Monday, August 29, 2011

And So It Begins...

I have mixed feelings right now... sad and in disbelief that the lazy days of summer are gone, but so excited to be going back to school and implementing all of the changes that I've thought about over the summer. Today was my first official day back, filled with lots of meetings. I was pleasantly surprised that all of the meetings had a fairly positive tone - very encouraging!

I didn't get home till 6 today. I couldn't resist cleaning out one more cabinet after the last meeting, and then I was able to talk to my principal about an idea I've worked on this summer for a classroom blog. I'm super excited that she's on board with it, and assuming none of the higher-ups have a problem with it, I'll be spending some evenings this week getting my class blog set up before open house on Thursday.

Now, I'm sitting down with a glass of wine to draft a language arts curriculum map and pacing guide to share with my teammates tomorrow. Yup, the school year has begun!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Of Dogs and Kids

I've spent the last month of my summer training and loving on the sweet puppy my husband and I recently adopted. Here's a picture, just in case you don't believe how cute he is:
 While I've been training him, I'm learning just as much as he is. It seems that almost every revelation I have about obedience training is a lesson that I've also learned about teaching kids in the classroom.

Dogs and kids:
  • respond much better to praise for doing the right thing than to punishment for doing something wrong. The trainer that we're working with taught us to say "yes" every time he does something right, and I'm amazed at how he responds to that, even when I don't have a treat. He also gets praise as soon as he self-corrects any misbehavior.
  • need to trust you all of the time and have fun around you much of the time. We've had our puppy for just about a month now, and we're starting to see that he trusts us and is excited to see us even more than other people he meets. I'm excited to see how our relationship builds over the course of the next year and beyond.
  • thrive on a predictable, consistent routine. Just like my kids remind me when I forget that it's time for recess, my dog reminds me when it's time to go for a walk.
  • learn best when you chunk big tasks into smaller tasks. Often, they need some think time to process an instruction. (I can see that he's thinking, "Sit... I know I've heard that before... What does it mean? Oh, yeah!" Pestering him by saying "Sit... sit... sit... sit!" only stresses him out.) They need to practice lots of repetitions before they master a skill. And then they need immediate feedback.
  • can get themselves into lots of trouble when they're bored. You should see my living room floor right now.
  • sometimes ask to go to the bathroom just because they're bored. It can be hard to tell whether or not they really need to go, but it's best to just let them go if there's any doubt.
  • will do anything for food. Period. Enough said.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Where It All Goes Down, Earthquake Update, and Three for Thursday

I didn't get a chance to post pictures of my room yesterday, but it doesn't really matter, because there's not much to show yet. I haven't officially started back (Monday!), so my classroom isn't put together. Here's what my room looked like the last time I was in!

I went in yesterday and did a bit more work before meeting my teammates for a working dinner to write our curriculum maps. While I was at school, I walked past the gym and saw this:

Tuesday's earthquake took down some of the ceiling tiles! That seems to be the only damage to the school, thankfully!

I've still been on the lookout for some good articles explaining the science behind the earthquake so that I can talk about it with my students. This article from CNN has some good explanations, and Scholastic News has an article that is kid friendly. Has anybody else found any good articles?

So, now on to today's Teacher Week topic from Blog Hoppin': Three for Thursday!

Favorite Font
I can't download fonts to my school computer, so I typically use Kristen ITC for all of the titles and headings of handouts and Arial for body text. So uncreative, I know! I feel pretty lame since Kristen ITC is quickly becoming the Comic Sans of this decade.
 But, when I want to create a title with a cool font, I get around the issue of not being able to download files by going to a site like and browsing their handwriting fonts. You can type in a text to preview, so I type in whatever I want my title to say, and then I take a screen shot of the words in a font I like and paste it as an image in my document!

Favorite Blog
It's so hard to pick! Now that I've discovered teacher blogs, I'm actually worried that I won't have time to read all of the blogs I like once I go back to school! That being said, I love reading Miss Teacher's Juice Boxes and Crayolas! That was one of the first teacher blogs I stumbled on, and I was so excited to find such a great 5th grade blog! Miss Teacher has been blogging since before her first year of teaching, and it was fun to skim through her archives. She also shares a ton of great resources for the upper grades, especially if you're looking for Daily 5/literacy activities.

