Tables vs. Desks in the High School Classroom: A Reflection

How should I set up my classroom?

This is a question that I have pondered at the beginning of every school year. I play around with the idea of arranging the desks into tables so that students can easily work with one another. I move the desks and look at the room imagining the classroom management nightmare that may ensue should I allow my high schools sophomores the ability to sit with one another all day, every day. I fear that the temptation to talk will just be too strong and we will never get anything done. Don’t get me wrong, I love to have my sophomores work in partners or groups of 3-4 (depending on the activity), but what I like even more is the ability to move the desks back and forth to fit what we are doing. The beginning of the 2013-2014 school year I had this luxury. The end of that school year I did not. It is a long tale about the testing monster, but to keep it short and sweet, I was forced to move classrooms in February 2014. I was displaced until the end of May. My new classroom had tables. TABLES. When I first peeked into the window I remember thinking to myself- “They have got to be kidding me. How do they expect anything to get done at the tables?”

I was nervous in my own ability to take on this challenge. My students are pretty well behaved, a little talkative, but good overall. What were those evil tables going to do to them. Were they going to take my little angles and turn them on me? As a new teacher, I was still getting a hold of this whole classroom management thing.

My original classroom was made up of five rows of five. Every day my 25 students would come in and sit down. If they were working in pairs, they knew what to do. We would just move the desks. If they were working in groups they knew what to do as well.

Moving into the new classroom I was not sure what to expect. I knew that I would have to change my teaching style to fit the new classroom environment. I decided very early on that I was going to work with the temptation to talk instead of against it. The move to a new classroom transformed my teaching.

Suddenly, I stopped relying on lectures. They just did not work. I would be able to hold my students attention, but only for so long. I started making the notes short, sweet, and to the point. The rest of class would be filled with interactive activities. Maybe my students would work on writing a group summary. Some days they would come up with their own definition of a term we were learning in history. Other days they would be working together to create a presentation or poster about an assigned topic. My teaching became much less teacher centered and much more student centered. And, you know what? I started enjoying my job so much more. I remember my professors telling me that the students should be working harder than the teacher. This is a little piece of advice that I always kept in the back of my mind, but I didn’t quite know how to implement. As a history teacher, aren’t I supposed to be the one to impart the knowledge to my students? This assumption, however, does not take into account all of the skills that my students do bring to the table.

Yes, my students are young. Yes, my students can be immature. Yes, my students can be lazy. But, they have knowledge and skills that they need to use. I need to encourage them to use those skills instead of allowing them to fall into the trap of being passive learners. When you are involved in your learning you own it, so to speak.

Making the switch to a classroom that had tables was a blessing. It allowed me insight into the insecurities that I have about myself as a teacher. Beyond that, the switch transformed my teaching and allowed me to gain confidence in my ability to manage a classroom. My experience has not been smooth sailing. There have been good days and bad days, but it was worth it. I like having my students work at tables. No, I LOVE having my students work at tables.

If you have been considering having your high school students work at tables, I encourage you to do so. It might just be the best thing that has happened to your classroom yet!

Happy Teaching!

Five Minute Fillers: Visual Mnemonics Vocabulary Review

Unless you can plan out and execute your lesson plans perfectly every single day, there will be times that you finish your plans before class is scheduled to end. It is important to have something engaging for students to do with those extra few minutes. Usually, I like to use this time to review content.One of my favorite five minute filler activities is the Visual Mnemonics Vocabulary Review. It is easy to put together on the spot and requires students to make and explain associations between key content vocabulary words.

Here are photos of a couple of completed Visual Mnemonic Vocabulary Review slides from a recent lesson on the Age of Exploration.

As you can see, you start out with a base term. This term can be a person, place, or thing from your current unit of study. The base terms are typed in black. Each word that is added must connect to and be associated with a term already listed on the board.

How does the activity work?

