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First Year Flashback

First Year Flashback

I have to dig deep into my memory to flashback to my first year of teaching during the 1995-96 school year. It is always nice to revisit those times though, and every year new teachers everywhere go through the same struggles. You are not alone and you will get through it! I promise!

I graduated from Iowa State University in May 1995 and was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha called the CADRE Project for the 1995-96 school year. In this program, you are placed in a classroom as a full-time teacher at one of the surrounding public school districts while simultaneously completing a Master’s Degree program. Part of the program included a “Master Teacher Mentor” that would check in on my classroom periodically to give pointers and advice to help make the first year go smoother. I was placed in the Omaha Public Schools as a 4th-grade teacher.

My classroom was in a building that was built in 1912 and hadn’t had many renovations so it was very “antique”. Wood floors, very high ceiling, tall windows, old radiator for heat, and no air conditioning! The school itself, a K-4 building, had more classrooms outside in portables than we had in the actual building. I was lucky to be in the main building. Outside my classroom door was the “office” which consisted of a large counter in the hallway for the secretary to work from with a small office to the back for the principal. The security guard sat right outside my classroom at a small little table.

I was given very minimal supplies to start off since my class was added late in the summer. I had a set of math and reading textbooks and a set of old metal desks in the room. I had access to large rolls of colored paper, writing paper, and pencils in a school-wide storage room. If I needed anything else I had to put in a supply order, but this was only for the basic office supplies like pens, staples, etc. It took several months just to get a working pencil sharpener in that room that first year!

These conditions forced me to create my own materials. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise that led me to a love of curriculum development and gave me skills to use for my post-teaching career!

The biggest challenge I had that first year was learning how to work with such a diverse population, both racial and socio-economical. There was nothing taught in teacher training to prepare me for that. I grew up in Sioux Falls, SD, where my graduating class of over 500 had less than 1% non-white students and all basically came from a middle class economic status.

My students were about 50% black living in the high-poverty neighborhood where the school was located. The other 50% were mainly white students that were bussed in from an even lower income area that included a homeless shelter. Due to the homeless shelter, we had a lot of movement in and out of the school. In a given year I would have on average 18 students in my room, but by the end of the year, I would have a list of 40-50 kids that had actually been in my class at some point during the year.

About the same time that school started my first year there was a police officer, Jimmy Wilson Jr, shot and killed by gang members while still sitting seat belted in his patrol car. This caused quite a bit of unrest and tension in the city, especially in the area where my school was located. One of the first Friday afternoons after starting school it was too hot to be sitting in the classroom (no air conditioning) so I took the class out to the front yard under a big tree to do our read aloud time there. Instead of reading, a discussion about the shooting started amongst them. My eyes were really opened during the discussion to just how different the families in the area viewed the shooting than I had as a white woman from the middle class area of town. I learned a lot about my students and the experiences of their families that day. I was also really tuned in to just how much innocence was lost in these young 9-10 year olds, from the mature nature of the things they’d seen and struggles they had experienced at such a young age. I had student taught 4th grade in Ames, IA, those kids were so much less mature and more innocent than the students I had sitting with me under that tree. It was a very eye opening and educational experience for me. I think that discussion really helped me see into the lives of these children and gave me a better empathetic attitude towards the life experiences that they carried.

The biggest challenge was also the best part. I learned to be so much more open-minded and learned to work with a diverse population. I learned as much from those kids that year as I taught them.

There was one student in particular who I feel I touched more than any other student I’ve ever had. I was, and still am, very proud of how I helped him build his confidence that year and helped others in the district, who had dismissed him and written him off as a goof-off who didn’t have much potential, see that he was very worthy of another look. I proved them wrong and opened their eyes to the incredible potential he did hold.

Sometimes you’ll feel like you are stuck and you’ll never get through, but you will. Every year after that first year you add a little more to your knowledge base. You learn the importance of organization, the importance of seeing each child through a clear set of eyes (don’t read past files before meeting them), and realize that your classroom doesn’t have to look “perfect” and that money can be better spent on instructional materials rather than cutesy bulletin boards! You don’t need a “Pinterest Pretty Classroom” to be a good teacher!

You also learn that you can’t solve every problem, you can only do your best to try. Make sure to protect yourself as well, don’t let all the problems of your students and classroom dominate your life. Take some time out for your personal mental health so you don’t get burned out too fast! Use your mistakes as learning experiences instead of stressing out over them. We all make them and you will too!

I wish good luck and happy days ahead for all teachers reading this, but especially all of you first-year teachers! Take a deep breath, it will work out in the end and you will do fantastic! There is nothing more exciting and contagious than a first year teacher’s enthusiasm!

Get Spooky with Bunnicula

Get Spooky with Bunnicula

Are you looking for a great book to use in the month of October to get your students in the Halloween mood? 

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe is the perfect book to use right now to capture the mood of the season in a humorous, non-scary way!




From the Book Jacket: Beware the Hare! Is he or isn’t he a vampire? Before it’s too late Harold the dog and Chester the cat must find out the truth about the newest pet in the Monroe household – a suspicious-looking bunny with unusual habits… and fangs!

Students love to read this book and this is the perfect time of year to include it into your curriculum.