Favorite Online Resource
Does google count? :) Gosh, there are so many sites from which I gather resources, it's hard to think of one that stands out from the rest! I love Reading A-Z and United Streaming, but both of those require accounts. (I'm lucky enough that my school district gives teachers accounts to those sites.) For a free resource, I'll share Scholastic News. I love pulling articles from their site to share during class meetings, in guided reading groups, or simply on my News and Announcements board. I can usually find excellent information about current events that are of high interest to my students.

Now, off to school to work on my room!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


About an hour ago, I was in the zone working on my reading curriculum for next year when the rumbling started. My poor puppy didn't know what was happening as knick-knacks started falling off the shelves! Turns out it was a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, with the epicenter not too far from here! We're fine, and I haven't heard of any injuries on the news.

I'm excited to talk about this with my kids once school starts, since earthquakes are part of our science curriculum. Now I've got to figure out the science behind it; we're not anywhere near a tectonic plate boundary, so I'm not sure what caused it! Please let me know if you find any good sites that explain it over the next couple of days!

Apparently this quake was felt all up and down the east coast. Any other stories? I can't imagine what a stronger earthquake would be like!


Teacher Talk Tuesday

Today's theme from Blog Hoppin' is Teacher Talk Tuesday. Everyone is sharing advice for new teachers. I think it's actually really hard to come up with something original for this; all of the posts that I've already read have the standard - but really good - advice of being flexible, making time for yourself, getting to know students and their families, and having fun. Instead of rehashing what's been said so often already, I'll share the one mantra that got me through my first year (and continues to get me through rough days):

If it's not going to matter six months from now, then it's not worth worrying about.

As teachers, we have so much on our plate that it's impossible to give every task the full attention it needs. I think it can be extremely difficult for first year teachers to keep from getting bogged down in all of the "little" problems that arise that seem like big problems. Whether it's a botched lesson, a negative interaction with a parent or administrator, or just an all-around bad day, these issues can bother us so much that they consume all of our waking (and sometimes sleeping) thoughts. While we can and should still take steps to make these situations better, I think it's really important to keep things in perspective.

If it's not going to matter six months from now - if it's not going to physically harm someone, if it's not going to cost me my job, if it's not going to damage a positive relationship beyond repair, if it's not going to leave me with a huge sense of regret - then it's not worth worrying about.

And because I think posts are always better with a photo, this is what I picture in my head when school stress is keeping me up at night:
 I always tell myself "This won't matter one bit to me when I'm lying on the beach this summer!"

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meet the Teacher

It's Teacher Week over at Blog Hoppin'!

I just started this blog earlier this month, so this is a perfect first link up for me. I'm really excited to make some new blogging friends, so if you're reading this, please leave a comment and introduce yourself!

Tell us a little something about you...
I'm Kristin. I have a ridiculously generic last name, but I still prefer some online anonymity, so I'm going with the moniker Mrs. Smith. :) I just finished writing my About Me page, so please click on over!

How long have you been teaching?
This year will be my fourth year teaching. I've always taught 5th grade. I was lucky enough to get a job at the same school where I did my student teaching on the same team as one of my mentor teachers. When I was little, I loved playing school with my stuffed animals and little sister. Of course, I was always the teacher! I also remember sitting in classrooms as a student and tucking away fun ideas to use "someday when I'm a teacher." I don't think I ever imagined how much work teaching is, or how much paperwork and bureaucracy is involved in the public school system! I do enjoy my job, though, and I'm looking forward to getting back to work (a week from today) and starting a new year with a new group of kids (two weeks from tomorrow)!

You might not know...
I guess you hardly know anything about me! Hmmm... where to start? Growing up, I lived in 7 different states and spent two years of high school in Germany since my dad was in the military. That means I attended 6 schools from kindergarten through high school graduation. I used to think that was a lot until I had some very transient fifth grade students who already had me beat! I loved living in Germany, and I ended up majoring in German in college and studying in Austria for a semester.

