A Word to the Wise

This may be obvious to everyone but me – last night, I discovered why it is perhaps a bad idea to use an URL shortening/bookmarking service such as bit.ly for 6th grade students.

Namely, that when non-listening, non-attentive students go home and type that shortened link into their web browser, not reading carefully and typing K instead of k, or 0 instead of O, or l instead of I…  inappropriate websites might come up.

Lesson learned.  Next time, save the Google Docs Contact Information Survey (which I love and have used through three beginnings-of-class now) until *after* the easy-to-find Homework Calendar is functioning.

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Memorizing Formulas

“If I am given a formula, and I am ignorant of its meaning, it cannot teach me anything, but if I already know it what does the formula teach me?”  ~St. Augustine aka Augustine of Hippo (354-430), De Magistro ch X, 23.


I had the opportunity to teach accelerated algebra during summer school this year – a class full of twenty-one 10-13 year olds who wanted to move a year ahead in math, and so they chose to spend five hours a day for six weeks of the summer in a classroom.  It was a great experience in many ways but one of the things I noticed was how often the students would say things like “just tell me the formula!”. The students were, generally, very good at math – but not always so good at answering my favorite question, “Does your answer make sense?”

This reliance on formulas is something that drives me a little bit batty, and something I hope to work on this year is finding new ways to teach that don’t rely on me writing down formulas and students copying them. I want students to figure the formulas out – to be able to get to the answer the long way if they forget a formula on an assessment, to understand why the formula works the way it does and how to use it correctly.  Coming from a physics background, something that I find particularly useful is the idea of dimensional analysis and I hope to have a chance to introduce it to my students this year, too, as a further aid to understanding.

I think St. Augustine was on to something all those many years ago…




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What I Only Wish I Had Learned…

I have spent the past week blissfully on vacation before school starts next Tuesday – and the accompanying trainings, meetings, and organizing are in full swing this week. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by everything there is to do!

The start of the school year is hyped by everyone as The Most Important Part of the Year. It’s Crucial to Setting Expectations for the year, Key for Developing a Class Culture, Super Important if you want to be a Successful Teacher. Right?  I mean, ask anyone, and they will tell you.

Last year, I started the year as a first-semester 0.6 FTE (three classes) maternity cover teacher.  Two days before school started, I was asked to teach an 0.2 FTE (one class) at a different school. I was assigned to three different classrooms. I had no time to meet the staff at the 0.2 FTE school, and although I knew the math department at the 0.6 FTE school, I didn’t know the classrooms I would be using or their teachers (English and Science). At the semester break, I finished my maternity cover and picked up an 0.4 FTE (two classes) sick leave cover for the rest of the semester, so it was like having half of another First Day of School.

This year is totally different. I was hired at the end of last school year and have had all summer to plan (or think, read blogs and pin things, as the case may be). I have my own classroom, I am familiar with the curriculum and the department at my school, and I have one and a half First Days of School already under my belt. I have tried lots of things, I have changed lots of things in the course of a year.

When I look back at last summer, I spent way too long agonizing over every minute of the first day. What would I wear? What would I say when students entered the room? What would we do in minute seven? In minute thirty-two? What if a student came in late and missed the first ten minutes? I wish I had spent more time thinking about the bigger picture and less time stressing out about the teensy details.

I wish all new teachers learned about the importance of Not Freaking Out about the First Day of School.  Everything doesn’t need to be perfect on day one. It is okay to try something out, and change it up later if it isn’t working.  It is important to let students know about you and what you expect from the start, but it’s also okay for them to know that you will be learning about each other and learning about MATH at the same time, and that things might change if they need to.  Less emphasis on how important the first day is, and more emphasis on how to reflect a sense of the whole year in the first few days would be great.

That said, I am headed to the store Friday to pick out a new shirt to complete my back-to-school outfit, making some adjustments to my getting-to-know-you activity, setting up seating charts and making sure everything is just-so in the classroom. – because it’s still important that things run smoothly!

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New Year Goal

From the New Blogger Initiative Week One options:

Meetings are starting up. School is revving up. You are teeming with ideas (which is why we’re doing this Blogging Initiation now). What is one goal you have for the first week of school (or “had,” if you already started).

