Sunday, August 31, 2014

September Blog Challenge: Google Drive Apps

My school is currently in the middle of seismic shifts in technology. Just this year...

  • New evaluation system using the website Bloomboard to manage files and meetings
  • All teachers now have Macbook Airs (previously desktops running Windows) 
  • Lesson plans to be uploaded through Google drive
  • Moving to a new online gradebook system-called TAC for teacher access system 
I'm sure other schools are also finding themselves attempting changes in technology; unfortunately, it seems like there is just never enough time in the school day to do everything teachers have to do, never mind the new technology tips and trips! However, technology can save time and deeply engage students. So, I'm challenging myself to blog about some of the new technology tips and tricks I've found really helpful through the month of September in the hopes that it might help someone out in internet-land. 

My first topic: Making Google Drive work for you... with apps! 

In Google Drive, when you click the big red button in the upper left corner marked 'create', you will have the option of using all of Google Drive's version of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. For your every day life, these programs work perfectly well. However, for many teachers, they just don't have the same features as more traditional programs, like Microsoft's Powerpoint. My favorite app to replace presentations and Microsoft's Powerpoint in Zoho Show. Here's how to use it: 

At the bottom of the create page, you will see the button marked "connect more apps." I searched for "powerpoint" and found Zoho Show. You will have to click "yes" to make it the default program to open powerpoint files and other slideshows. 
Once you connect Zoho Show, just click "create" then "Zoho Show." To use this app, like most other apps, you must click accept in order for it to connect with your email and other security features. After that, it will offer you 15 templates to choose from, but then the basic arrangements are a lot like Powerpoint. Here's an example: 
I have personally really loved using Zoho Show; I haven't really even missed Powerpoint! If you find yourself missing certain programs but only have access to Google Drive, try searching in the app store for replacements. You might find something really awesome! 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Choice

Today was one of the only days in my teaching career where I walked away feeling like I had truly done the right thing by every student. Being an educator means that you will never know for sure if you are doing the right thing; everyone has an opinion about what you should be doing in your classroom, after all. Test prep, close reading, word walls, exit tickets-I've been advised to do all of that (and more) at some point in every single class period-as if there really is some perfect recipe for a lesson. Hint: there really aren't magic bullets in education. Sorry.

But here at the beginning of my fourth year, after a very special summer with the Arkansas Delta Writing Institute, I plunged into my classroom with something resembling confidence. Okay, maybe that's not the right word-fear mixed with passion multiplied by commitment all poured over the top of years worth of reflection, sweat, and tears (all baked at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 months-to terribly mix my metaphors).

The balance to strike at the beginning of this year at my school is schedule changes, technology hot messes, and getting to know students in a meaningful way, all while itching to get started on whatever standards or units that have been shoved at you or you've carefully developed and edited-whichever. In my first week of school, my students read two non-fiction articles, set up writing notebooks, and worked on internalizing a growth mindset through discussion and a short exit ticket.

It was just alright-maybe a little energizing to actually meet students. But then today happened.

I took all of my classes to the library and all of my students checked out a book and established a page amount goal, based on Penny Kittle's Book Love. The only real direction I gave was in selecting a title that wasn't too terribly difficult.
Blatantly borrowed stock photograph. 
Did some of my kids wimp out and get really easy reads? Absolutely. Did some of my kids want to re-read books from junior high, probably out of a lack of confidence? Yes.  But In Cold Blood, The Things They Carried, westerns, sports books, biographies, and non-fiction books about wars were all checked out by kids who were excited to read. I was able to talk to almost every single student about books in a meaningful way. I gave a mini-lesson about dialogue on the side. Even my most reluctant readers walked away with a book and at least 20 minutes of reading.

My principal came in at the beginning of first period and asked if we were doing a research paper; I said no, we were just checking out books. I felt a twinge of embarrassment and shame-just checking out books? What was I doing? It turns out, I was building the foundation for life-long readers.

I feel energized and passionate; I still have a long way to go to sustain a meaningful and productive independent reading program in my classroom that leads students to increasingly challenging books. I am working on building in choice and creativity, as well as argument and research, into my writing units. But-I've jumped in. No going back.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Life Organization: Arc vs. Erin Condren Planners

I have yet to find the perfect planner organization system. I want my planner systems to be paper-based, flexible, and very mobile. In the last year, I've tried an Arc system (from Staples.com) and an Erin Condren life planner.

I fell in love with the Arc system because it is highly customizable. The hole punch is an expensive one-time purchase, but the notebook cover was very reasonable. It uses a series of discs to bind the pages together, so I can move pages and sections around and replace covers. I decided on the full-sized poly-plastic cover. This was great because I simply printed the pages I needed weekly or monthly. Crazy week? Different planning guide. While using this notebook, I had a monthly plan, daily plan, and a reference section. 

