7 ways to use Google Classroom’s “Ask a question” feature

I’ve always been a big Google forms fan, but I will admit, when Google Classroom launched its “Ask a question” feature, I quickly became a bigger fan of this even easier and often more efficient option. For those unfamiliar with the feature, it is found right above the traditional “Create assignment” option. When you create a question, you can choose from short answer or multiple choice. Additionally, you can manage students’ ability to reply to each other and edit their original answer. It’s actually a super simple feature, but I’ve found innovative ways to use it to maximize peer learning AND improve my efficiency as a teacher. I still use Google forms for multiple choice tasks, but for short answer responses, Google classroom questions are the better option, for these two reasons:

  1. All student responses are compiled in one convenient spot, that the teacher and students can see. It’s easy to scroll through all the responses. Yes, a Google form compiles all responses, but responses are not automatically visible to all students. A Google Classroom question is much more accessible and user-friendly.
  2. Students and teachers have the ability to comment directly on the responses. This is why questions are a game-changer! I always loved Google forms, but I hated how I couldn’t easily comment and provide instant feedback for the students. Forms can improve efficiency, but they aren’t always the most practical option when you need to provide feedback. Questions make this possible!

I’m always finding new ways to use this feature, but here are my top 7 ways to use Google Classroom questions!GoogleClassroomQuestion1

BELL-RINGERS & EXIT TICKETS

Bell-ringers and exit tickets couldn’t be more simple with Google Classroom’s question feature. I know bell-ringers and exit tickets are not novel concepts, but Google classroom questions enhance their value and efficiency! If you activate prior knowledge through a bell-ringer, the students will benefit from being able to see everyone’s background knowledge through the question responses. You can easily do a “What do you already know about [insert topic here] and what do you want to learn?” question as a bell-ringer and then have students reply to their original post at the end of class with what they learned as a digital version of a “KWL” chart!

Using questions for bell-ringers and exit tickets allows you to use the data to inform your instruction. Sure, it’s not quantitative data on a spreadsheet, but it’s a perfect qualitative snapshot of what your students know at any point in the learning process.

When I pose a question as a bell-ringer, I can filter through the responses and use them to drive our class discussion that day. I can tweak my lesson plan and spend more time on certain concepts. Sometimes, while students are finishing the bell-ringer, I will reply, digitally or in person, to students. Even if it’s something as simple as “I love your insight here,” I’m already interacting with my learners within the first few minutes of class. With paper-and-pencil bell-ringers, the teacher is waiting for all students to finish before discussing or reviewing the question, but with digital questions, the teacher can begin interacting and differentiating as soon as the first response filters in. Feedback is instantaneous; there is no more “down time.” You can truly use every precious minute of the class period.

With exit tickets, I can informally assess what students learned during my lesson. When students know they will be held accountable with an exit ticket, they will be more likely to stay engaged throughout the lesson. I use exit ticket responses to inform my instruction for the following day. Sometimes, I’ll ask a very complex question as an exit ticket, just to see what students can do with it. I’ll frame it as a low-risk opportunity for them to “show me what they know” before I plan a lesson addressing the question. This helps me plan and differentiate because it gives me a baseline of what students can already do on their own.

Google Classroom question exit tickets are PERFECT for those days when you finish class early and have nothing else to do. It’s as simple as this: “Learning Reflection: What did you learn? What questions do you have? What can Miss G do to help you?”

DISCUSSION BOARDS

I also use questions as my own version of an online discussion board. When students have reading homework due, I will often start class by asking them to post one question. I allow them to post a question depending on their needs as a reader. If students are struggling, I tell them to ask a comprehension or clarification question, but I encourage advanced readers post an open-ended, analytical question. This forces them to be more active readers, and it gives me great data to inform my instruction. I also tell students to begin answering their peers’ questions if they finish before we start our discussion. This helps students learn from each other; if they can fill in the gaps of comprehension during these few minutes, then I can focus more om analysis during our in class discussion or lesson. Within a few minutes, students have learned from each other, and I know exactly what we need to discuss.  I can also quickly tell who hasn’t read the chapter, because those students post obvious or overly simplistic questions (or some even write, “Honestly, I didn’t read”).

Usually, I use the online discussion board as more of a springboard for an in-class discussion, but sometimes I’ll require my students to carry on a virtual discussion on the post for 10-15 minutes. This can be a great tool for those rowdy classes with loud voices that tend to dominate class conversations because the discussion board gives every student a voice and the opportunity to be heard. I’m always amazed at the insight from my shy students who would never raise their hand to participate. When we do these silent online discussions, I often jump in the comments and play devil’s advocate to challenge my students’ thinking.

I also use my discussion board strategy for days when I have a sub. It makes me feel better knowing my class can have a productive discussion even in my absence.

WRITING WORKSHOP OR WORK DAY “CHECK INS”

I use the writing workshop model in all of my classes, so for those days when students are all working independently at their own pace, I like to have some accountability and a way for me to check in with students, no matter where they are in the writing process. At the end of class, I will post a question asking students what they accomplished that day and what questions they have or what help they need. Then, I can address students’ needs by talking to them one on one the next day or simply responding to questions in the comments.  I’ll even link up resources if I’ve already answered a question and I want students to find the answer on their own. Sometimes, enough students ask similar questions that I will address their needs in a mini-lesson the following day. It all depends, but it helps me be a better teacher for them. I also encourage students to ask for feedback on a very specific part of their essay. Instead of writing something vague like “Will you check my essay to see if it looks good?” I ask that they frame a more specific question, like “Will you check my topic sentences to make sure they are clear?” This helps me give better feedback, and it saves me time. Throughout the writing process, I need to be intentional about how I target my feedback. If I am aimlessly scrolling through students’ docs, I will never be able to provide meaningful feedback, but if I know exactly what to comment on, I can provide better feedback and help more students. These simple “check ins” for targeted feedback have transformed my writing workshop.

CHECKPOINTS AND PEER FEEDBACK

In addition to using Google Classroom questions as writing workshop “check ins,” I use this feature to facilitate the entire writing process. In the pre-writing phase, I use questions to generate ideas and stimulate discussions. Additionally, students must submit their topic proposals via a question, so I can scan through each proposal and “approve” students’ ideas before writing. I approve ideas and provide feedback through the comments.

During the drafting process, I use questions as mini-checkpoints and venues for peer feedback. For example, students submit their thesis statements through a question and then provide peer feedback by commenting on each others’ thesis statements. After receiving feedback, students will revise their thesis statement again and re-post it as a comment. Then, I will provide feedback through the comments and the students will revise their thesis statements accordingly. We continue the loop of feedback and revision until the thesis statements are ready. When students have finished revising their thesis, they can look back on their drafts and feedback and literally see the sometimes-elusive writing process.

I also do the same kind of checkpoint with essay outlines. I require students to post outlines consisting of a thesis, topic sentences, and one strong and relevant piece of textual evidence per topic sentence. Once again, this makes it easier to provide feedback along the way. I will not let students start typing their essay on a Google doc until they have passed through the thesis and outline checkpoints.Essay Outline

 

ASSESSMENT

I use Google Classroom questions for some (but not all) writing assessments solely because it makes it so much easier to grade. I don’t do this for everything, especially not for long essays that took days to draft, but it’s perfect for short answer questions and timed writing assessments that I don’t need in Google doc form. With the question, I can easily scroll through all student responses, which is much more efficient than opening up a different tab for each student’s Google doc. If we are doing an in-class essay, I will actually instruct my students to type it out on a Google doc and then copy/paste it to the “question” posted on Classroom. I have them type it because it’s easier to format it correctly and spell-check in a doc. But when it’s finalized, copying/pasting it into the question makes grading so much more manageable. I can just grab a stack of rubrics and start scrolling. It’s life-changing for a busy English teacher!

SOCRATIC SEMINARS

A Google Classroom question is a great hub for socratic seminar questions. I have my students craft socratic seminar questions in advance, and then I ask them to copy/paste them over to a Google Classroom question. This way, all students can see the questions, and everyone can easily scroll through the list during the seminar. It also allows me to easily check questions the day before the seminar, to make sure it’s not going to flop!

LEARNING STATIONS

I also like to use Google Classroom questions for learning station tasks. As I mentioned in my previous post on learning stations, my stations are often hybrid: I usually have paper copies of the learning station activities around my classroom, but then have students respond via the Google Classroom questions.  I will create a different question for each station, so that once students submit their responses, they can see the responses from others. This is perfect for those groups that finish early; I just tell them to read through everyone else’s responses to see other perspectives or ideas. Early finishers can even respond to the peers’ responses, too. I love how the Google Classroom questions create a living “body of knowledge” where students can learn from each other.

This combination of ideas is what makes questions so appealing. Student responses create an incredible collaborative resource, a wealth of information on any given topic. It’s accessible and authentic, a collection of ALL of the brainpower in your classroom. This digital synergy can transform your instruction. I encourage you to experiment more with Google Classroom questions. If you have any other purposes for this simple but effective feature, I would love  to hear about them in the comments!

10 Times Leslie Knope Understood #TeacherProblems

Sometimes my classroom feels more like the dysfunctional Pawnee Parks & Rec department. I’m Leslie Knope, equipped with fierce enthusiasm, a stack of binders, and lots of waffles, but I’m facing a classroom full of anti-work Ron Swansons, too-cool-for-school Tommy Haverfords, angsty April Ludgates, immature Andy Dwyers, and poor Jerry (Gerry?) Gergiches. But, despite all odds, and the fact that half of my students are probably Sparknoting the book instead of actually reading it, I beat on, a boat against the current. #TheStruggle

Because it’s (almost!) the end of the year, and I’m too tired to write a more meaningful post, here are 10 times when fellow circus ringleader, goal-digger, and caring control freak Leslie Knope understood #teacherproblems.

  1. When you are sick but the task of writing sub plans would be worse than death, so you resolve to just suffer through school and evoke some pity and cooperation from your students.everythingg
  2. Thank you SO much for caring so loudly for me, but I’m going to have write you up for that extreme display of affection. CaringLOUDLY
  3. If you answered honestly to your colleagues’ innocuous question of “Hey, how are you?” when you pass them in the halls on “one of those days.”nervousbreakdown
  4. When you go “from 0-100 real quick” and the students have the audacity to tell you to “chill” because you’re being a “savage.” Okay. SUPERCHILL
  5. “Can you grade the essay I turned in 3 weeks late?”yesbutidontwantto
  6. When all you can do is step back, observe the chaos, and meditate the following: This is real life. I am a teacher, and therefore, I work in an alternate universe, one that my 9-5 friends will never, ever, understand. Nope. Can’t fly away. This is real life.nopereallife
  7. Because this is precisely what society expects teachers to do, right?!
    nothingwecantdo
  8. My disclaimer to students at the beginning of the year: SORRY NOT SORRY FOR CARING. It’s my thing. Let me do my thing, and please don’t kill my vibe.toopassionate
  9. The beginning of the school year vs. the end of the school year:
  10. Two words: SUMMER BREAK!DANCE

How I Plan My Lessons (And My Life)

I don’t know about you, but whenever someone posts a picture of a planner on Instagram, I am always ZOOMIN’ in to creep on the plans/planners. I’m just so fascinated in how other teachers plan, and apparently many of my followers feel the same about the plans that I post! I always get questions about my planners and how I plan, so I thought I would share more with everyone, mainly because I am obsessed with my two Happy Planners. Yes, I have two full size planners, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me explain my love for Happy Planners. (FYI: I’m not sponsored, just obsessed. But, hey, Happy Planner brand, if you’re reading…I’m available).

