Saturday, April 5, 2014

It Was a Crate Idea!

Are we the only people who get inspiration from weird, random places? That's the funny thing about inspiration, we suppose ... you never know when it's going to hit you. Well ... we recently got some inspiration from a weird source: freezer meals. Do you know about freezer meals? Some amazing people make enough meals for one month and then they freeze them. Talk about organized!!! See ...

The philosophy behind freezer meals or make-ahead meals is that it's more time efficient to do things once even if it's a lot of things at once. For example, if you're chopping vegetables for dinner, you might as well go ahead and chop vegetables for all your dinners that week. Big effort BUT saving time by doing the repetitive activity only once. You see? Let us tell you how this inspired us.

We have a weird cycle when it comes to preparing for the week. We are pretty much have everything prepared for the week in our core instructional areas by Monday morning, give or take a few things. That's good, right? Things prepared for the week, plenty of time to get started on the next week. WRONG! Somehow every week our time gets eeked away and we end up like this on Friday afternoon:

It's not a good look! It leaves us stressed and frazzled through a final early morning push on Monday and then - phew - we're ready for the week. We have repeated this lovely cycle week in and week out so far this year - hating it but not knowing how to change it. Enter our freezer meal inspired idea. We give you ...

We pride ourselves in our differentiated reading program and we strive to provide our students with targeted instruction to meet their specific reading needs during our Reader's Workshop block. One component of our program is our phonics strategy groups. We run our phonics groups in six week cycles and the children move flexibly in and out of the groups based on their needs and their growth. For the phonics cycle we're in currently, we have four different strategy groups running, each with their own 6 weeks worth of lesson plans. B.C. (before crate) we were pulling each lesson and all of its supporting materials every week and putting it into our lesson plan totes.

It was the same thing again and again ... a lot of work every week to pull and prep, pull and prep. Then the crate was born:

The crate holds all of the instructional material for all 6 weeks for each phonics group. Each phonics group has a different color hanging folder to differentiate it from the other groups. Each hanging folder is labeled by week and all of the instructional materials for the week are dumped into the folder.

There are also a few hanging folders with support materials, such as our Dictation sheets and Draw and Label sheets that we use weekly. Finally, each phonics group has a checklist (we LOVE checklists) so that we can keep track of our prepping and reference what hasn't been completed yet.

You can download this document here.
KM worked on the crate all week, which seems like a lot of time, but then it was ALL prepped ... for SIX WEEKS ... ALL prepped ... can we get an "oh yeah!" Now she just pulls everything out of our lesson plan totes and dumps it back into the "Week X" folder it came from, and then puts all of the materials for the next week in the totes. SO ... MUCH ... EASIER ... and less stressful. KM is now officially more obsessed with the crate than our pencil sharpener.

One thing that we've learned about teaching 40 plus kids and striving to provide them with the most differentiated, targeted instruction that we possibly can, is that we have to stay organized. It's the only thing that keeps our train on it's tracks and keeps us sane. It's always a huge victory when we think of something that will help make our jobs go just a little smoother. So we're passing this along to you to see if you think it's a "crate" idea, too.

From the limb,

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Scheduling Squeeze #1: There Is No Such Thing as a Panacea

So CONFESSION TIME ... we wrote the following blog entry last summer. Yep, last summer, as in 5 months ago aaaaaaand we're just now posting it because despite sitting on it all that time, we do think it's pretty awesome. We could have edited it to pretend that we wrote it right now, but let's face it

So, yeah ... enjoy!!

Scheduling the school day sucks (please excuse the salty language but we are fired up). It is the bane of our existence. It is the source of constant headaches. It creates tension between us as we battle to fit everything that is important into each day. All last year we struggled with our schedule.

