I started fresh out of college teaching in Nebo School District, the same school district I attended as a child, at Westside Elementary. Westside was a Title 1 School known for its diverse student population, commitment to balanced literacy, and integration of technology. One of my major successes during this first year, along with surviving in general, was writing the fifth grade musical program including songs to represent every decade and teaching fifth graders to dance-no easy feat.
After my first year I moved to a third grade position and never looked back! I couldn’t believe how much I loved the younger grades. Teaching third grade was something I never anticipated loving so much, but third grade has been my happy home for 11 years of my teaching career.
My major focus at Westside, especially during the first two years, was classroom management. I attended a Love and Logic presentation, read a number of books, and was able to attend observations throughout the district to see teachers with excellent classroom management in action.
The summer after my first year of teaching I attended a workshop called “20/20 Vision – Creating a Classroom Community” and went into my second year with tons of fresh ideas including: creating a classroom mission statement, rewarding Caring, Helpful, Independent, and Polite students with the famous CHIP Award, and creating student committees that were responsible for everything from encouraging classroom kindness, to carrying out birthday celebrations and writing articles for a classroom newspaper. I also relied heavily on Wong’s book The First Days of School as I thought through all of my classroom procedures. My management style has certainly evolved since then, but the core of my management style: proactive, calm, clear, polite, and fair (but not necessarily equal), started at Westside. When I first worked with our behavior specialist in Michigan she told me I reminded her of Mary Poppins and I thought…“success!”
During these first four years my biggest successes were building strong relationships with students, parents, and teachers, building a foundation in classroom management focused on classroom community, and developing a strong literacy block.
My major areas of professional development during these first four years were:
First: Focusing on creating a balanced literacy block with guided reading groups
Second: Collaborating with my teammates and colleagues, tracking student progress, creating common assessments, and making individualized goals for students based on assessment data and
Third: completing my ESL endorsement including SIOP training
Third: completing my ESL endorsement including SIOP training
Being required to create a very “by the book” literacy block was one of my successes during my time at Westside, as it was a great help to me as I moved to my future schools. I had a great foundation to build upon, as well as ideas and structures that had worked in my classroom to offer to new teammates. One thing I loved about Westside’s approach to literacy was that it wasn’t dependent upon a basal text. One was offered as a supplement, but the focus was on using authentic literature including picture books, short pieces of nonfiction text, or high interest leveled readers in guided reading groups. This experience greatly helped me when I moved onto my next school, where basals were nonexistent.
After my years at Westside I still had a ways to go regarding my writing instruction as well as individualizing my reading instruction. By my fourth year I wanted to start a reader’s workshop of sorts, but hadn’t figured out how to structure it.In 2006 I moved with my husband to Colorado. I’ve spent half my teaching career at Aspen Creek K-8. This is the school where I refined a number of my teaching practices and learned to look at teaching as an art. My experiences teaching in Colorado have been invaluable to me as an educator and as a person generally.
Aspen Creek is a neighborhood school in an affluent suburb of Boulder, Colorado. It is known for its high percentage of Talented and Gifted identified students, as well as being a magnet school for students with autism. As such, our professional development focus was always on meeting individual needs of students and knowing exactly where they were academically using a “body of evidence”. I loved this about Aspen Creek because I never felt a “teach to the test” mentality. We had a number of measures for success and tried to think of all students as a whole – focusing on intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and aesthetic strengths and needs. Because the measure of success at Aspen Creek was different than I’d become accustomed to in Utah, I was able to spend time looking into different types of performance based assessments, differentiation, and learning styles.
In Colorado I refined my reading teaching practices and evolved from a small group/guided reading model to a reader’s workshop model. I used the Café and Daily 5 as well as What Research has to say about Reading Instruction to guide my teaching. Instead of assessing comprehension through small group work, I moved to individual assessment through reader’s notebooks where students and I wrote back and forth about their chosen books. I worked on a variety of ways to track my conferencing notes, and as I became more comfortable giving students feedback during one-on-one reading conferences using the Confer app, I started bringing in parent volunteers to assist with conferencing. Parent volunteers became an integral part of my classroom. I also found a number of excellent class read alouds and resources online like TweenTribune to pull high interest and current nonfiction texts for class shared reading and close reading. I felt trusted as a professional to meet the needs of my students and pull materials I found suitable to meet the standards. I loved it!
