10 Steps for Setting up my Classroom in the New School Year

As the time for planning creeps closer and closer (who am I kidding? It’s already here), I would rather procrastinate by thinking about what I could do differently in my classroom set-up and design. My first year, I spend hundreds of dollars at teacher supply stores and on fancy posters with graphics and Shakespeare images or cartoons of famous authors. However, I realized how infrequently I used those and how infrequently my students look at them. Moreover, it didn’t feel like me. Once I got myself a bit more settled into my classroom management and curriculum plans over the years, I felt like four years in (last year), I was ready to re-examine my room set-up. I overhauled my classroom and made it me. This year, I will tweak a few things but leave much of it the same. Below, I’ll share a list of what I have done or will do, in order to set up my room for the new year.

1. Floor and table lamps – no fluorescent lights! My students always notice at the start of the year that the room seems “dim” the first few days but they adapt quickly and all of the sudden fluorescent lights are horrifyingly bright in my room, on days when subs come in and the overhead lights go on. I suffer from debilitating and frequent (three days + a week) migraines, so light is a big no-no for me. Plus, I’ve heard fluorescent lights can be bad for young mind over long periods of time (although I don’t know if I believe that…). Regardless, I have table and floor lamps with warm lights to keep the room lit but calm. 

2. Sheer drapes in a blue-green color – thankfully I have a great view out of my window to the courtyard, but sometimes my students can be distracted. So not only do the drapes help just a tiny bit to keep their attention inside, but they further add to the home-y feel of the room with the lamps.

3. Book corner – this will be a new thing this year. I have quiet a few book shelves lining the back of my room which can make the back feel cluttered. I will be moving one or two of them to the front corner of the room, where there’s some space thanks to the removal of some unnecessary equipment. With this, there will be a bit of a book corner created by the book shelves. I thought about even adding an area rug there on the floor, but I’ve heard if it doesn’t cover the whole floor, it’s a magnet for dirt and dust. So I’m still mulling that part around. But there will definitely be a book corner.

4. Classroom library – I came from an inner city school that did not have a library in the high school. So myself and another English teacher spent our time collecting books for huge classroom libraries, so our students always had books to read and books that were high-interest. Over the years, since I’ve moved to schools with libraries of their own (my city school closed 😦 ), I have added many more book high-interest books and classics to the collection, as well as resource books for me and the students. This means fewer students leaving my classroom to go to the library for a book! They can skim the shelves, but they “leave it at home.” 

5. Printed and laminated quotation posters – Posters are EXPENSIVE! This was the biggest surprise when I first started decorating my classroom. I couldn’t believe it! And they never felt right for me. Last summer, I started printing out some of the internet memes and license free pieces from the internet, on high-quality settings on my home printer (in color), and then I bought a CHEAP mini-laminator to protect those. They are small posters – only 8 1/2 x 11 inches at most, but it means that I am saving a lot of money on posters I don’t much like and instead can have a lot of interesting and more purposeful posters on my wall. 

6. Printed and laminated Common Core posters – Our school recently made the move back from Standards-Based grading to traditional grading, but during SBG, we were required to post the learning targets we would hit every day on the board. Instead of rewriting them every day, I had a poster made on VistaPrint ($15) and laminated it at school, and then I bought red arrow magnets from Amazon, so I would just move the magnets every day to the new targets, depending on the lesson I was teaching. Even though we won’t have SBG this year, I’m sure we will still have to post the standards we’re covering in the day’s lesson and it helps the students know the purpose behind the lesson, so I will definitely keep these up and used all year long. I printed two posters, one in blue and one in green, for the two different grade levels, so I could distinguish between who was doing which targets each day. They came in handy, without question!

7. Accommodating ADHD students – I read about something on Pinterest regarding how to set up for your room for ADHD students. One of the things that really stuck with me was keeping the front of your room, where your students are facing, free from clutter or too many things to look at. So I will be trying to keep it simple at the front of the room, just with the targets and the homework. Any extraneous or distracting posters will be moved to the sides or the back, so students can look at them before class starts or after it ends, without being distracted during the day’s lesson. 

