Friday, August 29, 2014

Creating a Classroom You Love, Part III: Hello, Walls

If you’re just joining me, you can read Part I and Part II by clicking on the links. 

First of all, if you got the Faron Young reference in the title, you rock. 

Secondly, you know that part in the movie Steel Magnolias, where Julia Roberts says, "Pink is my sig-nuh-tcha color?" And anything that would stand still in the church got pink bunting wrapped around it?  And when the doors of the church are opened it looked like someone had poured Pepto Bismal everywhere?  You need a visual?  Okay, here’s the pic:

Yeah-don’t do that.  To your walls.  Please.  Pretty please.  With sugar on top.

Like Shelby, you may think it looks dahlin’ to have every square inch covered, but…it can be more of a hinderance than a help.

Walls are such a big deal.  Done right, they truly help maximize learning.  They can serve as a way to display celebrations, dismissal, calendar, word wall, question/concept board, outcomes, word walls, anchor charts, center info, number lines and even more.  Done properly, they give students tools that they can use to further their independence.

Done improperly?  Let’s just say I know someone very close to me (hint, hint) whose early classrooms resembled more this

Than this:

I’ve taught in Kentucky for 10 years and it took a good long while before I was ready to admit the walls just weren’t working.  And in those early years I had awesome neighbors-neighbors who were decent to a fault.  I say this because no one had the gumption to walk in my room, scan around, and say, “You poor thing!  You’ve suffered a natural disaster. Don’t you worry, I’ll call FEMA for you to save you the trouble.”

As a young teacher, I wanted my room to look exciting, so I could not slap enough posters and pocket charts on walls.  After a few years, I was able to objectively look around and say, “This has got to stop”.  I realized that my brain went into sensory overload when I walked in, so my poor kids must have been in the same state.

(And maybe, just maybe, having to take all that crap down and put it back up was wearing on me after a few years.  Who knows?) 

Since I’m not afraid to tell you what I’ve learned, let’s examine some common mistakes and then we can discuss how to fix ‘em.  And here, in no particular order, are some décor thoughts:

      Problem: Your Door.  By dressing up your door, you’re already giving people something to process.  I worked in a school a few years ago where every teacher was required to have a theme door.  One year the lady next door wanted to do the Gingerbread Man story and spread it over both our doors since our theme was Fairy Tales.  Her door was completely wrapped and showed the kids in pursuit on the road.  Mine showed the road and the Gingerbread Man.  It was phenomenal, but a lot to take in.                       Solution: I know people will think I’m crazy, but either decorate only the outside of your door or make something simple on the inside.  My weakness is wreaths.  I buy ‘em when they are on sale (after a holiday, for instance) and change them accordingly.  I have one for Back to School, one Halloween, one Harvest, One Christmas, One Valentine, and one March Madness.  Here’s my current one, which is the mantra I repeat when it’s 7:30 a.m. and I have a minimum of three crying kids:  


Problem: Your Word Wall.  I can’t tell you how many classrooms I’ve seen where teachers put up a year’s worth of words before the 1st day of school.  Please understand: I love word walls.  However, they are like any other educational tool-they must be intentional and kids need to be instructed in how to use them.  The neat thing about the brain is it wants to make sense of things.  However, for young students, seeing all the words (especially if they can’t read) is overwhelming.  (1st day have kids’ names, share good books for word wall activities, keep personal word wall in folder, journal).  Another reason to wait to put up your words-if you’ve already assembled your wall, chances are you will be less likely to refer to it.  My students enjoyed watching our word wall grow.  (Plus, this wall is a fantastic way to help students understand graphing and comparing sets when you get to it in math.)                                                                 Solution: For Open House/Back to School Night, simply display only the headers or the headers with the students’ names on the wall.  I like having just the headers up, and that way we can discuss how to use the Word Wall once school begins.  I would also like to point out that this year I broke my mold and only displayed the uppercase letters.  I’ve been reading some professional lit on teaching letter identification and put the info into practice.  The book suggested only displaying the uppercase letters because they are the easiest to discriminate (for example an uppercase P and Q look very different than their lowercase counterparts, so kids can learn the letters more easily).  I like having names up at Open House because I think it helps the kids see they really do have a place in our learning community.  I have sentence strips that I use sometimes for names.  Or I simply use this amazing FONT and print them out.  Also, when your students are ready, give them a personal word wall and show them how to use it.  And if you need some quick books to help you beef up your word wall, try 
.  Tons of practical, great ideas. 

