Thinking Teaching Creating

Thoughts, Tips, Ideas, and Projects from a Creative Teacher Mama

Summer: Time To Catch Up On Hobbies

In between all the schoolwork and impromptu trips to the pool, park, or local children’s museums to provide the copious amounts of gross motor activity 3 little boys need to ever fall asleep each night, I have some hobbies.  Shocking, I know.

I’ve already read 3 books just for fun (Quiet, a random YA novel that was the third in a series I started ages ago, and The Witch’s Daughter), I’m saving The Handmaid’s Tale for when I’m dying for something new while I reread an old favorite, AND I’ve preordered the next installing in The Pink Carnation series, which is due out early in August.  My neighborhood just updated the fitness center, so I decided to take advantage of that and have started exercising.  I got several new card and board games for my birthday that I’ve been playing a lot.  It turns out cooperative games are lots of fun, without the hurt feelings at the end because your husband put a hotel on Boardwalk when he KNEW you only had $300 left. (Talk about overkill!)  I highly recommend Quirkle, Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island, and Chrononauts.  The “forbidden” ones are both cooperative, Chrononauts has 2 variations on gameplay, one of which is a solitaire version, and Quirkle is easy enough that my 6-year old can play, yet it’s challenging enough to still be fun for adults.

And then there are the many sewing and knitting projects I have either in progress or on my to-do list.  It wasn’t until this morning when I actually added all my crafty projects to Wunderlist that I realized how many I have!  And, of course, I want to finish them all before school starts and I get too busy to work on them again.  I have a shawl in progress (Follow Your Arrow Shawl), and I’ve barely started the second fingerless mitt in a pair to wear on those fall days that are cold only in the morning and evening.  I need to actually sew the next size cloth diapers I cut out months ago for my youngest; he needs to move up a size any day now.  I also got a sewing pattern for Christmas (Amy Butler’s Liverpool Shirt/Dress) to do some selfish sewing that I haven’t done more to than look at it wistfully.

I really do have a deadline for the knitting projects though.  My brother is getting married next year.  It will be an outdoor wedding, in October…in New England.  Translation: even if she chooses a long-sleeved dress, the bride will be FREEZING!  So I volunteered to make a warm shawl for my sister-in-law to be, whom I adore and would rather not see her get pneumonia.  I started the Rosana shawl once already, and completely messed up.  I had to rip out everything I’d done, and was irritated about it.  So I did what anyone would do; I procrastinated by starting a different project.  I vowed to restart her shawl at least a year before the wedding though, to make sure I had plenty of time to finish it, which means all other nonessential craft projects stop in October.

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Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop + 6-Trait Writing: First Rubric Complete!

I’ve been planning to attempt to put together the Lucy Calkins units for writing workshop with 6-trait writing for quite awhile now.  I love how Lucy’s units are organized and have a focus of getting kids to write about things that are interesting and meaningful to them, but sometimes have difficulty scoring them.  Another thing I feel like they lack is definite links to grammar rules, so I need to be really careful to add in those lessons.  Since many of the workshop units have fewer minilessons than necessary to fill a month, those “extra” days are where I plan to do specific grammar lessons.

But back to the rubrics.  The versions of the writing workshop units I have do not include any rubrics at all; I don’t have copies of the book, I have essentially “cheat sheet” versions of each unit from my district that were developed from the books.  Because of that, I started with the 6-trait writing rubrics, which are available online for free at Education Northwest’s website.  There are different versions for K-2 and grades 3-12, along with different point scales.  I created an editable version of the condensed grades 3-12 rubric by copying and pasting, and added another page from the 5-point grades 3-12 rubric by copying and pasting the publishing section (not included on the condensed rubric).