8. Student Info/Supply Station – At the entrance to my classroom, I have a bulletin board and the tops of some bookshelves. I have yet to put something worthwhile on those bulletin boards. This year, I’m going to use this as an info station for students, a place for me to put laminated copies of the school map, the laminated emergency evacuation route, a smaller white board for each of the homework notes, and a section for the announcements for the day or week, from the principal. On top of the bookshelves, I will have an area for student supplies like extra paper, pencils, markers, tape, a hole-puncher, rulers, tissues, hand sanitizer and moisturizer (a big thing with my high school boys now… who would have thought?), and my book sign-out binder. When students borrow a classroom library book and want to take it out of the room, this is where they go to sign it out and sign it back in. It’s also where I can go to check who has what, when I know I have something and cannot find my copy of it. I also check it at the end of each marking period and remind students to bring things back, if they’ve had them for awhile. The best part about this station is it means students have their own area to go for things that doesn’t keep them crowding around my desk!

9. Power Strips – With a one-to-one school and a nearly paperless classroom, my students use their computers also every single day in the classroom. That means most of the time, at least 5-10 of them need to charge their computers for one reason or another. The four accessible plugs I have just won’t cut it, so I have three different power strips around the room, one in the back and one on each side, so anyone who needs it can charge their computer without going very far or crowding around a single corner. It allows for less disruption and means kids can get to charging without requiring my assistance, figuring out which plugs work and which don’t. This way, they just plug-in and continue!

10. Pictures of them – I saw an Instagram wall on Pinterest that I loved, and I want to adapt this for my students! I have another bulletin board on the back wall that I want to find a better use for. I had some samples of student work on it, but I find those are only helpful during that assignment. Otherwrise, they just sit there. However, at least in the first part of the year, I think having pictures of the students in the room can really help to build a community. So I’m thinking of combining two activities I saw on Pinterest into one – having a student stand at the white board and their classmates write compliments ONLY around his/her head and then my taking a picture of that student and printing it out, to post on the back board like a classroom Instagram feed. Perhaps then I will add to it or change it as the year goes on, with other pictures of things they’re doing and activities they’ve done, since they’re such a visual generation and at the age where they like taking pictures of everything they’re doing, no matter how simple! 

Let me know below what things you will be keeping up in your room this year, what you will be changing out, and what you will be moving around! I’m definitely interested in hearing about any and all set-ups people have, especially for the high school level!

Blogging Plan (August & September)

As my EdTech 537 course comes to a close, the final assignment asks us to develop a blogging plan so we might continue this discourse beyond the boundaries of a graded assignment. Initially, I was skeptical about how I would ever be able to do such a thing during the school year, since we all know teachers become time-crunch robots come September 2nd (August 1st if we’re honest). However, as I started developing this blogging calendar, I began to see how beneficial this might be for me, selfishly. I’ve decided to blog two ways – one as a teacher on this blog, outlining my classroom practices and reflecting on what happens in my room (honestly but respectfully, of course). And then two, opening a blog for my department to post student writings, so we might use it as a means of building community in our district and our building, showing off student work beyond just our bulletin boards.

Below, you will find the blog plan for this blog in August and September. The overall focus is the realities of a high school English classroom, with August focused on planning the curriculum for struggling readers in 11th grade American Literature, and then September focused on reflection on those plans. I want to also post some of what I do in the classroom, the technologies I use, and the honest discussions of what worked and what didn’t from my original August plans. I think this becomes powerful for me because it will help me to organize my thoughts as a teacher and give me a place to positively reflect, instead of moving into that place many of us find ourselves come February and March, down-trodden and looking for any exit possible. If I can use this blog as a floatation device for self-reflection and self-improvement, I might just be able to keep my head a little higher above water when the months get long, the days get long, and the sun seems determined to sleep for even longer. I hope you’ll join me!

August_plan September_plan

 

Unifying theme versus skill? (Choice post)

August is right around the corner… literally. And we all know what that means!

