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Hello Winter Break!

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The weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break in an elementary school can sometimes feel like a countdown to crazy, fueled by tired teachers, excited children, and looming report cards. Add in regular holiday stress, mid-year testing, and the realization that half the school year has already flown by and you still have SO much to teach your kiddos, and the result can be downright exhaustion.

Of course as the years have gone by and I’ve become more experienced, I’ve learned some techniques for handling this stress. Please take them with a grain (or more) of salt.

limit expectations – yours, your students’, and your family’s

Grade every piece of paper? Nope

Plan the greatest lesson you’ve ever taught? Not likely

Organize three art projects and a family night? Not in December

Frozen pizza for dinner? Again? You bet

plan on getting sick

Kleenex Tissue Box.jpgYour students are germy. They cough on you during reading group. They hug you with hands that have wiped noses. They touch every surface in your classroom. They are averse to hand-washing. You have a custodian who loves to vacuum and do little else. More than likely you will get sick, in spite of washing your hands thirty times a day. Plan on it. Have sub plans ready and the number of a good sub available. Trust me on this one.

pull out the extra special bribes

Okay kids, if we manage to do a great job on these mid-year assessments not only will there be an extra recess, but there will be jolly ranchers for everyone!

add new books to the classroom library

Nothing gets kids excited about reading a book more than having it “sold” to them. Save up some of the books you get with your book order points for this time of year, then give short book talks to generate interest. Books go out to the class and you get engaged readers who have something productive to do.

keep careful records of all holiday gifts received from students

If a child or family is kind enough to remember you at holiday time with a card or gift you must acknowledge it and write a sweet thank you immediately. Don’t let kids just pile stuff up on a desk or table. Call them over and ask them if you have their permission to open their gift. They will say yes. They want to see your excitement. Let them see it.

81wpFtLNKsL._SY355_.jpgIt doesn’t matter if it’s a generous gift card, a bag of cookies, or a smoky old stuffed bunny that your student has decided they want to give you because they love you. Every gift is worthy of your profuse thanks. Yes, even a candy cane. Your kiddos deserve to see you happy as a result of their efforts. Write those thank you’s during your prep or lunch and let kids take them home the same day. It’s important.

don’t decorate your classroom for the holidays

grinchBanner1200x675.jpgSo many reasons for this one. First, not everyone celebrates, and if you’re a public school teacher you should try to respect this. Second, the more normal you keep the atmosphere, the more normal behavior tends to be. Third, it can be a lot of work to change decor, which leads us to the fourth reason (and in my mind the most important): nobody wants to come back from winter break to holiday decorations, and nobody wants to hang around on the last day before break taking them down. Just do yourself a favor and don’t do it.

it’s okay to give academic work

PAPER-AND-PENCIL.pngSome people seem to think that the weeks leading up to winter break are fair game for throwing the regular curriculum out the window and focusing on holiday themed activities. Seriously, people, kids are excited enough without you fueling the fire. Keep it academic and you’ll have far better behavior, and when you do get to the final day and let the students have some fun, they’ll appreciate it all the more.

movies and recess are your friends

Let me rephrase that. Movies and recess are your friends if you use them wisely. Our grade level generally does one movie before fall break (based on a book we’ve read), one before winter break (also based on a book), one before spring break (based on Greek mythology) and one on the last day of school. We also show a movie of a tall tale and compare and contrast it to the text. We don’t do blankets and stuffed animals and popcorn. Sticks in the mud? Maybe. But our kids are well behaved and enjoy themselves, and we get some time to work on things like entering grades and finishing report cards.

plan for January

Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do your plans over break. You’ll just end up dreading it. Get them done in December. Copy what you need for the first week back (or at least the first 3 days) and allow yourself to forget about it as you rest and recharge.

bring a big tote on the last day before break

112636_2253_41.jpgPlan on taking your gifts and goodies home with you. Nothing should be hanging around the classroom that reminds us of the holidays once school starts up again in January. See “don’t decorate” above for more information.

Now that I’ve shared my tips with you, I hope you have a tremendous winter break and truly use it to reconnect with family and friends, and to relax. You’re going to need all your energy when you get back to school for the big push toward spring testing!

 


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Greek Mythology Like Never Before

67a1408b76d203375d97ad21f6a535a9.jpgMy fourth grade students have been studying Greek Mythology over the past few weeks, and it’s been so much fun. I’ve taught this content before, of course, but never quite this in depth, and never with some of the techniques we’ve been using. Boy, what a difference!

Some of the changes this time around:

  • more versions of the same myth (in particular Hercules’ Quest: when we view the Disney film it will be the fourth version we’ll examine)
  • more myths (Psyche & Eros, Arachne, Medusa, and others)
  • incorporating drama into our study (tableaux of various scenes, forcing students to deeply explore the characters’ feelings and actions)
  • incorporating more art into our study (resulting in some wonderful projects)
  • allowing students to not only choose various ways of expressing their learning, but letting them create the various choices (and they were so much more engaged in the activities they designed themselves)

Just spending more time in Ancient Greece has been so beneficial to the students. They’re seeing recurring themes including jealousy, vanity, bravery, and sacrifice. They’re drawing parallels between characters and stories and they’re becoming quite knowledgable.

As an added bonus, the Rick Riordan books (the Percy Jackson series) have been flying off the library shelves, as have the other mythology books. The students are excited!

I’m so pleased with their enthusiasm and their level of commitment to their work. I believe we’re building a strong foundation for future learning as they’re developing a love of these ancient tales. I don’t know if this work will show up in the form of growth on their end of year standardized tests, but I know it’s beneficial. For that reason, I’m feeling successful and yes, a little bit proud. I can’t help but feel a bit like Zeus on Mt. Olympus, looking down at the mortals with affection and feeling pleased with their successes.


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Breathing a Sigh of Relief

It’s over. The end of the year testing is done. D.O.N.E. Thank goodness.

My little kiddos have spent hours and hours testing, and frankly, enough is enough. Some of the tests are very short, like the three minutes that they spend zooming through a text and circling words to complete sentences correctly. Others, like the state test, are administered over the course of days and are comprised of multiple sections and take hours. Then there are the tests that we previously administered to predict success on the state test, except that now we do those (reading and math are separate) AFTER the state test. And those are long too.

I’m not saying that was should eliminate all forms of standardized assessment. I’m just glad it’s over for another year. Well, partial year. After all, there’s a battery of tests at the beginning of the year to determine baseline levels and check for “summer slide.”

As a teacher, I do find some of the test results useful. It’s helpful to be able to pinpoint areas of strength and weakness, not just in individual students, but across the class and grade level. If they’re all weak in geometry, for example, we need to redesign the way we’re teaching geometry. Some of the tests help us identify trends over time, too, which can help to identify students who may need extra support services, no only for remediation, but also for enrichment and extension.

Still, I think that elementary age kids take too many of these standardized tests each year. They’re little kids, and when we give them test after test, the importance of each one becomes minimized in their minds. After all, “it’s just another test.” You can hardly blame them.