Begin…. at the beginning

It rained last Thursday. Which isn’t really news-worthy unless you are a teacher with just a few weeks left of summer break.

A rainy day is usually the impetus for me to start readying my classroom for the first day of school.  This year I am a bit more behind the eight ball than usual as I physically moved spaces. So lots of my stuff is not where I might have put it last spring.

Here’s what I walked in to:

_DSC0001Which, of course, isn’t bad. Just not how I envisioned our classroom workspace.

Even in the new classroom, I will have a ceiling mounted projector, and therefore, the need to have the projector, Mobi teacher unit and document camera connected to wall drops just to the left out of the frame. Having several classroom work areas – a rug for large group gathering, desks for individual, and for technology viewing, places where smaller groups can work … all are considerations.  As I don’t sit at my desk during the school day, that item can be pushed out of the way. We have a somewhat large classroom library and many math manipulative materials that need to be accessed regularly.  It’s a lot to consider when setting up space that feels uncluttered and open.

So with all of that in mind, I’ve sketched out the plan for our classroom space.

2013-08-11 18-31-16

Advice from the Peanut Gallery

Here’s some advice from my experienced third graders to my incoming students:

  • Rase (sic) your hand because you are being rude if you are talking and it’s someone else’s turn.
  • Raise your hand because there is no blurting 207.
  • Pay attention because you might know what to do.
  • Follow directions so you get smarter.
  • Be persistent (which means keep trying), stay focused in third grade and take your time to do things because these are important things to be a third grader and to be ready for the MCAS.
  • Listen to Mrs. Bisson because then you would know what to do when you go back to your seat.

There you have it; how to get through third grade without a hitch.

Letting Go

One of my New Year’s Resolutions – the list is really long! – is to try not to be such a control freak about what we do in the classroom. I’m letting go of the idea that I need to be at school before 6:30 am (our school begins at 8:30) and that I can’t possibly leave before 5 pm to get things done. Yesterday I left the house at 7 am and discovered that there is a world of sunlight out there!

Well, the reform movement can also be applied to my students. Yes, in general, they are a handful, but just maybe they will step up to the plate if I shift some responsibility on to them.

Up to this point, I had very complicated management for what part of the Daily 5 Cafe each student was responsible to complete on a daily basis.  I felt the need to do this because of the requirements for small-group instruction within our school – Safety Net students must meet with teacher and literacy partner (also a teacher) twice each day. Out of a 40 minute block, that does not leave much time for self reading, does it? And when do these very needy kids get to experience (and possibly get jazzed up by) other aspects of literacy? It was a puzzlement.

So, I’ve shifted things around so that the whole group lesson is scheduled for a half-hour instead of 15 minutes. Will I spend 15 minutes in lecture mode? Heck no! I just am keeping that time so that kids can go off and start other things before they are in full small group rotation mode.  I think it will work – at least it did yesterday.

Additionally, the rest of the students who are not in a small instructional group, now have the flexibility (I think my exact words to them were: “I think you are grown up enough to handle this….”) of completing the D5 activities in whatever order pleases them. They have to make 3 commitments: 1) to read for at least 20 minutes every day without interruptions, 2) turn in their response journal on the assigned day and 3) not to spend all of the D5 block standing in front of the classroom library chatting it up.

As I was testing students yesterday (our mid-year Fountas Pinnell tests start now), I looked around the room in amazement. It was quiet, the conversations that were taking place seemed to be about literacy, and outside of 2 students who were testing whether or not I’d notice, no one was in the classroom library socializing.

It is hard for me to let go. Most of the time I feel responsible for making sure everything goes perfectly — and there’s the problem. It is not just my responsibility – it is a shared one. And as far as perfect? Well, these are kids, so I need to remind myself to park perfection at the door.

So far, so good.


