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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year New You!

I bet I can predict what you are doing right now:
  • You are in your pajamas.
  • You are on your couch. 
  • You are watching Netflix. 
  • You are relaxing. (Maybe working :) Let's be real--what teachers can really take a break?)
  As teachers, we deserve our winter break. We work extra hours at night and on the weekends and do everything for our students. Also, we survived the craziness before winter break. How many of you were feeling like this?


We should all use winter break as a time to relax, but also a time to reflect. We want to have a new year and make a new you! This is an amazing opportunity to start over or to think about how you want to change. 
Maybe you want to set a new goal? 
Maybe you want to add more engagement to your room? 
Maybe you want to not take work home? (Wouldn't that be amazing?)

Whatever you choose to do--use this opportunity to start over and start fresh with a new year and a new YOU. You are an incredible teacher and educator--KEEP GOING! Happy NEW YEAR!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Five Fun New Year's Activities

Hey everyone! It's Caitlin & Jessica here from EB Academic Camps. We spent some time perusing the TpT world to find you some of the best New Year's Activities (in our opinion). The best part, almost all of them are FREEBIES! Enjoy!

New Year's Resolution and Goals Mobile (which I used with my class last year and made for such cute decorations!)

2016 Watch, Think, Color Games (this is actually incredibly cute and looks awesome for math practice!)

New Year Writing & Goals Activities (you know anything from Tracee Orman is fabulous)

New Year's Resolution / Goals from Addie Williams (we just love Addie and everything she creates is definitely quality)

New Year's Activity for Middle School (this is our product and obviously we think it's great - freebie, too!)

What are some activities that you do with your middle school students to kick off the New Year? Share in the comments below!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why You Should Never Yell at Your Students

There are very few things that I believe in more adamantly than I do as not yelling at your students. This is NEVER a good idea. These are my top 3 reasons why. And they're legitimate ones you should take into consideration, so keep on reading.

1. It doesn't help anyone. Not you. Not your students. Not anyone. Think about how well you react when someone yells at you. Do you really want to do anything to please them? NO. If anything, you want to do the opposite because they just berated and yelled at you. And as a teacher, your heart rate increases, you're incredibly upset, you've lost your cool. Yelling is really one of the worst things you could do to improve student behavior.

2. It doesn't show your students respect. Think about what it's like to receive respect from your principal (or boss). They trust that you're doing an excellent job in the classroom, they treat you with kindness and the kind of respect you deserve. And how do you respond to that? Positively, right? And if you've made a mistake, what is more likely to help you improve? Being brought into your principal's office and being yelled at? Or being brought into your principal's office where they calmly and kindly discuss with you the areas where you could use some improvement? If you don't prefer the latter, well then ... We should be showing our students the same respect that we expect from our principals. They're more likely to respect us in return. And as a result, they're more likely to behave better in our classrooms! Respecting our students is a win-win situation.

3. It doesn't portray you as a role model. As teachers, one of the most important things we can be for our students is a role model. If we stand in front of them yelling at them, showing them that we are completely out of control of our class, then we are not portraying ourselves as role models. We should always show ourselves to be some of the most upstanding citizens, who treat everyone with kindness and respect, and who are always in control of our emotions. If we are out of control and yelling, what are we teaching them? We're teaching our students that yelling is meant to get them what they want. When looking at interpersonal relationships, yelling is the furthest thing from helpful.

As a teacher, I remember yelling ONCE at a student. His name was Anthony, and I felt terrible about it. He had been pushing my buttons all day, and I just couldn't take it anymore. I yelled at him in front of the entire class and immediately regretted it. I'm sure we've all been there. 

But what I did after yelling at Anthony was probably the best lesson I could have taught my students that year. I apologized to him in front of the entire class. I said something to the effect of, "Wow. Anthony, I am so sorry for yelling at you just now. I lost my cool and should have never treated you like that. I hope you'll forgive me." And you know what Anthony said? He said, "I forgive you, Miss. Thank you." Talk about a profound experience not just for myself, but for my students as well.

