Classroom Traditions

Growing up we had a very special Christmas tradition.  We would decorate the Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas music and tenderly unwrapping each heirloom ornament from its wrapping and placing it carefully on the tree.  Then we would eat dinner on the floor in front of the tree.  We called it a “floor feast” and it is a tradition I’ve maintained as I’ve had my own tree, family, and heirloom ornaments.  It doesn’t quite feel like the Christmas season until I’m eating mashed potatoes on the floor, basking in the glow of the Christmas tree.  

Since I have such a love of the traditions of the season, I bring special routines and traditions into my classroom.  I try to be culturally aware and take the opportunity to highlight kindness and generosity that embodies the spirit of all holidays celebrated by my students.

Through my years in an elementary classroom, I’ve always found the weeks of December loom among the hardest of the teaching year.  Students of all ages can be antsy or snippy because they are often out late, shopping, celebrating and generally having their routines and schedules thrown off and getting less sleep.  I’ve found that creating special classroom routines and traditions is effective this time of year and helps to put a little mindfulness into the classroom during the busy season.  It helps us build our classroom culture as we reflect on sharing the season together.  

One of my favorite traditions is the kind words gift exchange.  We spend the week before winter break creating beautiful holiday presents out of envelopes.  We label them to ourselves and from our class (The Wildcat Class of 2016-2017, for example).  We think about each person in our classroom and write a special note telling them what we like about them or listing our favorite parts of their personality.  It takes about 20 minutes a day to write thoughtful notes to a full classroom of 30 students but it is worth every bit of precious school time.


I spent time at home writing out a special note to each of my 60 odd students (we are semi-departmentalized in 5th grade so I teach 2 classes of students).  Though it is hard to carve out the time during the hectic holidays, I like sitting down with a pen in my hand, thinking about each and every student I’ve gotten to know the past 5 months and their special, quirky personalities.  It helps me to remember how much I like them and have a little extra patience with them during the last week when winter break madness reaches peak level.


One the last day before break, we seal our envelopes without reading the 30 odd notes placed inside by our classmates.  We even tape the envelopes shut but most of the kids can hardly wait to leave school to find out what their classmates wrote about them.  

This envelope of kind words becomes a meaningful keepsake for my students.  One mom told me last year that her son read the notes to himself each night before he went to sleep.  He did this for months while he was going through a rough time with his feelings of self-worth, his mom told me with tears in her eyes.  Former students come back year after year, popping into my room with Christmas goodies and cards, reminding me what I wrote in their note.  

Families love this tradition, too.   Who doesn’t love to hear nice things about their child and get a glimpse into their child’s school life?  There is one special family in my community who’ve had several kids in my classrooms through the years in various grade levels.  They have a tradition of opening the kindness gift around their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.    Some families tell me they’ve saved the envelope in their holiday decorations and re-read the kind notes year after year.

I sat around my Christmas tree this morning after we had opened our presents and I opened my envelope.  The first note that fluttered out was from THAT kid.  You know the one…major tough kid attitude, sullen, hard to reach, a tough nut to crack.  That student told me that I am “funny, fun, cool, and talented.”  It is safe to say that I will return to school in the new year even more determined to make an impact on that student.  I’m getting through, even though it doesn’t show on the outside.  I wonder what my students have read about themselves on their kindness notes.  

What are your favorite classroom traditions?  How do you reinforce classroom culture in December?


Happy Holidays!  My best to you in 2017!


Beth’s Books – Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

I bought Ghosts because it was Raina Telgemeier’s latest book, not realizing that I would have a deep, emotional connection to it.  My fifth-grade students, my daughter and her third-grade friends and I have loved her semi-autobiographical Smile and Sisters. This crazy thespian also especially related to Drama.  I also enjoy Raina’s graphic novel re-imaginings of Ann M. Martin’s classic The Baby-sitters Club series, a favorite of mine growing up.