Month of August

 

With only five years under my belt, I still do the Sunday plan. I get the sense that some seasoned teachers do this by choice but that most are pretty much planned from memory after a certain point. I’m nowhere near there yet, so Sunday is always my planning day (and thus my dread) and therefore August is my planning Monday. With the first of the month around the corner, it means that my PD books are in piles in the living room and my brain is swirling around all of the files I want to rewrite and reorganize in my Google Drive for the year’s curriculum. Reading Twitter as part of my prep and thinking, I came across this article from Edutopia and it got me thinking – do I focus around theme or skill for each unit?

I believe there are drawbacks to both, and in some ways, the drawbacks can be the same. With theme, by focusing on one theme but a variety of skills throughout, I find myself often get burned out by a given topic of conversation. For example, our curriculum has us discussing the “American Dream” as the first unit. By the end of it, the students don’t even want to hear the phrase any more. They are so sick of hearing about, talking about, and reading about the American Dream. But they do have a strong and thorough understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, by focusing around a single skill, the unit can feel disorganized and disjointed without a topic to keep it flowing. Yes, we can build toward mastery of a certain type of variety and practice it with a range of texts, but there’s something in me that misses the connections we can make in conversations by not having some sort of unifying theme between the texts while building toward mastery in a given skill.

This brings me to my final point. I believe what I hope to try this year is combing the two – focusing on a skill and a theme, and in places where I would normally overdo it with theme, I will focus more on skill practice and tweaking. Then, my students may not get so burned out by the topic and will still polish those necessary and vital skills of the content area. Also, I’m thinking that by making my themes broad enough, it will allow for large scale discussion and not over saturation on the topic. Instead of talking about the “American Dream,” we could look at “freedoms” for example – really broaden it. Our original theme would encompass that and wouldn’t require a rewrite of any curriculum, but if I move the magnifying lens out a bit further we can solve the problem without much stress.

In closing, how do you handle curriculum development for your courses? Some content areas decide this for you, but others may not. Do you organize around a theme or topic? Or do you organize around a skill? Which do you prefer? What strengths or weaknesses do you see in one choice or the other? And how do you compensate for any weaknesses you perceive? 

Your Relationship with Reading (Poll post)

Dear Reader. I married him. Ha kidding – English teacher joke (Jane Eyre). Anyway – dear readers, I would like to ask you a favor. I will be teaching some less than enthusiastic readers this year, and I was hoping to give them a picture of what adult readers look like. Most of my students think that teachers were born good readers, always like to read, were always good at reading, and read high level literature for fun all day long. Meanwhile, they think, normal people don’t. So I’m hoping to utilize this week’s post and poll to test out my hypothesis (that that’s just not the case). If you could take a moment and just answer a couple of questions below about your reading habits, your earlier reading experiences, and your current reading habits, that would be great. I will be sharing this information, anonymously, with my students as evidence (hopefully) that reading isn’t just for English teachers and that their preference for it might change over time.

Thanks for your time!

Do Schools Kill Creativity? (Video post)

Below you will find one of my favorite YouTube education videos of all time from Sir Ken Robinson on whether or not school systems kill creativity. While I don’t personally go that far, I do find his analysis of the industrialized school system and the American public school system to be fascinating in particular. At our core, we teachers know that not every kid is the same and that we must differentiate (to the best of our ability) to help children reach their potential. However, we only have so many minutes in a day and minutes with a given student, and that number gets lower as you add more students into a classroom and more classes to a day and more courses to our loads. So my mind cannot help but question – what if it’s not us and our style or our students who are flawed but the basics of our system? What if the industrialized system of moving children through a standardized, for all intents and purposes, machine is what’s flawed? I have some ideas about what could replace it, and many of them, in my dreams, involve something like England’s Summerhill school. However, I’m more practical than my dreams, so I know better than to think it’s that simple. Just the same, I won’t give up trying to imagine different versions of what we have. And this video, no matter how many times I watch it, always gets me thinking about what other ways we could do this thing we all love so much… 

 

 

Post-Things Fall Apart: TED Talk – Andrew Bastawrous (Audio Post)

As part of my 10th grade literature class, students study a variety of World Literature including the juxtaposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. One of the frustrations I have in studying both of these novels is that students still walk away with an image of 19th century or maybe at latest early 20th century Africa. The bottom line is, many of my students tend to believe that the history they study is still true today in much of the continent, with a few exceptions. However, with podcasts like the one below from Andrew Bastawrous on the exceptional technology development coming out of various countries in Africa, and videos from MamaHope and another TEDTalk video from Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story,” my students start to get a very different and very modern picture.