If you tend to yell at your students, I hope you'll reconsider. And know that we've all been there. But with the New Year approaching, now is the time for change! Make it your resolution to not yell at your students for the rest of the semester. And sometimes, if I feel like I'm going to lose it, I'll step out into the hallway and take a moment to breathe, remind myself that this is just a moment, and allow myself some time to calm down.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2016!

Regaining Momentum

Hey, everyone! Mandy from Caffeine and Lesson Plans here to share some thoughts on regaining momentum after the holiday break.

It’s finally here…. Winter break! After a month of building suspense, the holiday has come and gone. As I relax and recharge, I’m already starting to look toward January. It’s business time when we get back. We have curriculum to learn, routines to reinforce, and state tests to prepare for. Crunch time is upon us! So, after a wonderful winter break, how do you regain momentum? I’ve got a few easy to implement ideas for you.

#1- Fresh Supplies
Ok, admittedly this one sounds silly but seriously- it works. After vacation I refresh my supplies. New pencils to replace the chewed up eraserless ones, fresh crayons and colored pencils with sharp tips, and new expo markers that make thick, dark lines. There is something about new supplies that just puts kiddos in the mood to learn. Heck, it even works on me! I work just a bit harder with some new supplies.

#2 – Go back to square one
When my kiddos return from break, I pretend it’s the beginning again. I re-teach the routines, my expectations, and our guidelines. It may not be the most academically productive few days of the year, but it sets us up for success down the road. I make sure that every routine is clear, and every expectation is understood before I move back into the curriculum. This time can’t be wasted, of course, so I teach interventions and enrichment during class time as we practice the routines.

#3- Assess and Set Goals
Coming back from break is the perfect time to do some formative assessment. Anything that has been retained over vacation has definitely been committed to permanent memory. Things that have not been retained as well can be retaught in small groups during intervention time. I am a generalist and teach all subjects so this can easily get overwhelming. So much to grade, and so little time to do it in! I recommend grading in conferences to cut back on out of class grading time. The kiddos get immediate feedback, I spend less time grading at home, and everyone wins! After the assessments are done, the kiddos reflect on their growth and set personal learning goals. I very rarely step in here to adjust their goals. I think that it’s incredibly important to allow kids to be accountable to themselves, and the best way to do that is to let them set the parameters for success. If a student decides that the best way to improve her mathematics performance is to practice her math facts with flash cards, then so be it. If another decides that the best way is to work on her studying skills, then great. The most important thing to me is that the kids are working toward improving themselves.

#4- Reconnect
It’s been a couple weeks since your students have been in front of you. Even before that, it’s been a month or so since they have been on their “A” game. We all know that holiday madness detracts from teaching starting just after Thanksgiving- December is basically a long game of “pin the student to the chair.” When you break it down, it’s been a good 6 weeks since you have really connected with your students. Talk to them! Walk next to them in the halls, chit chat while you wait for the bell to ring, or ask about their new shoes. Remember that relationships make learning happen. They have to know that you care before they care about what you know.

So, there you have it- what I do in my classroom to regain momentum after the holidays. What works for you?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

How I Help Relieve My Students' Holiday Break Stress

Holiday Break Stress?


So many of our students say they "hate" school but if the truth be told, school is the only place these same kids can count on for stability in their lives.  That's why many of them "act up" right before they break.  They are stressed about what it means to be away from school.

So, to help them, I try to send some school home with them.  

First,  throughout the week preceding the break, I try to point out any free events that I know about so that the students might choose to attend with friends.  I also ask a student or two each day what their plans are for the break.  In this way, I plant seeds of ideas for students who have no plans.  