Teaching writing is one of my greatest passions. I’ve found writing to be a place where I am able to give my students lots of choice within the structure of the Common Core writing genres and guide my students to be creative thinkers, celebrating the individuality they bring to their writing! Writing is a great place to integrate art, cooperative learning through partner conferencing, visual learning through graphic organizers, and relationship building through conferencing and sharing. It is the area where I feel I’ve evolved the most, and am the most proud of, during my career. For many years I did mostly event writing (which I consider to be one of my biggest failures during those early years), but after taking the Colorado Writing Workshop along with other writing PD courses in Colorado, I was able to start a workshop model where writing was as predictable as lunch and students knew that every day they would have time to work on their own pieces of writing, knowing how and when I would give them feedback through one-on-one conferencing.
One of my most precious success moments was when I gave students personalized writer’s notebooks as a holiday gift. I had spent much more time on these than I should and so when my students unwrapped these and were so excited, showing each other their new personalized place for their many stories I may have cried...just a little. I loved that moment!
As I worked on my Master’s, one of the areas of growth I saw for myself was that of making my teaching more intentional based on brain research and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I started integrating brain breaks a mixture of high and low energy activities that used cross-lateral movement, stretching, and dance. Throughout the years I’ve found new brain break and other movement resources including the ABC’s of Yoga for Kids, Brain Break choice sticks from Teachers Pay Teachers, and (my favorite!) GoNoodle.com. Go Noodle is now a resource I use multiple times daily. I love their mixture of dance, mindfulness, yoga, singing, and breathing activities and so do my students. In my most recent teaching positions, this resource has been even more valuable to me as I’ve tried to help students manage their energy levels and emotions.
At a school focused on teaching standards rather than programs, I also started focusing on how to provide students with multiple avenues to show what they knew based on their preferred learning style. This included teaching students about learning styles and helping them to assess their own learning style using student-friendly learning inventories.
Since I am a very visual person, I use posters, PowerPoint, and work under a document camera constantly, showing, not just telling, to help out my visual learners. For my auditory learners, I use songs and rhymes to help students work on memorizing information, especially in math. My favorites are our multiplication skip counting, area, and perimeter songs and raps. For kinesthetic learners we act out academic vocabulary such as: inch, centimeter, foot, yard or geometry terms like you’ll see in the picture below. We will also build or draw learning concepts like science vocabulary, thinking maps, and (my very favorite) math problems using Wonka bars. In the evolution of my teaching I’ve found a few common denominators – one of which is candy. Whether it’s relating fractions to a Hershey Bar, measuring items around the room with a licorice rope, or writing an opinion piece about their favorite type of candy, If I can relate a concept to candy or food my students have a much better chance to retain it!At Aspen Creek we were constantly working on differentiating for every student and making sure our teaching was aligned with best practices and research proven strategies. As part of our Talented and Gifted training we focused on learning about Marzano’s High Yield Instructional Strategies. I utilized reader’s theater and partner conferencing in reading and writing. I also started creating differentiated homework menus for every month of the school year as well as writing down and stating daily objectives.
I have found a lot of success using nonlinguistic representations in my classroom. The pictures above show my students building and drawing math problems, acting out parallel lines and a quadrilateral at our annual Geometry and Measurement Olympics and students making models as an alternative form of assessment.
When we first moved to Michigan, I landed at Oakland Academy which gave me experience working with an amazing teaching partner and, with two teachers in the classroom and only 22 students we had time to focus on differentiation and working with small groups of students to maximize achievement. I was also able to have, at least a years worth, of experience in a charter school which was interesting after more than a decade in the public schools. In my experience, public school teachers tend to have very strong opinions about charter schools and now, after working at a charter, I was introduced to some of the pros and cons surrounding charter schools and now have a more informed opinion regarding their practices. During the 2015-16 school year, before my son was born, I was able to go back to Oakland and spend another year with my amazing teaching partner. Co-teaching with someone you absolutely adore is such an amazing experience to have as a teacher!
Because I had more time than usual to focus on curriculum at Oakland, I was able to really hone in on making accommodations by creating different assignment versions at a variety of academic levels. I also spent a great deal of time planning and making modifications for students’ curriculum based on Descartes Continuum of Learning.