Why Read? (Image Post)

Moving into August, I’m thinking about the coming year more and more. I will be teaching some students who struggle to read well, let alone on level, and I want to develop some better strategies to help them improve. One thing I always come back to is independent reading. I value assigned reading, pushing them out of their comfort zones, but I know how important independent reading is for lifelong readers. They have to connect with what they read, and while I will choose things that teach them necessary skills, I want them to keep reading long after my class because they love the characters and the stories, not because they love analyzing diction and syntax.

Here is a wonderful infographic from Kelly Gallagher’s website made by a teacher after one of his workshops that illustrates the importance of reading. We all know it, but this just acts as a beautiful visual reminder of it all.

Why Read Infographic

Infographic pulled from Kelly Gallagher’s site and can be found here.

Millenial Students – Is there a difference in their learning?

As part of my EdTech blogging course, our professor offered the following prompt

“Earlier this summer semester, you read:

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants – Part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6). Retrieved fromhttp://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism: Digital delusions and digital deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Retrieved fromhttp://fno.org/nov07/nativism.html

Reeves, T.C. (2008). Do generational differences matter in instructional design? Online discussion presentation to Instructional Technology Forum from January 22-25, 2008 at http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Paper104/ReevesITForumJan08.pdf

The main take aways from these readings included:

  • while the theory of generational differences exists and is a valid theory, there is no research at present that indicates instructional designers should modify instruction or instructional strategies to accommodate today’s generation of students
  • there is no reliable and valid research to support the belief that technology has somehow changed today’s generation of students
  • further to the fact that Prensky’s notion of digital natives isn’t based on research, McKenzie does a convincing job of illustrating how Prensky even misused the anecdotal “evidence” that he presents to support is beliefs
  • the only thing that can be said about today’s student, based upon reliable and valid research, is that they are more narcissistic than any previous generation

However, even faced with these realities in almost every semester where I use these three readings there are multiple students – often the majority of students – who still believe that the students they teach are fundamentally influenced by digital technology and it has changed the way that they learn in the classroom.

As educational technologists, what did you take away from these generational differences readings? How would you handle a colleague who bought into the notion of digital natives?

While I am a strong proponent of sociology and anthropology and their use in classrooms, I know these are generalizations, like the findings of most any study. We, as teachers, see children every day who do not fit into the molds set forth about them based on their gender, age, race, sexuality, level of intelligence, area of town, standardized test scores, course levels, and more. We know that differentiation matters because all children are different, so I appreciate information like this for basic information’s sake but not for the be all, end all. It is not the final word. Instead, I base my teaching on what I see of my own students and what’s best for them more than what a study of other students says.

So here’s what I see:

My students love their cell phones but don’t do much more than surface-level activity on them. They play games that require very little in-depth thinking, things that last maybe 60-90 second bursts at a time and often times are rapid paced. In addition to game playing, they check Twitter and love Instagram and Tumblr. They’re becoming increasingly more visual and less textual. Like the games, they want surface level and quick. Their love of visual is moving into text messaging too, and they’re moving away from public displays of information – Tumblr isn’t as public and does not allow true comments the way most other social networking does. They don’t communicate with Twitter as much, and instead, they spend much more time talking to friends with Snapchat, an app that allows them to send private messages to friends that are usually pictures or video and might have limited text too. Its appeal rests in the fact that the message disappears (or supposedly does) as soon as its read, so they like its anonymity (though it can be saved, screen-shotted, etc.). 

To me, the way this informs my classroom is that my students need a break from their phones most days. I spend a lot of time telling them at the beginning of the year that it’s okay to put them away, take a break, not respond just because it vibrates. They are not Pavlov’s dog. They do not HAVE to respond. When they do get to use their phone in my class, I’m trying to show them the more in-depth versions of what it can do and then move that in-depth work into the classroom work. My students need to be more patient and need to “drill down” as some of my colleagues say. They want to stay on the surface and go quick, quick, quick. So I need to help them take more time, dig deeper into text, and see other ways to use technology beyond socializing. 

