Saturday, August 25, 2018

Set Yourself Up for Success by Starting Home Visits

Typically, when you start the school year, you don’t know your students very well. During those first few weeks, you get somewhat of an idea of who your students are, especially students who have behavior challenges. At that point in time, you contact the parent of the student who is not meeting expectations, set up a meeting, and your first interaction with that parent is for negative reasons. Then, you’ve started the year on a less than positive note, which tends to set the tone for the entire year. This can be very problematic because, as educators, parents need to be our allies. We MUST work together as partners, to help our students be successful.

So, instead of having the scenario above happen to you, I highly recommend starting your year on a positive note by doing home visits. You may be thinking, “What the heck is a home visit?” A home visit is where you as the teacher go over to a student’s home before the school year starts to get to know them and their family. As you’re reading this, you may think I’m crazy, but hear me out. I have done home visits the last three years and have had a significantly easier first day and year because of it. I have built positive relationships right off the bat, which we know is key to getting parents and students to buy in.

If you’re still reading this, which I hope you are, let me tell you all the things I’ve learned over the past few years with home visits. I will say though, I’m not an expert on this. I am sure there are far wiser people than me who may tell you I’ve been doing things wrong. With that being said, we are all different and have to do what works best for us.

I start out by creating a schedule of a week or two weeks when I will start my home visits. Now, I do home visits from about 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. I also don’t have kids and can do that. I cannot reiterate the fact that you must do what works best for you. I also do not have back to back home visits during that time. I just want to accommodate those parents who work or prefer that both parents are at the home visit. I schedule my blocks on my schedule in 30-minute increments. I attempt to stay at a home for 15-20 minutes, but I do love to talk, so I must really be careful. If you think you’ll need more time, schedule more time. It also depends on how far apart the homes in your boundaries are. So, keep that in mind.

Next, I make myself a sheet that lists the student, the parent’s names (you don’t want to call a parent by Mrs. Smith, when her name is actually Mrs. Downey, don’t ask me how I know that), their address, phone number(s), a spot to mark if they answered, if you left a message and need to call back, and a spot for notes. I then call every parent and make an appointment for a home visit with them. My colleagues have said that I’m insane for doing it this way and should have used Sign Up Genius to save time. Again, you must do what’s best for you. I just like to call beforehand.

When I call the parents, I say something like, “Hi, this is Brynn Westwood from _____________ Elementary. I am so excited to have so and so in my class this year. Before school starts, I’d like to come meet with you and so and so to get to know you better before the upcoming year. Would that be okay with you?” I then set up the day and time. Also, make sure you specify what school you are calling from. I had one year when I didn’t. I showed up at a house I thought was my student’s. No one answered the door. I finally called the parent. She said they had moved and thought I was the teacher from the new school and they were waiting for me. I felt pretty silly and was grateful the person whose house I was at didn’t answer.

Once all my home visits are set up, I create a little treat and label for my students. I’ve done suckers and written something like “Thanks for letting me POP in.” This year, I went to a local popcorn shop and bought a variety of flavors of popcorn and made a similar tag. I like to leave my students with a treat. I want them to be excited about school and about my visit.

On the day of the home visit, I make sure to dress my best. This is the parent’s and student’s first impression of me, so I put on a dressy outfit. I make sure I arrive right on time (call ahead if you’re going to be late for any reason). After shaking the parent’s and student’s hands and introducing myself, I immediately ask if they’d like me to take off my shoes. I then look for something to compliment in their home. I ask the students about their summer, what they like to do, and other questions that help me get to know them. I also ask the parent(s) if they have any questions for me or if there’s anything they’d like me to know going into the school year. I conclude my visit by giving the student a treat and then head to my next visit. Again, you must keep track of your time, so you may want to keep your watch or phone handy.

Now, I will admit, not all parents call me back. I usually call twice, and then let it go. I don’t want to show up at someone’s home and offend them because this is something that’s meant to be fun and positive.

I’ve had many questions about home visits, so I want to answer those next.

I do not get paid to do home visits. This is something I do on my own time. I am also not required to do them. It is something I’ve been doing, and other teachers at my school started this year too. Not everyone does it, it’s something I’ve had success with and will continue to do.

I’ve had people ask about safety (mainly my husband, actually). I would recommend giving a copy of your home visit schedule to your principal or secretary. This way, if something happened to you, they’d know who to check with. I’ve only had one experience where I wished I’d taken someone with me, but other than that, everything has been great.

I’ve also been asked what I do if the home isn’t clean. People, as I said this earlier, this is meant to be something positive. Who cares if a home isn’t clean. Let’s be real, my house during the school year is a complete disaster!

