By Gina Kennedy

By Gina Kennedy

Simplifying Creative Writing Journals By Spicing them Up With A Little Vocabulary!

Through the years I have modified the way I use journals for free writing over a dozen of times.  This year I wanted to develop an easier way for my 5th grade students to transition into writing as soon as they walk in the room each morning.  I wanted to create an authentic invitation for my students to write about their thoughts and feelings; but also expand their vocabulary.

I decided to integrate my "Word of the Day" program with their daily writing journal.  As soon as the students arrive, I announce the "Word of the Day" and we discuss the meaning of the word and create synonyms for better understanding.  At that time the students are to write anything they'd like; but integrate the "Word of the Day" into their writing at least twice by thinking about how the word pertains to them.   For each day I created a journal template in which they write the date, "Word of the Day" and their entry.

By the end of the year, we will have a journal with over 160 entries and an expanded vocabulary.  I use higher-level words to enhance their writing vocabulary; but you could also use this strategy with their science, math and reading vocabulary words.

Here are some photos of our "Word of the Day" journals:

If you'd like to use this journal strategy in your classroom, I've included the link below to this FREE product in my store that includes everything you need:

Differentiation Doesn't Have to be on Your "To Do" list; Easy Strategies to Move it to Your "Do" List!

   I hear many teachers say they would like to add differentiation to their curriculum; but it is too difficult to find the resources to do it correctly as well as being too time consuming to put it into place. Implementing differentiation into your classroom does not have to be difficult,  there are easy ways to start offering multiple opportunities for students to learn even if it means incorporating a few enrichment activities with each unit of study.  
    The benefits from offering even a few extended learning opportunities for your students will open up a world of exploration and inquiry that transform your classroom from a place of tiresome routine to a place of engaging discovery.  I'm going to share some of the ways that I have already differentiated the curriculum in my classroom this year with simple teacher friendly strategies.

     "What's the Question?"  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I change the answer.  The students work with partners and develop a set of at least four expressions equivalent to the answer.  I set simple guidelines.  In each expression you must use three different operations and have one set of parenthesis.  They place their "sticky answer" on the answer board and we share a few responses together.

    "Quick and Easy Weekly Enrichment Research Projects":  I developed this research enrichment program last year and it has proven to be the easiest and simplest way to add enrichment, rigor and research opportunities to my classroom routine.
     This program is easy to manage and extremely rewarding for my students.   When my students finish their work at any given point during the week they are responsible for completing their math weekly research project and posting their response on a large sticky note.
     On Mondays I introduce the research projects for the week ahead. The research projects are math related and correlated to grade appropriate standards.  On Fridays we share their responses to their projects.  At the end of the year each student creates a scrapbook with all of the research that they have completed throughout the year by compiling their sticky notes.
    I use the larger post-it notes as some of the responses are quite lengthy.  The students love these projects and they have something to look forward to when they have completed their work.

   I have created this "Weekly Math Enrichment Research" program for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade and it may be purchased using the links below:

"Spice Up Your Non-Fiction Reading Routine: Wacky Science Wednesday":  Every Wednesday my 5th graders read non-fiction informational text trade books with science topics, historical topics or other topics of their choice.  I've been purchasing these non-fiction books for years at bookstores, online or other venues.  I place the books in a basket and they choose which book and topic they'd like to read about that week
     I have developed three types of non-fiction book report templates that include enrichment projects or differentiated choices.  I rotate the templates each week.  The students love this time and decided to call it "Knowledge Wednesday".   
     I have bundled the book report templates and projects into one product so that you can start having "Knowledge Wednesday's" in your classroom as well.  I've included the link below if you'd like to purchase this product.
This is one of the projects my students completed using one of the non-fiction book report templates we use on "Wacky Science Wednesday

"What Does....?  Enrichment Writing"  Each week I post a higher level question on the board that starts with "what does".  The question can pertain to any topic from current events to a celebrity to one of the concepts we are learning about in class.  When the students are finished with all of their work, they compose their answer and attach it to the wall.  We share their short compositions on Fridays.  I've included a link to print off sample "What Does" questions for your classroom.

The School Year is Up and Running, How Do You Minimize Stress and Continue Staying Optimistic?