If you’re a teacher who is ballin’ on a budget, you’ll love Happy Planners. These planners are Erin Condren dupes for a FRACTION of the cost! At full price, most Happy Planners are $30-35, but I’ve always been able to use a coupon or snag one while it was on sale. You can find them at Michael’s, JoAnn’s, Hobby Lobby, Meijer, Staples, Walmart, and Amazon, but the selection varies because these planners are so popular. I purchased my 2018 planners for $15 each during a Michael’s sale right around New Year’s Day, but I had to search to find a store with decent inventory. 

bothplanners

Both of mine are 2018 “BIG Happy Planners,” dated from January to December. The “BIG” models that I have are just slightly larger than Happy Planner’s classic versions.  I like the bigger ones because I need more space to write my lessons and ALL OF THE THINGS on my to-do lists.

Happy Planner also offers 18-month planners that begin in July 2018, so these would be perfect for going back to school. They also carry undated planners that you could use for any year. You can shop on the Happy Planner website, but I also linked up a few of my faves on my Amazon favorites. Even though my current planners take me to the end of 2018, I’ve had my eye on this July 2018-December 2019 “farmhouse” style planner because it is so adorable and channels those Joanna Gaines Fixer Upper vibes that I love. If I buy an extra planner, I’m sure I can find a purpose for it, right?! Maybe one to plan and schedule more blog posts for you all!

LESSON PLANNING (Black & gold “2018” planner)

After two years of online lesson planning via my beloved Planboard, I returned to paper planning in 2018. But I didn’t abandon my Planboard; rather, I resolved to type up my plans online AND then rewrite them in my physical planner. Am I crazy? Maybe! But this method works for me. The plans I write down in my Happy Planner are short and sweet versions of the plans I document on Planboard. I love the digital organization of Planboard, but I crave those old-fashioned planning sessions with my Happy Planner and Flair pens. 

There is something therapeutic in writing my plans out on paper on a Sunday evening (or a Monday morning during my first period prep…whoops). It helps me prepare for the week ahead and it reinforces the plans in my memory. Studies have shown that physically writing information improves one’s memory, whereas merely typing away on a keyboard does not. When I write my plans down and leave my planner open on my desk, it is so much easier for me to remember what I’m doing from period to period. I teach 7 classes a day, with 3 different preps, so this is essential for me. (Next year, I’ll have 4 preps!) I am constantly switching gears, and it’s easier to flip through a paper planner than to search the 27 open tabs on my computer.

I also love my Happy Planner for lesson planning because it has a vertical layout with 3 different sections. This is perfect for my 3 different preps: American Studies (English 11), Journalism, and Newspaper. It provides just enough space to write clear and concise plans that can guide me throughout my lessons. 

I will admit that I do not have to submit lesson plans to my administration. If I did, I would submit detailed plans on Planboard. I do have to show administration evidence of purposeful planning for my teacher evaluation, and Planboard works perfectly for that. My Happy Planner is more for me. It helps me prepare and stay on track while teaching. Here are some pictures of my planner and my weekly lesson plans. One day, I hope to compile an entire semester or year of plans to post on my blog…ONE DAY!

 

LIFE PLANNING (Gold & pastel “What a beautiful day” planner)

I’m laughing at the phrase I just typed, because I don’t know if you could call my to-do lists and mad scribbling “life planning,” and I also just realized that this planner is still dominated by teaching tasks. What is life outside of teaching, anyways?! I’m (half) joking!

My second planner is where I write down all of my never-ending to-do lists, which are littered with more sassy comments of “Nope, not today,” “I tried :(,” and “LOL” than actual check-marks indicating the completion of a task. But whatever, that’s not the point. The point is that I am TRYING to get my life together, right? If I keep on trying, 365 days a year, with my planner, it will happen eventually, through osmosis or something, I suppose. 

I am an obsessive list-maker. I create tomorrow’s to-do lists before today’s are finished. I used to rely on random stationary to make most of my to-do lists, but now I organize almost all of them in my Happy Planner. I especially like how my the Happy Planner is divided into 3 sections, because I use one what I want to get done during my prep, the other for what I should accomplish before I leave school, and then the final box for anything I need to do at home. Sometimes, I even write out tasks like “nap,” “read,” or “eat an entire pizza by myself,” just so I can feel accomplished after school. It’s the little things. 

If I’m feeling whimsical and have time to spare (or I want to procrastinate), I will whip out my stickers and washi tape and embellish my planner. It is fun and even relaxing, but I don’t do this often. In fact, I haven’t even done it at all in 2018, because this whole semester has been one of those days. If you’re interested in all of that planner decorating jazz, there are dozens of Insta-famous planner ladies who are much cooler than me. 

Below are some pictures of what my “life planning” really looks like. It’s not glamorous by any means. Notice how many of my tasks remain unchecked. When that happens, I simply move them to the next day. Like I said, everything gets done…eventually. It’s not pretty after I’ve gone through and written my notes, crossed items out, and pushed all of one day’s plans to the next day. But it works for me!

 

One more perk of Happy Planners: When your planner has served you through an entire year, and its time is up, you can salvage those pretty pages of quotes and designs and repurpose them as cute classroom decor. Just buy some cheap Dollar Tree frames, and you’ll have some adorable decorations! This is one reason why I most definitely judge a planner by its cover and pages before purchasing.

 

Happy Planning, everyone! I would love to hear how you plan in the comments!

How to Facilitate Successful Learning Stations in the Secondary Classroom

Welcome to my third and final post in my series on learning stations in the secondary classroom! Thanks for staying with me! If you’re just now tuning in, you may want to check out my first post that outlines the research-based benefits of learning stations and my second post that takes you through my learning station design process, from start to finish.

I have been successfully facilitating learning stations in my secondary ELA classroom for 4 years now. Stations are embedded in just about every unit I teach, and I’ve even used them to earn “highly effective” teacher evaluations. My students have internalized my procedures and expectations, so facilitating stations is more like “watching the magic happen.” One of those lessons that warms your little teacher heart. It’s that moment when you look around the room to see all of your students engaged and collaborating, with metaphorical light bulbs hovering over their heads. You might see your students’ newfound independence and question, “Do they even need me anymore?”

The answer: Of course they do! They just need you in a different way, because the learning is now student-centered, rather than teacher-centered. I don’t think Albert Einstein ever facilitated learning stations, but I think this quote from him perfectly embodies this type of lesson:

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

During stations, you’re not exactly “teaching” in the traditional sense of the word, but you’ve designed and orchestrated the entire learning experience behind the scenes. You’ve created the conditions in which your students can learn, and that’s better than merely “teaching” your students. That’s empowering them.

If you’re ready to implement stations for the first time, or if you’ve facilitated stations with less than light-bulb level success, here are my practical tips for providing those “conditions” of a well-structured learning experience for your students:

CLEARLY COMMUNICATED EXPECTATIONS

The expectations you set, or the lack thereof, will make or break your stations, especially in the secondary environment. Students may have been used to stations or centers in the elementary grades, but they are likely out of this routine in high school. Stations are student-centered, so structure is necessary to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Like I said in my previous post, you will need to let go of the feeling of control that comes with teacher-centered lessons. With learning stations, there will be some noise and it may seem like chaos at first, but it’s the “everyone is engaged, collaborating, and learning” kind of noise that I also refer to as “organized chaos.” If you’re anything like me, then you LOVE that noise. But it is important to teach your students about the level of noise you will tolerate and reinforce the expectation that the noise should be healthy and full of learning, not chatter about the latest gossip.

In addition to the appropriate noise level, I emphasize expectations for collaboration. I remind my students that EVERYONE should be contributing, and I warn them that if I see a group member disengaged, then I will deduct points. Stations are about peer learning, and sometimes you have to remind your students of this. I like to be transparent about the purpose of my lessons; I remind them that oftentimes, they can learn more from their peers than they can from just me!

Stations are anchored in meaningful peer-to-peer learning, but it’s also important to provide guidance for individual accountability during the group work. Even though students are collaborating, I usually make each student record an individual response. I want everyone learning and processing, putting the ideas in their own words after group discussions. More on this later on in the “Student Accountability” section!

I also stress that there is absolutely NO down time during stations. I tell the students that if they get done early, then they’re probably not thinking or discussing enough. I tell them to continue their discussions until time is up; if they can’t, then they should raise their hand, and I will gladly give them something to discuss or do. Like I discussed in my previous post, I sometimes create “Bonus questions,” or extension tasks, for groups that finish early and need an extra challenge.

Fair warning: The first time that you introduce stations, you might have to embrace the chaos and constantly reinforce expectations. But it gets better and it’s worth it–I promise! After multiple rounds of stations, your students will become so familiar with the procedures that stations will become automatic and natural, and they’ll soon be a staple in your lesson planning toolbox!

THE RIGHT TIMING

Timing is crucial because it’s important to give your students “just enough” time. With insufficient time, students will quickly become stressed and frustrated with stations, but with too much time, students may abuse the freedom that comes with stations and get off task. I have no perfect prescription for timing in stations, but I will say that it is dependent upon your class period, students, and the tasks involved in your stations. In my 42-minute class periods, I usually aim to achieve 4-5 stations of 5-7 minutes each, but there have been times when we’ve had to finish our last station the following day in class. I don’t lock myself into a set time. I usually set a goal time, and then adjust accordingly after observing the first round of stations.

One great way to help students with the pacing of stations is a timer projected on your screen. It is seriously magical. Without a timer, my students seem to have no sense of urgency or awareness of time. If you just Google “online timer,” you will find one embedded in Google. I also like https://www.online-stopwatch.com/ too.

OnlineTimer
Google’s magical online timer

 

AN ORGANIZED SET-UP/SYSTEM

There’s no one-size-fits-all system, but it is helpful to have some kind of predictable structure or organization that will provide guidance for your students. I like to print out enough copies of the station tasks so that each student can follow along, instead of forcing all students to squint at one copy posted on the wall. I use folders, page protectors, or trays to keep the station papers in one place, but paper clips or binder clips work just fine. I also just purchased these clear sign holders  from Amazon to display station tasks. I like to place one color copy of the station task in my sign holder and give B&W copies to the students.

I even redesigned my flexible seating classroom to better accommodate learning stations, because they are such an important part of my teaching. I have 7 distinct zones: the library, the lounge, the cafe, the bistro, the patio, the coffee bar, and the office. When we do stations, I can easily set up a station in a specific area. But you don’t have to have my classroom to do this. You could simply created numbered “learning zones” or stations around the room by hanging up paper signs.

PURPOSEFUL GROUPING

Teachers all have their preferences for grouping, but it’s essential to have a purpose behind one’s grouping strategies. Like I explained in my first post in this series, stations can be a form of differentiation with purposeful grouping. When you structure the groups by ability levels, you know which groups to spend more time helping and which groups can master the content independently. This works, but heterogeneous grouping can also help because students can reach their zone of proximal development (ZPD) from the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO), according to Vgotsky’s social learning theory.

