Failure and Implementing Choice In The Classroom

Hi, Teachers!!

I'm writing today about a concept that I feel strongly about. Something I think is not present in instruction enough these days: giving students academic choice. I'm not going to lie to you--giving students choice can feel frightening sometimes, and I believe most teachers find it so difficult because they don't want their students to fail. I think we tend to feel a little bit like this:

We sometimes think that if our students experience failure, we are the ones failing them. However, I challenge you to feel more like this:

The truth is, our kids need to fail. I know that is hard to accept at times, especially when you love your students and want them to do well, but part of being successful is experiencing setbacks. Success is all about how you solve problems in an innovative way. Some of the most powerful lessons we learn are through failure. We use those lessons to ultimately succeed, and our final product and the process it took to get there were both way more meaningful to us when we worked hard to get to that point. By sheltering kids from failure, we rob them of important problem-solving skills and honor the product rather than the process. We do not teach them the important life-skills and perseverance they need when they face future challenges. We also teach our kids that failure is bad or embarrassing and that mistakes should be avoided. 

But WHY???? 

If we want our kids to take academic risks in our classroom, we have to embrace the mistakes. Now, I'm not saying that we can't guide our kids... but I am saying that I think there is something fundamentally wrong with that perspective. If we make a big deal out of failures instead of recognizing them for what they are--positive learning experiences--we do our students a huge disservice. Making mistakes a natural part of the learning process and honoring them for the growth they provide us make our students so much more likely to participate in discussions and reach out of their own comfort zones. Allowing students to make mistakes and, in turn, apply that knowledge, creates a self-directed and confident learner, ready to tackle the challenges in their futures.

Okay, so now that you're saying, "Hey! You're right! Mistakes aren't that bad!" let's go back to my original idea. I think it is SO. IMPORTANT. to give students choice in the classroom. It really doesn't take that much work at all. First, I teach what making thoughtful choices means to my students. 

The planning stage
This can take one minute for kids, or it can take half an hour for students. It depends on what you're working on! Talk about making thoughtful choices. After you finish a choice activity, you can address how the planning process went in the reflecting stage so that future planning processes can be more effective. When students are working in groups, make sure groups plan together.

The working stage
This is where the bulk of the academic choice activity is. The kids are working on the task you've assigned (or they've chosen), and you are circulating and guiding students as necessary. You will see kids trying to solve problems. Instead of solving them, ask them questions like, "What might you do to solve this problem?"

The reflecting stage
After planning, think about what went well and what didn't go well. Figure out potential solutions to problems that might be useful for future choice activities. When students are working in groups, make sure groups reflect together.

Once you've gotten that down, you can start small. Kids can either choose what they will learn or they can choose how they will learn.  I find that when teachers are starting out with incorporating choice into their classrooms, the how part is easier to do. If you are willing to do a little bit of work before a unit in math really starts up, you can do some really cool things. I love to rely on choice boards and choice menus. This is what I just created for my most recent unit on addition with my students:

Now, I do not sell this in my store because most of the resources I put on this choice board are not mine. I do sell a great pack for a student-created "I Have, Who Has?" product though! Click the picture below to check it out.

Are there a few things you love to do during a math unit? Great! Add them to your choice board. Put your favorite Teachers Pay Teachers purchases on there! Put your tried and true games on there. They belong on here!! All you need to do is create a table in Word and list the activity and the point value. Include directions so kids know how to complete activities. This really pushes kids to read directions and become more self-directed! 

Managing this can be tricky. I like to have students put their choice board and their assignments all inside of a math folder and hand it all in at the end. They have all of their completed work right at their fingertips and they can track their progress. I also meet with kids regularly to see how they are doing in terms of completing everything. I ask them what is tricky for them (instead of asking "Is anything tricky for you?"), and then follow that question by asking how they will choose to solve that problem. I find this to be really useful. 

Here's some choice in action in my classroom!

Here's a student working on a number tile puzzle. I love these! You can find some here. Students are given digits 0-9 and can only use each digit one time to make all the facts on a task card true. They need to make mistakes in order to solve this and adjust as necessary. They find these really challenging and tend to really love them!