When I think ahead, I usually include some slides with terms already typed up at the end of my presentation on a topic. This makes them easily accessible. (If I don’t have any prepared, I just pick random vocabulary words from our current unit and write them on the board as the base words as we go.) At the end of class, I will have students pack up everything except a piece of paper and a pen/pencil. Then, I will display the first word. I give students 1-2 minutes (depending on how much time we have) to complete their own visual mnemonic. Having students write down their own visual mnemonic keeps everyone accountable. Students turn their paper in before they leave class.I flip through these pages to check for understanding, or misunderstandings, and then file them in my student work portfolios. You can find out more about my student work portfolios here.

After 1-2 minutes, I will either call on students to verbally share their associations while I write them on the board or I will allow students to write their associations on the board themselves. (This largely depends on the amount of time we have left as well as the climate of the classroom. Some classes get very distracted and off task in the few seconds it takes for a student to walk up to the board and write their term.)

The key to making this activity a valuable review is having students explain their associations. They must explain both why and how the term they are adding is related to the base term. If we want to get fancy at the very end I have students explain why and how a term is related to every other term already included in our visual mnemonic.

My students and I all enjoy this activity very much. I hope you will too!

 

Happy Teaching!

 

What Walking My Dog Taught Me About Teaching

Every morning the time rolls around where I need to get myself out of bed and walk Becca. No matter what time it is, she is always ready to go outside. At even the slightest hint that we might be going for a walk, Becca is up and walking around, tail wagging and all.

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This is my precious baby girl, Becca. She is always happy and silly and loves to chase lizards whenever the opportunity strikes.

Most of the time these walks feel like a chore to me, but they bring Becca so much joy. This morning as we were walking, I couldn’t help but appreciate Becca’s happiness and it got me thinking. In a lot of ways my dog is like my students. There are things that bring her joy that I just don’t understand. And, like my students, she can’t explain her feelings to me (Well, my students can explain their feelings to me, but they are high schoolers so nine times out of ten they choose not to). If you pay attention both dogs and people do a good job of showing their feelings. There is so much to be learned through the actions of others. So, without further adieu, here are the lessons that my dog taught me about teaching.

>>Sometimes your students will need to slow down, and it is OK to give them this time.

  • Becca loves to stop and smell the grass. Every. Single. Blade. Of. Grass. I have no idea what she finds so interesting, but there will be multiple times during our daily walks that she will just dig in her paws and refuse to move until she has had her fill of sniffs. Initially, this would drive me nuts because I was thinking about all of the ways that stopping to smell the grass was affecting me. Mostly, it had to do with the fact that stopping to sniff would make the walk take longer and I had things to do, you know? I had to get to work. I had to do laundry. I had to catch my show. I was hot and sweaty and had just showered. The list goes on and on. The point is, sometimes things are not about what YOU have to do, they are about what is important for the other people (ehh…dogs) involved.
  • How does this apply to your classroom? I know, I know you have standards to cover and objectives to teach, but your students are not robots and just because a district is pushing content down their throats does not mean you have to. They need time to digest new information. Give them that time. Help your students to grow in their curiosity and interests. Trust me, it will be more enjoyable for all involved.

>>Distractions can be a welcomed break and point you towards your students interests. Don’t always just shrug them off. 

  • Becca loves squirrels and lizards. She gets so excited when she sees them. Sometimes she will spot a squirrel or lizard before I do, and don’t you know she is pulling like crazy to go catch it. These distractions typically take us off of our normal walking path, and honestly, taking a new path sometimes is extremely refreshing.
  • How does this apply to your classroom? Isn’t it like this with our students? They trudge along through the school days sometimes paying attention, sometimes not. And then, there is that one topic that sparks their interest and ignites a fire for learning within them. Look for that spark. It is going to be different for every student and you may not see it every day, but look for it nonetheless. You will find that spark as a glimmer in a students eye as you are working on an activity or project. Use that glimmer as motivation and know that your students appreciate all of your time and effort.

