Thursday, May 5, 2016

Flexible Seating for All Learning Styles

So I came across this article from Edutopia on Facebook the other day.  Needless to say, I was intrigued.  I sent it to some friends & lots of texting ensued.  We all loved the idea but didn't know what resources we had available to us.  I thought about that article all night long and, in true "me" fashion, decided we'd be making it happen ASAP!  I spoke with my principal and was given the "go ahead" with some places around the building to look for tables options.

I talked with the students about the change, idea behind it, and their thoughts. It was shocking to hear so many that were unsure or not willing to give it a go.  (I assured them that we could bring the desks back if they hated it and we were ready to begin.)  We started with desk clean-outs--a MAJOR undertaking.  If your students are anything like mine, they LOVE origami and have all kinds of paper, creatures, figures, etc. along with snacks, wrappers, pencil sharpeners, etc.   It was quickly decided that THIS was the reason that they didn't want to give up their desks and cubby space.

I collected student textbooks since we rarely use them anyway and kept the one subject that we do use easily accessible on a roll-away cart.  (A book shelf is a great option if you don't have a cart.) Students have one bin each in my storage cabinet, so we reassessed what was being kept there and added to it as needed.  Each person also has their own magazine bin at their desk.  We placed reader's notebooks, math journals, writer's notebooks, sticky notes, headphones, and IDR books in these and set them aside.  Desks were moved out of the room and tables were moved in.

Next came the set up.  I really loved the idea of a large gathering area in the center of the room from the Edutopia article. I placed the tables around the room so that I could achieve this space.  For several years, my team has been using these stools from IKEA at our small group table and students LOVE them.  I had more than needed at that table, so it was an easy decision to use them at one of the student tables.

Four stools fit at this table--
just the perfect height!

     Students have more than enough space to gather 
        together for a whole group mini-lesson now.

My kiddos like to work on the floor, so having a hard surface on the ground was important to me. After assessing the tables that we had, it looked like maybe a low-to-the-ground table would be good rather than all the way on the ground.  I found cheap body pillows at Target to place on either side and then used two outdoor patio cushions for the end.  (This ended up being the students' favorite option.)
Rectangular table lowered as low as it can creates just the right height for students.

Another important seating option for my students was something with movement.  Some of the KORE stools that swivel would be ideal; however, they're way out of budget for now, so some stability balls were the next best thing.  I found these at Dicks on a BOGO deal, so I made out pretty well for eight of them.  We definitely needed to set up some ground rules (keep reading) for these before students used them, but I was very impressed with the self-control shown.

Stability balls (one of two places I have them in the room) with room for a library/reading area.

I do have a few students that like to stand.  No matter where they're working, they stand.  You know what I mean.  I created a little standing work space for those friends on the counter.  This way, they're not blocking the view for others if I am teaching while they're at seats.

The Standing Workspace--our counter

So how does this work on a daily basis?

We first set up some ground rules and expectations together.  I used an anchor chart found by a colleague on Pinterest and made it "fit" our classroom needs.  As with anything new, procedures are key and MUST be practiced & encouraged often initially.  Here's what we ended up with:

We recently added "DO keep feet on the floor" and "DON'T POKE THE BALLS".

Students keep their magazine bins at the front of the room (in alphabetical order) overnight.  When they arrive in the morning, they choose their desired learning spot and move their bin to that spot.  This helps me better see who has arrived and who hasn't.  Students can stay at this spot all day or choose to switch with someone else if needed/desired.  At the end of the day, tables are cleaned and bins are placed back at the front of the room.  Each day is a new day and a fresh start in a very neat & tidy room.*I have to add in here that I encourage lots of movement throughout the day. Students never had to stay at their desks to work prior to this desk change.  This just gave them a better option when they are at their seats.  Students move from their chosen seat to other places in the room throughout the day.*  The little bit of whole group instruction that I do have now happens in the large center space of the room.  We also have our morning meetings here  and now have more than enough room to "circle up".  The center space is used as a "sprawl out" place when we are working in groups, doing IDR, or completing workstations.

 Bins get lined up at the end of each day along the chalkboard.  Students pick them up and place them wherever they're going to start working...bins are easily moved throughout the day as needs change.

When we started this change, I did as the article suggested and had students choose a new type of seat each day and encouraged them to spend the whole day there so they could get a feel for it during all subjects. At the end of the week, we talked about where everyone felt they were most productive (not what was the most fun) and charted the results. Students were encouraged to choose the seating option that they felt best helped them throughout the day, so everyone kind of has an idea of where they're going each day.  It was brought up that students felt they needed something different during one subject over another--YES!--so we talked about how great and easy it is to move and switch as the day progresses.

