Saturday, October 20, 2012

Lessons from the Limb #7: One of Us Had a Cold but We Survived!!!

Okay, it happened ... the dreaded moment ... one of us needed a sub. OH MY! Poor Ms. B held on for two days fighting a nasty cold before she succumbed to it and needed to stay home. Now getting a sub when you're sick is drama enough when you're teaching in a classroom by yourself. It's always a balance between needing the day to be productive but not wanting to leave too much essential instruction in case the day goes awry. You would think that having a collaborative classroom would negate that issue but it actually added another lay of complexity. On one hand since Ms. H was going to be there, we were able to continue our instruction without worrying about the way our lesson plans were interpreted or carried out. On the other hand, we are no longer running our classroom as a whole class for the majority of the day. In fact, we had just reached the point where our children were getting independent enough that we are able to pull small groups. We were so excited to get here, we were all planned, and then BAM!! Ms. B gets sick. Classic! We had to can all of our small group instructional plans and go back to whole group because it was too complex to hand over to a sub. It was interesting because Ms. H was able to run the classroom and keep the children on pace instructionally, but it felt like we were losing ground because we had started to tap how much differentiation could occur when the two of us are in the classroom.

Having this experience with a sub taught us a few lessons. The first FLY AWAY is that in a collaborative classroom when one teacher is absent, the day does NOT grind to a halt. Though you may not be able to carry out the day at the same level of rigor and productivity as you would when both teachers are present, even teaching in whole group all day is probably providing the children with more instruction than if the day fell entirely into the hands of a substitute teacher.

The second FLY AWAY has to do with the collaborative relationship. Ms. H got a first hand taste of how it feels to be thrown into a collaborative situation with someone with whom she had no prior relationship. Ms. H had to keep complete control of the day and tell the subs what to do all day (She was basically Ms. Bossypants - though Ms. B might argue that is her natural state :). There was no collaborative relationship, there was instead a hierarchy out of necessity. Of course, this was of no fault of the substitutes - they were both lovely, helpful, and flexible - but there is just no way to replicate the relationship and the synergy that we have through our relationship and the time we've invested in forming our classroom and our vision together. The FLY AWAY is that without the time, the trust, and the communication between two teachers trying to collaborate, the experience becomes completely different. In this case, all of the responsibility fell on Ms. H for the entire day and she became the "boss" of the classroom. Had the substitutes been different people, this could have manifested into a daylong power struggle with the two teachers. Thank goodness that it did not!! In order for collaborative teaching to really work, in our opinion, you need trust and communication, and the time to get on the same page in order to make your vision work. We're not saying that this is realistic in terms of having a sub, but the experience further emphasized the ingredients for successful collaboration for us.

The final FLY AWAY is that things always go wrong when you have a sub. What is up with that? In our case, on Wednesday, one of the students accidentally set off the fire extinguisher. WHY?!?!?!!?! It sent this powder all over the corner of one classroom. This caused Ms. H to run around like a crazy person trying to wrangle 41 overly-curious first graders and get them packed up for the day. Oh did Ms. H miss Ms. B in that moment. Bottom line is we all survived and Ms. B is feeling much better. And while Ms. H loved her dear teaching partner Ms. B before, her absence made the heart grow even fonder :)

From the limb,

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lessons from the Limb #6: Keeping Ourselves Organized

Hello there. So you survived the tome ... I mean post ... on how we organize our students and you've come back for seconds. WE LOVE YOU!!! Thanks for caring about our obsessive ways :) We would now like to share with you how we keep organized between ourselves. While teaching together has made our job easier in many ways, it has also presented us with new challenges like staying on the same page with each other without spending every waking moment together (even though people probably think we do ... but we don't ... we swear!). Just think about it, how many times have you cooked up a lesson plan while shampooing your hair or made a split second decision about your classroom while driving home from school. As teachers we keep so many ideas, task lists, and plans up in our heads all the time. BUT when you're collaborative teaching you can't just make that split second decision in your head on the way home from Target, you have to be on the same page as your teaching partner. Not only was this a challenge, but we also have opposite schedules and working schedule preferences. Both of us having different committments after school. Kristie prefers to work early in the mornings and Kristin ... well ... doesn't, she's a stay-later.

