7 Things I Tried This School Year (and How They Turned Out)

Untitled Design
I also tried denim jackets and gold hoops this school year

One of the things I appreciate most about teaching is that it gives me a chance to try new things. In my regular life, I’m pretty risk-averse, but within the walls of my classroom, I try out new things on a near-weekly basis. If I try something and it doesn’t work, no big deal! I can try something different or tweak what I have until I find something that works for me and my students.

This school year presented some new challenges for me, so I thought I would use this space to reflect on what I tried in my classroom this year and how everything worked out.

I Tried…Teaching Math (LOL)

math meme
This was me basically every day during my math block

Let me start by saying that this was NOT a choice I signed up for. Basically, we never filled an open spot on our fifth grade team because of budget issues at the district and state level (thanks, Texas legislature!). This meant that my three-teacher rotation turned into a two-teacher rotation. Each of us would now be responsible for teaching math to our homeroom class. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I absolutely hate math and I legitimately am not very strong in it (this is ironic because my mom taught math for many years and was actually my Algebra teacher!). Needless to say, I was not excited about the prospect of adding this subject area and I basically lived in denial until the first day of school.

How did it work out?

Not great, in my opinion. Statistically, my kids did okay, but teaching math was definitely not something that I enjoyed. I often felt confused because the way that we teach math is different than the way I remember learning it (do I sound old yet?), and this brought back a lot of bad memories of me struggling with math in school. I was also frustrated by how many math objectives teachers are expected to get through before the state test. I felt like we were constantly racing against the calendar to cover every standard, only to have to reteach what felt like everything when it was time to start reviewing for the test. Looking back, I am glad that I at least got to experience what it’s like to teach math, but I’m very relieved that next year I’ll be back in my comfort zone of reading and writing.

I Tried…Soft Start

STEM bins were a pretty popular soft start option for the first few months of school. I made a DonorsChoose project to get all of the supplies

Going into this school year, I knew that I wanted to try out having a “soft start” in my classroom. Basically, soft start is a way to start the morning in your classroom that centers around student choice. (To read more about soft start, click here.) Instead of having to enter the room and immediately begin working on a worksheet or warm-up that isn’t important and that teachers probably won’t grade, students are allowed to choose from different activities, like STEM bins, coloring, reading, or collaborative games. This helps them ease into their day of learning.

How did it work out?

Soft start was amazing for the first semester, but during the second semester it was more touch and go. I think this was due to me not changing up the activities that students could choose from. During the first few months of school, my students were obsessed with my STEM bins, but the novelty had worn off by January and I found myself having to do more monitoring to make sure that kids were using this time in a semi-productive manner and that they weren’t just gossiping (because everyone knows that fifth graders turn into middle schoolers over winter break).

I will definitely be doing soft start again next school year, but I plan on making changes to ensure that it stays successful. One idea I have is swapping out a few options every month (STEM bins one month, Chromebooks the next, then back to STEM bins) so that it feels fresh for the kids. I also plan on increasing the amount of options I offer kids so that they have more to choose from on a regular basis.

I Tried…A New Class Novel

Of course we had to do a six word summary after we finished reading!

It’s no secret that I absolutely love reading a novel out loud to my students. For the past two years, I had read Among the Hidden as our fifth class novel, but I was never completely sold on it. I liked the premise of the book and the fact that it got some kids hooked on the Shadow Children series, but the first half of the book felt so slow that it was a chore to get through some days. This year, I tried out a new book, Front Desk, and I am SO glad I did!

How did it work out?

AMAZINGLY! My kids fell in love with Mia and were so invested in all of her adventures and struggles. I loved that this book features a female Asian protagonist. My students live in an extremely racially segregated part of Houston and many of them don’t know any Asian people personally, so it was important I provide this window into another culture for them. The fact that the book is entertaining and hilarious while also diving into issues of racism, classism, and segregation is just icing on the read aloud cake!

I Tried…To Do as Little Test Prep As Possible

testing season

Everyone knows that I absolutely hate standardized tests and the test prep that too often accompanies it. With every year that I’ve been teaching, I have decreased the amount of test prep that I do with my students. I am not convinced that doing test prep in reading makes any meaningful difference, and I’m not interested in making my class mind-numbingly boring for weeks at a time.

