Thursday, June 7, 2018

7 Ways to Get to Know Your Students

As teachers, we know the importance of building relationships with our students. How can we teach them unless we know them? They have to trust us, and it's impossible to trust someone who doesn't know who we truly are.

As I make plans for this upcoming school year, where we will be blending together four different, diverse schools, I know that building meaningful relationships with my students will be a key to making this a smooth transition.  Over the years, I've honed my practices to things where I felt everyone could be successful and no one would be embarrassed. While this includes our ELLs and ExEd students, it's also important to remember that for some of our students, time away from school is a nightmare. Writing prompts asking them to share about their summer break shines a spotlight on the fact that they may have spent the time living horrors they don't want their peers to know about. 


With that in mind, here are my top 7 ways I use to get to know my students.


  1. Student Survey & Parent Survey: On the first day of school, I present my students with the opportunity to answer a few basic questions about themselves. It's similar to an interest inventory, but I also include things like their learning preference and favorite school memory to provide me a peek into their perceptions and expectations for learning. Also, I send home a "Welcome to Sixth Grade Letter" inviting parents to take a Parent Survey. Who knows the students better than their parents who have been with them for the duration of their lives? Both of these are simple Google Forms that do not take much time for them to complete. Typically, I get almost 100% of my students to complete their form, and I usually get about two-thirds from the parents. This provides me with valuable insight to begin shaping my instructional strategies from day one.
  2. Self-sculptures & Name Game: On the second day of school, students find Play-Doh waiting
    To watch visit http://bit.ly/NameGame17
    for them at their seats. They are challenged to create a sculpture that represents who they are within seven minutes (I've found that five is too short, and ten is too long). Then we take turns sharing our sculpture and naming each of the people who went before them sharing what they sculpted and how it represents that person. I make sure that I also sculpt something because I want them to know that we are all a part of this learning community together. I share with my students that learning names is VERY challenging for me, but that I am going to challenge myself to know all 100 of my students' names by the end of the day. I strategical position students for when they take their turn based on the information I collected from the surveys from day one. I take a turn periodically throughout the activity so that students get to hear the names and information repeatedly. It's funny, students periodically bring up the different things they learned about each other throughout the school year. (Check out this video where my turn was captured on Twitter by one of our district admins last year.)
  3. True Colors Test: Five years ago, our sixth-grade team went through an intensive journey of self-understanding and characteristics of how to communicate effectively with one another. We took several researched-based personality assessments. Through those conversations, we came to the conclusion that our students needed to be empowered with this knowledge about themselves, their peers, and their teachers. About a week into school, all sixth-grade students take the True Colors personality test. Once they have the results, we discuss learning and interpersonal communication strategies they can use to advocate for themselves as well as effectively communicate and collaborate with one another. This year, the entire school participated, and students received rubber wristbands to identify their True Color. As their teacher, it gave me pertinent information on how best to reach each student and the types of challenges where they would thrive.
  4. Passion Blog Post: Our first assignment is for students to write about one of their passions. They are challenged with choosing something that most people may not know about them. It can be a hobby, a favorite, or something they collect. As we move through the writing process, I meet with each student one-on-one. This gives me the opportunity to have an individual conversation with each student on a topic that they chose and that they love. Not only do I get to know some academic strengths and weakness as well as one of their personal interests, I have the opportunity to work at strengthening our relationship and building trust.
  5. Tagxedo Dots: Every year, my students participate in International Dot Day, a day devoted to focusing on how students can make a mark on the world based on Peter H. Reynolds' book The Dot (see this).  One of the activities in which each of my students engages is to create a word cloud comprised of 40+ words that describe her/him. I encourage them to dig deeply into their unique qualities. They print these out in the shape of a dot using Tagxedo and we hang these up around the room for the entire year. It's a piece of them that always stays in our learning environment. Because students have been with me for about a month, they feel more comfortable opening up and sharing pieces of who they are through these dot word clouds, which provides me a different look into the unique individuals they each are.
  6. Teacher Feedback: If you want to know how well you are reaching students, why not ask them? Four times a year, I ask my students to write me a letter, blog post, or email telling me what I've done as their teacher to help them find success. I also ask them to share some strategies, tools or activities I could implement to further support them as a learner. I encourage honesty; I let them know that I need their honesty to become the best teacher for each individual. Yes, sometimes you need a thick skin. Yes, sometimes you need a tissue because you laugh so hard you cry. Ultimately, I've found these messages from my learners to be the biggest catalyst for my professional growth.
  7. Outside Events: Our learners need to know that we care about them as individuals. This stretches beyond the classroom walls and dedicated school hours. They need to see us at their community theatre and dance productions. They want us to cheer them on at athletic events and competitions.  For many of our learners, we may be the only person in their lives who truly care about what happens to them. And while it's not possible to attend everything, our learners need to see that our concern for them is truly genuine and not limited to a few moments during one part of their lifelong journey.