Above you can see my Math Enrichment Activities Pack: Student-Created "I Have, Who Has?" in action! Read more about how to use it here. This is really challenging, so I make sure it is worth more points on the choice board.

Here are my students solving some addition task cards with QR codes to look up the answers afterwards to check. Any time you can get some technology into your lessons, the kids are SOOOOO excited! When introducing this to the kids, one of the kids said, "But, Miss Savage, can't you cheat if you look up the answer!?" It led to a really good conversation. Of course we talked about the fact that the student who looks up the answer first really is only hurting themselves because they don't get a chance to learn. However, we talked about something even more cool! Just because you know the answer doesn't really mean anything. You need to know how to get there. The assignment does require kids to show their work, so if they can't show how to get to that answer, it would not be considered completed. This is a really fun thing to do with math sometimes. Give your kids the answers... have them figure out how to get there! That's just a fun math tidbit for you. I like to show a math problem on my morning messages sometimes during morning meeting, and I like to ask my students how they would solve it. We talk about several different solutions and how they all work in a different way.

Are you still feeling a bit nervous to use choice in your classroom? You can even try it by teaching one lesson and having two possible activities during independent practice. You don't have to jump right into a choice board! For example, during word study, kids might have a choice to practice spelling words by rainbow writing or by writing on a dry-erase board. Simple, but effective. Kids buy into learning when they have a choice.

So, that's all for now, Teachers! How do you incorporate choice into your classroom? Which one of these tips are you excited to try? And Halloween is right around the corner! Are you ready? What are you doing on Halloween in school and at home? Make sure to comment below!

Sunday Scoop

Hi, Teachers!

Today I'm linking up with Teaching Trio and sharing my Sunday Scoop!

Sometimes it's good to remember that we have a life outside of teaching. It's easy to forget to practice a little bit of self-care, but I think it is so important for us, especially since we have a profession in which we are required to give so much of ourselves. I really happen to love that part of teaching, but it doesn't make it any less draining! So, here's me thinking about myself as a person AND a teacher.

So, teachers, I want to ask you: What are you doing to take care of yourself as a person first? If you want to be a good teacher, you have to TREAT. YO. SELF. I do firmly believe that. If you don't have a little fun or relax sometimes, you burn out. I notice a direct correlation between how much time I take for myself and how well my classroom is running. How are you going to practice a little bit of self-care today or this week?

Transitioning With The Magic Word & The 50 States

Hi, Teachers!

Once you move past the first six weeks of school, sometimes kids can test your limits. That's natural, and that's OK. Kids test so they know what is and isn't expected of them. It's also natural if you feel a bit frustrated. I find that this is the time of year when kids start to get a little bit comfortable and see what they can and can't get away with during transition times. Of course, you can model certain transitions over and over again, but after a certain point, you have to put the ownership on the kids. Now, I'm not saying stop modeling and giving positive reinforcement during the transition. Definitely keep doing that! However, this first tip will keep your kids listening to directions so they can move through transitions successfully. My tip for you is to use... a magic word!

This is the smallest little tip I've heard in a while, but the impact was immediate. I start my transitions by saying "When you hear the magic word, which is ____, you will (insert directions here)." Then I have the kids repeat the directions and off they go when I say the magic word. Each time, my magic word changes. So far, I think my students' favorite magic word was "pineapple." They chuckled a lot over that one. Then, while the kids transition, I am giving constant positive feedback. Simple right? But the magic word makes kids buy into the fact that they have to listen for it... making them more motivated to listen!

My next tip I discovered accidentally. It was the end of a school year (like, 2 days before school was about to end), and my kids were very active to say the least. I told them I bet I could say the 50 states in alphabetical order before they could finish packing up. They happily accepted the challenge, not knowing that I learned the 50 Nifty Song in elementary school! Somehow I still remembered it. 

