Saturday, August 19, 2017

Setting up Centers in a Resource Classroom

Alright teacher-friends, get ready to learn all the ins and outs of running centers in a resource classroom! It took me four years of teaching to get this system honed, and I'm really excited to share it with you. 
This post contains affiliate links.

For context, I use this system with my K-4 reading resource ("pull out") students, though mostly 3rd/4th last year. I see these ten students for one hour a day, all of them together, no paraprofessional. I spend the first 25-30 minutes together whole group on the rug, for a morning meeting of sorts and our Common Core-aligned comprehension lesson. Then, we move into our groups to work on foundational skills for the rest of our time together.

Making Groups
Because I use this time to work on foundational skills, I create my groups based on students' phonics and sight word level. I use my diagnostic test from my Phonics by Design curriculum to determine their phonics levels, and do a basic sight word screener to determine how many words they know. I take running records as well to get an idea of whether I'll be able to keep the same groups for guided reading. Last year, my Group 1 started out working on pre-primer and primer sight words, mastering all letter sounds, and CVC words. My Group 2 needed a brief review of beginning phonics skills and then more in-depth intermediate phonics instruction (r-controlled vowels, vowel diphthongs, etc.), as well as second and third grade sight words. Group 3 needed a brief review of 1-syllable phonics skills, and then was ready to move on to multi-syllable words. These groups will determine what the students work on during small group time with you, as well as what tasks you will provide for centers.

Making A Schedule
Your schedule will depend on the number of groups you form, as well as much time you have. I have two rotations a day. One group will work with me, while the other will work on a task (more on that to come), and then switch. The third group works on independent work in their binder for both rotations. I show my Groups 2 & 3 combined on Thursday on my schedule, which I would often do, but I also might just see whoever I needed to see at that time. Between days off, assemblies, IEP meetings, and absent students, I would rarely see all of my students for a full hour all five days of the week. I could skip the "Thursday" schedule and still see each group a minimum of two times and each group would have task time twice. The binder work consists of fully independent work that the students can do with no help from me whatsoever. I felt like they were getting that opportunity so rarely (because they were inclusion the rest of the day), that I wanted to make sure they got to chance to complete something start to finish independently. This also allowed me to work with my small groups without (for the most part) interruption. I used the independent work from my Phonics by Design curriculum each week (which you can also buy separately as NO PREP Word Work if you don't need a whole curriculum), or else reading passages and questions for my highest group. On my sample schedule below, each rotation is 15 minutes long.

Choice Boards
I was so inspired by all the work tasks I would see in self-contained rooms, but at first (by at first, I mean three years) I wasn't quite sure how to make the system work for my resource students. Last year, I came up with a Task Time Choice Board, which I was able to use ALL YEAR. It was the gift that kept on giving. The choice board has nine choices on it, and each student would get a copy in their binder each week. Their job was to complete three of the tasks in a row each week. They would color in the task they completed after they finished. This was the golden ticket I needed to ensure choice AND accountability. Initially I gave all three groups the same choice board (but the tasks themselves were different), but as my school began a push towards sustained independent reading, I changed many of the choices for my higher groups to reading. I also have a couple different versions of the choice boards that I would switch out from time to time, so that students didn't get into the habit of doing the same three choices each week.
You can get the choice boards for free here! It includes 10 variations + a blank version in case you want to use different tasks.

Okay, onto the tasks! Some of my choices for tasks are clip cards, puzzles, word sort, file folders, adapted books, magnetic letters, play dough stamping, gel boards, rainbow words, independent reading, and a "bonus" activity. When I switched up the choice boards I would rotate some of these in and out of the grid to keep the students interested. I store the choices that are different for each group in plastic bins with the group number on it, and the choices that are the same for all groups on a shelf nearby. The differentiated tasks (clip cards, puzzle, word sort, file folders, adapted books, and bonus) would stay the same all month. Yep, all month! Because students are only (typically) doing 3 tasks a week, they only end up repeating most activities once or twice, which gives them a chance to improve. If they're getting bored with it, they just don't choose that one! 

A little more on each choice:

Clip Cards
Each group had it's own clip card bin. Clip cards are one of my favorite tasks because you just print, laminate, cut, and throw in some clothespins. I mostly use my Centers by Design Clip Cards, which align to what the students are working on during their small group instruction with me. After a student completes the clip cards, s/he spreads them out and takes a picture with the tablet (I use this inexpensive Amazon Fire) to record their answers. Then s/he undoes the clips and puts back the bin. I know it's probably not best practice to have them undo the clips, but my students really didn't seem to mind-- they actually like undoing them, and they know their work is recorded on the tablet. When I didn't have them undo them themselves, I often wouldn't get to re-setting them (re: no para) and then they wouldn't be ready for the next kid. 

