Thursday, August 16, 2018

How I Make Community Supplies Work in Kindergarten

Sharing is not the easiest skill in kindergarten, and organization doesn't fall far behind! For some children, kindergarten launches them into a brand new world of "school" where there are lots of expectations like sharing and taking turns. Five year olds can be very territorial, too, which is why I want to share how I manage community supplies in a way that's always worked for me and my students.


So, if you teach kindergarten, you know that the word, "Share!" will come out of your mouth an inordinate amount of times during the school year. Very early on, this expectation comes in the form of using crayons to color pictures or Playdoh during morning play centers. But when you set the tone with community supplies and materials, students start to learn that everything in the classroom is meant to be shared (except food, that's on our Class Promise!). Let's break down some basics of community supplies.


I'm fortunate to work at a school that is able to reimburse us up to a certain amount for school supplies. Sometime around May, I buy crayons, pencils, and glue for the upcoming school year. I like doing it at this point so that I won't have to stress about it in August. I should also add that we are not allowed to have supply lists with required materials that parents must purchase, so I make sure I buy the basics that I know my kids will need on day one (and go ahead and get anything that's on sale).

Once the school year begins, I get a new set of purchase orders for supplies. This is when I buy paint, construction paper, scissors (if any got lost the year before), Playdoh, Expo markers, or other teacher supplies. We can give out "wish lists" at Back to School Night once the year begins, so my wish list always includes the 1-inch white binder that I use for our Take Home Binders, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a box of tissues. If I don't get enough binders from all students, I am able to go buy the rest with my school funds.

Once all the goodies are stocked, they are considered community supplies. The only thing that students have as their "own" is their binder since it goes home with them every night! I ask parents not to label anything that students bring in since we share. I have gotten some doubting questions from some parents (very few) about community supplies, but I assure parents that it's a great way for their children to learn responsibility and organization on top of how to share!


All of our supplies are out somewhere in our classroom besides my few teacher goodies that I keep in a cabinet. I want my students to see all of the things in our classroom as "our stuff," not "the teacher's stuff." I share every single thing with them (Sharpies, Flair pens, and Mr. Sketch markers included) depending on the situation. So, these supplies have to go somewhere accessible to little kids!

At student tables, we keep the materials they use the most. I have wicker baskets from Michael's (a few years old now) that fit 3 Mason jars and a long, skinny basket from Dollar Tree. One jar holds pencils and erasers, 2 jars hold crayons (I put one 24-count box of crayons in each jar), and the skinny basket holds their table card holder, CARES cards, and Lexia login cards. This has worked really well for flexible seating because students can just "grab a jar" if they are working on the floor or somewhere else and need crayons or pencils.


All other writing utensils (extra pencils, pens, highlighters, Sharpies) go in a 10-drawer organizer along with various types of paper (blank, lined, journal, and construction). When pencils in their jars so missing or break, I can easily remind them, "Go get an extra pencil in the green drawer!" This organizer sits right next to some shelves in our class that hold Sterilite containers with all of our other art materials. I store scissors, glue, extra crayons, markers, oil pastels, watercolors, chalk, and tempera paint here.


All of these materials are in our "art center" where it just makes sense for students to go grab what they need, and everything is clearly labeled so that students can learn how to organize materials on their own!


Starting from the first day of school, I talk to my students about the importance of sharing and taking turns. We talk about the supplies and materials in our classroom being "ours," and I start explaining the importance of taking care of things so that we all have the chance to use them. These conversations happen multiple times over the first few weeks of school, typically during morning meeting.

To help keep everything stocked, organized, and ready, I have two classroom jobs that students do in regards to our supplies. Our "Pencil Manager" is in charge of going around to each table at the end of the day to check if any pencils need sharpening, if any jars have less than 4 pencils, or if tables have too many pencils/erasers. We have a jar by our pencil sharpener for pencils that I will sharpen after school. The Pencil Manager puts the pencils in the jar if need be. They go over to the extra pencils drawer to restock any jars, too.

We also have a "Supply Manager" who helps with general supplies. He or she will check our supply drawers and containers every day and report to me if anything is empty or almost out. They also help keep the math manipulatives, clipboards, and other supplies nicely organized on our low shelves.