What have you found is an effective way to get to know your students? Do you have a favorite activity or strategy that you use? I'd love to grow my "Get to Know You" repertoire. Be sure to leave a comment below or hit me on Twitter (@JulieDRamsay) or on my Facebook page.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Using a House System to Build Community

Teaching in middle school can be tricky. Students still want to get prizes, stickers, and wear silly costumes, but they also want to be treated as a grown-up. They become hyper-aware of their peer's opinions; the interactions between classes can often resemble a Greek tragedy (at least in their estimation). So as their teachers, what can we do to provide each student with an advocate since the middle-level learner will rarely ask for help?

This is the question that the faculty and staff at Rock Quarry Middle School began asking over three years ago. We had tried out different advisory models and had mediocre success. Several of us had done some reading and attended some professional development sessions on building community, and we discovered the potential of creating a  house system...yes, like the one in Harry Potter series. Being a HUGE HP fan (Go, Gryffindor!), this really appealed to me as we dug into the nitty-gritty of what this would look like for our learners. A House System would give every single student a group where they belonged and an advocate that would see them in a small "family group" every week. Furthermore, it would allow us to put emphasis on the areas where we needed to grow (PBIS, character education, service learning, growth mindset, etc.) while still putting students in the driver's seat.


After many planning sessions, for this to become successful, we knew that we had to go BIG to get buy-in from the faculty and students. We created a list of roles that each teacher could fill in his/her house and each teacher could apply for those roles. The teachers and faculty were sorted first with a big surprise during class with balloons in their new house colors to announce their house. This also built anticipation for the students who would be sorted a few days later.

Our mascot is a Jaguar. When it came time to choose names for our houses, I found a listing of the different subspecies of Jaguars. Our administrator, Lynda Ingram, coined the phrase: Virtus in Unum Pulsatio (Strength in One Pulse). While students, faculty, and staff would all be a part of one of our eight houses, we wanted the focus to be that we are all part of one community.

So what do we do for our sorting ceremony? While having a sorting hat would have been fun, we are not Hogwarts. We are the House of Jags. We make it a BIG production. We have an enormous sorting basket that glows. I composed a sorting poem that Mrs. Ingram reads, and we have sounds of jungle music playing to set the stage. The first year, all of the students were sorted. Now, each new set of 6th graders are sorted about a month into the school year.

Students earn house points for anything from random acts of kindness, good citizenship, reaching academic goals, or classroom successes. They can also earn house points for participating in school clubs or events like Scholars Bowl, Battle of the Books, Geography Bee, Spelling Bee, Robotics Club, Canstruction, All-State Band/Strings/Choir, or one of our many athletic teams. We want to put an emphasis on being an active part of the community and representing RQMS outside of the school walls. So, students can earn house points for things like being in a community theatre production, a community athletic team, or Girl or Boy Scouts. And because we work hard to develop empathy in our middle school students, they also earn house points for participating in any service-related activities.

