Saturday, November 16, 2013

How To: Make a Video Newsletter

Soooooo remember that post a little while back where we said that we tried something new and the verdict was still out? Well, guess what?!? Our newsletters are a huge hit!!!
The parents have been loving them, the kids have been loving them, and we have been loving not writing the newsletter tomes that we ended up with last year (Lawd, could we write a loooooooong newsletter!). We've had some unintended bonuses as well, like parents sharing the videos with grandparents. Cool, right?!? And the best part is that we can provide a little window into the classroom so parents can get a feel for what every day classroom life is like ... the good, the bad, and the ugly :) (We say the ugly because we do not censor our videos ... A kid is crying in the background - oh well! Someone is staring off into space instead of participating - whatcha gonna do! We include whatever we catch on film. And now you're probably thinking ... those are two bad booty chicks ... and you'd be right :)

You can read all about us being bad booty chicks here: Special Columbia Edition of How To: The First Rule of Chart Club Is ...
While we are by no means experts in making videos, we'd like to share with you our process for churning out a video newsletter every other week so you can see how we make ours with minimum muss and fuss because really we ain't got time for that! KH loves her some checklists so we're going to share our checklist for creating a video newsletter, our storyboard (oh yeah, get ready, this post is just going to be sprinkled with terms from the industry - the movie industry - cuz we're in the know like that), and some tips we've gathered along the way.

We apologize that we cannot show you any more of our videos to help convince you to take the plunge, but alas they now star our students and we do not want to post pictures of our students on our blog. You're just going to have to take our word on how awesome they are and see where our knowledge + your creativity can take you.

Our Process
Download here
Our Storyboard

Download here
Here is an example of our storyboard from our last newsletter:
Math Workshop Video Newsletter Storyboard page 1
Math Workshop Video Newsletter Storyboard page 2
And since we're Share-y McShare-ysons, we'd like to share with you some tips we have for making video newsletters.

1. Make a plan first
     Know exactly what you want to include and be sure to capture that. You may get other footage by happenstance, but the last thing you want is to try to cobble together a coherent video from a bunch of random footage. It'll make your job much harder and more time consuming and frustrating and ... you get the point.

2. Focus on the curriculum and the learning
     We use our video newsletters to highlight what we're learning and what our life in the classroom looks like. We do not use our video newsletters for quick reminders of things like field trips or homework. We include bulleted reminders on the email when we send out the link to our video newsletter.

3. Tell a story
     Think about your video as a story - the story of the learning or the story of the content in the classroom. Let your video walk people through your topic in a way that's organized and coherent, in a way that builds upon the previous section, as if you are giving someone a tour. For example, in our most recent video about Math Workshop, we used choronlogy to tell our story. We walked the parents through each element of Math Workshop in the order that the children experience them. We told the story of Math Workshop.

4. Use the kids
     Our first video starred us - BORING! - but we didn't want to continue that way for many reasons, vanity being one :) Now the kids make up 98% of the video and they LOVE being part of the video and sharing about the classroom.

5. Have someone else shoot your footage
     For example, our last video newsletter was focused on sharing our Math Workshop. We have a different parent volunteer that floats every day during Math Workshop so we can focus on teaching. Each day we just gave the parent volunteer our camera and a post-it with some things we wanted to include in our video. By the end of the week, we had most of the footage we needed for our video and it didn't take any of our instructional time.
Post-it given to parent of footage to shoot
6. Find a predictable format and stick to it
     We have made a format for our videos and that helps us when we make our plan and when we go to put it all together. This is our format:

Title Slide - It always says "Our Class News" and the date
Introduction - We always introduce the video together and we always say: "This is our class news for ... (date)." Then we preface with the focus of the video.
1-2 Topics - We always choose 1-2 topics to focus our newsletter on.
Topic Slides - We use topic slides to separate the topics.
Closure - We always end with the credits

     We always use the same fonts, the same title and topic slides, the same formats to layer text over video, the same transitions, etc. This may seem boring but it makes for so many fewer decisions when it comes time to put the video together and it lends a continunity that makes the videos seem like part of a series instead of stand alone pieces.