From there, I made a copy of the editable version, and highlighted each letter in the 5-point section that seemed to be a goal in the Lucy Calkins unit I created a rubric for (4th grade, unit 1).  Next, I went back and deleted the letters that weren’t included in the unit.  The way the rubric is structured, each section has several items that are looked for, and they are formatted in a lettered list.  When I deleted criteria, I deleted the words, but not the letter it was beside.  I want my students to know that other criteria will be expected later, and if I put a coded note on a student’s paper to show they did something particularly well, or that they should specifically work on improving one skill (WC-B would mean Word Choice, criteria B), I want the code to mean the same thing all year long.  I’m also keeping a copy of my rubric where I did the highlighting so the next unit’s rubric already has a starting point.  If I’ve already taught a skill in the rubric, I’m going to expect students to continue to use it in the next unit.

Here are my resources so far:

To edit the resources above, click them, go to file, and make a copy in your Google Drive, or go to file, download as Microsoft Word (docx.).  To use them as-is, just click the link you want and print, or download as a pdf.  

When I create the rubrics for further units, I’ll probably put newly added skills in bold or otherwise show which skills are new to the rubric and which ones students have been working on for more than one unit.  I think that will be helpful for myself, my students, and their parents.  If a skill has been on the rubric for more than one unit and a student is earning only 1 point in that area, that’s a red flag that we need to do something differently for that child.  Maybe we need to have small group or individual instruction on that particular skill, it needs to be a conference focus, etc.  Either way, the student can’t fix it if they a) don’t know it’s a problem and b) aren’t given help to improve.

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Summer Learning Plans

One thing I really love about being a teacher is that each new year on the job allows me to revamp things.  What other job out there gives a natural break that allows you the time to relax and reflect on the past year, deciding what to do the same, and what to change for the coming year?  Yes, of course I reflect and make changes throughout the school year too if something isn’t working quite how I want it to, but the easiest time to make big changes is the beginning of a new school year.  When you get a new crop of kids (and their parents), comments and questions about something you did last year that you plan to change can be swept aside with, “Oh, I’m going to change how I do that this year; I’ll be talking about that at curriculum night.”

On the last workdays before school ended, my team met and did a group reflection, making notes about what we want to do differently, and what we really thought worked well.  My only concern is that we’re having a change in leadership at my school, and we left for the summer without knowing what grade we would be teaching next year, nor the room we would be assigned.  In light of that, I’ve been trying to keep my reflections general enough that they could be applied to nearly any grade.

Some things I want to accomplish or learn more about (in between relaxing) this summer, are:

  • how to incorporate blended learning; I think this would be a great way to differentiate more effectively
  • close reading; I have the gist of it, but want to get to the point that I don’t need a pre-made set of close reading materials to feel confident implementing it
  • creating rubrics blending Lucy Calkins units with 6 Trait writing and common core standards…but I really need to know what grade I’m teaching next year (I’ve wanted to do this for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.)
  • read The Leader in Me

If you know of a great blog or article that would help with any of these goals, I’d love for you to leave links to them in the comments!

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It’s Easy To Be A Great Teacher…Especially During the Summer When It’s All Plans and Great Ideas

Obviously it’s been ages since my last blog post.  About a school year, to be specific.  For the last several years, I’ve either started a blog or rediscovered the one from the previous year sometime between May and July.  The end of the year makes me reflective, wanting to consider the changes I intend to make for the following school year, while I’m still in “school mode,” but only have a few weeks left and the countdown to summer is on.  Between the reflections on what to keep and what to change, I always have hugely ambitious goals for the next year, and need an outlet to sift through them before I get lost in the daily grind.  As a result, my blog  du jour definitely gets more attention from me during the summer than any other time.  I had (or borrowed) a lot of really fabulous ideas I wanted to implement this year…and didn’t end up doing most of them.  There are even some things that weren’t new to my classroom that ended up being abandoned for one reason or another.  This year in particular, I had a lot of changes going on due to a move in schools and grade levels.

Without getting into too much detail, that single change meant that this year has been more work, with less time to do it during the school day.  I had new curriculum to learn, expectations of a district and school to learn and follow, and the simple fact that I had more students, and they were older than I’ve taught in a long time.  Older students producing longer/more complex work, and having more of them in a class than usual meant the time to grade a stack of papers increased exponentially.  Add to that having fewer planning periods each week for me to do work than I’d grown accustomed to, and I was left with a near-constant backlog of work to accomplish.

