In the Trenches

Thoughts and Ideas from a Classroom Teacher

Note to Self

Dear self,

I was too tired to do my homework tonight. I realize that it was very important for me to grade that math assignment. I know that I need that information as soon as possible so that I can make sure my students have mastered that part of fractions. I promise I will do it tomorrow. Today I taught all day, managed to have 2 meetings, helped set up science fair tables, helped my twins with their homework, played with my 6 month old, helped cook supper, sat down to eat with the family, did the dishes, finished the twins’ science fair project with them, fed the baby, got everyone to sleep, and even set the coffee pot for in the morning. It’s 8:45 pm and I could push myself to get a few more things finished, but tonight I choose me. I give myself permission to not think about school, to go to bed early, and to get a good night’s sleep. Everyone will be happier tomorrow that I am well rested than that my math papers are graded. Trust me. If you have any questions, feel free get in touch. You know where to find me.


It sure seems silly to write myself an excuse note to go to bed early. Yet, how many times do we deny ourselves our basic needs because of our dedication to our jobs/classes/students? Don’t even get me started on actually eating lunch at school. I mean, who has time for that?! If there is any thing that I try to impress on new teachers, it is that taking care of yourself and family is a number one priority. If only I always took my own advice,.. Good night friends. Give yourself permission to be human, too.

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Flat Stanley in a Flat World

Today in education we hear a lot of talk about having flat classrooms. Who would have guessed that Jeff Brown would have perfected this concept in 1964 when he wrote the original Flat Stanley book? In recent years, Flat Stanley has taken on new life and is having new world-wide adventures. Check out some of his adventures at If you have reluctant readers, I haven’t met a child who didn’t love Flat Stanley. In fact, it’s even my dad’s favorite book!


Classically, classrooms do Flat Stanley projects, where students create a Flat Stanley to send to other people or classrooms around the world. They mail these Stanley’s and then wait… and wait… and wait. Last year, I “modernized” my version of the Flat Stanley project with the help of my Facebook and Twitter friends. Here’s a look at what we did.


1. Students made their own Flat Stanleys. This part, in my opinion, is essential because it personalizes the learning.

2. We developed a Google Form of questions that we wanted answered from our recipients. HERE is what we asked and how it looked. The students generated the questions based on their interest, but we also used data that we could plot later in a math data project.

3. I contacted friends, family members, and PLN members, asking them to participate in our project. I collected their information on another Google Form. This allowed me to gather the information easily and to create a “waiting list.”

4. We sent out our Flat Stanley’s to our first 22 participants, and we put our form link on the back of each Stanley. We asked that classrooms email us a photo of them with Stanley and fill out the information. We then asked those classes to pass along Stanley to someone that they knew.

5. Within a week, we have multiple responses and photos, and our Google form was filling up. We used Google Earth to find the places where Stanley visited. We even set up Skype calls with some of the classes to ask them more questions.



The kids had a great time collecting and aggregating information with digital tools, and our Stanley’s traveled around the world. It was so exciting to watch my students get “into” the learning that we were doing. It gave us authentic information to use for our data collection and presentation unit. It allowed us to learn geography with a real purpose. It most definitely expanded our world view. No matter how old your students are, projects like Flat Stanley are valuable learning experiences. They are also a great opportunity to take “old school” activities that have always had great value and to “flatten” them to meet the changing view of learning today.


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Parent Communication

I am a firm believer in positive parent communication. I try to send good news to all of my parents throughout the year. But, I admit it, I am terrible about making phone calls. Something always happens and I forget, or it’s too late, or I’ve left the phone numbers at home. I finally developed a solution.

Have you ever gotten a stack of “A Note From Your Teacher” postcards that you really meant to use? Here’s your chance. At the start of a new quarter or Mailboxsemester, I get a postcard for each of my students. I address and stamp them and put them on my desk. Throughout the nine weeks, as the student does something “note-worthy” all I have to do is write the quick message and then drop the postcard in the school mailbox. A few days after I send a note, my student always comes in and mentions how they got the postcard. I’ve learned over time that it isn’t what you write or the event that you choose to reference. It is the fact that you send the note.  By addressing them all ahead of time, I don’ t lose track of who I’ve sent the notes too, and I don’t worry about leaving someone out. By keeping them on my desk, they are also another reminder to keep myself always looking for the best in my students! And, if you are bit geeky like me, I love making my own postcards too.