Then, I write a letter to each student with some kind words that give them suggestions for things to do when they get "bored" (although I don't put it that way in the letter!  :)  )

Get a FREE template by Clicking HERE

Depending on how much "teacher money" I have, I try to purchase the students a book using Scholastic Book clubs that generally have $1 specials at this time of year.  But if I cannot buy the books, I make sure that my students have time to check out a book and even give them some "special paper" to write their stories or poems on.  

I pass out my letters on the last day before the break as my gift with a small candy cane.  

With the discussions that we have had throughout the week, capped off with the letter, it hopefully eases the transition from school to home.

What do you do to calm holiday stress in your classroom?  Join in the conversation in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Semester Exams in Middle School

It's that time of the year where the semester is winding down. If your students are like mine, they have one thing on their mind...Christmas Break. But before they can cross that finish line, they have to survive the dreaded semester exams (insert scary deep voice here!).

In our district, all students in grades 7-12 are required to take a comprehensive semester exam. Our middle schoolers will have their first experiences with these exams and it's always important for teachers to frame the exams in a positive way. In my ELA classroom, I make a point of reviewing test study skills,  and ways to combat test anxiety.  Semester exams are typically the longest tests my students have been required to take so far in the school year and it's important to help them improve their test stamina. Students also have a chance to offer their own strategies that work for them.

Here are the top ten student strategies and advice that came from class discussions this week:

1. Get a good night's sleep before test days. Being tired because you stayed up all night to study isn't going to help you get a good grade on the test.

2. Eat a healthy breakfast and make sure you eat lunch. Remember from Health class--your brain needs fuel.

3. Don't wait until the last minute to study. Cramming isn't smart. And it adds to the stress!

4. Divide the content into easily studied portions. It's not as scary and overwhelming.

5. Don't assume you know the information just because you have been in class every day. But if you have missed multiple days at school, make sure you have everything you missed. You don't get a pass for those days...

6. Take the tests seriously and don't blow them off. Christmas may not be as enjoyable if you fail your exams.

7. Ask your friends to study with you. Your family can help you too!

8. If you come to a question that you don't know, circle it and come back to it. Something on the test may remind you of the answer.

9. Just breathe!! (My personal favorite from an always stressed student)

10, Be confident in what you know. Don't be nervous. Take a deep breathe and relax. All the knowledge will come to you. (From my lowest student)

The next two days are exam days. Wish us all luck :)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Resolutions in the Classroom

Until the past couple years, I’ve never been much of a New Year’s Resolutions fan – it always seemed like a futile exercise in bandwagonry and historically I’ve always tried to avoid the bandwagon. I acknowledge, however, that avoiding things simply because they are popular is not the most advisable practice, as sometimes things are bandwaggony (yes, I like to make up my own words) for a reason.  Take Game of Thrones, for example. Jon Snow, anyone? 

Anyway! My point is that I’m now jumping on the New Year’s Resolution bandwagon. Admittedly, though, the first thing I still think of related to resolutions is the act of making a list of ambitious things you’d like to accomplish in the New Year and then not actually doing any of those things; however, I've realized that resolutions can be pretty meaningful when coupled with the act of self- reflection -- and of course, with a specific plan to hold yourself accountable. 

I created a check-list for my students to write letters to their future selves that outline their resolutions for the coming year. I have them return the letters to me, sealed (either with a staple or in an envelope if I'm feeling fancy) and then I return the letters to them at the end of the year. This has made for great conversation in the past and works well with any type of end-of-year reflection activity.

I like to preface this activity by gauging student’s attitudes about resolutions, and I usually find that many of my students feel the same way I used to/still kind of feel. I then lead into a brief conversation about self-reflection, where most students agree that it’s an important practice for personal, social and academic life. We discuss how often we should be "reflecting" in our own lives and what that actually looks like-- and those responses are always quite interesting. This is a great activity for a language arts class during the week before winter break! :) 

Thanks for stopping by the blog today! 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Student Wishes

Mylie from Edison Education here today!

As we head into the holidays, we all know that our student become obsessed with all of the gifts they are or are not getting for the holidays. That is why it was so important to me to make sure kids were thinking about intangible things they were thankful for as a Thanksgiving activity. You can read more on that here. 