Back, Time Dragon, back!!!
Where could we find more time? Where could we squeeze this in? How could we accommodate this? KH became a scheduling contortionist, twisting and turning, at times almost magically pulling extra minutes out of thin air, in order to accommodate the diverse needs of our students. And while we were able to accomplish a lot and we are proud of the program we built last year, there were also stresses that came directly from the schedule. We were scheduled so tightly that any little thing could knock us off our timetable. There was this constant sense of stressed time ... next, next, next ... we have to fit in more, more, more!

While we have always experienced this sense of schedule crunch, of not being able to fit in everything we think is important into our day, this feeling seemed particularly prevelant last year. We made a commitment to ourselves this year to try to streamline and integrate, particularly our reading and writing program, in order to maximize our time with our students. And we thought we had a genius plan - a Reader's and Writer's Workshop combined. We were set and we were excited ... it was going to be epic. And then we went to New York.

Specifically we went to Columbia's Teacher College Reading and Writing Project (you can read about that experience here) and had the amazing opportunity to learn all about how we could improve our writing instruction and program. This was both inspiring and frustrating because no matter how we rearranged the schedule, no matter how we spliced up our time - it was never enough. GARRRRR!!!

It is so unbelieveably frustrating to know what you need to do in order to provide an exceptional instructional program, to have the pedagogical know-how, the resources, and the professional confidence in your abilities, and to be halted from realizing it only by the limitations of time. And after KH had made the tenth revision of the schedule over the first two days of the conference, she was banging her head against the wall (Well, actually it was one of those teenie tiny college desks - what's up with that, anyway - college kids don't need room to write???) Why was this so hard, so much harder than scheduling when we were teaching on our own? Then she had an epiphany! Small group! The problem was small group instruction.

Now please, PLEASE, PLEASE do not misunderstand us. We love small group instruction. It's our middle name. It's the heart of our educational philosophy. It's the instructional practice we hang our hats on. It's the air we breathe. It's ... we could go on ... really we could. BUT it's also a gosh-darned scheduling nightmare!

Oh, Ryan. Stop! We're blushing!!

This is why. Small group instruction takes time. More time, we realized, than we initially anticipated when we started this journey together. This may seem really obvious but boy was this a revelation to us. You see, once we were able to get our kids working independently last year and we were able to engage in meaningful, focused, rigorous, differentiated small group instruction, we were hooked. We became gluttonous, voracious, insatiable. We wanted more, more, more! We spliced our time up into 15 minute chunks an we rotated, rotated, rotated. We were addicts and the high was amazing, but with anything there is always a cost. The cost for us is time. There is realistically not enough time in the day for us to teach reading, writing, and math through small group instruction without making sacrifices.

Let us repeat that ...

There is realistically not enough time in the day for us to teach reading, writing, and math through small group instruction without making sacrifices.

Whew! Believe it or not, that was hard to say and an even harder reality to face. Last year we sacrificed whole group instuction, As we added small groups, whole group time was whittled away; we basically stole the time in order to have more time in small groups. In reflecting on the year, we realized we missed whole group time. We missed the moments when students at different places in their learning came together and taught each other. We missed the building of common instructional experiences. We missed the way kids were bolstered and validated when contributing to the knowledge of the class as a whole. We didn't want our classroom to be tiny pockets of kids working on their learning in isolation from each other. We knew there were key ideas and experiences that every student needed to have regardless of their instructional level. So we planned to add it back in, but there's also a cost in that plan: time for small group instruction. Annnnnnnd ... around we go again. Are you starting to see the headache, here?

This is a quandry that we have no solution for; we are in the woods on this. There is nothing we want to do that we feel is not essential; we have already trimmed the fat long ago. There's no fly away here, no wisdom we have to impart. We suppose we mainly wanted to vent our scheduling frustrations. But more importantly, we wanted to share our epiphany about small group. Small group is time consuming if done right - to group, to plan, to carry out. We want this reality to be acknowledged. Dedicating time to small group instruction is essential; we are small group's number one fan. But there has to be a balance. We're still working on finding ours but our epiphany was a helpful first step. Now back to fighting that dragon!

From the limb,