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Multiplication to the Rescue

I teach in an area of high-stakes testing, where, once per year, students in grades 3-8 sit down for a two part, four hour math test. This test is divided into two parts, calculators and no calculators. For the test, each student gets a pencil, blank paper, and grid paper. Exciting, huh? I am not a fan of this testing method, and I have spoken out against it in many ways. But, I also am not one who will “refuse” to teach my students in a way that doesn’t prepare them for this specific type of testing and strategies for being successful with it. Many would not agree, but I don’t want them to be the ones that suffer any more than they do already. So, today I share my multiplication grid trick.

Starting with my third graders, I teach them to create this multiplication grid on their own graph paper in the first five minutes of the timed test. Many love it because they are convinced that they cannot multiply and this lets them “skip count.”


  1. It gets them focused on the math.
  2. It keeps them from having to draw circles and tallies for every multiplication problem they encounter.
  3. They can use this one chart to solve problems with multiplication, division and many fraction operations (like equivalents and simplifying).


  1. This is something can practice ahead of time. Not only does creating it for the test help them in the actual test, the act of creating the chart helps them learn the facts originally. This is also something predictable for them that they feel that they can control. The confidence this brings is so valuable.
  2. Time and careless errors can be reduced when students don’t have to re-solve the same fact problems over and over.
  3. See the diagrams below for more tips.

CORRECTION to picture: it should say, to simplify the fraction, slide your fingers to the left. I will fix the graphic ASAP.

This is only the beginning of what can be done with a self-constructed tool!


Quick Tips for When You Just Need a Minute

Today in the lunchroom, I shared one of my favorite behavior management techniques with some of my colleagues, and my friend Jessica said that I should post them to my blog tonight. How could I say no to that?!

1. The “Going to the Bathroom When You Can’t Trust Your Students for Three Minutes” Technique: When I was pregnant with the twins, I had the use the bathroom frequently. In one particular class, I knew that there were one or two students who I just couldn’t leave alone – not even for a minute. At this time, I perfected the “You Go So I Can Go” Technique. When I could feel a bathroom break coming on, I did a quick scan for the “instigator of the day.” That person was sent on a quick errand. Sometimes it was just sending a note to a colleague on the other side of the building. Having one person out of the room often sets the mood in a better place. Just make sure the errand you are sending them on will take long enough for you to actually get to the bathroom and back again!

2. The “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Technique: Sometimes, you need a break from a student. You are reaching that point where you know you are going to lose it. When that feeling comes on, send that student on a mission. Often, you just need a minute to re-group and that child needs a change of reference. Besides, all the kids know is that teachers only send the “good” kids on errands. This is how this might go.

Me: “Oh. Beth, I almost forgot. Mr. Jones said he’d like to see you this morning for just a minute.”

Beth: “Ok.” She leaves.

Me picking up phone and dialing rapidly: “Mr. Jones. This is Mrs. Hines. I just sent Beth to you. Will you tell her what a great job you heard she did on her math project last week? Keep her for a few minutes before sending him back. I owe you. Thanks.”

10 minutes pass as I just breathe for a few minutes.

Me: “Oh, Beth. I’m glad your back. Is everything OK?”

Beth with a smile: “Yes. Mr. Jones told me what a great job I did.”

Me: “Awesome. Well, we are on page 35. Your neighbor will show you.”


3. The “Area 51” Technique: This is for emergencies only. It requires only a  cooperating buddy teacher or staff member, preferably as far away from your classroom as you can find. It can be used as a substitute for techniques one and two when more detailed plans can’t be made. It should not be over-used. It is especially useful when you see an issue escalating between two students and you know they need a time out. When you see that a child needs a bit of a break from the class, send them to your buddy teacher and have them say, “Mrs. Hines needs the key to Area 51. Do you have it?” This is the important part. Your buddy should them spend a convincing amount of time rifling through drawers, looking in pockets, sorting through purses, etc. After a few minutes, she can send your child back with the bad news that she wasn’t able to find the key. Of course, you will act highly disappointed but thank the student for his time to go ask. Again, you’ve had the time to regroup.