I hope this inspires you to try community supplies in your classroom. It has always worked so well for me that I can't imagine doing supplies any other way!


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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Letter-a-Day: Teaching the Alphabet Quickly and Easily

How do you teach the alphabet? I have used so many different strategies over the years. Depending on the district-adopted program I was using, there was letter-a-week, two letters per week, review weeks, letter-a-day AND letter-a-week....and nothing really ever felt "right." I didn't like that it would be February and we would still be talking about individual letters (hello, QU wedding around Valentine's Day). I could tell that some kids were so bored and others were so lost. I knew that if I ever got the chance and freedom to teach the alphabet differently, I would.


Now, I teach a letter-a-day starting during the first full week of the school year (typically the second week). This allows me to gain so much insight into my students and what they individually need. Since I've only ever taught kindergarten, I have been able to see many groups of kids and notice trends. Typically, not all kids need explicit letter instruction. Some most definitely do, and then others need more phonics-based or phonological awareness instruction. Doing a letter-a-day gives us a baseline as a group, provides kids with an introduction to how we will use the alphabet in our classroom, and allows us to move on to more engaging material more quickly.


Very early in the school year, we give a screener-type assessment to all students in our school. You may use DIBELS, Fastbridge, ERDA, PAT or another diagnostic tool at your school, or you may use nothing at all. These screeners allow us to gain some insight into very basic skills such as letter ID, letter sounds, and initial sound ID. While I appreciate the baseline these screeners provide, I'd still like to know more about my students' alphabetic knowledge.

When I teach a letter-a-day, I am able to see what parts of letter learning is tricky for any of my students. I typically ask myself these questions as I watch them progress through the alphabet during these 26 days:

  • Can they quickly name the letter?
  • Can they quickly give the letter sound?
  • Are they able to easily give examples of words that begin with that sound?
  • Can they write the letter in both upper- and lowercase forms? (I'm not strict with this as I believe letter formation comes with time and maturation of fine motor skills, just want to see a close approximation at this point)
The screener we use does tell me some of this, but I like seeing it in action rather than in a short, 1-minute timed test. Since I use simple response sheets during letter-a-day, I collect them and make notes for students who need extra time with that letter. This is a very simple way for me to collect data early on. Then, if I notice that a large group of students is struggling with a particular letter, I'll start making piles of response sheets for that letter. That tells me that once I start pulling students in small groups, I'll need to go back and spend time on instruction of those letters. There's probably a more sophisticated way of collecting data, but this works for me.

One highly beneficial part of doing a letter-a-day is that I get to see which of my students have a solid foundation of letter knowledge. Then once letter-a-day is over, I get to move them on to more phonics-based skills rather than making them sit through long, drawn out letter lessons for the next few months.


While not all of my students need explicit letter instruction, they will all benefit from having this time together for a few weeks to focus on individual letters. That is mostly because this is when we create our circle posters that hang in our classroom all year long. These posters are such a huge part of teaching a letter-a-day that it was the primary reason I began doing it in the first place. I am a stickler for not hanging anything on the walls of my classroom that doesn't serve a direct purpose to students, so I wanted to try these posters out to make sure they were worth all of the wall space. And they were. I've watched year after year of students constantly referring to these posters during the school day. They alleviate so much work on my end of answering the many, "How do you spell ___?" or "What's a word that starts with ___?" questions I would get during centers, writer's workshop, or word study time. All I had to start saying was, "Check the poster!"


Not only do I love the usefulness of the circle posters, but I also love being able to use the other aspects of letter-a-day during my small groups. Since I know some students will need the explicit instruction of letters beyond our letter-a-day lessons, I am able to use the response sheets and cut and glue pages for additional support in a small group. I'm also a firm believer in tactile, hands-on experiences for making connections and building memory, so I also use materials like Playdoh, Wikki Stix, salt trays, dry erase markers and whiteboards, and paint for helping students learn letters. 

