Sunday, August 18, 2019

5 Meaningful No-Prep Activities for the First Week of School

Bookmark this page! If you're frantically planning for your first day or week of school, here are five tried & true activities (not busy work!) to keep your students engaged while you get to observe and learn more about them. And be sure to download all the FREEBIES!
Although many of your students may know one another, you may have new students or those who are shy. Friend BINGO is a great way for kids to get up and moving and interacting with each other! They may not just shove the paper in another person's face and say, "Sign!" They need to ask specific questions from the BINGO board. Students may also ask me to sign their BINGO and I'm happy to share about myself (and to be seen as a member of our classroom community). After a set amount of time, we gather on the rug and share what we learned about each other. This often elicits even more conversations (and it's a great time to take notes on what you are learning about children's extracurricular interests and activities.)
Click on the BINGO above or grab a copy of Friend Bingo HERE.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Instilling a Sense of Belonging

Oh, how I love picture books! They are not just for little kids, but they are filled with so many life lessons for big kids, too! The start of a new school year is a time of excitement and anticipation (for children and teachers alike!) But it may also be a time for fear and hesitation for some (children and teachers alike!) Instilling a sense of belonging from Day One is critical to the rest of the school year!
Everyone wants to feel like they belong; that they are not an outsider, especially within a group of peers. Morning meeting and read aloud are two perfect opportunities to raise awareness and foster conversations about misconceptions and what it means to belong.  Do you know Big Al? Andrew Clements is one of my favorite middle grade authors! My fourth graders love his Jake Drake series, as well as all of his realistic fiction novels. So I was very excited to discover his picture book, Big Al!

Note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Poor Big Al just wants to make friends. But because Big Al is large and scary-looking, the little fish are afraid to get to know him; just like our students who may judge others who look or act differently than what they are comfortable with. The illustrations are darling and your kids will giggle and gasp as you read. Big Al tries everything he can think of: from disguising himself with seaweed to burrowing under the ocean floor to try and look smaller. But something always goes wrong, and lonely Big Al wonders if he'll ever have a single friend. However, when a fishing net captures the other fish, Big Al gets the chance to prove what a wonderful friend he can be! This book will have your kids cheering!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Make Reading Accessible for ALL

Are you looking for new tools to enhance your teaching of students with dyslexia or other reading barriers? Will you be working with students with learning disabilities, low vision, or dyslexia and wondering where to start? Today I'm thrilled to have my friend, Fred Slone, guest blog  about the AMAZING company he works for! He has just the answer to start your school year!
Bookshare is an ebook library with 700,000 books available in multiple accessible formats. Your students with reading barriers can download books in the format they want, on the device of their choice, when and where they need it. They can read a book on a computer at school in a format that offers audio and highlighted word text. They can download an audio version on their phone for the bus ride and then finish their homework on their parent’s laptop at home.

Sounds interesting, but your school budget is tight and you are worried about being able to fund another paid resource? Bookshare is FREE for all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Truly, this means all students – we serve thousands of students from K-5, middle school, junior high, high school and students in post-secondary education.
Here are three more reasons to consider Bookshare this fall:
1) Independence – Give your students control over their own materials. Let them choose what
formats work for them, let them experiment and learn without an adult watching over their
2) More Time for TeachingBookshare gives you back the time you spend chasing down
accessible materials. Once you set up your students on Bookshare, they use their login to access
their books all year, whenever and wherever they want.
3) Unlocking Potential – Students with reading barriers, such as dyslexia, may struggle in school because they are not able to access information solely due to the format of their materials.
Unlock the potential for these students by giving them books in a format that works for them and
allow their minds to discover the joy of learning
What Next?
If you would like to learn more, please visit our website at We also offer a couple of short videos that may be of interest:
Sign up!
Bookshare offers free accounts for schools and districts. You can sign up for an account at: You can also email us,, to see if your school already has an account.

Fred Slone has been the Director of Operations for Benetech since 2011. He manages the Content, Customer Service, and Community teams for Bookshare. He has an MBA from the University of Michigan and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Mathematics and Economics from Indiana University. In his spare time, he is an avid reader and long time coach for youth sports.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

3 Tried & True Tips to Start the Year Off Right

Eek! I think I've been in denial that school is starting in just a week! I may be frantically planning my curriculum, but here are 3 tried & true tips to start the school year off right!
Learning doesn't happen until there is trust between child and teacher. Develop relationships with your students; get to know them as a person not just as a student. Creating a quick chart the first week of school is a great way to learn about each child. It will provide for conversation talking points, connections between students, topics for writer's workshop or journaling!
You can read a more detailed post on developing relationships  HERE

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Not Another PD?!

The groans and whines can be heard around the district, as teachers drag themselves into another professional development meeting. Effective professional development can help to transform and restructure quality schools. It should motivate and excite teachers to learn new ideas and teaching methods. However, many PDs often fall short. Why?
Professional Development is often forced upon us, particularly at our school sites. The district requires certain topics and although they may be helpful, these meetings are usually squeezed in after school when we're exhausted or so close to the start of school that all we want to do is get into our classrooms to set up! As you look around the room, you see teachers on their phones, having sidebar conversations, dozing off. . . 