Favorite Read Alouds

I think that every teacher has his or her favorite read aloud books to share with their children and students. I don’ t know of any age group that doesn’t love a read aloud book either, even if they won’t admit it. I polled my friends tonight for some of the books that they love, and I thought I’d share them here. I definitely think I’ve added to my “to read” list. Oooh… If you are looking for a place to keep track of books you read and ones you’d like to check out, try Shelfari.  My bookshelf is HERE.

Check out these awesome read alouds from some of my favorite friends!

Where the Red Fern Grows

What? Cried Granny

The Twits

On My Honor

House on Hackman’s Hill

The Call of the Wild

To Kill a Mockingbird

Sideways Stories from Wayside School (and the rest of the Wayside School series)

Stone Fox

John, Paul, George and Ben


Tikki  Tikki Tembo

Prince of the Pond


Tiger Rising

Winnie the Pooh

The Secret Garden

Bunnicula (and the rest of its series)

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes


Zen Shorts

Bear Noel

Ghost Hotel

The Green Book

The Giving Tree

The Witches

The Magic Treehouse series

The Ghost-Eyed Tree

Charlotte’s Web

The Indian in the Cupboard

Because of Winn Dixie

Love You Forever

Bread and Jam for Frances

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Tale of Despereaux

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

The Very Friendly Snowflake

The Jolly Postman

Where the Wild Things Are

The Butter Battle

Oh the Places You’ll Go

KinderKnuffle Bunny

My Father’s Dragon

Number the Stars

A Wrinkle in Time


Bridge to Terabithia
Afternoon of the Elvesa

Barn Dance

Skippy Jon Jones

The Lorax

Good Night Moon

I Love You Stinky Face

Flat Stanley (I love that this is my dad’s favorite!)

Sarah’s Story

The Happy Hockey Family

You Are Special

Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon

And for my personal favorites…

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

There’s a Monster at the End of This Book

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A Place for Ideas

Lately, I have been posting lots of resource links to my Facebook feed. A few friends have asked me where I find these awesome (free) items. I have to admit that they show up in my Facebook feed. If you don’t mind mind mixing a bit of professional with your personal Facebooking, try “liking” these great resource pages.

The Organized Classroom Blog

Laura Candler’s Teaching Resources

Teaching Ideas

Do you have other favorites?

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Science Fair

My students’ science fair projects are due tomorrow. What a stressful day! Leading up to the final due date, I tried to do activities with my students that would reinforce the idea that this does not need to be an attempt to solve world hunger. It should be fun, solve a problem and use the scientific method. Last week, we did an experiment to prove that it is possible to complete a science fair project in one hour or less. We had a blast! Here’s how we did it…

Topic: What’s the fastest way to melt an ice cube using only yourself?

Hypothesis: Thinking about what causes ice cubes to melt, what factors need to be considered? The students generated the idea that heat melts ice cubes, and smaller ice cubes melt faster than larger ones. Using this information, each student came up with a plan for melting their own ice cube and recorded it.

Materials: Uniform ice cubes (at least 2 per student), plastic zipper bags (at least 2 per student), a timer, place to record times

We also had a great discussion about constants and variables here. All ice cubes had to be the same size. The bags had to be the same size and brand.

Procedure: Hand out plastic bags. Give each student an ice cube to put directly in their bag. Students should seal their bags. Everyone did a quick seal check by flipping the bag upside down and doing a quick shake. On the “go” signal, everyone should carry out their plan to melt their ice cube. Before we began, we agreed that we would define “melted” as being completely liquid, with no solid pieces left in the bag. As students completed the melting of the ice cube, mark the time it was completely melted. When everyone has finished melting their ice cube, students should analyze the top 5 finishers and the last 5 finishers, noting what their actions had in common. They create a new hypothesis with a new plan to improve their “melt time” based on the new information. Record new trial information.

Results: Write a description of the method of melting and the time it took to melt the ice cube.

Analysis: What do the fastest times have in common? What do the slowest times have in common? What generalizations can you make about your findings ? I won’t go into the results here. I don’t want to give it away. 

Next Time: Students listed different ways they might attempt the same experiment. They also considered variables to change. Some things they came up with included:

What would happen if you used different types of ziploc bags?

Which types/shapes of ice cubes melt faster?




Photo Credit: Ice Cube

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5 Killer Classroom Management Tips?

