Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Working Like a First Grader

You know what is amazing about teaching first grade? What makes it all worthwhile - the untied shoes, the sneezing in your face, the constantly repeating of directions ...

It's the way that they hang on to your every word and internalize it like you've just laid upon them one of life's truth. It's this very narrow window of time where the children are just aware enough to start listening to what you're saying but not too cool to blow you off. It's the pocket (sports analogy there, you're welcome!) in terms of influence and part of why we love teaching first grade so much.


We try to capitalize on this all we can and one way is with our "Working Like a First Grader" expectations. We make this chart together of all the ways that first graders work, building it up to be a huge deal and they eat it up! Here's our chart if anyone wants to get in on our influencing racket ... we mean our meaningful teaching strategy:

First grade is a big deal, friends - work it!

From the limb,

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lessons from the Limb #11 - It's a New School Year ... Time to Synchronize

Hello! We hope everyone is having a great school year so far. We just started school this week - which is super weird because we're in California NOT on the East Coast, but we're on a crazy schedule with construction that has been happening in our district. Anyway, happy first week of school to us and however many weeks to you.

If you can even believe it, this is our fourth year teaching collaboratively! We can hardly believe it ourselves!! Over the past three years of teaching together we've become more and more in sync in so many ways. There are innumerable things that just flow for us now as we've found common agreements and ways to make our program work.

We've also learned, though, that it's important not to take for granted that just because we've become more and more aligned, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're always on the same page. We also have learned how important it is to carve out some time to reflect and to refine our practice so that each year, while it might not herald ground breaking programmatic shifts, continues to improve upon what we've been doing. One way that we accomplish this is by getting together for a few hours in the summer and just going over our plans for the school year. This includes talking through all of our instructional programs, our organizational systems, and our new ideas that we want to implement for the upcoming year. We wanted to share with you the notes that we made from our summer meeting. While the content itself is probably a little bit cryptic in some parts and a lot bit specific to us personally, we hope it gives you an idea of the way that we talk through and improve upon what we're doing.

View the entire document here

So the FLY AWAY here is this: no matter how long you've been teaching together, it's always worth it to take some time to synchronize, particularly at the beginning of the year. Take some time to reflect on the last year - What worked great and what bugged you? What new things would you like to add? What can you let go of? What can you streamline? What are your hopes for the upcoming year? What are your concerns? Every relationship needs little tune-ups and a collaborative teaching partnership is no different so channel your inner synchronized swimmer and sync up!

From the limb,

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

You Can't Always Get What You Want ... Or Can You?

If you've been following our blog at all, you know that we talk a lot about the importance of communication, common vision, and compromise in a successful collaborative teaching partnership. And most of the time, we stand by our emphasis on compromise, but - real talk - sometimes you just want things the way you want them and that's that. In fact, in the beginning of our partnership, we had trouble adapting to not being the queen in the classroom. You can read about our battles for dominance here: Lessons from the Limb #2: The Legend of the Wolf. One way we tried to mitigate that feeling of just wanting things a certain way - darn it! - was to try an idea that KH had heard about awhile ago that someone used to keep their kids from arguing. The way it works is that one person holds "The Power" (this isn't what it's called but it sounds so snazzy, right?). When you have "The Power" (ooooooo), you have the right to decide anything your way that you want. Want to choose the color of the paper on your classroom walls? Use "The Power"! Have a strong feeling about how you want the tables to be arranged in the classroom? Use "The Power"! Want to organize things in a certain way? Use "The Power"! Buuuuutttt ... here's the catch of "The Power", once you use it, it's gone and it rests in the hands of the other person until they use it then it swings back your way. Get it?

Now this is probably not something to use on really big important things, like how you want to organize your reading program or whether you want to have joint responsibility for all of your students, but it can be really helpful with the petty stuff. Because honestly, it can be the petty stuff that can trip you up when trying to bring your two kingdoms together into one domain.

We tried this little plan of ours to use "The Power" our first year teaching together. Immediately, KM used "The Power" for something silly like glitter pens. Then "The Power" transferred to KH who has been holding it, waiting for a big decision to sway her way ... and yeah, it's been three years so ... this little anecdote probably gives you an interesting view into our respective personalities, but it really could work if you're not crazy people, like us :) Care to try it? Let us know if it works for you!

From the limb,

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Benefits of Collaborative Teaching #3 - Good Cop, Bad Cop

True confession time ... sometimes ... occasionally ... scarcely ... rarely ... we might get a tiny bit impatient or frustrated with our students  ... hardly ... occasionally ... did we say that already?