            The main character of Ghosts, Cat, has a little sister, Maya, with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a disease which affects 3,000 Americans and is genetically handed down through generations of families.  Families like mine.

I first heard of CF when a routine blood test when I was pregnant with my daughter came back with a red flag.  I remember a nurse saying, “We’ll need your husband to give blood so we can see if he carries the gene before you start to panic.”  Too late.  It was an anxious few days as we waited for the blood work to come back from the lab.  We rejoiced when it was clear that my husband is not a carrier of the gene.

Later my sister became pregnant and got the same red flag on her blood test.  “Not to worry,” I told her reassuringly.  “Steve just has to give some blood and everything will be fine.”  Except that, it wasn’t.  Steve is a carrier, too.  The chances of the baby having it were 25%.  Cate was born and had to have stomach surgery right away to fix an intestinal blockage.  CF affects the entire body but it is most brutal on the lungs and stomach.

I read the book in one sitting, expecting to cry.  After all, this is a lot of baggage to bring to a book.  Instead, I amazed myself by laughing.

We spent some time with my niece this summer and got a lesson in the treatments she has to complete daily when she’s healthy.  She has to take enzymes to eat because CF makes it impossible to digest food.  She has to be given twice daily thirty-minute breathing treatment to loosen the sticky mucus buildup in her lungs along with inhaled medicines.  And that’s just when she’s healthy!  When she’s not healthy, she needs four vest treatments a day and it takes a long time and a lot of medicine and sometimes lengthy hospital stays to get her well again.

My mom, very well-versed in giving this rambunctious two year old her treatment, grabbed her favorite books before getting her into the vest.  I had to laugh watching the process – it looked like my mom was trying to put socks on an angry octopus.  Like her mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin before her, books are the choicest form of entertainment and one of the few things she will sit down for.   Cate selected the fabulous Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin.  Great choice, Cate!  One of my favorite series for little people.  Vest treatments are designed to shake the sticky mucus loose from the lungs so they can be coughed out.  Cate’s tiny, raspy voice (another side effect of CF) shook and trembled as she read along with her grandma, “I love my red shoes!  I love my red shoes!”  It was a moment my husband and I will never forget as we laughed and laughed at that little voice.

Ghosts had realities that people with CF face: vest treatment, frequent, long-term hospitalization, and shortened life span.  But it also had love and hope and laughter, just like all of Raina’s books.  New treatments have added years to the lives of people living with CF. Today their life expectancy is close to 40. This is an improvement from the past when a child with CF rarely lived past ten years old.

Ghosts is currently being passed around my classroom with high praise from all who read it.  Many of my students like the Dia de Los Muertos theme and the slightly eerie setting in northern California.


There is currently no cure for CF.  But researchers are approaching new medicines that have the potential to significantly lengthen the lifespan of a person with CF.  If you are so moved, please donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation;jsessionid=74EF1DA9F9D559FFE65DCB760E0F8CDD.app212a?1761.donation=form1&df_id=1761.

Community Snack Bowl

Last year, our cafeteria workers started leaving a bowl of apples out each afternoon after regular food service had ended for the day.  I think they were leftover apples from the students’ daily salad and fruit bar.  I held daily rehearsals after school in the cafeteria for our production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” which had a cast of approximately fifty kindergarten through eighth-grade students.  This being an ambitious show for such little people, our rehearsals were held for an hour and a half every afternoon.  The kids poured through the doors of the cafeteria ravenous after a full day of classroom learning.  Some would bring a snack from home but many were not in a position to be able to do so.

After watching a particularly lean boy eyeing someone else’s snack longingly, I remembered the bowl of apples I had noticed earlier in the day and tossed one to the grateful boy.  I was immediately surrounded (in a way that only elementary teachers can appreciate) by a tiny, ravenous mob.  Their grins with apple juice running down their chins stuck with me.

The idea for a Community Snack Bowl for my classroom was born.