This morning, a member of my Twitter PLN shared a link to an article titled “5 Killer Classroom Management Tips.” Of course, I wanted to check it out. As a mentor to new teachers and a cooperating teacher for university students, I am always on the lookout for tips to help with this most difficult part of teaching. Immediately after reading it, I was struck the wrong way. I re-tweeted the article, asking my PLN if they agreed with the tips. Only one person responded, but it sat on my brain all day. I decided to make this the focus on today’s “In the Trenches” because I think some of these “killer” tips would be more effective in actually killing your classroom management. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t entirely disagree with the points mentioned here, but I need to explain more. I also include 5 of my own tips for classroom management.

Tip One: Post Classroom Rules

Well, sure, it is important for students to know what you expect, but that’s what they are… expectations. Our school has a Sacred Path that all staff and students are expected to follow. Our expectations are:

1. Be responsible.

2. Be respectful.

3. Be truthful.

4. Be caring.

These are the “rules” in my class, but I’m not sure that they come across in the way shared in this article. Before my current school, my classroom rule was a question.

Does your behavior help others to learn and me to teach?

Tip Two: Set Up a Discipline Policy

This is the one that burned me and is a huge pet peeve. The warnings that they outline here are the norm, but when the author recommends sending warning slips to the administration, I was shocked. In my experience, the number one thing that teachers need to do is maintain the authority in their own classrooms. I do not send students to the office for disciplinary issues other than the “non-negotiables” (fighting, extreme bullying, etc.) Failure to bring your homework or a pencil or excessive chatting in class is not a discipline issue. These are management. It is important to differentiate between the two. Involving the student and parents in classroom discipline and management are essential. When you hand over trivial issues, like lack of a pencil, to a building administrator, you lose your credibility and authority with your student. Frankly, I think my students would rather be sent to the office sometimes. They know I will be tougher on them because I know their strengths and abilities and won’t accept excuses.

Tip Three: Teach Students to be Active and Engaged

There are many things here that I agree with, but the emphasis needs to be on the teacher. We must plan lessons that are active and engaging. We can’t just expect students to know how engage themselves. If we plan lessons that are inherently gripping for our students, we won’t need to coax them into correct behaviors. They will already be along for the ride.

Tip Four: Be a Presence in the Classroom

It is true that we need to create an inviting and engaging learning environment for our students, but the greatest way to do this is how you treat your students. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your bulletin boards are or how neat your posters are hung if your students don’t feel welcome, safe and appropriately secure. Being a presence in the classroom requires being a positive presence in your students’ lives.

Tip Five: Use “I Messages”

I have some reservations about this one as well. My classroom management isn’t about “me.” It’s about ensuring learning in my classroom. Behind every contrary classroom behavior, there is an underlying issue, and that issue is not about me. Understanding and improving student behavior is about the student. Until students realize that they are valued and prioritized, they won’t really care about the “I.”

If I were to write 5 tips for classroom management, they would be…

1. Know your students.

What gets your students excited about learning? What makes them want to come to school? Who is in charge of watching her baby brother every night

when her mom goes to work? Who will work his rear end off for the football coach and knows every player and all his stats? This information is priceless.

2. Set clear and appropriate expectations.

Know what you need in order to create a safe and orderly learning environment, with the focus on the abilities of you to teach and others to learn.

3. Choose your battles.

If Jessica has not had a pencil for the last 76 days of school, is it reasonable to expect her to have one tomorrow? It takes less effort for you to hand Jessica a pencil and move on than it does to berate her for missing it again. Should Arnold sit out of recess again for not having his homework? Did he mention that he’s home alone every night? Think about this question: Does this behavior keep me from teaching? Does it keep the child or others from learning? If not, is it a battle worth fighting? Are you spending valuable instructional time dealing with these issues when you could be teaching?
4. Respect your students.Don’t ask your students to show you respect when you don’ t show it to them. Period.

5. Plan excellent learning experiences.

Planning engaging lessons that meet students where they are and appropriately challenge them will negate any classroom management plan. You won’t need it.


Revolutionary Resources

Today I’m going to share a few of the resources that I am using in planning, organizing and carrying out my Revolutionary War unit.



Students are using these sites to…

– create mini-biographies

– create a timeline of important events

– research the Intolerable Acts

– understand the complications in developing a national government

– develop a picture of colonial life

– have a framework of understanding of the state of the country going into the 1800’s




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