We meet weekly in family meetings to engage in activities and lessons that empower students to build a relationship with their housemates and their house leader (who becomes their advocate) while also developing characteristics and tools to become a stronger version of themselves. Whole houses typically meet quarterly and YES...we do have House Games where houses can earn additional house points while going head-to-head in games (sometimes they are minute-to-win-it games; sometimes they are games like Ultimate Frisbee, Ga-Ga Ball, or Kickball). At our annual Awards Day, the House Cup is awarded and my students go into that program anxiously awaiting that final announcement. (Go, Veracrucis!)

A House System. Does it work? Absolutely. Students' school spirit and morale are high. The number of behavior reports has dropped significantly. Bullying reports have drastically declined. Our middle school students are more active in the community. However, like any new practice, each journey requires ongoing reflection and adaptation to meet the needs of our students. But, when you walk down the halls and you see housemates throw up their house hand signal or do their secret handshake, you know that you've hit upon something that's truly worth the journey.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Our Top 10 Book Series for Middle School

It's very common for other teachers or parents to ask for reading recommendations for their middle school student(s). While I could give them a list that could keep most readers busy for months on end, I wondered what my readers would recommend...so I asked them. Last week, I posted A Few of Our Favorite Reads, but I discovered that books that are in a series are very high on their list. As a reader this makes sense. When we connect with characters, we want to continue on their journey to see how things end up in the end. We feel like they've become a part of our lives.

One thing for us to remember is no one book is a perfect fit for every student. We must know our students to know what may fit for them. Some common denominators when recommending books is finding those that are both addictive (moves at a pace that will keep the attention of the middle school reader) and appropriate (in content and readiness). 

So here is my students' list (in no particular order) of their top ten book series for middle grades readers: 

  1. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
  2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  3. The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
  4. The Babysitter's Club (graphic novel series) by Ann M. Martin (author) and Raina Telgemeier (illustrator)
  5. The Blackthorn Key series by Kevin Sands
  6. Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell
  7. A Tale Dark and Grimm (Grimm Series) by Adam Gidwitz
  8. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
  9. Legend series by Marie Lu
  10. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Would this have been the exact list that I would have put together? Probably not. There would have been a couple on this list that may have been different. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. We want our students to have choice and a voice in their reading selections. Reading selection is a very personal decision. As their teachers, we need to provide them with plenty of options (and guidance) in selecting their next great read.  This list definitely showed me some places where I need to build my classroom library.

What are your middle grades students reading now? What's the book (or series) that you cannot keep on your shelves?

If you are looking for a way to give students voice and choice in their reading and sharing, check out this post: Flipping for Book Chats with Flipgrid.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Flipping for Book Chats with Flipgrid

Here are few things we know about middle school students and reading:

  • Students want choice and voice.
  • A recommendation from a peer typically outweighs one from a teacher.
  • Interest can trump ability.
  • Readers need direction when finding the right read for themselves.
  • Learners become stronger readers by spending time reading.
So as teachers how do we provide them with all of those opportunities while not losing the focus of supporting students on proving mastery of reading standards and skills? Over the last several years, we have incorporated several different practices in order to find the perfect blending of best literacy practices and student choice (which one could argue is a best practice).

On the first day of school, students decorate an index card with words and images that represent them as an individual. I collect these to use as equity cards with our Free Reading Fri-Yay celebration each week. We choose seven to eight different cards each week; those students lead a quick one- to two-minute book chat selling their book to their classmates and making recommendations. Their classmates can add new titles to the "Must Read List" that is in their ELA composition notebook. As their teacher, it gives me insight into reading preferences, learning styles, challenges, and interests which I can document on the back of the card to help drive my instruction and support my unique readers.

While this process was working to a degree, I noticed that students were struggling with book chats. They would either get caught up in the speaking portion of the chat and forget the important aspects of the book they were promoting or they would get caught up in the details of the book and they would forget about the speaking skills we had been developing. Also, I noticed that my readers were also forgetting to write down their next great read on their list and would often abandon selecting a book at all.