My suggestion is to sing this during transition time. It becomes a challenge to beat the teacher, but it also gives the kids practice memorizing the states! I started using this this year, and within a few days, many of the kids knew the fifty states in order. I didn't try to teach it to them, I didn't try to get them to memorize it... we just used it in a fun way during the day. It feels good to know they're getting the exposure!

Don't forget to check out my Teachers Pay Teachers sale! It's going on until Sunday night. Click here for my Halloween sale.

Anyway, those are my quick little tips for you, Teachers! What are your tips for moving smoothly through transitions? Did you buy your Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters yet? If so, what did you get?

Crafting Curtains In My Classroom!

Hi, Teachers!

Before I forget, I want to remind  you that I'm having a sale on my Halloween Math Lab from tomorrow (the 22nd) to the 25th. Grab it now for 10% off! This is a really fun project for Halloween, but it is also meaningful and has real-life implications. It's differentiated and Common Core aligned. All you need to do is copy and you're done!

OK... now onto my post!! I've been crafting a bit in my room this week. Sometimes when I really need to re-fuel, I find crafting to be really therapeutic and relaxing. I especially love to craft if I can find some sort of use for my craft!

In our school, we have little windows on our doors, and we have to cover the windows in the event of a lock-down. A lot of people just tape some rolled-up butcher paper onto the top of the window and roll it down during a drill. That wasn't working too well for me. I'd end up having to grab tape and make it stay un-rolled when I needed to be with my students. If I'm being honest, I think the butcher paper was just... ugly! So I created a little curtain for my classroom window. Recently a colleague asked me to make her one, so I took pictures of the process so you guys would know how to do this! It's SUPER easy. All you need is:

1. a sewing machine
2. a cute fabric (you can get this really inexpensively in the clearance section at Jo-Ann's Fabrics)
3. thread
4. glad hooks
5. a dowel
6. a measuring tool

So first, find a fabric that you like. Measure and cut the fabric for the length and width of your window. You will need double the width so that your curtain bunches. You can get away with a little less than twice the width, but don't go less than one and a half times the width. You will also need to add an inch of space for the bottom hem, 2 or 3 inches for the top hem depending on how much curtain you want above your rod, and 2 inches for the pocket for the actual curtain rod. So, if your window is 12 inches wide x 20 inches long, for example, you'd want to cut a piece of fabric 24 inches wide x 25 or 26 inches long. Here's me measuring my fabric!

Then, fold your fabric in half width-wise, but fold it so that you can see the back of your fabric, like I did below. It's really important that you make sure it's inside-out! It makes all of your seams look better later.

Now below, you can see that I sewed between a half an inch and an inch from the edge of the fabric. I sewed both halves together on the long side. Then I sewed ONE of the short sides. Here's the long side...

And here you can see the short side (on the bottom) is also sewn! So of course, the right side is sewn, but the left side on here is not sewn because we folded our fabric over already. Remember?

Now it's time to turn the fabric-tube you've created right-side-out again. Here's my dog Ruffles modeling our almost-curtain! He's a handsome little fellow. Plus, he makes my curtain look better...

Thanks, Ruffles! Ok, now you're going to deal with the one side that hasn't been sewn. First, fold over the top about half an inch. You might want to pin it, but if you're a little bit lazy like me, you will probably just fold and crease it and sew it as is, adjusting as necessary.

Yay! Now we have progressed from fabric-tube to almost-curtain! See?

Ok, so now you're going to have to do some measuring again. Remember, you planned for 4 or 5 extra inches to be used on top before for the top hem and curtain rod pocket. Even though I'm lazy, I definitely pinned this one so it wouldn't move mid-sew. Nobody wants a crooked curtain!

Ok, so I folded my curtain over 2.5 inches or so, and then I sewed right over the seam I sewed previously. Here are the pins. You can already see exactly where I sewed after this picture was taken. 

Okay, so now I have a big hoop sewn on the top of my curtain. You could absolutely leave your curtain like this if you don't care about having some fabric on top of your rod pocket. Plenty of people do this, and that's fine! I like having some fabric on top of the dowel rod though.