What are you looking most forward to this school year?
I am looking forward to a fresh start. I had a bit of a rough year last year with a group of kids who were 10 going on 16. I've heard that I have a younger group of kids coming up to me this year, and I'm ready for a different set of challenges. I'm also super excited about a new approach to language arts...

What do you need to improve?
I teach science, math, and language arts. Math was my master's specialization, and I've developed a LOVE for science inquiry since I started teaching. I have not, however, been confident in teaching language arts, and I've felt like I haven't received as much support in that area from my school. This summer, I read up on Daily 5 and CAFE, and I can't wait to start individual conferences and giving students more choice in their reading and writing!

What teaching supplies can you *not* live without?
Fat Mr. Sketch markers for writing on chart paper, Paper Mate Flair pens for grading, and fun sticky notes just because!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Vacation Tic-Tac-Toe

Update 4/8/16: I'm now on Teachers Pay Teachers! Please visit my store for an updated free version of Vacation Tic-Tac-Toe!

make up work free   make up work

I often have very mixed feelings about students who take time off from school to go on vacation. On the one hand, we barely have enough class time to cover the required curriculum, and I work very hard to provide meaningful, engaging lessons that simply cannot be replaced by books and worksheets. On the other hand, though, I truly appreciate and understand the value of traveling even short distances when it comes to enriching a child's education. I wish I could travel with some of my students who have never been to the beach or on an airplane to build their background knowledge, marvel at the science that's all around, or simply discuss how we budget money on trips or at restaurants. Those are the types of experiences that I believe make learning most fun and valuable, and I know some of my students rarely get that.

So, I always feel very torn when I get a note from parents explaining that their student will be out all next week for a trip to Disney World or a visit with Grandma, and could I please send home all work that the student will miss. My first reaction is usually one of exasperation; don't these parents understand how much learning comes from the discussions and hands on experiences in the classroom that can't be packed up and sent home? I usually send home what I can (this has been one of the main uses for my textbooks!), and keep a huge list of make up work and notes for the when the student returns, and then it's a pain in the butt trying to actually keep track of everything.

I've decided that this year I will embrace these family trips as opportunities to encourage parents and students to find the educational value in their travels. Vacation Tic-Tac-Toe is a menu of activities for students to choose from while they are away from school. If they satisfactorily complete three in a row, I will exempt them from most of the work they miss while they are out (and I'll be flexible about allowing them to make up graded assignments and assessments in class).

I'm thinking that I'll pack several "vacation bags" before school starts so that I have them ready to give to a student if I get a last minute note. Inside a large ziploc baggie will be most of the supplies students should need to complete these activities, including: a copy of the menu, lined paper, blank paper, graph paper, pencils, colored pencils or crayons, and a small pencil sharpener. I'll be sure to post pictures when I assemble these.

I hope that these alternative assignments will allow students to enjoy their time off, make their trips more meaningful, provide a way for them to share their experiences with the class when they return, and alleviate some of the hassle of make up work for me!

I'm happy to share the original work file if anyone would like it! :)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The PNP Sandwich

That's Positive-Negative-Positive! I'm sure we've all heard about using that strategy when we need to give constructive criticism. I always try to write my report card card and interim comments in that format in hopes that doing so will continue to build a positive, working relationship with my students and their parents. With that in mind, here is my PNP sandwich of my week so far:

I was stoked to find out that I am getting a student teacher this fall. I can't believe that I've been teaching long enough to be a mentor teacher, but I'm honored than my principal thinks highly enough of me to put my name in the hat. I met my student teacher last night, and she seems awesome. Not only is she from the same program that I got my master's from, she also happens to speak fluent German (which was my undergrad major) and has family in Austria (where I studied for a semester)! I'm super excited to work with her, and I hope I made as good of a first impression on her as she made on me.

I hated having to go to an all day curriculum training today. It was one of those inservices that I didn't get much out of, and I hate feeling like time isn't being used efficiently.

On the other hand, I loved spending the day with some teacher friends that I haven't seen in a while and going out to lunch with them! It was nice to catch up and hear everyone's thoughts about the upcoming year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Partner Sticker Cards

This project was more difficult to figure out than I'd anticipated. It's even more difficult to figure out how to explain it.

