Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher: June 2015

Brag Tags in the Classroom

Brag tags are a simple and fun way to reward and motivate students to meet academic, character and behavior goals! Brag tags give me the opportunity to help my kids to feel proud rather than rewarding them with junk from a treasure box. I use them to focus on improvement rather than grades in our classroom.

My students must earn the tags. They are not just given out (with the exception of the first day of school tag). I started by deciding which tags I wanted to offer. I chose some brag tags that students would know exactly what they must do in order to earn the tag such as math facts, reading hours and sight words. I also like to have some character trait and positive behavior tags on hand. I award these based on observations. There is no one magic way to earn it. Even my strugglers can earn these tags because I base them on improvement. 

The first thing that we do on Friday mornings is our brag tag ceremony. Any child who has earned a tag during that week will receive the tag in front of the class on Friday morning. The students will get called up to accept their tag while the class cheers for them. We celebrate their improvement and success together! My students find it motivating and I love how they root for one another when they know someone has been working extra hard to meet their goal.

Not every student receives a tag every week. That is ok! Some goals take longer to achieve. We do not compete with one another, but rather focus on our growth as a team. 

After the ceremony is complete, every student wears their tags for the rest of the day. I want them to feel proud of the work they have done that has allowed them to meet their goals. My kiddos were so excited when the principal came into our classroom on a Friday. They loved showing off their tags! 

I often get asked how I keep track of who has earned which tag. The answer is- I don't! I mean I have spreadsheets for math facts and reading hours, but the other tags are given when I see that the student has made growth. It's ok if they get the same tag more than once! If I notice that a student has really made significant progress towards their goals, I will jot a note to myself to give them a special tag on the following Friday. I am all about keeping it simple.

My students only wear their necklaces on Fridays. This is our brag tag day! The rest of the week, we need somewhere to safely keep their necklaces. Many teachers make a bulletin board and have thumbtacks to hang the necklaces on. I love this idea because the tags are on display all week and are a good reminder to students of the goals they are working towards. This cute display comes from Third Grade in the First State.

However, do to the fact that I share a VERY small classroom, we do not have wall space for 55 student necklaces to be displayed. Our students keep their necklaces in their pencil boxes in their desk. It is not as pretty, but just as effective and efficient. Students still see their necklaces every time they get materials out of their pencil box. I also think this is a great solution for teachers who are departmentalized. 

You will ned to get a necklace for every student. I found that the cheapest way to do this is to get rolls of the chain from Hobby Lobby. Use wire cutters to cut 24 inch length chains. The roll of chain includes the fasteners.  I think you can also find the chains on Amazon and in other craft stores. 

Preparing brag tags is fairly simple. I print my tags on cardstock and then laminate them. 

I cut the tags out and punch a hole in the top of the tag. I use my crop-a-idle (a fancy punch I got from Stamping' Up! years ago) just because it punches so much easier. A regular hole punch works, but you will have to use more muscles. Cutting and punching brag tags is a simple job that you could send home for parent volunteers! Or use the summer to prep the tags you will use for the entire year and then you won't have to think about it again!

Brag tags can be stored in numerous ways. Some teachers use tool boxes with small drawers. I didn't have room for this, so I went searching for the perfect storage. I found this tub at JoAnn's.  I have had other tell me that the same container can ben found at Michaels and Hobby Lobby.

It's perfect! The compartments inside are the perfect size for my tags and I can fit a ton of tags in  it because it has compartments on the top and then you close the lid, flip the container over and there is another set of compartments! Now all of our tags are organized and easy to see in a case that is very portable.

Would you like to see a video about how I use brag tags in the classroom? Click HERE.

Do you teach in the upper grades? Brag tags are for big kids too! Check out THIS blog post!

If you are just getting started with brag tags and need some tags, I have several sets in my store. Just click on the picture.

Monday Made It- Burlap Wreath and Math Centers

Time for my favorite summer linky! I am currently enjoying a weekend getaway in the mountains so you may see some green trees in the background!

