Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Classroom Clutter

I've been on a declutter kick for the past few weeks. I'm organizing all of my resources. Soon I plan to write a lengthy blog post detailing my new organizational system for task cards, games, and other academic resources. It is changing my life! My class finished a little early today and I was able to pass out math games to small groups to practice skills from earlier in the year within minutes. I should be finished organizing everything by the end of next week and I can share lots of pictures of the end result.

For the time being, I'm posting this handy graphic from Quill with tips for organizing classroom clutter. Hope you find it useful!

Click to Enlarge Image

Organization Hacks That Triumph Over Classroom Clutter
Brought to you by Quill

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Flexible Seating for Flexible Students

Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking skills, and rich communication are just a few of the things teachers are demanding of elementary age students these days. Teachers are hoping to help build these skills in students and when you see a glimmer of the end result it is beautiful. But as with many beautiful end results, the path can be rocky and ugly. We expect our students to be flexible and constantly try new learning strategies, move from subject to subject with a couple of minutes transition, and continuously adapt to new technologies. For some reason desks in rows facing forward, just doesn't quite seem to fit this type of learning environment. 

I believe if we want students to eagerly tackle any new challenge through critical thinking skills and creativity with a positive attitude, we are going to have to model the same behavior every single day. When I was first introduced to flexible seating, I was intrigued but had many questions. I wrote a blog post last fall when I finally took the plunge. I remember being curious if it would actually work and if it would be beneficial to students. Now that my students and I have lived in our flexible seating world for several months I thought it might be helpful to the hesitant teacher for me to explain how the rowdy kids in 3 make it work.

Low coffee table, rugs and standard height table at front of room.
Side note: My entire front wall is painted with whiteboard paint. It is incredible!

Where did all the furniture come from?

I spent $10 for the body pillow and bought the three blue rugs for $29 each. Almost every other piece of furniture came from the school storage building. I asked the custodian to help me find any table that could be adjusted to different heights. The only other table was an old coffee table we had at home in our shed. I wanted students to be able to sit on the floor and work at a table. 

High table with stools at the back of the room.
The red bench was discarded from the media center a few years ago and I snatched it up.

All of the furniture I added was discarded from somewhere else. It isn't in great shape, but after a good scrubbing it was all serviceable. The rug under the table is a new hack. This week two friends decided it would be fun to put the rug under the table and work in their "cave." I told them it was fine as long as it didn't become a distraction. I drew the line when they taped notebook paper together to form a curtain around it. I like to keep eyes on everyone! In the beginning, one of my students was afraid he would miss his desk, so I left four in the room. He has continued to choose a desk every week. 

One of the original well-loved baskets that has seen better days.

Where do the students keep their stuff?

This was my biggest concern. At first, I bought plastic baskets at the Dollar Store. Some of the first baskets started cracking within a few days. Since they were $1, I thought I could afford to pick up replacements. Interestingly, I've noticed some students don't mind when the baskets start to break as long as it is still serviceable. The blue basket above is cracked around the top edges. Other students start asking for a new one at the first sign of wear and tear. 

This $1 basket has held up better than most.
She keeps all small supplies in the fluffy pink pencil pouch.

On my trip to buy some replacements, I was disappointed to find the Dollar Store no longer carried these baskets. The other large baskets available for $1 actually turned out to be much sturdier. My students are still using both versions. The students keep all of their supplies in their baskets. Any small items like pencils or crayons are kept in a pencil pouch in their basket. When I ask students to put everything away, they know this means anything they own in our classroom should be in their basket or out in the hall in their backpack. It's actually made cleaning up the room much quicker.

One of the newer, sturdier baskets and no, they are not all this neat.
Some have papers sticking out all over the place. 

 I had no idea where we would store all of these baskets and had visions of me trying to convince my husband to build an elaborate shelf system one weekend. A student actually thought of the solution as I wondered out loud. The students keep their baskets with them during the day. The baskets are either on their desk or on the floor beside them. It saves so much time to have everything within an arms reach. After I tripped over baskets twice, we made a new rule. All baskets on the floor must be under the table or desk, or against a wall. At the end of the day the students simply move all of the baskets on top of a desk or table. Since we have so few desks, our room is much more open. Our custodian appreciates how easy it is to sweep and mop our room after school.