If you want to see the resource I use for teaching a letter-a-day, you can click here or on the picture below:


I always felt so bad for those kids who didn't need to spend an entire week on the letter Ss or have a review week every third week to talk about letters. It honestly wasn't fair to them to be spending their instructional time on something they absolutely didn't need. Admittedly, this is always a great "problem" to have, but I knew I needed to be more equitable and differentiate for these kids.

When I was using a mandated, adopted program, there wasn't much support for those students who needed to move past the main objective of the lesson besides a few "challenge" or "extension" worksheets. If differentiation was my main goal, I needed to figure out how to provide it in a more authentic way. So, I began pulling my students in small groups for foundational skill instruction. When I say foundational skills, I'm referring to the entire K.FS strand of the Common Core Standards. Sometimes we use the term "phonics" to talk about those skills, but phonics is just one aspect of foundational skill instruction.

Now that I teach in a workshop/rotation model classroom, I have the time during my day to pull differentiated, skill-based small groups. You can read more about how I set it all up here. After finishing Letter-A-Day, I have such a better idea of my students' needs. I create 4 groups (just a number I like, but if skills are more varied then I'll have more groups) of students who need to focus on similar skills. Typically I begin pulling and working with these groups around the second week of October. I'll usually have these 4 "types" of groups early on:
  • Letter Instruction - letter ID, letter sounds, letter writing, initial sound ID
  • Phonological Awareness - rhyming words PLUS brief letter ID/sound review
  • Phonological Awareness - all above skills PLUS segmenting CVC words
  • Phonological Awareness - all above skills PLUS substituting initial sounds
Those groups are in no way the groups you should have, this is just how it ended up for me last year when I began teaching in small groups. This year I may have to structure my groups differently based on skills that my future students need to work on. This is just an example so you can see that I move students on if they need to. A quick letter review daily is important, but it doesn't have to go nearly as in depth for some students as it does for others. Getting to this point was not easy, but I ended up creating my own resource to use to teach these small groups to supplement what I was (wasn't) using. Click on the pictures below to see both sets of small group mini lessons, complete with lesson plans, visuals, games, response sheets, and quick assessments.



There you have it, Letter-A-Day in a nutshell. I feel like it's the most useful, beneficial way I've taught the alphabet up to this point in my career. I hope you give it a try and see the difference in your students' growth!


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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

How to Feel Good about Classroom Management: Strategies, Tips, and Resources

Does classroom management keep you up at night? How about behavior problems, parent phone calls, or visits to the principal's office...ever lost sleep from any of those? I definitely have. In the early years of my teaching career, I tried all kinds of systems, tricks, and methods for classroom management. I'd still get the same results, and then I'd feel frustrated.

After learning from some amazing teachers and one particularly awesome principal, I'm here to tell you that classroom management does not have to be stress-inducing, for you or your students. It can actually be enjoyable, easy, and simple! I want to share some of my very basic tips for keeping this aspect of your job one of the least stressful things you have to think about.


When I started teaching, I was at a large school with a behavior system in place. All teachers had to do it, no exceptions. Being a first year teacher, I didn't think to object or try to pave my own way so I went along with it. After a few months, I started realizing just how much I disliked the system. Kids were way too focused on their "color" at the end of the day rather than academic successes or other fun things we did. Parents would actually say to them as they got in their car (we had to walk them to their cars at dismissal), "What color were you on today?" It was bad. It felt yucky, and I knew that once I left that school I'd never use that system again.

I moved after that year and landed in an incredible school. The principal was phenomenal. She treated us and the students the same: high expectations, pushing us to be our best, believing in us but challenging us to do better, and recognizing and celebrating our successes. Because of her approach, I have such a light and happy outlook on classroom management. It was a total 180 degree change from where I started. It felt so good to work in that school, and I knew that was exactly how I wanted my students to feel. So, here's what I started doing to make sure my kids came to school each day feeling as cared about and supported as I did.


Now I have to stop here and say that having a role model was huge, but having a background in Responsive Classroom was also very instrumental in how I approach classroom management. Because of how RC does classroom environment and management, I was able to set the tone. If you don't know about RC and want to learn more (trust me, you want to learn more), check out these books. They are must-haves for setting the tone for the school year.