>> Listen to what your students have to say, but more importantly, listen to what they don’t say. 

  • Sometimes when we get close to the house Becca will pull towards the other side of the street. She is telling me that she isn’t ready for the fun to end; she wants to keep walking.
  • How does this apply to your classroom? Pay attention to your students body language, facial expressions, and actions. They can give you so much information about how a student is feeling. There have been countless times that I have noticed something was wrong just because of the expression on a students face as they entered the classroom. Every time I notice that something is up I take the time out to ask the student if they are alright. Usually they say they are fine. But sometimes, they will open up to me about what is bothering them. They feel safe. They feel validated. They feel important because someone noticed them. These feelings are so important to cultivate for our students. Learning just won’t take place without them. 

So, there you have it. Lessons from my dog that apply to the classroom. Who knew this silly, fun loving Labradoodle had so much wisdom to impart!

Happy Teaching!

GRE: How to Study for the Exam and Pass the First Time Around!

Right after finishing my Bachelors of Arts degree in Social Science Education, I knew I wanted to continue to a graduate degree; I just had no idea what I wanted to pursue. There was so much stigma and negativity attached to teaching that by the time I was ready to enter the classroom, I wasn’t even sure if I still wanted to do it. All throughout my student teaching others kept questioning my decision which in turn made me question. Can anyone relate?

Anyway, I did start teaching, but I hesitated for two years before deciding to pursue a graduate degree. I constantly wondered  whether or not I should pursue another interest, you know, in case this teaching thing didn’t work out. After teaching for two years I realized that my true passion was developing curriculum and lesson planning. That was my answer. I decided to apply to a Masters program in Curriculum and Instruction.

In order to be accepted to the program at my chosen university, I had to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). The mere thought of this test gave me anxiety. In preparing for it I gained a newfound understanding of the anxiety my students feel when it comes to all of the standardized testing the state shoves down their throats (I’m not opposed to standardized tests in general, by the way, I just think that there is way to much of it going on.)

There were certain scores that I had to obtain in order to be accepted to the Curriculum and Instruction program. Once I had this information, I started to research GRE Prep books online. There was one that caught my eye- so I went out and purchased a copy for myself; I spent the entire summer after my second year teaching studying for the GRE. I did not want to fail this test; I couldn’t fail this test. (Did I mention it costs $205 just to register for the exam?)

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I started studying by taking one of the practice tests. My reading score was right where it needed to be, but math, oh my! I had some serious work to do. I devoted the entire summer to studying for the math section of the test. I studied until my practice test score was higher than the minimum score I needed to earn so that I would have some wiggle room and peace of mind. Let’s be real here.

A typical day of studying looked like this:                                                                                         6 am- My husband would leave for work. I would wake up, have coffee, and walk the dog.

7 am- I would review notes from the previous day. If there were any problems that I struggled with, I would revisit them and do practice problems of the same type.

8 am- Study new section, take notes, make flashcards of key terms.

8:30am- Study new flash cards until I had them down pat. After that, I would mix in flash cards from previous sections and study those until I knew them all by heart.

9:30am- Work on practice problems for new section. Complete all problems without consulting notes. Check answers. If any answers were incorrect, I would go through my notes and try to figure out where I went wrong on my own. I find that identifying errors myself (when possible) helps prevent me from making the same errors again. For some reason the information “sticks” better this way. If I couldn’t figure out the err of my ways by consulting my notes, I would reference online lectures from the Khan Academy. Usually, this did the trick.

12 pm- Lunch break

1 pm-3 pm- Between 1 pm and 3 pm I would spend time on the Khan Academy website watching lectures and completing practice problems. I would specifically look for lectures and practice problems on concepts I had already studied to reinforce my own learning and keep everything fresh.

By 3 pm, I was mentally exhausted from the day of intense studying and I would call it quits.

