherever those wonderful souls are today, I’m sending you all the love in the world for living through those first months of teaching with twenty-two year old me. You’re all angels.

Teaching is not a profession for someone who is unwilling to give more than they get. Most weeks we zombie-walk through Fridays simply because our hearts have given so much love and attention to so many kiddos all week that we absolutely need the weekend to recharge. Anyone who tells you that teaching is merely babysitting adolescents and getting summers off has clearly never stepped in front of a classroom full of hormonal teenagers and had to make learning engaging and meaningful.

Today I drove an hour, one way, to check out a space for our group’s prom this coming May. My co-class advisor met me there. Both of us were a bit tired out from the week and our personal lives, yet we were there as two of the students from our class oohed and aahed at the beautiful space. We remembered being so excited for prom, even if the sparkle of the event didn’t appeal to us anymore. It was during this time that I looked at my co-worker and thought, “Her and I have changed so much, even during the four years we have known each other”. I knew I needed to write this post for all the new teachers out there who are watching the veteran teachers and wondering, “How do they do it? How do they make it look so easy?”

The truth is, teaching never was nor will it ever be easy. You will spend some days after school curled up in the fetal position with tears streaming down your face, wondering why in the hell you ever thought you’d be a good fit for this job. There will be days you questions whether you can keep going, and wonder how you are supposed to be a teacher as well as a student’s stand-in parent, therapist, disciplinarian, life coach, guardian and everything else that comes with the job. Teaching is complex and emotional – and the best part about YOU is that you want to help little human beings grow into the most amazing version of themselves possible. That is commendable.

So, here are a few major mistakes I made my first year of teaching that made life harder than it needed to be:

Do I Know This Stuff More Than Them?

With youth, came this unexplainable self-doubt. Despite the fact that I had spent years developing my skills of Literacy and English Language Arts at a renowned teaching establishment, there was this tiny voice in the back of my mind that questioned whether I was truly qualified to teach humans. At some point during my time in college, I had transitioned from being a kid getting her degree to the adult in the room, and that sudden shift was not something my subconscious was having an easy time with. I was also only two or three years older than some of the students I was teaching, which was very challenging in itself.

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“What if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to?” Immediate cold sweats just thinking about it. I was not a strong public speaker either, having gotten out of many class presentations in high school since most kids whined enough in my class that the teachers just quit assigning them. I had to develop my voice as well as my own inner confidence in a very short amount of time. To say this was a stressful time in my life is quite the understatement.

Advice: This is called imposter syndrome. Don’t listen to that little whiny voice telling you that you are a fraud who is not qualified to teach these amazing little geniuses. They need someone who is exactly like YOU to guide their learning, someone with a heart just like YOURS to foster their hopes and dreams. You chose this career for a reason. Personally, I loved everything about reading and writing, and I wanted to impart that love onto as many kids as I could. Take that voice that says you’re not enough, and snuff it out. Find your confidence. Teach like a rockstar (even if everyone else watching thinks you’re absolutely nuts).

Consistency was NOT in my Vocabulary

Classroom management – the one aspect of teaching that college neglected to actually prepare me for. I had NO idea how to manage a classroom of students the right way. My greatest mistake was coming in SUPER hard on my upper level students before establishing any sort of relationship with them.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong – having high expectations and sticking to them are essential. However, I barely allowed them to twitch in their seat without giving them the evil eye. I was hyper-aware of potential infractions. This, my dear new teacher, only seemed to encourage my students to continue to test me in order to establish just how hard of a line I would draw. It also left me stressed out. I didn’t want to always have to be so strict. I felt like I couldn’t even be myself in my own classroom, because if I let my guard down I imagined they’d all mutiny.

As the months went on and I started to slowly develop relationships with the students. I grew lax in some areas, while remaining hard in others. I was unknowingly giving my students mixed signals about my expectations, and could NOT understand why they weren’t being model students. This led to many tearful drives home, questioning my own adequacy as an educator.

Some days I worried I was too much of a softie, cutting breaks when I knew a kid had a hard home life. Other days, I worried I was too strict for this current generation of kids and obsessed over how to properly police the behavior of my cohort of students. It was a nightmare that lasted for months until the school year ended. I remember feeling miserable, and wishing I could start the year again with the knowledge I had gained from the year itself.

Advice: Before you step in front of your group of students, ask yourself exactly what type of educator you need to be for these kids. Firm and unemotional? Gentle and understanding? Go ask their previous teachers about their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses (yes, even if you’re brand new and you don’t know their previous teachers. I promise you, those teachers are a gold mine of information. They won’t bite, no matter what your anxiety is telling you).