  Most teachers are very optimistic about education, it's keeping that optimism that is challenging.   
  I'm not sure about you, but heading into the fifth week of school I'm already starting to feel as if my "to do" list is growing faster than the amount of waking hours I have in a week's time.  
    Four weeks ago I saw teachers who were happily preparing their rooms and enjoying the comradery of their teammates while students were anxiously waiting for the school year to begin.  The teachers were preparing cute "back to school" lesson plans and discussing how extremely optimistic they were about the school year ahead.  
    A few weeks later the stress levels have begun to rise and tensions are building.  The student work in the "to correct" pile is stacking up, staff meeting demands are exhausting and parents are starting to communicate on a regular basis. Opening email is like playing a slot machine, "Pull the lever, JACKPOT, no new demands for paperwork, meetings or assessments!"  Unfortunately, there are very few JACKPOT winners on this machine.  The demands on teachers stream along at a steady rate throughout the year.
   How do teachers maintain optimism without getting burned out?  Over the years I have developed guidelines that I stick to vehemently that allow me to narrowly focus on what I'm here to do and what I need to accomplish.  

Prioritize: Organize yourself by deadlines.  When you are given a new task; write down the date it is expected to be turned in by and prioritize from there.  When you receive an email, as painful as it may be; answer it immediately.  This is a hard undertaking for many, but in the end; it will save you many headaches and you'll feel instant gratitude for completing yet another endless task.

Don't Be A Hero:  I have fought off the urge for years to get overly involved.  I've had to change jobs and move to different campuses because I had my  hand in so many clubs, organizations, grants, and programs.  Eventually I felt depleted and completely burned out. You were hired to teach, that is your first priority and the students in your classroom deserve the "entire" you and nothing less.  
    I'm not saying don't be a team player, get involved and volunteer from time to time; but don't be a hero, just be a superhero to the students in your classroom.  Everyone has a comfort level of what they can handle, never feel guilty for saying no!  Never forget that you were hired to teach and if being a great teacher is all you can handle, then be a great teacher!  You don't have to be a great teacher/ social committee director/ after school club organizer/ science fair coordinator and etc!  When I learned to stick to this simple rule, I became a better educator and sometimes when I'm full of myself, I say a "great teacher".    

Minimize Your Socialize:  As harsh as this may sound, you are not at work to build friendships, you are at work to build a repertoire of respect for what you do.  You are building a career and you are educating students.  Be respectful, helpful, polite and encouraging to your co-workers, but don't rely on your co-workers to provide you with a social life.  Build real friendships outside of your employment.
   All friendships eventually experience turmoil, disappointment and conflict.  This can cause a great deal of stress and if you're experiencing conflict with a co-worker; you are doubling your stress by being forced to maintain a professional stature until the situation is resolved or worse yet, never resolved.  You may also isolate other co-workers as they feel they are not part of the "clique".  I remember a few years back I was sitting in on a team meeting with fourth grade teachers and three of the teachers were laughing at situations they experienced at a get-together the previous weekend.  There were two other teachers at the table that had no idea what they were talking about and it provided for a very awkward moment; even though the three teachers were oblivious to the uncomfortable feeling they had evoked.  It is perfectly normal to attend campus wide functions with co-workers, but don't rely on these functions to provide you with a fulfilling social life.
   For educators, this is a tough pill to swallow. By following this rule, you may appear somewhat standoffish, or even somewhat of a loner; but others will view your abilities on your performance and not your personality.  In the end, co-workers will respect you for your professionalism.  You will go to work every day knowing that the only conflict you might experience will be professional and not personal.

Determine Importance:  Every decision you make as an educator should be driven by the overall effect it will have on providing a quality education for your students.  Cutting out strips of paper for three hours to build a word chain will not have a huge overall effect on the educational progress of your students; it will however take away three hours of your time that you could have been writing a creative lesson, hiking at the park or simply reading a book for fun.  You may have to give up your dream of being on the cover of "Classroom Beautiful" but you will have additional hours in your day to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  I have always found that student work is the most visually appealing and motivating decor in any classroom.  
    There is no need to correct every paper that your students turn in.  Just as you are not provided feedback on every task you do at work or every task you do at home (nor do you want that much feedback), your students do not need to be provided feedback on every task they do at school.  As a quality educator you should be providing enough formative and informative assessments to recognize your students strengths and weaknesses.  It is perfectly understandable that you would want to create an accountability system for homework; but the highest performing teachers are not sitting at their desks correcting papers endlessly night after night.  They are writing invigorating lesson plans that will challenge and motivate their students to adapt to this changing world.
    The bottom line for this rule is "stick to what counts".   Before you begin any task, determine what value it will have for your students.