This method of studying worked well for me. I passed the GRE the first time around. I realize that this schedule is probably not realistic for everyone. I had the summer off and I don’t have any children so I could devote all the time in the world to preparation. The key things that you need to include in the study schedule you create for yourself are:

  1. Ample time to study, especially if you need an intense refresher for the material.
  2. A variety of practice tests to track your progress so you can see that you are learning and retaining the information.
  3. A variety of study resources so that you are exposed to different types of problems. I found that different study materials would often present questions in different ways.
  4. Materials, online or in print, that you can use to reinforce your studying. Don’t just study a section and then forget about it thinking that you have it down 100%. You might know it now, for the moment, but as soon as you go on to another concept the previous one might become a little fuzzy (This happened to me all the time. I can’t be the online one, right???).

Check out these links for resources to help you prepare for the GRE.

Register for the GRE

GRE Test Information

GRE Vocabulary

Practice Math Problems

Khan Academy

Happy studying!!

 

Jumping on the Bullet Journal Train

I am a planner by nature. I thrive on knowing what, when, and how things are going to happen. I am perfectly content to spend countless hours planning out my days, weeks, and years, to make sure that they are as productive as the can be. I am a goal setter; an achiever; an executor of plans. Type A all the way, but you knew that by now, didn’t you?

Throughout the years I have tried many different planner systems. In high school, I started out with the simple daily planners that my school provided and I was immediately hooked. After high school, I stuck to the planners that I could find at Barnes and Noble or Walmart. Again, these were simple daily planners. They weren’t anything fancy, just enough to help me remember to tick everything off my to do list.

As I grew in my career, my planning needs started to change. I had more than just chores and homework to complete. By my early to mid-twenties I was focused on my career (teaching, of course) and my own personal projects. I struggled to find a planning system that worked for all my needs. The lack of a system that worked led me to YouTube where I stumbled on the planner community.

At first, I got caught up in the Erin Condren and Plum Paper Planner craze. I purchased a Plum Paper Planner in August 2015 and started decorating all my spare time away. Can you relate?

Anyway, I quickly realized that the Plum Paper Planner system, although super cute, did not work for my needs. Thus, the YouTube searching continued and I stumbled upon the Bullet Journal system.

So, here we are. My husband just bought me my first Moleskine squared notebook as a birthday gift and the bullet journaling (is that even a word?) has been in full swing ever since. It’s been a week and I can already tell that this system is going to work for my needs because of its inherent flexibility. My journal can be whatever I want/need it to be and this alone makes my inner type a planner nerd self smile.

Here are some of my very first bullet journal spreads. I’m going to keep it simple and focus on productivity over creating a beautifully decorated bullet journal (for the time being, at least).

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So far, the idea of having random lists sprinkled throughout my bullet journal does not appeal to me. However, these two lists were put on the pages just following the index. I think they will get a lot of use.

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This is my first attempt at a weekly spread. I have a lot of tasks to do that don’t necessarily need to be done on a certain day. We’ll see how this works. Also, I realize that I completely messed up the dates. I was so excited about getting my first weeks layout done that I wasn’t paying attention. If nothing else, the corrections will add character to my journal!

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I plan on using this monthly spread to track blog post ideas and to schedule blog posts.

 

Happy planning!

Benefits of Teaching Students to Respond to Document Based Questions in the First Two Weeks of School

 

When I first started teaching, there were quite a few lessons and activities that I found to be just plain overwhelming. At first I was nervous to try new things. I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to “look bad” in front of my 10th graders. Can you relate?

Trying out a new lesson can be intimidating because there is just so much that can go wrong; as a new teacher you have to be able to think on your feet to solve classroom issues (be it lesson related or behavior related) as they arise. Sometimes, you don’t have the tools at your disposal and that is OK! Teaching is a fluid process and I believe that the best teachers go back and forth between the role of teacher and learner throughout the day, EVERY day!

