Monday, July 27, 2015

The Creative Classroom Goes Back to School

It seems hard to believe that another summer vacation is almost over and that it is already time for the Back to School rush! It can be hard sometimes to readjust to the demanding schedule of school life after weeks of relaxation, pajamas, and no alarm clocks. That's why I have teamed up with the other members of The Literary League for a Back to School Blog Hop! This is a great opportunity to not only get to know a little bit more about the teachers of The Literary League, but also to learn about some of our favorite Back to School activities! 

The Teacher-Author Behind The Creative Classroom

I'm Stephanie, a middle school teacher from South Louisiana who just finished her seventh year of teaching.  I graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in the Spring of 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies Education. My teaching certification includes 6th-12th grade Social Studies Education and English Education.

I taught Literacy Enrichment, an ELA intervention elective class, to 6th-8th graders at Gonzales Middle School from Fall of 2008 to the Spring of 2013. This class was specifically designed for students who performed below grade level on our state standardized tests. Since this was an elective class and did not have a set curriculum, I was able to blend my social studies background and content into engaging differentiated activities that were designed to strengthen my students' reading and writing skills. I was able to not only teach the short stories of Poe and Bradbury, but also able to introduce my students to the Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust, and many other historical time periods.

In the Fall of 2013, I switched from teaching Literacy Enrichment to teaching 6th Grade Inclusion ELA. This allowed me the opportunity to co-teach with a phenomenal SPED teacher all day. Together we planned differentiated activities that included daily use of technology and small group instruction to meet the needs of all learners in our classroom. We continued to introduce our students to classic short stories as well as  nonfiction texts that our students could easily relate to and understand. 

During the 2014-2015 school year, I was switched to the non-inclusion 6th grade ELA position. Again, I used this as an opportunity to create lessons and implement classroom instructional practices that included daily use of technology, student goal setting, and differentiated materials to meet the needs of all my students. 

In December of 2014, I lead a presentation at the LACUE conference entitled "Keep Calm and Nearpod On: Engaging Students and Differentiating Your Instruction". This presentation focused on using Nearpod to engage your students with interactive differentiated lessons and how to utilize the instant data features to make instructional decisions. 

In addition to my regular teacher duties, I also worked as a Mentor Teacher to other teachers on our campus and served on my school Leadership Team from 2012-2015. I have worked alongside our Master Teachers to develop long range plans for weekly professional development and provide weekly follow-up/classroom visits to assist my teachers. In addition, I have been nominated for Teacher of the Year at my school for the past four school years. I was fortunate enough to be named the 2015-2016 Teacher of the Year at Gonzales Middle School. It was truly an honor to be recognized by my colleagues.

I LOVE YA Literature!

I think that one of the best ways to get your students interested in reading is to be able to recommend and have conversations about novels that appeal to them. That's why some of my favorite novels are Young Adult Literature. I love everything from The Hunger Games to The Heroes of Olympus Series and many more; however, my favorite YA novel to teach is Divergent by Veronica Roth. 

Last year, we had an extra period called Extensions added to our school schedule. My Extension class consisted of advanced students who were not in my regular classes and allowed me the opportunity to have a little bit of fun during the school day. I can still remember the first day that we started reading Divergent. My students had so many questions about those first few pages and they were hooked! As a teacher and an avid reader, it was such an amazing thing to see just how excited they were about reading this novel. Even now as I picture that day, I cannot help but to smile at the memories that were created.

After we finished reading about the aptitude test that Beatrice must take and the choosing ceremony, I gave my students their very own aptitude test. I can still remember how excited they were the next day to receive their envelopes with their test results. There were many hoots and screams of excitement mixed with a few puzzled looks from those students who were shocked by their test results. My favorite part was the excitement of the students as their made their choices in our very own choosing ceremony. 

Click here to read my blog post on teaching Divergent!

Favorite Back to School Activities

Every year during the first week of school, there are always two activities that I have my students complete as a way to get to know them better. During our first class period together, I always have my students create an Acrostic Poem using their first names. This is a simple activity that can be completed in five minutes or less and lets students begin thinking creatively about who they are. One of the easiest ways to make this a stress free activity is to create a teacher model of an Acrostic Poem using your first or last name. The teacher model allows students to see exactly what your expectations are and can be used to help them start thinking about their own poem. 