7. Layer video, text, and audio
     You can deliver a lot of information in a short amount of time by layering. We often layer text on top of our video footage to give more information about what is being shown. We also use audio clips over photos or video we've muted in order to explain what's going on. Finally, when we have students introduce parts of our video, we will write their lines on whiteboards so that the viewer can hear them and also read what they are saying in case the audio does not come through as loudly as desired.

8. Get yo' self some B-roll
     That's right. We KH knows video terms. Tape some stock footage of your students during different parts of the day. It can serve as a resource to pull from when you're putting together your videos. A parent volunteer is a great person to get some B-roll footage for you.

9. Keep it short and sweet
     Try to capture as much as possible in as little time as possible. Use a critical editing eye when reviewing your video. Does it drag anywhere? Is anything redundant? Do you get the idea of something without needing all of the footage? For example, we often use footage of our students singing, but sometimes the whole song can feel long so we'll cut it down to just 1 verse and the chorus. Be a critical editor; you don't have to use everything you shot.

10. Don't spend too much time on it
     Don't obsess about it being perfect; you'll make yourself crazy. Just get the footage you need and move on. Surprisingly, some of the best feedback we've received is how much the parents enjoy that we leave in the mistakes. We're being authentic about what really happens in our classroom and that resonates with them. So take it from two perfectionists - don't try to make it perfect.

11. So there isn't actually an 11th tip. We just didn't want to have an odd number of tips .... so ... yeah ... we're weird ... anyway ...

12. Celebrate yourself and your class
     You're awesome and the work you do everyday is amazing. Brag about it! 

Finally, a technical note: We use a flip camera mostly to get our footage. We also use stills from a digital camera and sometimes film directly on our MacBook Pro. We upload all of our footage into iMovie and use it to make our videos. We export them direclty from iMovie into Quick Time. We found after trying to share our first video newsletter that the files were too large to email out to parents so we upload them using Google Docs and then change the share settings so anyone with a link can view the document even if they do not have their own Google account. Then we email out the link to all of our parents.

We hope this was helpful and maybe even a little inspiring. We would be happy to do a more technical blog about how we use iMovie to make the movie if there's interest. If anyone tries a video newsletter themselves, we'd love to see it or hear how it went!

From the limb,

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Levity from the Limb #3

Anybody feeling a little like this lately?

The other day KH was doing a Core Phonics asessment on a kiddo. When they were done, she asked the kid to get her the next person to be tested. It went a little something like this:

Ms. H: Excellent job, Student X. Could you please get me Ryan Reynolds? Thanks.

As the child happily went off, KH started thinking to herself, "Wait, did I just ask her to get me Ryan Reynolds?" As in ...

Yep, Ryan Reynolds. There's really nothing more to say after that except ...


That's the only thing that would have saved the day.

From the limb,

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lessons from the Limb #9: Our Collaboration

People often ask us how our partnership works and why it works so well.  They see us collaborating and automatically assume it works because we are friends or because “we live at work.”  While it doesn’t hurt to wake up and work with a good friend, someone you admire, someone who inspires you to do more, someone who pushes you...contrary to popular belief, friendship has nothing to do with it.  We work because who chose to enter into this partnership together.  More importantly, our partnership works because we work hard to make it work.  Recently KM attended a meeting and was presented with an interesting visual about collaborative teaching which we feel sums up the inner layers of our collaborative relationship:
Image taken from Daniel Wilson's presentation in the Learning Environments for Tomorrow presentation at Harvard (April 2012).
So let's breakdown each of these four layers and by the end of this collaboration expose, the secrets of our inner workings will be unveiled for the masses.  So with out further ado:

Layer 1.  Communication.  At the base of any healthy relationship is open and honest communication.  One of the reasons why we work is that we are open with each other.  We give each other feedback, we share ideas and pedagogical knowledge, we challenge each other and we give each other compliments.  While compliments are always nice, we also don’t hesitate to challenge each other to make sure the decisions we are making are aligning with our collective goals.  It’s never personal because at the end of the day we believe in each other and trust and respect each other.  To make sure we are always checking in with each other, we have a before school check in where we go over any big things for the day and an after school check in where we reflect on the day and make preparations for the next day.  When there is a breakdown in communication, there will likely be a breakdown in collaboration.    Sometimes that happens.  We are not perfect.  Sometimes we fight.  Nothing makes the collaboration crunchier as when there is a chink in a partnership’s communication.   