I was asked what parents think of the home visits. Parents LOVE the idea of getting to sit down one on one with their child’s teacher. This RARELY happens except for negative reasons or for a brief time during parent teacher conferences. At my school, we hold back to school night. I do not use my home visits as a time to explain  the same information I share at back to school night. It is more for building relationships, not for sharing rules, expectations, and procedures, although I am always happy to answer anything during home visits.

The students also love it. Especially the students who have anxiety about coming to school. On a home visit this year, I had a student set out cookies, fruit, homemade lemonade, and a sign that said “Welcome Mrs. Westwood!” It was AWESOME!

Home visits start the year out right and seriously make a difference. If you’re thinking of starting home visits, do it! If you have any questions, please let me know, and I’ll help you in any way I can! 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How to Easily Establish a Genuine Parent-Teacher Relationship

Dear Parent,

As your child’s teacher, I spend almost eight hours with him/her, five days a week. I listen to their stories about how they lost their tooth, how their dog died, or how they mastered the next level on their video game. I tie their shoes, fix their owies, and help them bundle up before embracing the cold. I LOVE YOUR CHILD and want what’s best for them, just like you do.

From the time your child sets foot in my classroom to the moment they leave I am instilling in them life skills as well as academics. We are respectful. We are kind to one another. Every comment made is valued despite its relevance.

Please know that I went into education because I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t go into education because I “hate children” or want to “make your lives miserable.” I did not go into education to be rich and famous. I did not go into education because I couldn’t do anything else. I went into education because I want to change the world and shape the leaders of the future.

Just because I don’t have children does not mean I’m not loving or nurturing. It does not mean that I’m incompetent when it comes to children and their struggles. Please know that when you say things as personal as this, your words cut deeply.

Please understand that I am only human. I am doing my best and somedays I make mistakes. When you hear about my mistakes from your child, please forgive me and give me the benefit of the doubt.

Your child may tell you “we do nothing” and they’ve “learned nothing” but that is never the case. Please come in any time to see what is happening in our classroom.

Everyday your child is praised and given opportunities to feel successful. Please tell me the things I’m doing right as well. I try to do this with your child, so please do it with me.

I believe that you and I are a team. We can work together to support and help your child be the best they can be. If you have a suggestion or concern, please come talk to me. Please don’t talk to my administrator, other teachers, or your friends about your concerns before giving me the chance to address them. Please know that I would never talk about your child with another parent or friend. That information is confidential.

I, too, lose sleep when I am worried about your child. I spend countless hours preparing lessons and activities to help your child realize that learning can be fun. I know that we may have some differences, but we are in this together and have your child’s best interest at heart.


A Loving, Honest Teacher

Saturday, April 1, 2017

A Quick & Easy Way to Help Your Students Make Friends

This is about the time of year when we have our second round of Parent-Teacher Conferences.
During those conferences, I usually hear that parents aren't concerned about their child's academic needs, but their social needs. When I first heard this, I wasn't quite sure how to meet this need. So, I went and collaborated with my colleagues. One colleague told me to try something she had heard about from another teacher called "Mix it Up Monday."

Every Monday, she gave each of her student an assigned friend that they would eat lunch with, play at recess with, and do other activities throughout the day with. This gave the students an opportunity to make a new friend and meet someone new that they may not have chosen to play with on their own. This also eliminated the problem of anyone not having a friend to play with. My friend who told me about this idea, is very organized and has written up a schedule of who is playing with who each Monday. In my class, I am not as organized, so I use Class Dojo's random chooser and assign friends each Monday. Either way, it works!

Now, sometimes we don't have school on Monday, so my kiddos beg to have "Mix it Up Monday," another day. So, we've had "Twist it Up Tuesday," "Whirl it Around Wednesday," you get the idea! My kiddos really enjoy playing with someone different and getting to know someone new.

Now, I will warn you, that at first, my kids would complain about who their friend was. We had to have a discussion that this is hurtful. I tell my kids that we are all friends and we will treat each other as such. Since then, no complaints! At least not any that were verbalized. Try it in your classroom if you've experienced this problem, because since implementing it, I haven't had a single complaint about a student lacking friends.

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to Establish Successful Sight Word Practice for Every Reader

Do you ever feel like its a real struggle to differentiate sight word practice for your kiddos this time of year? About this time, every year, I am reminded that some students need additional sight word practice, others just need a review of some sight words, and a few (hopefully more than a few) have mastered all the sight words. So, how do I create a way for every student to get the practice they need? Well, with the help of my fellow first grade teachers, we have come up with ideas and ways to create meaningful, engaging sight word practice for every one of our kiddos.

