How Take Home Binders Saved My Sanity

Hey everyone! I've been thoroughly enjoying summer break, but as August creeps closer, I can't help but think about the to-do list that will surely be waiting for me when I get the keys back to my classroom. There are lots of things I try to do at the end of each school year so that I don't come in 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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3 Tried and True Hands-On Math Activities

When I was in school, math wasn't my favorite subject. Like so many other adults who've said this exact same thing, I felt like I wasn't very good at the computation and problem solving. Now that I'm a teacher, I want to make sure my students don't ever feel the same level of frustration that I did. And yes, I teach kindergarten, but academic confidence should start young! To you, adding 4+1 or knowing that the number 10 is a 3 and a 7 seem like such basic concepts. To a human who has only just learned to walk 48 months before they become one of my students (crazy, right?!), math can be difficult no matter the concept.

I've been teaching kindergarten for 6 years, and I've finally figured out methods of teaching math that not only make it FUN for me but engaging, challenging, and fun for my students, too! Here are some math activities that are hands-on and can easily be used for multiple math concepts. You probably already have most of the materials in your classroom!

If you've been following me for a little while, you know how much I love and believe in Counting Collections. I have another blog post HERE that talks about the "why" behind doing CCs. You can also read more about CCs and watch them in action.

Counting Collections are not just used for counting. However, they are a tremendous tool for developing, strengthening, and advancing the way your students count. They provide so many opportunities for extension into composing and decomposing numbers, addition, subtraction, equal parts, even/odd numbers, teen numbers, grouping by 2, 5, 10, or more, and so on. I can't get over how much I love Counting Collections.

You don't need any special manipulatives or containers for collections. Find and use what you have or what works best for your space. I started out in the beginning with putting counters, tiles, and counting bears into Ziploc baggies and giving those to kids to count. Now, I have accumulated lots of small manipulatives that I can change out throughout the year. You can also vary how many objects you put into a container, you can color-code for amount (blue containers have 11-19, green containers have 20-29, and so on), or you could even give students collections of things that are already in a "collection" like a pack of cards or a roll of pennies.
Notice the plastic baggie I used? I've graduated to tubs since then!
These tubs are from Staples and come 16 in a set (I have two sets). You can see that inside the tubs I have counters, beads, pom poms, counting bugs, counting dinos, and of course, MINI ERASERS.
I have created a set of response sheets that I use over and over and over again with my students as they work on Counting Collections. I keep them double-sided in sturdy plastic dry erase pockets. You can find them in my store, click on the picture below!

Ever see rice or beans on sale for super cheap at the store, buy it, then wonder what else you could do with it besides dump it into a bin for a sensory tub? Do scoop math! You can do scoop math activities to practice addition, subtraction, place value, grouping, and lots more. I've put beans into bowls, on plates, or inside of plastic bins. Students just scoop out randomly, then they can practice lots of concepts.

For addition, students can scoop, count, then scoop again. Once they have two piles, they can push them together and count how many in all. For subtraction, students can scoop, put some back, then count how many they have left. For place value, students can make a big scoop, then group by tens, count how many they have, then add the ones on at the end. For grouping, students can make a big scoop then group into 5s, 2s, or whatever else you want them to work on!

I've got some easy-to-use Scoop Math activities with counting mats that make it much more organized. I laminate the counting mats to use over and over. You can click on the picture below and see them in my store.

My students and I love, love, love to play this game. You can use it for ANY math concept (and even some ELA ones, too!) and it requires very little! Your students will need dry erase markers and some sort of eraser. You will need loud music and the optional ability to dance.

Musical Counting: Students stand next to their tables. You start playing music, and they walk around and around the table. When you stop the music, shout out a number/sequence. They find a seat as soon as they can and write the number. I sometimes say, "8" or "2 more than 6!" You can also give them directions to write three numbers when you shout out the first one. You can say, "7!" and they would write 7, 8, 9.

Musical Teen Numbers: You'll also need base ten rods and cubes piled in the middle of the table. Play the same way as before, but when you stop the music this time you'll call out a teen number! They'll build it with the base ten blocks and/or write it with the dry erase marker.

Musical Addition/Subtraction: Again, play the same way, and when you stop the music this time you can shout out an addition/subtraction problem. They can write the problem or just the solution!

