Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lessons from the Limb #3 - Presenting Our Third Teaching Partner ... the Timer

Well, this is awkward. In trying to determine which number "Lessons from the Limb" we were on, since it's been ... ahem ... a little while since we posted, we realized that while we left off after number 7 we never did a lesson number 3 ... whoops. Well, since the chronology of this blog is already shot, we're calling this lesson #3 (shhhhhh ... don't tell anyone our mistake).

We want to show you the single best purchase that we made this year (until Kristie bought a pencil sharpener ... LAWD, don't get her started on that!).

Kristie's unhealthy love for our her new pencil sharpener

This purchase was what helped us achieve our fantasy plan of teaching 40 first graders in small groups for our Reading block. Are you ready to see our miracle purchase, our third teaching partner, the backbone of our Reader's Workshop schedule? Well ...

Drum roll, please

PRESENTING ... our timer

Do you see the size of that bad boy? Your eyes are not deceiving you; it is HUGE and we love it!

So here's the background. We had just gotten to the point where we were working with the children in small groups, and it was going great except that we were having the hardest time keeping to our schedule. First we were having a hard time getting through everything that we wanted to get through with the students each day. Things were taking FOR-EV-ER and we were getting stressed that maybe we couldn't get the students to transition efficiently enough to maximize our Reader's Workshop time like we wanted. Soooooo to solve that problem we turned to a trusty teacher tool - the timer. Both of us had used timers in the past to keep both ourselves and our students on schedule so it was a natural go-to tool for us. And it worked ... kind of.

The thing was the only timer we had was small, a kitchen-sized timer, and our classroom is ... uh ... decidedly not small. It was virtually impossible for either of us to see the timer while we were teaching. The timer was doing its job keeping us on time because we were both standardizing and limiting the amount of time we were spending with each small group, BUT we never really had any idea how much time we had left for our groups because we could not see that dang itty bitty timer. It was eye-opening to realize just how critical being aware of the time is for pacing. This may sound obvious, but to us it was a revelation at just how challenging it was to teach without any idea of how much time had passed or how much time we had left. Just another one of those things that teachers manage without even thinking about it while they are teaching, we suppose. Anyway, back to the timer - what we really need was a gimongous timer and there on Kagan's website (link for anyone who's interested:, our dreams came true.

Finding the perfect timer online

Unfortunately, it also cost us $49 before tax and shipping ... YIKES!!!

Discovering the outrageous price for the perfect timer

But in the end, it was truly worth it. We can see our timer from anywhere in the classroom and we used it constantly, c-o-n-s-t-a-n-t-l-y last year. It truly became our third teaching partner and we feel like we could not have achieved the maximizing of our school day that we did without it. It kept us on time, it kept us moving along, it helped us pace, and it helped the children monitor their independent worktime as we would use the countdown feature to help them visualize how much time they had left. We trained the children to freeze and raise their hands in the air when the timer went off. This told them that their time was up and a transition, with teacher directions of course, was about to occur. See, it really was a teaching partner; it even had its own classroom management systems!

So, what's the lesson here you may be wondering, our wise FLY AWAY? It is as simple as this: you can't do it all alone. Every teacher, no matter how dedicated, no matter how talented, no matter how simple awesome, can do everything alone all the time. Everyone needs help - be it a teaching partner, ideas from a blog, or a bangin' timer. So reach out and take the help you need! There's no time (Get it? Time ... hee hee) like the present.

We love our Mega Timer!

From the limb,

Friday, June 28, 2013

Benefits of Collaborative Teaching #2 - The Dance of Critical Mass

One of the best things about collaborative teaching, in our opinion, is what we like to call "The Dance of Critical Mass". Have you ever experienced the frustration of having most of your students finished with an activity or an assignment, but there a still a few stragglers who are not quite through? Now we're not talking about those little beans who stalled or chit-chatted or generally wasted their work time; we're talking about those kids who need more think time, who work a bit more slowly, and perhaps methodically, than their peers, who are truly focused and putting their best effort forward but at their own laborious unique pace. Every class has kids like that - and their needs become diametrically opposed to the "zoomers", the kids that plow through everything and are ready for more ... more ... more ... next ... next ... next.