Depending upon how your classroom desks are arranged, this also makes for a great time to introduce grouping structures in your classroom. At the beginning of last school year, I had my desks arranged in groups of four. My students got the opportunity to use their Acrostic poem to introduce themselves to their shoulder partners that they would be working with during our English Class. After students shared their poems with their shoulder partners, I asked for volunteers to read their poem to the entire class. It was amazing how easy it was to see the different personalities of my students already begin to emerge after this opening activity. At the end of the first day, I go through all of the students' poems to give them feedback and to select a few from each class to put on our Wall of Fame!

In addition to the Acrostic Poem Activity, I always have my students write a letter to me. This letter can include any information that they think I should know about themselves. Students use a four square organizer to sketch out their thoughts into a five paragraph letter. After students have completed their pre-writing, they are given time to compose their letter to me. To ensure that students are aware of the writing expectations and have a clear idea of how to complete the activity, they also receive a model of the four square organizer and the five paragraph letter. I use a previous students' work for both the organizer and the letter.

I must confess that even though I enjoy reading the letters that my students write each year , there is another reason that makes this a mandatory Back to School activity. This writing activity serves as an awesome way for me to pre-assess my students' writing skills and to define strengths/weaknesses for each student. I use this information to record which areas of the writing process I need to focus and to create differentiated writing groups during the first week of school. Furthermore, this provides me with a baseline writing sample that students can use to compare their future writing assignments to and allows them to see how much their writing skills improve during the school year. If you are thinking of implementing this activity into your first week of school activities, you can click here to purchase this product from my TPT store.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tech Tools for the Secondary Classroom: Today's Meet

With a new school year beginning in just a few short weeks, I've decided to begin a new blog series that will feature the best tech tools that I have personally used in my classroom to increase student engagement and strengthen "text talk" among my students. It can sometimes be a struggle to seamlessly blend the daily use of technology into lessons and activities; but I have found that even the smallest use of technology during a lesson can help engage students and get them thinking at a much higher level.

The column on the right contains an actual Today's Meet conversation from my classroom!

One of the very first online tech tools that I incorporated into my classroom was the online chatroom, Today's Meet.  This free website allows you to create an easy to access private chat room that your students can join by typing in the web address you have created.  It takes less than two minutes to sign in and create your chatroom. Did I mention that you can create as many chatrooms as you want and that you get to decide how long your chatroom will be active? 

While set-up of this tech tool is a piece of cake, the next question you may have is how to successfully implement it into your classroom? As with all "text talk" structures, there needs to be clear expectations for student use put in place BEFORE students begin using this online chatroom in your class. This can be done by creating a list of student expectations and sharing them with your students or you can get student input on acceptable behaviors and expectations. For the past two years, I have allowed my students to come up with the majority of the student expectations for Today's Meet. The only expectation that I made a non-negotiable was that students were required to use their first and last names when signing into the chatroom. The other expectations came from my students. I have included a PDF copy of the student expectations that we use in my classroom that you can download.

Now that there are specific and clear expectations for students in place, the last thing to decide is exactly how you will incorporate this tech tool into your classroom. Regardless of content or grade level, this is a great tool to use to assess what your student already know about a topic at the beginning of a lesson or to use as a formative check during your lesson to assess what students understand. My favorite thing about Today's Meet is that it lets me diagnose student misconceptions during a lesson and provide academic feedback on the spot to clear up any misconceptions. Not only do I get the opportunity to provide feedback, but you will see quickly that your students are able to help provide feedback to their classmates on their thoughts or misconceptions. After a few uses of this classroom discussion tool, the amount of teacher academic feedback being given by me greatly decreased as my students were learning to give high quality academic feedback to their classmates. This allowed me to sit back and enjoy the awesome conversations that my students were having with each other. 

While all of what I have discussed in the blog post above can be implemented at no cost to you, Today's Meet does also offer a paid version of this tool specifically designed for teachers called Today's Meet Teacher Tools. For $5 per month, you can upgrade your account and gain the ability to pause conversations or "mute" students who are not following student expectations. These upgraded features certainly seem like awesome additions, but are not necessary to achieve success with Today's Meet in your classroom!

Stayed tuned to next week's edition of Tech Tool for the Secondary Classroom!