Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why I Only Teach Mini Lessons: A Workshop Model

Hi everyone! I am so excited to write this post. It is about something I've been wanting to transition to over the past few years, and this year I dove in and tried it. Essentially, I have given up all* whole group instructio and teach content during mini lessons, rotations, and small groups. It feels like a workshop model classroom which I love, my students have content that is differentiated to their ability level and interest, and I am truly getting to know my students way more than I would if all I did was whole group style teaching.

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*I do meet with my students as a whole group for certain times of the day like morning meeting, shared reading, and read alouds. Also, my math, word study, reading, and writing times always start with all students on the rug for a mini lesson or warm up. Not every mini lesson is taught in a small group (like reader's and writer's workshop mini lessons), but I do teach mini lessons during math and word study in small groups.

What is a "mini lesson?"
First, let's define a mini lesson. I have come to understand mini lessons as short instructional periods during which you can explain and model a strategy that you want students to immediately apply or use. None of my mini lessons last longer than 10 minutes, they always involve student talk and modeling, and the skill or strategy that I talk about is one that students immediately walk away and apply in their rotation or work time.

I teach mini lessons during all of our major content areas: math, word study (phonics), reading, and writing. We do not explicitly have a science/social studies block in our schedule because our day is fairly short, so we integrate that content into read alouds and shared reading. We also set aside every other Monday as our unit study day where all content areas revolve around our current science/social studies unit.

Our Workshop Schedule
Next, let's look at the general structure of our instructional day. Below is a chart that shows an overview of how our major content areas are taught.

I use a rotation model during math and word study. That means that both of those times begin with a mini lesson, then students go to designated rotations for each day of the week. In both content areas, students visit 2 rotations per day, each rotation is 15 minutes long. During a 5-day week, some rotations are visited 3 times (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) while other rotations are visited 2 times (Tuesday, Thursday). Here is a chart that shows how my Word Study Rotations are scheduled:


I have 4 groups of students during word study time (Groups W, X, Y, and Z). Each group visits 2 rotations per day for 15 minutes each. On Mondays, Group W visits games for 15 minutes, then at our transition they clean up and move to my teacher group.

How I Group My Students
I believe in flexible and strategic grouping. My students are grouped together my skills, abilities, or interests, and they move in and out of groups as needed. Here is the breakdown of my current groups:
  • Math groups: 3 groups, 8 students each, grouped by skills such as number ID and one-to-one counting, making groups up to 10 and writing numerals to 10, and decomposing numbers into parts and joining/separating
  • Word Study groups: 4 groups, 6 students each, grouped by skills such as name writing and letter ID, beginning sounds and letter sound ID, and onset/rime and rhyming
  • Reader's Workshop partners: 12 sets of partners, one partner being more verbal and descriptive about their text to provide a peer model for partner talk
  • Writer's Workshop partners: 12 sets of partners, one partner being further along the writing continuum to provide a peer model for skills
I frequently progress monitor and assess (mostly informally) to gauge my students' needs. Having mini lessons and rotations/small groups allows me to do this in a more genuine way. I use exit tickets, pull work samples, use rubrics, or just use general observations in order to assess my students. I love using blank checklists that I can use for multiple skills. I have checklists (and a lot of other very useful forms) in this set of editable forms for teachers, click on the picture below:



Transitions, Support, Questions
If you think that students won't be able to handle all of this movement, I can reassure you that they can. My kindergartners have only been in school for 15 days and we've only been doing rotations for about 8 of those. It may not be pretty or refined, but they are doing it! Just know that implementing rotations or a workshop model is louder and busier. Your students will not all be at the same voice level or in the same spot in your classroom. And that's ok! A tip for transitions: use a chime or song. When it's time to transition, ring your chime or play a snippet of a song. When students hear that, they will learn to stop, clean up, and move to their next rotation. Right now, I am helping to direct my students to their second rotation or to find their reading partner, but eventually this will be independent. I promise!

I have an aide in my classroom with me for all of these times except for writer's workshop. During math, our aide works with the MyMath group at their tables. She leads them through the lesson by reading directions to them and providing models if needed. MyMath is our adopted math curriculum, by the way. During word study, our aide works with the games/collaboration group wherever they are meeting. Right now, she is working on phonics games at the horseshoe table, but once we start collaboration groups, she'll walk around and support as needed while groups are working. During reader's workshop, our aide walks around and individually checks in during independent reading time.