One negative I found with the Arc system is that regular printer paper tended to curl, as above. Most of the pages, such as the weekly pages, could be tossed at the end of the week. However, I like to keep at least the monthly pages as a record of professional development, major appointments, etc. I did purchase larger discs, but my goal was to keep my notebook very mobile-but then where do I put the record sheets?
However, my biggest problem was simply the size and remembering to print or hole punch, creating a hot mess. I left the expensive hole punch at home, but I did almost all my printing at school on standard paper. Really, a slightly heavier paper would be better. My Arc will stick out of my beloved Timbuk2 purse, so I tended to leave it in my school bag on the weekend. This was a problem because I constantly needed to add to my calendar when out with friends or at church.

I have now switched to an Erin Condren Life Planner. While expensive ($50 before adding accessories), it is very sturdy. The paper is a good weight, the spiral is metal with a plastic coating for smooth page turning, and the tabs are laminated. While I have largely been impressed with the excellent quality, the plastic zip pouch in my planner split along the side a few days into carrying two felt pens. The company credited my next purchase for $10, and I duct taped the split closed- a hassle, but not a deal breaker. 
I did not purchase the additional pen holder ($8 really?!?), but perhaps this pouch was not designed for pens; if so, they should fix that!
 
The best parts? It easily fits into my bag! Its basically adorable! I bought my planner, and then my mother, school counselor and her daughter all bought one: serious planner envy. 



 The monthly planning squares are a decent size and I use the note section to record flexible deadlines and the like.
The weekly pages are on two pages with spaces for notes to the left and below. However, it's automatically divided into morning, day, and night categories. This doesn't allow for as much flexibility for crazy weeks as my Arc. Generally, the list of things I need to complete during my second period planning period fills the morning square completely, never mind the things I complete from 5:30-7:45 before school!
Weekly Worksheet copyright of The Together Teacher (thetogetherteacher.com).
You should really consider checking out the blog and The Together Teacher by Maia Heyck-Merlin
 if you are into creating an organized teacher life! 
By comparison, I could easily customize my weekly worksheets in my Arc, with spaces to divide my goals for the week by my role as a teacher, friend, etc. I could break down my day by hour or by morning and night. 

In summary: I like my Erin Condren planner and will definitely finish the calendar year with it. However, in the long term, I feel my planning needs will force me back to my Arc. I can easily print several months worth of weekly planning sheets.To improve on it, I would suggest printing paper that will be referenced constantly on heavier stock or put into a page protector/folder insert. I also need to position my hole punch near wherever I'm doing my printing, and create a designated place to put old monthly and weekly sheets. I have also considered buying the half-sheet sized cover for the Arc or (*SIGH*) resigning myself to an even larger purse- thoughts?

Feel free to share any suggestions, or share your organization systems in the comments! 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Unit 1 Reflection

More often than not, when teachers "reflect," they don't often see an honest picture. It has taken me literally years teaching to honestly reflect. There are always good things and strengths, and always things that could be better.

Positives so far in my first unit:
1. I've been using Kelly Gallagher's "Article of the Week" to make sure I teach nonfiction skills along with the short story unit. My kids have written a 1 page response for each article and have read about Tesla electric cars, Seamus Heaney, and how to improve their brains.

2. I tried a Socratic Seminar for the first time, and it ROCKED. The kids had rich conversations and a better  written response as a result.

3. We read The Scarlet Ibis, The Necklace, The Gift of the Magi, and will be finishing up The Red Headed League soon. We had some very rich conversations. I loved how mad some of my students were at the end of the Necklace.

4. I have developed an easily updated system for Bell Ringers. I'm loosely following Kelly Gallagher's outline of grammar skills found in "Write Like This!"

Negatives/A chance to grow:
1. My unit plan turned out to suck. I did not effectively backwards plan assessments, nor plan for effective learning goals with effective exit tickets. I'm going to have to get better about grading meaningful assignments based off of clear learning goals and assessing smaller chunks. 3 short stories in one unit test? WHAT WAS I THINKING?!

2. I did not effectively pace my reading assignments. Part of this was because I truly struggled to gain data about my students. It was easy for me to look at some basic writing samples and see some giant holes in their writing understanding. But, I did not start the year with reading levels. I went from the last two years looking at DRA scores to only having anecdotal information passed on from lower grades. I don't know how to effectively gauge reading levels for 150 students.

3. I want my students to be able to continue to develop their writing into multiple page assignments; we are scheduled to write a 2-4 page research paper in January and I want students to start that assignment with some foundation writing skills. However, assigning a 1 page response for homework, even after reading the article in class and modeling an outline gets me a 50% return rate.

4. Vocabulary instruction-what vocabulary instruction?

Next steps:
1. I am starting to Kill A Mockingbird with more resources; I will find exemplar assessments to align standards and learning goals to weekly sets of chapters by the end of the week. I will build an end of unit assessment based off of those weekly quiz questions/essay topics.

2. I will research high school reading assessments for next year. I will consider asking the grade below me assess students at the end of the year.

3. I need to better incentive smaller homework assignments; starting this week, I will assign 1/2 page paragraphs or short grammar practice-after looking at the unit assessment results, we could use some more practice.

4. I've bought a couple of vocabulary instruction books. I will find pre-made lists from Mockingbird, or I will have kids preview the texts and make a vocabulary list/per chapter. Either way, I will find a system and try it. If it doesn't work, at least I tried something in this unit.