I have already heard from one student, "I hate this time of year. All everyone talks about is their stuff. I can't wait for January to get here." This absolutely breaks my heart because so many of our students have wishes that are much deeper than toys or gadgets. So, in order to extend our Thanksgiving activity, I asked each of my students to think about an intangible thing they would wish for. It did not have to be realistic, but it did have to be something they truly wish they could have. I made sure that it was private so they did not have to be embarrassed with sharing in front of peers. Some of them were pretty hilarious:
*Please excuse the sentence structure and spelling. a) I teach math. b) These are special ed students. Thanks!*

Some of them were a little more serious:

And a few of them taught me more about my students' lives than I knew before:

I am very proud of my students for how seriously MOST of them took this activity. I actually learned a lot about several of them that I did not know before. I did not know that one had lost a brother. I did not know that one had not seen their dad in 4 years. I did not know that one had a dad in prison. It was very eye opening for me, but I am hoping it also helped my students realize that it is not all about the toys and gadgets. Those are just fillers for the things in life that truly matter.

If you could have one intangible wish for Christmas, what would it be?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Keeping Students Engaged Before the Holidays

Remaining the 'Star' of the Show

Don’t Deny It, the Holidays are Here!
  I remember the first few years I taught elementary school. Holidays were always so hectic. There were parties, room moms bringing sugary snacks, and lots of overly-excited kiddos. It was a fun time, but an exhausting time. After our schools consolidated and I was moved to the middle school, I thought wow, so much is going to change! Holidays will most likely be a bit calmer now that I am with older students. Ha! That was not the case. The more I refused to acknowledge Halloween was on the horizon, the more my students tried to remind me. The more I refused to accept the fact that Thanksgiving was soon to arrive, the more my students reminded me. I suppose you can see the pattern and now know what happened when Christmas rolled around. I finally got it. Message received. My middle school students still looked forward to holidays. Instead of denying it, I embraced it. I created ELA  task cards that touch on Common Core Standards while remaining festive. This  helped me stay on track with my instruction and my students engaged. When we were working on independent work, I played quiet instrumental Christmas music, and I had my Advisory students make Christmas cards for the lovely people at the retirement home in our community. Don’t deny it, don’t refuse it, the holidays are here! If possible, focus a lesson or two on upcoming holidays. Take this time to practice textmapping of non-fiction passages by examining holidays across the world.

                                    Christmas Task Cards

Continue Your Daily Routines
While you may not be able to continue with business as usual, still continue the same expectations. Surprisingly, students crave routine and normalcy. Though you may change your instruction a bit to reflect the upcoming holiday, keep the same routine going. If you conference with your students every Monday, be sure to conference with them on Monday. Any additional changes might cause more ruckus.
Let Your Students Move
When winter (in PA at least) rolls around, lethargy sets in. I, even as the teacher, don’t feel like moving and grooving too much. This is the best time, however, for students to get up on their feet and get moving. This might be a great excuse to try a gallery walk, jigsaw activity, or some other type of cooperative learning. If students are already excited and moving around, might as well make it worthwhile!
Do Not Count Down the Days
  Counting down the days until Christmas break was always one of my favorite things to do in elementary school. We would make paper chains and rip off one piece every day leading up to Christmas vacation. As a middle school teacher, I see how that may actually be counterproductive. While I do have some classes that could count down the days and continue working as hard as ever, I have some classes that will basically interpret this as well, what we are doing now doesn’t really matter because our break is almost here! Counting down to Christmas, ok. Counting down until Christmas break, not ok.
Differentiate Your Instruction
  Students might benefit from learning contracts or some other type of instruction that provides choices. While we should be doing this all year long, the holidays prove to be a crucial time to pique student interest. Or, provide your students with a high interest activity such as this Instagram Activity created by our own Caitlin and Jessica over at EB Academic Camps. We all know our students love them some social media! Add some technology to your instruction. Programs such as Kahoot or Quizlet keep students highly engaged. Both are available on a tablet or on a desktop computer. 
Take a Virtual Field Trip
  This might be a great time to ‘leave’ the classroom. Plan a virtual field trip visiting another country, watching bobsled races, or even ‘visiting’ a local attraction. Take a stroll through the Smithsonian. Visit the White House or explore the night's sky
  Remember that not all of your students are looking forward to Christmas vacation. Some students don’t even have a Christmas tree let alone the news gaming system or cell phone under the tree. Many do not have a home life that causes them to look forward to spending the next 10 days out of school. Some may not even have a sufficient amount of food for the long holiday break. Remain aware and sensitive to your kiddos this time of year. That one student who keeps 'acting up' just might be anxious for the upcoming break. 