That being said, I had a fabulous team to work with, and support from a great facilitator.  Overall, I still think that changing schools was a good decision to support my long-term goals, which was the primary reason I opted to return to a public school district.  Eventually, I’d love to be a facilitator/instructional coach, or something along those lines.  I really enjoy putting together units, researching the newest ideas of how to do things, and integrating technology in the classroom.  Small charter schools just don’t have the funding to have a full-time person whose job is to help the teachers become even better at what they do.  I know I’m not ready for such a role yet, but I am learning more and getting a little better every year.  I think my biggest strength in reaching that goal is my ability to reflect, and my willingness to make changes based on my reflections.  I am definitely able to step back and see where I’m in need of making a change, and then trying my hardest to make it happen.

I already have some changes in mind for next year, and am considering sending a parent survey asking for feedback on particular issues, such as my methods of communication, and the types and frequency of homework they liked or would have preferred.  I’d also like to get into the habit of blogging during the school year; even if it’s just one post a month.



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Teaching and Pumping

No, I’m not talking about “pumping iron,” I’m talking about pumping milk.  This post is about breastfeeding.  If that’s going to bother you, it may be best for you to not continue to read this post.

Quite a few years ago, I worked at a school where teachers had 6 planning periods a week, and at least 5 of them every week were spent in a meeting.  Teachers ate lunch with their classes, took them to recess, and went to meetings during their planning periods just about every day.  Heaven forbid a teacher need to take a moment to use the restroom, because if so, you would be late to the meeting.  Being late to one of our perpetual meetings meant you got dirty looks and pointed comments about finally being able to get started.  During my time there, only one teacher had a baby, and I was not even a little surprised when she eventually opted not to return to work when her maternity leave was over.  I suspect now that she wanted to breastfeed her baby, and either thought the school wouldn’t work with her, or had asked and had been denied time to pump during the day.  That’s all speculation though.

By chance, I did not become pregnant with my first child until about a month after finding a job at another school for the 2007-2008 school year.  The school I moved to had two planning periods each day, and there may have been three times in an entire year that required a planning time to be used for a mandatory meeting.  Lunch was supervised by teacher assistants, who then took their lunch break during the other lunch period (the school had a small enough lunch room to warrant two lunch waves).  I pumped during my planning times, and sometimes lunch if my planning periods were significantly before or after my lunch time.

Fast forward five years, and I’ve breastfed all three of my children.  Well, one is still going.  You see, he’s just 4 months old right now, and if you read my most recent post, I just accepted a new job.  Luckily, a federal law was passed in 2010 requiring that employers provide reasonable break time, along with a private place other than a bathroom for new mothers to express breastmilk for the first year of her child’s life.  You can read more about those laws here.  Those laws made me comfortable enough to seek out a new job during a year that I would need 2-3 breaks a day to pump milk for my baby.

Now, knowing something is a law that must be followed and knowing that the employer is going to do so without making you feel like a pariah are two totally different scenarios.  That is why I broke the rules about things you aren’t supposed to discuss at job interviews, and after finding out how planning time is structured, I outright asked how they accommodate new mothers who need to pump breastmilk.  I know that not offering me a job solely because they would have needed to provide time and space for me to pump would have been discrimination, but there really wouldn’t have been a way to prove that was what had happened if an offer was not made.  Because of that, I don’t necessarily suggest approaching things the way I did, but I waited to ask this particular question until near the end of the interview, and I had the sense that they really liked me (and I was seriously considering accepting a position if it were offered).  It was also really important to me to know whether the breaks would be given with an attitude of legal obligation served with a side of snide comments and shunning or whether it would be a simple fact that for the first 7 months of employment, I would need someone to cover my classroom a few times a day so I could do what is best for my own child.