Develop a syllabus that has clear expectations, clear grading policies, and clear consequences for behaviors. Be TRANSPARENT in the type of teacher you are. Let the parents know your rules as well, so that everyone is on the same page. Consistently use your mentor teacher for help and advice. Mostly, whatever you choose, stay the course even if things get bumpy with a student or a parent. Staying consistent is key to avoiding issues, as your expectations were made clear and you are merely upholding them.

I Didn’t Plan My Year Out Fully

I can hear first year teachers rolling their eyes saying, “I would NEVER not plan ahead”. Slow your roll. I did not say that I didn’t plan ahead. I said, I did not plan my year out fully, September to June.

I am a PLANNER and a PERFECTIONIST. I started planning for September and October, using those planning forms that my college gave me for each individual lesson. I estimated the times of lessons, sketching out how long units would take without any true knowledge on how long it actually takes students to transition between activities.

I began the school year with these awesome units for the first two and half months of school, thinking that I’d have time during nights and weekends to continue my perfectionist approach at planning my lessons. None of my pacing was right. Some of my lessons did not fit my students well and had to be scrapped. Last minute changes were a daily thing. My social life slowly dwindled to nothing as I tried to keep up.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Advice: The plain truth is that once the year starts, you have very little time for much your first year of teaching. September through December are a whirlwind of back-to-school and then multiple holidays. Before school begins, sit down with a yearly calendar. The best way I have found to plan is to determine what skills I want to teach during certain parts of the year, then write down the texts I plan to use to teach that skill. I plan out what my final assessment will be, and get the rubric prepared. Then, I can start to dive more into individual daily lessons. I try to have September – February mostly planned out before school starts, because we have a few breaks in the winter that I can use to plan out the rest of the year.

Very few lessons will go to plan, so take it easy on yourself if a few of them bomb. Analyze why things went off-course, reassess and move forward! Just as they tell us to give our students a fresh start each day, give yourself one too. Don’t worry that the kids are judging you over the previous fail – they only use it against you if they can sense that it bothers you. Learn to let the bad days slide off your back and you will be doing just fine.

I Ate, Slept and Breathed Teaching

I think back to my first year and cringe. I woke up and absorbed teacher social media. I went to school and was overly-prepared for each day. Whenever I spoke to my co-workers, the only words coming out of my mouth were around students and assessments and units and school. Bless their sweet hearts for listening to it all and still wanting to associate with me. They knew I was just REALLY excited about teaching and had a million ideas flowing out of me for how I was going to change the state of education. Every new program that came out, I jumped on board. My friends learned more about teaching in those months than they ever wanted to know. My family was SUPER supportive but even they mentioned that I needed to stop spending so many of my weekends re-decorating my bulletin boards.

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

I wanted to engage my students every second of every class, and in order to do that I had to create visually appealing walls and perform my butt off everyday for the kids. That kind of energy is addicting and the kids loved it… but it wasn’t sustainable. By mid-February I was flat out exhausted. I am a morning person, yet I was having to convince myself to roll out of bed everyday. Coffee became my elixir of life. I was burning out.

Advice: Find actual balance between teaching and your personal life. Draw a HARD line for yourself, and do not “cheat” on it. For example, if you say, “I will not work past 5 PM each night and will only come in on  weekends for SPECIAL occasions”, make sure your vehicle tires are turning towards home at 5:01 PM. Those papers you have to grade will still be there tomorrow. As will you, since you took the time to rest from your work, and so can continue showing up everyday for your kids.

Plan one to two high-energy lessons a week, and then more mid- to low-key lessons the rest of the week. Kids will love the variety and you get a break from being non-stop on fire in your teaching. Eat lunch with a trusted co-worker who is positive as a way to get “adult-time” in each day.

 

Resist the urge to only ever talk about teaching. Some people want to have those conversations, and that’s fine! Just make sure that you are still pursuing your other hobbies and goals, and find the time to talk about those things too. Have a girls night, binge watch your favorite show, go travel… find actual balance.

If you’re a veteran teacher reading this… what mistakes did you make as a first-year teacher that may save future generations some trouble? Comment and share!

Needing Further Inspiration?

New to teaching and wondering if middle school is the right age for you? Here is my post on the realities of teaching that age group.

Need some teacher inspiration? Here are five books that set my teacher heart on fire!

Feeling overwhelmed and need some tips now? Here is my post on Time-Saving Hacks to give you back your sanity.

 


How To Challenge The “Good Enough” Mentality

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“Ms. C, I finished my paragraph. Is this good enough?”

