Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Things Kids Say (The Confidence-Builder Edition)

I don't know if I forgot what teaching 7th graders is like or if these 7th graders are unlike any students I've taught. They are super generous with compliments (or, sometimes, "compliments"), and even the boys aren't shy about it at all.

Things I have heard since school started:

  • You smell really good! (from one of my sweet cheerleaders)
  • What color are your eyes?! They are so pretty!
  • You know, you have a sweet voice, like even when you're getting on to me, I don't mind, because you don't sound mad. (A 9th grader who shared this sentiment phrased it: "You sound just like Minnie Mouse!")
  • Mrs. S, you have fat cheekbones! (My response: well, that's not a compliment!) Yes, it is! They make those holes in your face! (Holes=dimples.)
  • You have a really pretty smile! It's like a beacon! (Beacon is a vocabulary word for my reading class this week.)
  • I hate when girls have ugly feet or like their polish is all worn off! (At this point, I am caught glancing down at my polish.) Don't worry, Mrs. S! You have pretty feet; I already checked!
  • Looking good, Mrs. S! (This was delivered with a wink and a smile and followed by my giving a mini-lesson on appropriate ways to give compliments.)
Also, something tangentially related and very amusing to my team:

Apparently, one day last week was "National Crush Day" and all of our students wrote their crushes' names on the inside of their wrist for the whole world to see. A couple of couples have developed on our team already, and the girls wore their guys' names loud and proud. The guys, however, all wrote teachers' names on their wrists. It was the kind of funny you don't let yourself laugh at in class, but there was lots of giggling going on during planning that day!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tutorial: Super Easy No-Sew Intruder Curtain

Super Easy No-Cut, No-Sew Intruder Curtain |

Quick post about the intruder curtain I put up yesterday thanks to a little pinspiration.

Below is the pin that started it all. I believe I have done my due diligence in trying to trace the image back to the original source, but it seems that it was uploaded directly by a pinner whose username has long been lost. (If you are responsible for this idea, first of all, THANK YOU! I love it! Secondly, I'll be happy to give you credit if you'll contact me!)

According to the description, this is just fabric that's been doubled over a wooden dowel that has been spray painted. The dowel is hung on command hooks, and the fabric is rolled up and secured with ribbon that has been velcro-ed on.

Super Easy No-Cut/No-Sew Intruder Curtain


curtain panel
tape measure
10-12 paper clips
2-4 binder clips
curtain rod & hardware
ribbon (I used about 3 yards)


  1. Measure your window and the curtain panel and calculate the difference. Divide this measurement by two. This measurement will help you determine where to make the vertical folds. (My window was 30 inches wide, and my curtain panel was 42 inches wide, a difference of 12 inches. Half of 12 inches is 6 inches, so my vertical folds will need to be 6 inches from the edge of the curtain.)
  2. Spread the curtain panel on a flat surface, with the right side of the fabric facing down. Starting at the top of the curtain panel, use the previous measurement to determine where the vertical folds (A, B) should begin. Use paperclips (black stars) to mark these points. Repeat at the bottom of the curtain.
  3. Using the paper clips as a guide, begin making fold A. If needed, use additional paper clips (white stars) to help secure the fold. Repeat to make fold B. 
  4. Lay the curtain rod horizontally across the curtain at about the halfway point. Fold the curtain in half to create fold C. (The rod should extend on either side of the curtain at fold C.) 
  5. Hang the curtain and rod. and adjust so that the ends line up evenly. 
  6. Roll both layers of fabric to desired height and use binder clips to temporarily secure the roll.
  7. Tie ribbons to hold curtain roll at the desired height, and remove binder clips. Optionally, you can also remove the paper clips you used to secure the vertical folds. (Mine weren't noticeable, so I didn't bother. Leaving them will make rolling the curtain up after a drill a little easier anyway.)
  8. In case of intruder or drill, simply untie the ribbons, and the curtain will unroll, covering your window.

Note: You can definitely hang this with a wooden dowel as the original pinner did, but I just bought a tension rod for about $1 along with a couple of hooks that I screwed directly into my classroom door. The rod is super light, and command hooks would have worked just fine. However, the hooks were cheaper, and I like that they don't detract from the curtain at all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

So, I got that job.

The interview I mentioned earlier actually ended with a job offer, but I had to wait about a week before it was official.