Layer 2.  Coordination.  While we were used to being the queens of our own classrooms, it was an adjustment to figure out how to rule our joint court.  There were some tough times where we tried to assert our dominance over each other.  For a collaboration to be successful, you can’t have two queens fighting for one throne.  We have found the most success in recognizing and utilizing each of our strengths and then using them to build each other up.  

"All ways here are our ways," said the Queens of Hearts.
Layer 3.  Cooperation.  Once our communication was solid, we had to make sure we were speaking the same language.  Before we started down this road of collaboration, we sat down and aligned our vision and philosophies.  You could have exceptional communication and be the best of friends, but if you don’t stand for the same things then…well….you’re heading for a hot mess.   Seriously.  It’s just like living with a friend.  Good friends don’t necessarily make good roommates.  Good friends don’t necessarily make good teaching partners.   Collaborative relationships require more than friendship and a shared love of rubrics.  You both have to be committed to pursuing the same goals and vision.  We work because each day we bring our A-game and it’s not about who thought of what or who gets credit for what, its about supporting each other to realize our vision for our students and their families.

Layer 4.  Collaboration.  When all the C’s combine, you have Captain Collaboration (cue Captain Planet theme song).  At the heart of all the four C’s lies collaboration.  When there is open and honest communication, you are both committed to the same goals, and you both work together to rule your domain, you have true collaboration.  Collaboration isn’t just about being in the same room together; it’s more about how you work together.  It is about you and your partner bringing ideas to the table to discuss and together turning them into something better than what you each could have created alone.  Our collaboration works because we are constantly reflecting, planning, brainstorming, nit-picking, revising, and reshaping our new normal together one day at a time.

So the FLY AWAY here is that just like any relationship, you get out of it what you put in.  You don’t have to be friends to have a successful collaborative partnership.  For goodness sakes you don’t have to “live at school.”  You just both have to want to be there and commit to each other and your shared goals.  If you end up becoming friends as a result of the experience, well we ain’t mad at ya. 

From the limb,

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lessons from the Limb #8: "Fight Right", Y'all!!!

So ... we got in a fight ...

Alright, alright, we didn't get into a real fight, but we did have a disagreement - quarrel? dispute? clash? squabble? - about partnering up students, of all things, and we had to work it out. And while we did eventually come to an agreement in regards to student partnerships, the bigger take away we had was about communication and essentially how to "fight right". KH recently read a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin ...

You can find it on Amazon here
... and one of the things that stuck with her the most was the idea that couples with healthy relationships "fight right" - they don't bring up past wrongs, they are able to laugh and joke amidst a spat, they try to really hear what the other person is saying, and they let things go once resolution is struck. While we are obviously not a couple, we think the principles of "fighting right" still apply because in many ways our relationship mirrors the components of a true marriage.

So with the idea of "fighting right" and the desire to improve our communication process, KH launched a conversation basically about how we felt our disagreement went and what we could do better in the future. This conversation, in true KH and KM reflective fashion, became a meta-analysis of our disgreement, almost like a post-game breakdown recapping each moment of the fight and where, if anywhere, commincation failures could be pinpointed with the hopes of avoiding them in the future. Now before you think we're crazy - though we admit you may have a point at times - we did this because we wanted to improve our communication, we wanted to make sure that when we were quarreling that we were still "fighting right".

We're sure that you are DYING to know the details of our squabble but, alas, we are going to disappoint you because this entry is not really about the fight itself, but what we learned from having the fight in the first place and then analyzing it together.

Realization #1: It is important to restate things to make sure that both of us are hearing the same thing.