I don’t know if all of this means that students are fundamentally influenced by technology. I know that these aforementioned readings, at the youngest, are still six years old and in terms of technology, that’s significant. Most teachers I talk to, who have been in the classroom much longer than me, say they do see a difference in the students overall with this idea of taking less time with their work and digging less into it. With five years under my belt, I have not seen enough to tell them they’re wrong. And the articles aren’t modern enough for me to use them to support my argument either, since most of their research would have happened before their publication, making them even older. All I know is what I see, and I know what I need to do to help my students prepare for life after high school. 

As for my colleagues believing in the idea of the digital native, I don’t think anyone I work with believes they cannot learn because of their age or that they are somehow fundamentally less capable because they were not raised with technology. Yes, it’s harder to learn when you’re older, and there’s lots of research that reinforces that idea. But it doesn’t pertain to only technology but learning in general. However, I know all of my colleagues work their behinds off to keep up with the changing times and changing technology, trying to know what their students know in order to keep their techniques relevant and keep their students engaged. While the basic skills of literature haven’t changed too much, how we go about teaching it and engaging students in it have, and that’s where technology comes into play. If I were to come across anyone in my department who believes in the idea of the digital native, I would merely offer up what I said previously – all learning is harder when you don’t grow up with it, not just technology, but we must keep up with the times and with our students in order to be most effective. I know no teacher who would disagree with that. 

Technology for Technology’s Sake? – Guest Post

To bring another, more seasoned perspective to the blog, I’ve asked my colleague Tracy Houston to offer her insights on the use of technology in the classroom. An almost 30 year veteran, she amazes me by still being on the cusp of what’s coming in education and technology while holding true to what she knows works and what’s best for her students. Without further ado, Tracy…

 

In 1983, after I graduated from Penn State with my high spirits about teaching and my education degree in hand , Howard Gardner busily introduced the seven multiple intelligences in his book Frames of Mind. I had not read the book nor had any knowledge about these distinct intelligences – the education world did not embrace philosophies or practices as readily as we do today. On the technology front, the Commodore 64 made its way into some homes, businesses, and classrooms, but I still used the dreaded correction tape on my old manual typewriter (later I upgraded to a baby blue electric Brother typewriter!) With my first teaching job, I would learn how to use that wonderful piece of technology for copying handouts: the mimeograph, better known as the ditto machine. I could crank out – literally crank out – copies of handouts for my students, who would then take long whiffs of the noxious solvents needed to produce the pages. And so my teaching career began.

In 1999, through the technology explosion, block scheduling, and many educational philosophies/strategies that included Socratic Seminar and the Jigsaw, I finally took a course in MI (one of the many acronyms I would grow accustomed to seeing). In 1999, though, Gardner added an 8th intelligence in his revised book Intelligence Reframed. My experience in discovering how the theory applied to me drove me to filter the findings into my classroom, allowing my students to discover the same through some simple activities. While I realized I did cater to some of my students’ needs and even if they did not discover firsthand how they best learn, my view of learning completely changed as did my instructional strategies. Halfway through my teaching career, I revised, retooled, revamped, and reenergized both me and my classroom. Of course, now I had to worry about Y2K!

Once the ball dropped at midnight and we “survived” the havoc of the millennium bug, Howard Gardner again reflected on MI and its relation to technology and education:

“Technology is neither good nor bad in itself, nor can it dictate educational goals. . . . Before embracing any new technology, we need to declare our educational goals and demonstrate how a particular technology can help us to achieve them. And of course we must provide adequate technical assistance if the technology is to be deployed effectively.”

Unbelievably, he stated this in 2000! And, I totally agree given today’s standards.

Approaching my 30th year of teaching and adding to hundreds (if not thousands) of additional acronyms in education, I continue to reflect on my students and how they learn best. While technology has changed (and changes every day it seems), education has changed because of it and for the better. The question asked of teachers has evolved from Do you use technology in your classroom? to How do you use technology in your classroom? From Gardner’s perspective (and mine), that should not be the question either since using technology is but a means to an end. We should ask this question: Why use technology? What do we hope students take away by or through using the technology? No doubt, today’s technology has changed the way we teach – probably faster than most initiatives have – and the way students learn but not how they learn. For me, technological advances simply re-emphasized the need to maintain our perspective on differing learning styles and provide an environment in which every student can thrive and succeed.