The board approved me on July 16, and I will be teaching four sections of 7th grade math, one section of reading, and one remediation/intervention class this year. I talked SBG up in the interview so much that now I have to get to actually do it. I'm excited that I get to try it, but I'm really nervous that I'm going to screw up! The 7th grade math teachers will be piloting SBG for the school, and since the administrators weren't familiar with SBG until recently, I am considered the "expert." I kind of needed to do some deep breathing just to get through that sentence since I am definitely no expert!

Moving on to something I am somewhat an expert at--setting up a classroom. (I realized last week that this will be the fifth classroom I've set up in five years, although this is only my third school.) I got a look at my classroom for the first time last Tuesday, and was...underwhelmed. And actually a bit overwhelmed as well. Here are the glows and grows:


  • 8 gigantic windows (42 inches wide and 80 inches tall)
  • tall, tall ceilings
  • SMART board (promised--it's not actually installed yet)
  • Two bulletin boards (at my previous school, I had just one; at the one before that, I had zero!)
  • Giant, old-school teacher desk -- I am so excited about this since I found myself needing a work table to spread out on in previous classrooms
  • Two classroom computers


  • Needs a paint job -- two blue walls, one beige wall, and one white wall, all of which are peeling (Edited: When I left this afternoon, the painters had come in and soon all four of my walls will match!)
  • Those gigantic windows (and the one in my classroom door) will need to be covered for intruder drills so I'll need to find something cute (and economical) to do there. (Edit: Thanks to my mom, I now how hot pink, zebra-striped curtains covering each of my windows, and thanks to Pinterest, I was able to come up with a solution for quickly covering my classroom door for intruder drills.)
  • Student lockers are inside the classroom (I'm actually not sure whether this is a glow or a grow because I've never seen this!)
  • Not a lot of whiteboard space (this might wind up being okay since I'll have the SMART board)
  • Most of my whiteboards are actually showerboard, and they are all gray with ghosting.

I am getting excited about the new school year. One of the best things about being a teacher (aside from the kids, the challenge, etc.) is the opportunity to start fresh each year.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I had an opportunity to introduce standards-based grading to some administrators in an interview I had this week.  At 1.5 hours, It was the second longest interview of my life, and probably 20 minutes of it I spent selling them on SBG. It got me thinking about the possibility of finding a place that will actually let me try it in the upcoming school year. It has been a while since I have been that excited, and I find myself motivated to dive back into researching and figuring out the logistics of it.

Things I Am Still Pondering:

  • How to present it to co-workers and supervisors
  • How to present it to students
  • How to present it to parents
  • How to set it up in the electronic gradebook we're all required to use
  • Do you throw out traditional grading schemes (e.g., Tests 70%, Classwork 20%, Homework 10%)? Or do you just use the skills-checks to get the test grades, and stick to the more traditional methods for determining the effort grades?
  • Do I even think homework should be graded? 

Some resources:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Non-Renewal.

On Friday, at the end of my planning period, my principal called me to his office and told me that the school board voted on Thursday night to non-renew my contract for the next year. When I asked if there was a reason, I was told that none was given. Since I am non-tenured, this is perfectly legal, acceptable, understandable, and of course, all new(ish)/probationary teachers know that non-renewal is a possibility.

That doesn't make this easier to accept. Rejection is never easy, but I am beyond sad, hurt, humiliated, frustrated.

I have no idea what this means for me except the obvious--I will not be returning to my current school next year, and I will be seeing some of my favorite students for the last time this week.

I am so, so brokenhearted.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On My Mind

Our last day of new instruction for Algebra classes was yesterday, and we are off today due to effects of last night's tornadoes (no loss of life in our area, thank goodness!). So I find myself with the mental space/energy and the time to start thinking about next year, what to keep, what to quit, and what to beg my colleagues to try. Here are the big ones and excerpts from the articles and blog posts  currently fueling the fire.

Abolish Graded Homework

"Stop giving points for homework! That only enforces economic-type abuses. Football players are not doing bicep curls for points, they know it’s necessary for a good game-time showing. Give a whole lot of a ungraded homework. They’ll have to organize their thoughts and decide what’s necessary for them to do. This is working splendidly in my room, the kids were irresponsible at first, and I handed out F’s like candy. After clear explanations, and the use of SBG, they’ve turned a corner." - Shawn Cornally (ThinkThankThunk)

And a response to grading homework for the purpose of "padding" their grades:

"You asked, 'What about the student who struggles with math? Where is the homework score to 'help' their grade?' With all due respect, I think this is not the question we should be asking. If Suzie struggles to understand 7th grade math, but her homework completion 'helps' her grade, what is her chance of success at the 8th grade level and beyond? I'm guessing we're doing her a disservice by inflating her grade, falsely communicating her level of understanding, and setting her up for a below-average chance of success at the next level. Also, homework is done outside of class - copying and other uncontrollable things happen. Let's say 40% of all math homework is copied. If you weight homework at 50% of the overall grade, you are mathematically rewarding students for cheating by giving them a "free" 20% (40% of 50%). Furthermore, once homework is viewed as 'practice,' there is no need to consider it as part of the grade. It is the FINAL level of knowledge that should be reported rather that some quasi-calculation of progress along the way." - Matt Townsley (comment, MeTA Musings)
This, this, ten thousand times, this. I don't want to hide the gaps in my current students' skills from next year's teachers. I don't want the gaps in the rising freshmen's skills hidden from us. I don't want parents of students whose previous grades have been inflated shocked and outraged when their children don't have As. I want them to make informed decisions for and with their children, and I want them to understand why their kids are struggling and be able to see specific, achievable steps to catching up. I want to stop hiding information about what students know from the parents and the students themselves.

Alternatives to traditional, graded homework: A portfolio system

Switch to Standards-Based Grading

Thoughts on why traditional grading kind of sucks from Matt Townsley:

"Consider Student A who bombs the homework, bombs the quiz, but 'gets it' between the formative assessments and the test (assessment that 'goes in the grade book'). Now consider Student B who 'gets it' on the homework, aces the quiz and aces the test. In the old system, Student A is penalized for not 'getting it' early, so his/her grade suffers. Student B's grade looks outstanding because he/she 'got it' right away and earned all of the points along the way. If Students A & B both have the same level of understanding, I believe that what is reported out about these two students should be consistent as well." - Matt Townsley (blog post: MeTA Musings

And Shawn Cornally:
Why are you reporting cryptic titles like “Test 4″ and “Unit Quiz 1.2?” Those tests and quizzes, or whatever assessment tools you use, are aimed at testing content standards, so stop destroying information by adding the scores, and just report proficiency by standard! The thrill of having a high schooler walk in to your room and say the following should be enough to bring you into the fold: “Mr. Cornally, I was looking at my grades, and I’m pretty sure I need to work on the quotient rule. Then, I think I should do a problem like the one of the quiz to show you I get it.” - Shawn Cornally (ThinkThankThunk)
And Shawn Cornally again, this time addressing the shifts accompanying SBG:
Students could not care less about their score on “Quiz 5″ from last month; they don’t even know what was on that quiz. Don’t put that in your gradebook. Put the individual ideas that that quiz assessed in your gradebook, so that the students know what it is you care about.  - Shawn Cornally (ThinkThankThunk)

And a Townsley article on implementing SBG districtwide: "Redesigning Grading--Districtwide

Other Resources:
  • This post went a long way towards answering some of my remaining questions. The SBG Assessment flowchart was particularly valuable. I also thought the descriptions of what SBG should not look like vs. what SBG should look like were super helpful. 
  • I'll probably also be using this one to help in persuading my colleagues to make the switch.
  • This list of blogs written by teachers using SBG looks promising.
  • Jason Buell wrote two blogs posts about the (perceived) disadvantages of SBG.

Current Conclusions and Questions

  1. I kind of don't think homework or quizzes (at least as they are now) should be graded. They're the check-ups, designed to help correct the course when we're not heading towards meeting our learning targets. OK, honestly, there is no kind of about it, and I am just scared of the overhaul I think this is going to bring. No matter how exciting, I am probably always going to find major change to be pretty terrifying.
  2. SBG. Let's just say I have drunk the kool-aid, and now I am having to find a way to make that kool-aid palatable for colleagues who are slow to buy-in to new practices. Projected battles:
    • Ease of grading: We currently use GradeCam to grade our unit tests, which are all multiple choice. (Sidenote: we allow students to do "revisions" where we mark the items they missed and they get a second shot at them immediately. The idea is that they go back and check their work, finding where they went wrong. The reality is that students are told which items to go back and guess on. I am not entirely at all comfortable with this.) Grading 150 unit tests by hand would be a pain. However, we currently grade quizzes by hand, and we give many more quizzes than tests. So, what if we switched it up and graded quizzes via Gradecam and tests by hand...From everything that I've read, SBG assessments are meant to be much, much shorter than what we're currently using, though possibly more frequent.
    • Pacing/Logistics: When does the reteaching happen? Or are we supposed to trust kids to work on skills/concepts they haven't mastered outside of class? Clearly, at some point, we must move on. We can't spend an entire quarter on simple equations while we wait for our stragglers to catch up. That smacks of all the worst parts of NCLB.