My students feel great about how focused they've become.  "I noticed I'm not walking around during reading anymore.  I used to move a lot because I just needed to move, but now I can just bounce or rock and I read a lot more!"  These are the reflective attitudes that I love to see in my students that will benefit them in their lives.  I'm so glad that I jumped in and made this change for them.  While I'm still getting used to the arrangement and different types of movement, it's clearly benefiting my kiddos and that's what it's all about!

What do you do that helps meet the different learning styles?  Curious about other pieces of this process that I didn't talk about or want more explanation about?  Comment below.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


When my district went 1:1 a few years ago, a wonderfully tech-savvy colleague showed me a site called Symbaloo.  This is a free site that is a page full of "bookmarks".  It allows you to paste URLs and create icons on your very own matrix that can then be shared out. Gone are the days of bookmarking a million sites!  I create a matrix, share it out once with my students, and they bookmark this ONE page with everything they'll need for my class.

This site has been a time life saver!  So many times sites that I want students to use have ridiculously long URLs or are specific to me as I've made them for a specific year/class.  There are then the inevitable kiddos that type one letter incorrectly and so much time is wasted spent getting everyone on the right page.  While all of this is happening, the students that did manage to navigate to the correct site are "figuring it all out" and now have a whole slew of questions that you;re not ready to answer.  Anyone feeling my pain here?  Technology is WONDERFUL but can be frustrating.

With Symbaloo you no longer have to manage this mess.  Rather than having students try to navigate to the correct site, YOU copy the URL to the site you like and then add a new tile.  Symbaloo already recognizes many URLs and will auto-generate an icon.  You can also find one that you like or that your students will better recognize and use that for your tile's icon.  When you're ready to share your matrix out, you click on the "share" icon at the top of the page (blue "less than" sign pictured below). Once you've shared your matrix with the students, you can add/delete tiles as needed--just be sure to refresh the actual matrix on the page (see the refresh button below next to the aforementioned share icon).

Symbaloo accounts are FREE!  You can use your school email, personal email, or a Google account. Another fun feature is that you can create multiple matrices, so if you have a need for one that's only for "fourth period", then you can title it as that and share it out with those students.  Maybe you want to create a page for your staff or grade level team for easy access...just name that matrix and share it out!  The possibilities are ENDLESS my friends!

Here's a picture of this year's Symbaloo page--yes, it changes slightly each year as some websites I use change for the needs of my students and/or I am trying different things out.  I'll highlight a few of the tiles that are on it:

  • Canvas--Our district's LMS, so there's an icon for that (this is what I used to send out the link for the Symbaloo page on the first day of the year--I just posted it as an announcement).
  • Book wizard--students can easily level their own books
  • Whooo's Reading--keeping our reading logs (read more on it here)
  • Powerschool--students can check their grades
  • XtraMath--math fact practice (daily as a math workstation)
  • Seesaw--a new FAVORITE for anecdotal notes, student reflections, etc. (read more here)
  • PLTW--science curriculum for quick access to discussion boards and procedure pages

This tool is highly recommended for classroom efficiency.  It is easy to use and set up.  I take a little time during one of the first days of school to explain how it works and why we use it which sets us up for smoother sailing throughout the year.  *Note: Students that use their home computers would have to get the link you originally shared and bookmark your matrix on their home computer.*

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Data Binders

I'm a big proponent of  student data binders.  I'm a recent convert, so know that I understand and sympathize with the thoughts of "they can't handle that" or "that's just too much work".  I decided to just jump in one year and try it.  I had an extremely well-behaved and motivated class, so if it was going to happen, this was the year.  We started them right after winter break.  Students really bought into them and loved setting goals for themselves (and meeting them).

I started with "lap books".  I purchased this one from The Pinspired Teacher on TPT.  I modified it based on what my students needed and what I wanted to track, but having the basic template really helped a first time user.

I've since moved to using binders that I can reuse each year.  It's not as "cutesy", but it's definitely more functional for our purposes.  I created short and long term goal sheets that are kept in the front and filled out (at least quarterly).  I bought CHEAP tab dividers and gave each student two.  They thought it was great to write "Reading" and "Math" on the tabs.  Behind the reading tab is their current reading level F&P continuum checklist and a reading level graph that's updated after benchmarking or movement from running records.  The math tab contains charts for graphing pretests and post tests.   I've had a few other items float in and out of the binders, like behavior sheets, but these are the staples every year.