     Revelation: Sometimes we are talking about two completely different things and we don't even realize it! Fail! Other times, we are saying the exact same thing - we actually agree! - and we don't even realize it. Double fail! Not a productive way to communicate.

     Resolution: We are going to work on following up key agreements in discussions by rephrasing. For example,

Realization #2: It is important to be crystal clear about what we've agreed upon.

     Revelation: Most often when we debate or disagree on things, they are complicated issues - regardless of what you may think after reading about our Alpha Wolf struggles for dominance. We have to sort them out and make a plan one layer at a time. What we have a tendancy to do is keep moving the conversation forward without being explicit about what we have agreed upon and what's still undecided. This either leaves us in the position of ending our conversation in a cloud of amibiguity ...

... or we keep rediscussing things we've already agreed upon. Either way, it's a waste of precious time and, as KM would say, "We don't have time for this nonsense!"

     Resolution: Well, our first plan was to hire a man named Icarus to act as our scribe and follow us around recording our agreements.

And while we're still holding out hope that someday we'll find him, in the mean time we're going to work on synthesizing exactly what we have agreed to BEFORE we move on, with each of us weighing in with a yes or no to confirm.

This all may seem ridiculous to the outsider, but one of the things we value most about our professional relationship and something we believe is essential to our success as a team is our ability to talk about and learn from our ups and downs. It would be so easy to let things fester or just leave things as they are, to accept the status quo, to not rock the boat and not push ourselves to dig deeper, but we are true believers in continuous improvement and that includes our professional relationship with each other, not just the pedagogy. After all this reflecting and discussing, analyzing and soul baring, our FLY AWAY is this: without communication and trust, collaborative teaching cannot reach its true potential for both the students and the teachers.

We'll leave you with this final reminder:

Stay classy, my friends!

From the limb,

Saturday, September 21, 2013

We Tried Something New ... and the Verdict Is Still Out

Soooooo ... we had this idea to try and do a video newsletter instead of writing up a weekly newsletter for our class. Last year, we found that we had so much to say and explain that the written explanations were getting too long for parents to read and digest. So we had this idea to make a video newsletter so we could just explain it and perhaps it would be easier to intake. Plus we wanted to push ourselves to try something new. This is our first attempt. Enjoy!

From the limb,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Even When 40 Feels Like 140, Don't Stop Believing

Anyone else ever feel this way after the first week of school?

Whew! We made it through our first week and we are wiped!! We're not usually ones to toot our own horns, but there's nothing like the the first weeks of school to remind you of how AMAZING you are that you sustain this level of energy and activity for 10 whole months. We are definitely missing our stamina; we are going to have to build it up all over again.

Anyway ... what we really wanted to write about is starting the year with collaborative teaching, specifically dealing with all those kiddos. Now usually when we tell people that we teach forty students, they give us a funny look and say something like, "Dear God, where do you teach?" They are so horrified by the number that they fail to do the math: 40 students divided by 2 teachers = 20 students per teacher, a perfectly respectable (and actually difficult to find nowadays) ratio. And we always reply, "No, no, no! It's really great! It doesn't feel like 40 kids at all," while giving them a bright smile and a comforting arm pat (they just seem so disturbed). That statement was true for most of last year, except for three times: the first day of school drop off, Open House, and when we did our Rainforest play.

This year, we noticed there have been a few times when 41 has felt like 141:

Achieving Quiet

Teaching the children the signals that we use to get their attention and then training them to follow the signals takes forever because we have to wait for twice as many students to get used to becoming quiet on a signal.


It takes much longer for the children to transition because they are still learning what to do and we have to walk the kids through it a few at a time. The children tend to erupt into conversation during and after each transition, particularly coming in from recess and lunch. They are still learning that they need to transition quickly and quietly so we can move on with our day.


We learned the children's names by the end of the first day because we're awesome like that :) But 41 feels like 141 when they are trying to learn each other's names. It's a lot of new faces to learn and remember. For us, learning and remembering all of the parents' names and faces makes 41 families feel like 141 because we have so many more families to get to know. We love getting to work with so many families, but we hate that feeling of not remembering people's names.