So what were we to do with these problems? Make a plan, of course! Shocking course of action for us to choose, I'm sure :)

First we recognized that it's not going to change that we are both thinking about, planning, and generating new ideas for our classroom on our own all the time; it's both an ingrained habit and a inherent part of being a teacher. Instead of trying to fight that, we acknowledged it and came up with some systems so that we could stay on the same page. We also realized that we couldn't do anything about our schedule differences so prioritized our time and made a schedule. Come along as we take you through the details of our plans:

Our Schedule

In our collaborative classroom, it is essential to us that we plan together so that we are both on the same page and we know exactly what we're doing in the classroom. Since we didn't want to compromise on this and split up the curriculum, we decided to set aside one day per week (it's Mondays, ok!) as "protected planning time" after school. While this is not 100% perfect because sometimes Kristin has meetings on that day, for the most part it provides us with a common, uninterrupted, extended planning time that we can use to plan our weekly curriculum.

We also feel very lucky that our children leave for a 45-minute pull-out every Monday through Thursday so that provides us with some common planning time. That 45-minutes is great and we're really grateful to have it but it gets eeked away very quickly for this reason or that reason so do NOT recommend relying on that time for your only common planning time every week. We feel that you really need a long uninterrupted time so that you can have important conversations about your curriculum and your pedagogical approach to the delivery of the content. One of the things we like the best about teaching together is collaborating on our plans, discussing the efficacy of different instructional strategies, pushing each other's thinking, and analyzing new ideas in teaching; all of this we feel helps us to become better teachers. But ... if you want to have time for those difficult but essentials conversations, you need the time to have them ...

So now you're probably thinking to yourself, they meet to plan every week but how do they get their stuff done ... Well, we'll tell ya!

Shared Email

So, um, yeah ... we have a shared email ... ummmmm ....

We chose to have a shared email for a number of reasons. First, we wanted to present a message to our parents that we are BOTH their child's teacher. The email goes to both of us AND we respond from both of us ... united front, baby! Second, we both wanted to see the correspondence from parents so we could know what's happening with our students, and we did NOT want to keep forwarding things back and forth ... ugh!

Kristie tries to check the email first thing in the morning when she gets in and Kristin checks it in the afternoon. We respond to things that don't need both of our attention on our own and save bigger emails for when we are both together ... like those prep periods. Any email that we read but didn't respond to we re-mark it as unread so that we know it hasn't been dealt with. This is Kristie's system. Kristin's system would involve an elaborate hierarchy of color-coded stars but collaborative teaching is all about compromise :)

Google Tasks

Since our district uses Gmail as the host for our email services, we are able to use a wonderful little tool called "Tasks" to keep ourselves organized. This is part of our shared email (see it's good to have :). It is an on-going task list ordered by due date that can pop-up as part of our email screen. This is how we get our prep done even though Kristie is working in the morning and Kristin is working in the afternoons. This is genius, so brace yourself ... you ready for this amazing-ness? Here it is: While we are planning, we always have our tasks list open so when we are writing our plans, we enter in everything that needs to be prepped and the date by which is needs to be done. Once all the tasks are in the list then it doesn't matter who is working when because we knock off tasks and then cross them off the list. Here's a picture of a piece of our current tasks list:

We live by this creed:

Not only is this immensely satisfying but it also helps us know that the prep has actually been completed, not just left off the list. Peace of mind!


We also use another technological bit of magicalness called Dropbox. Dropbox is a file-sharing website that allows users to share folders on their computer so they can share files. We have a Dropbox account that is always hooked up on our computers so that we can share files if we need to.

The folder we use the most is the "Things to Print" file. This is very helpful because often Kristin makes things on her computer at home and then Kristie prints/preps them in the morning. It allows us to easily pass documents back and forth without clogging up our email.

Our Magical Lesson Plan Books

Here's another shocker for you ... we do not like to use a pre-made lesson plan book. We like to customize our own (can you believe that we would do that?!?). We have two lesson plan binders that we use, one constantly and the other for reference.

First, we have a lesson plan binder for our weekly plans:

Our Magical Lesson Plan Book

No, your eyes do NOT deceive you ... that IS a legal size binder ... BAM! We use a template that we made on the computer for our weekly lesson plans (we just luv to customize!).

This is the lesson plan page that we work together every week to fill out. The pink highlight is a lesson that Ms. B is teaching solo and the purple highlighter is a lesson that Ms. H is teaching solo.
Now for some lessons, a more detailed lesson plan is appropriate. For example, many of our math lessons get a more detailed lesson plan from the basic outlined that we agreed upon during our common planning time. For example:

These lessons get stored in our other magical lesson plan binder (yes, it really is called that ... see):

This allows us to archive our lessons for reference and hopefully, for future use! (Fingers crossed!)

Handy Dandy Reference Binder

After school started, we realized we had all of these important papers and reference materials that we needed to have easily accessible but we didn't have a good place for them so the "Handy Dandy Reference Binder" was born:

Our Handy Dandy Reference Binder
In this binder we keep anything we need to refer to. For example, we have parent contact information, student birthdays, our pull-out schedule by house, class check-off lists, a list of our students by house and number, etc. We also keep our records of homework in this binder. It lives in one spot in the classroom and is available for reference whenever we need it without creating a huge pile of random papers to store and weed through.