We're all human beings. Sometimes you're having a bad day. Sometimes they're having a bad day. Sometimes something just rubs you the wrong way. Whatever the reason, we all have moments when we're not equipped to be our best selves when dealing with a trying situation. So that's where one of the benefits of collaborative teaching comes in. You're not alone. You have a partner. You have backup.

Okay, so another confession ... this isn't really "good cop, bad cop", it's more of a tag team situation but we really just wanted to make an awesome picture of us as cops.

This is how it works ...





From the limb,

Sunday, April 26, 2015

It's List Time, Y'all #2: Top 10 Things to Consider Before You Start Collaborative Teaching

We often get asked, "What are some things that people should consider before deciding whether to start teaching collaboratively?". Ok, actually it's not really "often" that we're asked per se, more like rarely, but people have asked it - we promise! - and for the sake of making ourselves sound important, we're going with "often". Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully this is a place to start when you're thinking of trying collaborative teaching with someone ... or courtin' as we like to think of it.

WAIT, we have a caveat ... Please know that we are not at all advocating that you need to have the exact same beliefs or teaching styles as your teaching partner. In fact, bringing together two teachers with opposite strengths can be both beneficial for the students as well as an incredible learning opportunity for the teachers. We are saying, though, from three years now of personal experience that no matter what your diverse points of view are, you do need to be on the same page when creating your classroom together - it can be a plan merged and strengthen from two diverse points of view, but it needs to be a cohesive plan in order to be effective.

AHHHH! Another caveat ... Please know also that many of these topics are general and the details will be determined as you work together to build your school year as well as when different issues arise throughout the year, just as your classroom structure shifts and changes to match the needs and direction of your current class. This is intended to give you starting point and a way to get on the same page so that you can build a common foundation from which to tackle the innumerable details that go into running an effective academic program.

Okay ... now we can get to the good stuff:

Top 10 Things to Discuss When Considering Collaborative Teaching 
(in no particular order)

1. Behavior and Classroom Management - Since you're going to be creating one large class of students by collaboratively teaching, you will need to be on the same page in terms of behavior expectations and student accountability. We are tiiiiiight on our behavior management and still, without fail, the children try to play us off each other (though they quickly learn the futility of this game). You need to determine a common plan for how your classroom will be run.

Conversation Starters
What are your expectations for student behavior? 
How do you like to hold children accountable for their behavior? 
What consequences do you feel are appropriate? 
What noise level do you like for your classroom? 
Is there anything that particularly bothers you - a behavior or procedure? 
Is there a particular philosophy that you subscribe to (ex. Responsive Classroom, First Six Weeks of School, etc.)
Is there a particular management system you like to use (ex. flip chart, clip system, Class Dojo, etc.)?

2. How You Like to Work - This pertains to how you like to organize your workload and complete the myriad of tasks associated with our wonderfully rewarding, woefully demanding profession.

Conversation Starters
Do you need a lot of think time or are you a fast processor? 
Do you like to work on things by yourself and then get feedback, or do you like to build an idea collaboratively? 
Do you like to work in silence or is it alright if you discuss while you work? 
Do you like to work at home or do you prefer to do everything at school? 
Do you like to make to-do lists and plans about what needs to get done, or do you prefer to knock things out as they come up?

3. Scheduling - Your Time - So you have the school day - a pre-determined time where you will be continuously working together - but what about the hours outside of the school day? Every teacher knows that you cannot actual complete your work within the confines of the school day so we either come early, stay late, or do both. Since you're going to be teaching collaboratively, you may want to coordinate your before and after school hours to some extent. KH prefers to stay after school while KM likes to come into work early and leave pretty soon after school gets out. Our first year collaborative teaching, we made a schedule where KM would come in early and KH would stay late, but that did not work out well for us and we didn't like not having the common time together - that's why we were teaching together, for pete's sake! So the next year, we compromised and we both come in at 7:30 and stay until 4 every day except for Fridays where we stay until 5. Of course, we still have to take work home sometimes but this larger block of time overlap is much preferred.

Conversation Starters
Do you like to come in early? Do you like to stay late? 
How much time do you want to have as an overlapping schedule? 
Do you like to stay until the work is finished or do you like to leave at a designated time and take any additional work home? 
Is it okay to talk about school outside of school hours (ex. Can I text you at night if I have an idea or a question?) or do you prefer to leave work at work?

4. Scheduling - Student Time - Once you've determined how you want to spend your outside of school hours with your partner, you need to turn your eye to the time you have with your students. Take some time to consider how you like organize your day or week.