I employ strategic grouping strategies, but I’m not above letting students choose their own groups occasionally.  If we are doing literature discussion stations and I want my students to be comfortable within their small groups, I will often let them choose their groups. Even when I let my students select their own groups, they know that I have the power to swiftly rearrange groups if students are not handling their freedom appropriately.

STUDENT ACCOUNTABILITY

With any kind of student-centered lesson, there must be accountability for it to work. For me, that comes in the form of my informal observations as students are working AND individual responses that I grade after stations. I always require individual responses for each station task, except for “discussion stations.” For these, I do not ask students to write anything down, because this often stifles natural discussion. Students become too worried with writing down an answer that they race through a cursory discussion. Instead of a written response during these stations, I ask that students “invite” me over to their discussion at some point during the rotation so that I can check their group off and give them credit.

For all other station responses, a simple paper recording sheet like I described in my last post works perfectly, but there are other options if you are 1:1 with technology:

  • A Google doc, with sections for each station
  • A Google form with a page for each station, or multiple forms, one for each station
  • A Google Classroom “question” for each station (my favorite)
  • A Padlet board for each station

My personal favorite is the Google Classroom “question” for each station because it organizes all responses in one visible spot, which also makes for easier grading. The students can see each others’ responses once they submit, so it’s great seeing the small-group discussions build upon one another throughout the course of a stations lesson. It also creates a great resource that students can return to and reflect on after learning.

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY

With effective classroom management, clear expectations, and repeated practice, stations can practically facilitate themselves, but that does not mean you are not needed. Remember, with stations, you’re the guide on the side, instead of the sage on the stage! Even though you’re not necessarily “in control” of the whole class, delivering a lecture, you’re still the expert in the room. Sure, stations are student-centered, but what you do during stations can take the lesson from good to great. If you merely sit at your desk the whole time, your students will a) see that you do not value the content or care enough to get involved, b) have no reason to stay on task, because there’s little accountability. But if you are circulating throughout the room, students will quickly recognize how much you care and value the lesson.

I love stations because they allow me to interact with ALL of my students, which is often impossible in a traditional lecture-style whole-class lesson. Stations help me meet my students’ unique needs and build relationships. When I circulate throughout the room, I like to pop in on discussions. Sometimes I’ll even pull up a chair and join them, “student style.” I also like to play devil’s advocate and throw curve-ball questions into the discussions. My students know that I could join their group at any second, so it’s all the more important for them to stay on task throughout the stations.


With the right expectations, pacing, organization, grouping strategies, and accountability, you can cultivate optimal learning conditions with stations, Einstein style! Remember the wise words of old Albert: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Stations will not be perfect the first time you facilitate them. Embrace the mistakes that may happen, the sometimes-too-loud noise level, and the constant reinforcement of your procedures. Soon, you’ll be embracing the joy that comes with creating an engaging, student-centered learning experience for your students. They deserve it. 

 

How to Create Learning Stations to Engage Students: The Design Process

Are you sold on learning stations in the secondary classroom, but just don’t know where to start? If so, you’re in the right spot! If you’re still skeptical of learning stations in the high school setting, head back to my first post, in which I outline the research-based benefits of learning stations and provide my personal experiences with this instructional model.

Learning stations have transformed the way I teach by making my instruction more student-centered, engaging, collaborative, kinesthetic, differentiated, and accessible. In other words, stations are just good teaching.

It can be intimidating to ditch the traditional “sage on the stage” model of direct instruction for the “guide on the side” style of learning stations, but it’s well worth it. If your goal is to cultivate 21st-century skills that will prepare students for the elusive “real world,” then this kind of philosophical shift is essential.

Once you’ve done the mental work of changing your mindset, then you’ll be ready to sit down and design your first round of stations that will engage your students and force them to take more ownership in the learning process.

For me, the design process is a challenge I readily embrace, but I know it can be stressful or tedious for some. To make the process a bit easier, I’ve dissected the steps I take from start to finish when I design a new set of learning stations. I hope this insight helps!

  1. DETERMINE THE LEARNING TARGET

    Before you can create your stations, you need a vision, and that starts with the learning target or standard. Consider the purpose of your lesson and what you want students to accomplish. Your objectives will impact the way you design your stations. Are you:

    • Practicing a skill? Stations are perfect for practicing skills because they offer repeated, low-risk, small-group practice. Students can reach their zone of proximal development with peers and teacher help. I like to use stations to practice literary analysis, discussion, writing skills, and more.How to create learning stations
    • Introducing new content? Ditch your old introductory PowerPoint in favor of hands-on station learning that will spark discussions and get students excited about an upcoming unit or novel study. I use stations to introduce literary movements in American literature and introduce the news determinants and purposes in my journalism class.
    • Analyzing a text? Stations can break up the monotony that often sneaks up during novel studies. I despite chapter question worksheets, but still need to challenge my students with literary analysis, so I often turn to stations! Stations offer effective scaffolding of complex cognitive tasks because they allow students to learn from each other in a low-risk setting.
    • Reviewing content? Stations are great for review because students can learn from each other and quickly realize what they know vs. what they don’t know before studying for an upcoming assessment. There’s also the option of making one station a review task for a spiral review approach.
    • Differentiating? With the right design and grouping strategies, stations can provide differentiation for all types of learners. Stations also allow you to spend more time with the students who need it the most, while more advanced learners work through stations without as much guidance.
    • Remediating? If you know students are struggling with a few key concepts or skills, stations can be an effective way to address those needs without doing multiple standalone lessons to reteach.
  2. EXAMINE, QUESTION, AND REFLECT ON YOUR LESSONS AND RESOURCES

    Why reinvent the wheel when you can recycle and re-purpose existing materials? If you’ve taught a similar lesson before, dig it up, examine it, and consider why you wish to restructure it to the station rotation model. Interrogate your existing resources and reflect on your previous lesson plans.

    • What do you want to change? When I am creating stations, I am usually doing so to make my lesson more student-centered, engaging, and collaborative.
    • What do you want or need to add? What was missing from your previous lesson? I have a growing stash of stations that I use from year to year, but I’m still always tweaking them to engage my students. I often add a more relevant and timely article, task, video, or activity based on the current events, trends, or interests of my students.
    • Another question that might be unique to just me: Do you have lots of little ideas or mini-lessons floating around in your drive or binder, and need a way to synthesize them into a cohesive, meaningful lesson? Stations are the perfect solution to this problem, which I often refer to as my “organized mess” of ideas. I’ll open up a unit folder on my Google Drive and find 7 half-finished ideas in separate docs (maybe one set of doodle notes, one cool video, a thematically relevant song, etc) but no perfectly polished lesson plan. This brings me to the next step: SYNTHESIS!
  3. SYNTHESIZE & STRUCTURE THE CONTENT

    Admittedly, this can be the most challenging and time-consuming step. This is where it’s important to know your learning goal and have a vision for what you want students to learn by the end of the class period.

    1. If it’s not already clear from your learning target, determine your theme or essential question that will unite your stations into a cohesive whole. This should be clear to the students; otherwise, they may struggle to see the value in doing a series of seemingly disconnected tasks.
    2. Determine how many stations you can realistically accomplish in a class period. I teach 42-minute class periods, so I typically aim for 4-5 stations of 5-8 minutes each, but there’s no magic number or time. This is always dependent on what else I want to do before or after the stations, whether it’s a bell-ringer or a wrap-up discussion. What’s best is whatever works for you, your students, and your time frame.
    3. Blend different types of tasks, technology, and content to make your stations as engaging as possible. Stations are naturally more engaging than whole class instruction, but it still helps to diversify the activities at each station.
      • Determine which stations will be more collaborative and which will be more individual. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but I like to structure my stations as a combination of both. Often, a station will require students to read an excerpt aloud, discuss, and then write individual responses. Most of my stations include some element of discussion, but every once in a while, I will throw in an independent station. Whatever you do, make instructions clear for your students so they know your expectations at each station.
      • Incorporate tasks that allow a degree of student choice, even if it’s as simple as choosing from 2 different texts or activities that ultimately accomplish the same goal.
      • Blend technology in your stations, if possible! One station could be a Padlet, another a Quizlet game, etc.
      • Include different types of texts, if applicable. Your stations could look something like this: an excerpt from a novel, a non-fiction article, a poem, a political cartoon, and a video. This approach helps student engagement, but it also exposes your learners to different genres.
      • Infuse creativity, when possible. It can be easy to overlook creativity when we are under the pressure of standards, but it is so important for our students. You might feel like you can’t teach an entire lesson on something that seems a bit whimsical, but you can probably throw it in your stations. Creativity always enriches the learning experience, and your students will thank you later. Infusing creativity could be as simple as a station where students write a blackout poem that connects to the topic, novel, or skill.
      • If you are struggling to think of how to synthesize and structure your stations, here’s a list of ideas. Some of these might be more ELA than others, but the concepts can still apply to other subject areas:
        • Novel introduction stations to preview or scaffold texts: Provide essential background information and preview key themes or ideas, prompting students to summarize and make connections. If you have an “anticipation guide,” you could use that as the starting point for stations. Another approach involves finding key excerpts from your text to hook students and preview content while asking students to make inferences based on the limited information they are given. I like to do this for characterization and setting in complex novels like The Great Gatsby. My The Great Gatsby Novel Introduction Learning Stations scaffold Fitzgerald’s challenging opening chapter. After analyzing the excerpts in class, reading the chapter for homework is more meaningful and less intimidating for my students.

          GatsbyStations1
          The Great Gatsby Novel Introduction Learning Stations
        • Stations to introduce literary movements or historical time periods: Provide students with background information and key excerpts or quotes that represent the movement or time period. With these kinds of stations, I want my students to discover and define the movement in their own words before I provide supplemental instruction. In my Transcendentalism Learning Stations, students analyze excerpts and quotes from Emerson and Thoreau in an attempt to define Transcendentalism in their own words. I also use stations to introduce Puritanism before reading The Crucible and introduce the Roaring Twenties before reading The Great Gatsby.
        • Mentor text stations: To study writing or grammar in a more student-centered, engaging format, provide students with a different mentor text at each station and simply ask them what they notice. Then, facilitate a discussion about what students found, and supplement with your own instruction.
        • Discussion stations: Provide students with essential questions for a unit or novel, and then ask them to discuss/debate within their station groups before bringing the mini station discussions back to a whole class discussion.
        • Editing stations for writing workshop: Each station focuses on a different trait of writing, a stylistic technique, a common grammatical error, etc. The possibilities are endless!
        • Vocabulary stations: Create tasks that can be used with any list of vocabulary words. Think activities like charades, pictionary, crosswords, vocabulary trading cards, the classic “write a song or poem” using your words, Quizlet, etc.
        • Political cartoon analysis stations: Find cartoons that address a key theme, question, or time period, and ask students to analyze and discuss each. In my American Lit course, I do these with cartoons from the American Revolution, as well as cartoons that offer different perspectives on the American Dream.
        • Primary source stations: Calling all history teachers! This idea is straightforward but effective, and it’s a great way to expose students to primary sources. Gather primary sources for students to analyze and discuss at each station. Such an activity could even form the foundation for an AP DBQ (document-based question).
        • MLA or AP Style stations: Formatting is never fun to teach, but I’ve found that stations can be the least painful way to review the rules of MLA or AP style (journalism). Each station focuses on a rule or set of similar rules and provides examples to guide student.
        • Music analysis stations: Provide songs for students to analyze and/or compare to other texts or content. Do this as part of a poetry unit, use it to preview literary analysis, or thematically pair songs with a novel or non-fiction.
        • Symbolism stations: Provide students with textual evidence, or require them to find it on their own, and ask them to analyze and discuss a different symbol at each station.
        • Goal setting or growth mindset stations: Ask students to set goals, reflect on their progress, and read “self-help” non-fiction. I like to do these at the start of a new semester or year. My New Year’s Resolutions & Growth Mindset Learning Stations are a hit with students. 
        • Google Maps stations: Create a Google map with links and questions so that students can go on a virtual field trip. This could work well for history and geography, but I’ve also used Google Maps to examine setting in novels like Into the Wild.
        • Stations that incorporate a teacher check in/conference station: This is the beauty of stations–you can realistically check in with EACH student, a rare feat for more traditional forms of instruction. This works out perfectly for the writing workshop model.
  4. DESIGN!