One of the best things that I do with my students very early in the school year (think second or third day) is to have a discussion about and create our class rules, also known as our Class Promise. Your discussion in August will not be as deep as your discussion in January when you do this again. That's okay, though! You want to be able to have this experience with your class. Remember, you're a brand new adult to most of these kids. They are trying to figure you out, figure out all these other kids, and navigate in this new space. They need to feel some ownership and importance early on, and letting them create your rules is a great way to do that.

When you are finally ready to make your rules, keep them short. You want to write down what your students say, but you'll have to wordsmith a little to make it a concise rule. Remember, you'll be referring to these rules almost daily, so you don't want anything too wordy or over-their-heads. If one of your kids says, "Don't run because you could fall down and get hurt," you could repeat what he said, rephrase it, and write, "Keep your body safe by walking." Always validate their ideas, you just might need to rephrase them a little.


My students came up with the rough draft version of those, and then I rephrased and condensed them. I said those rules so much during the year (they changed a little in January, when RC suggests doing this whole process again) but had basically the same meaning.


If you guessed that my first school used clip charts from my little blurb earlier, you were right! In my opinion, they are one of the least effective tools for classroom management (many other educators have written blog posts on this topic, so please go read those if you're on the fence!). Maybe they work in the moment, but they do not have lasting effects and can actually be damaging to students' self-esteem and worth in the classroom. Remember the car issue? One of my sweetest little girls walked up to her car with me one day, and the second I opened the door she burst into tears! I was like OMG what is wrong?! as was her mom, and her little voice said, "I just got to bluuuuuuuuue today!" Blue is a "good" color on the chart, just not as "good" as pink where she typically clipped up to. That was the exact moment I knew I'd never use a clip chart again.

Students at this age are very literal and will attach themselves to those colors. They start to see themselves as a "blue kid" or "pink kid" or maybe even a "red kid." Once I started realizing that, I immediately stopped using the clip chart as my tool. Since all teachers had to use it, though, I began just mass-clipping kids up on the chart and trying to recognize as much positive behavior that I could. You tied your shoe? Go clip up! You pushed in your chair, shared your crayon, lined up without touching anyone, made it through the day? Clip up! I didn't want another student to feel less-than because they didn't clip up.

Now, I use a different system completely. My old school was heavy into PBIS, and the tool they used has been my go-to tool even after moving schools. I even got my current school to implement it as a school-wide behavior system like my old school did! It takes a little bit of work on your end, but it's totally worth it. 
Click here to download your own copy of this template! Just add your school's name, print front to back, and you'll be ready to use!
Every student has a CARES card. CARES is an acronym from Responsive Classroom that stands for Cooperation, Assertiveness, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control. We go over each of these words during the first week of school, model what they look like, and then use the words A LOT. They're big words for kinders, but the more you use them in context, the more they will become part of their vocabulary. Every time an adult notices a student following one of our class rules, school rules, or showing one of the CARES traits, we initial their card (we call it signing their card). And it's always public! "Hey Amy, I noticed you sharing those Legos when Matt came over to the loose parts center. Thanks for doing that, I'm going to sign your CARES card." You don't make a big deal about it, but when other students hear and see that, it motivates them, too!

What happens when they fill up a CARES card? Now that is a big deal! When one of my students fills a card, they are giddy. They know they just need one more signature, and when you go to sign it they are practically vibrating with excitement. When it happens, I stop whatever is happening and shout, "___ just filled her CARES card!" We all clap and cheer for that student. He or she immediately comes to our treasure box, picks something out (more about that in a minute), then walks their CARES card to the front office. There is an envelope that all filled cards go in, the office staff sees them and gives them praise, and then there's a drawing. On Friday afternoons, our principal comes on the announcements, goes over our school rules and motto, then pulls out one CARES card from each class to come up and claim a prize. The prizes are just dinky little things, but that's not why they love it. When a student can hear his or her name on the intercom announced across the entire school and hear their class cheer for them when it's said, THAT is the ultimate positive reinforcement. And if their parent is already outside waiting to pick them up and they can hear it too, maximum good vibes.