Problem: You Paid For Cute Décor and, By Golly, You’re Going to Use It.  So you’ve visited the parent teacher store, dollar store, or online and found the most adorable class décor kit.  And since you’ve paid an arm and leg out of your pocket, you’re going to get your money’s worth.  Which means displaying charts and images all over your walls.  You’ve created a custom wall paper job.  And the wall paper is…busy.                                                                                                                                                            Solution: Again, ask yourself what’s really necessary.  Take, for instance, Daily 5.  At the beginning of the year they kids may need to go and physically place their meme on the Daily 5 choice.  But I know that my students don’t truly need a pocket chart the whole year for Daily 5.  So after I’m certain they can handle removing the chart, it goes back in the box until next fall.  And be honest about what’s truly necessary-the good manner posters I used in August will (hopefully) not be needed in January.  Look at what your students need and plan your wall space accordingly.

Problem: Not Changing Things.  So at the beginning of the year your class couldn’t spell ok.  (Side note, last year the most entertaining convo in my room was when we were writing using M&Ms.  Half the class couldn’t spell it-seriously-and the other half were annoyed because they kept saying, “M AND M!!”)  But now they’ve got the first 25 words down.  Take down what you don’t need.  Think about an airport terminal-how confusing would it be if they kept the flights that were completed up all the time?  How helpful would it be to see the flights from four months ago?  It’s the same principle here.  (And if you worry that your class will need the info later, do like Nancy does and take a picture of the chart or wall and display in an album. Her post about this can be read here-on her incredible blog.) That way when new kids arrive you can still refer to a chart needed.                                                                                                      Solution: Unlike the Buckingham Palace Guard, my wall displays don’t get changed daily.  I mentioned earlier I switch out my wreaths with some regularity.  This is also the time I look around and see if anything needs to be added or removed from my wall space.  So basically, once a month.  Or every nine weeks with report cards.

Problem: Disorder.  You have addition facts next to a behavior chart, lunch menu next to Daily 5 Chart, science vocab next to the pre-writing poster.  There is no rhyme or reason to your charts and when students need help, they have to stop and scan two or three walls before arriving at the correct poster.             Solution: I don’t know how many times I can say it, but don’t use it unless you must.  And then plan accordingly.  Just this year my plan is to have 1 literacy wall (which will house reading strategies and anchor charts word wall, convention posters, etc), one procedural wall (with behavior, outcomes, calendar), one math wall, and one science/social studies wall.  This is a win-win for everybody, because you’re not wondering where you’re going to display a rubric and should the kids need a reminder they will know which wall to consult.  So that’s my plan, but I am cognizant it may need to be tweaked.

Hope you and yours have a wonderful, relaxing three day weekend!  I have just two more tidbits to share before wrapping up this series-glad you've shared this journey with me!

We Know About Labor

Today, I had a surprise walk-through observation.

At 2:00 p.m.

On a Friday.

And because we had just finished a math assessment, we were watching Reading Rainbow.

And eating Fruit Loops.

But please don't mistake us for slacking off.

One of my students was fast asleep-with her pencil still in her hand, poised in the writing position.

Should you more evidence that kindergarten is rigorous, check out the photo below.  Upon discussion of what a good citizen looks like, the sweetest child in my class had us scribe this:

And with that pic, I wish you and yours a very happy Three Day Weekend! Labor Day!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Creating a Classroom You Love, Part II: Pruning

For me personally, when I tackle the thought of setting up (or taking down) a classroom, it’s déjà vu all over again.  Words just cannot express this emotion accurately.  However, music speaks when the heart has no words.  This song accurately summarizes my feelings:

Can you relate? 