Lesson Plan Totes

Can we start by saying that we heart our lesson plan totes. We saw this idea on pinterest and we LOVED it! We bought three lesson plan totes at Lakeshore Learning to keep us organized and mobile, two critical tenents of our classroom structure. In these totes we store all the instructional materials we need for the week from lesson plans to copies to materials that will physically fit. We have one tote for whole group instruction that we share. We also each have our own tote for small-group instruction. Each tote has a different color hanging folder for each day of the week. When we prep materials, we place them in the appropriate tote so they are available for us when we need them. This system has worked very well for us so far because it keeps our materials organized and gives us a place to deposite prepped materials for the week.

Ms. H's lesson plan tote

Our whole group lesson plan tote; you can see the files for each day
Communication Clipboards

Keeping on top of what's happening in the classroom does not just happen before and after school. We have to work to continuously be on the same page during the day as well. One thing that is really important for us is that our roles in the classroom are always fluid; either one of us could grab materials at any time and lead the planned lesson be it whole group or small group. This is a great ideal in theory, but in practice it takes organization and coordination. And thus, communcation clipboards were born. These clipboards hang, literally, off our file cabinet so they are easily accessible to both of us at any given time. Here are our clipboards:

Our clipboards are hanging on our file cabinet or resting on top of the binders
Mini-Lesson Planner

This clipboard is where we quickly jot ideas that we noticed most or all of the students would benefit from; ideas for whole-group mini-lessons in Reader's Workshop, Writer's Workshop, or Math Workshop. We use this to remind ourselves about what to work into the plans for the week.

Strategy Group Planner

This clipboard is super essential to us. We use it to write down areas where we see, either through observation or formative assessment, that certain children need a reteach or additional practice with a concept. Right now, we are still working towards our little firsties being independent enough to hold a small-group with targeted instruction. Until we get there, we are taking advantage of the whole-group nature of our Math Meeting time to have one teacher lead the meeting while the other pulls small groups or individual children for assessment or a mini-lesson. We can grab the clipboard and see who immediately needs some extra practice. When we have met with the children, we write notes about when we met, who participated, and what we did so that either one of us could pick up that group next and know exactly where to continue the instruction.

Formative Assessment Tracker

The final element of keeping on top of our students' progress is our Formative Assessment Tracker clipboard. This is where we note any children who did not demonstrate mastery over a certain skill on our last assessment (so far, we've been using this system in math). When we graded the children's first math assessments, we noted anyone who struggled with a certain skill on the Strategy Group Planner and then we listed them on the Formative Assessment Tracker as a reminder to check back in on that skill after they had participated in a reteach group. Once the child has participated in a reteach group they can be given a quick oral or written assessment around the concept and then either put back for more reteach or crossed off the tracker. This is just the beginning of this system we have created so we will provide an update blog in the future to let you know how it's going. We are really trying to make sure no students fall through the cracks and to use the fact that there's two of us to actually get some reteaching going. Fingers crossed!

Data Binders and Student Files

Doesn't the phrase "Data Binders" just get you excited? Come on, you can admit it ... we won't tell :) We like to keep our student data in binders and, of course, we had to organize them by house color! Did you expect anything less? (insert major eye roll from Kristie here!) This is where we store all of our students' assessment data throughout the year from benchmark data to formative assessment data gathered inbetween report cards. This system allows us to easily access our student's information and lends portability as the binders can easily be grabbed on the go. We use these binders to track students achievement, plan for small group instruction, and send home monthly progress reports (more about that amazing-ness in another post :).

For all other information relating to students that doesn't fall into the "academic data" category, we have students files, again organized by house, where we keep notes from parents and other odds and ends.

Each of these things we've told you about have a specific home in the classroom where they can always be found. That way we're not roaming in circles trying to locate them and wasting time. We both make a conscientious effort to put things back so as not to try the other one insane (aren't we considerate?).

So now we come to our FLY AWAY about teacher organization. Sit down and make of list of all the things that you need to effectively run your classroom. Then brainstorm how you can make common systems that will allow you to plan together and use your time efficiency without having to spend evey waking minute together getting on the same page. Think about fluid systems that can be picked up by either teacher at any given time. Once you've made your systems, stick to them! They won't work if you can't be sure that yourself or your colleague is following them; if you can't trust your systems then you're just wasting time. Stick to them until they are second nature :) And now your favorite OCD teachers will leave you with the following to consider:

Think about it!

From the limb,