Since you read this whole thing, have something cute from the internet:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Cautionary Computer Tale

I've been getting up early, getting to school around 6:30, and generally getting home around 6. Not particularly healthy, I know. Unfortunately, it's my computer who paid for it.


Inside the white square, above, is a tiny dent. Funny story. I had let my iPad charge last weekend and then carelessly laid it on top of some clothes I hadn't put up yet. I was up late the other night making notes for the next day; when I finally went to sleep, I laid my macbook gently on the floor next to my bed. In a hurry to find a shirt the next morning, my iPad fell from the chair and onto my macbook. I hurried to school without another thought. 

That afternoon, I opened my laptop to find this: 

I didn't know whether to throw up or cry. I did neither.

My nearest Apple store is more than a two hour drive; when I attempted to call Apple support (cue the internet laughter), I was prompted to cough up $20. Yeah. Right. I called a few other repair places and got estimates of at least $400 to $800; all said at least a month repair time.

I went with a friend to Best Buy to bemoan the state of windows laptops; did you know they are mostly touchscreen now?!? Crazy. I was generally more impressed with tablets, but I still need a laptop for managing music, using Office products, managing teacher files. Anyway, I decided to buy another macbook pro, this time with a three year protection plan.

My first macbook would have been 2 years old in two weeks. Moral? 1. Naked laptops should never be left unattended. 2. Always buy the warranty. 3. NEVER leave laptops on the floor.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Classroom Tour, 2013-2014!

When I think about starting my third year of teaching, all I can think about is the song above. Even though I'm moving from a small district to a large one and from elementary to high school, some things never change, including the facts of teaching in high poverty areas. Even though my new district is whiter and more affluent, it is still over 60% free and reduced lunch. In fact, some parts of setting up this year feel exactly like the first time I set up a classroom: not enough materials, not enough information about expectations, and equipment that just doesn't work. But, just like always, the bottom line is creating an environment and a curriculum for the kids. Here's my shot at creating the environment part. 

The outside wall; I had the poster printed up at the local print shop.

The back of my classroom.
 One great thing about my current district is the availability of actual textbooks. I'll have a class set and see if I need to check out books to individual students for homework and make-ups.

My massive dry-erase board.
 I was able to recycle both a parts of speech poster and a word choice poster. My plan is to start grammar instruction in the first unit with a review of parts of speech and word choices; I'll just have to see where my students are at with some sample writing. And, yes, my student desks are in boring rows. I didn't know how else to fit 30 desks!

Student materials and turn in zone.  
Just inside the door, I have my trays to turn in work by class period. Underneath the table, I have extra binders and paper for students to use if they need either. I also have a red cup with pencils, hand sanitizer, a hole punch, and a stapler. 

My desk area.
My desk is a discard from a local bank, so it's roughly the size of a tank; not ideal, but so much better than my previous teacher desk! I have my computer on a table, instead of taking up desk space, which is nice, but I'm not totally in love with it facing the door. 

Unit Binders
I am probably most excited and proud of this. I am creating binders for each of the 6 units this year. I have tabs for vision/big goals, lesson plans, assessments/modified assignments, and tracking student data. I plan on keeping virtual and hard copies of lesson plans and major resources with the hope that I can actually teach the same units next year and make them better! So far in my short career, I haven't taught the same grade or subject more than once. 

I'll leave you with this excellent quote that will be the focus of my first unit.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Alumni-hood

Yesterday was my last professional Saturday with Teach for America. An approximately 3 hour drive to Cleveland, MS, a panel discussion, a vision-setting session, an Arkansas-specific session, then I picked up my overly large certificate of completion, and that was that. Soon, I will have my 5 year teaching license and join the ranks of more than 20,000 alumni.

I guess after two years, I wanted some sort of final closure, like a graduation ceremony. However, the point of Teach for America isn't exactly to provide some sort of definitive closure or answer. In my experiences and current understanding, the problems in poor communities and in failing/struggling school districts are ever present, very complicated, and ultimately something to be fought against, not necessarily permanently fixed.

I'm caught up in a lot of emotion about my TFA experience. I feel like I've grown up a lot, establishing something of a more settled set of core beliefs and needs than I left college with. But I also feel like a failure personally and professionally on many fronts; did I consistently raise kids self-confidence, skills, and test scores? I did the best I could always, but that wasn't always enough. Did I do like my fellow 6th grade teacher advise and "drive my own happy train?" Not consistently and not enough. Am I satisfied with the currently political-educational climate, my kids current lot in life, education in general? Absolutely not, but these aren't the only issues I'm frustrated with.

Going forward, I'm understandably terrified. I'm job hunting. As cheesy as it sounds, my passion remains with teaching Arkansas kids; it's frustrating that charter schools in other states are so much more interested in me as a teacher than local school districts. I'm not sure where I will be living or for how long post-June. I need to get my kids ready for one more unit test, a science fair, and a field trip to Little Rock. I have an End of Year conversation with my TFA manager.

Here's to the next step: figuring out alumni status.