For whatever reason, this group of students is having a heck of a time dialing things back after any unstructured time. I noticed it almost immediately which, given all the other chaos accompanying the first days of school was quite an accomplishment. Some of the problems that are interfering with getting back to work: excessive socializing and inability to stay focused on the afternoon’s lessons and activities. We use a behavior chart as part of our positive discipline climate: for more than two days in a row I’ve discovered one or more students who have moved a classmate’s behavior card instead of their own.

It appears that the students have developed some less-than-acceptable work habits, doesn’t it. And before we can begin purposeful work on the academic gaps, there clearly  needs to be a correction – stat.

Many of the students in my room — possibly 50% of the group — are reading at the first grade level and their math skills are pretty low as well.  Are the behaviors at the root of distracting student? I don’t think it takes a PhD to say yes. So, like most teachers I know, I’ve spent the weekend obsessing over the situation and how we can get on track.

Tomorrow I plan to begin a more purposeful outreach to parents of my students. Although we are not scheduled to conference with parents until the first report card in December, I hope to reach out to each family.  If we are going to make up some of the ground lost, there needs to be lots of hard work at home and at school.

I am hoping the parents will agree.

Mindblowing Task of Setting Up a Classroom

I’ve been at this for 23 Fall startups now and I’ve yet to find the “perfect” room configuration.  Over time, I’ve managed to get the task of setting up – at least for Day 1 – down to a two-day affair, but it is not without angst.

My students do not sit in rows – they never have. I’ve been an early adapter for collaborative or cooperative learning and have just never let go of those concepts.  This year I have 24 students on my (current) roster. That number will probably not be the final count of students. I currently have 5 groups of 5. While that’s not an ideal configuration of students in a group, I dislike have so many clusters of desks around the room that the walking flow is impeded. Here is a wide shot of how the desks are arranged at present:

The desks for the students are arranged in the front 2/3 of the classroom space. This year I have an ELMO and projection equipment to include for whole-group lessons or for sharing examples of student work.  The classroom already has a pull down screen at the front of the room over the white board.  Off to the side there are some shelves and cabinets for storage and a sink (big smile).

At the rear of the room, opposite the white board, I have placed 5 2-shelf units that comprise the Leveled Library for the classroom.  There is a tack board above these shelves.  In this area, I have a large gathering rug, a sizable rolling easel,  and a rectangular table (doubling as extra small group instructional space and a listening center area).

The alphabet chart is above this board. I generally have the students help decide where the wall displays are going, but in the case of the alphabet chart – a royal pain to hang on a good day – the decision is fait accompli. This year I am implementing the Literacy Cafe along with the Daily Five as a management tool. The Cafe strategy board is to the left of the image.  I’m still struggling with where to put a Choice chart for students.

Another important area in the classroom is our Behavior Tracking area near the exit door.  This is a spot for students to monitor their behavior color and it is also where the daily schedule will be posted.  To the left of the behavior chart is a lunch choice board. Students are expected to make one of 4 lunch choices as they enter the classroom by placing a personal magnet under the choice for the day.  This choice board doubles as an attendance check-in for me.  If the meal magnet hasn’t moved from the ‘parking lot’, then the student is absent – otherwise I get to choose lunch for them. Since I teach Third Grade, this routine is pretty reliably run by the students.

I use magazine boxes to store students’ reading materials. Those boxes are stored on the counter top between the classroom’s windows. When it is time to begin reading activities, student retrieve the magazine box and keep it on the floor next to their desk or wherever else they may be working during Reading Workshop.

So will this work? I sure hope so. I keep my requirements pretty simple:

  1. students need to have the ability to work in groups
  2. clutter, especially mine, is keep at a minimum – the space needs to be clean
  3. traffic flow is easy and everyone can be visually monitored

Now for the test: students arrive Tuesday and we will see how successful this room configuration is.

In Need of an Educational Time-Out

School vacation week in Massachusetts started for me as of 2:50 yesterday afternoon.

I know there are some in the private sector who will read that statement and disparage me. But here is why I not only need this vacation, I deserve it.