My four desks in the middle and a small, average height,
round table are the only items in the center of our room.

How do students choose seats?

As with anything, some places in the room quickly became coveted areas. I didn't want to have students arguing over seats. On Monday morning, I draw names and students are allowed to pick seats in that order. I had planned for these to be their assigned seats all week. Since I have 22 available places and only 18 students, I've noticed students will move during the week to a new seat. Of course, that often creates a chain reaction of moves, but the students usually do it during snack or lunch. Sometimes they've noticed the place they chose just isn't very comfortable. Other times, they realize they've been reprimanded more than usual for talking and probably need to sit by someone else. In six months, I have never had to make a student move to another seat. I have made suggestions when I notice an issue, but I've never had to force a student to move.

How does it affect behavior and engagement?

The flexible seating approach is a novel idea. Teachers are always exposed to new ideas that sound awesome. Several years ago, I had all of my students sitting on yoga balls. For my class that year, it was a disaster. I'm willing to try anything, but I've learned to judge everything and decide if it is truly beneficial to my students. There is no question that the students prefer this approach to seating. They have more room to spread out, and students love choice. However I've seen tremendous improvement in behavior. Allowing students to move so freely gives them an easy opportunity to make good choices. My students have risen to this responsibility. I was very clear that this is a privilege, and it can be taken away. I've also not had a single student or parent complain about the person sitting next to them in six months! How awesome is that? 

I work with students from my kidney shaped table, but some students also choose to sit there.
They know they might have to move if I need to work with other students.
I've found some students really like sitting this close to me, because it is easy to ask for help quietly.

I was more concerned about engagement. I was surprised to find out that my students seemed more focused on lessons and whole group instruction.  Giving them the freedom to easily move away from any distractions has proved to be very beneficial. Students organically move around the room during small group work. 

At the back of the room, I have a taller table with adult sized chairs.

What about next year?
As a teacher I'm sold on flexible seating. I think it has made a positive difference for my students. As we near the end of the year, I have no doubt I'll always look for ways to incorporate this into my classroom. I would suggest that teachers considering ditching the desks try it for a few months. My administration was very supportive, and our custodian who did most of the heavy lifting was intrigued by the idea. Even if you don't have that much help, start small. Buy a few rugs or large bath mats. Move the desks to the edge of the room. Look around your house or in thrift stores for old coffee tables or high top tables. I would love for you to let know how you figure out a way to make it work.  After all if we are expecting our students to flex their brains with creativity and critical thinking, we can do a little of the same and give them the proper environment for that type of important work.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

ADHD Podcast Link

On Thursday night I participated in my first live webcast. It was a learning experience and so much fun! Teachers Talk Live hosts live webcasts on education issues. A podcast on ADHD in the K-12 classroom may now be downloaded from iTunes at  A direct link is available here. Please let me know what you think!

Bring the Benefits of Homeschool into Traditional Classrooms

Over Spring Break I visited my brother and his family. Last summer they bought their dream home on top of a mountain in North Carolina, and my sister-in-law started homeschooling my niece and nephew this year. Although I have never been tempted to homeschool my children, it is the right choice for their family. After spending several days with them, I have to admit I'm a little jealous. I'm not so jealous of my sister-in-law. If homeschooling is anything like the other ways I labor for my teenage, not-so-little darlings, I am quite sure it is a thankless job most of the time. Teaching is a such a difficult job, and I have no illusion that homeschooling is any easier. Mostly I was jealous of my niece and nephew. I noticed advantages homeschooling allowed them over my own students. On the long drive back to Florida, I pinpointed each of these advantages and thought through how I could make adjustments to my classroom to balance the scales a bit. Before teachers start getting defensive and blowing up my comment feed I need to point out that I believe the classroom does offer some advantages for students over homeschooling, too.  It just isn't the focus of this blogpost.

