Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Power of Team Building

September...the most exciting and exhausting month of a teacher's year! What an amazing start to the year we have had in TEAM Togetherness! We are loving getting to know our little darlings! We are still adjusting to switching from end of the year 5th graders to beginning of the year 4th graders (WOW...what a difference!). Kate and I are constantly giving each other permission to slow down and breathe! They are so young, but really have come so far in the first 3 weeks of school!

As we start with a brand new group of kiddos, one of the most important things we do to launch our year is team building activities. These activities take time, but the resulting conversations and foundation building is critical to our personalized learning environment.

Many of our students are coming to us never having been in a set up like ours (2 teachers, one big space, 50+ kids, no desks, etc.). They are also "big 3rd graders." Many do not know how to communicate their needs clearly, collaborate, solve problems, give feedback, or persevere when things get tough....YET!

Starting on the first day, Kate and I provide our students with purposefully planned team building activities to help build this sort of foundation. Our hope today, is to lay out some of the big ones we have used, as well as the resulting conversations, as well as how it has connected to the underlying rules and beliefs in our environment. So, hang on....we've got A LOT to share!


Amazon Link
Have you read this book?? If not, you totally should check it out! She also has other great ones that have similar themes! We used this book on the first day of school to launch a conversation about how we are all unique and bring different skills and talents to Team Togetherness. It is a hilarious book about the exclamation mark that doesn't feel like he fits in anywhere. He tries to be like everyone else (and fails hilariously), but in the end, as you can probably imagine, he learns how his own skills are special and necessary.

After reading the book, we introduced the kids to 5 different posters--one for each punctuation mark--period, comma, question mark, quotation marks, and exclamation mark. We didn't give them much direction, other than to think about which mark best represents them. We, then, asked them to move to the poster they felt was the best representative of themselves. Once there, as a new small group, they brainstormed ways that they "mattered" to Team Togetherness.
After they had filled their posters with ideas, we came back together as a large group and shared out. We created an anchor chart to hang in the room to remind us of our ideas. One of our darlings, in our grand conversation, said "So, we really need ALL of us to build up Team Togetherness!" <sigh of happiness> Out of the mouths of babes...
Our final thinking anchor chart

You'd think that jigsaw puzzles would be easy or "baby-ish" for 4th graders, but let me tell you, it was fascinating to watch! Kate and I bought ten 100-piece animal jigsaw puzzles from the dollar store (totally worth it). We, then, divided them into 5 person teams. The directions were simple: complete the puzzle in 10 minutes. Easy?? Not so much! They all thought it would be, but it turned out that everyone had their own idea on how to solve it! 

As teachers, it was absolutely fascinating to us to see which groups did what. Which ones started on the carpet, then realized a flat surface would work better. Which started with the edges. Which started with the main picture. Which group had 5 kids working on their own little parts, not really putting them together to make one. After 10 minutes, we had NO ONE complete their puzzle (we really expected this result...10 minutes really isn't THAT long ;)

We, then, came together as a large group, and discussed what went well and what didn't. What strategies helped you be more successful? Again, we charted our ideas.
After our grand conversation was done, we let them go back and finish their puzzles! Surprisingly (not really), they were far more successful :) 


Our next activity fed the engineers in our room! We bought small, plastic cups from Target. We gave each group about 40 cups to work with (no way did we need that many in hindsight!). Again, fairly simple directions: build the tallest, free-standing cup tower that you can. Again, totally fun to watch. Many kids gave up or showed frustration (every group's tower fell multiple times!), others worked really well together. Kate and I walked around with a meter stick and our microphone, calling out the tallest height of the moment.
Then, it was time for our grand conversation (sensing a pattern here??) This time, we really emphasized perseverance and positive communication when things don't go well. It's not just WHAT we say, but HOW we say it to each other.


This was a new one for us this year, but was by far, one of my most favorites! We gave each group a large tube of toothpaste (again, purchased at our favorite, local dollar store!), a styrofoam plate,  and one toothpick per person. The only direction we gave was "We want to see which team can squeeze and empty their tube the fastest." Now, of course, that wasn't really the ultimate task, but this part was SO fun and MINTY! (our room smelled fantastic!)

