Woah, We're Halfway There

Christmas break is always such a nice time to slow down the pace, spend some time with friends and family, and recharge for the new year. In a school setting, this is often a necessary time to refresh for the second semester. Once the second semester starts back, however, it doesn’t wait for anyone to slowly awaken from the way-too-much-pie induced coma.

Weeks resume their regularly scheduled programming. Planning, assignments, projects, tests, grading, emails…afterschool activities, clubs, practices…meetings, work responsibilities, conferences…all seem to continue their course, like a train not slowing down for you to hop on. It can be easy for parents, students, and educators (this one included) to get run over as January chugs along.

While I’ve never really been one for New Year’s resolutions, I try to make myself slow down from time to time and at least reflect on the past week, quarter, or semester. I asked my students to do the same last week during their advisory time. We looked back on our last semester and considered what has been difficult so far this year, where growth has been evident, and how have friendships been made or developed. This is always an interesting – and even difficult for some – exercise for fifth grade students.

As I paused to take part in the same exercise, it also allowed me some insight into what my students are thinking. In my class, students worked on some writing skills as they expressed their one big goal for this upcoming year. Of course, this also pushed me to think of a few goals for the new year, and we had some great discussions about planning to achieve our goals.

These past few weeks have been wild – with a goose chase too – and there have been times where I’ve felt guilty for walking into a classroom or office, asking someone a question, and later realizing I hadn’t even taken the time to ask them how they were doing or how their break was. As I write this and reflect on the past weeks, I’ve realized just how quickly they’ve flown by. Feel free to take some time to slow down and reflect, reassess, and set a goal.

Oh, Snap!

Christmas is in ___ days?! No matter the number that happens to complete that sentence when you’re reading this post, it always seems to bring about some excitement. In addition to the excitement, especially in an elementary school setting, there inevitably seems to be a certain level of craziness. During the last full week of school before Christmas break, our fourth and fifth grade students took part in a bit of craziness and excitement.

For the December house competition, these students competed in a gingerbread house contest with their fellow house members. Students were given some guidelines, materials, and a timeframe to construct their final product. They were allotted 20 minutes to develop a plan and delegate duties so that each house member could contribute, and with points on the line, students were motivated to create some quality structures for their house. When the crumbs settled, we had a village with a town square, a mansion fit for a king (sized candy bar), a replica of our campus, and a sleigh atop the most ornate, crushed peppermint roof you’ll ever see.

Some of our younger students and other members of the faculty were able to join in the fun by casting votes to determine the winners. While the votes were tallied and house points were given, this event proved beneficial in more ways than just compiling points. As some students took their opportunity to lead, all students were able to shine as duties were shared and every member of each house had a role. The thoughtful planning, positive and encouraging interactions among peers, and shared common goal all served as the ultimate sweet treat of this competition.

When students were asked for their feedback later that day, a few responses really stood out and pointed to some of the benefits experiences like this can bring. “I liked it because it made your brain really work to figure out how to use the materials,” said one student as he twisted his hands on each side of his head. One member of FIDELITAS complimented a couple of our other houses: “I really liked what HUMANITAS and INDUSTRIA came up with.”

Hearing students pass along compliments to others and truly reflect on their thinking process is a Christmas gift in itself for this teacher. While we as teachers truly enjoyed watching the students participate, we hope for our students this activity was the icing on the cake for what has been a fantastic first semester!

Innovation and Technology

About two weeks ago, I was able to spend the day in Franklin, Tennessee. While at Battle Ground Academy, a few of my colleagues and I attended the TAIS Innovation and Tech Institute. This event opened with a keynote speaker followed by several blocks of engaging sessions surrounding innovation and technology. Each session presented a unique look into some intriguing, relevant topics for today’s schools, educators, and learners. After having some time to reflect on this professional development experience, I’ve found a few of the sessions making their way into my mind throughout my daily routines.

Digital Detangler

This session was led by Pete Dunlap, former teacher and current author and speaker. He shared some fascinating data related to our consumption, use, and management of social media. Pete provided us with some great suggestions for guarding our time from the vacuum that social media can become (by the way, please like, share, and follow this blog). He also encouraged us to consider our own social media habits. What are we proud of? What are we ashamed of? By thinking through these things and truly considering our uses of social media, we were able to walk away with a few ways to empower others, specifically students, with some healthy strategies for technology use. Here are a few takeaways from this particular session:

  • Socially, face-to-face wins every time, as opposed to the superficial, temporary feelings social media can provide
  • Consider whether or not validation comes from the likes or retweets
  • Develop – along with our school’s Director of IT – a social media session for our fifth grade advisory program