Now, I'm sewing one additional seam in my curtain. The space between the two seams will be where the curtain rod goes! I use the lines on the side of my sewing machine to guide me so I don't have to measure.

And then you're done! Yippie!!! Mr. Word On Third was kind enough to model this curtain for you. His fingers are acting as the curtain rod.

And that's how to make a curtain! I make a couple of them for the holidays and seasons to decorate my classroom. Here's my current Halloween curtain!

As you can see, I used glad hooks to stick my curtain rod, and I just use yarn to bunch the curtain together (unless we're in a lock-down drill, in which case the yarn would come off). My secret tip for getting the rod to stop sliding off of the glad hooks is to put pencil erasers on the sides of the rod. 

So... that's how to make a curtain! What are some things you have made for your classroom? Are you set up for Halloween??? For our class party, we are painting pumpkins at our class party, and I have my students decorate paper skeletons with funny costumes. Then they have a costume contest. For our snack, we eat Halloween cereal!

Remember those from back in the day?! I had no idea they were still around until another teacher told me she served this during her class parties. It is SO easy, but so much fun! I'm sure this stuff is full of sugar, but it's nowhere near as sugar-filled as Halloween candy. 

Comment below and share what you like to craft in your classroom! What are you doing for Halloween this year??

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Hi, Teachers!

I still have some conferences to get through, but PHEW! What a wave of relief I am feeling after getting through the majority of my conferences. I'm already prepared for the rest of them, so  I can breathe a little bit this weekend. Thank goodness!! I came home last night and fell asleep on the couch while watching Monk with Mr. Word On Third. Then I moved to the bed and slept for ten more hours. I needed that!

Our conferences came very early this year because our school-district is shifting to making the first conference of the year a goal-setting conference. I know some teachers weren't originally happy with this change, but if I'm being perfectly honest, I think it was a change that was over-due! I also think most of the teachers who weren't happy about this will find that they like this way of running a conference much better for many reasons. I love the idea of setting goals for students with their families. By dedicating a portion of your conference discussion to goal-setting, you will find that conversations with parents are much more open and effective. You will learn about students and families while still having a forum to share your students’ strengths and challenges. You will show students’ families that you are on the same team when you invite them to share their observations and hopes for their children. All of a sudden, families feel included in the conversation, which makes your parent-teacher team much more powerful.

I know that many other teachers are going to have their parent-teacher conferences soon, so I thought it would be useful if you had a simple, efficient parent-teacher conference template to use when preparing for conferences. I created one for you for free which you can download on Teachers Pay Teachers by clicking the the picture below.

When I run conferences, I do a few things. I like to:
  1. Set goals for the child, which are jointly decided upon. They are usually related to the hopes and dreams the parent or child sets at the beginning of the year. I strongly recommend practicing active listening here. Not only will it make the family feel listened to, but it will ensure that you understand what the family is trying to communicate. Sometimes we hear families say one thing and interpret it differently than they mean it. 
  2. Discuss areas of strength, which means that I will show how the child and I both reflect on this. I show families samples of student-work, which can be chosen by the student. 
  3. Discuss areas of challenge, and we discuss ways the both the child and the family-teacher team can work on these.
  4. Ask if parents have any other questions or concerns. This is usually a small part of the conference, but it's so often over-looked.

We often come into conferences so prepared, that we spend at least 90% of the time talking, many times more. When I first started teaching, I felt like I was giving a little presentation instead of having a discussion. Really, though, that's what we're doing--HAVING. A. DISCUSSION. If we are really having a conference, the talking and listening needs to be shared. I guarantee your families will feel happier working with you when they know that their hopes and goals for their child are honestly considered. That makes everyone's lives easier when it comes to conferences!

When are your parent-teacher conferences? What are your tips for making conferences run smoothly? Do you put anything special in your waiting area for parents?

Trick or Treat SALE & Mini-Conference Update

Hi, Teachers!

In honor of one of my favorite holidays, I am throwing a special Halloween sale!