Conversation Starters
Where do you see small-group instruction being appropriate? Whole-group instruction? 
How do you like to have your students work - individually, partners, teams? 
How do you like to structure your day (ex. Large blocks of time devoted to certain subjects or activities? Smaller blocks of time but consistent schedule with every subject every day?)
Are there any particular activities they you want to see your class participate in daily? Weekly?
 How much time do you feel is appropriate to allocate to each curricular area?

5. Organizing Your Day - If you have ever moved in with a significant other, you know the importance of this one. Sharing a classroom is really just like sharing a home ... a really tiny home with a lot of tiny people. Believe it or not, things like the arrangement of physical space can really impact your comfort level in your classroom and can definitely cause conflict if you don't have a common plan for how you'd like your space to be organized.

Conversation Starters
Are you organized?
Do you like things put away or are you more relaxed with your space? 
Does anything bother you in particular about a space? 
Do you like to keep a teacher desk? 
Do you like to decorate or keep things minimalist?
Do you like to predetermine the use of the space or do you prefer to determine the flow of the space with the students?
Do you like specific spaces for specific purposes (i.e. lots of nooks and partitions) or do you prefer a more flexible space that is open?

6. Division of Labor - When we first planned to teach collaboratively, we thought we would hold hands and do all of our planning together. HA! That lasted for about 10 seconds and then we realized that there was absolutely not enough time in the day for that so we had to shift gears and prioritize. That being said, we still wanted to have some collaborative planning so we made a more realistic plan about how we would spend our time and who would be responsible for what subjects.

Conversation Starters
What subjects do you feel are your strengths or your weaknesses in terms of curricular knowledge? In terms of tasks? 
Do you have a passion for a particular subject area? 
Do you want to split the work load by subject? By groups of children? 
Are there any subjects that you would like to plan and teach collaboratively? 
Are there any subjects that you feel one teacher could take point on? 
Do you want to assign particular jobs to one person or keep it more informal?

7. Overall Educational Philosophy/Shared Vision - This is a big one. Like really, really big. Humongous. We would like to preface by saying that do not at all believe that you have to be clones of each other in order to teach collaboratively. And, despite our colleagues thinking we are virtually the same person, we do in fact have different ideas when it comes to teaching. We completely believe that bringing together two divergent philosophies can result in an amazing instructional program, but we would like to stress the words BRINGING TOGETHER. You see, we unequivocally believe that you must get to the point where you have a shared instructional vision that you use as a foundation to drive your instructional program, your classroom organization, and decision-making and prioritizing all year-long. There has to be a big shiny common goal floating right above your heads as you build the year together. How you choose to reach that goal can change, flex, and grow, but without it, you'll be a ship without a rudder not knowing where you're sailing. Ok, you know we mean it when we're mixing metaphors. Seriously, though please get on the same page about what your striving for. Repeat after us, "Yes, we will. Right away!" Oh good, thank you!

Conversation Starters
How do you like to structure your core subject areas (ex. workshop, centers, whole-group instruction leading to individual work time)
How do you like to differentiate? 
When a child already knows the content, do you believe in pushing them further or taking them deeper in terms of instruction? 
Do you consider all of the students to be your responsibility or would you like to hold onto the rosters as a way to divide responsibilities? 
How do you think students learn best? 
What strategies or practices do you feel optimize student learning?

8. Parent Communication - Let's do some pretty serious math here. Are you ready for this?
2 class x 22 students = 44 students x 2 = 88 parents
88 parents (and this doesn't even factor in students who have two sets of parents)
Please don't let this math scare you, but do let it be a reminder that this is something you should absolutely be prepared for. We prefer to think of it as 88 wonderful people we get to work in partnership with, but during conference week boy that number can really hurt!

Conversation Starters
How do you want to deal with parent communication? 
Do you want to split the families based on your roster? 
Do you want to have any parent contact either of you when they have a question or concern? 
Would you be interested in a joint email account? 
Do you want to do conferences together? 
Are you comfortable meeting with parents separately or would you prefer both teachers to be present? 
How will you make sure that both of you know pertinent information being passed along by a parent?

9. Taking the Lead - One thing that was really difficult for us in the beginning, and something we still struggle with from time to time, was figuring our how to let go of being the absolute authority in the classroom. We had some serious power struggles in the beginning (Lessons from the Limb #2 - The Legend of the Wolf), but we had figured out how to find a balance of when to take the lead, when to sit back, and when to compromise.