Breaking the “Bad Tester” Claim

Bonner Williams is the Data Analyst/Test Prep Specialist at Hutchison School, a role that is relatively new. In her session, she shared about her work with the Upper School students at her school. Much of her analytical efforts are spent breaking down the single number attached to a standardized test and helping students realize the layers to that score. She then develops a plan to shape and focus their preparation as they seek to improve their future scores. I left, however, most encouraged by her approach to communication with her students. The students at Hutchison are not only fortunate to experience the practical benefits of this feedback, but the focus on growth and improvement – as opposed to the fixed thinking of I’m just not a good test taker – will be monumental for them in more ways than any test score could ever hope to measure. These are the key points that stood out from her session:

  • Start with instilling in students a belief that they can improve – this has to take place before content mastery, strategies, or tips and tricks can ever be employed
  • Focus on a growth mindset, especially when analyzing standardized test scores
  • Remind students that they are more than their score – whether the score is or isn’t what they’d hoped

Quality professional development opportunities like this one are always enjoyable, and I find the follow-up conversations with colleagues just as beneficial. For me, it’s exciting thinking about action steps moving forward. I hope that – whatever your field, profession, or role – you are able to take part in experiences that push, challenge, and stretch you.

No, You Choose

As I’ve alluded to in a few previous posts, professional growth and development is something I have learned to highly value and appreciate. I also love the opportunity to work with other educators who feel the same way. When teachers are consistently looking for opportunities to improve students’ experiences, the outcomes always seem to benefit those teachers and students around them, too.

One of my team teachers took some time during the middle of last summer to travel to a conference in Dallas, Texas. She couldn’t wait to get back, meet as a team, and implement some of the things she had learned. Thanks to the quality use of emojis and gifs, her excitement was obvious. When we got together as a team soon after her return, she had all sorts of ideas for the upcoming school year.

One of those ideas – Morning Choice – was something we all agreed could be used right away. When our students come to school on a typical morning, they check in to their homeroom. This involves taking care of attendance, lunch count, and any other day-to-day items as needed. Once they have taken care of those things, they begin their morning work. As a fifth grade team, we have a set rotation, and depending on the day, one teacher supplies morning work for all of the students. These assignments are usually content related and covered at a later time. Morning Choice, however, would be an entirely different scene.

As students enter their homerooms on Friday mornings, they still take care of their few everyday routines. Since Fridays are now Morning Choice days, they have some options. Instead of staying put in their homeroom, students are allowed to check out what’s going on in the other fifth grade homerooms. Depending on what they feel like doing, they can pick a room to stay in for the remainder of our homeroom time. One room might have games and puzzles. Another might have a few STEM box challenges and coloring options. If students would like to read or take an AR test, there’s also a quiet room for them.

This fresh take on Friday mornings has been a nice reminder on a few fronts. Students love having choices. Even once they pick a room, they’re able to move around that room’s stations at their leisure. This is a simple way to give them some say regarding their morning and develop a bit of autonomy in a school setting. Since these activities are not graded, Morning Choice also provides students with a low stress way to start their morning. I think we all can appreciate the value of that, especially on a Friday.

Morning Choice has been something that, quite frankly, has just been fun! There is something refreshing about seeing kids more excited coming into the school building than they are leaving. Whether it’s building the tallest possible tower with Jenga pieces, listening and laughing along with their conversations while coloring, or checking out their three dimensional shapes made from Play-Doh and toothpicks, I find myself looking forward to Friday mornings even more now than ever.

While it’s just one day a week for now, it definitely has us thinking about what’s next. What are we currently doing just because we’ve always done it? Is there something else we could tweak – just a little bit – that could have our students more engaged, more eager to come into the classroom than leave?

Thankfully, there are more professional development opportunities to come, more great conversations with dedicated educators to be had, and plenty of chances to provide students with some memorable, positive experiences.

Hallway Professional Development

One of the things I appreciate most about the administration of Brainerd Baptist School is the commitment to professional development. Whether it’s modeling from the top, designating the necessary funds within the budget, or the consistent mindset of improvement that brings this to life, the culture among the faculty is one of growth and progress.

It seems as though every few weeks, a member (or two or three) of the faculty is either taking part in a professional development opportunity or reporting back from one. In fact, earlier this week, one of my colleagues and I were talking through our upcoming trip to the TAIS Innovation and Tech Institute. While these opportunities are fantastic, it’s often the hallways and quick interactions with teachers or administrators that provide chances for reflection, development, and growth.

Earlier this school year, I was talking with another teacher about a new challenge I had given my students in the classroom. We talked for a few minutes, and then she offered a suggestion for a slightly more difficult follow-up activity for the next day. Even though this teacher doesn’t necessarily teach the same content area as me, her advice was extremely beneficial.

I was catching up with another teacher a few days later, and he mentioned the idea of a ‘walking classroom’ experience with some of his first grade students. He shared the activity with me and the overall benefit observed for his students. Through this brief encounter, I was able to consider a new approach for an upcoming lesson. I’m looking forward to implementing something similar with my students in the near future.