    If you’re creative like me, this is the fun part. I love designing aesthetically appealing resources with pretty fonts and graphics, but if you don’t, have no fear! Here are some practical tips to streamline the design process:

    • Design in PowerPoint! I promise it will simplify the process and allow you more room for creativity, without the headaches that Word can give you. Google Slides work, too, but I’m a die-hard PPT girl. I’ll design in PowerPoint, PDF, and then upload to my Google Drive.
    • Whatever you do, set your slide size to 8.5 x 11 to print on regular paper. Once you make your first station, it can function as a template for the rest of your stations; just right-click and select “Duplicate slide” to copy the slide. Then all you have to do is change the titles and plug in new text/tasks for each station. I even have some ready-to-go templates for those times when I have an idea in my head, but not all the time in the world to leisurely design stations. You can check out my Watercolor Learning Stations Template here!Watercolor Learning Stations Template COVER
    • After creating slides/papers for each station, I make a “recording sheet” where students will write down all of their answers. I usually make this simple, with a title and a table with the number of stations. I label each box “Station 1,” “Station 2,” etc. and I do not include the questions or any other information; otherwise, students might try to “cheat the system” by answering the questions without thoroughly reading the information and following the instructions outlined at each physical station around the room.
    • At the bottom of my recording sheet, I usually include a simple exit ticket or reflection task for students to complete after circulating through all of the stations. It’s often as simple as “Summarize what you learned from these stations” or “Explain [topic] in your words.”
    • As discussed in my previous posts, sometimes I create “hints” or “bonus questions” to accompany my stations. When I do, I design these as small task cards that I can print and cut. The hint cards contain guiding questions designed to help the students arrive at an answer. They are the types of questions I ask my students when I walk around the room during the stations. Since there’s only one of me, and sometimes more than one group that needs help, these hints can come in handy. It’s like having another teacher in the room. To design these, just think of the questions you would ask to lead your students to understanding. The bonus questions are essentially extension tasks for students who master the skill or content quickly. These questions are usually a notch higher in terms of critical thinking–often application, evaluation, or synthesis questions. I usually just ask that students discuss these questions; I don’t want to make them feel like they’re doing too much extra work, but I do want to mentally challenge them and prevent any down time during stations.
  5. FACILITATE!

    Sorry, this one’s a teaser…head on over to my final post on how to facilitate learning successful learning stations for more information on implementation, classroom management, and other practical tips and tricks.

I hope this glimpse into my design process will help you create engaging stations for your secondary students. If you missed it, check out my previous post on the benefits of learning stations.

10 Reasons to Implement Learning Stations in the Secondary Classroom

If I could teach with only one instructional strategy for the rest of my life, I would choose learning stations, and I’m saying this as a high school English teacher! Stations, or learning centers, have always been popular in elementary grades, but our “big kids” in high school can benefit from them just as much, if not more. 

Learning stations involve a set of different tasks or activities that small groups of students rotate through. The station rotation model does require some front-loading to effectively design the learning tasks, but when it comes time for class, it’s one of those lessons that seems to magically “run itself.” This frees up your time, thus allowing you to circulate around the room, interacting with students and providing extra guidance to struggling groups or asking enrichment questions to advanced learners. You also can integrate a teacher conference or check-in station so that you can have meaningful one-on-one interaction with each student! 

Learning stations can enhance learning in ways that traditional whole-class instruction often can’t. If you want to make your content more engaging and accessible and reach ALL of your learners in one class period, then learning stations are for you. Your students will thank you later!

1. ENGAGING

My philosophy of teaching is anchored in engagement because I know that if my students aren’t engaged, they aren’t learning. To me, teaching is an art, a design process: How can I create a learning experience that will engage my learners? Full engagement in a room full of sometimes apathetic adolescents is no easy feat, but stations are one of my best solutions to combat low energy or engagement.

I first made the switch to stations after one of my previous PowerPoint lecture lessons—shocking, I know—flopped. It wasn’t a lesson that crashed and burned, but rather, it was one of those days when, halfway through your lesson, you feel a pang of guilt and start to panic as you realize that you are bored with your own lesson. This treason to your own teacher self is bad enough, but then it gets worse because you realize that your students are even more bored. 

Disclaimer: These days happen. They still happen to me from time to time. I’m not saying I don’t ever lecture or fail—because I do. However, I can confidently claim that redesigning my lame lessons to create learning stations has always resulted in more engaging, authentic learning experiences for my students.

 

 

HARLEMRENSTATIONS
I use learning stations to introduce my Harlem Renaissance poetry unit. These stations use a combination of non-fiction excerpts and poems to pose essential questions and present key themes.

Almost every unit I teach in American Literature begins with a stations activity to provide historical context for literary movements and preview authors, texts, and themes. All of these stations were born from boring PowerPoints from my first year of teaching. I have also found ways to incorporate stations in my journalism course, whether to analyze the purpose of news in society or revise articles the students have written.

 

Learning stations are now a staple in my secondary ELA classroom, and they have truly transformed my classroom into a student-centered environment that supports all unique learners. I even redesigned my classroom and switched to flexible seating to make my classroom more conducive to learning stations and collaboration. 

2. STUDENT-CENTERED

A former professor once told me that the teacher should never be doing more work than the students. She was right!

Stations are one of the most effective ways to switch the focus from the teacher to the students. Instead of being a “sage on the stage,” you are a “guide on the side.” Stations force students to take ownership of their learning, but they allow you to better spend your time helping the students who need it.

It can be intimidating releasing more responsibility to the students and adjusting your role as the educator, but it is well worth it. With the right structure, scaffolding, and practice, learning stations can create a more authentic, student-centered learning experience.

3. COLLABORATIVE

Vgotsky’s theory of learning asserts that social interaction is integral to cognitive development, especially when the collaboration is structured in a way that students can learn from a “more knowledgeable other” (MKO) in their “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). A student’s ZPD is his or her “sweet spot” of learning—the zone between what the student can do independently and what the student can do with guidance or peer collaboration.

Learning stations offer the optimal environment for student success and those beloved “light bulb” moments because they rely upon the power of authentic collaboration. Realizing that you are not the only “expert,” or MKO, in the room, and that students may sometimes learn best from each other, is simultaneously humbling and empowering. After all, you are the behind-the-scenes expert, carefully designing these learning opportunities and drawing on all of your resources and other experts—your students—to maximize the impact of each lesson.

When you value collaboration and practice it frequently, your students will grow as learners, communicators, and (more importantly) human beings! Oftentimes, I will notice naturally shy students who would NEVER willingly raise a hand during whole class discussions come alive during stations because they feel more comfortable in a small group of their peers. For this reason, I often like to incorporate “discussion” stations when we are reading novels. The small-scale conversations expose students to more perspectives and always enrich any whole-class discussion that follows.

By creating an optimal learning environment that fosters collaboration and values the voices of all students, stations can help cultivate a positive classroom culture that empowers all learners.

4. “CHUNKING” INFORMATION

Studies have shown that students learn content best when it is “chunked” or divided into smaller, more digestible sections. Although research on attention span ranges, one thing is for certain: the typical teen’s attention span is incredibly SHORT, so it only makes sense to structure content, especially new information, in the form of stations. Have you ever sat through a full day of PD, listening to lectures chock full of new information? Even if it is information you genuinely want to learn, you probably leave at the end of the day feeling overwhelmed and burnt out because it was simply too much for you to process. I’d venture to say that this is probably comparable to how our students feel after we deliver a long lecture on brand new content.

This is why chunking matters! When you redesign a lesson to fit the station rotation model, you are forced to think critically and creatively about how to make your content more accessible to students. If you’re a nerd like me, you might even enjoy this process of synthesizing your content or skills and searching for the most engaging way to structure it via stations.

Next time you’re feeling frustrated after your students have already forgotten what you’ve taught them, take some time to reflect on how you structured the content. Could you divide it into digestible sections that intrigue your students and provide more time for processing? If so, stations may be the perfect place to start.

5. KINESTHETIC LEARNING

High schoolers need physical movement too!  Stations provide just the right dose of physical movement in the classroom—enough to keep your sleepy teenagers awake and your restless adolescents at ease. To add some energy and fun during rotations, you can even play a few seconds of music as your kiddos transition.

I will admit that sometimes movement elicits groans from some students, but if you value kinesthetic learning and find ways to include it in your instruction, your students will become accustomed to it. Hopefully, they’ll learn to appreciate what it can do for their focus and energy levels. If I let them, my students would mindlessly and robotically stare at their Chromebook screens all day, but they know that movement will be a part of learning in my classroom. In fact, the other day, I had a student complain about stations to me: “They force us to get up and MOVE,” he said, with pure disgust of physical activity (even though he’s an athlete). After listening to him rant, I did hear him concede, “Yeah, they do help me learn better, though…” Mission accomplished! I think many of my students subconsciously appreciate the kinesthetic learning. After all, high schoolers are just big kids. Their bodies are not designed to be stationary for 8 hours a day. Even if they don’t explicitly appreciate it, I can clearly see the difference in their energy levels and engagement at each station. 

6. EASY TO INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY

Whether you want students to watch a quick YouTube video, answer a question on Padlet, check out Google Maps, Earth, or Instant Street View to examine the setting of a story, or listen to a thematically relevant song, the possibilities for integrating technology are endless. If you’re new to technology, stations can be a great way to try new tech tools in a less intimidating setting. If you have limited technology—such as only a few devices, or perhaps only one—you can also use stations to maximize your tech tools. For example, maybe 4 of your stations are traditional paper-and-pencil tasks, but for your 5th station, you set up a video clip for students to watch and discuss.

My school is 1:1 with Chromebooks, so I often create blended stations. If I design stations that are 100% online, I personally think the lesson becomes more of a web-quest, and the students are less like to engage in the collaboration that should define stations. But you don’t have to structure stations just like me, and that’s my point—it’s up to YOU how you want to structure stations. You can easily change your approach based on your technology, content, goals, and students.

7. DIFFERENTIATED

By differentiating the tasks at each station, you can accommodate the varying needs and preferences of learners in your classroom. You can also structure your stations to appeal to different learning styles (visual, aural, linguistic, and kinesthetic) and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Whereas a whole-class lesson might only appeal to one or two learning styles or intelligences, learning stations can target more learners.

Differentiation can also be as simple as purposeful grouping; when you structure the groups according to students’ levels, you know which groups to spend more time helping and which groups can master the content independently. With the right structure, tasks, and grouping, stations can help all students learn in their zone of proximal development.