So this post is all about evaluating the state of your classroom.  It all begins by having an honest convo with yourself.  Ask yourself, “When was the last time I used it?  Will it benefit me this year?  Or it be more beneficial to someone else?”

Then act accordingly.  If you aren’t going to use it, lend it, store it (only if you're absolutely certain you will use it again-not can use it again) or trash it.

And believe you me, I know how agonizing that can be.

To prove I that statement, here's my career trajectory: kindergarten, 5th grade, 4th grade, 4th grade, 1st grade, 2nd grade, K-1 split (a multi-grade classroom with both Ks and 1s), 3rd grade, 1-2 split (another multi-grade), kindergarten, and 1st*  And this year I’m headed back to kinder. *

*Okay, just trying to remember all that made me lose brain cells.  Regarding grade level placement, I’m pretty easy going-I try not to be a complainer (I’m more of a whiner), and I don’t tell administrators no.  My family instilled the “be glad you’re working” mindset from before I could speak.

Since I had taught everything (and had a new grade almost every year) I had quite a stash, too: chapter books, big books, posters, writing process posters, addition posters, multiplication posters, fiction and non-fiction.  As I had spent a lot of time acquiring them, I was sure no one else would treat them the way I did.  

And so my stash grew.  And grew.  And grew. 

I was a handful of items away from becoming another teacher statistic on the TV show “Hoarders”.  You know the ones- loads of crap in their home and stubbornly held onto items like a single pipe cleaner that was missing 90% of its fuzz.  Because those hairless pipe cleaners are just so very useful.

(On a side note, I find it interesting that when I typed TV a second ago, spell check politely informed me I was wrong.  Seriously.  And how does one misspell a word with only a pair of letters?  One that only relies on the recognition of two graphophonemic symbols. They claim you spell it TV, not tv.  And now headed back to the original purpose of this post.)

So I was nearly that teacher. And what’s worse, I didn’t care that I was being selfish. 

And then one Sunday at church the pastor was preaching his sermon.  He was preaching on John 15 which is a gardening metaphor.  In that passage there is a specific verse that talks about how the Lord prunes his followers.  During the sermon he talked about the apple trees he and his wife were raising.  He talked about his pruning shears and how he used them.

Then he said something that stuck with me.  He was talking about the true purpose of pruning.  I do not possess a green thumb, so I’d assumed it was simply removing the dead parts from the plant so it wouldn’t look tacky.   

And boy, was I wrong. 

He said that pruning is something that you do to help the tree realize its maximum potential.  It’s not something that’s spontaneous, but an act that requires truly assessing what will make the tree most bountiful and productive.  He said sometimes you may have to prune branches that are living.  Good branches, they’ve developed the way they should.  But in order to get the most out of the tree, it needed to be removed so that it would be ready for something better.

And that has stuck with me. 

I look around my room and see so many things I’ve got-lots of things.  (True story: last summer when I first started setting up my classroom, I drove a 14’ U-Haul 80 miles roundtrip so I could get all my things in one trip.)  They are in nice shape, the kids love ‘em. 

But if I removed them, it would make way for something better.  And I have to keep the big picture in mind, so as much as it pains me to take my mini-sofa and chairs out of the room, I know I can use that space more effectively without it. 

Over the last 3 years I’ve begun the task of pruning my educational products.  Some are books I give to other teachers.  Some I lend.  Some I simply donate or trash.  Even though I don’t enjoy the process of pruning, I am delighted with its results. 

So next time you’re in your classroom alone, take a good look around and remember this pic:

This stop sign is one block from my school.  They fixed it over the summer which has made the drive home way less fun.

Pay heed-grab your shears and get busy. I’d hate for us to wind up on “Hoarders”.

