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,