We do this with what we call "Reading Groups." Our "Reading Groups" are basically a 45 minute time period set aside each day, to meet the reading needs of ALL our students. There are three of us that teach first grade at my school. We each take a level of readers based on the data that was collected at the beginning of the year. During this time, our students work on a variety of reading skills, one of those being sight words.

During our "Reading Groups," I get to work with those who need additional teaching of sight words.  I begin by introducing the word, iterating that the word is very important because knowing the word will help the student become a "better" reader. (This gives the students a purpose behind learning the words.) I then spell the word for the students and we spell the word together. Then, I put the word up on the board and have all my students stand up. (This is where I'm incorporating various learning styles!) We then spell the word with our bodies (For letters that touch the top line, we pretend to shoot a basket, for letters that touch the mid-line, we put our hands on our hips, and for those letters that have descenders, we touch our toes). We then write the word in the air. Then, I give each student a dry erase marker and have them write the word on the board a single time. (According to our OT this is excellent for handwriting practice.) Then, the students read the word they wrote and spell the word out loud another time. The students then write the word three more times. The last step with this is, I have the students take a seat, close their eyes, tell what word they wrote, and spell it out loud. We usually do about three new or review words a day.

When I feel that my students have mastered the sight words, or just need a brush up on a few words, I will do this same routine with them, but add in another piece. I will have the students begin finding the words in context as well as using the words in context. This way, they aren't strictly seeing a sight word, but they are making a connection to how it is used. When I do this, the students have a list of specific words they are looking for. They can use tally marks to count how many times the word is seen. The students will also take the words that we have worked on and create what I call "Seven Up Sentences" (sentences with seven words or more) using the word. This way to students learn how to use the words correctly and begin to realize they aren't just single words that we learn.

Now, for those students who have mastered all the sight words, I want them to continue to read the sight words, but in context, while building fluency and comprehension. So, we do this through passages that correlate with the sight words we have been teaching. The students read the passage, look for a designated set of sight words, and also answer comprehension questions about the passage they've read. This can be done with any passage, but if you're interested, I've written specific passages that we use just for this called "Sight Word Stories."

After doing our reading groups for a few years now, we have found amazing success having our students practice sight words this way. How do you help your students learn those all important sight words?

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Magical Experience-Takeaways from RCA

About a week ago I returned from what I consider to be the best school in the world. If you've never heard of the Ron Clark Academy, its a non-profit school in Atlanta, Georgia. The students that attend the school are in grades 5-8. It is a private school and also an educator training center. People come from all over the world to experience RCA. It is unlike any school I have ever been to. You are welcomed with high energy and music, and by the end of your visit you never want to leave.

The energy of the students and staff is contagious. You can't help but constantly smile and look
around at all the details that were put into the school. The feeling you get as you spend time at this school is truly "magical." I will say, that the first day was overwhelming. Thinking about how I was going to implement everything put me at a loss, but the second day things became clearer. The teachers will tell you, "Don't try to go back and implement everything you've seen here." They encouraged us to try one thing at a time. This seemed so much less daunting, thankfully.

I'm not going to tell you every single take-away I had because that would be the longest blog post ever, and lets be real, you probably would stop reading at some point. So, I'm just going to share a few things that really hit home with me. The first
thing came from Kim Bearden, the co-founder of RCA. She hasn't had the easiest life (as you can read about in her book Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me). She was truly transparent, and told us that some days she didn't want to get out of bed. The things she was going through outside of school, made going to school seem daunting. To get through this hard time, she found that drawing on the energy of her students refueled her energy. This allowed her to share with her student the energy she had and this continued to be a cycle. This is what helped her get through the challenging times. We all have days that we don't want to be there or we have challenges outside of school that make the world seem as if its crashing down on us. This is what we have to do! I have been applying this advice this past week and it is amazing how it drives you!

Another thing that is very clear that has been established at RCA are relationships. Mr. Clark and his staff are big on developing strong relationships with the students, their families, and with each other. When relationships are strong, that is when your students will want to learn. They will want to succeed because they know you love them and don't want to let you down. From talking with the students, they know their teachers deeply care for them, so when they get "fussed at," they know the teacher or staff member is doing this out of love and the desire for the student to succeed.

One thing that really resonated with me was the high expectations the teachers have for their students and themselves. I am a firm believer in setting high expectations because your students can and WILL reach them. At RCA, they teach to the top. With the high engagement and rigorous content, their students go above and beyond. I have seen this work in my own classroom. The teachers also are constantly bettering themselves and developing new teaching methods that have yet to be discovered.