This informal professional development – that takes place through the simple sharing of ideas – can be just as impactful as leaving campus. However, these interactions are often the result of a more formal professional development exercise. I’m thankful to be in the hallways with some great educators and thinkers. I’m especially thankful for their willingness to share their wisdom with me!

It’s Not You – It’s Me

Most educators understand the importance of promoting a welcoming environment, especially when new students are adjusting to their classroom. There are plenty of ways to ensure students feel that sense of ease as they enter the room each day. Promoting the idea of our classroom and your classroom creates a mindset of ownership within the students. If students feel they have ownership, they’re much more likely to feel comfortable and (as a result) take better care of their classroom and their materials. As students gain that sense of ownership, the comfortable atmosphere that is so important for learning can also be attained.

I try to employ this thinking process at the beginning of each school year. I’ll continue emphasizing this throughout the year by encouraging students to take care of their space. For the most part, this has been both a positive method to practically keep up with the classroom and our materials, and it also promotes some independence and responsibility for an age group that is ready to handle more.

There have, unfortunately, been times where this process has backfired.

Recently, I allowed a group of students to get out some games and puzzles as a reward for taking care of their work for the day. After having them pack up, I dismissed the students and carried on with my afternoon. A few days later, another class went to use the same games and puzzles around the room. It was a mess. The crate we use to house these items had chess pieces, playing cards, and all sorts of other intricate puzzle parts tumbling through its holes.

To say I was frustrated would be accurate. I did, however, manage to stay calm and went ahead and let this group of students work on something else for a few minutes. Once the innocent class had left, I couldn’t wait to see the class responsible for such a horrible offense. How many times should they write ‘I will not create a mess of the classroom materials’ with their noses pressed firmly in a circle on the chalkboard?

Then it hit me.

I had never taken the time to actually walk through this with them. I had assumed that my students would know exactly how to pack up all of our materials. While I wanted to hold them accountable to be responsible and meet certain expectations, I had never made those expectations clear. The next day, I took a few minutes to demonstrate how all of the games and puzzles needed to be packed away. I also had to erase the circle from the chalkboard.

It wasn’t their fault – it was mine.

Let the Games Begin

We’ve been in school for about a month now, and students (and teachers) are getting adjusted to the new school year. At Brainerd Baptist School, our fourth and fifth graders are challenged with a full daily schedule. Whether it’s cooking or P.E., music or STEM, language or library—students find themselves in unique learning experiences each day.

As I mentioned in the last post, our school’s House System is also taking root during the course of each day. With this being our first year with houses, there have been – and will continue to be – plenty of exciting ‘firsts’ for the students and faculty members involved. In fact, we all participated in the first House Competition last week, and the atmosphere was electric!

House heads worked together to create some engaging challenges, and we wanted to make sure as many students as possible had an opportunity to contribute to their house. As students charged into the gym, they all gathered with their house heads, and within 30 seconds there were four distinct chants echoing throughout the gym. Challenges included a hula-hoop rock-paper-scissors battle, a variation of tag with some definite teamwork required, an intense round of knockout, a timed craft that required making the longest possible paper chain, and a tough riddle.

Each of the events had point values, and students were able to work together for a larger amount of points or contribute individually, depending on the challenge. With the events representing athletic, crafty, and intellectual skillsets – even some chance – all of our students were able to find a place over the course of the inaugural competition.

While it’s been fantastic to see our students embrace the House System and their specific houses and members, it’s been just as enjoyable working alongside other teachers. This experience always brings about creativity, and our first few weeks of houses at BBS would not have been nearly as successful if not for the collaborative effort.

Our House

This school year, fourth and fifth grade students will take part in an altogether new experience at Brainerd Baptist School. In addition to the many aspects of student life that make their final years at our (K-5) school special, these students will be the first to participate in the House System at BBS.

The House System at Brainerd Baptist School is designed to serve as an extension of the school’s mission and vision. As both an academic and non-academic program, the House System seeks to nurture unity within the fourth and fifth grade student body. While promoting cooperation, healthy competition, and encouragement, this system will point students toward traits such as integrity, responsibility, kindness, and diligence. Our hope is to further build upon the strong culture and community of our school.

Each house has faculty representation to serve as heads of the house. These heads are comprised of fourth and fifth grade teachers and fine arts teachers. Students were assigned to four houses after their first assembly of the year. A few days later, they participated in an initial house meeting where house heads taught students a handshake, song, or chant to share with the members of their house throughout the year. Additionally, house members learned about their house’s unique crest and the house point system. It was a treat to hear the first house meetings draw to a close with the rumble of each house’s newfound chant or song pouring into the hallway.