  Most likely, you are the one handling lots of the holiday business at home as well as at school. Be sure to take even 5 minutes to breathe. Perhaps making lists help you feel in control of what you need to accomplish or maybe you need a cup of coffee, alone, with no interruptions. Make it happen. You need to take care of you. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Middle School Students and Anxiety

I once had a student who was scared of birds and airplanes.

Walking across campus was tough. Recess was tough. Lunch (we had no cafeteria) was tougher, and field trips? Especially our week long camping trip? Let's just say we both learned a lot about how to deal with stress.  This student didn't have any traumatic memories or stories linked to birds or airplanes. Instead, it was a symptom of her anxiety disorder. 

Teachers have a lot of demands placed on them in the United States today. Meeting benchmarks, planning, differentiation, parent concerns, dealing with administration, professional development, it goes on and on. 

What we sometimes forget however, is that our students are also under an increased demand to perform both in and out of school. This has caused an increase in both diagnosed and undiagnosed anxiety disorders, particularly for students in grades 5-8.  Anxiety is a huge category of specific disorders. Some examples include general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, post traumatic stress or selective mutism. 

At the beginning of the year, and periodically throughout, I sit with my homeroom and we do a check in to see what anxieties and pressures they are feeling. We generate an anchor chart of strategies to deal with anxiety at school and at home. This chart is displayed in the classroom throughout the year and added to as we go. Building a strong and supportive classroom community, where mistakes are okay, goes a long way in helping students who feel anxious. 

Anxiety often has a physical impact on a student. This can range from headaches or stomachaches, bloody noses, tingling, heavy breathing,  fainting, nausea, crying, or hives. If a student is experiencing any of these things, it's important not to dismiss them. 

A copy of these teaching strategies as well as the free graphic organizer I use to help students NOTE their thinking can be found here: Teaching Strategies for Anxious Students

8 Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Anxious Students
Teach deep breathing techniques. This is particularly helpful before a test or presentation.

Teach students to NOTE their thoughts. Notice what they are thinking, Observe how they are feeling, Think about a solution, Enact a plan. I keep a stack of graphic organizers in the corner of my classroom. Students can grab one to help if they want to. I always let students who use the organizer give it to me to be shredded if they wish. 

Giving a prearranged signal when a child is about to be called on.  

Presenting oral reports in front of the teacher alone. Alternately, letting a student with selective mutism record their presentation at home for submission. 

Giving a signal before going over instructions. Students who are anxious about missing information will find this particularly helpful.   

Working with the student to determine a "safe person". This is an adult OR peer that can help the student refocus or put a situation into perspective. 

Explain any changes in schedule or procedure. This will often require repetition

Make sure that students with anxiety are not seated next to the "chatty ones". Students who fear getting in trouble will be more focused on disassociating themselves from their neighbors than on class content. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

3 ways for Middle Schoolers to be of Service During the Holiday Season

At this time of the year, people look for ways to give more than they receive.  Every year, I try to get my students involved in just that.  

First, I ask my students for ideas.  Generally they always come up with a canned food drive or a clothes drive or some kind of pet food drive.  Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with drives - I just like to think out of the box.  