As I was searching for a way to meet all these challenges, I came across Flipgrid. With Flipgrid, I could create a grid with a separate topic for each class. Every two weeks, instead of speaking their book chats live in front of the class, they would record it as a video on Flipgrid. We created a list of expectations:

  • each chat could be up to 90 seconds long
  • chat books that we had not read in class or that had not been chatted numerous times
  • include a summary that convinces others to read that book
  • avoid big spoilers
  • recommend who would enjoy that book

What is great about Flipgrid is that students can access it on any device from a desktop to a smartphone.  They can record their video as many times as they would like. Because they were limited to 90 seconds, my learners knew they had to write out their book chat and practice it in order to get all the important details within the short time limit.

I set the topics to need my approval before they went live to our grid. What I saw from my students was amazing. The quality of their speaking and the books that they chose to share drastically inclined. Their personalities blossomed. Although these book chats were only due every other week, I began having students post multiple chats a week to share with their peers. (Of course, it didn't hurt that they were seeing how many views and likes they were accumulating.) And while giving students a voice helped every student grow, I noticed the biggest difference with my ELL, ExEd students, and struggling readers. They were engaged in book chats at a new level; they had the time to think, practice, and share their reading with their peers because it removed some of the obstacles that they face in the classroom.

Student-voice is a powerful thing...and with Flipgrid, I was able to deepen their voice as readers and give them an authentic audience to share their reading. If you haven't ever used Flipgrid, check it out. Your students will thank you for it!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

These are a Few of Our Favorite Reads

It's very common for another teacher to ask for my recommendations of books to put in front of their readers. And while I could talk about literature for my middle-level readers for H O U R S, I decided it was time for me to ask my students for their recommendations to see how closely their favs matched my perception of their recommended reading. I had students nominate and vote on their favorite book this year. Some of them were expected, others were a surprise.


One thing to remember is that as the teacher, it is our responsibility to know our students and what they are ready to tackle. Some common denominators when recommending books is finding those that are both addictive (moves at a pace that will keep the attention of the reader) and appropriate (in content and readiness). We need to try to remember that not every book is the perfect fit for every child at every point in their lives.

Below you will find their top ten recommended books (a following post will list their top ten book series).
  1. Ghost by Jason Reynolds
  2. Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
  3. Schooled by Gordon Korman
  4. Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  5. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
  6. Restart by Gordon Korman
  7. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle
  8. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  9. Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson 
  10. Posted by John David Anderson
Now I realize that should I have asked this question last week or next week, this list might look very different, but it really gave me some insight into what my readers were loving at that time and areas that I need to build up in our classroom library.

So I'm interested. Are your students reading some of these same titles? What are some of their favorites?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Turning Field Trips into Learning Experiences for ALL Students (those going and those staying at school)

I love experiential learning. It's amazing to see students experience new things, make new connections, and learn about the world beyond our classroom walls all by taking a visit to another place. For many of us, field trips bring to mind happy memories of riding on a bus, talking with friends, eating special sack lunches and seeing new things.

However, as educators, we need to stop and think about the students who are NOT attending the field trip. By and large, these students are not attending field trips because of a decision made for them by their parent or guardian. They dread the impending trip expecting to be left with the infamous "sub work" for those school days. Don't these students deserve to have these rich learning experiences too?

As their teachers, what can we do to connect the learning taking place away from the campus and make it meaningful for ALL of the students?

This year, our sixth-grade team decided to re-evaluate our practices involving field trips for all of our students, those attending our three-day trip to New Orleans and those who would be remaining at school for those three days. Before the trip transpired, students were placed in four-five member teams. Each team would be comprised of students who were going and those who were staying at what we dubbed "Camp Awesome." Learners were given a list of learning expectations for both groups of students. They were each tasked with the responsibility to document their learning in four different areas (these areas came from the learning standards that would be mastered on the field trip). Student teams knew that once the field trip and Camp Awesome were concluded, they would be responsible for creating a collaborative project that demonstrated their combined learning from different experiences.

As one of the Camp Awesome teachers, we looked closely at the standards that students would be mastering on the field trip and then designed interactive, hands-on activities for each of those days at school. We intentionally chose different types of activities so that the members of the team could share different experiences with one another.