This can be done without an aide. Just adjust those rotations or be more engaging or independent. Typical "center" style games would work well as they are more predictable. I have some fun phonics centers that can take your students through the whole year. Once you show them the first set, they will know the routine and be independent all year long! Click below:


When students want to come up and interrupt you to ask questions, use the "Ask 3 Before Me" rule. It's a tried-and-true method of keeping questions at bay and empowering other children to support their friends. Also, use a signal to show that you are not available when you're working with a group. I use a hat instead of the light that is popular with other teachers because I move around the room when I work with my students. Here's a pic :)

The superhero mask and cape are a whole other story. If you join my newsletter, you'll find out more!
How to Get Started
So, if all of this seems too much, I understand! I am still tweaking, still working on transitions, still trying to get kiddos independently working. Eventually, I want to be sure that my students who are supposed to be working on independent rotations are truly independent and don't need any help. Eventually, I want to have more of our rotations based on interests and less on ability levels. Eventually, I want my students to hear the chimes and go without having to ask me any questions. Check back with me in a couple of months!

Here are my recommendations for a smooth roll out of a workshop model classroom:
  • Start with only 2 rotations that all kids rotate to together. For example, you can do your number talk with all students, then have the entire class do counting collections for 15 minutes. Ring the chimes, then have them all clean up and do a lesson in MyMath. This is how we started, and we did this for about a week. It helped so much with mindset, knowing they may not get all the way finished, and time management, knowing that if they want to finish they need to stay focused!
  • Time yourself during mini lessons. If you're worried you won't be able introduce, explain, model, and scaffold for a skill in 10 minutes, you should literally set a timer on your phone. Stop when it goes off, even if you don't finish!
  • Create charts for students to reference. Even if they are not yet reading, just showing this chart day in and day out will help them recognize the rotations. 
  • BUY THIS RESOURCE: Math Workshop Starter Kit by Laura Santos. It is how I got organized. Once you get started with math workshop using her amazing blog posts that go along with this, it will help you sort out word study/phonics rotations as well.
  • Be prepared. Have activities ready that are easy to use each day. Counting collections are always out and ready to use. Phonological awareness small group lessons and materials are ready to go. Phonics games are prepped and ready. Warm ups are also great for independent work time. Once you prep most of these materials, you won't have to think about them again for a long time! Response sheets can be printed and put in page protectors to use over and over again! Click on pictures below to get your activities printed and set up!



I hope that you try mini lessons and a rotation/workshop model. It has truly allowed me to reach more students at their individual ability levels. I'm getting to know my students in much deeper ways and am becoming a more effective teacher as a result. I can't wait to hear how it goes!


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Monday, August 14, 2017

Classroom Environment: What Matters Most

Hi there! I want to talk about something that is near and dear to my teacher heart. This topic is one of the "hills I would die on" as my former principal used to say. During staff meetings or before school at our weekly huddles, she would ask, "What are you passionate about? What is one thing that you'll never compromise on? What are you willing to fight for?" It took me a while to figure out what my "hills" were. The physical environment of a classroom is one of those.


In an effort to save you from reading the entire post looking for my overall belief, here is it: I believe that classrooms should not be a personal reflection of the teacher in them, should only include certain colors, should be very intentional about the kind of decor, patterns, and lighting used, and should be centered very purposefully around the students' and their needs. If you're intrigued, keep reading :)

What do you mean by "physical environment?"

When I start talking to people about setting up an intentional, research-based environment, I am talking about colors, decor, things on the walls, lighting, music, scent, seating, materials, fabrics......it covers it all. It means that every single song you play, light you turn on, air freshener you spray, or border you buy makes a difference.

This is where I'll stop and say that everything that I discuss is my own opinion, and no matter if it is based on research, theory, or my own practice, I hope that you understand that I don't mean to call one type of environment "better" than another. This is my own personal belief, and it may be very different than yours. That's ok! But I hope that you can take away a few new thoughts regarding classroom environment.


So, what does the "research" say? 