If you can't do this with your whole school, you can still make the Friday drawing a thing in your classroom. Just do it at the end of the day and still make a big deal of it! Use a microphone if you have it! Just celebrate them and make them feel GOOD. That's the main point. Before we move on, I'll fill you in on my treasure box I mentioned. It looks like an actual treasure box, but it's not filled with cheap toys. Instead, it's filled with these reward cards:


Giving positive recognition for their behavior by using fun incentives like these have made a huge difference in the buy-in from my students. They love looking through the treasure box and finding the card they were hoping for. These rewards take little to no effort on my part, but the effects are huge!


One of the most common things people say when they hear I teach kindergarten is, "You are soo patient!" Actually, I'm not. I have very high expectations for my students, and there are clear rules and consequences. When a student is not meeting those expectations we set together as a class, I give them 3 verbal warnings. And if they still can't change their behavior? I use reflection sheets. It feels like a "3 strikes and you're out" kind of thing, but I like to just think of it as giving them a defined set of chances to change their behavior and a consequence when they don't. 

Let's say it's mini lesson time and I'm actively teaching. A student turns and chats with a neighbor and a quick, "Holly..." doesn't redirect her. Then I give a warning. "Holly, that's 1 warning" is all I have to say. She knows she's now on the path to a reflection sheet if she can't change her behavior. If Holly continues to talk and receives her 3 warnings, I say, "Holly, you have 3 warnings. If you can't make better choices it's a reflection sheet." I say all of these things publicly because they are short, sweet, and matter-of-fact. Nothing about how I redirect behavior blames or shames a student, just calls attention to misbehavior.

If a student gets to the point of a reflection sheet (sometimes we call them think sheets, too), I say, "Go get a think sheet. I'll be there in a few minutes." They know where the think sheets are, so they grab them, head to my kidney table, and start filling it out. They are so simple and straightforward that my kinders are able to fill them out pretty independently. If they can't, they wait until I come over to help them. I always try to get over to them within the next couple of minutes to talk to them about their behavior, explain why it wasn't okay, then discuss other choices in the future. The whole process takes about 5 minutes, and then they put the think sheet in their binder to take home to show parents. Click here for the awesome resource I use for reflection sheets. I also hang the "How are you feeling?" poster in my cozy spot to help kids self-reflect on their emotions when they visit.

I want to be sure I get to them quickly and resolve it because I don't want them to feel like they're being sent to a time out. I explain to them that they have to come sit at my teacher table because they're proving to me that they aren't keeping their promise (referring to our Class Promise we created) with their friends, so they need some time alone to think about how to do things differently. Other students see us over there talking, but they don't need to know what we're talking about. It's between the student and I, and then we chat with their parents. Typically, think sheets solve the majority of my misbehaviors. Some students, though, will fill out multiple think sheets during the school year, so we work together with parents and the principal to figure out a more structured behavior plan.

WHEW. That may have been my longest blog post ever, but I wanted it to be a comprehensive view of how I see and do classroom management. These strategies work for me and my students, and I hope they can help any of you who feel stressed about how to establish your own routines and expectations. 


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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Counting Collections: Transform Your Math Instruction

It's been a few years since I first learned about counting collections. I was in a district-mandated training that was amazing, as in, the kind you want to do over and over again. We were talking about math in such deep and meaningful ways, trying new strategies, discovering new tools...so much background information about mathematical learning. We spent a little while talking about counting collections, and I was very intrigued. However, life got the best of me. I started the school year with the best of intentions and dabbled with my new ideas, but counting collections didn't really get off the ground.

When I was finally ready to dive in and give it a real shot a full year later, it was messy at first, actually, it was down-right ugly. I had no idea how to organize them, prepare them, and generally "use" them with my students. I knew what they could do for students' number sense, but the application wasn't clicking for me.

Fast forward to now, and I think I've finally found a system that works for me and my students. I've been able to use counting collections in a variety of ways and have figured out a way that has totally transformed my entire outlook on how I want to teach math. I want to share that with you.




I first shared about counting collections on my blog HERE and HERE. What I've learned about them can be found in an excellent summary on this website. In a nutshell, counting collections are groups of objects that can be as big or as small as the teacher desires. While counting, teachers will watch students and take note of their counting skills such as one-to-one correspondence, cardinality, skip counting, or grouping. Teachers can encourage their students to use other strategies using a variety of prompts and tools. Skills like addition and subtraction have seamless tie-ins with these tools. They are so comprehensive in terms of what you can get students doing just by giving them a collection of objects. I highly encourage you to read the research and learn more on your own as this is just a very brief summary of what I have come to learn myself.