Well some friends and I came up with a solution: an unconference! What is an unconference? (Spell-check does not recognize this as a valid word; it keeps underlining it as misspelled!) An unconference is a set period of time to learn about topics that YOU have an interest in, as well as to build relationships.  Tracy, Retta, Deann and I met a couple of years ago online. I know that sounds so "21st century" but I was drawn to reading their blogs because they sounded like teachers I wish I taught with. From what I read, they were doing deep thinking with their students, creative and outside-the-box activities, plus they shared my philosophy about how children learn best. We share a passion for teaching and desire to continue learning, even though we have taught a total 132 years!  (In other words, we are no spring chickens; LOL) You know we started our podcast, We Teach So Hard a year ago (!) but we also wanted time to learn from each other in person, so the unconference was born!
The most important tip is to find your tribe! Find teachers you want to spend time with, teachers who have similar philosophies about how children learn, teachers who are supportive and will cheer others on, teachers who have an expertise in an area you'd like to learn more about. 
Decide what you want to learn and which friend has the most knowledge to teach it! Tracy is one of THE  most creative people I know so she taught us about integrating math and art, as well as how to create more visual and interactive lessons for students. Retta always focuses on the social and emotional well-being of children; we were excited to learn how to keep kids stress-free and engaged while learning. Deann is an expert on using cooperative groups to raise the rigor of teaching.
Location can be inspiring and beautiful or it can be your local Starbucks with plenty of tables and outlets. We chose Mackinac Island in Michigan as our location since we were planning on spending a few days together. Tracy and Retta are both from Michigan, then Deann and I flew in. Oh my goodness, talk about a charming and breathtakingly beautiful island! There are no motorized vehicles on the island; you walk, bike, or take horse-drawn carriages. This alone set the tone of slowing our pace! One of our requirements when finding a location was that it needed to have a large work area and free wifi. Be sure you know how much everyone wants or can afford to spend. Your unconference does NOT need to be in an exotic location! You can even meet at someone's house, in their living room or backyard! 

I'm sure you guessed the problem with having an unconference in a location with much to do: making sure we actually sat down to teach and learn! Set a work and play schedule then stick to it! We started off our mornings on our own: taking a walk or doing gigong (breathing, body movement, and meditation), or catching up on the news. We scheduled a teaching block every day, as well as time to eat and do some exploring around Mackinac. (Notice the fudge and ice-cream pics below; yes, we made time to eat fudge and ice cream every. single. day. Since Michigan is evidently known for their fudge and ice cream!) 

I'm impressed with how well we stuck to our schedule; we usually worked 3-5 hours per day (in shifts), often in our PJs!  The great thing about planning your own PD is that there is TIME to ask questions, try out what we just learned, get frustrated, ask more questions, and get the support and ideas of all other participants. 
Research has shown that when there is choice and time, there is greater teacher buy-in and greater likelihood to implement new learning. This was by far the BEST professional development I have ever attended! I learned what I needed to learn, deepened my friendships, and had a great vacation!
(from top left, clockwise)

Tune in to episode 47, recorded together on Mackinac Island! Click on image below.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Summer Reads Series: Autism in Heels

Aaaah. . . summer! Oh, how I love summer and having the time to READ!! I hope you've been following along our Summer Reads Series for Teachers! This third book is Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum by Jennifer O'Toole.
Autism in Heels is not a novel like our other Summer Reads series books. It is a fascinating, heart-wrenching, eye-opening memoir written by a brilliant woman who after learning that her 3 children had Aspergers, began to do more research on autism and was herself, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of thirty-five. For the first time in her life, things made sense. Wow. Every teacher has probably had a male student with the label of Aspergers or autism, but it is very rare to have a female student with that same label. Why?

Autism spectrum disorders are currently more commonly diagnosed in males, with a ratio of about 1 female for every 4 males diagnosed. Because autism looks very different in females, most girls and women who fit the profile are not identified. One difficulty is that girls with autism seem to behave in ways that are often considered more socially acceptable for girls as opposed to boys.

Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
I had so many aha moments while reading this book. O'Toole shares example after example of how she managed to look like she was fitting in with the social norms, while feeling like she was an observer on the outside. She was a cheerleader, went to Brown University as an undergraduate, was in a sorority, and earned her Masters degree at Columbia University! She seemed like the model student, yet she was deeply insecure, depressed, insecure, and affected on the inside. As teachers, how observant are we? Or do students fall between the cracks because they appear to "fit in"?

In the past, autism spectrum inventories often asked questions that were gender-biased toward males:  "Does the child perseverate on specific interests such as trains or transportation, schedules or statistics?" "Does the child obsessively line up their cars and trucks?" As O'Cooke refers back to her childhood, she states that girls were often overlooked on these inventories because they usually do not have cars or trucks as toys to line up! However, she used to meticulously set up her Barbies in elaborate tableaus. While girls with autism do have specific interests they perseverate on, they are more likely to choose interests that appear more typical and socially acceptable: animals, music, pop stars. This was fascinating and I couldn't help but think back on so many female students who may have exhibited these Asperger traits, yet they were unidentified! Reading this memoir also made clear, the importance of allowing student choice in how to demonstrate their learning, and the power of student choice in choosing topics to study in-depth. Lacking a natural sense of social cues and not being able to "read people" are also good reasons to teach social-emotional health during morning meetings and throughout the year!