This is another one that's differentiated for each group. I used phonics and sight word puzzles from Lakeshore Learning, the Target Dollar Spot, as well as some I made myself. Like the clip cards, the student assembles the puzzles and then records his/her work with the tablet before taking the puzzles apart.

Word Sort
Each group has a word sort that aligns to their small group instruction. I use my Centers by Design Word Sorts, as well as my Alphabetical Order Activities for my higher groups. I copy the recording sheets at 70% so they fit nicely in the work task tubs, and then you just include the word cards. Frankly, I've even stopped laminating the word cards because they just don't get that beat-up. Students don't need to take a picture of their work because they can just turn in the recording sheet in the turn-in basket.

File Folders
I organize the file folders for the three groups in three different magazine holders that I place on top of the shelf with the task tubs. Each holder contains three file folders-- for my purposes, three file folders = one task. When completed, students spread out all three file folders, record their work with the tablet, and reset the folders. I use my Centers by Design File Folders to give them practice on their current phonics skill, and I sometimes mix in some older skills to give them some review!

Adapted Books
Sometimes I would differentiate the books into different tubs, sometimes not. ALL my students need preposition practice, so I would often use my Seasonal Adapted Preposition Books. But I would also mix in phonics or sight word preposition books as needed. My students love adapted books, so I didn't feel the need to have them record their work. You could have them take a video on the tablet reading the book, however, or sometimes I would have my kids read to someone else in their group. 

I put the bonus activity on the schedule so I could include any fun or needed activities I found! You know, those Dollar Spot finds or the adorable center you see on TPT. You could easily exclude this if you don't think you'll use it! 

Magnetic Letters
Students build their sight words using magnetic letters on a magnetic board. My students all have 10 words on their sight word rings (more details about that here) at a time, so they would make those ten words. They would record their work with the tablet and then put the letters away. My higher students were no longer working on sight words by the end of the year, so I took this choice off their boards.

Play Dough Stamping
Like the magnetic letters, this is only for students working on sight words. They take their sight word rings and stamp the words into flattened play dough using letter stamps. They then record their work with the tablet before cleaning up. Some friends had a lot of trouble not playing with the play dough, so I tended to rotate this choice on and off their boards. You could also have them stamp on paper-- I just like to cut down on papers floating around as much as possible!

Gel Boards
These are another option for students working on sight words. Students take their rings and write out their sight words on a gel board, take a picture, and clean up.

Rainbow Words
Another sight word choice! The bin has rainbow templates and a container of markers. Students write each of their sight words (repeating the word as many times as will fit) in each stripe of the rainbow in a different color. They don't need to take a picture, as they'll turn in their rainbow in the turn-in basket.

Independent Reading
For my students no longer working on sight words, they have Independent Reading listed for several choices. Students grab their book box, choose a spot, and read the whole time. When it's time to switch, they write the title of the book they read on the line on their choice board. All students also read independently if they finish their task early.

I know this might seem like A LOT of tasks to keep up with, but only 5-6 of them need to be different for each group, and you're only changing them out once a month. So that's 15 tasks once a month, and once you have the tasks prepped, they can be used over and over again. My Group 2 students were ready for Group 3's tasks by the end of the year, so I was able to reuse those even within the same year. And at times I would also combine tasks for Group 1 & Group 2 or Group 2 & Group 3. 

Obviously these "tasks" are very different from what would be used in a self-contained or autism classroom. I don't take data on the tasks, but rather use them as a way for students to get needed practice in a tactile, engaging way, rather than just completing worksheets. On Friday, my students complete and turn in their choice boards for the week, which is what I grade. I grade the boards out of 5-- 1 point for each completed choice (3 points total), 1 point for completing three in a row, 1/2 a point for name, and 1/2 a point for date. In that sense, it's essentially a completion grade. If I have any doubt that the kids are completing the tasks, I can check the tablet, but I purposely set the room up so I can see all kids at all times from my small group table. 

Complicated as this may sound, once I got this system set up at the beginning of the year, it was the LEAST amount of work to maintain out of any other centers system I've used. You can use the same schedule and routines all year, which makes lesson planning so much easier! And after a couple weeks, the kids have it DOWN. Whenever I got a new student, I would just have them "shadow" another student in their group. That student would always take so much pride in showing the new one how everything works! Because the students have choice in the tasks they complete, I found student engagement to be very high. And if this STILL seems like a lot-- simplify it! And guess what? If you don't change out all the tasks on the 1st of the month, nothing horrible will happen. I had to remind myself of that when I just had too many things on my to-do list.