Squeezing the toothpaste OUT!
Now came the REALLY fun part...we told them that they now needed to put the toothpaste back IN to their tubes using their toothpicks! Our direction was met with "What?? Impossible! I wouldn't have squeezed it all out had I known that!" and more hilarious whining! What ensued was a messy disaster of fun learning!
 ATTEMPTING to put the toothpaste back in!
Once the giant mess was cleaned up (yes, it makes a giant one, but so worth it!), we read the familiar book Have You Filled a Bucket Today?. Then, we discussed the challenge.
Amazon Link for Book
The biggest connection...our words are like the toothpaste! Once they are out of the "tube", you can never really get them back in. We used this as a platform to discuss "choosing kind" at all times, how our words mean something, and how they make a difference!


This one is probably familiar to many of has been all over Pinterest and other blogs for years. Consider it an "oldie, but goodie!" There are hundreds of different versions out there. There are cutsie directions pages you can download when you search. There are even STEM connections to this one. For us, we kept it more simple. It wasn't so much about the activity, but the work and communication that went into it. We gave our students 20 mini marshmallows, 20 sticks of regular spaghetti (no linguine here!), and a roll of clear tape. We gave them 20 minutes and told them to build the tallest, free-standing tower possible. Only rules, once a piece of spaghetti or marshmallow was broken, you would not get a new one. And, it had to stand on its taping it to the table or wall!
We were most surprised by the lack of success on this project, but it really turned out to be a great teachable moment. They REALLY struggled with this one for some reason. We had a number of friends just give up and watch. We had a tremendous conversation about perseverance and failure. We hadn't anticipated doing it with this one, but the timing was just right. We also shared the now super popular Rube Goldberg video and used it to talk about failure. 

We spent the majority of the time discussing how the only true failure is when you stop trying. And how the little boy in this video saw his failures as opportunities to make things better. He was EXCITED by the number of failures he had!

Even though we went into the spaghetti challenge thinking we would discuss more about collaboration, the personal needs of our group took us in a different, magical direction. So, despite the "failure" of most of our groups in building a successful spaghetti tower, we were all "winners" with our new understanding of failure!


One of the last activities we did during the first 2 weeks of school was ask our students 6 questions:

  1. What should kids in our class be doing to make sure our class runs as smooth as possible?
  2. What do you hope to learn this year in XXth grade? (insert your grade here)
  3. What will YOU need to do this year in order to be successful?
  4. What will Mrs. Sommerville & Mrs. Patterson need to do this year in order to help Team Togetherness be successful? (insert your own name/class here)
  5. Our class should be _____ every day!
  6. School is important because ________!

We put these questions on 6 different sticky note anchor charts around the room. We, then, divided the kids into 6 starting groups, each armed with a pencil and sticky note pad. This was a silent activity. We set the timer for 3 minutes. During those three minutes, they needed to answer their assigned question on sticky notes. After the 3 minutes were up, we rotated to a new poster.
Once all groups had rotated through all 6 posters, we met for one of our final team building "grand conversations." We logged all of our best ideas into a doc.
Wow...just looking over that list again gives me goosebumps! They are so insightful and honest! <heart swells with happiness>

We used this document to look for trends and ideas. We, then, wrote our first draft of our "Social Contract." In Team Togetherness, our social contract is the norms we agree to function by. The kids word it and discuss what should or shouldn't be a part of it.  Our next blog post will focus on the social contract, as well as technology contract that the kids wrote, as well as the consequences they came up with.

Now, these 6 activities are not "the end" of team building in our space. We try to incorporate at least 1-2 per month for the remainder of the school year. It is always good to "norm" yourself and re-experience something to bring those ideas back to life! Others we are saving "in our back pockets": Saving Fred, a different cup/rubber band challenge, more great picture books, Lego challenge, The Day the Crayons Quit (a great book!), and more!

In Team Togetherness, team building activities are not only fun and memorable, but they have a much deeper meaning. For us, they are integral in the development of our classroom community and norms. They are powerful teachable moments.

How do you develop community in your classrooms? Do you have other ideas to share? We'd love to learn with you!

Happy Teaching!