It is so essential to check each child's work in the beginning of the year so they have that sense of accountability and that you are checking their work for completeness and quality. We believe that the more time you put into this on the front end, the less you have to carefully check everything later because the children have built the habit of doing their best work. 41 feels like 141 when you're having to check each child's work before they can move on, particularly when a swarm of them finish at the same time.


41 feels like 141 when you are teaching the children the systems of the classroom and the behaviors you want them to follow. Good teachers know you have to be explicit in the beginning of the year with exactly what you expect of the children and practice, practice, practice. This practice time can take a lot longer when you have twice as many kids. For example, when teaching the children how we want them to unpack their snacks, lunches, and backpacks. With a class of 20, this takes forever in first grade, but this feels like it is taking 41 forevers with 41 kids.

Gettin' from A to B

Now we all know that first graders in a line, especially at the beginning of the year, can be a bit like herding cats, but with 41 kids in a line it can feel as though our line stretches the length of the school. Other classes have to stop as our line goes by like a railroad crossing, just kid after kid after kid as the line goes on and on. Oh, and the gaps in the line ... oh, the gaps! And the best part is when the kids aren't paying attention and then they start following another line like little lost ducklings. Oy vay!

While we are usually waxing poetic about how amazing collaborative teaching is and all the benefits, we wanted to write this post because we are also here to keep it real. We want you to know that it's not always lollipops and rainbows; if you want to try this - merging your class together with another class like we have - it's going to feel daunting and exhausting and a little cray-cray at times.  In the beginning you are probably going to think, "Forty kids? What in the world were we thinking? WHY???" You are going to have to hold on to your teacher partner as you dig deep for strength and patience.  Just hold on and hang in can do it. There is a silver lining:

Once you get your children trained and your classroom humming, it's magic!

Your children will learn the systems and the expectations, they will get used to moving efficiently in a line, they will make friends with each other and learn each other's names, they will figure out how to transition quickly and quietly ... you will even learn ALL of the parents' names and faces ... and before you know it, you will be sitting back and marveling at how far you've come. You'll be saying:

Get through the beginning and forty will feel like twenty. We've been there, we promise. Hold on. It's worth it!

From the limb,

Saturday, September 7, 2013

We Realize It's Not New Years But We're Making Some Resolutions (Yeah, We're Rebels Like That)

Have we mentioned before that we like to take walks? We live in a beautiful place and sometimes we just like to walk around and soak it all in and, of course, talk ... well, blab up a storm to be more precise. There's something about going on a walk that can help us focus and clarify our thinking around a topic - a trick we like to use when we're feeling stymied or having trouble agreeing upon something. So the other day we went on a hike and during our hike, we came up with 5 resolutions for the upcoming school year that we thought we'd share with you.

Resolution 1: Stop and smell the roses

It is so easy, especially for us, to get obsessed preoccupied with everything we have to do and everything we want to do, and forget to just appreciate what we have accomplished and all of the funny times along the way. There were so many hilarious moments and small victories throughout the year last year and we want to find a way to capture them so we can treasure those memories. For our personalities, we find that being a teacher can be a continuous slog where you feel like you're never where you want to be, never on top of things like you'd planned to be, and like you're never good enough. While we enjoy the challenge of continuous improvement that being a teacher inspires in us, it is still important to find ways to celebrate the little stuff so you don't feel disheartened or defeated; you have to find ways to celebrate how far you've come and to remember to laugh and have fun along the way. So how are we going to achieve this: a memory jar! We're going to take a little time to write down funny or special moments in our classroom throughout the year and then we'll have those to look at whenever we're having a rough day or when we want to look back on the school year. Thank you for that idea, Pinterest!

Resolution 2: Manage our time like a boss

Ah, time management - the bane of many teachers' existences, ourselves included. As a teacher there is so much work to be done all the time and it can be incredibly overwhelming. You could literally work 24 hours a day and still feel like you have a million things undone; it is the sisyphean nature of the job.