                             Goal sheets
Reusable, numbered binders                                     

The increased student effort due to tracking themselves is amazing.  No one likes to record "bad" or "negative" results, so everyone tries hard to avoid this.  Great conversations happen about growth and improvement even if the actual grade is less than desired.  These have become wonderful tools for parent/teacher conferences as well as those quick but necessary 1:1 student conferences.

Math Pre/post Test Graphs to Show Growth & Set New Goals

Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Clubs

By fourth grade students are more than capable of being in book clubs.  There are often years where I have all but one or two groups begin in book clubs while the others work on another round of literature circles to keep practicing those discussion skills before I give up full control.

For those that don't know the difference, students typically all have one "job" when in literature circles.  They each have that one focus to bring back to the group for a discussion.  The teacher is a facilitator and redirects the discussion when necessary.  Book clubs are student-led.  The teacher is an observer.  Students bring all thoughts to the group and "piggy-back" off of one another to keep the discussion flowing.  I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the year talking about book club procedures, expectations, etc. to be sure we're all set for some great discussions throughout the year since we are in book clubs constantly. (More on that in another post.)

When planning for book clubs, I use several resources--our book room & personal collections of book sets, the Fountas and Pinnell continuum, my trusty Depth of Knowledge (DOK) sheet, Notice & Note signposts, and our standards.  I don't always tie book clubs directly to our standards as this should be a "real world" application of the standards that the students have learned.  It's a great way to assess what you've taught and how students are doing with those skills.  Sometimes a standard works and I can "check" it off that we've touched on it again, but since I'm not instructing at that time, it's not something that I focus on.

The Fountas & Pinnell continuum is one of the most important assets that I have when planning.  I have the F&P checklist for levels R-Z copied and in my planning binder it's always easily to reference.  There are times that I start with a skill I want to see if the students can handle on their own & other times I choose a book/genre first and then something from the continuum that students can "dig in" with that specific book choice.

               Planning & Organizing Stages

I typically have 4-5 book clubs going at once.  At the beginning of the year, they are EXTREMELY different based on student needs.  As students move levels and get into those upper levels (W on), the checklists start to overlap even more than before.  This means that by the 4th quarter, book club focuses are very similar and the differentiation comes even more from the students and what they bring to group.

I make a poster for each group (by color) that includes the focus for that specific group and meeting dates.  The groups all meet right away to break up and decide ("agree" means majority rules) on what to read by the dates that I set.  One person is sent to meet with me to explain how the decision was reached and it gets recorded on the poster.  Students may read on their own, with partners from their book club, or as an entire book club group.  There are times that I give a sheet that tells the focus and provides a spot for thoughts to be jotted.  I've found that this helps students when the discussion happens (and me when looking for further evidence of reading having been completed).

Posters ALWAYS include the DOK skill that's being worked on.  Our state standardized tests have started to include these with the questions, so I feel it's important for students to know that they've been working on those higher levels (3&4) all year long.

Posters are hung on the back wall and DOK posters (leveled) are always up.

I meet with each group once a week.  They meet together along the way and, if chosen, can read together.  I often incorporate technology into the mix with students participating in online discussion boards via our LMS, Canvas. (We are an e-learning district, so incorporating this along the way ensures no loss in momentum when we have a snow day.)  Another new piece of technology that I've incorporated is Seesaw.  Once or twice a week, students post or record their progress in the book and their thoughts thus far.  This allows me to virtually check on students even if time doesn't allow during the school day.  I assess the students in class and through these online apps to make further decisions on adjusting levels, strategy/small groups, or the need for whole group reteaching.

Want more?  Check out more of my more formal book club resources from my TPT store.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Gaming in the Classroom

Social Studies isn't a favorite of mine and that doesn't translate well to my students.  We all know that you have to be excited for them to get excited and the old saying "fake it till you make it" doesn't look good on me.  (This is why I'm not a professional poker player.)  I was desperate to get my students excited about this subject and to be excited about it myself.

I first moved from the old and MAJORLY boring read together or with partners and discuss to using the Nonfiction Notice and Note "3 Big Questions" with my students.  They loved this and the discussions that came from it.  I really think the love was how "free" our discussions were and that it was okay to have several tangents and things they were wondering about.  (More here.) We worked like this through an entire six lessons which is one unit in our book.  I wasn't sure that this strategy would keep it's allure through for another six or seven lessons, so I was again on the hunt for something that would engage my kiddos.