My new (school) year goal is to stay ORGANIZED. This has been a constant struggle for me, as I was working out of five different classrooms at two different schools last year. Up until now I haven’t had my own classroom space to organize. This means 1) I haven’t been terribly organized myself and 2) I haven’t had to devise classroom organization systems for my students, as I just used whatever was already in place in each of my classrooms.

My goal is to start this year with a supply basket for each table group (stored strategically around the classroom), an outgoing bin for each class period (stored in a bookcase) and an ingoing tray for each class period (stored on my teacher desk).  When I collect papers they will go straight into the ingoing tray for each class, and once things have been graded/recorded and are ready to go back to students, they will go in the outgoing bin.

Handouts I will need for each day will be stored in hanging file folders by the day – I only have one main prep this year so I don’t think I need to have separate files per class period.

I hope this works!

Posted in Classroom Organization | 2 Comments

Folder Storage


Problem:  My new classroom has a lot of big, bare walls and NOT a lot of storage space.  I’ve solved some of that problem by procuring a collection of bookcases (three already in the classroom, one from a friend who sadly moved to France, and one from the local Steve & Kate’s Camp  supply sell-off), but I’m still short on folder-sized storage space.

Previous Solution:  Last year, I had an abundance of milk crates which easily stored folders. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring them with me to my new school, and even if I had them none of my bookcases are big enough to fit milk crates.

Hanging File Folder Holder

New Solution: Reduce the need for paper storage (scanning documents I am keeping “just in case” and recycle the rest), drag in a 2-drawer file cabinet from the surplus pile and make “folder holders” for the wall.  These “folder holders” will be used to store the files students need to have access to. I have 5 class periods, so I chose to make 5-pocket hanger.

Supplies for Folder HoldersSupplies: 6 fat quarters (you will use a full fat quarter for the background, and 1/2 of a fat quarter per pocket), 2 yards of bias tape, thread.

I used a fat quarter pack and thread from my personal stash and purchased a fabric remnant (the brown background), and a packet of bias tape from JoAnn’s. Using the educator’s discount (15% off) and a 40%-off-one-item coupon, I spent less than $5 out of pocket for this.

Procedure: 1) Start by cutting the pocket panel fat quarters in half the short way to create two 11×18″ pieces of fabric; keep one of each and set the rest aside for another project (note: if you use the same color for each pocket or pair of pockets, you just need 3 fat quarters – you could fit six pockets on one fat-quarter background if you wanted). Leave the background piece alone.

Hemmed Pockets, laid out for placement.2) Sew a 1/4″ folded hem on one side of each pocket panel fat quarter, then lay them out in the order you prefer with the folded hem up. Also decide how far apart you want the folders – I originally thought I wanted 2″, but then changed to 2.5″ between the pockets in the end.  Use a folder or two to help you visualize things. My goal was to make sure that more than just the folder tab stuck up above the pocket, with some fabric left to show around it.

3) Figure out where to fold the fabric to create the right depth pocket for your folders based on your preference. I needed to fold up about 1.5″.  Either fold and iron in a crease on each pocket panel or use a fabric marking pencil to mark   the fold line on the wrong side of the fabric.  Then figure out where the pockets need to be sewn onto the backing fabric and mark that as well.  You want to leave around 1″ of backing fabric at the bottom and at least 6″ at the top.

Inside of pockets4) Start sewing the pocket panels to the backing fabric, top pocket down.  To attach a pocket panel, place the fabrics right sides together with the top of the pocket panel near the bottom of the backing fabric.  (Because I was using a remnant for my backing, I had to piece it together to get the right size. I chose to piece it at the end of the project to avoid extra fabric bulk – if I had been using a true fat quarter, you would see more backing fabric in the right of this photo.) Sew a straight line along the fold line marked in step #3 for each pocket panel, making sure to line the pockets up on the lines you marked on the backing fabric. Then, sew with a sturdy stitch such as a zigzag to attach the “flap” to the backing (this prevents folders from catching on the excess fabric and gives extra support).

Topstitch each pocket5) Fold the pocket fabric panels up and iron down, then topstitch over the very bottom of each pocket to give a crisp finish and extra support.  Keep the fabric panels smooth and flat and use a rotary cutter and mat or scissors to trim the edges, then sew a basting stitch down each side of the holder to hold things in place. I trimmed each edge by about 1″ to give a finished width of about 16″, which will be big enough to accommodate legal-sized file folders.