One relatively easy way I differentiate through stations is by creating “Hint Cards” and “Bonus Questions.” (I don’t do this every single time, but when it fits and when I can). The Hint Cards contain guiding questions designed to prompt the students’ thinking. The Bonus Questions are extension questions for students who master the skill or content quickly. These questions are usually a notch higher in terms of critical thinking—often application, evaluation, or synthesis questions. I emphasize that there is NO downtime during stations. If students finish early, they should consult the Bonus Question OR raise their hand (and I’ll usually give them an intriguing question to discuss).

8. RELATIVELY QUICK AND EASY TO ASSESS

Because you are not actively “teaching” during stations, you are able to observe and informally assess students as they work their way through the stations. You can likely gain the data you need to inform your instruction, so you might not even need to formally grade students’ station response sheets.

Still, I almost always have students complete a stations response sheet because most of my stations ask questions and I want something tangible to keep students accountable. (This doesn’t lock me into “grading” the stations, though.] However, if one of the stations is a discussion station, I will not require students to write anything down; I feel like that just defeats the purpose of students having a natural discussion. Instead, I ask that the students “invite” me over to their discussion at some point during the rotation so that I can check their group off and give them credit.

Another easy but effective option for grading station work involves spot-checking one station response. Yet another alternative is to create an exit ticket that requires students to synthesize what they learned and just grade that! It should give you all of the evidence you need to assess understanding.

But even if you are grading each response, you can use your informal observation to help you grade. For example, if you heard a student making great points during the station, do you really need to pore over his/her response for that station? Probably not! 

If your students have devices, you can also streamline your station grading process by having them submit their responses digitally, through a Google form or Google Classroom question. I personally prefer the Google Classroom question, because the students can see their peers’ responses when they submit their own response. This way, the small group discussions can build upon one another, and students can learn from the WHOLE class in a SMALL group setting—it’s truly the best of both worlds!

9. PERFECT FOR BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Whole group instruction, while necessary at times, is often not very interactive or intimate. It can be difficult to connect with students and build relationships solely through direct instruction. It’s just not possible to have a one-on-one conversation with a student because then you’d be putting the other 29 kids on pause. Because stations free up the teacher, they allow for more meaningful conversations with individuals and small groups.

While I love facilitating stations all year long, I especially find them valuable in the beginning of the year. I feel like I am really able to get to know my students by walking around the room and chatting with them at various stations. I will actually pull up a chair and join the small group as if I am a student. There’s something powerful about literally getting on a student’s level and actively participating in your own lesson, instead of just leading it.

10. YOU DON’T HAVE TO TOTALLY REINVENT THE WHEEL! 

As a teacher, I understand that time is always the biggest obstacle. However, sometimes it can be as simple as taking content from your existing PowerPoint slides or worksheets and adding an intriguing question that will help students process the information. Admittedly, my stations are usually more creative than that, but I’ve definitely resorted to simple reformatting in a time crunch when I knew I didn’t want to bore my students (or myself) with a lecture but didn’t have time for a complete extreme stations makeover. I even created a learning stations template to simplify the design process. You have to start somewhere, and even though this kind of quick restructuring might not be learning stations in all their glory, it still makes the lesson more accessible and student-centered. Once you’ve got the structure down, then you can infuse more creativity to make your stations truly engaging. 

 

Watercolor Learning Stations Template COVER
I created a PowerPoint template that I can utilize anytime I need to quickly create stations.

 

Ideally, you want to examine your content and skills and think deliberately about HOW you can best restructure it to fit the stations model. This is often the most challenging part of designing stations.  But it’s incredibly rewarding when you, as the expert, figure it out and piece your content together to design a meaningful learning experience for your students. If you’re interested in my process of designing stations, stay tuned for my next blog post in this 3-part stations series.

The second post walks you through my station creation process and provides specific examples and ideas of stations. My final post outlines how I facilitate successful learning stations in my high school classroom. If you have any questions or ideas that I can address in future blog posts, PLEASE comment below! I appreciate your feedback so much! In the meantime, feel free to check out some of the best-selling stations I currently have in my Teachers Pay Teachers store:

 

Comfort in the Classroom with Flexible Seating

I’m excited to be teaming up with more than two dozen secondary ELA teachers to give you ideas on how to incorporate comfort and joy into your classroom (and to give you the chance to win a $200 Amazon gift card). Enter the giveaway here!

For the “comfort and joy” theme, I decided to write about something that has brought lots of comfort and joy to my classroom: FLEXIBLE SEATING!!!

Take a second to imagine the optimal environment for comfort, collaboration, learning, and productivity. You’re probably not thinking of the stifling rows of desks and harsh fluorescent lighting that dominate most classrooms today, but something refreshingly different, with enough structure to support learners but enough flexibility to adapt to unique needs and preferences.

OldRoom
This was my previous classroom. No matter how many times I rearranged the desks, I could never find a layout that supported my teaching style and my learners’ unique needs.

This is flexible seating, and the most empowering part of it is that flexible seating will look and function differently for each educator and student.

Ultimately, the goal of flexible seating is to better engage students and empower them with choices by providing diverse seating options. Flexible seating facilitates student-centered, collaborative learning, fosters a positive classroom community, and even promotes healthy, kinesthetic learning.

This sounds great, right? Or does trading desks for more comfortable flexible seating make you uncomfortable? You may be used to the stability and structure of the rows of detached desks that face toward you, the teacher.

I, too, was initially a little hesitant, but then I realized that flexible seating was not only a physical change, but a mental one, too: a part of shifting educational paradigm. Flexible seating is more than just a few new pieces of furniture and a cute, comfortable classroom. Rather, it represents a shift in my own teaching philosophy to support more student-directed, 21st-century learning. 

After fully embracing this change last year, I was able to begin planning for this year’s flexible seating. Luckily, I had the opportunity to move to a larger classroom for this year, so I jumped at the chance for an entirely fresh start and a completely redesigned classroom.

By empowering students with a choice, even one as seemingly small as where to sit for a 42-minute class period, I have been able to foster a more authentic learning environment that adapts to the unique needs of ALL of my students. With flexible seating, I am a better teacher and they are better students. It’s that simple.

ViewfromDesk
Here’s a partial view of my flexible seating classroom. Admittedly, my new room IS larger, but flexible seating frees up so much space.

If you are intrigued by the freedom flexible seating can offer, but overwhelmed with how to get started, here’s some step-by-step advice to help:

Research and think about how flexible seating will transform your teaching.

You might be here because you’ve seen my coffee shop-esque flexible seating classroom, and others like it, on Instagram or Pinterest. But don’t let Insta-envy be your reason for implementing flexible seating. Some people already have the perception that flexible seating is just a fad or an excuse to make your classroom look cute. IT’S NOT!

Flexible seating is best practice and supported by research, but make sure it’s the right decision for you and your students. To do this, I recommend you spend some time researching and reflecting upon how flexible seating will transform your teaching, and consequently, your students’ learning. You will need to be able to clearly articulate the purpose and goals of flexible seating in your classroom–first to your administration, then to your students and their parents.

Luckily, my administration was incredibly supportive of my flexible seating plan, so I didn’t have to rationalize my decision to them.  But when I decided to apply for a grant, I was forced to think more deliberately about flexible seating and how it would change my teaching. The grant application even asked for a 6-10 word summary “describing the impact your grant will have on others.” 10 WORD MAX?! My English teacher self simultaneously hated and loved that word limit. By forcing me to be precise and concise, that word limit helped me articulate the purpose of flexible seating in my classroom:

Flexible seating engages and empowers students while promoting physical health.

In my grant proposal, I specifically outlined my vision for a student-centered fluid workspace, a malleable learning lab that supports instructional best practices and promotes collaborative learning. I explained how flexible seating would empower me as an educator, allowing me to structure better lessons and increase student engagement. I also talked about the simple power of choice in order to illustrate how flexible seating could build classroom community, promote accountability, and minimize off-task behaviors. The theme of my proposal was that flexible seating helps meet the unique needs of all learners, so I also explained the positive impact this would have on students with ADHD, Autism, and other needs.

I hope the above information gives you ideas if you find yourself writing your own grant proposal. If you would like to see a copy of the entire proposal, email me at writeonwithmissg@gmail.com. Here are some links to other articles I found helpful during the grant-writing process:

If you find any other helpful articles or blog posts, please let me know in the comments!

Find funding and cut costs!

Futon
I purchased my futon and coffee table from Walmart.com, thanks to a grant I received from my district’s education foundation.

Admittedly, the price tag of flexible seating can be the most intimidating factor. But it doesn’t have to be! There are ways to secure funding and even more ways to be thrifty when spending your hard-earned money on flexible seating. Although I did not receive funding from https://www.donorschoose.org/, I know many teachers who have successfully used it for flexible seating purchases. I was lucky enough to receive a grant from my school district’s education foundation. This grant money helped me purchase my big-ticket items, including my futon, coffee table, round bistro tables, bean-bag chairs, and exercise balls (all from Walmart). 

I did not pay full price for ANYTHING else. Instead, I stalked sales and clearance at stores. I also stalked Goodwill, other thrift stores, garage sales, and FACEBOOK MARKETPLACE. Facebook Marketplace was actually a gold mine for me. I purchased my two cute cafe-style tables and stools from two different sellers on Facebook Marketplace.

GoodwillTable
I scored this simple table from Goodwill and the stools from Home Goods.

When buying items from garage sales or Facebook Marketplace, I learned that “playing the teacher card” was immensely helpful. By this, I mean that I simply told people that I was hoping to purchase the items for my classrooms, and then I attempted to negotiate a lower price. This worked like a charm, multiple times. I was happy, but the sellers were even happier! Many people expressed that they were glad to know that their old furniture was going to a good home.

I also reached out to friends and family on social media, and I ended up getting a cute storage ottoman for free from one of my middle school teachers! If you’re reading this, THANK YOU, Mrs. Johnson! 🙂

CafeTable2
I found this on Facebook Marketplace and played my “teacher card” when negotiating with the seller!

The expenses do add up, so it’s helpful to set a budget and know your limits. There is nothing wrong with implementing flexible seating gradually, so you can space out your purchases and slowly add to your flexible seating collection.

Design with a purpose

My goal for flexible seating was to make it work for ME and MY STUDENTS. I wanted my classroom layout to be conducive to my style of teaching. As an English and journalism teacher, I emphasize discussion and collaborative learning in my classroom. I love using group work, learning stations, “question trails,” and other kinesthetic activities that get my students moving and interacting. I abhorred my previous classroom’s 30 isolated, clunky desks that impeded authentic learning. 

When I began the flexible seating design process, I knew I wanted my classroom space to help facilitate the types of lessons I would be teaching. To do this, I designed my room to have distinct areas, each a different space for a small group or learning station. I created 7 zones, and being me, I had to think of cute names for each: the library, the lounge, the cafe, the bistro, the patio, the coffee bar, and the office. I also ensured that there was space for kinesthetic learning and a clear path for movement around the room — aka “flow.”