This year, I really decreased the prep that we did. We did three Super STAAR Mondays (read more about that here). In the weeks before STAAR, we did a classroom Shark Tank and worked in groups to compare and contrast our class novels in preparation for the paired selection that would appear on the state test. My school bought us test prep workbooks full of reading passages, and we did one passage. The rest of our time before the test was spent reading independently, reading our class novel together, and doing the types of activities we would normally do.

This is what we did to compare our class novels and prepare for the section of the test that asks how texts are similar/different.

How did it work out?

My test scores were the same that they were the year before, and the group that I have this year had much lower scores in fourth grade than my group last year did. What does this tell me? That test prep is USELESS. If you teach your kids the skills they need to know all year long, then you don’t need to throw your schedule out the window to cram in a bunch of test prep. Just read, think, talk, and write about books, and your kids will be fine.

I Tried…ClassDojo

I know what you’re thinking–wait, you’re just now trying ClassDojo? To be fair, I used Dojo during my second year of teaching, but this was the first year I actually tried using it to its full extent. I actually got 100% of my parents for both of my blocks added to the account, which meant it was now super useful as a parent communication tool. I also used it to post weekly pictures of what we were working on in class to keep parents in the loop.

How did it work out?

As mentioned above, I absolutely loved Dojo for the parent communication piece. However, I seriously failed at using it for positive incentives. I just found the points system too cumbersome to keep up with on a daily basis, so I let that fall by the wayside after the first month or so. Next year, I definitely plan on using Dojo for parent communication and for the student portfolio feature, but I want to try out having a classroom economy as well, and I have a feeling I’ll like that better than the points on Dojo. I just felt like I always had to be connected to my phone and I didn’t like feeling tethered.

I Tried…A Classroom Shark Tank

After each group presented, they got to decide which products they wanted to “invest” in.

This year for our persuasive unit, I decided to spice things up a little bit and do a classroom Shark Tank. This was an idea that I had seen floating around teacher Instagram, and it seemed like a fun, real-life way to get the kids to practice their persuasive skills. There are probably a ton of products out there on TPT, but I kept our Shark Tank pretty simple. Each group was tasked with brainstorming product ideas that they thought their peers would want to invest in. We watched a short Shark Tank clip and then groups started to plan out their pitch. They each developed an advertisement that would run in a magazine and a presentation to perform in front of their peers. On the actual Shark Tank day, each group judged the other posters and presentations, and then they decided how they would invest their group’s money.

How did it work out?

It was okay, although I would make some changes the next time I do this. There was a pretty big variance in the quality of presentations (some were amazing, some were terrible), which tells me that I need to give groups more guidance on what a presentation should include. I would also have us spend more time looking at advertisements and commercials and analyzing what makes them convincing (or not). Overall, it was a really fun classroom activity and I do plan on repeating it next year.

I Tried…A Classroom Debate

Another new thing I tried this year in our reading block was a classroom debate! I had wanted to do this for a while and finally decided to take the plunge. Again, I’m sure there are tons of resources floating around, but I kept mine pretty straightfoward. Students got into groups and were assigned one of three topics. I have 28 students in each of my blocks and I didn’t want the groups to be bigger than four people, so I decided to have groups focus on different topics. This also made the activity more engaging for the students watching when their group wasn’t debating.

The topics we debated were:

  • Kids should be allowed to use cell phones in school.
  • Teachers should eliminate homework.
  • Students should attend school year-round.

The students gathered research using their Chromebooks and they worked together to plan out who would present which facts during the debate. On the day of the debate, students judged their peers’ performance using this template. This kept all of the students engaged and helped me give individual grades based on debate performance and engagement during the other group’s presentations.

How did it work out?

I was pleasantly surprised by how well this activity worked! I was nervous that my students weren’t finding enough information, but they really kicked into gear when it came time to write their statements for the debate. Most of the groups were great at helping each other edit their statements and sharing information if a peer needed more to say. I’ll definitely do this activity again, but I plan on making it a little more structured. I want my students to be able to react to what the other side says and plan rebuttals on the spot, which takes more preparation and practice, so I’ll be working that in before we do this again next year.

So there you have it! What did you try out this year? How did it work out for you?



One thought on “7 Things I Tried This School Year (and How They Turned Out)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s