Monday, September 7, 2015

Setting Up the Classroom

So...we survived the first week! It has been amazing (& exhausting) starting fresh with a brand new class of little darlings after finishing our 2 year loop with our last group. We have done so much this week, and of course, a lot we didn't get to. A blog post will be coming soon about the first week bumps and celebrations.

This year was definitely new for Kate and I. For starters, we had to pack up everything prior to the end of the school year. And, when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING! Our entire classroom had to be boxed up and put into trailers behind our building. Why? You might ask...we are now the COOL teachers in an air conditioned building! HOORAY! 
The absolutely GINORMOUS crane putting one of the units on our roof!
That being said...while we now get to wear a sweater in September, this project came with many challenges. The number one challenge for us teachers being that we could NOT get into our school for the entire summer! I don't know about you, but I typically try to get in once a week throughout the summer to complete small tasks. I only stay for a few hours, but it helps me build up to the "big reveal" at meet and greet in August.

The summer was winding down, our anxiety was winding up, and we finally found out we could get into our classrooms on Monday, August 24th!!! <sigh of relief> Meet and Greet was pushed back to August 31st! That is not much time, people! This is was we walked into:
The double room PILE we walked into!
EVERYTHING we owned was piled on top of each other and on blue carts. Our giant pieces of furniture were tipped upside down, smooshed, and in the wrong half of the space. My anxiety flew through the roof when I walked in. I gasped. I called Kate (who was on her way). I panicked. Then, I took a deep breath and dug in.

The first few hours were just spent trying to unload the 8 blue carts full of boxes and books. Once those were out of the room, we had a little more space to work with. Kate and I stayed until they kicked us out (well after 9PM) that first night...and the second night....!

It took us all week (and a lot of sweat and sore muscles), but we finally had this:

Not only did we get everything set up, but we (of course), took on some extra projects (because...seriously...we didn't have ANYTHING else to do ;) We're sick...truly sick... :)

Project One: Repainting the dry-erase tables! These tables take a beating throughout the year. Here is a link to our original blog post from last year when we painted them for the first time! Since then, they have been scuffed, chipped, and "shadowed." A little sanding, primer, and new paint...and voila! We have beautifully white tables, ready for the writing! We even added a 4th table this year! I added 3 coats of the dry erase paint this year (vs. two last year) with the hope that they will hold up a little better. We'll see!! Regardless, it is a great way to cover up old, beat up tables! The kids LOVE them!
BEFORE...scuffed, chipped, and nasty! We sanded all the tables down first, then primed them with a latex primer.

AFTER! 4 beautiful, white, shiny tables that are ready for the writing!
Project Two: Spray painting ugly stools! We had about 8 of those old, art room stools at various parts of our room. They were different colors of metal. They had rust spots. They were, needless to say, UNATTRACTIVE! So, a few cans of spray paint later...and we have beautiful, shiny stools that really POP in our room! Here is a link to the brand we used! We chose a lime green and turquoise color (sorry, couldn't find the exact colors on Home Depot site). 
We did choose gloss colors (there is a matte finish, as well). Had we had more time, we would have sprayed them with a clear protective coating, as well. Maybe we still can sometime before a long break....we just ran out of time! It was such an inexpensive upgrade to our room! Our peers were so "wowed" by our simple change, that there are now MANY different colored stools floating around our school :)

Project Three: Overhaul of the classroom libraries! We have the gift of having a fiction and nonfiction library in our room (a pleasant side effect of combining two classroom libraries into one!) We love our books. Our kids love our books. BUT....they are HORRIBLE at putting them away! None of our labels matched either. So...we made some new labels that went with our chevron and chalkboard theme! We are in LOVE with how organized it all is now!
You can grab the book bin labels for FREE by clicking HERE!
We used different colors for different kinds of books--blue for chapter book series/authors, purple for genre sorted books (historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.), red for picture books, and green for all nonfiction! We also put numbers in the corners of the labels. Each book is labeled with a matching number to help each book end up back in the right place! was A TON of work, but we made it just in time for "Meet & Greet"! Our families are amazing and our new little 4th graders (such a change from end of year 5th graders!) are so energetic and eager! 

We will update soon with the different team-building activities we have done to better get to know our kiddos. We have some fun ones to share!

Happy Teaching!