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Spring Tune-Up! Part 1

It’s early March and in some parts of the country the daffodils are starting to bloom, creating waves of bobbing yellow heads that stand out sharply against the greening grass.  However, it’s all white in my neck of the woods with snow still piled up two feet high.


No matter the scenery, early spring is a great time for your team to pause and reflect on your progress so far.

There are still at least two or three solid months left before the end of the year rituals and festivities commence.  Take time to review what the team has accomplished so far and to prioritize your collaborative efforts for the rest of the year so you can make the best use of this block of instructional time.  Focus on those activities that will help your students the most and make sure the team “cylinders” fire in a coordinated and efficient manner.

One aspect of a team spring tune-up ought to include an assessment of how well the teachers are connecting with each of the students.  Here are a couple of questions to ask yourselves:

  • Does each of our students have an adult advocate on the team—someone who knows the student well and with whom the student feels comfortable talking?
  • Do we incorporate student interests in our instruction?
  • Does each of our students feel valued?

Here’s an activity for Common Planning Time to help you assess how well you are connecting with your students:

  • Write every student’s name on an index card.
  • Spread the cards out on a table, name side up.
  • Individually, note on the card the interests of the student.  For example: Johnny—snowmobiling and water skiing, Maria—singing and composing
  • When each teacher has finished noting what s/he knows about individual student interests, step back and look at the array of cards.
    • Are there some students everyone seems to know?
    • Who are the students with blank cards?
    • Do the students with blank cards share any characteristics?  What do these shared characteristics tell us about our team?  Are there some things we need to address?
      • Low grades?
      • Behavior issues?
      • Special ed?
      • Very quiet?
      • Eat lunch alone?
  • Create a plan.  How will you connect with each of those students whose cards are blank?
    • Informal conversations?
    • Advisory, homeroom or class activity?
    • Eat lunch with them?
    • Conversations with parents?
    • How might we use student interests to connect with our curricula?
  • Set a date to review your progress in making personal connections with these students.

We know that relationships are a key element is a student’s motivation and achievement in school.  Sometimes connections naturally occur among students and staff, but there are always those students left out.  It is imperative that middle grades team teachers be intentional in building relationships:

  • Student to student
  • Staff to student
  • Staff to families

Taking time to check on the status of the connections between you and your students is a first step in a Team Spring Tune Up .  Do not let any of your students leave the team at the end of the year without feeling they were known, appreciated, and valued by their teachers.

Teacher-Student Relationships–How’s the Team Doing?

School has been in session for several weeks. It’s a good time for us to think about how well we have come to know our students as individuals. A formative assessment on relationship building, so to speak. It is especially difficult for large teams to see the individual faces when 125 + students pass through the doors each morning.  Assessing how well the relationship building between our team and our students is going is an excellent use of  common planning time.  Positive teacher-student relationships are essential to a supportive and challenging learning environment (http://www.schoolclimate.org/climate/schoolclimatebriefs.php).

Try this during common planning time!

  • Each teacher brings a list of homeroom students
  • Homeroom teachers go down the list and put a star next to the names of students they know something personal about…
  1. How many brothers and sisters?
  2. Hobbies?
  3. Pets?
  4. How the student likes to learn?
  5. What responsibilities they might have at home–babysitting for siblings each night?
  6. What they like to read?
  • Trade lists until everyone has gone through each homeroom list and starred students they know something about beyond their grades.
Homeroom List with Stars

Homeroom List

  • Spread out all of the lists on a table and look at them
  • Identify which students no one knows beyond the seat they hold in the classroom. Also identify those students few  know.
  • Design a plan for ensuring each and every student has at least one adult advocate on the team who knows him/her well.  Think about the Donald Ducks on our teams–the children no one really knows at all.  Imagine how lonely the school experience must be for these children.  Some startling statistics:
  1. In the last 45 years, teen suicide have increased by 60% (http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/)
  2. 85% of girls and 75% of boys report being stressed by the economy (http://www.stageoflife.com/StageHighSchool/OtherResources/Statistics_on_High_School_Students_and_Teenagers.aspx)
  3. Nearly a third of all teens report either being bullied or a part of bullying activity. (http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/school-bullying.html)
  • Some possibilities include:
  1. Goal setting with students
  2. Individual conferences with students once or twice a month to check in with how things are going–  these can be just a 2 minute conversation in the cafeteria during lunch or in homeroom.
  3. Community building activities
  4. Get to know you activities during class & sponge activities at the beginning or end of class