Conversation Starters
Will you teach lessons collaboratively all day? 
Will one person take the lead in certain subject areas or during certain units? 
Is it alright for one person to ask the other for support during a lesson? 
What would you like to see the other teacher doing if one teacher is running the lesson with the whole class? 
Are you willing to compromise? 
How do you like to work things out when you have conflicting ideas?

10. Communication - Whew-ee! This one is critical (So important that we've written about it here, here, and here). We cannot emphasize enough how important communication and trust is to a strong collaborative partnership. In fact, we'd go as far as to say without communication and trust your partnership is over before it's begun. Luckily for us, we had trust and pretty good communication before we started teaching together, but even with that strong foundation it is something we have to continually work on and nurture.

Conversation Starters
How do you like to receive feedback? 
If your partner is having a problem, what is the best way to approach you? 
How would you like to check-in with each other? 
Do you like to talk about things immediately or do you like some space to think before you talk? 
Are you open and willing to hear honest feedback and work on things that are not working for your teaching partner? 
Are you willing to be honest and constructive when discussing things that are not working for you? 
Are you willing to prioritize and compromise for the sake of your partnership and shared objectives?

While we love teaching together and are true proponents of collaborative teaching, we also acknowledge and experience the difficulties of merging two teachers together into one classroom. It takes commitment and communication to make any partnership work, particularly when you're dealing with as complex of a system as a classroom. With that said, we also believe that collaborative teaching can be incredibly rewarding and we hope this list can help teachers who are courtin' see if they are a good fit.

From the limb,

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Tip from Us to You - Shoes It Wisely (Hee hee)

Ok, let's get real here ... what's the number one skill that a first grade teacher needs to have? If you teach in lower elementary this is a no-brainer - you need to be a world-class shoelace tier. In fact, we should probably start being a little more hard hitting in our teacher interviews. "Oh, you have a masters in education. That's nice but can you tie teeny tiny shoes all day every day? Can you undo partially tied double-knot shoelaces with the utmost patience and care? Yes? You're in!"

One day while visiting the LAND OF BRILLIANT IDEAS AND LOST HOURS (aka Pinterest), KH was collecting ideas about exercising instead of just getting off her rump and actually exercising when she came across a post about a way to double-knot shoes that is as easy as 1-2-3 to undo. This elicited a quick double-take THEN an excited, "Say what?" THEN a rapid lemme try this out for myself. And, guess what??? It works and it's brilliant. So from us to you, here's how to tie double-knot laces that are easy to undo.

Gratefully borrowed from this website: http://www.organizinghomelife.com/archives/4123
Go forth and tie, our dear teaching friends. May your fingers be ever nimble and sure, and your students' shoes securely tied.

From the limb,

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why We're Over the Word "Challenge"

Almost every year, KH comes down with strep. It's her achilles heel. If she's going to get sick, like full-on sick, it'll be strep ... every time. Last year, KH did not realize that she had strep so she was working in the classroom in that state you get in just before you realize that you're sick ... you know, the way you feel when you look back and think, "That's why I felt so weird." Anyway, in this strep induced cloud, KH had a strep induced genius thought and we're about to drop it on y'all ...

Every child needs a challenge.

You're welcome!

Ok, ok, ok ... let us explain ...

Do you ever find yourself using specific language just to appease a certain group of parents? We'd like think that we're above all of that ... that we tell it like it is ... but the truth is that we all do it. We want parents to trust us; we want them to believe that we have their child's best interests at heart and we're acting out of our extensive knowledge and experience base to meet the unique needs of their child. And many do hand us this trust and this professional respect buuuuuuuuuuut there are always a few who do not and we find ourselves, often subconsciously, changing our language and our presentation in order to convince them of this. One of the ways we do this is by throwing around the word "challenge", particularly to parents who are very concerned that their child is bright and they are not being, well, challenged.

"Your child is ready for a challenge ..."
"We will be challenging your child by ..."
"We are working on the challenging work of ..."

You get the idea.

But the truth is ... every child needs a challenge. Actually, scratch that:

Every child needs deserves a challenge.

That's our job, really ... right? Challenge exists in the area between what I can do and what I am just about to be able to do. It's the wilderness where learning occurs. Challenge might look different for every child based on their individual needs and learning trajectory, but if it's stretching you, if it's pushing you, if you're learning then it's a challenge. So that's why we're going to stop throwing the word challenge around like a prize to be held by certain students. Every child deserves a challenge and that's what we're about.

Okay, thanks for listening. We'll get off our high horse now :)

From the limb,