Stay tuned...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Things Kids Say

Overheard during the class change. I am standing in the hall, outside my door as students enter the classroom. 

Male Student #1: Hey, how do girls get make-up off?

Male Student #2: They don't take it off. They just put more on top of it.

MS #1 (calls out): That doesn't seem right. Hey, Mrs. S., how do you get make-up off? Like off your eyes?

Me (without looking at the kid): Well, I use eye-makeup remover pads. Why?

MS #1: 'Cause my sister wanted to put makeup on me last night, and I let her. But then she went to bed, and I couldn't get it off, so I scrubbed at it, and got most of it off, but you can still see it, and she left before me this morning, so now I've just been wearing makeup all day.

MS #2: Well, if it's still there, it probably isn't coming off. On the bright side, your eyes look pretty!

Bonus: Things I Should Not Have to Say to 9th Graders

  1. Don't lick that.
  2. Why do you have a latex glove?
  3. Put your shoes back on.
  4. Please don't pour Powerade into that glove.
  5. Don't eat that.
  6. Please don't put that in your mouth.
  7. No, I don't want to smell you, but thanks for asking.
  8. Why are your hands wet?
  9. Don't lick him.
  10. I'm sorry your feet are sweaty, but you have to put your shoes back on.
  11. Are you telling me your hand just spontaneously started bleeding?
  12. No, really, put your shoes back on. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Warm-Up: Perfect Squares Timed Trials

Inspired by this post from miscalcul8, I tried something new with my classes this week.

I have been unhappy with how much time we spend on bell work each day and with the low percentage of students who are actually engaged during that time. This week, I've started each class with a perfect squares speed drill, and I don't think I will ever go back to doing bell work the old way.

Here's How This Looks in My Classroom
The kids use calculators as needed to simplify 1^2, 2^2, ..., 16^2. (The stopping point was arbitrary; I project the problems and with the font size I chose, 1-16 fit perfectly.) I use the stopwatch feature on my phone and time the kids starting when I say, "Go!" As soon as a student completes the problems, he stands up, and I stop the clock when everyone is standing. I've been recording the time for each class on the board all week, updating the times as each class sets a new person best, and it's really sparked a lot of interest among the students. (When students are coming in for class, their first stop is the records board where they see if their class's time has been beaten, but I'm also having a lot more kids pop in between classes to check the times.)

Things I Love About This
  1. Students are eager to get started. My expectation for bell work has always been that students should get out their supplies and get started as soon as they enter the classroom and before the bell actually rings, but all year, I've found still having to prompt most of my classes to actually do so. For the first time all year, I've made it through an entire day without having to prompt students to get out the supplies they need or to get started.
  2. Kids like standing up. The kids get a chance to move a little (especially good in 1st period when they're all still asleep).  Students who wouldn't consider themselves particularly good at math are seeing that they are often among the first to finish or at least are not the last to finish. It makes keeping an accurate account of the time easier since I'm not looking for a pencil to be put down but for a student to stand.
  3. Everyone is participating in the warm-up. At this point in the year, I have a few students who know they will not pass the course, and motivating them to participate in anything is a major challenge. I have several other students who are hit or miss--sometimes, they'll come in and work hard, and sometimes they won't try anything I put in front of them. Monday, most--but not all--kids participated. On Thursday and Friday, I had 100% participation in every class--a minor miracle! 
  4. More kids are participating all period long. I think giving the students something they can all complete and experience success with at the beginning of class has made a big difference in their willingness to try more challenging tasks later in the period. Providing opportunities for small successes early on is certainly not a new idea when it comes to student motivation, but I have had trouble providing these opportunities on a daily basis.
  5. Students are studying! Because they want to! I have heard several students say that they have written down the problems and answers and have been studying in the evenings and throughout the day to improve their time. While I have mentioned a few times that once they have the answers memorized, they'll be able to get their times down, I have not at any point suggested that they study these outside of class. The students who have mentioned studying have all seemed a little surprised that they're actually doing it, and I admit, since many of them are students who have probably never studied, I've been more than a little surprised myself. 
In the upcoming week, we'll be focusing more on accuracy first, and then speed. I also plan on having them go up to 20^2. We'll be working on weaning ourselves from the calculator, as well.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sweet Kids

Ran a fever all weekend and have been out sick the past two days.