Teaching students how to respond to document based questions (DBQ’s) was one of those lessons that I avoided like the plague during my first year of teaching. I knew how to write a DBQ myself, but teaching someone else how to do that was easier said than done. Teaching the writing process is an art in and of itself. Writing is a personal and instinctual (if you will) process in and of itself  and it can be hard to articulate how you came up with a specific sentence structure or why you organized your response just so. Responding to a document based question requires students to be able to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize information in a coherent and organized way. WOAH, is that a big task for a newby teacher to take on or what?

During the summer between my first and second years of teaching I attended a workshop on teaching DBQ’s in the Social Studies classroom. After this workshop I felt that I had the tools to tackle the DBQ assignment with my students. Every year since I have started off the first two weeks of school by teaching my students how to properly respond to a document based question. I have found that starting the year off this way allows me to:

  • set high expectations for my students right away
  • show my students that I will break up difficlut assignments into attainable chunks so that they can be successful
  • introduce the difference between primary and secondary sources
  • introduce partner work and the expectations for partner work
  • introduce collaborative learning and peer grading
  • obtain multiple writing samples
  • teach students how to properly cite sources
  • teach students reading strategies (such as WAVES and SOAPSTone) that we will use to analyze documents throughout the school year.

In the coming weeks I will be doing a series on document based questions to walk you through two weeks of my lesson plans that teach students social students content content and how to respond to DBQ’s simultaneously. Writing is integral to the Social Studies classroom and it should be taught as such. I hope you will stay tuned and joined me on this journey.

Happy teaching!

 

 

 

 

Online Lesson Plan Book- It’s Free!!

Lesson planning is one of my favorite parts of teaching! It is a creative outlet, but that creativity can be stifled when the process is inefficient. When I first started teaching, I didn’t realize how daunting the task of lesson planning could become depending on the method used to write down lesson plans. I tried multiple methods of recording my lesson plans from handwriting them to typing them up using a template on Microsoft Word. These methods of lesson planning worked out alright for the most part, but there were a couple of recurring issues that I ran in to. Regardless of which method I used, my lesson plans were difficult to edit and I found myself writing the same information over and over again. Also, when I was trying out hand writing my plans I had to lug around my lesson plan binder back and forth from home to school. If I forgot the binder, it was difficult to plan.

Since efficiency is key in this profession where we already have so much paperwork to complete in a timely fashion, why make any task more difficult than it needs to be? This is the thought that got me researching ways that other teachers do their plans last summer. I scoured Pinterest for ideas and came across an online lesson plan book called Planboard. There were multiple features of Planboard that attracted me to the website. I think you will find them attractive as well.

When using Planboard you have the ability to 

  • Create a lesson plan template that automatically shows up each and every day. While the lesson plan template is in use, all you have to do is fill in the blanks. If you need to edit or change something you can easily copy and paste your plans from one day to another.
  • Upload standards to your lesson plans. On the website there are standards that have been uploaded by other educators that you can use in your own plans. Or, if you can not find the standards you need, you can type them in or upload them yourself. Once your standards are uploaded it is as simple as a click of a button to add them to each lesson plan that you write.
  • Easily share lessons with students, parents, administrators, and colleagues. Planboard has a share button that allows you to send a link via email. The recipient of the link then has the ability to view your plans. This is great for collaborating with your colleagues. The World History team at my school would share plans weekly using the share button on Planboard.
  • Upload resources that go along with your lesson plans. With this feature everything is, quite literally, at your fingertips.
  • Copy or move whole lessons from one day to another with a click of a button. Plans change often. The fact that it was so simple to adjust my plans as needed was definitely one of the most attractive features of this website.
  • Access your plans from anywhere you have an internet connection. The need to carry around a large notebook or binder to house your plans is nonexistent when you use Planboard. We already bring enough papers home with us, why add more when it’s not necessary?

 

I used Planboard as my primary method of lesson planning for the duration of the 2015-2016 school year. Now, I am completely convinced that it is the easiest and most convenient way to create and share lesson plans. Oh, and did I mention it’s FREE?

Happy Planning!!!