O'Toole's memoir is eye-opening; you won't want to put it down! You will think back on the hundreds of students who may have been in similar situations or who thought differently. She shares her own struggles with an eating disorder and abusive relationships, and how having Aspergers and interpreting the world differently was related to those areas.

She has written books for children, specifically for those with Aspergers; to help them navigate social circles and to teach them to embrace their unique traits!
I've compiled a list of Autism Resources with links for you. Download your copy of the list HERE.

You can listen to We Teach So Hard episode 45 Summer Read Series: Autism in Heels HERE or click on the image below! We discuss takeaways from the book, as well as how learning about gender differences in autism and Aspergers affect students in our classroom. You don't want to miss this episode!
If you haven't already checked out the first two books in our Summer Reads Series for Teachers, you MUST! Click on the images below to read more about each book and for a FREEBIE!
I hope you're loving these books as much as I did! What else are you reading this summer? I'm always looking to add to my TBR (to be read) list!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Find Your Teacher Tribe

Spring is the season of graduations and new beginnings. It's a time for reflection and change. I've been in the classroom for 32 years and still continue to think about how to better my teaching practices. I've teamed up with some amazing teaching buddies to share 7 tried & true teaching tips.
I graduated with my bachelor's degree in December of 1986 and started teaching on an emergency credential in January 1987. I knew NOTHING about teaching or children, yet there I was! I'm sure I must have looked wild-eyed and frantic because the teacher next door, Elizabeth, took me under her wing. Not only did she fill me in on school policies and procedures, but she shared curricular materials, invited me to teaching conferences, and quickly became a sounding board for me. She was so knowledgeable about all things developmentally appropriate for kids. Having someone whom I respected as a teacher and trusted as a colleague is what helped me not only survive, but thrive.

Find your teacher tribe! In those first couple of years, Debbie and Claudia joined our primary team and we quickly became inseparable. We brainstormed together, shared new ideas, ranted and cried together, and again, Elizabeth became our mother hen. We each had our own strengths: creativity, organization, knowledge, attention to detail, enthusiasm. Together we developed fabulous teaching units and lessons, always cheering each other on. We eventually moved on to different schools and districts, but remain close to this day.

Two schools later, Charlena became my grade level partner. Although initially we were hesitant to teach together, we quickly began to share ideas and finish each other's sentences. We always laugh because she is louder than me so she had the reputation of being strict and tough, when in reality, I'm much more the no-nonsense control freak. She tolerates my often crazy ideas and just shakes her head as I take on elaborate projects or try new strategies. She keeps me grounded and more focused. We were both devastated when I moved schools to be closer to home, after 10 years of teaching together.

I wasn't sure how I felt about having a new teaching partner, but I lucked out when Danny and I became the fourth grade team at our new school. For 10 years, our classrooms were next door; we ran ideas by each other, we departmentalized for social studies and science. He relied on my experience (he was brand new when we started teaching together!) and I was so glad for his tech savvy and his genuine desire to help kids think critically.

All this reminiscing to say, my number one tip for surviving teaching is to find your teacher tribe! I would not be the teacher I am today, if it weren't for my teaching besties. Find those you can collaborate with, question pedagogy or latest teaching fads with, go to conferences with, and read the latest professional books with! (Oh and of course, to socialize with!) If you don't have that camaraderie at your school site, then find your tribe online. There are plenty of teacher Facebook groups or find like-minded educators on instagram or Twitter. Having your teacher tribe keeps you balanced, sane, and inspired!

To remind you of the importance of surrounding yourself with a support network, click on one of the quotes below. Download and print; put in a cute frame to keep in your classroom!
Check out the advice from my upper elementary teacher friends. Click on the advice to learn more about their tip for a successful school year and grab free reflection tools, checklists, questionnaires, and more!
Kerry Tracy of Feel-Good Teaching says, "Take the time to reconnect with your calling to get you through the rough patches!"

Tammy of Tarheelstate Teacher says, "At the end of the school year, reflect on your favorite lessons and experiences. Consciously plan to take what worked into the upcoming school year."

Tanya Yero Teaching says “Parent conferences are an excellent way to bridge the gap between school and home, but they can sometimes be a hard discussion to have. Here are six tips that will help you conduct successful, yet truthful parent conferences.”

Brittany Hege of Mix and Math says, “Incorporate call and response chants as part of your classroom management...It will work for you and is fun for students!”

Jeanine Schneider of Think Grow Giggle says, “The time spent building student relationships is the best time you will spend all year!”

Laura Hurley of Reading by Heart says, "Build decoding independence by giving your readers white boards and teaching them to 'operate on' words they want to decode. This tip shows you how."

Kathie Yonemura of Tried & True Teaching Tools says, “Find your teacher tribe!”