The students on the field trip would be experiencing the history and culture of New Orleans through tours, a jazz riverboat ride, and a Creole cooking class where they made jambalaya and bread pudding. At Camp Awesome, students completed a Canvas module filled with interactive sites that walked them through the history of New Orleans and Mobile, mardi gras traditions, and the evolution of the music in that region. Additionally, they experienced the music, created masks for their own krewe, and made (and tasted) Po' Boys, pecan pralines, and beignets.


The field trip students were also traveling to the World War 2 Museum. So, at Camp Awesome, students participated in a WebQuest to learn about the Navajo Code Talkers and the British Code Breakers led by Alan Turing. Then they had the opportunity to use some of their knowledge to navigate through a series of puzzles and problems in an adapted Breakout Edu game called Decoding the War. If they successfully completed the breakout, cracked the enigma code and stopped Hitler, they had their own VE celebration complete with confetti poppers.


While on the trip, students experienced a touch lab at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, visited the Aquarium of the Americas, the Audobon Zoo, the Insectarium, and went on a swamp tour. At Camp Awesome, students got to examine specimens collected by one of our science teachers. We also arranged for the biology department from the University of Alabama to come out to do a hands-on presentation bringing a collection of live reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids for the students.

At school, we were also able to squeeze in a webinar with National Hurricane Scientists and NOAA personnel and some other fun, content-specific learning experiences. (We were hoping to take the students on a Google Expedition of the beach and Normandy and Pearl Harbor, but we ran out of time.)

Throughout those three days, the students at Camp Awesome were, well, awesome. They brought devices to take photos of their learning. They created a Google document that they could share with their other teammates in order to take collaborative notes. Every single day, students thanked us for planning such an amazing day. If their parents came to check them out, they begged to be brought back to school if there was still classtime left. And as a side note, can you guess how many behavior challenges we had? If you guessed zero, you would be correct.

At the conclusion of the New Orleans field trip and Camp Awesome, the teams were given time to work together in science and social studies to complete their collaborative learning project to demonstrate their mastery of standards. On the due date, the teams were each assigned to a teacher to present their project (that meant each teacher saw and assessed 6-8 presentations). Some projects were elaborate pop-up scrapbooks, others were published books, while others were different types of digital presentations. When asked, the students could explain their learning, sometimes reminding a student of something they had taught them.

Due to the overwhelming success of this endeavor, my mind is whirring in other ways we can connect similar yet different learning experiences to enhance and empower ALL students in meaningful and authentic ways. The days of leaving work packets or showing endless movies to watch should be over. Let's take the time to deeply look into how we can make the most of every minute we have with our learners, whether they are in our classrooms or on a field trip. Because that is what each and every one of them deserves.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Recharging Throughout the School Year

By a show of hands, how many of you are tired...maybe even exhausted? That's a very common sentiment among those in the teaching profession. We strive to know each of our students and their families. We are constantly growing our practice. We collect and evaluate data and make constant adjustments to our lessons. We work to build a strong home and community relationships to strengthen the world in which our students are living. This doesn't even account for lesson planning, grading, horizontal or vertical team/department planning, ongoing parent communications, district-wide PD, IEPs, RtI meetings, 504s, parent-teacher conferences, data meetings, faculty meetings, PTA meetings, board meetings, and the miscellaneous paperwork that accompanies much of this. Anyone else exhausted just from reading this? (By the way, this doesn't even include all of our family, church, or community commitments.)

As classroom teachers, we are on the frontline empowering our students to become equipped to take on the world outside our classroom walls. We are helping them reach their goals and discover new avenues of learning for future goals. Most of the teachers I know LOVE their chosen profession. However, what happens when we get so run-down that we become sick or we fall into a negative frame of mind? Can we be the one that our learners (or our family) need?