I made these partner sticker cards to help me form different sized groups for any activity that I don't need to plan out who is in which group. Until now, I've always just had my kids count off by the number of groups I wanted to form. Hopefully, this will inject a bit of fun into the classroom. Here's how the cards work:

Each card contains one sticker from each of several different categories. For example, every card has exactly one music note, one sports ball, one star, etc, though there are different colors or types of each category in the set of cards. To put students in groups, hand each student one card. Then call out, "Get in a group where everyone has the same kind of sports ball!" The students won't know who will be in their group, how many kids will be in their group, or how many groups there will be until everyone has compared cards.

It's not totally random, however. Each category corresponds to a different size group:

So, using my set of cards, if I wanted students to work in groups of three (perhaps for small group book shares), I would tell them to find everyone else who had the same star sticker.

purple star group:

yellow smiley star group:

If I wanted the class to split into three groups (for a game of Jeopardy, maybe) I would tell them to get in groups based on their fish stickers, according to my "cheat sheet" above.

I'm excited to use these cards throughout the year, but especially for lots of community building during the first few weeks of school. If you're intrigued and would like to make you're own set, here are instructions based on my trial and error.:

Since I don't know how many kids I will have and since I want to be able to use this set for several years, I made 30 cards and arranged the stickers so that they will still work with fewer students. That's what made it so complicated!

You'll need 3x5 index cards and at least 10 different categories of stickers in various quantities (see below).  This will allow you to create any size group, whether you want to create the groups based on the number of students in each group or based on the total number of groups in the class.

1. Number blank index cards 1-30 and lay them out in order. (I numbered my lightly in pencil on the back.)

2. To be able to form groups based on the number of students in each group here are the stickers you'll need and how to lay them out:
groups of 2: 2 each of 15 different stickers (this was really hard to find - I used hand prints)
groups of 3: 3 each of 10 different stickers (I used stars)
groups of 4: 4 each of 8 different stickers (I used school supplies; you'll only use 2 of the last kind)
groups of 5: 5 each of 6 different stickers (I used music notes)
Place these sets of stickers on the index cards in order starting on card 1, placing each of the different varieties in a row: A, A, A, A, B, B, B, B, C, C, C, C, and so on. For example, I placed blue music notes on cards 1-5, green music notes on cards 6-10, etc.

3. To be able to form groups based on the total number of groups you want, here are the stickers you'll need and how to lay them out:
2 groups: 15 each of 2 different stickers (I used peace signs)
3 groups: 10 each of 3 different stickers (I used fish)
4 groups: 8 each of 4 different stickers (I used veggies)
5 groups: 6 each of 5 different stickers (I used sports balls)
Place these sets of stickers on the index cards, starting on card 1, alternating each variety as if you were counting off: A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, and so on. When I was sticking on the veggies category, I put corn on card 1, carrots on card 2, lettuce on card 3, peas on card 4, and started the pattern again with corn on card 5, continuing until all cards had one veggie sticker.

By placing the stickers this way, the last few cards can be removed to create a smaller set without messing up the groupings. It was only after I placed all of these stickers that I realized that I had a few redundancies. This is because, in a set of 30, making groups of 6 students in the same as making 5 groups! If you look closely at my cards, you'll see that I also used penguins, planets, dots, and smiley faces. They don't mess anything up, and I can still use them - they're just overkill, because I already have all scenarios covered based on the lists above.

My sister (who just graduated from college with honors in math and who is now a software engineer) and I thoroughly boggled our minds sorting this all out. I thought this would be easiest to use in the classroom if I made the cheat sheet above, along with a card for each category showing all of the different stickers in that category:

If anyone else stumbles upon this blog and gives these cards a try I'd love to hear how they turn out! I know this post was super long and probably confusing. Let me know if I can clarify anything! I also thought that you could make a digital set of cards to print out using shapes, math equations, or clip art.

So that's how I spent my Saturday evening. You know, 'cause I'm cool like that. I'm living it up while I'm in my twenties getting pretty excited to start the new school year!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Things I heard at school today:

"I can't quite get it in the hole."

"Take it nice and slow!"

"Make sure you pull it all the way out!"

"Go a bit deeper..."