My favorite product I've created so far is going to be on sale from Thursday, October 22 to Sunday, October 25. I am going to be using this product in my classroom during the last week of October, leading up to the 30th. I can't wait!

I am preparing for conferences this week. Starting tomorrow, I will be meeting with all of my students' parents. This year, I'm running things a little differently. I am holding a goal-setting and getting-to-know you conference with families this year. I've asked the parents to think of one academic and one social/emotional goal for their child. We will brainstorm together during our conference. I can't wait! I think this is way more powerful than the typical conference. Tomorrow I'll be in school from 8:15 AM to 8:15 PM... phew! I'm going to need a NAP.

What do you do to get through your conferences--especially those LONG conference days/nights? What are your tips and tricks for surviving? Comment below!

My best tricks for a clean classroom

Hi, Teachers!

By now, that beginning-of-the-year, cute-new-classroom feeling has worn off, and our classrooms aren't as neat anymore. Do you know what I'm talking about?? No? Well OK, Ms. (or Mr.) Super Teacher! I sure know that feeling right now, and luckily for me, I've figured out a few tricks to having a nice, neat classroom EVERY. DAY.

My biggest help, and my favorite tool, is a classroom game that I purchased a few years ago on TeachersPayTeachers, and it was probably one of my most useful purchases ever! I introduce to you...


This game cost me $3.00, and it has saved me so many countless hours of tidying up, that I can't even begin to tell you how awesome it is. Basically, you create a quick, one minute game out of finding a mystery piece of garbage, and the student who finds that piece of garbage wins. It doesn't have to be garbage though--it can be an out-of-place object as well. The kids LOVE this game, and in 60 seconds, with no effort on my part, my room looks perfect. My custodian tells me regularly that I have the cleanest classroom of all the rooms he cleans. LET ME TELL YOU... we get MESSY in my room! If you saw my room during math, you would NOT think my room was always clean. If I'm being honest, you wouldn't think my room was the neatest one in my school after 10 minutes of teaching. This game makes me happier than I can ever explain. It also makes my life easy when a substitute teacher is filling in for me. Click the picture above to be taken to Clutter-Free Classroom's Find It & Fix It game. You'll thank me later.

I also give my kids class jobs to do during dismissal. There are TONS of these on TPT, but the above link is one that I purchased. This is not a new trick, but it's still useful. I think we underestimate how many things kids are capable of doing. They update my schedule by looking at my lesson plans, they water my plants, pass out mail into mailboxes, organize my library, wipe down our tables, organize my math manipulatives, replenish supplies when they run out (like tissues or bandaids)... they do everything! It gives them a sense of responsibility and shows them how much their effort means to our classroom community. I do model these jobs for the students, but it is SO worth it.

My last tip for you today is to organize your desk EVERY SINGLE DAY before you leave. If you do this every day, you won't have a lot to organize. You will be much happier when you come in every morning ready-to-go. It also helps for those awful days where something goes wrong in the morning--you'll come to work ready to go even if you're late. 

Anyway, those are my tips and tricks for you! A lot of my friends ask me how my room is so clean at the end of the day, and I can't take the credit. It's my students helping me out!! 

Don't forget to grab your Halloween math lab created by yours truly! Click the picture below to check out this awesome, differentiated, challenging math project!

Teachers, are you dressing up for Halloween?? If so, what are you dressing up as? Do you have a costume for school and a costume for home? Comment below!!

Halloween Preparation!

Hi, Teachers!

It's going to be my favorite time of year before I know it.... HALLOWEEN!!!! I can't wait! I've been shoveling pumpkin into my mouth while I can easily get it in stores, sniffing pumpkin candles, enjoying the fall decorations coming out... it's just one of the best times of the year in my opinion, and dressing up in costumes only makes it that much more fun! The kids get so excited for Halloween too. The day we celebrate Halloween in my room just becomes COMPLETELY Halloween-ified. Do you do the same thing too?