Sure my students use computers and smartphones regularly in my classroom, an English classroom; I use edmodo.com, Google docs, YouTube, Twitter, Prezi, etc., for communicating, for completing projects, and for engaging students. I am not going to suggest that any particular use of technology is better than any other use of technology. I do suggest, however, that teachers embrace technology, find their comfort zone with technology, be open to new technology, but do not overuse technology for technology’s sake.

 

Tracy A. Houston

English Teacher

Quakertown Community High School

thouston@qcsd.org

@TracyHouston

 

 

Cross-Level Planning – Commentary Entry

I’ve been spending a bit of my down time between Pinterest and Netflix so far this summer. I haven’t quite learned to just sit and watch a movie, without doing something else simultaneously, so Pinterest at least makes me feel a little productive when I’m focused on pinning education-related items for the coming school year. Lately, I’ve noticed quite a few posts incorrectly teaching the difference between “main idea” and “theme,” and based on the image and the elements of the lesson, they seem geared toward lower level students (upper elementary and middle school). While this is not a criticism of those teachers, it is a frustration of the system in which we work. As a high school teacher who teaches primarily 11th grade, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of what students learned, particularly at younger ages, really sticks hard in their minds (thankfully in most cases). However, there are some things they are taught or some things they misunderstand at lower levels that then need to be untaught in high school, and theme is one of those things.

I would say theme is the hardest concept and one of the most important basic reading concepts students must learn for literary analysis to even begin. Many of my students walk into 11th grade believing theme is the “moral of the story” or a “lesson” learned by the character. It is SO hard to break the students of that learning, no matter how many times I repeat “a recurring subject or issue in the story” and then I show them examples that could be one word or a whole phrase, depending on what they may see later on (i.e. jealousy, friendship, the conflict of race in a Reconstruction South, etc.). I am not pointing fingers at lower level teachers, and I have had conversations with 9th and 10th grade teachers who have the same issue. The problem is we don’t all have a common language for what we teach all of the time, especially with harder issues like theme, so when we teach it differently over and over, students tend to revert back to what they remember from early on. 

My point comes in here – we need to not only have common planning with our colleagues who teach the same grade level course but also different grade levels, so we can have common language for basic and particularly most important terms. That way, we don’t have to spend so much time reteaching complex concepts or breaking students of habits but instead, we can build on the language they were taught previously and either continue forward with the same language or add another piece of complexity to the term. With this, students won’t be married to one definition of a term but instead can see language as something that evolves and becomes more difficult as they grow, that things like metaphor and simile aren’t just “comparing two things” with or without “like or as” but that we then add a piece about HOW authors use metaphor and simile. Same with theme: if we can have a common definition for that, like we do metaphor and simile, we can spend more time on HOW the author develops the theme and less time on helping students understand that it’s different than what they thought.

Common planning is not a new concept – far from it. Teachers call for it often, fight for it in our school and others across the country, but in large public schools with too few teachers and too many students, it’s not easy to arrange. To make it harder, the few times teachers do get common planning, we often have so much to do with our regular job requirements that often times common planning falls to other more pressing conversations or bureaucratic issues.

So that’s why my proposal comes more as a focus on common terms – if we could come together as a curriculum area, figure out what terms are covered in what grade, and then determine district wide how we want to define it to our students, then we would have common language for the district. Obviously, at upper levels, certain terms will become more complex, as I outlined above, and others will not come into play until upper levels, but for the ones that transcend from beginning to end or matter from year to year, common language would do a huge service to our students and our teachers. It wouldn’t require huge time away from the rest of our work, and we wouldn’t need to pay any outside experts to inform the conversation. We teachers are more than qualified and intelligent enough to hold the conversation and develop the list and definitions ourselves. It would be a wonderful first step in cross-level planning, and it would be a great way to streamline what our students learn in a way that’s valuable, without taking away from differentiation or teacher voice. It’s a way to help students and teachers alike!