“In a Million Words or Less” First Week Assignment

One of my favorite back to school activities is “In a Million Words or Less”.  My mentor teacher used this activity when I was student teaching and I fell in love.  For those who don’t know, the assignment is for parents.  It asks each parent to write the teacher a letter, in a million words or less, explaining what makes their child special.  The responses I get are truly amazing.  There are just some things I would never learn about the student or would take me most of the year to discover.  When a parent tells me that their son/daughter has a special talent or a specific anxiety I can look out for them from the beginning!

I handed out my assignment on the first day of school.  The students always love that they get to give mom and dad homework!  I explain to the students that because their parents have work and outside responsibilities, I give them a whole month to finish their assignment.  That night, I already had my first emailed responses.  I share the responses with my teammates, special ed teacher, and specials teacher as needed.

“In a Million Words or Less” is an invaluable assignment.  The letters I receive are priceless.  If you are interested in trying it out, my handout can be found below.

First Days of School and Scheduling

We went back to school this week which means I have been overwhelmingly busy.  Our district redistricted which resulted in my school, previously grades 4-6, becoming a sixth grade-only school.  This was a first for the district, so teachers, parents, and students were in complete chaos!  The first day was definitely tough, but the second day calmed down.  Hopefully, next week it will all even out and we can begin teaching.

This year I will have approximately 100 students.  I’m already a little overwhelmed by the prospect of grading that much.  But I’ve been working out a new schedule and think I have a few ideas.  If any of you also teach language arts for 50 minute periods (4-5 periods/day), please let me know if you have any advice!

I will be teaching language arts to 4 classes each day for 50 minutes at a time.  Until this year I had almost 2 hours to teach language arts daily so this is a huge change.  I’m still angry about losing my time (and feel like it is so unfair to my students) but I am committed to doing the absolute best I can for them.  I’m planning to teach reading for 3 days and writing for the next 3 days, alternating all year long.  This will allow me to continue teaching with reading and writing workshop.  I also plan to have two classes doing reading while the other two are doing writing, hopefully allowing me to spread out the grading a bit.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that this year’s class will not get the scope and depth of instruction that previous classes have received.  However, I will continue with my read-alouds daily and booktalking.  I already do very few whole-class novels and I will continue with those.  But the 50 minute periods will force me to focus on my mini-lessons and not get off-topic.  This year will take a lot more planning but I think I can do it!

How do you schedule your middle school language arts classes?

Learning About Our Students as Readers

Over the last few days I have been trying to get to know my new students as readers. At the end of last year I was a walking encyclopedia, a who’s who of book recommendations. Even now, I read a book and immediately think, “I know exactly who would love this”! But a new class means starting over from scratch. While I love the clean slate offered by a new year, it frustrates me that I am not an expert on my students yet!

Yesterday we organized our classroom library as a review of genres. It served as a great way to review genre definitions while also letting the students see the variety of titles the library has to offer. There were a lot of stunned reactions, let me tell ya! While most of my students told me that they dislike reading, I told them that’s just because they haven’t enjoyed the books they read up to this point. I promised to find them a genre, author, or series they will enjoy this year! But it’s hard when I don’t know them yet. :)

Today I booktalked a few “guaranteed” titles before we headed to the school media center; just a few to whet their appetite while I start reading interviews and read their literacy profiles. The titles I talked about today included Life As We Knew It, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, The Face on the Milk Carton, Just Grace, Turnabout , and Cirque Du Freak Life As We Knew It was a huge hit, and Cracker! went over well with the war buffs.  Every student left school today with a book.  Even better?  When I ended independent reading today, there were a few soft groans.  I asked for a show of hands, saying “How many of you were annoyed that I interrupted your reading?  How many people didn’t want to stop?”  About hald the class raised their hands.  One boy said, “This has never happened to me before!”

It’s amazing how passion is contagious.  Our kids deserve our passion- whether it be for reading, science, history, geography, math, or anything else.  That passion will spread, as long as our passion is genuine.  That is true teaching.

I’m off to read more reading inventories now, and hopefully get to know my students better!