Library
Like a real library, our “library” includes spots for both independent and group work.
Lounge
The heart of the classroom is the “lounge.” The futon, sofa chair, and bungee chairs make this a natural favorite among students.
Cafe
The “cafe” features two counter-height tables and stools, as well as additional stool seating along the countertop against the back wall.
Bistro
The “bistro” is situated in a cozy corner of my classroom. Here, you can find adjustable bistro tables with stools, as well as taller bistro tables for students who prefer to stand while working.
Patio
This is the “patio,” a great place for natural collaboration.
CoffeeBar2
The “coffee bar” is a perfect place for independent work. I also sometimes seat students here when they are off-task and need to be facing away from everyone else in order to focus.
Office
I call this “the office,” because it’s a group work table directly in front of my desk.

Designing my room was probably the most laborious and intimidating, but FUN, step of implementing flexible seating. I am somewhat of a perfectionist, and I love using my creativity to design. (Before deciding on teaching, I entertained ideas of being an architect or graphic designer.) I actually made blueprint-like sketches of different layouts and reflected upon how each layout would affect the teaching and learning going on in my classroom. That might have been overkill, but the lesson is simple: Be deliberate in your design. You are switching from a traditional paradigm of teaching to a more student-centered, collaborative 21st-century learning environment. It’s kind of a big deal, so force yourself to critically think about how you can change your classroom for the better.

Here are a few questions to help you guide your design process: 

How can I maximize my learning space to make it conducive to…

  • My style of teaching and classroom management?
  • My students’ various learning styles and unique needs?
  • Student-centered learning?
  • Discussion?
  • Collaboration?
  • Engagement?
  • Technology you use? (We are 1:1 with Chromebooks at my school)

Have a plan for implementation

By the time you are ready to implement flexible seating, you will have invested a lot of time, effort, and thought into the whole process. In fact, you’ll probably be sick of spending so much time arranging your classroom and just ready for your kids to get there. But I would urge you to spend just a little more time thinking about how you will introduce flexible seating to your students and their parents. 

The second your students walk into your classroom, they will have comments and questions about flexible seating, since it’s so new and unique. In fact, on the first day of school, one student walked into my classroom (when I happened to be using the restroom during the passing period) and was so confused that he walked right back out, convinced that it was “not a real classroom.” He walked down to his former English teacher’s room just to fact-check that the room was indeed my classroom before he walked back. Other people, including parents and strangers on Instagram, have expressed similar confusion with my atypical layout. “But where do they sit?” has actually been a frequent question, too!

I know most teachers introduce flexible seating on the very first day of school to set the tone and make expectations clear, but I saved it for the second day so I could do my fun “Investigate the Teacher” Activity, in which students investigate my classroom for clues about my personality, teaching style, expectations, hobbies, etc. This activity worked especially well this year, because the new flexible seating prompted many questions and inferences about my teaching style and the types of lessons I would teach!Flexible Seating Materials COVER

On the second day of school, I formally introduced flexible seating. First, I gave my students a letter that explained the purpose of flexible seating. Then, we reviewed expectations and I gave students a chance to ask questions before they each signed a contract, agreeing to my expectations. Finally, I explained how students would test out different seats for the next week, so that they could reflect upon how each seat affected their engagement and learning. If you’re interested in this implementation plan, check out my Flexible Seating Resource Bundle.

Don’t be afraid to BE FLEXIBLE!

When I do something, I want to be all in. I want to do it right, and I don’t want to give up. I want to do precisely what I said I would, in the way that I set out to do it. 

As a teacher, I’ve had to force myself to abandon this stubborn, perfectionist mentality, especially when it comes to flexible seating.

Disclaimer: FLEXIBLE SEATING IS NOT GOING TO BE PERFECT, CONTRARY TO WHAT INSTAGRAM AND PINTEREST MIGHT LEAD YOU TO BELIEVE.

It’s not a magical “happily-ever-after” solution to all of your classroom’s problems, but it IS a step toward more student-centered, authentic learning. You will still encounter issues, some unique to flexible seating, so you must stay flexible and find ways to adapt to your group of learners.

My biggest piece of advice is to not be afraid to change things up when they’re not working. I’ve rearranged my room multiple times this semester. I’ve had to put certain kiddos on flexible seating probation. I moved a few extra traditional desks back to my classroom for this purpose. 

I’ve even had to create seating charts for 2 classes. Luckily, one class earned the privilege back and all it takes to redirect them is a simple reminder that we can go back to the seating chart. My other class with a seating chart is my 8th period class with 20 boys and 4 girls. They’re great kids, but the blend of personalities and the anticipation of the end of the school day just created too much chatter during transitions. The seating chart solved my issues, but it also helped me pinpoint and isolate the students causing the disruptions. I am hoping to reintroduce the privilege of flexible seating at the start of next semester; I’ll give the disruptive kids another chance, but I’ll be quick to intervene and isolate them if the problems persist.

Gonna #keepitreal ••• Yes, that's a seating chart I'm about to make. No, I don't have perfect classroom management. Yes, I rearranged my entire classroom. No, not all of my students have been choosing their seats wisely lately. Yes, I am still adapting to flexible seating and experimenting with what works best. No, we won't have assigned seats forever. Yes, I am aware that a seating chart defeats the purpose of flexible seating. No, I don't have all the answers. In fact, I need them. 😂 Hopefully this is a temporary wake-up call for some of my kiddos. IG tends to be a highlight reel but please know it's not perfect up in here. You're not alone! We all struggle in this whole teaching thing! Keep on doing what YOU know is best for the students in YOUR classroom. ❤ Happy Fri-Yay, y'all!

A post shared by Write On With Miss G (@writeonwithmissg) on


I know a seating chart sounds like it defeats the purpose of the flexible seating, and admittedly, yes, it does, for that class. But that doesn’t mean I failed at flexible seating. After all, it’s ONE out of my SEVEN classes (and there’s always That One Class, right?!). It’s a temporary consequence, and it’s a good reminder that flexible seating is a privilege. I think it just means that every class is different. As teachers, we must differentiate and adapt to our unique learners. And isn’t that the whole purpose of flexible seating? 

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to enter the giveaway. Also, check out Tracee Orman’s ideas for celebrating the holidays in your classroom and Shana from Hello Teacher Lady’s ways to add warmth and joy to your classroom space. We are the last round of the blog hop, but you can check out all the previous posts linked below!

20 times Michael Scott understood teaching

Michael Scott may be a delusional, socially inept narcissist, but sandwiched between his racist or sexist comments and “That’s what she said” jokes are gems of misguided wisdom and raw emotion that anyone, but especially teachers (read: fellow circus ringleaders), can appreciate.

For those days when your classroom feels more like the dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin, here are 20 times Michael unknowingly articulated the trials and tribulations of teaching.

Would I rather be feared or loved

1. If you’re a new teacher struggling to find the balance between nice/savage, drop your Harry Wong book and just adopt this flawless philosophy of classroom management.

 

Sometimes I'll start a sentence

2. If this DOESN’T happen to you, then you are likely a robot and not a real teacher…and if you disagree, please unfollow me immediately and/or humor me with scathing insults in the Comments section. Teacher brain is a very real disease (but don’t look up your symptoms on Web MD, or your first result will say brain tumor).

 

I am running away from responsibilities. And it feels good.

3. This applies to one of two scenarios:

  • When I am sitting at my desk after school with 22 tabs open, 17 things on my to-do list, and 3 unfinished email drafts, and I impulsively exit Chrome without finishing absolutely anything and proceed to sprint out the door.*
  • When it’s Sunday at 8 p.m. and Netflix hits me with the rhetorical question of “Are you still watching” and I make the conscious decision of selecting “yes,” simultaneously telling myself “one more episode” while knowing full well that I will binge-watch all night long instead.*

*Both of the aforementioned scenarios typically result in me frantically “lesson planning in my head” while listening to trap music during my 7 a.m. commute to school.

 

And I knew exactly what to do4. This is for everything I was NOT instructed in during my teaching education program in college. Including, but not limited to:

  • Locating and properly disposing of a fart bomb hidden in a student’s bookbag (all while ridiculously calling SACURRRRRRRRRRITY like Bon Qui Qui)
  • Negotiating a hostage situation in which a student has been zip-tied to a chair
  • Mediating an argument over the existence of Santa Claus while subbing in a kindergarten classroom (GOD BLESS YOU, ELEMENTARY TEACHERS)

 

I don't even consider myself a part of society

5. Because teaching sucks the life out of you and causes your body to physically shut down at 8 p.m. on Friday evenings, preventing you from functioning as a normal human with a social life. (If I do want to be a real person on a Friday night, I have to schedule a 3-hour nap.) This also describes how students think teachers are mythical creatures that only exist within school and have no life outside of it.

 

Welcome back jerky jerk-face

6. What you wish you could say when That One Kid returns to school after an absence or in-school suspension, as you solemnly cherish the Glorious Day you had without said student.

 

thief of joy lol
Every classroom has a Toby.

7. When you are hype for your lesson plan on iambic pentameter but your enthusiasm elicits eye rolls or comments about how you need to “chill.”  I usually shout something along the lines of, “Thanks for killing my vibe, you filthy animals.”

 

So what

8. For absolutely any excuse. Ever. This is best when accompanied by violently enthusiastic fake nodding and smiling, followed by a quick, savage scowl.

 

I'll kill you

9. The look you give to a hooligan who starts actin’ a fool during your evaluation, despite your attempts at begging/bribing/manipulating/etc. your class into angelic behavior.

 

I have got to make sure YouTube

10. For those days when you are absolutely sure that the shenanigans going down in your class would make a viral video or ridiculous reality show. I’m still available, y’all. 

 

You cheated on me

11. When you catch kids cheating on a vocabulary test and your teaching-induced illusion of their innocence is forever tarnished. FYI: The newest form of cheating is the “Sexual Harassment” Cheat, which means writing your vocabulary words high up on your inner thigh because one simply does not ask a student to show his/her inner thigh without being labeled a pedophile. (I am not even making this up, people…)

 

It takes an advanced sense of humor

12. When you casually deliver the pun you thought of while laying in bed at 11:30 p.m. last Tuesday, wait for the laughter, and refuse to continue your lesson until someone acknowledges your brilliant wordplay. I AM THE PUN AND ONLY, CHILDREN. And let’s be real; Michael is loosely quoting Poe here: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.”

 

Am I a hero

 

13. When you make it through teaching the day before Spring Break without any kids setting books, you, and/or the school on fire. Go ahead and treat yourself to a humble brag. You deserve it.

 

You can't put words back in your mouth

14. When you realize you probably shouldn’t have said that, and an alternate universe in which you have been fired from teaching flashes before your eyes…like the time I used “Get low” to teach how to use slashes to indicate line breaks when citing poetry: “To the window / To the wall” and then realized mid-example that I had to immediately stop. (Hey, the DJ played the song at prom, so sue me.)

 

Prison Mike

15. Prison Mike encompasses more emotions than I can realistically articulate in a novel, let alone a short blurb on a blog post. So I will just leave this here.

 

I am Beyonce always

16. Because you can always channel your inner Beyoncé, especially when anyone questions your authority and you need to feel empowered. Or anytime you need to interject a lesson with a “Get in formation,” “Boy, bye,” “I ain’t sorry,” or any other Bey-ism (which is at least every single day, if you’re me).

 

I don't hate it I Just don't like it at all, and it's terrible

17. When a kiddo answers a question with a 100% wrong answer but you euphemistically manipulate your response so that it does not sound like public humiliation. 

 

wiki

18. Classic reverse psychology for teaching how to find reliable sources and spot fake news. Michael Scott is predicted to replace all English teachers by 2020!