In my district we are fortunate enough to get an in-service day in February where we can choose from a variety of sessions being offered.  I chose one on Coding/Gaming in the classroom, and boy am I glad I did!!! It was at this professional learning session that I was introduced to Gamestar Mechanic.  We were able to play our way through the Quest to get an idea for what students would be doing and then shown several ways that it was being used to integrate content.  My ears were perked and eyes open.  I soaked it all up and was ready to start the next week!

My student teacher and I looked over the next unit.  We decided that it would be best to create a Google Doc to share with the students with key higher level thinking questions from each lesson.  A timeline for the studies and creation was set as well.  Students would have a week for each lesson.  They would read on their own or with a partner the first day of the week.  Once the reading was done they would, essentially, do a second read to answer the questions from that lesson.  Answers were to be in depth with complete sentences, text evidence, and page numbers.  The next step was getting their work checked by one of the teachers.  Until it was okayed, they could not begin on their level (this allowed for the "meat" of the work to be done well and we avoided rushing to get to gaming).   The assessing and "reteaching" was done practically in real time as students finished at different times and discussions about misunderstandings were happening right then.  Checklists and notes were kept to keep track of where everyone was plus any comments necessary.

Once students were on Gamestar, they created one level for each lesson.  They had to think about a true game and its set-up.  We talked about introducing skills along the way that would help in later levels and making the levels increase in difficulty as they went.  Within each level students had to deliver background knowledge for the player in sentence format.  The player eventually reaches a "decision point" where they need to use that previously given knowledge to make the correct decision to move forward in the game.  Choosing the wrong path/answer could lead to the player's death and make them restart the level.

I cannot tell you how AMAZING this activity has been.  It has completely transformed my classroom.  You'd never know about any behavior issues we deal with regularly.  Students are 100% engaged and all about helping one another.  They want to play each others games to test out the levels and offer suggestions.  Everyone is interacting with EVERYONE and NO ONE is left out.  Students are proud of their work and what they're coming up with to include in their levels.  We are on level six out of seven, so they're getting pretty challenging!

Showing off ideas & getting feedback from all.

At the end of our seventh week, students will publish their games and our eighth week will be spent playing each other's games!  This will have students immersed in the unit's content for the 5th, 6th, 7th, etc. time and using it to play the games (remember that they've been testing levels and reading content then as well)!  Students were assessed as they worked all along, so a final reflection will be given for the final grade of the unit.  I cannot recommend trying this in your own classroom more.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Response to Reading

Response to reading is so important but can be overwhelming.  Between finding what works for you, making sure your kiddos are getting everything they need out of it, and keeping track of it all,  you can easily feel like it's the only thing you teach (when in fact you have 5 more  subjects to manage as well).  I wanted to share some ideas that I've been trying and tell you about how they're going.

For quite some time, our district has been using the "fancy" Fountas and Pinnell Reader's Notebooks.  I was very excited to get these when they were first presented to us, but I've come to find most of them fluff and, quite frankly, a waste.  I love the premise of them, but they're just not realistically used (in my classroom).  I spend so much time after school with those thick notebooks reading through, grading, or writing letters back to students.  There was even a time that I lugged several home at once--BACK BREAKERS!  If your district uses these religiously, or something similar, I'd highly recommend putting your students on a turn-in rotation schedule.  I used this with my 28-29 student classes.  We were on a two week rotation and I had 3-4 students that had to turn their notebooks in on a specific day.  That way I could easily know which students I had seen or not, and I knew that I always had 3-4 notebooks to go through before heading home--this was always first on my list once students were on the bus so I didn't have to take them home.

I've since moved to using/trying a combination of things--Biblionasium, Who's Reading, and Google Docs.

Biblionasisum is a fun site that allows you to set your class up, and students log reading and review books.  I like Biblionasium because it's free (unless you want specific upgraded options), easy to use, and web-based so I could quickly check things from home if necessary.  My students needed virtually no help figuring it out even from the get-go!  Once we got everyone logged in, they were pretty much up and running.  Badges can be given by the teacher for students as they log reading which students enjoyed.  We did encounter some lagging when students wanted to log books at school after reading block as well as when they entered their own titles--namely nonfiction.  This led me to pursue a different option.

We use Google Docs often, so while I want hunting down my next online option, I had students create their own "Reading Response" folder in their Google Drives and share it with me.  They completed several reading responses using a template that we made together.  I really liked this option because I could easily check on students throughout the day when there was time (ha!), after school,  or from home.  The hardest part of this for the students was the "no frills"/no reward feeling it had.  These are 21st century learners that love and need constant rewards for actions....on to the next.