1.  I am not paid for the days off. Contrary to popular opinion, teachers are paid to work a number of days per contract period.  No one is counting next Monday through Friday in the day count.  Hence, working the requisite 180 (actually it’s 181 in Lowell) days means we stop the clock on Monday at Day 106. The daily count will begin again on Monday February 22.  So you see, taxpayers, you are not paying for my days off. My official work year (more of that word “official” later) will end whenever we hit 180 days.

2.  Since we returned to school on January 4, I have put in 10 hour days 5 or more days a week. It takes planning and preparation to engage children in learning. What it takes for me is 4 hours daily on top of the time I am with the students. That’s not poor time management people.  That’s the amount of time it takes to correct and analyze assessments, reset education goals – sometimes for each student, find resources to meet those needs, and then write the whole mess down using Language and Content objectives as required by my District.

3. Official work week of course in not any where close to the hours spent with students. “Officially”, I am not working during the summer. I am definitely not getting paid. In reality, I am taking courses that not only update my professional understandings but help me acquire the needed Professional Development Point to be relicensed every 5 years. And no, you can’t get PDPs for sitting by the pool or mowing the lawn.  It takes about a week after the students leave to close out required paperwork. It also takes time to gear up for a new school year — I stopped counting last August after I’d spent 40 hours. It was too depressing.

4. The amount of paperwork, testing, reporting, etc. in any given time period during an academic year would bury most anyone I know. Every year there seems to be more of it.  And I’m a classroom teacher – imagine the Special Education people who have legal documents to fill out! I’m pretty adept with a computer having worked with them since 1977 (no that’s not a typo). Even Excel can’t bail me out of time-sucking reports and data analysis.

I am exhausted and slept a record 10 hours last night. I’ll probably take a nap today. Maybe by Wednesday I’ll feel like a human again. And on Monday, I hope to meet my students with some renewed energy and the ability to pull of another round of 10 hour days.

3 Down, 177 To Go…..

I have a love-hate relationship with the first week of school.

I love it because it is a time for a fresh start, a do-over; everything about the start of the year is new and exciting.  And to be honest, after 10 weeks away from teaching, I miss it…. even the most annoying of personalities has made the changeover to endearing in my most human of memory banks.  Honestly, what other profession allows one to have a “new year” in September (and then another in January)?

Meeting students for the first time and building that community of learners out of so many differing personalities is challenging and fun.  As a Responsive Classroom, we often start our year with a Human Treasure Hunt (see page 2 of this link).  We learn much about our sameness, and our differences and begin to build a tolerant classroom together.  Will we falter? Most likely, but then we will regroup, rethink and begin again.

This year I have finally taken my principal’s advice to move slowly and not give in to the pressure to get the show on the road.  We have spent 3 days learning and practicing routines that will become part of my students’ mental “muscle memory”.  We practiced the quiet chime signal until students can stop and listen without reminders, we have learned important emergency routines and other essentials. And, using ideas from The Daily Five, students learn what is expected during Independent Reading — this is the routine I am most excited about.  By slowing building my students’ “stamina” for reading independently, I hope for once and for all (well, it’s a hope), that my students will be able to work independently thoughout the 60-minute Reading Workshop Block so that my focus can be more on instructing and conferencing — and not so much on behavior managements.  We are well behind diving into academics this year.  I am trusting that the time and effort spent in setting routines and expectations will pay off in the long term.

So, what don’t I love? Well, for one thing I don’t love the paperwork that comes with the start of school. Yes, I realize it is part of the territory, but starting, updating, and creating lists in cumulative folders, record cards, gradebooks, and so on is tedious.  Did everyone change phone numbers this past summer — I’m beginning to think they did! And, it does not seem to matter how much I’ve anticipated returning to my school hours and routines, I am one disorganized mess during that first week.  I’m still not sure if we have food in the house.

However, this weekend I am determined to enjoy the beautiful end-of-summer weather with which we’ve been gifted.  And next week we’ll begin again to build our community of learners.