*I'm not finished yet...come back Monday for Part III.  If you'd like to read Part I, you can here.*

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Creating a Classroom You Love, Part I: Back to the Drawing Board

Here’s something you didn't know about me: I love Tina Fey.

I had more than my fill of doctors’ offices, emergency rooms (in the Harrodsburg ER I asked them to change the waiting room channel to the UK game as I  paced around massaging my kidney infection), and diagnostic offices  last year, which correlates to lots of waiting times.  And lots of magazines.  One of them featured a Tina Fey interview.

She was talking about her apartment in New York and she said her boss had told her she needed to decorate her home lavishly.  She explained, “He told me when I open my front door I need to be like, ‘Wow…whose house is this? Somebody important must live here because look at all this.  Having a home like that reminds you why you work.” (Okay, so it’s not an exact quote.  Probably not even in the ball park but you get the idea.)

That sentiment of “Wow…this is mine?” has struck a chord with me.  I’m moving classrooms which means everything had to be taken down-which was a lot.  (I told our lead custodian when he saw the pile in my room he could call me everything but a white woman.  He didn’t, because he’s super nice, but I felt some serious guilt about having to move all that.)  Moving classrooms also means that I’ve been carefully and consciously trying to make a classroom that kids will enter and be so excited they get to learn there.  And I’d like to share with you how I created my classroom with those parameters in mind.

Before I go any further I’d like to point out the most obvious disclaimer: I’m not a pro.  I search HGTV’s website in hopes they will do a classroom makeover, but alas and alack, no such luck.  This is my first attempt at creating a cohesive, intentionally designed classroom.  There are other people who sketch, decorate and plan and their rooms could be on the cover of Good Housekeeping. I know teachers who choose a new theme each summer and then decorate their rooms accordingly.  I don’t have the budget nor the brain power to do that. 

Before making any purchases (or even stepping foot in your room), first gather yourself some paper (I used loose leaf because it was easy to manipulate and put in my binder), writing instruments, and the internet.  Or, if you prefer technology, create a Word document.  Make a wish list-those things that in your wildest dreams you would like to have in your room.  (Much to my shock, I realized I’m fine without a writing center, listening center, and computers-I’d rather have iPads.) Make sure you leave out some extra paper because when you do your research you’ll be jotting ideas and rabbit trails (I added five books to my Amazon wish list when researching and kept writing new ideas).

Once you’ve written down your wish list, get a new sheet and write down: Floors, Walls, Cubbies, Book Cases and Cabinets.  Then go through your wish list and write where each wish list item would go-calendar is on the wall, Reading Corner would be on the rug, manipulatives on the cabinets. 
After this, I was able to better distinguish what items were essential and which were not.  Knowing my essentials helped me plan my wall space in my room (rules by smart board, calendar on bulletin board).  I kinda looked at this like a rubric:

Classroom Environment Rubric

0-No ideas, no direction, don’t care.

1-Essentials only-desks, chairs, and computers.  You’re begging for cast offs from your colleagues and are on a first name basis with the Goodwill and Salvation Army employees.  Though you have no idea what you will do with anything you get from them.

2-A few accents and/or plan.  You know you want something cute or have an idea in mind, but need more direction.  You’re open to any hand me downs-you know exactly what you can use them for.

3-You’re tackling each area one task at a time.  You’ve got a plan and just need time and/or resources to complete it.   You only accept donations if it fits your current theme and/or color scheme.

4-You’ve achieved the nirvana of a cohesive classroom.  The accent colors of your IKEA rug match the colors of the table caddies that match the color of your stapler and mouse pad that match the curtains.  In short, you’re colleagues hate you because your room reminds them of everything theirs is not.  There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.  You are not above accepting donations, but you squirrel it away until your next great idea.

And going into the new room with some possibilities in mind helped ease my anxiety-I knew things may change, but at least I knew to what I was aiming.

Come back tomorrow to see the next step in creating a classroom you love.