6) Put a 1/2″ folded hem in the bottom of the background fabric, and put a large foldover “pocket” in the top of the background fabric. Use a sturdy stitch such as a zigzag for the top pocket. I made my top pocket about 2″ wide to accommodate a variety of hanging methods – I am not sure what will work best on my classroom walls, as they are a weird sort of material, so I wanted to keep it flexible. I hope I can use a piece of dowel and hanging clips to put it up, but I might need to resort to thumbtacks.

Finished Folder Hanger7) Cut two lengths of bias tape as long as the hanging, and sew one over each side using a sturdy zigzag stitch. Fold the ends under at each side for a nice finish. (Alternatively, you can use bias tape on all four sides of the hanger but since mine was so close in color to the background and I dislike turning corners, I opted not to do this.)

8) Put folders in and enjoy! (Shown here with a letter-sized folder, as all of my legal-sized folders are at school.)

In my tests at home today, the pockets sag just a little bit with two letter sized folders in them. I am optimistic that this won’t be necessary with five legal sized folders in it, but a couple of thumbtacks along each side will prevent it if it does occur.

Posted in Classroom Organization | Tagged | 5 Comments

Classroom Emergency

Although I’m about to start my first full-time teaching job, I’ve been in the classroom for two years now (one year of student teaching, one year of a 0.2 FTE at one school and half-day maternity/sick leave subbing at another), plus one day short of a full summer school session.

Despite that, today I had my first major Classroom Emergency.

One of my students – I don’t even know what to call it – passed out? fainted? checked out temporarily? about halfway through class.  I’m still second-guessing my response, wondering what I could have/should have done differently, and I would love any feedback or advice!

The students were on a 5-minute break, which in my classroom of mostly rising 8th grade boys, is pretty chaotic.  A group of boys were playing around when one of them fell out of his chair and sprawled on the floor. This has happened a few times over the course of the summer, so I didn’t think much of it until I noticed another student pretending to sit on the fallen student’s face, with no reaction. Even this kid wouldn’t be capable of keeping a straight face through that, thought I, and I knew something was amiss.

I called out to the student to get up off the floor as I headed over to intervene, but he didn’t respond. When I got to him, I realized he was wide eyed, staring into space, unconscious.  I called his name again and shook him gently, with no response (although I could tell he was breathing) so I rolled him onto his back as I asked one student to bring me my phone and another to go get the director of summer school.

As soon as I rolled him over, he “woke up” with a start and after a brief dazed moment, sat up and asked “what happened?”  At this point, I hadn’t yet called 911 so I decided to hold off (would you have called anyway?).  I had another student bring him some water, I talked with him briefly about how he was feeling, what he remembered, what he had eaten while deciding what to do next.

About this time, the director of summer school arrived and we conversed briefly about what happened. He took over with the student, brought him down to the office to lie down and phone his parents. His mom left work to come check on him/pick him up, but when she arrived about 30 minutes later he was feeling a lot better and really didn’t want to go home so he came back to class – and was his usual self for the remaining 2 hours of class. I had a chance to talk to his mom about what had happened, and she thought it may have been due to his skipping breakfast this morning.

Those wide-open, staring-into-nothing eyes keep running through my head, but I’ve done what I can. I think. I hope.

I’m very grateful my students were so quick to follow my directions when requested, without backtalk or whining. Sometimes I despair of them listening to anything I say, so it was nice to know that they hear me when it counts.

Let’s hope the upcoming school year is less eventful. They don’t prepare you for situations like this in teaching school!

Posted in Situations | 2 Comments

And so it begins…

Location: In my car, driving from my morning school to my afternoon school.

Time: Approximately noon, the day following my first ever official interview for a teaching position. Also, the day before the last day of the 2011-2012 school year.

Situation: Successful end to phone tag

(Disclaimer: hands-free device in full operation!)

Me: Hello?

Principal: Hi, this is [the principal] from [local middle school]. I wanted to follow up on our conversation from yesterday. As I mentioned, I was very impressed with you and I would like to offer you the position. The opening is for four 6th grade math classes and one 6th grade math support class. 

Me: (trying to be calm) Thank you so much, I would love to work at [local middle school] next school year!

Now – what next??

(Thanks to the New Blogger Initiation for convincing me to finally start a blog, and to my friend N for suggesting the title!)


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