This book makes a great class novel study, small book group study, individual novel study, or whole class read aloud. I guarantee your students will love it and it’s the perfect complement to any classroom in October!

Are you interested in reading about and sharing ideas with other educators on using children’s literature in your classroom? My goal is to bring together teachers and homeschoolers who teach grades 3-8 and use novels with their students. I’d love for you to join me to learn, share, and grow together!

Click here or the image below to join my Facebook group, Book Talk with The Teaching Bank!

Click to join Book Talk with The Teaching Bank

*The Teaching Bank participates in the Amazon Associate Program and earns a fee from qualifying purchases made on the site.

How to Build a Better Teacher

How to Build a Better Teacher

I found an interesting article: How to Build a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green, that I thought was worth sharing.

The article talks about the myths and perceptions of what makes a great teacher. Are they natural born? Can it be learned?

The article gives five examples, taken from educational research that shows what sets apart a great teacher from a mediocre or bad one.

1. They can right a wrong: “The best teachers put themselves in their students’ shoes—and grapple with how they arrived at the wrong answer in order to set them right.”

2. They never say Shhh!”: “The best teachers eradicate ambiguity and respond to misbehavior with specificity, describing the desired behavior rather than the problem. “We’re following along in our books,” the teacher might say, gently reminding the distracted students to get back to work.”

3. They encourage deeper thinking: You will hear a lot of “why” or “explain how” type questions in these classrooms.

4. Great teachers “cold call” with a purpose: “The goal is to ­extract the maximum possible mileage from each question. By ­introducing the possibility that anyone can be asked to speak at any time, the teacher ­decreases the chances their students will tune out.”

5. They show more than they tell: “The teacher needs to be specific, showing students what detailed thinking looks like by illuminating the invisible mental steps that go into it.”

As I read I couldn’t help but compare myself and see my successes and shortcomings. This is a great article to think about as you navigate your school year. How do you measure up? What are you doing right? What can you improve to make this your most successful year yet?

The Wonder of Wonder!

The Wonder of Wonder!

Of all the curriculum materials I create novel units are my favorite, but creating my Wonder Novel Study to accompany the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio has by far been my all time favorite! The encouragement of building a community and building empathy among students is so rich with this novel.




Summary of Wonder:
(From the Book Jacket)

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

Auggie’s struggles are written on his face. You go into the book knowing you are going to read about a kid who’s going to have a tough struggle. The surprising thing with this book is that you end up realizing that the other “normal” characters who seem to have it all on the outside, they are beautiful, rich, smart, etc, all have some type of struggle as well. This book really makes you look beyond the cover and delve deeper underneath. It is a wonderful resource to strengthen empathy and learn to not be so quick to judge a “book by its cover” so to speak. This led me to a great after the book writing activity that corresponds with Plato’s quote: “Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

One thing I really love about the unit I was able to create was how the text lent itself to higher order thinking questions. There are very few knowledge level (recall) or even comprehension level questions in the comprehension packet section of the unit. The vast majority are analysis and evaluation level questions because that is just where the text leads you. The book is just so thought-provoking!

You can try a free activity that comes from the novel to check it out:

I loved how R.J. Palacio subtly adds the character of Daisy the dog as the only soul who does not “see” Auggie’s facial abnormalities. Through Daisy’s interactions, Ms. Palacio shows the unconditional love of animals. This prompted me to add a Reading Informational activity to the unit involving therapy dogs and animal-assisted therapy. I know teachers are looking for Common Core-aligned resources to help with Reading Informational Text skills so I added this small activity to the unit. You can download this activity for free by clicking on the image below:

Therapy Dog

As you can tell I loved this book. It is one of the best books I have read and I think it would serve well in any 4-6th-grade classroom. However, I do have one minor complaint. In the book, Auggie also deals with a hearing loss and there is a chapter that describes his experience in getting fitted for a hearing aid for the first time. I also live with hearing loss and have worn hearing aids for several years. In some ways, Ms. Palacio was spot on describing Auggie’s feelings about wearing hearing aids around his friends and how he may be perceived. However, Ms. Palacio was very off the mark when she described the experience of getting hearing aids and how they work. This is very understandable as I am sure most people do think that wearing hearing aids is very much like wearing glasses, which is how Ms.Palacio describes the experience. In reality, it is nothing like that. After reading this chapter in the book I felt so strongly that I felt the need to add my own supplement to the unit explaining what it is really like to wear hearing aids and have a hearing loss in our modern world. I hope this supplement is helpful to your students. This resource is included in the Wonder Novel Study and is also offered as a stand-alone item here:

As I mentioned I loved this book! 🙂 It hits on so many issues in the modern classroom and appeals to such a wide audience. It really is a must-read and a wonderful addition to any classroom instruction.

Boy with a hat Wonder Novel Study Compatible with Google Drive

Are you interested in reading about and sharing ideas with other educators on using children’s literature in your classroom? My goal is to bring together teachers and homeschoolers who teach grades 3-8 and use novels with their students. I’d love for you to join me to learn, share, and grow together!

Click here or the image below to join my Facebook group, Book Talk with The Teaching Bank!

Click to join Book Talk with The Teaching Bank

*The Teaching Bank participates in the Amazon Associate Program and earns a fee from qualifying purchases made on the site.