During the year, students will have many opportunities to earn points for their houses. These points can be earned by displaying quality character traits or through a simple act of kindness. House competitions and specific academic goals may also contribute to points for a house. In fact, our first house competition will take place next week, and I’ll have some more on that soon.

These past few weeks were exciting as we introduced some new things at our school. However, it wasn’t all that unique in the sense that we had teachers – working together – putting in to place good ideas with support from administration. The early excitement of the students has been encouraging, and we are looking forward to seeing this grow and develop throughout the year!

We’ve Never Done That Before

One of my favorite things about my school and the team I get to work with is their openness to new ideas. Their willingness to pursue new adventures that add to our students’ experience is so refreshing, and it pushes me to seek opportunities for improvement to our school’s overall program. This, of course, would not be possible without an administration who encourages risks, innovation, and room to try something new, reassess, and improve it moving forward. As we have rolled out some fresh concepts over the last few years, I have learned a few lessons (some on the front end; some after the fact—and it’s okay).

Craig Groeschel urges leaders to not only consider could we do this? but also should we do this? Any new initiatives should share a direct connection to the school’s mission and vision. If this is the case (should we do this?), then let’s figure out the implementation (could we do this?) and put it into action. Having the answers to these questions also increases the likelihood for buy-in across the board.

Beg, borrow, and steal! Reaching out to – or even visiting – other quality schools is one of my favorite professional activities, especially when looking to implement something new on our own campus. For the most part, schools are more than happy to share their process and even provide honest critiques of their initial rollout, which can be invaluable in avoiding potential missteps along the way.

Finally, take the time to reflect after trying something new. One of my teammates has a fantastic habit of pulling out some paper immediately after an activity or event and asking us for some things that worked and should be repeated. We will also discuss some things that need tweaked before we do them again, and sometimes there are things that we end up tossing altogether. This practice seems simple, but I am often quick to move past it on my way to whatever is next without prompting.

While putting new ideas in to place can be intimidating, working through it with a great team and support from administration makes a world of difference.

Act 1, Scene 1

Some students spend summer awaiting the start of school like an SEC football fan longing to hear the introduction for that first CBS 3:30 game. These students love the return to school and all it brings. Others would love a few more days, weeks, or months added to their break. Unfortunately, some students may have experienced a difficult summer, and this can contribute to an overall uneasiness when thinking of a return to school. It may, however, heighten their excitement and serve as a welcomed distraction.

Whatever the case may be, there’s no avoiding the impact the first few days of school can have on a student.

This is my eighth year teaching—my fifth year teaching fifth grade students. If there’s one example of figurative language they have a fantastic handle on, it’s hyperbole. Hearing ‘this is the best day ever’ can mean it’s pizza day in the cafeteria or maybe five minutes of extra recess, yet I never tire of hearing students share their excitement when it comes to any school-related experience.

The first few days of school offer plenty of opportunities to set the stage for a great year and contribute to genuine excitement. Below are just a few ways my team and I have tried to add intrigue, pique curiosity, and capitalize on the momentum of a fresh start:

Summer correspondence that links to the first few days…

  • Rusty Writing Note: One way to reach out to students during the final weeks of summer is by writing a note that connects to the classroom. As a language arts teacher, I send a letter with all sorts of punctuation and usage errors. I’ve done this for a few years, and the kids seem to really enjoy it, although I’ve had a few parents say it made them nervous before they reached the part about ‘finding my mistakes.’ I ask students to make any necessary corrections, bring the note back with them, and then we spend a little time as a class polishing my rusty writing on the first day of school.  
  • Dear Summer Reader: Our school recently adopted a new approach to summer reading for our fourth and fifth grade students. Students select a few books from a ‘book tasting’ toward the end of the school year. When they return to school after the summer break, a faculty member will lead a particular book group. I like to send a letter to my summer reading group as one of the characters in their book. I’ll include a few pictures that correspond with their book selection, and we’ll sort them in order of their importance or sequence within the story.

First few mornings…

  • Music: One of my team teachers recently started blaring music in the hallway on the first day of school. I love seeing the students’ reactions. At first they’re caught off guard, and then they can’t help but smile. It’s a great way to help them relax, and it sends the message that we’re okay if you have fun at school, too!
  • Doughnuts: Whether it’s a doughnut or something else, who wouldn’t love to see a treat waiting for them when they make it to class? Once our students open their lockers for the first time, they’ll find a note full of encouragement and doughnut puns. The end of the note lets them know they have a sweet treat waiting for them in the classroom. Everyone kneads a good pun!  
  • Team Challenges: We’ve used a few team building exercises over the course of the first days of school for a couple years now. They can be tough, and it’s always interesting to see how students interact with one another. Inevitably, these challenges lead to some quality discussion on the importance of working together, listening to others’ ideas, and hopefully the feeling of accomplishment when a goal is reached together.