The last thing (that I am going to share here) that blew my mind at RCA was the house system. The students come to school and spin a wheel that determines which of the four houses they belong to. This helps them feel a sense of belonging and gives the students an automatic family at RCA. As visiting educators, we were able to choose our house. When we wore our house t-shirts the next day, we felt that we were part of a family. We had an automatic group of people who genuinely care about you and have your back! The cheers, chants, support, and encouragement
the students in the houses gave each other, was extraordinary.

The reason I was able to attend RCA this year is because our school is implementing Ron Clark's Essential 55. We are working on helping our students and ourselves become better human beings. After they leave elementary school, we want our students to succeed and to reach their full potential, and the 55 Essentials can help your students do just that.

I cannot put into words how life changing this experience was. Not only for my teaching practice, but my life as well. I could not stop talking about everything that happened and things that I saw. Its one thing to watch videos on RCA and read other's experiences, but I highly suggest making a trip to RCA for yourself. The tangible magic and excitement is seriously better than going to Disneyland. I came back rejuvenated and ready to get back into my classroom to change lives.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Embracing Flexible Seating

This summer I read many blog posts and articles on the benefits of flexible seating in the classroom. I'm a worrier, so I was a bit worried how my firsties would handle this change of seating. I may have had a few nightmares of having to call 911 because a student fell off a wiggle stool or rolled off a stability ball. Despite my worst fears, I knew this would benefit my students. I looked into the cost of everything I wanted to acquire for my classroom and decided I needed to do it in stages. Our PTA kindly gave us $100 and I was blessed to receive donations through Donor's Choose to help start our flexible seating journey. With these funds, I was able to purchase 4 stability balls, a stability disc, and 6 wiggle stools. I already had 4 bean bags, so that was a plus.

Before letting my students start to choose their own seats, I went back and re-read the rules Kayla Delzer and Angie Olsen implemented with their flexible seating. This helped me come up with my own guidelines. I went over the expectations with my students as the items started to arrive. I modeled how not to treat our new seating, and reminded the students that I could change their seats at any time.

We have been in school for about two and a half weeks now, and I am happy to report that none of my fears have come true. I do want to share with you the benefits that I have seen thus far.

The day we got the first wiggle stool, I let a student try it out who was really struggling to focus and get his work finished. I was amazed, and still am, that he got his work done in the allotted time and I didn't have to prompt him once to get working. I've seen this with many of my other students as well.

I love how excited my kids are about these new options and that I trust them to pick where they will do their best work. I am seeing better focus from all my students who are choosing to use the new seating. I am also seeing students who are excited to come to school, try something new, and be a part of something that will benefit their learning.

I am in the process of writing another Donor's Choose grant to implement more flexible seating. At this point, we don't have tables, standing desks, and a few other things that I have my heart set on implementing this year. Wish me luck! I will continue to update you on the benefits I see through this change. Do you have flexible seating in your classroom? Anything you can't live without? I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Best Pencil Sharpener in the World

There are some tools I use in my classroom that I know need to be top notch. I am usually willing to put out serious cash (just don't tell my husband) if it means that this particular thing will last all year and withstand the "caring" hands of my first graders. A pencil sharpener is one of those tools. We all use it daily and so do our students, depending on the rules in your classroom. I usually go through at least one pencil sharpener a year because the motor burns out or some mystery person sticks something in the sharpener that shouldn't be there.

I'm happy to report that I have found a sharpener that works fantastically and lasts longer than JUST one year. AND it doesn't even require the serious cash I'm used to paying for an electric pencil sharpener. This sharpener is made by Classroom Friendly Supplies. It comes in a variety of colors that are sure to match your classroom decor and is under $20. I'm telling you it's worth every penny! I now own two and even take one to church with me to use in my church class. I love that you can control how sharp the pencil gets. (My church class may have had a competition to see who could have the sharpest pencil.) It is light weight, easy for kids to use, and quite simple to clean out. I've also found that there are informative videos on Classroom Friendly Supplies that help you remove a pencil lead step by step. They've seriously thought of everything.

Now, with that all being said, my husband, a mechanical engineer, was curious about how great this sharpener really was. He, being the engineer that he is, played with it, looked inside, played with the parts, and gave it his engineer stamp of approval. He says that it is the greatest engineered pencil sharpener he has ever seen. He has fixed his fair share of my classroom pencil sharpeners over the years, so to hear that, I was and am sold! I may just have every color of this sharpener in my classroom by the end of the year. (As long as I keep it in the budget, according to the hubs!) What's your favorite pencil sharpener? If you haven't tried out "The Best Pencil Sharpener in the World" I would highly recommend adding it to your teacher wish list! You can thank me later. ;)