Collaborative teaching brings a new variable to time management - managing the limited time we have together. Last year, we ended up having to split up our workload, for example KM (used to be KB - read further about that here: Something Happened This Summer ... and it's Kinda a Big Deal) would plan our reading small groups and KH would plan our math small groups. And while this was fine for actually getting the work accomplished, it kind of defeated the purpose of us teaching together. You see, we wanted to plan together - that was the whole point,!! - so it was a big disappointment when time constraints and schedules prevented us from doing so the majority of the time. So what are two teachers to do - why make a plan, of course! We have rearranged our schedules so that we have a protected work time together until 4 every day after school - barring required meetings, of course.

We are also going to use "to-do" lists and agendas to help us focus our time. We were inspired by the book Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Amazing read, by the way!!!

We made an "End of the Day" checklist that we will complete everyday as soon as school is out so that no matter what the classroom is ready for the next morning. That will take away the stressful feeling in the morning of having a bunch of things to accomplish before the children arrive.

Click here to download this document

We also made a "Weekly To-Do" list that will guide our activities every day after school. We are hoping this will help us manage our time, make the best use of our time together, and keep ourselves focused on one thing at a time.
Click here to download this document
One of the best things about working together is that we are such good friends and we have a lot of fun together. This is a double-edged sword, though, because it's easy for us to spend a half-hour recounting something funny that happened in the classroom that day, and then one of us has to go and we've lost our common planning time ... whoops! Soooo ... we've both made a commitment to use these tools and our own discipline to focus the time we have together ... and then we'll spend that half an hour recounting a funny thing that happened in the classroom on the phone that night instead of vice versa.

Resolution 3: Share the stove and remember there are only 4 burners

Ok, this one's a bit complicated ... stay with us! Basically, we created an analogy to express our frustration about not working together on the same things during the year. As we mentioned before, out of necessity we split up the workload last year in order to keep up with all the lesson planning we needed to accomplish. So we ended up each tending to our own stove, if you will. Additionally, we each have our own interests and ideas that we want to pursue so we ended up adding our own pots to our own stove. You see what we're saying here? This resolution is to remind us of two things:

1) We want to work together on things. That's why we're doing this. That's what helps us grow as educators and get stronger in our teaching. We need to make sure that we are cooking at the same stove and working together instead of doing our own thing.

2) There are only so many burners on the stove. Sometimes we tend to get overexcited about a new idea and want to start working on it right away. While that enthusiasm and drive to innovate is an important component of growing as an educator, it has to be tempered with reality. There is only so much time and mental energy available for new ideas. We want to make sure when we are doing things that we are putting the adequate resources behind them to do them correctly or else, what's the point? We have to remember that we only have room to be working on and innovating so many things at one time (thus the 4 burners). We have decided that everything else will go in "The Oven", a notebook that we have created to capture our ideas and things we want to learn more about or explore, until we are able to give adequate attention to them.

Resolution 4: Simplify, simplify, simplify

Yeah, we're so good at this resolution that we couldn't even simplify its title; three "simplifies", really? The irony is not lost on us. And while we've almost made an oxymoron out of the title, it serves as a good reminder of the intention behind this resolution. You see, both of us get caught up in new ideas and elaborate schemes (We blame all of those amazing teaching blogs out there and don't even get us started on the time suck that is Pinterest!). In all seriousness though, this is actually a good thing because it pushes us to be reflective, to take risks, and improve ... but, conversely, it can also lead to unnecessary overcomplication of things. Even with the best of intentions, if you have too many balls in the air, the more likely you are to be dropping balls or not paying the kind of attention you should to each ball. We think it's better to narrow our focus so that we can do our best work on what's most important. So, we're going to use the following criteria to analyze our decisions and any new ideas we have for our classroom:

1) Does this enhance the work we are already doing?
2) What are we going to replace with this new idea?
3) Can we use things we already have in place to achieve some, if not all, of this new objective?

And if all else fails, we'll just keep repeating "simplify, simplify, simplify" ... sounds simple enough, right?