As students, my niece and nephew are allowed to work in a comfortable environment. If it is time to read, no one expects them to sit at a desk to do it. Not only are they not confined to one spot in a classroom, they aren't even confined to their home. On a restless day, the learning can be moved outside, to the library, or to a local park. If my nephew needs to get up get some wiggles out by running around, he isn't going to disturb an entire classroom. He's only going to annoy his sister, which is pretty much a brother's job anyway!

Teachers in many classrooms are already addressing this issue through flexible seating environments. If you aren't familiar with this concept, there is an excellent article on MindShift about Erin Klein's approach and Kayla Delzer's blogpost on her Starbuck's inspired classroom is fantastic. Using these articles for inspiration, I ditched most of my desks and redesigned my classroom a few months ago. My students have been more engaged and love the freedom. My school is located in a downtown area, so we don't have large, grassy areas to enjoy during learning. We do have a courtyard that is open most of the day. I've committed myself to taking my students out to the courtyard for lessons at least a few times per week. Since I don't like sitting still myself, I've always taken short breaks with students to do a few jumping jacks or stretches. Last week I discovered GoNoodle. It is a game changer! If you teach elementary students, and aren't familiar with GoNoodle, stop reading this blog right now and check it out!

Although my sister-in-law follows a curriculum, she still has an enormous amount of freedom in what and how she teaches. She is able to let her students decide which topics they want to study more in depth. Choice in learning is a strong motivator for students. My nephew is creative and enjoys math, inventing and programming. He happily shared a project he completed on Archimedes. I have designed many projects for my students, but I believe true project-based learning is the key to bringing that type of individualized learning to our students in the classroom. Project-based learning is more than just having students complete a project on a topic instead of learning about the topic from a text book. In PBL, teachers give students learning targets and a framework. In a well-designed project, the students will learn about the content and meet the learning targets while completing the project. They are also given the freedom to take the project in different directions based on their interests. At the beginning of a project, the teacher should know exactly what she wants the students to understand at the finish line, but she shouldn't really know exactly what their finished project will look like. I'm striving to reach this level with my students. It is certainly a challenge. Websites like BIE and edutopia have many resources to help in the quest.

Finally, the most obvious benefit for my niece and nephew is how well their teacher knows and understands them. She has years of experience dealing with their learning style, behavioral issues and individual personalities. I have always said that it is imperative to love each one of your students and have their needs as your primary goal. That is easy for a mother. Teachers have to truly seek out something to love about every, single student.

We will never know our students as well as their parents do, but we can work hard to embrace the uniqueness of each child. I ran into a parent not long ago. She was gushing over how much her son enjoys my class. Although he had a rough year last year, he has made incredible progress this year and loves school now. She was attributing his success to how well I understand him and his personality. I pointed out to her that she was the reason I understood him so well.  I call every parent in my class, the week before school begins. Most don't recognize the number and in my week before school rush, I'm secretly grateful they didn't pick up. Usually I just leave a message. This mother had called me back. She outlined the struggles her son had in the past, and told me about his personality. He has a lot of charm and bravado, but he is actually very sensitive on the inside. Quite frankly he can dish it out, but he can't always take it. I identified with what she was saying. I may or may not live with one or more people with this same personality trait. (They are sensitive. I'm not going to name names.) I most likely would have eventually figured this out about him myself, but I might have hurt his feelings and disconnected him from the classroom in the process. Moral of the story is to talk to parents. Instead of being grateful when the answering machine picks up during those introductory calls, let the parents know you really want to speak with them about their students and will be calling back to touch base. Everyone wants to be known and loved for exactly who they are and your students are no different.

I have an enormous amount of respect for my sister-in-law. Homeschooling is a difficult job, but it has many benefits for the students. There is no reason, we can't try to bring some of those benefits to our traditional classrooms. It may take a great deal of work, but I don't have to have given birth to my students to know they are worth the effort.