One of my greatest successes at Oakland was the relationship I had with my co-teacher. We absolutely loved working together and learned a lot from one another. A number of the issues I’d faced in my past classrooms could have been completely solved had we been working there together. We were a great team! Having two teachers who compliment each other well is an amazing classroom resource!
One of my stumbling blocks at Oakland was that I had a difficult time with the focus on the NWEA test as the “end all be all” assessment. However, this did require me to think about how to keep creativity and what is best for students and how they learn in the forefront of my classroom regardless of an expanding “teach to the test” mentality. This is something all teachers are now facing, and we will have to find ways to navigate the integration of what we know is best for our students vs. what we are often asked to do in an increasingly politically test driven educational climate.
Sometimes you have to be a bit sneaky, but it can be done as I saw at my most recent public school.I spent the 2014-15 school year working at a public elementary school with the highest free/reduced lunch population in Kalamazoo County. We worked with students who were seriously struggling with poverty, emotional trauma, and family uncertainty. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was at the forefront of my mind every day when I got to school. The basic physical needs of my students were not being met and it took a lot of creativity, patience, and dedication to teach what was required by the district (which was A LOT), as well as take care of students and try to meet their needs emotionally, socially, and academically. Because my school district was feeling the testing pressure, their curriculum and assessment expectations were extremely structured leaving little room for anything other than what was in the district’s curriculum maps or preferred programs. However, with some creativity and little recycling (goodbye worksheets!), this was a perfect place to challenge myself to use the best practices I’ve learned from my previous schools, as these were the students who truly needed them most.
I strive to be flexible and adapt to change whether that be a new school, a new class, or new state or district expectations. In every school I’ve tried to meet students where they are and focus my energy on what they need most. During our professional development focused on Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Helping Traumatized Children Learn, it is very apparent that my students needed, not just differentiated instruction for academics, but also differentiation for behavior management. This is where I spent much of my efforts that year.
I had 8 students on daily behavior agendas, one student who used a timer for 2 minute breaks every 30 minutes, 1 who used a weighted vest and had 5 built in times to talk with me during the day, 5 that received chips for positive behaviors that they could spend at predetermined times during the school day, one who carried a pillow around constantly to talk/cry into/hug, and 26 (that’s all of them) that received immediate and visual feedback relating to positive and negative behaviors using the Class Dojo online management system and weekly paychecks that corresponded to their Class Dojo points to spend on class privileges. Students had opportunities to sketch out feelings about situations that might be interfering with their learning, and we tried to proactively approach emotions and build positive relationships by doing kind things for others, practicing mindfulness (so students could start to feel a sense of control), and using books that lent themselves to teaching empathy and appropriate behavior. The Humphrey series and The One and Only Ivan are two of my favorites because of their animal characters. The kids loved them and cared about them.
The experience in my past schools focusing on refining my teaching of academics was greatly helpful as I embarked on this new behavior differentiation adventure.
With every new school year, state, or class I’ve always had new goals for my teaching and professional learning. One of my goals is to continue blogging about my classroom and focus on some of the practices I’ve used with my most recent students. Seamlessly integrating behavior management techniques is a subject I'd like to spend more time blogging about. I am also currently working on creating and blogging about using choice menus, math challenges, and project-based learning experiences to differentiate and make learning fun.
As a teacher blogger since 2012 I’ve come across a number of resources I’d like to utilize or learn more about as I continue in the field of education. During my most recent school years I've been excited to have two Donors Choose grants funded which supplied over $900 worth of books for my classroom library and mentor texts to use with reading and writing workshop. I plan to continue to use this resource as I attempt to meet the needs of my individual students.
As I interact with other teacher bloggers I’ve seen many talking about Whole Brain Teaching and Whole Brain Classrooms which I’d like to learn about in greater detail. The chants, rules, and clear expectations used in Whole Brain Teaching seem like they could fit well with students who thrive on consistency and brain-based strategies. I am also interested in learning more about flexible seating. I've seen a number of teacher bloggers who took the leap during the 2016-17 school year and I am excited to hear how this new adventure went as they reflect at the end of the year.
I plan to be in education for the long haul and there will always be something new to learn or try. Throughout my career I’ve found that flexibility and relationships are key and I plan to continue to work on both of these areas wherever my work in the field of education takes me.
If you've made it all the way through this information - Thank You! I hope you were able to learn a little bit more about me and the evolution of my teaching practices.