Who's Reading is the latest & greatest in my classroom.  It runs similarly to Biblionasium but the students earn coins on their own for logging books and completing challenges.  These coins can then be spent on items to customize their avatars on the site.  My kids LOVE this and are more motivated than ever to get on to the site.  Students can write reviews or comment on their books.   This is, again, easy for me to use when checking in on students since it is web-based.  When logging into the dashboard, I get a quick view of who's been on and who hasn't.  One quick check right before the bell rings in the morning and I am ready for some conversations with kiddos that have been working hard or haven't been on at all.

A new love of mine is Seesaw.  I've been having students do some fluency reads for me and have even recorded a reading response for me--both video and written forms--just to try it out!  The nice things about this is that students can see each other's posts and comment on them.  I think it's a great thing for them to hear each other read aloud.

I saw this poster on Pinterest and thought it'd be fun for students to use it but put the coach's remarks in the comment section of Seesaw for their partner.

Nothing is more important to me than maximizing my time so that my students can get everything they need for the short amount of time that they're with me.  Using something that motivates them and that's easily managed for me is imperative.  I can keep a quick tally of students that are logging reading and apply that work to their weekly reading effort grade then spend a little longer reading a paragraph or two from each student weekly that contains their thoughts on a current read.

What do you do with your students that keeps them engaged, motivated, accountable, and is trackable?  I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Using Notice and Note to Engage Students

We've been reading and trying out the Notice and Note books from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst this year.  We implemented the fiction signposts at the end of last year and loved them, so this year they became one of the first parts of the year in reading.  It was great to read a fun read aloud with the students and then hear about all of signposts they noticed as we went.

The Notice and Note books focus on 5 or 6 "signposts" or things to notice when reading either nonfiction or fiction texts.  They help students dig deeper into the text to make predictions, inferences, identify theme, determine author's purpose,  bias, and critically look at the validity of texts.

We anxiously awaited the nonfiction version from Beers and Probst which arrived mid second quarter.  A small group of us participated in a book study and were anxious to get started with our students.  I loved the 3 "Big Questions" that were presented and thought this was a wonderful starting point with my students.  I introduced one per day while working through several short nonfiction pieces with the students to explain the concepts.  I was looking for a way to make my social studies units more meaningful (and fun) for students, so I got right into changing everything up.

In our social studies book, there are  four HUGE units with a ton of lessons in each.  I cut out all of the fluff like review questions that I'd pour over grading and become so frustrated that many weren't "getting it" and started with a basic read.  Students read the lesson with partners or small groups while I monitored the room and met with my lower readers to be sure they were understanding the text.  As students read they "marked up" their text with sticky notes that followed the 3 "Big Questions".  On their stickies they wrote what surprised them, why, and how it changed their thinking about what they were reading (and likewise for the other two questions).  Sticky notes were left in students' books until the next day when we had a class discussion.  Students circled up on the floor and we talked about the lesson that was read.  It was amazing to see the engagement and hear all of the students' thoughts.  More sticky thoughts were added as the conversation continued.  I was able to direct some of the conversation as needed, but it was mostly student-led.  The thinking went way beyond the basic concept in the lesson with many "wonderings" and further research happening to find answers.  As we continued "studying" Indiana's history in this fashion, students stopped groaning and complaining when the period came around, but rather looked forward to and enjoyed their learning much more.  The final part of this piece was for students to transfer 2-3 of their "best thinking" to a Google Doc that I had set up to help them keep track of their Big Question thinking.

How did I assess the student learning?  During my casual observations of the first day's work time, I carried a clipboard with a checklist of students.  I noted who was focused, on task, working hard, etc. and any questions that were arising.  The clipboard was also present for the whole group share-out discussion.  I noted who participated, who needed encouragement, thoughts, ideas, etc., basically anything that would be helpful for my weekly effort grades and follow-up needs.  These were all quick notes or anecdotals that drove instruction and conversations along with checking the aforementioned Google Doc.  For the summative at the end of the unit, I used one of the strategies Beers and Probst suggested the end of the book, ABC.  Rather than use it as a strategy for comprehension, I used it at the end of a set of lessons.  Students had kept track of their big questions & sticky notes then dug back into the text to further explain their thinking.  They had to find a word or phrase for each letter (except Q, X, and Z) and tell how their thinking changed their comprehension while reading.  Students could also include inferences that they made using the Big Questions.  You can grab my resource on my TPT page.

This process not only uncovered misconceptions about our state's history, but it also changed student thinking about a subject and its content.  It brought joy back to a once frowned-upon subject for students.   The activity also forced students to practice their close reading skills as well as listening skills to have meaningful conversations.