I’ve been pregnant, breastfeeding, or pregnant AND breastfeeding since June 2007.  Over the years I’ve watched this practice make its way back into the mainstream.  If you disagree, go check out Target’s intimates section and check out the nursing bras that are available.  Five years ago Target only sold them if they were DDs with an underwire in white or off-white.  (Coincidentally, underwires can lead to clogged milk ducts, which are painful and can lead to breast infections.  Trust me, you do not want that to happen!)  Once my oldest started solid foods regularly and decreased the amount of milk he needed from me, my need for a much smaller bra became obvious.  Unfortunately, they simply weren’t available unless you went to a specialty store and shelled out a lot of money.  I left many stores in tears after a frustrating experience and eventually just bought the nursing tank tops sold at Target and wore one every day under my clothes (even when temperatures in NC hit 90+ degrees at the beginning and end of the school year).  Now, not only does Target offer nursing bras in smaller sizes, but they even have some that are cute!  I think that’s definitely a sign that more people are breastfeeding their babies.

If you are a teacher who is a new mom, and you want to nurse your baby, I want you to know that it is completely possible to do!  I do have a few tips though:

  • Tell your employer as soon as possible what your needs will be so they can make a plan to accommodate them.  Arrangements may need to be made to find a private non-bathroom space with an electrical outlet for you, and some shifting of schedules may need to happen to make someone available to cover your class.  Don’t feel like you’re being a diva for asking for this.  It is your legal right to have the time and a place to either feed your baby or pump milk for him/her.
  • Stress will affect the amount of milk you can pump.  A relaxed mommy will get more milk than a tense one.
  • Get a double electric pump.  Another component of ObamaCare is that as of January 2013, most insurance companies provide new mothers with one breastpump per pregnancy.  You may have a very limited selection (I was given a choice of two different brands), but call your insurance company before you shell out $200-$300 for one.  Call your insurance company to set it up.  You can request your pump up to 30 days before your due date.  If you’ve already delivered, I think you have until your child’s first birthday to request your pump.  Even if you bought one and started using it, I recommend taking advantage of this.  With my first child, the motor in my pump died when he was 11 months old.  The company was amazing and sent a replacement for free because it was less than a year old, but I didn’t have a pump for a week.  When the replacement arrived, I suddenly was unable to get any milk from the pump.  (I went on to nurse him for quite some time afterwards, I just didn’t respond well to the pump.)  I stored that replacement pump for a few years until my second child was born, and it stopped working when he was just a few months old.  I knew I needed a pump pronto, and there was no way I’d be getting one for free.  I didn’t have the ability to spend the money on a double, so I settled for a single electric pump.  It was much less efficient and I very nearly had to supplement with formula.  It doesn’t hurt to have a spare pump on hand.  If you never use it, you can always save it for your next pregnancy, or pass it to a friend or relative who needs it if you’re finished having children.
  • To stay relaxed, you may not be able to use the time you’re pumping to grade papers or plan lessons.  I find that reading is a sufficiently peaceful activity for when I’m pumping.  If you feel guilty for the amount of “work time” you’re using and not actively working, you can always read professional books.
  • If some of the time you’ll be pumping is not during your planning times, try to schedule recess, a block of time for independent reading, or something else that your class can be pretty self-sufficient in for when someone will cover your class for you.  Knowing that whatever you’re missing is something that won’t matter who supervises it will help keep you from stressing out about missing too much time with your students.
  • From what I’ve seen, the recommended amount of time to pump is 15-20 minutes.  Make sure you schedule more like 25-30 minutes.  By the time the person arrives to cover your class, you go to wherever you pump, set up, pump, and put your things away, you’ll have added those ten minutes.  If you’re the only person who uses your pumping area, you may be able to shave a couple of minutes off that time by setting up your pump when you first arrive in the morning, and leaving it ready to use for your next session when you’re done.
  • It’s wise to order a set of spare parts for your pump.  I got a set for about $25 on Amazon for my Ameda pump.  If you have anything other than a Medela, it can be difficult to find spare parts at your local Babies R Us.  It doesn’t take much for the tubing to get punctured, and then your pump is useless until it’s replaced.  Again, if you never use it, you can always pass it to someone else later.