I am not redoing my entire classroom, but I still wanted to add some new elements to keep it fresh and fun for me and my students! I am not allowed to decorate my classroom door due to fire code restrictions. So instead, I thought it would be nice to have a wreath on my door. I love all the burlap wreathes on Pinterest, but I wanted to add some of my classroom colors- black, white, green.

Here are the supplies you will need. (Not pictured: wire, scissors and wire cutter) I got the wreath frame and burlap at Walmart. I got the ribbon, tulle and wooden letter at Jonann's. 

I used THIS tutorial for the burlap portion of the wreath. After the burlap was complete, I cut 1 foot pieces of ribbon and tulle. I just pulled them through from the back to the front of the wreath. They are not tied on. So if someone were to walk up to my wreath and pull on the ribbon, the pieces wold come out. But I can't imagine anyone doing that and this saved me lots of money on ribbon!

The letter was attached using wire. I didn't want the wire to show so I added a couple of nails to the back of the letter and wrapped the wire around the nails. Staples would have worked, but we could find a staple gun at the cabin we are staying in.

I think this is a fun and welcoming addition to my classroom!

I share a classroom, but I am lucky that both of our last names start with an S!
 I go back to school in 2 1/2 weeks. YIKES! I spent some time this week making back to school math centers for my new third graders. They are perfect for teaching students how math rotations will work in your classroom.

I have all of my centers printed and laminated. You can click on any of the pictures to check out the centers in my store.

While driving up to the mountains, I gave a product a HUGE facelift. This product was one of my first creations and is in my top five for sales. But it was in need of a major overhaul!

I gave this fun first day of school kit new clip art, borders and fonts. I also added four new activities! Click on the picture to check it out in my store.

Swag Bag Giveaway!

I had no idea when I started creating and blogging just how many friends I would make. Some are online friends that I have never REALLY met and others are teachers and bloggers from right here in Arizona. Last week I attended the Arizona Blogger Brunch and Bubbly meet up hosted by Ashlyn from The Creative Classroom. She did an amazing job decorating and planning! 

We even got to talk to Amy from TpT on a conference call! She was so bubbly and happy to answer all of our TpT and conference related questions.

Ashlyn also did an amazing job of getting sponsors to donate amazing products for swag bags for everyone!

Doesn't look awesome?!! Do you want to hear the GOOD news? We have three extra swag bags that we are GIVING AWAY!!! Make sure to sign up for your chance to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Put Away the Red Pens!

Chapter four of Learn Like a Pirate tackles one of my favorite subjects to preach about. Seriously, I was just telling my husband (who really doesn't care but pretends to when necessary) a week ago, that teachers spend WAY too much time grading! I don't take grading home. EVER. There are far better ways to assess your students' skills and comprehension that grading  stacks of worksheets. And frankly, I have far better things to do with my time than grade those stacks of papers. (Like eat tacos in front of the TV.)

I always aim to create a classroom culture where every student is growing and feels successful. They won't all start at the same place and they won't all end at the same place. But as long as they are improving, I am one happy teacher! I think that when teachers focus on grades, there are a couple of negative consequences. First, students (and parents) need the grade to validate the work. Students don't just feel proud because they know they did their best. They need to see the A on top. Heck, some kids are upset if they don't see the + after the A. Those struggling students will always feel inadequate. Even when they did their best and made significant growth, they feel disappointed by the grade at the top of the paper. The grade quickly starts to determine the value of the student rather than the effort and growth that went into the work. Another consequence of a grade focused classroom is that it puts a ceiling on the learning of our highest achievers. They just always get 100%. Since they got everything correct, they are not pushed to improve or work harder next time. Can't everyone improve in some way? Couldn't they learn, if pushed, to go deeper? 

Solarz writes about many different assessment strategies that I already use in my classroom. He also gave me some great ideas to continue growing as an instructor.