Teachers know (and research corroborates) that lack of snack contributes to poor attention, attitude, and concentration.  I’ve seen this first-hand through countless kids putting their heads down on their desks or complaining of stomach pain and hunger.  It’s really hard to focus on learning about the Gettysburg Address when you feel like your stomach is “eating itself” as one student told me last year.  Even my students who eat regularly at home can have hunger issues at school because fifth grade has the last lunch of the day at 1:10pm.  That’s a long morning to go without a snack, even for their teacher.

I started asking for donations of apples and cheese and cracker packs.  I have several students with severe peanut allergies so I monitor every food that comes into the room carefully and know that those are peanut-safe, semi-healthy and filling foods that most kids will eat.  I fill the bowl myself sometimes, but I have more often relied on parents that have the means to donate.  Some community members have even filled the bowl a few times.

It’s a little thing that makes a big difference to my students.

It may seem like a small idea to some people reading this post.  But it has made a world of difference to my students.  In fact, one of my students who was running for Student Council Class Representative ran on a platform of “Keeping the Community Snack Bowl full!”

How do you manage hunger in your classroom?

Classroom Reveal

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The classroom environment is important to consider because it is the space to do our teaching and learning.  Classroom environment affects behavior (yours and your students’), gives students a sense of safety and well-being, and influences children (and adult) perceptions.

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After careful consideration, I decided to go with a red, white, and blue Americana theme as a nod to the 5th grade social studies curriculum, American history.  Having no windows was going to be hard for me (and possibly my students) so I blew my budget with fadeless bulletin board paper (find it here on Amazon) that I think brings a touch of the outdoors.  I also bought blue and red striped and polka dot border trim with solid colors as accents.

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I couldn’t resist a few green things, either.

You may recall that I was not originally in a good head space about my move (exile) to the portable classroom.  You can read about that here.  I was feeling overwhelmed when the email finally came from our principal that the cleaners had come through, maintenance work orders had been accomplished and classroom keys could be checked out.

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Sad face

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It was time to take a deep breath, embrace the mess and tackle the big pieces of furniture and boxes.

After a day or two of work, things were looking up.  I could begin to see how routines and procedures would happen.  Things were finding homes in new spaces.

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Slowly but surely, the boxes were unpacked.

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Here you can see the black student supply shelf (managed and operated by student helpers) and the fiction section of the class library in blue bins.  The library is also managed by the students.

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My horseshoe table is in the back corner of the room just waiting for small group lessons. Students will sit on the little stools to save room in the tight space.  The stools will double as seating choices around the room, too.

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I bribed former students with pizza to come help me hang bulletin boards and organize desks and books.  I love asking former students to help because they know where things go and it is a great chance to catch up.  Here you can see the non-fiction section of the library in the red bins and on the bottom halves of the wood shelves.  You can see the “Were You Absent?” bin where students go to pick up work when they return from an absence.  Three of my antique globes are seen here, too.  My students love to look at these and they spark amazing questions, especially the moon globe.

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This is my Mindset board (thank you, Pinterest).  I focus a lot on mindset early in the year as we set goals for what we wish to accomplish in 5th grade.  My students already love my Yoda impression that I trot out on day #1 as I share my life philosophy “Do or do not.  There is no try.” Our classroom stage is below this bulletin board.  We use the stage for book talks, presentations, and a flexible seating choice.

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This is a smaller bulletin board than I am used to.  I decided to use it for the items I change out daily or weekly.  There is the Word of the Week (I use it for a call and respond attention getter), Joke of the Day (just for giggles), Quotable Quote (for thinking and writing about), Geography Trivia of the Day (ties into my year-long geography unit), and Idiom of the Week.

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This is a display board I made near my desk.  My class is named after the Arizona Wildcats.  I don’t want to hear it, Sun Devils!  The color scheme works, ok?  You may have noticed the lamps.  My fabulous mother-in-law found them for me at World Market.  Lamps are not exactly legal at school, but with no windows in the portable, I’m looking for a solution to how to watch a video or take notes in a manner so that the students can easily see.  It is difficult to see the projector with the lights on, but it is pitch black when the lights are off.