PSA From A Left-Handed Primary Teacher

I’m left-handed.  Really, that shouldn’t be a big deal, but sometimes it is.  I’m one of those “all in” lefties who does everything left-handed.  Eating, brushing my teeth, cutting, using a knife (except at the dinner table), etc.  When I wear a baby in a carrier on my hip, I even prefer to put him on my right side so my left hand is free.

I remember when I was a kid, there was always only one or two pairs of left-handed scissors in every classroom or in the art room.  All of them were so dull (or the two sides were separated so much from overuse and age), that they rarely even cut paper.  By about 3rd grade, I just used the right-handed scissors and dealt with the fact that they were really uncomfortable.  Also around third grade, I vividly recall purposefully changing the way I held my pencil so that my hand hooked.  Why would I do such a thing?  Because I had to write my spelling words 3x each, and they had been printed on the left side of the page.  I couldn’t see the words on the paper because my hand was in the way.  So I changed the way I wrote.  This was also an issue in learning to write in cursive for the same reasons.  Writing in a spiral bound notebook is a a nightmare.  When I use a binder, I remover the paper from the binder, write what I need to, and replace it into the binder rings.  Every desk in my middle school, high school, and university was created for a right-handed person.  Regardless of the tool I use to write with, the entire side of my hand, from pinky joint to the base of my palm, is always smeared in graphite, ink, or marker.

I spent much of my time in PE classes asking how I should do something that had just been demonstrated right-handed.  The typical answer was, “Just do the opposite.”  Gee, thanks.  There were even times when we were doing a unit on baseball and there weren’t enough left-handed gloves for all the lefties in class.  Not cool.

To this day, my sense of right and left is not good.  I get them mixed up way more frequently than is probably normal for anyone over the age of 9.  I blame at least part of that on the fact that my teachers frequently ensured people know which hand was their right hand with the statement, “it’s the one you write with.”  Um…not everyone.  I even overhead a colleague (younger than me, so not an old-school teacher set in her ways) using that exact phrase last year to her class.  Now, granted, she may very well have have not had any lefties in her class, so I’ll assume that’s true.

It’s also a pain at a restaurant, or really any dinner table where I’m seated with right-handed people.  I’ve gotten really good at choosing the seat that puts my left hand against the wall or to the aisle, and failing that, eating with my elbow tucked in to avoid bumping against my right-handed companions.

The time it was most difficult was when I needed to teach students cursive.  Yup, I got to teach students to write in cursive for 6 years.  I learned to make the letter in the air, facing the class (so I had to make it backwards in order for them to see it properly), and I learned to guide even right-handed students having difficulty forming a letter by doing hand-over-hand with my right hand.

If you’re a teacher, please, I beg you to do the following for your left-handers.

  • Have ambidextrous scissors, or make sure to have left-handed ones that cut effectively.
  • Print anything that needs to be copied (handwriting, etc) so the original word/sentence is on the right side of the paper for your lefties, or on a separate paper altogether if you want to avoid making two versions.
  • If a child asks how to do something left-handed, do not tell them to just do the opposite of what you showed them. Either try to figure it out for them, ask around your colleagues who are lefties how they do it, or find a YouTube video.
  • If you seat a lefty next to a righty at a table, put the lefty so that their left hand is not beside someone (or is beside another lefty) if you can.
  • Never, ever, utter the phrase, “On the right, that’s the hand you write with,” unless you are 110% certain that every person in that room writes with their right hand.
  • Check out additional resources at, and mamaot.
  • Check out the 18 worst things for left-handed people.
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I’m Tracey, and as my blog title suggests, I’m almost always thinking, teaching, or creating. I have three boys who call me Mama, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years old right now.  I teach gifted kids, and I love to create things!  In addition to being a wife, mother, and teacher, I love to sew, knit, cook from scratch, read, and have a variety of ways I try to save money and earn a few extra dollars here and there.  I plan to write about all of these interests over time.

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