Resolution 5: Get off your log and blog

Ok, the title of this one is a little silly, but we really do enjoy maintaining our blog. First, you have no idea how hilarious we find ourselves when we draw our comics - it's pretty ridiculous - and we defnitely get more laughs out of it than anyone who views them possibly could. But, more importantly, we have great conversations about what's happening in our classroom and being forced to synthesize it in order to write about it, optimistically in an engaging, but probably more realistically in a semi-coherent manner, helps us clarify our own thinking around what we're doing. For example, if we cannot present a strong argument for what we're doing in our classroom on this blog then we should probably take a more critical look at what we're doing. Finally, this blog is a great way to capture small victories, moments of growth, and moments of hilarity that we experience throughout our school year. It's a way to look back and see how far we've come, and maybe inspire other people to try something new. While blogging in retrospect over the summer as we've been doing has been fine, we'd really like to keep up on our blog in real-time so the experience is more reflective of our growth in the moment instead of feeling a bit like we're monday morning quarterbacking ourselves. So the moral of the story is that even things that you enjoy can take discipline sometimes. We need to have the discipline to keep up on our blog for your enjoyment and, even more importantly, our own!

So those are the resolutions we came up with. Wish us luck in keeping them up and, assuming we are able to keep up Resolution 5, we'll be keeping your apprised of our progress. Happy New Years first days of school!

From the limb,

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Special Columbia Edition of How To: The First Rule of Chart Club Is ...

When we first started teaching, if you were to happen upon our classrooms at the beginning of the year, you would have seen beautiful, perfect teaching walls filled with colorful and informative teaching posters. They would have looked a lot like this:

Look at all of those beautiful posters!!!
We filled our walls with everything we knew our students would need to reference throughout the school year. And when parents walked in, they would think, "This is a prepared classroom. My kiddos will do well here." But, guess what? All those beautiful charts adorning our walls, a virtual cornucopia of reference material, and what would happen ...

 Child (oh so innocently): Ms. H, what's the name of this shape?

Ms. H (with infinite patience and nurturing care): Dear child, let me point you towards our chart on shapes and their defining attributes.

Different child, two minutes later: Ms. H, which one of these is a triangle, again?

Ms. H (losing just a bit of her cool): The chart. Check the shape chart. On the wall. The math reference wall.

Yet another innocent darling, just one minute later: Ms. H, is this a circle?

Ms. H (cool is completely gone, voice is at a level of shrill that only dogs can hear): WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME? CHECK THE CHART!!! ... I need to sit down.

While this is obviously an exaggeration, we're sure every teacher has experienced a similiar moment of frustration at some point in their teaching careers. But we learned and we grew as educators, and this is what our classroom looks like at the start of the year now.

Our reading/writing instructional wall as it stands right now ... and as it will look on Day 1.
No, your eyes are not failing you. Those are, in fact, blank walls you're seeing. And yes, they are completely blank when the parents walk in on the first day. And, guess what? They're usually pretty blank during Back to School night as well. Ok, we know what you're thinking:

Those are 2 bad-booty chicks!

That's right - we are rebels, baby!
And while we are pretty bad-booty (though probably all potential street cred that we had just evaporated when we used the word bad-booty), we do it because we know the secrets of Chart Club. We learned them from Teacher Camp at Columbia (here's an entry about us going on our Pilgrimmage to Columbia's Teacher College for your reading pleasure). And we're going to let you in on them too.

The Rules of Chart Club
1. The first rule of Chart Club is you don't talk about Chart Club. If they don't create it, they won't connect it.

The reason that the children were not using our charts in our previous years of teaching is that they held no personal relevance or connection for them. They came into the classroom with the charts already hung up, which relegated them to the status of brightly colored wallpaper in the eyes of most of the children. They are completely baffled by the response of "Check the chart!". What chart? All I see is your fancy teacher decorations.

Dang it!
So how to overcome that response? Well, like this:

Create your charts together.

Now, we know we're supposed to create our charts together, BUT ... We want the chart to look perfect. We already know what we want the chart to say. We want the chart to look perfect ... did we say that already?