When I first started teaching at my small, rural school, this phrase was practically set on repeat. Student after student would approach me with their work, asking if it was “good enough”. I would look at the page and see that the student was calling two sentences a full paragraph. I would encourage them to write more. They would return to their seat, write, and come back up to my desk. “Okay, is it good enough now?”. I would glance down at the paper and see that they had added one additional sentence to their paper. Cue blood-curdling scream and commence tearing out my own hair.

I couldn’t understand why these students didn’t intrinsically WANT to try harder, why there wasn’t this inner drive to produce work that they could actually be proud of. Even the phrase itself, “good enough”, set my teeth on edge. Good enough for what? Whenever I heard a student utter that phrase, I wanted to retort, “If you have to ask, then you already know that it isn’t” (Okay, I may have said something like this to a student once). It’s maddening, mostly because we assume that they know what their work is lacking, and we think the only reason the work isn’t being done can be boiled down to pure, unfiltered laziness. Whoops.

When Enough Was Enough

I suffered through a year or two of listening to the “good enough” refrain, until one day in class I was approached by a top-achieving student. This student turned in the day’s written assignment and when I looked down at it, I was shocked. There was barely any writing on the paper. I called the student back to my desk and asked if they did not understand the assignment. Here was the reply:

“No, Ms. C., I understood the assignment. I’ve seen what some of my classmates have been turning in, and it is NEVER as much as I do. So, I guess I just don’t see the point of doing more if it doesn’t matter.”

I. Was. Stunned. This student’s words sucker-punched me right through the gut and left me feeling kind of dizzy. It was me. I was the reason that kids were aiming for “good enough”. Now, that’s kind of harsh considering there are other factors such as home environment and the student’s choice of friends that play into their drive to succeed. Yet, I knew at that moment what the power of a teacher’s expectations had on student performance. I was rewarding laziness by allowing sub-par answers, and students that worked hard to truly answer the questions were noticing. That was the day I decided that “good enough” was dead.

How I Transformed “Is This Good Enough?” to “Is This The Most Relevant/Analyzed/Thoughtful Answer?” 

How do young children learn how to act? They watch adults and model after their behavior. This can be a positive thing, depending on the adult that the child is watching. The same rule can be applied to how children learn how to write – they read writing and imitate it.

So, the very first thing I did was create models of exemplary paragraphs. I showed these to students. We went through these paragraphs to identify topic sentences, located relevant evidence, and discussed whether the explanation was thorough enough. We studied these paragraphs. Every time I assigned a new type of writing assignment, we repeated this process of modeling work and going through the model to point out all of its best features. Students had a CLEAR idea of what was considered acceptable.

I no longer accepted basic vocabulary in their answers.

Once my students got used to modeling exemplary work together, I decided to set my expectation bar even higher. I stopped accepting written work with vocabulary such as “very”, “many”, “good”, “bad”, “things” and “stuff”. We created synonym charts for these words and I saw kids having fun as they started “leveling up” their vocabulary – a term that I started using. A vast majority of my students love video games, and so the idea of gaining a new “level” was enough to get them giggling and trying to find a better word than their original choice.

I Stayed Consistent

Bottom line? I would not let a paper even be considered for grading if it was not written correctly or I found any basic terms in it. The students learned quickly to complete the work right the first time, or they would be revising the work over and over until it was right. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a child whisper to a classmate, “Ms. C. won’t take that like that” and I just smile because they’ve started to not only recognize weaknesses in their own writing, but also in the writing of their peers. That, my dear friends, is powerful.

Does this get tiresome as teacher? Yup. Do you consider accepting their work after six failed tries and one frustrated child? Yup. Don’t fall to temptation. The reward is SO worth it once they learn the techniques and apply them.

Improvement

Through modeling, I empower my young learners. Instead of just slapping failing grades onto dismal assignments, I let them explore writing as a guide for their own. As more and more time goes on, I watch them break away from the samples and start taking risks in their own writing. I notice that the students who had been motivated even before this paradigm shift are striving to accomplish even more now that they see that putting in the effort is being celebrated.

I no longer have students coming up to me to ask, “Is this good enough?”. Instead, they ask, “Did I place the comma in the right spot here for my evidence?”, “Is this the strongest piece of evidence for my topic?” or “Does this sound like a good transition to the next paragraph?”.

Guys, I teach middle schoolers. Let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe students aren’t just lazy, unmotivated and apathetic. Maybe they haven’t seen enough of what GREAT looks like. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to say, “No, that’s not good enough. Yet.”