I really hope getting a glimpse (okay, more of a long look) into my rotations will help you plan your own centers this year! If you want to get a jumpstart on tasks you can use all year, you can snag my Centers by Design Bundle to save almost 50% over buying each center individually. 

Search #spedchatsaturday to find more tips for the special education classroom!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

4 Anchor Charts for Teaching Nonfiction

As much as I love teaching with my beloved Harry Potter, my students have to be able to read and analyze informational texts as well! With the right tools, nonfiction can be just as engaging and accessible as fiction texts. Here are a few of my favorite anchor charts I use to introduce my students to nonfiction skills & strategies:

Introducing Nonfiction

I prepared the first 2/3 of the poster beforehand and uncovered the bullets line by line as I modeled observing these aspects in a nonfiction text. I brainstormed nonfiction topics with my students and added them to the chart during our lesson.

Identifying the Main Idea

Identifying the main idea is an important skill for students in any grade. This was a really challenging concept for a few of my students, and they kept getting slammed on running records and standardized tests. The "clues" listed on this anchor chart helped make the main idea more concrete for some of my students who couldn't just simply answer what the text was mostly about.

Identifying Fact vs. Opinion

I was really taken aback that my students had such trouble differentiating between fact and opinion! They kept defaulting back to true and false. This chart helped them see the difference.

Non-Fiction Text Structure

This chart was inspired by The Classroom Key's wonderful Nonfiction Text Structures Pack! We spent several weeks on this, and the students constantly referred back to the chart to independently identify the text structure and describe it using the appropriate graphic organizer.

If you're looking for more anchor charts, check out my post on Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students!

Monday, July 24, 2017

7 Things You Can Do As An Inclusion Teacher

Ah, co-teaching. So magical at its best, so soul-destroying at its worst. I've had amazing partnerships with co-teachers and... not so amazing ones. But even when you get along with your co-teacher, a lack of planning time or a weird schedule (like 30 minutes twice a week... anyone?) can mean that you feel a bit useless. So what can you do rather than hover anxiously (and annoyingly) over the students you're providing minutes for? I have a few suggestions:

1. Pull a small group. This is the most obvious and most utilized solution to standing around doing nothing. Keep in mind that it doesn't always need to be students with IEPs, and that your group shouldn't become a special education class within a class. If you have a common planning time and a relationship with your co-teacher, you can set up formal groups for your subject, and you can even rotate through so you both see all students. If you're just "popping in" to provide services, try giving students the option to work with you, rather than mandating it. After students are released to work independently, try telling the whole class that students who feel like they need more help can join you on the rug or at a back table. 

2. Record on the anchor chart. The mini-lesson can be the hardest time to contribute, in this teacher's opinion! In a well-managed class, all the students may be quiet and attentive during the mini-lesson, which doesn't leave you much to do! You can team up with your co-teacher to create or add to the anchor chart as she leads the lesson, or vice versa.

3. Provide behavior support. Make sure you and your co-teacher are on the same page for your management system, and then help implement it! If students have any sort of incentive system, it can be easy for the gen ed teacher to forget to use it. As an additional teacher in the room, you can provide incentives and manage behavior data as needed.

4. Read aloud. Many classrooms have a more relaxed read aloud time (rather than a mini-lesson) at some point during the day. Offering to do the read-aloud may help engage students, since they're likely hearing their gen ed teacher's voice all day, and it can also give the gen ed teacher a chance to do 1:1 assessments or any other non-whole group task.

5. Assess. Speaking of assessment... having a co-teacher really helps cut down on instructional time wasted for assessment. Of course, as special ed teachers, we have plenty of our own assessing to do. Still, many schools require 1:1 assessments for general education students as well, especially in the primary grades. This is a huge amount of work for our general education co-teachers! Without a co-teacher, gen ed teachers might be forced to simply provide the other students with "busy work" as they spend hours on 1:1 testing. You can teach while your co-teacher assesses, the reverse, or you can alternate to cut down on the tedium of having students count to 120 as fast as they can (mClass, anyone?)

6. Record instructions. Last year, my co-teacher did an awesome job giving explicit, step-by-step instructions for each assignment. But many of our students are simply not auditory learners! We can help foster independence by recording the steps for a task up on the board in simple language. That way, students can refer back to the instructions on the board rather than having to ask for help.