I write all of their ideas on the board and then, I say "What's one thing you are good at doing?"  I list those things on the board too.  

Next, without speaking, I write ideas for service that are more personal next to the talents the students shared.

The we start brainstorming where we could carol or for whom we should make the cards.  It gets exciting when we start to think of others! 

Over the years, the 3 best (or most popular) ideas have been:

Singing Carols at the nearby Assisted Living (complete with Christmas hats and cookies of course!)

Making Christmas cards for the Custodians, Cafeteria workers, the local firemen and the local police.

Decorating the halls of the school, hospital, or Assisted Living.

These are all low-cost and focus on giving of oneself rather than on giving material items.  To me, this is the true meaning of the season and one of the most important lessons of all.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing an Argument

Are you here for an argument?

Hi, it’s Marypat from Just Add Students ready to argue with you!  

Well, not really.  But I am here to give you a suggestion for getting your students fired up about a writing assignment:  Give them something to argue about!

There seems to be nothing middle school students like better than arguing.  And there are tons of juicy topics your students can sink their argumentative teeth into – cell phone usage in school, school uniforms, homework, video games as Olympic sports – the list goes on.

This is the perfect time of year to have students write an argument and then host a debate. 

The Steps to a Perfect Argument

Step 1:  Define what an argument is.  
This makes a great class or small group discussion.  For starters, you may want to share the Monty Python video with your class:  Are you here for an argument?

As your students come up with the qualities of an argument, have them create a class anchor chart that lists the elements of a good argument – and a chart of the elements of a bad argument.

Step 2:  Choose the topic.  
By this time in the school year, you probably know some (or many!) of your students’ passions, pet peeves, and tirades.  If your students are like mine, they share their feelings quite freely! 

Tap into the topics they’re interested in.  Focus on topics that are at their level.  Political and broad social issues are generally too complex for my students and often require research that would extend writing time you may have for the assignment.

You may want to give your students their choice of what to argue or you may want to assign the topic.  If students are going to choose their own topics, be sure to allow some time to “prime the pump” by having students brainstorm.  The topic “pet peeves” is a good place to start.

An alternative to allowing students to choose their own topic is to allow students to choose for a limited number of topics.  That way, students can work in groups to develop ideas and organize their logic.  Additionally, this makes it easy to hold a class debate after the students have written their arguments.

Step 3:  Choose sides.  
While your students may not be in favor of school uniforms or allowing video games to be an Olympic sport, it’s great critical-thinking practice to ask them to take a side they don’t personally agree with. 

If you want to host a class debate after students have written their arguments, be sure you have students working on both sides of an issue. 

Step 4:  Prewrite, argue, prewrite, argue, and prewrite some more!  
Use an evidence graphic organizer.
Before students even begin writing their argument, they need to figure out what and how they are going to argue.  Use prewriting position and evidence graphic organizers to help your students determine where they stand on the issue.

Once students have a basic foundation for their argument, don’t let them start writing.  Discuss the phrase, “Does it hold water?” Students should use this adage as they work with a partner to determine the validity of an argument. 

Pair up students and have them argue their position.  The job of the partner is to find holes in an argument.  Once that is done, send students back to their evidence and logic graphic organizers to strengthen their position.

Allow students to meet again with a different partner to argue their case.  Again, the partner’s job is to determine if the argument “holds water.”

Step 5:  You might decide that at this point your students are ready to hold a debate.  A simple debate with teams of two works great.  Hosting a debate at this point in the writing process really solidifies student understanding of the topic and the logic of the argument. 

Whether you choose to hold a debate now or after students have finished writing their papers, you’ll find the debate is a blast!  I’ll write more about how to host one in a future post.

Step 6:  Write the argument!  At this point, most students will feel like the argument writes itself! 

You can download the free evidence graphic organizer from myTpT store to help your students gather evidence.

Have fun “arguing”!