The way I look at it, you're not going to get much teaching done on Halloween unless you give in to the festivities. Halloween can be perfectly educational and still be FUN! Here are some of my favorite things to do in the days/weeks leading up to Halloween:

1. Halloween Math Activities

A Word On Third

I just created this for my class to use this year. We'll be well into our study of addition and subtraction, so this will be the perfect way to let the kids see how the skills I'm teaching them have real-life applications. Plus... IT'S FUN! In this project, the students will receive a mysterious letter with a request from some spooky neighbors ("Teri Bull" and "Gob Lin"... hehe... that's my brand of humor!) to help them plan a Halloween party. They will be responsible for making sense of the problem (outlined in the letter), and using one of the three differentiated price lists to follow the criteria in the problem. They must purchase food, beverages, decorations, and other supplies while following a certain budget. There are many ways to solve this problem, but the students will need to make a lot of decisions to make it work. Depending on the problem set that you pick to use in your classroom, you can use this for 3-5 days in a week. I've created similar problems in the past, and the kids always LOVE it! Go check it out. :) It's a way more meaningful experience for the students than a lot of the Halloween stuff out there, and it's really engaging!

I also LOVE to do Halloween glyphs or logic puzzles with my kids. They take a very short amount of time, but they are really fun. I used to love trying the logic puzzles in the Highlights Magazines as a kid. Did anyone else do that??

2. Halloween Writing Activities

I'm not going to lie... I think I can be a bit of a writing instruction snob sometimes. I do NOT like writing prompts because I don't think they are authentic experiences for the kids. I religiously follow the workshop model and I find that when student choice is continuously incorporated into my literacy block, student achievement soars. So what's a nerdy gal like me to do when writing comes around? My kids don't want to be planning, drafting, revising, editing, or publishing their personal narratives on October 31st! Well, here's what I do...

THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK! This very easily becomes a favorite among my kids. Amazon describes this book by writing:

"Fourteen black-and-white drawings, each accompanied by a title and a caption, entice readers to make up his or her own story." 

Um... understatement of the year! This book has insanely cool pictures and a really fun mystery with how the pictures came to be in the book. In one picture, a bird painted on wallpaper is coming to life and about to fly out of the window. In another, a house is blasting off into outer space. UM... WHAT!? How cool is that!?!?!? These are great inspirations for the kids. Rather than following a traditional prompt format, I let the kids pick whichever photo they choose for inspiration, and maybe over the course of just a few days, I do some reminding lessons on planning, drafting, and revising. Then, on Halloween (or, in this case, Friday the 30th this year!), we share our stories during a spooky author celebration. How fun would it be to turn off all the lights and have some flashlights during a writing celebration like this? Some stories will be silly, some will be downright scary, but it's a fun time. And you can still follow the workshop model if you're a Teacher's College lover like me! And guess what? You are still a good teacher if your students don't publish every piece they write or celebrate!!!! That was hard for me to get into my head, but writing is about the process more than the product.

3. Halloween Shared Reading

As my friends know, I'm a big fan of shared reading, which I talk about in this post. What an easy way to spiral your literacy instruction and build important fluency and comprehension skills.

Anyway, during the weeks leading up to Halloween, I pick some of my favorite Halloween texts to use during my shared reading block. It can be a funny, quick poem or even a nonfiction article/part of a text on the history behind Halloween. I have a great Time For Kids article about candy and sugar's effect on the brain. BOOM. Halloween-ified. Happy kids, happy teacher.

4. Halloween Read Alouds

This doesn't really need much explanation, but here are a few of my favorite Halloween books! Click the pictures to order them on Amazon.

I probably love this one so much because I'm a crazy dog lady, but I promise everyone likes it!!! There's a lot than can be taught in this book. Making inferences/predictions, all sorts of stuff!

And then there's Gail Gibbons. She's just amazing. I love her books. One day, I'm going to publish 39284234 million books like she has!!

Well, that's about all I have time for tonight. It's been about an hour since I've shoved a pumpkin food into my mouth, so..... I need to go make some more. Even though it's almost 11 PM and I should be sleeping!!

Teachers, what do you do for Halloween? What are your favorite parts about being a teacher on Halloween? Are you dressing up this year??