7. Take over specific tasks. Some general education teachers may be unsure whether it's okay for you to be doing anything other than directly helping the students on your caseload. But having two teachers in the room can be a benefit to all students! By taking over certain tasks, you can help make the classroom run more efficiently, which is a benefit to ALL students. Some tasks I have "taken over" in a co-teaching setting include morning work, checking multiplication fact tests, attendance, lunch count, providing incentives, and running bathroom breaks. As a special education teacher, you're not an assistant, but it doesn't mean you can't share in general classroom duties. 

Happy co-teaching!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Should Your Classroom Have A Theme?

Every year as the back-to-school season approaches, teachers everywhere start to contemplate setting up their classrooms. Seeing beautiful, coordinated classrooms on Pinterest and Instagram can get even the least cutesy teacher wondering if they *need* a theme. So, does your classroom need a theme? The short answer is no. Here's the long answer:

And y'all, I am NOT anti-theme! I love a good theme (cacti or pineapples, anyone?), but if it's not your thing, don't do it-- especially if it's getting you stressed out before the school year has even begun.

So if any of your answers landed you in the "NOPE." category, let it go! Focus on making your classroom functional and student-centered, and the rest will fall into place.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

9 Amazon Items For Your Cactus Classroom

It's no secret I'm a mega-cactus fan. When this trend hit, I was READY. I've got cactus leggings, framed cactus prints, plenty of real live cacti, and now a Cactus Classroom Room Decor Pack. But if printables aren't enough for you, check out some of these Amazon finds to cactify your classroom.
This post contains affiliate links.

1. Cactus Banner
2. Cactus Clothespins 
3. Cactus Pen Holder & Desktop Organizer 
4. Cactus Wall Hanging This would be perfect for a photoshoot or cool down corner. I LOVE the colors.
5. Cactus Throw Pillows
6. Cactus Lamp
7. Cactus-Shaped Pillow So cute for your classroom library.
8. Cactus Pencil Sharpener You can google ANYTHING + cactus and it probably exists. I am dying over this pencil sharpener.
9.Cactus Erasers Perfect for prizes or your desk (which is where mine reside).

Don't forget the complete Cactus Classroom Decor Pack to complete the look!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

7 Special Education Classrooms You Need To See

Being a special educator can sometimes mean being a bit isolated. As a resource or self-contained teacher, you might have only have a few similar classrooms (or none!) in your building. Which is why the internet is AMAZING! Check out some of the best special education classrooms from around the blogosphere:

1. Michaela from Especially Education has the most rainbow-riffic classroom of all time!

2. Melissa's (of Autism Adventures) classroom is soooo organized!

3. Check out the adorable flexible seating Sped Adulting has going on in her classroom!

4. Alyssa of Simply Special Ed has a beautiful, bright, & streamlined classroom.

5. Check out Erin's (of You AUT-a Know) colorful & organized classroom!

A post shared by Erin Hagey (@youautaknow) on

6. Jennifer of Positively Learning has designed a beautifully simple resource classroom!  

7. And at the risk of of bragging, I like to think my resource classroom is pretty nice too!

A post shared by Sarah (@thedesignerteacher) on

You can see more of my classroom here! Which special education classroom inspires YOU? 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

7 Healthy Lunches for Teachers

If the idea of making three healthy meals a day feels near impossible, you might want to try meal prepping! Taking an hour or two on Sunday to meal prep ensures that you have healthy lunches all week without any additional stress. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Sweet Potato Wraps with Pesto and Caramelized Onions
This recipe makes 8 wraps, which is great if you're prepping for a spouse too, or means you can throw a few in the freezer for later! 

2. Black Bean Bowls with Confetti Slaw
These are soooo good! When prepping for lunches, I keep the beans and everything else separate so that I can heat up the beans separately.

I hate touching raw meat, so I tend to buy pre-cooked chicken or throw some tofu in instead!

This is my very favorite salad! I switch out the "facon" for bacon, because #bacon, and I normally skip making my own dressing.

I ate so many of these last year! If you run out of pitas (#pitaproblems), you can always throw everything on top of greens for an equally tasty salad.

I think I'm just bad at ordering, but I actually like this lo mein better than any I get as take-out. You can eat this as lunch or dinner... so tasty!

Guess who skips the whole making-your-own-falafel thing and just buys frozen falafel from Trader Joe's? If you guessed me, you are correct.

A healthy and filling lunch can help you make it through those long afternoons without getting too hangry! Don't forget to take care of your mental health too-- you can check out 40 Acts of Self Care for Teachers here!