 

Powerpoint Powerpoint

19. For those days when you are lecturing with a boring PowerPoint and you know it, but you still expect movie-theater engagement. Sometimes, you just have to be your own hype man.

 

I don't have to think or do anything
Except professional development, lesson planning, classroom organization, etc…

20. Two words: SUMMER BREAK!

Best of the Best: Speed Debating in the ELA Classroom

If you want to see me plan a GREAT lesson, don’t come find me on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve deliberately set aside a chunk of time for some hardcore planning. I’ll be priming my brain with coffee, staring at my blank page of plans, and sitting so close to (but not actually opening) a stack of teacher books that they just might give me some plans via some weird form of osmosis…but I won’t be producing the creative, original ideas that every teacher craves.

Nope. Those bad boys have a mind of their own.

Instead, these ideas happen late at night, as I’m laying in bed, calculating the hours of sleep I’ll get (and consequently planning my next day’s nap), when I’m driving to the school in the morning, thinking of how “eh” my current plan sounds, halfway through the school day when I’ve already taught the lesson to half my classes and realize how lame it actually is, or sometimes even a whole unit later, when I get random inspiration and mentally file an amorphous idea in the “maybe next year” corner of my brain…the list goes on.

These spontaneous “ah-ha” moments have actually encouraged me to sometimes procrastinate  purposely wait until the last minute to really plan in an attempt to coax the creative genius out of its hiding spot. I’ll have one of those “eh” plans as a placeholder to alleviate the natural stress of truly not knowing what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks you’re going to do with over 100 children the next day. But then I’ll just sit back, relax, and play the waiting game. 

(Disclaimer: I am not necessarily advocating this method. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it weirdly works for me.)

Such was the case on Thursday night. I stayed after school to get organized and start planning for next week, even though I didn’t absolutely love my plans for the next day. I was actually gathering my things to leave for the night when I glanced up at my hot mess of desks, which had been mysteriously rearranged over Fall Break. (I had been too lazy to put them back in their original formation, and this week had been a free-for-all, with the kids sitting wherever they wanted). A few of the desks were in pairs, facing each other. Earlier during the day, I had remarked to the students in those face-off style desks that it looked like they were speed dating. It had been a simple joke that made them laugh and fake flirt for a few seconds, but now, the idea was rooting itself in my mind as a potential lesson plan.

Trying to capitalize on this still-abstract idea,  I quickly rearranged all of my desks in pairs facing each other. I had no concrete plan, but once my desks were rearranged, I had no choice but to sit down and actually map this madness out. I had taken the time to rearrange my entire room, so I couldn’t chicken out now. All I really had was “speed dating” and a new seating arrangement. 

Luckily, all it took was a pun (typical me) to set the idea in motion: speed debating. After all, we were learning about rhetorical appeals and devices and would soon be starting research for our formal debates.  I figured that my kids could “speed debate” with each other while using ethos, pathos, logos, and all of the rhetorical devices we had just reviewed. I whipped up over 20 different topics, some silly and some serious, and made them into little placards that could stand on each pair of desks. I created a student worksheet that required tracking of the appeals and devices, and then I worked out the logistics of the timing and rotations for the mini-debates. Then, I made a “Welcome to Speed Debating” sign that I could display on my projector as my students walked in. I even began to “decorate” each pair of desks with some cute Target Dollar spot tins I had around my classroom. Then, in standard If You Give a Mouse A Cookie fashion, I realized I needed to go to Target. (Stay tuned for If You Give a Teacher a Reason to go to Target in 2017). I needed approximately 3 more tins and something to put inside the tins, of course. I settled on candy for the tins. Although I’ve never done speed dating, I imagine there are refreshments, because food makes everything, including awkward dates, better, right? (Can someone quote me on this?) If nothing else, the candy would be some good old-fashioned bribery.  I was indeed a little worried about my quiet students who dislike talking to others, and my reluctant students, whose negative attitudes might not mesh with my interactive plan.

img_2090
This is what my classroom looked like before the “speed debating” began.

As it turned out, I didn’t even need to bribe my students. As soon as I began the timer for the first round of speed debates, I knew this random late-night lesson plan was “the one.” The lesson of my dreams. My little golden nugget. My new prized possession. It was the best of the best, the kind of lesson that makes you want to stand on a mountaintop and shout to your administrators, “COME OBSERVE ME, NOW!”

I am not exaggerating when I say that EVERY SINGLE STUDENT was engaged. It was one of those days when all I had to do was circulate throughout the room and “watch the magic happen.” As I walked around listening in on the debates, this is what I saw: the “quiet” kids coming out of their shells, animatedly speaking to their partners in ways that I had never witnessed before,  the “reluctant” students smiling and laughing, a clear violation of their typical “too cool for school” motto, the “talkers,” gesticulating wildly as they passionately argued their topics, and everyone in between, more engaged than I ever thought possible. (Check out this video on my Instagram if you don’t believe me: The Magic Happening!)

TRICKED YA! MADE YA LEARN! I thought to myself while sporting the maniacal teacher grin that naturally comes with making kids have so much fun that they forget they’re actually learning. (This is what we LIVE for, am I right?!)

img_2097It was so fun, in fact, that I am now unsure of how I can ever top that lesson. Was that my peak as a teacher? The climax of the semester?  Is it all downhill from here? What happens next?  How will I return to normalcy after the thrill of speed debating? I feel like a kid on December 26th: You mean I have to wait a whole YEAR for the magic to happen again?

I’ll be over here grappling with the post-perfect-lesson blues, but if you want to experience the same kind of exhilarating lesson, you can check out my complete resource here: Speed Debating: Engaging Activity to Practice Debate, Ethos, Pathos, & Logos. (It’s actually on sale for 20% today and tomorrow!) While you’re at it, you may want to check out what I call my second-best lesson, too: Rhetorical Devices in Songs: Engaging & Kinesthetic “Question Trail” Activity (It fits perfectly with Speed Debating and will also get EVERYONE up and moving and having fun).

In the meantime, I’m going to search for an idea that will somehow top my best lesson ever, by creeping on other teachers’ brilliant ideas in the Best of the Best Blog Hop! The Best of the Best Lessons by English Teachers Blog Hop!

You should too, especially if you like free money: Click here for a chance to win one of 3 $25 Teachers Pay Teachers gift cards!

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An English Teacher’s #BetterLateThanNever New Year’s Resolutions

In true Miss G fashion, I am sharing the New Year’s resolutions I promised you with the motto of “better late than never.” 

At this point, I have embraced my Type-B, procrastinating, “organized chaos” personality. My Christmas tree is still up, I have an ungodly, undisclosable number of emails in my inbox, I am passionate about eating lunchables for dinner, and I still write myself reminders on my hand, like some kind of forgetful high-schooler. But I am who I am. My messy, spontaneous, creative approach to life works for me. Also, a messy desk may be a sign of genius, so I’m sticking to that theory. My excuse is that I’ve been so busy implementing my goals that I haven’t had the time to revise and publish this blog post that arbitrarily symbolizes accountability. PRIORITIES, PEOPLE!

Embracing my flaws aside, I am committed to bettering myself in 2018. I’ve been dabbling in self-help books, listening to podcasts on productivity and efficiency, and just generally thinking about how to get MORE out of life. It’s not that I’ve been unhappy or unmotivated. In fact, 2017 was my happiest and most fulfilling year yet. I’m very blessed to do what I love with the people I love in a community that I love, but I know that all this love could be channeled in even more incredible ways. I want to harness my passion and creativity in 2018. I want to challenge myself intellectually. I want to think, read, write, love, and live deeply and purposefully.  Here’s how:

1. BE PRESENT

 

 

Let me preface this resolution by admitting that most, if not all, of my colleagues and students would consider me a happy, positive person who is passionate–obsessed even–with her job calling. And I am. But I am also the first to admit that teaching can absolutely suck the life and soul out of me if I am not careful. I do not say this to complain, but to emphasize the importance of being mindful of my emotions and attitude. At least for me, it’s not always enough to simply “be” a positive teacher; I have to be deliberate about it.  It’s almost as if I am actively waging a war against the Tired, Negative, Stressed Out Teacher Within. Sometimes, I drive to school an extrovert and leave an introvert, so exhausted with fellow humans that I don’t even want to speak to sweet souls who work the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. Other days, I find myself nodding and “mhmm-ing” through student conversations, trying to genuinely listen, but instead, worrying about the hooligan in the corner who is bouncing off the walls or recalculating the number of items on my to-do list. Heck, I often find myself writing tomorrow’s to-do lists before I am finished with today’s to-do lists. I am always trying to “work today to get ahead for tomorrow,” when really, I just need to live in the now and appreciate the day.

I don’t want to live my life in future tense. I want to be present, emotionally and physically.  I deserve it, and so do my students. It sounds so cliche, but sometimes this is as simple as…

    • Listening to Beyonce and getting my mind in formation on the way to school in the morning!
    • Taking a deep breath after each class period and reminding myself that every 42 minutes, the bell rings to give me a fresh start with a brand new group of students.
    • Taking the time to interact with my students as human beings. This means laughing, smiling, and the occasional random but fun YouTube video, just for “kicks and gigs.” Obviously, as a caring teacher, I do this, but I need to do MORE of it. It’s so easy to get carried away with the demands, data-tracking, accountability, standards, etc. and forget these little things.
    • Expressing my gratitude and doing acts of kindness for others. Research proves this improves your happiness, and it’s also just common sense. I want 2018 to be a year of hand-written thank you cards, “just because” notes, and buying Starbucks for the stranger behind me in the drive-thru.

 

#2: READ MORE

Reading makes me a better teacher and human being. It’s that simple. Research has long proven the effects of reading: mental stimulation (which can slow/prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia), increased intelligence, better memory function, an improved vocabulary, more empathy, and a LONGER life (because I’m trying to teach until the day I die, y’all)…the list goes on. I’ll spare you all the details (or save them for another blog post), but my point is this: Reading is good for my brain AND soul. Exercising my mental muscles and understanding other humans through literature just makes me so happy. Also, no matter what I am reading, even if it’s not education-related, I get so many ideas for teaching. I’ve found that reading is often the catalyst for some of my spontaneous but creative lessons. If I’m not reading, I am doing my own brain–and my students–a disservice, so I am resolving to practice what I preach and read 50 books this year. I plan on reading a healthy combo of professional, YA, and leisure-reading books. (I LOVE suspenseful, psychological thrillers).

Books
My current favorites!

 

 

I just finished reading Write Like This, At the Crossroads of Should and Must, and The Sun is also a Star, and I am working through Writing With Mentors, You are a Badass, and Room. Join me on Goodreads and/or Instagram to learn more about what I am reading, and leave me any great book recommendations in the comments!

 

#3: WRITE MORE.