I don't like it when people tell me to do something because, "According to research....". I hope I can explain my beliefs in a way that doesn't sound preachy but that definitely talks about what the research says about environment.

There are so many books, articles, and studies I could refer you to. One of  the most recent articles that I continue to refer people to over and over again is this one from The New York Times called Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. It is based on a study done by Carnegie Mellon University regarding what goes on the walls of classrooms and the correlation to lack of attention and focus.

This article from the NAEYC called Consider the Walls was first given to me when I was an undergrad student in Child and Family Studies. For students in the Early Childhood Education program (which I was), a requirement was two semesters of courses that focused on the classroom environment. During those classes, I learned so much. I had never given a second thought to how teachers decorated their classrooms. Who knew that lighting and colors mattered? We also read this book called Designs for Living and Learning. I recommend adding it to your professional library! The main idea from my learning during this time was that the environment should be a canvas for children, not a pre-made art piece. Students should be able to walk into their classroom and add their own personalities. If a teacher has overtly decorated the room before the school year even starts, many students may not feel a connection to the room that they walk into on the first day.

I have also studied Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia schools and their approach to the physical environment. You won't see store-bought posters, bright colors, plastic caddies, or fluorescent lighting. Instead, you'll see lots of student-created word walls and number lines, provocations instead of centers, colors that reflect the natural world, woven baskets and glass jars, and natural lighting. The classroom won't be blank, but will be a more natural-looking space, similar to someone's home.


Finally, I'll speak to colors and music. As a graduate student, I studied Quantum Learning. Research has been done to show what kinds of emotional responses can be initiated by colors. You'll see me use a lot of cool colors or colors found in nature because of what I've learned through Quantum Learning. You'll also hear lots of music in my classroom, but it will very rarely be popular top 40 hits. You'll hear classical piano, solo guitar, or ukulele covers. Quantum Learning shares the belief that music can be used to excite and engage, but use that kind of music sparingly. Use it primarily to focus or calm.

If you're still reading, here is the main point:

Consider your classroom. Who does it look like spends time there? If you have one wall with student work, that isn't enough. Students' presence should be felt through the materials you have for them on their tables. It should be felt through the organization of the space, the seating, the centers, the organization. Your own personal love of pink polka dots should not be the focus of your classroom decor. There should not be so many posters, pre-made bulletin boards, borders, signs, etc. that the students don't know where to look when they walk in. It is OKAY to have blank walls at the beginning of the school year. Let the students make their mark in your room. Be careful not to take that away from them for the fear of having an empty bulletin board. This is not YOUR room alone. This is YOURS and YOUR STUDENTS' room. Make sure that is evident. Make sure every child, from the girliest-girl to the toughest boy to the student who doesn't fit into typical gender stereotypes feels comfortable there. Yes, you do spend a lot of time in there. You do want it to be a place you like to be in. I understand that. But this isn't about us, teachers, It's about our students. Make the classroom that they spend time a place where they see themselves reflected and respected.


Thank you so much for reading about something that is so important to me. I do not claim to have the perfect classroom, nor do I claim to know all there is about the perfect classroom environment. I just know that I am constantly learning how to make my classroom the best learning space for the children who spend time there. Please feel free to reach out with any questions you have!


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Monday, July 10, 2017

How Take Home Binders Saved My Sanity


Hey everyone! There are lots of things I try to do at the end of each school year so that I don't come back in August to a crazy mess, but there's always prep work to be done in those first few teacher days. I always plan for the first day, prep all of my Play Centers, get all of my Back to School Forms printed and ready, and prep my Take Home Binders. Even though I won't have binders for all of my students until they bring them in from their class wish list, I still always make all of the copies before school starts so that my aide and I can quickly pull and assemble binders once they arrive.


I have been using Take Home Binders (they've been called all sorts of other names, but I think I've finally decided to stick with this one) since my second year of teaching. During my first year, the school purchased student planners and parent-teacher communication folders for every student. Those worked really well! I knew, though, that I wouldn't be able to afford planners AND folders for my students at my new school. So, I made Take Home FOLDERS. Big mistake.