From the tech guys installing wiring in the ceiling for our new security camera system across the hall. :) You can imagine that those of us working on the School Improvement Plan in the principal's office didn't get much done as we were rolling over in fits of laughter!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Classroom Setup, Day 1 (and a half)

School doesn't start here until after Labor Day, so I still have a couple of weeks before my classroom needs to be done. I put in a few hours yesterday because:
  • I hate feeling rushed during teacher work week... they really should call it teacher meeting week!
  • I'm always excited to go work in my classroom this time of year, even though I won't admit it to some of my teacher friends who are too cool to spend any summer time doing anything school related.
  • It was a good excuse to give our new puppy some practice home alone in the crate; gotta build up his stamina before I go back full time!
I taught summer school during July, and I did take a bit of time one afternoon to move the big pieces of furniture in my room with the custodian's help (that's the "and a half" from the title of this post). So when I got to school yesterday, all of the bookshelves and my desk were already in place, but I still had lots to move.

This was the view from the doorway. Cabinets and sink on the left, my desk area by the left window, front of the classroom to the right:

The front of the room... how I wish that were a smart board! The projector screen is just pulled down, though I am excited that they finally mounted my projector in the ceiling. No more huge cart in the middle of the room!

Standing at my desk, looking back out the door:

I can't really call these "after" pictures; they're definitely just in progress. I focused solely on organization yesterday... decorations will wait for another time. I got the desks arranged and all of the other furniture situated. Trying a slightly new configuration this year, one that gives me a reading nook plus a meeting area.

Looking towards the front of the room... my reading nook is under the far window:

My desk area still looks like a mess, but I did clean out my file cabinets:

 The red carpet under the window is my new reading nook. My meeting area will be on the large tan carpet.

I inventoried lots of textbooks (most of which I rarely use), including part of our newly adopted math series:

This will be my small group/conference table. It used to be in front of the cabinets in the back of the room, and I used it mostly for dumping things. I've read Daily 5 and The Cafe Book this summer, and I'm going make a much greater effort to include small group instruction and individual conferences during language arts. Right now, the table is still covered in school supplies that my team ordered:

I feel pretty good about the progress that I made yesterday. Of course, it left me itching do do more. I love setting up my classroom each year and looking forward to a fresh start!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

First Post

Hello fellow teacher bloggers! I have spent the last four days pouring over all of your wonderful sites during every spare minute I could find. I've followed several lifestyle and photography blogs using google reader, and I'm pretty sure I did a search a few months ago for "teaching blogs" that turned up pretty slim results. Obviously I didn't dig very hard! My teacher blog binge this week began with a link from a Responsive Classroom article, and my, what a chain of dominoes that set off! I have been so inspired looking at all of the projects everyone else has been doing to get ready for the new school year. I also can't believe that many schools have already started! Makes me thankful that I still have a couple more weeks even before the teacher work week, though I know I'll be singing a different tune in May.

This will be my fourth year teaching fifth grade; that part of my blog title is true. My name isn't really Mrs. Smith, however. I'm ready to quit lurking on all of the blogs I read and start contributing to this community, but the very introverted part of me just can't relinquish too much privacy, including my real name. Plus, Smith sort of rhymes with fifth, and I like that. :)

One of the mantras I picked up early on is "work smarter, not harder." I really try to live by that idea, since time is such a sparse commodity, while still striving to provide the most meaningful learning experience possible for each student who walks into my classroom. I'm not a "cutesy" teacher... I'd never survive in kindergarten! While I like to think my classroom is attractive, neat, and organized, it could never measure up to some of the awesome themed rooms and displays I've oggled over on some other teacher blogs. I always to to weigh the benefits to students against the amount of time I might put into any project; if there's a faster, but just as beneficial way to do something, you can bet I'm on board. That also means that I've gotten pretty good about not spending much money on my classroom even though I teach in a school with a high percentage of low income families. Many of the ideas I'm planning on sharing here are low budget projects or lesson materials that I've put together myself.

My vision for this blog is for it to be a place to record my thoughts and reflections throughout the year, and I also hope that I can contribute a little bit to the supportive community of teachers that I've been peeping in on recently. I'm looking forward to making some new friends!