Just like reading, writing makes me a better teacher. This realization sparked this blog, which I, unfortunately, have not been updating as consistently as I would like. I have been neglecting my own writing for a while, and I am finally noticing the damaging effects of not practicing what I preach/teach. I have half-jokingly told my students that I miss writing the literary analysis essays that I was assigned in college. Although teaching is mentally stimulating and that’s why I LOVE it, I also think that teaching–and inadvertently adopting the teenage vernacular, which is pretty lit, fam–is “dumbing me down.” My brain now thinks in memes, gifs, emojis, and 240-character snippets, instead of articulate sentences.  It’s not my students’ fault; it’s mine. Seriously, writing this simplistic, personal post has taken more time than I care to admit. I guess the “If you don’t use it, you lose it” adage applies to writing skills, too. But I’m also sure muscle memory applies to writing, so if I want my old writing prowess back, I just need to write on! To do so, I am going to focus on 2 specific goals:

  • Blog more. I want to blog at least once a month, if not more. Today’s post marks 2 MONTHS IN A ROW, which is an accomplishment for me. My “Blog” folder in my Google drive currently has 38 docs of ideas, some half-finished drafts, others incoherent ramblings. I am working on a content schedule, but let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see me write! On deck is a post about how I use stations in my secondary ELA classroom! 🙂
  • Model writing alongside my students. I’ve also known this is best practice, and while I do lots of other forms of modeling in the classroom, I have not been writing in front of my students nearly as much as I should. In fact, it’s been essentially nonexistent, except for a few occasions, but reading Write Like This was a wake-up call to start writing with my kiddos A$AP Rocky (There I go again with the adolescent slang). In 2018, I am going to embrace the vulnerability that will come with writing alongside my students. I hope that can show them that writing is not always easy, but it’s always worth it. Perhaps my personal journey to rediscover my voice as a writer will help empower my students, too.

#4: BE MORE BALANCED AND ACCEPT “GOOD ENOUGH.”

My first year of teaching, my life had very little balance. I’d stay after school for hours, work on the weekends, and plan too much on my breaks. Oftentimes, my oh-so-sweet custodian would jokingly tell me to leave, and when that didn’t work, he would bring me food. Once, the superintendent even came in my classroom around 8pm on a Friday night, and told me to “get outta here!” (He was at the school for a concert or some other school activity). Fast forward to now, year 4. I’ve definitely improved since then, especially in 2017, when I took on the challenge of coaching soccer, which inevitably took time away from my teaching. This forced me to reevaluate how I was spending my time and prioritize better. Quite honestly, sometimes I had to accept simply doing the “bare minimum” to survive as a teacher during soccer season. This was incredibly difficult for me, a semi-perfectionist who can spend hours designing lessons to make them as engaging as possible. Since then, I have learned that it’s okay to close your computer and shut your brain off when your lesson for the next day is “good enough.” As a teacher, I often care too much and set impossibly high standards for myself. Sometimes, doing a little bit less will actually help me do a lot more to restore the balance lacking in my life and renew the energy that I need to make an impact on the 120 students in my classroom each day. In 2018, I am giving myself the permission to say “no” more often, accept “good enough,” and do a little less to give myself and my students more.

 

#5 TRAVEL MORE.

In the fall of 2016, I embarked on my first-ever cross-country road-trip, partially inspired by one of my favorite novels, Into the Wild. That first trip was just the spark, and the year that followed was my most adventurous, transcendent year yet. In 2017, I hiked over 13 miles in the Grand Canyon and barely made it back up before dark, camped out in a 50mph sandstorm in Death Valley and woke up to sand in every crevice of my body, dangled my legs over the edge of Horseshoe Bend, slid down a natural waterslide in a 44-degree creek running through a canyon, soaked in hot springs alongside the Colorado River and Rocky Mountains, and more. 2017 was the first year that I traded in travel for school work on my 2-week spring and fall breaks. I did not plan. I did not stress. I did not worry about being productive or efficient. I did not think of tomorrow before today. I lived. The freedom of an open road, a map of infinite destinations, no specific plans, and lots of spontaneous stops was ineffable.  I don’t want to call it wanderlust because that’s cliche, but all I know is that my soul is no longer satisfied when stationary; it now craves movement and exploration.

Death Valley 1
Sand dunes at Death Valley National Park

 

 

See how this blog post is #3 in action? I told you, I was just so busy being present (#1), reading more (#2), and planning my road trips (#5) that I told myself that a January 19th New Year’s blog post was “good enough” (#4).

What are your resolutions? I would love to hear about them in the comments!

Are you working too hard? Let the students do the hard work with a Socratic Seminar!

“If you’re doing more work than the students, then you’re doing too much. The students should always be working harder than you.”

Although I recognized the value in this adage from a former professor, I never acknowledged it as a practical piece of advice. I thought it was one of those suggestions that sounded good in theory, but I was worried about this approach actually working in a high school classroom. I figured I’d spend the rest of my life working too hard and caring too much, because that’s what teachers do…right?

Right. But also wrong. Let me explain this paradox. As teachers, we are wired to devote our time to our students. It’s just what we do. It’s what we love. We know what’s best for our students, and we know that takes more than just showing up to work during contractual hours. But I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, we probably do too much.

I’m not talking about working so hard that we sacrifice our own health, family needs, or social life. These are valid concerns, and we all know the constant struggle of finding balance. I’m not sure I will ever reach a perfect personal vs. professional equilibrium in my life, but that’s okay. What I am talking about is the effect of our work on students: when we do TOO much for them. When we work too hard, we can inadvertently limit their learning, by stifling natural opportunities.

Granted, I teach high school, so I’m already all about fostering independence through scaffolding and a “gradual release” approach, but I think this sentiment rings true for nearly all grades: We shouldn’t be working harder than our students.

Easier said than done, right? Now, I think this motto has its strings attached: It’s directed toward instructional time, not planning, grading, and everything else that goes on behind the scenes of teaching. What it means is that we need to carefully construct lessons that will foster independence and social learning. After all, we aren’t simply teaching content or skills; we are teaching kids how to learn.

I’ve known this since I started teaching, but it wasn’t until I really took the plunge and “backed off” during a few lessons or activities that I found out how what I was missing (or, more accurately, what I was missing out on from the students). I gradually implemented the “less is more” approach, but the activity that fully confirmed my suspicion that I was “doing too much” was the Socratic Seminar.

The Socratic Seminar is named after Greek philosopher Socrates, who believed in the power of social learning and deliberate discussion. Socrates believed that humans learned best from questioning and discussion. He believed discussion helped individuals critically think through complex ideas and learn better than they could on their own.

You can think of a Socratic Seminar as an “intellectual discussion,” but you can also see it as a conversation where you “think out loud” and “talk it out.” Essentially, it is a student-led discussion over a text or big idea. Instead of you facilitating the discussion by asking questions, students take charge of their own learning in this activity by creating and asking the questions. A Socratic Seminar is truly a student-centered and social approach to learning. For you, this means it is less prep work. It’s one of those lessons that teaches itself. You literally can sit back, relax, and watch the magic happen. (Well, that’s not entirely true–you may want to assess them during the seminar, but it’s still just as magical).

While that sounds appealing, it also probably sounds a bit scary. If you are nervous about it, that’s natural. I was too. Although I had enjoyed these in my AP classes in high school, I had never tried one in my regular-level classes, mainly due to my fear that it would flop. Anything that is incredibly open-ended and student-centered certainly does have the risk of flopping. But I realized that I could stop the flop by providing just the right amount of structure and scaffolding going into the seminar.

The first one you have in your classroom will be a learning experience for all of you, but each seminar will get better and better, and you’ll find yourself wondering—as I do—why you don’t do these ALL THE TIME!

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Here is my classroom set up for my Socratic Seminar.

Here’s a step-by-step game plan for how I facilitate Socratic Seminars in my classroom. I know different teachers have other approaches, so it’s worth noting that, like anything, this might not be a one-size-fits-all plan. Your students may need more scaffolding, or perhaps they are ready for more independence, but this is what has worked for me in a regular-level American Literature course.

1 OR MORE WEEKS OUT

I informally introduce the idea of a Socratic Seminar weeks in advance, to let my students know what is coming. I think planting the seed in their brains is essential for a successful seminar later on. Also, I often hold seminars in lieu of tests or essays, so they usually are my culminating assessment. Many students like this, because it is a different way for them to demonstrate their learning. It’s one of those game-changers (or should I say “grade changers”) that can help make things fair for those kiddos who are poor test-takers. Talking about the seminar weeks in advance will motivate them to take charge of learning. Oftentimes, I have students brainstorm questions as we read the primary text.

1-3 DAYS BEFORE

I review specific expectations and give my students time in class to brainstorm questions, find textual evidence, and prepare notes in response to their own questions.

I structure this preparation phase by reviewing types of questions, because I’ve found that the students don’t always understand the difference between close-ended/open-ended, comprehension/analysis, etc. (You can check out my resources for this here:  Socratic Seminars for ANY text!)  I count this “prep work” as half their grade, to make this assessment equitable. Student HAVE to speak up during the seminar to get a passing grade, but adding in an equivalent preparation grade provides a buffer to those kiddos who are painfully shy.

You don’t want to your seminar to flop due to poor questions, so providing scaffolding during this time is crucial. This is the time when you do want to work hard to ensure the students know the expectations. I usually give them the majority of a 45-minute class period, and then the rest is homework. Sometimes, for my own peace of mind, I will check their questions beforehand. You can also let them brainstorm questions with partners or in groups.

1 DAY BEFORE

I arrange my desks into a giant circle and print off copies of my rubric.. I write students’ names on all of my rubrics, and have them ready to go, in alphabetical order.

RIGHT BEFORE CLASS

I arrange my rubrics, in alphabetical order, on my desk, to where I can see the top of each rubric. I need to be able to easily access my rubrics during the seminar.

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Here are my rubrics “in formation,” as Beyonce would say.

 

DURING THE SEMINAR

I sit at my desk—OUT OF THE CIRCLE. Before I let the students begin, I quickly review my expectations and let them know to completely ignore me during the class period. While my students discuss, I go into assessment mode, scribbling on the rubrics while listening attentively. (Don’t worry: You’re a teacher, so you already know how to multi-task. This isn’t as difficult as you may think.) I usually make a checkmark every time a student adds meaningful insight, and I circle the categories on the rubric as soon as I have evidence for them. For some students, you can tell early on that they have mastered certain components of the rubric. Toward the end, there are some students who have satisfied all of the requirements, and I remove their rubrics to focus on the remaining students—the students who haven’t said much or whose comments haven’t yet reached the level of thinking I am expecting.

I know it sounds crazy trying to assess 25-30 students at once, but I find that it’s actually less difficult than grading essays. You are listening to the students think out loud, and you, as the professional, will know a) who read the text, b) who understands the text, c) who can analyze the text. Socratic Seminars provide me some of the best qualitative data to inform my instruction.

AFTER THE SEMINAR

I have the students complete a self-evaluation. I also go back to my rubrics and add in more specific comments that I didn’t have time to write during the actual

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This complete resource pack contains absolutely everything you need for a successful Socratic Seminar: Just add students! 🙂

seminar. I do this as soon as I can, so it is fresh in my mind. I also make a point to discuss the success of the seminar with the class. We talk about what went well, what we could have done better, and what we will do differently for the next seminar. 

Like I said, this is just one way to host a successful Socratic Seminar. You may choose to provide more or less scaffolding and structure, depending upon your needs. My complete resource pack, with everything I’ve referenced above, is available here: Socratic Seminars for ANY text!

If you’re looking for some twists on traditional seminars, check out this blog post: http://bsbooklove.blogspot.com/search?q=socratic+seminar

What else do you do with Socratic Seminars? What are your favorite lessons that foster independence and social learning? When is the last time you did less and saw more from your students? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!