I hate, hate, hate to be out, but I was not in any condition to teach this week. Students had a big Black History Month project due tonight (by midnight), and they have been emailing me their submissions all day.

Two standouts that really made me smile:

L: Mrs. S----, here's my project. I really missed you today and hope you'll be back tomorrow!

J: Mrs. S----, here's my project. I hope you are having a good day!

I realize that neither of these will seem like much to most people, but when you are feeling pretty pitiful, and you get 130+ messages that just say, "My project is attached," or "I need your help with ____," the fact that two of those kids took a second to say something nice really makes a difference.

It also makes me realize I should be taking more time to slow down and do these small kindnesses for other people, too. You really never know what little thing you do that makes someone's day.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Today was a good day.

Our instructional rounds were scheduled for today. IR for our district consists of several teams (of central office personnel and administrators from other schools as well as our own) spending fifteen minutes in each classroom, observing instruction and focusing on student engagement. The instructional rounds are centered around a "problem of practice" (read more here), and our problem of practice is research-based instructional strategies.

I began my day a bundle of nerves because these were the first instructional rounds I've experienced at my current school and because they were scheduled for today of all days---a Friday, the day after a weather day (so it might as well have been a Monday), and Valentine's Day, when the kids were all hyped up on candy. Could there been a worse day to schedule these?

I don't think I have ever been happier about the way a class period went. My students brought their A-game, and made me feel awesome about the job I'm doing with them. Highlights:
  • Lots of accountable talk. One standout was, "I think A_____ was right when she said _____, but I also think _____." (I wish, wish, wish that I could remember exactly what we were discussing so I could record the exact quote.) Another was, "Mrs. S_____, I'm really confused about why we used the opposite signs to find the point on the left. Can you say more about that?"
  • Lots of focus. I redirected their attention just once the IR team came in, but after that, everyone seemed to be paying close attention to the lesson.
  • Lots of volunteers. Even students who don't normally volunteer did volunteer today, and it was so unexpected because usually my kids clam up when administrators walk in.
  • Lots of confidence. One of the key ideas I've been trying to get my kids to understand is that it's OK to be wrong. I would much rather them give the wrong answer in class when we're just learning than have a misconception that screws them up on the test, but more than that, mistakes make learning possible. I saw signs of lots of buy-in today, which makes my teacher heart thud like crazy!
  • Lots of noticing. I have really been working on asking my kids to notice more, especially after seeing the video included at the bottom of this post. Some days, it feels natural for me to ask this of them, but other days, I have to consciously remind myself to do it. Today, I did it several times without even thinking. I remembered to give them some reflection time and asked, "What do you notice about _____?" and "What makes this example different from the previous example?" and "How do you think that's going to change the way that we approach this problem?" I was so impressed by their thoughtful responses. Still definitely have a long way to go with noticing and wondering, but it's a start!

I was so, so proud of my kids, and I don't think I could be any more pleased with how today went!

Here's the video of Annie Fetter presenting about Noticing and Wondering at an NCTM conference. It's well worth the five minutes it takes to watch it!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Super Easy Black Bean Soup

Happy Thursday!

ICYMI (ha!), the South has been blanketed in snow this week. Some cities have literally been paralyzed with it, but we only received about an inch--just enough to make everything beautiful and (since the snow followed a thick sheet of ice) close local schools for a few days.

C was able to leave work at noon on Tuesday and didn't have to go in at all yesterday, and we've thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected staycation. My favorite part has been having him home with me and the pup, but I think his favorite part has been the homecooked meals I don't always have time/energy/motivation for during the week!

Over the weekend, I made this crockpot chicken noodle soup, I roasted chicken thighs with rosemary and garlic, and last night, I baked the Pioneer Woman's dark chocolate brownies, but by far, my favorite has been an easy, 5-ingredient black bean soup.

Super Easy Black Bean Soup
adapted from Gimme Some Oven


6 (15-oz) cans black beans, with liquid
2 (16-oz) jar Herdez salsa casera (hot or medium or one of each)
1 (16-oz) jar Herdez salsa verde
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs cumin
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped


Stir together all ingredients in a large sauce pan, and heat over medium-high heat until simmering. Reduce heat to low, cover, and allow to cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Start to finish, this was ready in under half an hour, so it's totally doable on a busy weeknight, and it reheats well for lunch the day after.