Where I’m From poems

Read this document on Scribd: Where I’m From poems

I absolutely love beginning the year with “Where I’m From” poems, a lesson inspired by George Ella Lyons. It’s not an easy assignment by any means but my students always rise to the occasion, with some prodding by me. I love these poems because learn so much about my students when reading their poems. You see what is important to them, what their families are like, and what makes them happy. They are a clear window into their lives.

Where I’m From poem template -Check it out!

Read this document on Scribd: Where I’m From poems

Last year, I developed a template for my students to follow, which helped their poems become much deeper. On Friday we started the poems with this year’s class and so far I am extremely impressed. We should finish them up next week, and I can’t wait to hang them up for Back to School Night!

One week down!

We headed back to school this past Thursday. It’s always a humorous morning- the bell rings and students slowly begin to walk down our hallway. The silence is palpable. There are shy smiles, a few lost students, and a the static sound of nervousness fills the air. my team and I always laugh to ourselves, saying we should savor the moment, as they will never be this silent again!

The first two days back are always full of procedures, routines, and paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! But it is nice getting to spend those first few hours as a class, not worrying about switching classes or planning lessons, beyond building community and routines and procedures. My class seems wonderful this year. Within the first few hours they had begged to explore the classroom library, and who am I so say no?! We also began out first read-aloud, Flying Solo, and my homeroom seems to be enjoying it.  I love setting the tone those first few days, showing the students how important reading will be in our class.  But more importantly, it shows them how much fun we will have with reading.

On Friday afternoon, we did a quick class switch (my team is departmentalized).  My afternoon class only has 15 students!  15!  And I have 18 in the morning.  (I lose students in both classes to resource room/pull-out).  We switched for half of a normal period, giving me an hour with both classes.  We went over a brief outline of the year and then got started with our “Where I’m From” poems.  (more about that in a different post)

It is shaping up to be a great year.  The students are enthusiastic and I can’t wait to dive into the curriculum this week!  Off to write my first week’s lesson plans now.  :)

Classroom spaces

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I have spent the last few days working on my classroom.  It isn’t done yet, but the next I can go back is during our in-service on Tuesday!  Thankfully, I just have a few bulletin boards to label and then I will be done!  I will be having my students organize the library (while reviewing genres), so that is a relief.  And most of the bulletin boards will be interactive or student-work centered.  It makes the set-up much easier for the first day of school!

Still working, still exhausted

I spent another few hours at school today- hanging butcher paper, setting up new bulletin boards, picking up class lists, and all those odd and ends that need to be done at the beginning of the new school year.  My mother and sisters came in today to help out and I think we made a lot of progress!

Tomorrow I need to spend just a little more time in the room, and then I should be done!  Hopefully I can devote more time to the blog then!

Getting Ready for the New School Year

I spent the majority of today preparing for the beginning of school.  I ran a bunch of errands this morning picking up school supplies.  (sidenote- how awesome is Staples?!  There sales are amazing, especially for teachers!)  When I got home, I spent a few hours cleaning the house and my car, both of which I want spotless before school starts.  I know once the year begins it will be a while before I am ready to spring clean again!

Finally, I started working on school work.  Yesterday I dropped a bunch of boxes off in my classroom and today I sorted through the remaining boxes.  I threw a lot of trash away and I feel much more organized.  I also set up my table communal supply bins, which I hope will alleviate some organizational problems for my students this year.  I promise to post pictures once they are all full and complete.  But first I need to grab a few more items from the supply closet at school!  After cleaning, organizing, and setting up I moved onto planning.  I set up my gradebook for the year, which is always a chore because I need to divide it into two classes and three subjects each.  But writing out the names helps me become a little more familiar with my students at the beginning of the year.

Finally, I worked on my new planbook.  I type my plans on the computer but I haven’t yet settled on a format that I absolutely love.  However, today I reworked and modified a template from Mandy Gregory and I love it so far!  I print my plans out and keep them in a divided binder, which also has my other important paperwork in it.  It really helps me stay organized!

Tomorrow I plan to head into school bright and early, with my sister tagging along to help.  She is the organized one, with pretty handwriting.  Hence, she loves writing out my nametags and helping with my bulletin boards.  And I love having the help!  I plan to spend about 3-4 hours there (until I get kicked out!) and hope to get almost everything done.  Hopefully I will have some pictures to post when I get home.

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