Solar writes, "Skills and comprehension can be best assessed through observations while students are working." YES!!! Observation is the number one way that I assess my students' understanding. While students are working collaboratively or independently, I walk the room. I listen to students talk. I look over their shoulders at what they have written. I ask questions to get them to explain their thinking or challenge them to dig deeper. I make check marks on my mastery checklist when I see proof that students have mastered various skills and make notes about students who are struggling and may need some intervention. This type of assessment happens EVERY day in my classroom. Multiple times per day! And it never involves the assigning of a grade.

I recently blogged about my use of interactive notebooks. You can read the post HERE. I wrote that one of the questions I receive most often about my interactive notebooks is, "How do you assess them? Isn't it a pain to bring all of the notebooks home with you?" I never bring notebooks home with me! Who has time for that? I use my notebooks during guided math and reading groups. Students are completing the activities at the back table while I observe. I make checks in my mastery checklist, question students to encourage them to teach me and go deeper in their understanding and I offer invention for students who need it. When the students leave the back table, I am done with that assessment. They don't need to turn in their notebooks and I don't need to lug them home with me. I have learned tons about my kiddos but never assigned a grade. Instead I used the observation assessment as a tool to provide the necessary instruction for individual students and pushed, even my high achiever, to improve. In my opinion, this is a much more valuable way to use assessment!

Solarz writes about a revelation that he had. Students were receiving compliments on their work from their teacher and their peers, but criticism was only coming from the teacher. Students are not naturally good at giving or taking constructive criticism from peers. In his book, Solarz goes into great detail about how he taught his students to give feedback on projects and writing. He calls this feedback a quality booster. Students are helping one another to improve the quality of their work. When you have a classroom of  learners who are focused on improvement, they are happy to be given ideas that help them to improve on their work.

Students are taught three different steps:
  1. Start by telling them that you have a quality booster for them. This helps students to be prepared for what is coming and be able to handle the criticism better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment. If a student feels that their work is appreciated, they are so much more willing to accept the criticism!
  3. Write your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. When you write the suggestion as a statement, you sound like a know it all or better than them. When you phase it as a question, it sounds like there is more than one way to do it, but you are just giving an idea. So instead of telling them what to change, students can ask questions like, "Would it be clearer if.... I wonder if it would sound better is.....
My student solicit feedback from their peers often, but I feel that teaching it the way that Solarz has outlined would make the practice even more meaningful to my students.

I made some posters to help remind my students about the steps to take to write a quality booster. You can download them for free by clicking on the picture.

Again, students are not given a grade. They are just focused on improving what they have done no matter what level they started on.

We can learn so much about our students' understanding by asking them to reflect on the things they understand and questions that they still have. Solarz uses a student blog for his student reflections.

I use Friday journals of the same purpose. We don't have much technology in the classroom, so paper and pencil just works best for us. I have blogged about Friday journals before. You can read the post HERE and grab a freebie.

Every Friday, students are given time to write a letter to their parents. They write about something they learned during the week. When students are asked to reflect on their own learning, it makes the learning more concrete. Students are more likely to remember it when they have been asked to reflect, think and write about it. Throughout the year, I can challenge them to dig deeper with their journal entries. Parents write back and often their questions will also help the students to make deeper connections. Solarz writes, "I'm not just asking my students to learn concepts temporarily or remember things for a test. I'm asking them to internalize information and skills so they can use them for the rest of their lives." 

I know what you are thinking."Jamie, all of this is fine and dandy, but I am required to give grades." I know. I am required to give grades as well. Parents and administrators need to see grades. I can't get around it. I put the fewest number of grades into the gradebook that I can get away with. These grades include mid and end of unit math tests, spelling tests and some centers activities. I also love to give participation points. This works great for those activities that I truly assessed through observations and don't have a letter grade for. 

The important thing is that I never make a big stink about grades and students are not given awards for their grades. Instead, I award students for growing, working hard, participating and being willing to make mistakes.

How do you help to keep the focus on improvement rather than grades?