Building relationships with students needs to be intentional on the part of the team. Yes, they develop naturally with some students, and with others they need to be consciously cultivated with the teachers taking the lead. Positive teacher-student relationships, even with the hard to teach and reach students, are a critical component of a team culture that leads to higher achievement and healthier social-emotional lives of the students..

Celebrate Student Strengths as the Year Comes to a Close

Use the final days of school wisely!

They provide the last opportunity to positively impact this group of students.

Think–recognition of their strengths, affirmation of their worth, wishes for their futures.

Here are 5 ideas to take and adapt!

Allow students to do some of the planning and organization.

1. The Grand Good Bye!  an end of the year team gathering (hopefully in a pleasant & comfortable spot)

• Slide show of pictures from throughout the year.****Make sure each child is represented and no one group of students is over represented–you may need to do some last minute photography!

• Positive recognition for each child –Explicitly state how each child contributed to the team–don’t let the cynics on the team rule the day! Identify a positive attribute in each student.

• Teacher skits of some of the more memorable team moments.

2. Sharing of portfolios:

• Kids share portfolios with incoming 6th or 7th or 8th graders as a preview of coming attractions for the next year.

* Students reflect on what they are most proud of from the year and share in small groups.

3. Homeroom Olympics: organize a field day with all sorts of fun activities and have each student sign up up to compete in at least two

• Tug of War

• Water balloon toss

• Backwards sprint

• Kickball

• Scavenger hunt

4. The Legacy–One last community service project that will stand as a reminder to your students that when they came together on a project they made a little corner of the world a better place.

• Create a garden at the school.

• Paint picnic tables at a local park.

• Write and illustrate children’s books for the incoming kindergartners

5. Exit Interviews: each homeroom or advisory teacher sits down for a one-on-one conversation with each child in their group

• Ask students to share suggestions form making the team experience better for the next group.

• Ask them to share their favorite activity of the year.

• Share one thing you really enjoy about the person you are chatting with.

• Offer one positive wish for his/her future.

Remember the old middle school adage:

They may not remember what we taught them, but they sure will remember how we treated them.

New Twist On Canned Goods Drive!

A sculpture of Pooh Bear made out of canned goods and jars of peanut butter

Pooh Bear

During the recent NELMS conference, the elevated walkway between the Westin Hotel and the Rhode Island Convention Center  was populated with whimsical sculptures of critters, earth moving vehicles, and angry birds. The sculptures, created out of canned goods, were part of a project to support the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

  Canned goods sculptute of a bulldozer

Teams could adapt this event for their own service learning projects. Often schools have canned food drives.  Why not have each homeroom or each team design sculptures out of the cans they collect and open the exhibit to the community for viewing as part of the plan to build awareness of the issue?  Or, the designs could be part of a project – based unit focusing on a driving question such as What is the long-term impact of hunger and starvation on a society? Part of the exhibition could include information and/or solutions the students have discovered through their research.

Several Common Core anchor standards could certainly be addressed in such a unit:

  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  •  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  •  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

More importantly, students would be delving into a long-standing and relevant issue that affects every state and country. Think about taking your annual canned food drive to a new level!

  • Help your community
  • Build students understanding of a real-world problem
  • Involve students in seeking long-term solutions

Canned goods sculpture of a lobster in a pot.

Poster of categories in the Rhode Island project

Middle Level Education Institute–On the Maine Coast!

Flyer for Middle Level Education Institute

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5 Ways to Use LiveBinders, A Great Online Resource Organizer

LiveBinders–Organization at Your Finger Tips!