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I have a few kids each year to prefer to work at least part of the time standing up.  They are going to love these standing desks.
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This new favorite area is desks minus legs with a fun carpet and wiggle cushions for students who prefer a lower seat but still want to wriggle and be comfy.

My Donor’s Choose Flexible seating grant (Check that out here) was funded and my new seating possibilities have just arrived.  They are great additions to the stability balls I’ve been using for three years.

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Thank you to my big helper
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and my little helper, too!

Even though this is a classroom reveal, it is really still a work in progress.  As my wonderful friend and NNSTOY sister, Monica, reminded me, you can’t ever really be finished with a classroom arrangement until you and the students live in it together for a while.






Movin’ On Out

I look around the familiar classroom, looking decidedly unfamiliar, empty of all the trappings of my life as a teacher.  Someone else’s boxes neatly line the walls.  My eyes well up a little as I lock the door of Room 256 for the last time.

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Even though this is already horribly maudlin, you have to rewind to three weeks prior to see the real water works.  That was when I was informed that myself and my fifth grade teammates were been moved out of the school building we’ve worked in for 11 years and into…(dun dun DUN) the portables.

Let me paint you a picture…when my former students found out I was moving to the portables, they raced into the building to regale me with tips on how to catch the scorpions and how to adjust the air just right or else suffer the freezing yet humid air of the windowless, low-ceilinged room.

Cue massive panic, a few tears and maybe a little temper tantrum.

You may think I’m taking this news little poorly.  At this point, I was.  People who’ve known me for years commented that they’d never seen me so worked up about things.  That is evidence of what this move means to me – environment is everything in my practice and the environment in the dark, dank portables is not exactly what I’m going for.  In addition, this move is providing me with weeks of work I was not planning on this summer.  Now, before any trolls out there start complaining about a teacher having their summer off, read my friend Monica’s blog here, my friend Anna’s blog here and follow #teachersummer.  I work 70-80 hours a week during the school year working 2 jobs so I can afford to teach and I’m a doctoral student so I feel like I’ve earned my 6 weeks (not 3 months) of rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.

As it turns out, cleaning and purging is cathartic.  I’ve spent 6 years in this room, so I suppose a deep clean and/or move was overdue.  And I really cleaned out, thanks to a well-meaning janitor who mistook my “giveaway” pile for my “trash” pile.  I know I’ve been lucky to even be the same room for 6 years.  As my daughter’s teacher told me (as she was expertly packing up her room to move) “I’ve moved 16 out of the last 17 years I’ve taught!”

With the space and refreshment of a family vacation, I’m ready to be positive about the move.  My exploration unit will feel more authentic because the titled portable floor feels like walking the deck of a ship in rough seas!  The crime scene tape used in my CSI: Boston Massacre lesson will look so much more authentic!   It’ll be so much roomier to enact the mock surrender at Yorktown outside on the field, mere steps away!

In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to reorganizing and redecorating my new-to-me, tiny portable.  Look for a classroom reveal from the new fifth grade fiefdom in the next month or so!

Op-Ed: Higher Standards Begin With More Training for Instructors

Recently, my friends and respected Arizona teachers, Kristie Martorelli and Tara Dale and I responded to a recent ACT report that incorrectly criticized the Common Core State Standards.  We felt strong that the survey cited in the study was flawed, narrow, and misleading.  The issues raised in the study and survey point more to the flawed implementation of the standards, not the standards themselves.  Please find our op-ed published on The 74 here.

Why I Stay

I’ve started blogging for the fabulous site Stories from School.  Stories from School features accomplished teachers, mostly National Board Certified Teachers, writing about practice and policy from inside classrooms in Arizona and Washington.  Check out their Arizona page here.  Blogging for Stories from School is a dream come true and makes me feel like a “real blogger” especially since I’ve followed their site for ages.  Please find my August blog post here about what motivates me to stay in teaching when so many are fleeing.