Sooooooo ... we would plan our charts out beforehand and even pencil in what we were going to write so we could make a perfect chart right in front of our students' eyes. That's okay, right? Because they're watching it be created, right? RIGHT?

Well, erm ... no. As we learned in Columbia, co-creating a chart means allowing student input and then actually placing it on the chart, even if it was not part of the original plan. 

At this point, you may be feeling a little short of breath. Queasy even. We feel you; we really do. But the students have to feel a part of creating the chart in order to connect to it. And if they don't connect to it, then really, what's the point?

So how can you accomplish this without losing your OCD beautifully organized and perfectionist mind? Well, you can still make a plan for your chart ahead of time. Just be sure to leave room for student input. At Columbia, they showed us a bunch of charts using post-its to add student ideas.

You can also add student examples to your chart.
Or you can use a piece of student work as an exemplar and label it together as a class.
2. Strive for a billboard

Now whaddya mean by that, you might be thinking. Well, this is the part where you have to channel your inner marketing major. You need to think about your charts as highway billboards. They should be advertisements of your teaching. They should catch the eye. Imagine your students zooming by at 60 miles per hour; what would they be able to get from your chart? Your charts should be designed to give information efficiently and effectively. So, what does this boil down to?
  • Catchy headings (think about what would catch your students' eyes as they are zooming around your classroom)
  • Clear headings - It could be a big idea, a question, a reminder ... something to quickly tell your students what the chart is about and how it can help them.
  • Teaching points - Include the language of your teaching BUT just the gist of it. Brevity is key.
  • Always consider the reading level and vocabulary of your students to make the chart accessible. It's not a resource if they can't read it, y'all!
3. A picture is worth a 1000 words

Visuals are where it's at, baby! Visuals are the key to an effective chart. Why, you ask? Well, let us tell you. First, visuals are essential for memory recall. The visual provides a hook for information retrieval within the brain. Second, children develop a strong visual literacy before even attending school. It's our job to capitalize on that. Third, reading levels vary greatly among classmates, but everyone can access a picture. You gotta work with what you got.

So where can you get these oh so essential visuals? You can use photographs, clipart, student work, google images ... you can also draw images. Be sure when you are drawing, though, that you draw in a way that the students can emulate. For example, children draw using shapes so use simple shapes as the basis for your drawings as well.
Example of drawing people that children can draw from
You can also develop icons that you use again and again. For example, an ear might become an icon for listening. Your students will recognize and associate a consistent meaning with the icon. 

4. Get obsessed

If you want your students to use your charts, you have to use them all the time ... we mean, like, ALL THE TIME!!! Touch them often. Refer to them. Have your students touch them while you are referring to them. Think to yourself while you are lesson planning: "How can I use my charts more? What can I reference on my chart for this lesson?" Have your students use the charts for goal setting. Have them write their names on sticky notes and then stick them on the part of the chart that they are planning to work on that week. Move the chart around and make a big fuss about it when you do. Revise the chart. Add new learning. Get creative ... do what you have to do in order to ...

Use that chart!
5. Less is more

While this is true for the quantity of text on your chart, this rule has a broader meaning. It's a reminder that instead of making a new chart for everything that you're teaching, try to make charts that can be added upon or that can span over many topics. Children are more likely to refer to a chart when they've spent a long time working with it. Look for a big idea or theme that weaves through your teaching points for the unit then create a chart around that idea where each lesson adds a little bit to the chart. 

Okay, check in. Real talk, how are you feeling? If you're anything like us after our week at Columbia, you were nodding your head through this entire entry - yes, yes, I agree with that, that resonates with me, I already knew that - but now you're feeling a tad bit overwhelmed about where to start and how to apply this to your own practice. Well, thank goodness we have a wonderful resource to share:

This website is a goldmine for everything you want to know about charts. The authors of this website also wrote an excellent book called Smarter Charts.

The ultimate resource for chart making
Well now you're ready to make your own charts. And remember the first rule of Teacher Club: share everything you learn with anyone who will listen!

Inspired by "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" by Beyonce

From the limb,