LiveBinders allows users to organize online resources in one place. Think — digital 3-ring binder! Watch the video below to get an overview.

The site can remain private or be opened for public viewing. Plus, the originator can invite others to collaborate and add additional resources. LiveBinders is a versatile digital tool! I’m just learning how to create binders and have started one for a presentation on study skills in the digital age.  It’s public so that I will be able to share it with session participants at the annual NELMS conference in April.

5 Possibilities for Teams

LiveBinders is a useful site for teams.  Here are 5 ways to use this site to help students and team members stay  organized, collaborate with other teams in the school, and communicate with parents:
  1. Students can create their Binders to organize their online resources for a research project. Accessible 24/7 from any computer, students can get to it at school and from home.  If students are working in small groups, their information sources are stored in one place so any member can easily locate critical material.  Things don’t disappear into the bottomless pits of lockers and backpacks, and the information needed for citation is only a click away.
  2. Team teachers can create private Binders to keep track of resources for various units or lessons.  Everything is organized by unit in its separate Binder and stored on the teacher’s digital shelf.
  3. Team teachers can create public Binders to share with students and parents.  Recommended or required sites for assignments can be organized at this site.  A team might create a Binder for an interdisciplinary unit with supporting materials or one on homework help for students to access when they get stuck and can’t readily ask a teacher for clarification.
  4. Team teachers can collaborate with colleagues across grade levels or content areas to share resources.  With several people contributing online sites, the Binder will grow more quickly.  It can also be edited and updated every year.
  5. Team teachers can create public Binders especially for parents.  It’s an efficient way to share resources on pertinent topics that interest parents: adolescent development, parenting in the digital age, how people learn, etc.

Popplet–Wonderful Collaboration Tool for Teachers and Students!

Common Planning Time has been cut back in many schools, but the teams’ responsibilities have not.  Meanwhile many teams still want to do interesting and out of the ordinary activities with their students, but find it is difficult to set aside time to plan. A possible solution just might be Popplet.com, a free, web-based tool that allows multiple participants to create detailed plans asynchronously.

Popplet has some really cool features that would be helpful for teams planning a unit, event, field trip, or a curriculum change such as an approach to literacy across the curriculum:

  • Able to color code bubbles for organizational purposes
  • Can add text, images & video
  • Allows access to multiple participants (they do need email access)

Below is a model Popplet I’ve created. It represents the initial thinking of an 8th grade team planning a new Maine Studies Unit.

I started the web and invited a colleague to add ideas. If we were really a team, all of our teammates could have contributed to the web.  All that they need is an email address where I could send the invitation to participate.  Because this tool is web-based, my teammates and I could work on this anytime from any computer.  Perhaps Barbara can’t stay after school to plan because of child-care issues, however after the kids are in bed she might be able to grab 15 minutes to think about the new unit and post some ideas. My teammates could add ideas 24/7 thus saving valuable Common Planning Time for fine-tuning the unit.

If you look at the web you will notice there is a video (Don’t click on the red arrow, it’s not live.  However you can see the actual video on challenge-based learning at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOii_YyJQGA) that might give us an organizational plan for the unit. There is also an image of a rock that might be useful in the section of the unit on geology.  If we planned ahead we could start this Popplet well before the unit was due to begin and have gathered ideas and resources in this one location.  Then during Common Planning Time we could spend our time crafting an intellectually stimulating and engaging unit with the resources and ideas we have accumulated.

When working in cooperative groups, students will find Popplet a great tool, too!  They can also access this site from school and from home. When a group member is absent s/he could contribute from a remote location and remain active in the process.  The color coding feature helps students organize their ideas and information. Being able to keep pertinent images and video in one place would lessen the probability that they would be scattered across various lockers, notebooks, and folders–a great help to young adolescents who are often organizationally challenged.

Popplet would also be a great study tool for individual students:

  • Organizing notes into a study guide for a test
  • Planning an essay
  • Planning a project either in an academic setting or outside the classroom

Check out Popplet and share it with colleagues and students.

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