See, my old school bought those thick, flexible, plastic folders that had clear cover inserts for the front and back. Those puppies don't destruct. But those folders are also expeeeeeeensive if you're buying them yourself from your own pocket. So I tried my best and got the "nice" plastic, 3-prong folders from Walmart. They didn't have a clear cover, so I had to TAPE ON THE COVER with clear packing tape. You guys, let me remind you it was my second year of teaching and I was still 25 years old without a clue. Long story short: those folders were falling apart by December and any introduction of fluids (water bottle or who knows what else) made them self-destruct almost immediately. Well, dang.

That's when I bit the bullet and went out to buy a class set of 1-inch, white binders with a clear cover. You can actually get them in sets of 2 from Staples, although the Staples brand binders aren't nearly as sturdy as the Avery binders. After re-printing the entire binder for my whole class, replacing the page protectors, and almost crying from exhaustion and defeat, I had my first set of Take Home Binders.

Well, to make another long story short, those binders lasted for the rest of the year practically unscathed! The occasional water bottle spill definitely affects them because, duh, but overall they were a success! Never again was I having to stop my morning routine of checking folders and taking attendance and greeting students with, "MS. HODGES! My folder is wet and so is my newsletter/homework/note from my mom/note from you/lunch menu!" Me: "Ok hold on, let's just lay it by the window and see if it dries!" It never dries like you want it to, y'all.

So now here I am, almost 30 years old and much wiser. I have my students put the binders in baskets next to their tables, and all day as they do their work (if it's something I don't want to have them turn in) they just pull out their binder, slip their work in the back pocket, and done! Parents know where to look for EVERYTHING because EVERYTHING is in the binder. Always. Students start managing themselves and their belongings. Trust me, you want to use Take Home Binders. 

Let me finally tell you what's inside:


  • Cover: I type my student's name and my class info and done! This is so easy for when you get a new student in November/January/May (yes that last one's happened more than once).
  • What's Inside: I slip this "table of contents" page in the back cover. It's crucial you get binders with a front and back clear cover. This allows parents to see EVERYTHING that's inside the binder.
  • Daily Dialogue: Each afternoon, my students get out their Take Home Binders and flip to this page. I project one up on our screens and we have a quick little shout-out session of what we learned & talked about that day. Then we pick one thing and write it in! This is a fun wrap up activity AND prevents the "I dunno" response to the age-old impossible parent question: What did you do at school today?
  • Homework Helpers: I have 4 pages of what you could also call "kindergarten study guides." My students' parents say they LOVE these pages. Super helpful while doing homework or, as a few parents have told me, great for when you're sitting in a waiting room and have your binder with you. Pull it out and read your letters or sight words! Win!
  • Reading Log: Well, because we want to see how many awesome books our kids are reading!
You'll notice that the newsletter and homework calendar are mentioned on the What's Inside page but are not actually included in the binder if you buy it in my store. That's because I didn't want to include something that many teachers already have their own version of. That seemed repetitive to me. BUT I do have awesome editable newsletters and a year-long monthly editable homework calendar in my store! You can click on the images below to check those out if you'd like:




If the watercolor foliage theme isn't your thing, I have a couple of other ones in both the binder and the newsletter. This is what they look like:




I hope you try Take Home Binders in your classroom. Everything goes inside and you never have to worry about flimsy folders falling apart on you ever again! Enjoy!


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

5 First Day of K Tips


Isn't kindergarten the best? The excitement, wonder, innocence, questions, energy, and the love! The first day of school encompasses all of those amazing things about kindergarten BUT it can also be emotional, stressful, and crazy! After 6 "First Days of K," I've learned a few things that I want to share with you all to help the first day be happy, smooth, and fun!


This probably sounds crazy. 20-25 little bodies all in one room for the first time for 5-7 hours straight that includes bathroom breaks, story time, lining up, sitting down, snack, lunch, recess...how can there possibly be down time?!? Trust me, there is! The attention span of a typical kindergartner on Day 1 is maybe 10 minutes TOPS. So no matter how many stories and name-coloring activities you plan for, know that you'll need to make sure you have fillers. Here are some time-tested fillers that work for the first few days of school:



Get cubes for each table and let them play! I created math toolboxes for each table that include both cubes and pattern blocks. You can make these using Sterilite tubs (I got these for  $.97 each). You can also slowly introduce the materials by just including cubes at first, then adding pattern blocks or other math manipulatives that you'll be using a lot during the school year. Yes, they'll build towers with the cubes. They might even make lightsabers or guns, but this would be a great learning opportunity to teach about appropriate uses for the cubes! Not only will you get the chance to introduce materials and give expectations for them but you'll also hear lots of laughs and conversation and see happy students all around! Kindergartners love to build!