Rules for playing:

  • Students get to write on the tables ONLY when we play this game! It comes off very easily with Clorox wipes or whiteboard cleaning spray. (If you can't write on your tables, hand out mini white boards or just use white paper!)
  • When a student is done writing, they put their hands in the air so I can scan and check. Once I tell them, "Check!" they can erase their numbers.
  • Teachers will need to walk around so they can check students. It would be a very fun and easy way to *formatively assess* your students on math concepts, just have a notepad/sticky notes/checklist with you and write down what/who you notice.
  • Teachers need classroom-appropriate music they can blast!

*No pictures of this activity, sorry! Almost impossible when you're managing the music, checking student progress, and helping along the way. If only I had a photographer...*

I hope you use some of these easy, challenging, and FUN ways to get your students' hands on their math! Let me know your favorites or share any other hands-on math activities that you swear by!

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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, 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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An Intentional Daily Schedule: Part 6 - Writer's Workshop

With the final post in my Intentional Daily Schedule series, I'll be talking about Writer's Workshop and how you can structure it to support every kind of writer in your kindergarten classroom. So far, we've discussed Play Centers, Morning Meeting, Math, Word Study, and Reader's Workshop. You can click on each of those to learn more! As we approach the end of the school year, I am able to reflect on what went well and what I'd like to tweak. In writing this series, I've been able to reflect and adjust more so than I usually would, so I hope you know that these tips or strategies have been vetted by a real teacher who uses them every day! Here's another view of my overall daily schedule so you can see where Writer's Workshop fits in:

Writer's Workshop is always one of those things that I feel like could be tweaked over and over again. Every year, students come to you with so many different kinds of writing skills. You may have someone who can whole-word write and someone who cannot yet hold a pencil correctly. Let's talk about how you can support and challenge them both after we first talk about materials.

I have access to the Lucy Calkin's Units of Study in Writing for Kindergarten. These are great for building up a love of writing and encouraging students to write about a variety of things. I also like the Units of Study for helping to set up the structure of workshop early in the year.

However, I do not feel like these units really provide enough scaffolds or supports for students who are not yet writing. Typically, my students enter kindergarten with emergent writing skills. Very few are able to actually associate letters with sounds in writing in the beginning of the year. Because of this, I structure how I teach workshop very differently. I use a few different resources for general support:

Plus a variety of things I've created on my own. I will link some rubrics and checklists at the end of this post if you are interested. My students have writing folders where they keep and organize their pieces. I use the materials provided in the Writing Through the Year units to create these folders:

Also, I structure the "what" of my students' workshop time to correlate with our topic or unit of study in reading or science. Here is the list of units that we teach in kindergarten:

Typically our topic of writing reflects which theme or unit we are studying. Also, my students usually complete one writing piece for each of the three main kinds of writing in kindergarten: Opinion, Explanatory, and Narrative.

Here are some pictures from when we studied community helpers and wrote an opinion piece about what we wanted to be when we grow up:

Now, let's talk structure of the lesson. No matter if I am using Lucy Calkins or Writing Through the Year or my own lesson plans, I will always give a short (10-12 minutes) minilesson where I do some modeling. I feel like modeling is KEY for writing development. I love giving students time to verbalize what they want to write about, so our minilesson typically includes some partner or group share time. Then, I release students to their tables. They get their folders and the writing paper from a paper organizer we use, then they start.

Sometimes, they begin with a picture (see above) then do a writing piece the next day. Other times, I provide a sentence stem that they will copy and expand upon, then draw. Some days we have structured paper with lines or boxes, but other days we use blank white paper. All of this is planned out by me ahead of time according to how I want their writing to develop.

Early in the year, we begin with pictures. Later on, we begin adding labels of initial sounds to the pictures. Next, we will introduce a short sentence with CVC words. Then, we begin to use sentence stems where students must think of one word on their own but can use a word list. Eventually, we take away the word lists and students are sound spelling. During the year, I may need to pull a group of 5-6 students who all work with me on the same sentence. At the end of the year, I only work with 1 or 2 students who still have trouble completing a sentence without support to sound out words. All other students are writing independently, sound spelling words or using the word wall.

I hope this was useful for you as you think about how you teach Writer's Workshop. Below are some narrative writing resources I've created and used. Let me know if you have any questions!

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