When we were teaching alone, we continuously faced a conundrum - do we hold up the class until everyone is finished, allowing for as much work time as needed for each child OR do we move the class on when most of the children have finished, creating an environment of perpetual unfinished work for our "stragglers"? It was always frustrating to have to choose, to have to suppress the needs of the few in order to meet the needs of the many, BUT then we realized ... working together, we no longer had to choose!

So what is this mythical "Dance of Critical Mass" you are now wondering? Well, sit back and relax while we perform:

Our dance begins in a classroom, just at the close of a dynamic and riveting writing mini-lesson in which the students are filled with inspiration and the insatiable need to complete their writing assignment. Their eyes aglow with ideas and their fingers itching to record their thoughts, they surge off the rug and find little workspace nooks about the room where they can do their best work. The room is buzzing with the gentle sounds of productive work ....

WHAT? This sounds a bit fantastical. Well, it's our retelling so we can remember as we want, o-kay!! Anyway ...

Suddenly, a voice is heard above the noise of the classroom, "Teacher, I'm finished, what should I do now?" That lone voice quickly becomes a chorus, filling the room with an ever-rising cacophonous chant: "What should I do now? What should I do now? What should I do now?" As the music rises, the teachers survey the scene, "How many students need more time?" "Me! Me! Me!" softly rings out above the crowd and so the dance begins. One teacher waltzes the majority of the class on to a new activity or engages in a read aloud or guides a meaningful reflection, while the other teacher tangoes with each student - coaching, assisting, motivating. And so the Dance of Critical Mass.

Ok, so that was a little bit silly and we sure did stretch that dance metaphor to it's limits, but we get to have fun on our own blog, right?!? Goofiness aside, the technique is sound and satisfying. We get to engage the majority of our learners in a new activity where they benefit from explicit teacher direction, while we also get to support our "stragglers" in a smaller group setting where they benefit from individualized attention and, most importantly, enough time to finish their work. Now as a disclaimer, we still have children with unfinished work. Even in collaborative teaching where we have been able to find new and creative ways to maximize our schedule, we must still bow to the demands of having ... well ... a schedule. This is not a magic wand to wave away the frustrations of unfinished work (if only!), but it's something that has helped ameliorate the problem and so during the day when we inevitably have children that need more time ... we dance!

P.S. This is us dancing. You're welcome.

From the limb,

Monday, June 24, 2013

We're B-AAAA-CK (and we're sorry we left, too)

Hello Everyone,

Happy summer!!! We have been out for a few weeks now and are finally getting our heads back together after our whirlwind year. We want to start by apologizing for beginning our amazing blog, making you fall in love with us, and then ... poof ... vanishing ... no word, not even a post-it note break-up ... just gone! We began this blog with the best of intentions and then we became completely swept up in the reality of running our classroom and we just plum ran out of time and creative energy to invest in our blog. And we feel really bad about it ...

Guity face
Sheepish face

But you can't change the past, you can only move forward so we are going to try again and hopefully this time, now that we've passed the "this is my first year teaching this way" hurdle, we are optimistic that we will have more time and mental energy to invest in this baby - our blog.

The reason we actually started this blog was as a tool to support our reflection and share our experiences teaching in a collaborative classroom together. While we did not end up sharing out most of our reflections via this blog, we still engaged in the process continuously throughout the year so we thought we'd take this wonderful gift of summer vacation to do a little post-mortem (sorry for the morbid terminology, but it's really the most accurate word for it) of our school year and share what we learned, even though it will not be in real time.

Besides summer is really the best time for reflection and planning for next year, so really you might say we planned it this way. Yes, that's what we'll say ... we planned it this way ... yeah, that seems just right.

From the limb,