Get out the playdoh! Now this isn't for the faint of heart, but the earlier you introduce it, the earlier your students learn the expectations! You can bet that the second the playdoh comes out, you've got your students' attention for a good 15 minutes. Again, this is a great time to talk about expectations for how to use playdoh. In my classroom, we use playdoh on a daily basis so teaching expectations early on is crucial. You'll be going through lots of playdoh if you use it as often as we do, so learn how to make your own! I did, and it was SO EASY AND CHEAP! Click HERE to read how I did it!

A note on coloring: You may think this filler is a good one, and for some students it is! However, don't count on coloring to be a tried and true activity. I definitely plan for coloring activities, but I use them sparingly. I've had students in the past who do not yet have the fine motor skills for prolonged coloring, or they do not yet have the attention or task management to complete a coloring activity and will scribble it for about 30 seconds and say they're done. And that's totally ok! They will develop those skills as the year progresses, but coloring shouldn't be a way to fill time at the very beginning of the year. Watch your students and see who needs support and who enjoys it. Then work on coloring later on! If you'd like a quick coloring activity, though, click on the picture below to download this FREEBIE.


I know this sounds scary, but it's true! And perhaps you "losing" a student just means that they don't transition from the lunch tables to the playground at the same rate as everyone else. Maybe it means that after they leave the bathroom they head into a neighboring classroom instead of yours. Or it might even mean that you have a curious kindergartner who has decided he's bored of whatever activity you are doing and decides to walk out and go on his own private tour of the school! I've had all of that happen in my 6 years of teaching K. Here are some easy ways to keep track:

Class roster + page protector + dry erase marker = lots of crossing off. I have this starting on Day 1 and use it all year long! When your students transition from the rug to their tables, cross them off. When someone goes to the bathroom, cross them off. As they're playing in centers or reading around the room, cross them off. It will save your sanity!

Do things as a group. This might mean taking whole-class bathroom breaks those first few days. As students are sitting in the hall waiting for their turn to go in, you can play Simon Says or quiet mouse, still mouse. You can also do things as small groups. Have table groups? Let the entire table group get up and go to the bathroom or transition to recess together. This helps because you know that each table group has 4 students, so you're always mentally keeping check of groups of 4. If there's a group of 3, you know you need to do some looking!

If someone gets "lost," don't panic! It has happened to all of us (who teach K). Make sure your front office staff knows this, too, so that they are aware and alert in case they see a traveler from your class. One year, I don't know how I would've made it without my front office staff. I had two travelers and one who would refuse to leave the room at transition times. Even though I had an aide, I still wasn't able to be everywhere I needed to be! Our office staff was always there to help find a child who was exploring campus or to stay with a child who wasn't ready to transition. A buddy teacher who doesn't have a class all the time (reading specialist, literacy coach, librarian, etc.) could also be on your support team! Make sure you talk to those students' parents about their transitioning issues. You need parent support to help those students get safely from point A to point B. Make a plan and reward students who transition successfully. Make it a big deal because in kindergarten, it is!


Now this one isn't a shocker, but you're probably thinking, "Stay?? Are you serious?? For how long?? Won't it make the kids more sad??" Yes I'm serious, for only 15 minutes, and if your student is already sad, letting their parent stay for a few more cuddles isn't going to make them any more or less sad.

If you teach kindergarten, you know that most of your students will come into your classroom on the first day with smiles and excitement. A few students will be quiet and sad, and some may even cry. Transitioning away from their parents, some for the first time if they didn't attend preschool, won't be easy! However, you may also know that this transition is ALMOST ALWAYS harder for the parents than their children! So give the families a few extra moments together.

