Thursday, September 21, 2017

I Give Homework in Kindergarten (But Not Like You Think)

Do you ever hear the word "homework" brought up in conversation and cringe a little, not knowing what the next statement will be? I know I do. No matter if I'm talking with fellow teachers, administrators, parents, or friends of mine with school-age children, I usually dislike conversations about homework because people have such strong feelings about it! There is a lot of talk out there both for and against homework. I guess the next thing anyone else needs is an opinion, but I'll go ahead and put in my two cents!

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I've only ever taught kindergarten, and I've always given homework. Whether it was a thick packet of stapled workbook pages, monthly family projects, journal prompts, or homemade calendars with nightly tasks, homework has always been part of my teaching journey. I'm in my 7th year of teaching now, and I've seen the conversation around homework shift and turn ugly and make rational adults start pointing fingers. So I've done my fair share of reading research and looking into studies on homework's effectiveness, and I've formed my own opinion. I believe that homework should be the real-world application of skills learned at school, done in ways that will be clearly applicable to students' lives, and it should be optional.

That last word usually gets the most reaction, especially when I tell parents at Back to School Night. This year, I actually got cheers and audible sighs of relief. My rationale behind making homework optional is that students are children first, and they should be given time outside of school to have experiences that help them grow, develop, and have fun. Children are also busier than ever with extracurricular activities, and families are crunched for time as it is. The last thing I want to do is put strain on a family because nightly homework hasn't been done.

What I give to students is a monthly homework calendar. Each night, the task is hands-on, interactive, and (maybe) even fun! The homework is designed to be done with an adult and focused on conversation. Every day of the week has a theme so that parents are able to predict what kind of task will be done (writing on Mondays, counting on Tuesdays, sight words on Wednesdsays...). But if there is a busy night or the child is just too tired, homework can be skipped.


I absolutely love doing homework this way. I feel that is respects child development and family time. I love when students come in to school the morning after completing a fun homework task and are excited to tell me about it. I especially love hearing from parents who can't believe they're declaring homework time to be an enjoyable part of their night! I love sharing this model with other teachers in hopes of swaying them;  however, I do get lots of questions about my homework, so I'd like to answer some of them:

What do you do if a student doesn't do homework all year long?

Depends on the student. I've had students in the past whose homework I never saw, but the student was performing well and making good progress towards kindergarten goals. For those families, I never bring up homework. But there are other students whose homework I don't see for the first part of the year, but I also don't see progress towards kindergarten goals. For those students, I will talk with parents and make homework required, at least for a period of time. If they are not meeting goals or performing at grade level, I've already talked with parents before this point. I want them to know that support at home is crucial and that I'll be checking homework weekly.

How do you manage homework giving, checking, and collecting?

It all goes in the binder. I print the homework calendar with a reading log on the back, hole punch, and stick it in my students' Take Home Binders at the beginning of every month. (I also put the monthly newsletter and lunch menu in at the same time). In the back of their binders, I put some wide-ruled paper for them to actually do their homework on. I keep packs of paper in my cabinet so I can refill all year long. At the end of each month, I take out all of the old months' papers and insert the new. This is when I actually check to see who has done their homework, quickly glance through the papers (because some tasks are fun and I want to see their product!), and replace paper if I need to.

Is homework optional when they go to first grade? How do your students adjust?

No, and we talk about it before they leave kindergarten. Unfortunately, I can't convince all of my coworkers to join me on the optional homework train. So to make this transition easier, I make sure that I talk to my students about it. I also talk to their parents in the final months of kindergarten to make sure they realize that homework will no longer be optional. A fun way that I can "gently encourage" all of my students to start doing their homework towards the end of the school year is with Homework Club. All it means is that I check homework weekly for completeness. If a student has completed a week's worth of homework, they are declared a member of the Homework Club! Members get perks: extra iPad time, peer tutoring opportunities, or free time with manipulatives to name a few. I think that just the public recognition of being in the Homework Club is sometimes motivation enough for students. I don't write down names anywhere publicly, but I announce, "___ is in Homework Club!" as I'm checking homework each Friday.

If you'd like to try homework calendars in your classroom, click on the picture below (or pin for later)! It comes completely editable so you can change tasks or dates to best fit your classroom needs. Another bonus: When you purchase these calendars, which are August-June, you'll receive free updates every single year! No going in and changing dates or major holidays yourself. And if you want to require it, I guess that's okay, too :)



Thanks so much for reading! How do you do homework?


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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 instruction and instead 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 instruction.

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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 either a mini lesson or warm up. Reader's and writer's workshop mini lessons are taught whole group but involve active engagement and modeling time so that I'm not the only voice talking. Math and word study both begin with a warm up that includes lots of student talk time and discussion around a topic or skill.

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 and they always include student talk. I am able to explicitly model a strategy and provide students to discuss how they can apply or use it before going off to independently do so.

I teach mini lessons during all of our major content areas: math, word study (phonics), reading, and writing. We do not 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 warm up, 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 currently 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. For example, on Mondays, Group W visits games for 15 minutes, and 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 by 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 skill focus on 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 skill focus on 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. 

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, but it takes a lot of modeling and practice. 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 just yet, 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 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 made for collaboration 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 wear a hat 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 with 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 for yourself. 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. I typed up my Math Rotations Schedule and Word Study Rotations Schedule that I display on my board during these rotation times.
  • 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 are already planned and the games are made. Phonics games are easy to pull out and give to a small group. 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! 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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