This is where a lot of the growing pains occurred while figuring out how to use them. I understood that I should provide collections for my students to count that varied in size and type. At first, that meant putting various manipulatives and small objects into plastic baggies and handing them all out. I would have variety in the amounts, but they would all be somewhere between 10-30. My students would count them, and then...?


I needed a better structure for the "how" of doing counting collections. After playing around with a few tools, I ended up creating some tools that help me and my students keep our collections organized, focused, and can provide appropriate extensions as needed. You can find those tools here if you want to check them out for yourself:


These resource pages and extensions have made such a difference in extending the count. There are many ways you can do this without paper, but since I have my students working independently on their collections, I wanted to give them fun and simple extensions that really pushed their understanding of numbers. These were created with the simple purpose of giving my students autonomy while using a counting collection and to push their thinking.

In terms of the physical organization, I share frequently on my Instagram account about this aspect of counting collections. I have some storage tools that I love along with a method that students follow to choose and return collections. Make sure you follow along on Math Monday when I share most of these tips!


Presently, I do counting collections daily as one of my math rotations. You can read more about my rotations HERE. My students use counting collections during their "hands-on" rotation. I believe that students should have their hands on actual objects to bolster their counting skills, so that is why they go so frequently. Some skills can be taught abstractly, but the actual skill of counting is best taught concretely, in my opinion.


Depending on the student, he or she may be using counting collections twice or three times a week. This is determined by the math group I have put them in based on skill and ability. So while collections are out daily, a student will not be completing them every single day.

Keeping track of their collections while working independently seemed challenging until I came across Seesaw. This tool has freed me up so much in terms of being able to work with students in small groups while also making sure my independent workers are on task and are understanding their work. Once a student completes a counting collection, he or she will record it on Seesaw, verbally explaining how they counted, and then upload to their portfolio. Every afternoon I check the videos and can leave my own verbal feedback (EXTRA AWESOME) that my students listen to the next time they use an iPad. I give almost immediate feedback that my students can apply the next time they get a counting collection. It has been an absolute game changer.


If you want to know more about how I use Seesaw, I share about Seesaw frequently on my Tech Tuesday Instagram stories!


It seems silly to think that one math activity can change the entire way I teach math, but it's true. Watching my students count large collections, hearing them explain the detailed ways they sorted or grouped, and observing them grow over time in what they could do all contributed to my own confidence as a math teacher. I was so intimidated by counting collections at first, and I realized that's how I felt about teaching math overall. Even though it's "just kindergarten" so "how hard can math possibly be?", there was a lot of pressure (that I put on myself) to make sure they had a very solid foundation of mathematical concepts before first grade. I wanted to make sure I didn't leave any holes or gaps, so things like counting collections made me nervous because they weren't "traditional" in the sense of work to completion, score, and move on. I had to actually observe my students, listen to their individual thinking, and then work with each one to provide the right scaffolding, support, or extension. After learning how to do that, it impacted how I wanted to teach all math skills. I wanted to be able to provide that individualized feedback and instruction to all my students with all skills.


The counting collections activity is one of the main reasons why I began teaching in rotations. After one full year of doing rotations, I can honestly say that the performance of my students was the highest I've ever seen. I was working with one group on multiplication by the end of the school year. Not because it would be cool to try, but because knowing them so well provided me with the insight into skills they were ready to work on. My most-struggling group at the beginning of the year was mostly at grade-level by the end. I fully credit rotation-model teaching for this success, and I fully credit my success with counting collections for that confidence to start.

Try counting collections. They will transform the way your students think about counting and the way you teach your students. They will make a difference in your math instruction.

Want to know more? If you follow me on Instagram, I post weekly videos on math instruction on Math Monday IG stories. If you'd like to see other math resources that I use with my students, make sure you follow my Teachers Pay Teachers store where I post all the math materials I have created to use in my own classroom.


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