How many times have we heard friends or family tell us to reduce stress? As one who is often burning my candle at both ends, I am very guilty of running myself into the ground.  So about a year and a half ago, I began researching simple ways that we can take time to recharge because I needed to find some concrete ways to do that myself. Here are some of the things that I've found particularly useful.

Get outside. There are copious amounts of research that point to the health benefits of being outside, whether it's taking a stroll, walking your canine companion, enjoying a meal in the outdoors, or taking on a more strenuous outdoor adventure. Fresh air, the sounds of nature, the scents of flowers blooming. Being outdoors can really positively impact your frame of mind. About a year and a half ago, we started finding great places to go and hike. Occasionally, we would paddle on one of the rivers or lakes in our area. When we began, I found two apps to be very useful as a jumping off point, Outbound and AllTrails (both also have a web presence with an online community). I've really found that by taking some time outside really helps me find some mental and physical balance after a challenging day or week. (If you follow me on Instagram, this one isn't a surprise.)

Disconnect from social media. Noise. It's everywhere, especially when you are part of the connected digital age in which we live. Yes, I've written about and spoken about the power of being connected to grow as a community of educators. Some of the most significant professional learning that I've had has come from my reading, connecting and sharing with other educators through social media. However, have you ever stopped and taken a look at the amount of time that we spend diving into our feeds? When we sit down for a minute, we immediately open an app and start filling our minds with the noise of constant conversations. Our brains need to take a break. We need time to think, process, and reflect. I found myself struggling to go to sleep at night. The to-do lists and noise from the day would come rushing in. I found that by putting down social media at a designated time in the evening and on the weekend, my sleep quality and my mental well-being has improved.

Say "No." Many of us find this one difficult. There are so many worthwhile endeavors out there. Yet, we are living with a finite amount of time each day. When we say "yes" to one thing, we are also saying "no" to something else. This is where we need to take time and reflect on our priorities and goals. If they aren't written down somewhere, before saying "yes" again, take a minute to write them down. While that new opportunity may be important, does it align with our professional goals for this school year? Will it take away time from other places where you have already make commitments? Could it take precious time away from those that you love and care about?  While this new opportunity may be a "no" for yourself, you could turn it into a "yes" by paying it forward to provide an opportunity for a young teacher to become involved and begin developing leadership skills.


Be creative. As educators, we know the benefit of providing students the opportunity to be creative. So why is it that we don't do this for ourselves? I know, we are busy, but we are worth the time. Set aside a few minutes each day or a larger block of time once or twice a week to pursue something that is creative. When I started doing this, I found myself working on creating things for my students and while it was useful, it wasn't really the point. We each need to pursue something that helps us develop individually. We don't have to be great at it, but we do need to enjoy it. About a year ago, I began playing with journaling and sketch-noting. I'm not particularly good at it (yet), but I've enjoyed practicing different styles of hand-lettering, borders, and doodling. It's a place for me to focus on verses or quotes that are meaningful to me, a way to set goals, and a way to document the fun things going on in my life. While journaling might not interest you, find something that you can pursue that lets the creative juices flow.

Create an oasis. While we hear this a lot on design shows, there is a thought that appeals to many of us. We want an escape, a mini-vacay, to connect with others face-to-face or with ourselves in the hurry-scurry lives we live. This doesn't have to be as big as room makeover. An oasis can be your favorite comfy chair where you can curl up and read, a front porch where you can listen to the sounds around you and write or sketch, an outdoor eating area where you can enjoy a meal with someone else, or a kitschy backyard oasis complete with an inflatable pool and plastic flamingos. I read one time that we should live a life where we don't feel the need to escape it by going somewhere else. We took that to heart and looked at the things that we enjoy when going on vacation and created little getaway nooks so we could enjoy dining alfresco or soaking up some vitamin D while reading a great book from the comfort of our own home.

While this isn't an extensive list, these are the specific ways that I have found to recharge my battery throughout a busy school year. Very little money was spent on any of the things mentioned above because it's more about shifting a mindset. Of course, I'm sure eating healthy food and exercising regularly wouldn't hurt either. I'd love to hear how you find ways to recharge.