I give my parents 15 minutes on both the first and second days of school. During this time of my schedule, my students get to go play in their centers. They come in, unpack, and then find their name on the center chart. Parents can go with their child to their center, play with them, mingle with other parents and kids, and mentally prepare for the goodbye. Then, when you ring your chimes to make your clean up announcement, parents can help clean up (win for you!) and help their child transition to the rug for morning meeting. This is when we give a last big hug and kiss and send parents on their way! I've never had any parents who don't respect this rule of leaving after 15 minutes. If you have a TA, that makes things easier as they can show parents out and *shut the door.*

If you have sad students who are upset when their parents leave, and you will, make sure you talk about it! What a wonderful time to start talking about empathy with your students. You can discuss how he or she feels and why. Your students will even offer up tips for that student to feel better! Have a stuffed animal or cuddle buddy nearby for these students. Allow them a few extra minutes before joining in. Let them hold the buddy all day if they need to! This is a big experience for a child, help them feel as comfortable as possible!


This may seem impossible! You already know you have short attention spans that will make you adjust your plans all day long, and now you see that you may have some traveling students who like to explore campus on their own terms, and now I'm asking you to stop and take pictures?! Trust me, you can! You will regret not having that "First Day of K" shot at the end of the year when you're putting together their memory books.


Have a prop, or don't! I found a cute chalkboard at Hobby Lobby last summer along with a poster board that I loved. I hung the poster on one of my cork boards and had each student come over and hold the chalkboard sign. It took about 15 seconds per child.

A lifesaver during picture time? Put on a read aloud on Storyline Online. This website is amazing, do you use it? Lots of great titles are read aloud by various actors! There are stories that are about 4 minutes long and some that are 12 minutes. Plan accordingly!

Also, take pictures of routines. When your class lines up successfully, take a picture! When they transition to their tables, take a picture. As they're sitting on the rug for whole group time, snap a pic! Show your students these pictures over the next couple of weeks as you continue to discuss routines and procedures. They'll be able to see themselves in action (win) and also make improvements as they continue to learn (double win)!


Congrats, you made it through your first day of K! They've managed to pack up all of their belongings (hopefully they grabbed the correct belongings) and you're ready to head home. The students are excited, but you're terrified. What if you let them go with the wrong adult? What if there's a custody issue you're unaware of? What if a student just takes of on his own because "he just lives down the street"?

While parents are in the room in the morning, or if you get to meet families at a pre-first day event, make them write down exactly who will be picking up their child on the first day and who will pick up on a regular basis. If it is a parent you've already met, great. Try your best to remember their face! If it's an adult you haven't met, don't feel bad asking for ID when they come. Make sure parents write the name of the person, not just "Grandma." Pretty sure Grandma's ID won't say Grandma on it. Click on the picture below to download a simple form for parents to fill out.


If you're at a school where bus riders go to one location and walkers/car riders go to another, then they each wait for their ride/bus, here is your quick tip: Buy adhesive wrist bands (like the ones you'd get at a carnival or event), and write each child's name and way home on it. Then, attach the wristband to the loop of their backpack. If they don't have a backpack, then attach it to their wrist! If you put it on their backpack, you can communicate to parents not to remove it at least for the first week or so.

If you're at a school that is smaller and doesn't have these routines, you're in my boat. We don't have buses or a car rider line. Parents either walk from their home or park and walk up. So, dismissal looks like a lot of adults standing in front of the building waiting to run up and grab their babies after their first day. Hold them at bay! Here is what you can do:

Get the pick-up list that your parents' made for you and stick it in a page protector along with a class roster. Grab a dry erase marker.

Have a spot already picked out that students can wait that is AWAY from where the parents stand. Make sure you have a routine PLANNED OUT. In my class, my students are told to wait on the steps until I call their name. If they see their grown up, they get up and go to them. I watch, make sure I recognize the adult, and then cross them off my list. This goes slooooow the first few days of school, but make sure you communicate to parents that this is to keep their children safe so you know they are going home with a safe, designated adult. Eventually, we move from this one-at-a-time routine to the students exiting, going to the steps, and when they see their adult they come over and tell me goodbye. This way, I can look, see their adult also, then cross their name off. If they do not see their adult, they stay on the steps.

I hope these tips help your first day of kindergarten be a happy and smooth one! Now get home, pour a glass of wine, and go to sleep by 7 pm. Have a wonderful school year!


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