Militarize Your Time: The entire work force could learn a multitude of lessons from the military on time management.   In the military, time management is extremely important as most jobs require employees to be accountable for the productivity of every minute of their day.
    Many teachers have a tendency to be overwhelmed with unfinished tasks; but they tend to have several spaces of time that eat into their productivity.   For example, I have not eaten my lunch in a teacher's lounge for over a decade; instead I use that time to eat my lunch at my desk, organize for my afternoon tasks, answer emails and look over portfolios and journals. This doesn't sound very glamorous or much less fun; but I've been doing this for so long that I wouldn't know any other way to spend lunchtime at work. What I do know is that I feel organized when my first afternoon group or assignment is ready to begin and I feel as though I have accomplished something important.  As soon as the students leave for the day I am laying out materials for the next day and preparing a list of what needs to be done before the next day begins.  At my desk I have a sticky note with major tasks that need to be completed before the week's end.   I arrive at work about 30-45 minutes before the "rush hour" crowd of teachers and therefore; I have this time to use the copy machine, check email and prepare for the day without stressing out.  Those are ways that I have learned to heighten my productivity and manage my time more productively through the years.
  I would not recommend my habits to anyone unless they are suitable to their work style; but I would suggest that all teachers take an in depth look at how they spend their time throughout the day and what they could be doing to create a more workable and productive schedule that will make them feel more accomplished at the end of the work day. 

Don't Give Up Being You:  I love to decorate, travel, educate myself on current events and write.  I wholeheartedly enjoy spending time with my husband and family, trying new restaurants, and checking out new movies on weekends. I obsess over my time exercising on my elliptical machine at night while I watch senseless reality TV.  This is who I am, I will not give up who I am because if I do; I will not be happy. If I am not happy, I will not be able to service my students with the love and support that they need.
   Teachers need to remember who they are, what motivates them and what makes them passionate.  If being a teacher forces you to maintain a lifestyle in which you give up all aspects of who you are and the real things in life that you enjoy; this is not the profession for you. Just as we are providing an education for our students, we are also providing for them the skills necessary to become a whole person with drive and passion.  
   In order to be good for those that you teach, you must be a whole person that comes to work with a fulfilled life full of passion and drive.  My students love hearing about my travels and weekend journeys or about current events that I am excited about.  They get to experience the whole me. Make sure your students are experiencing the whole you!
By Gina Kennedy-Brown


     With the start of a new school year, it is always a good time to reflect upon the reason that I initially became an educator and the reasons I continue to stay in this exhilarating profession!  
     Unlike many of my colleagues who knew that they wanted to become teachers at a young age and played school endlessly as a child, I was quite unsure what my future held for me up until my 2nd year in college.  I had eliminated my first inclination of majoring in business after a few accounting and economic classes that failed to peak my interest.  I always wanted to be a journalist and had enough English credits in two years of college to move forward in that direction; but I was persuaded by many that journalism jobs were a rarity and I would be working for minimum wage in retail for the rest of my life.  A degree in political science or sociology also peaked my interest, but once again; it was communicated strongly that life after college with either of those desired degrees would be a life of unemployment or I would need to marry a very rich husband.  Because I had failed life's course of how to marry well, I knew I needed to figure things out quickly.
    With the worry that I may never determine what lifelong occupation I wanted to partake in for the next 40 years of my life (which is really a lot to ask of any 19-year-old),  I scheduled an appointment with a career counselor during my second year of college.  When she forced me to pinpoint the things in  my life that I loved the most; athletics, spending time with my family, working with others, leadership, helping people, and even spending time with my nieces and nephews; it seemed eminent that a degree in education was the direction to go. 
    From the first education course to the last, I knew without a doubt I wanted to teach children and coach young athletes.  My journey to become a teacher was just as exciting as the years I have spent in the classroom. In all actuality, the road to becoming an educator is different for every teacher, principal and superintendent.  A career in education is like an interchanging highway of paths; some possessing more difficult turns and exits; others emulating a smooth weekend road trip through green hills and pastures.
     My first teaching position was at a Catholic school in Carroll, Iowa in which I taught 5th grade and coached basketball and volleyball.  The next leg of my journey led me west to Geneva, Nebraska where I taught 3rd and 6th grade and once again assumed the coaching duties of basketball and volleyball.  My teaching journey was about to take a path far south to Dallas, Texas.  I loved teaching in small Midwestern communities similar to the ones I grew up in; but I was in search of more and I knew I had a calling.
      I simply needed more of a challenge than what I already knew and therefore; I became an inner city teacher for Dallas ISD for the next 14 years of my life in which I taught 4th Grade ESL ,5th grade, and 6th grade ESL as well as spending several years as a Talented and Gifted teacher and two years as a Gifted Coordinator for the district.  Midway through those years I moved drastically north to a suburb of Dallas which forced me to take a different position in McKinney, Texas.   It simply wasn't geographically possible to continue to work in south Dallas.  I called it my "year's sabbatical from the inner city" where I taught in a 5th grade gifted cluster classroom.  Within one year of teaching in the suburbs, I knew that my heart belonged back in the inner city where students needed me as much as I needed them and and I headed back to north Dallas to work with students once again who were from struggling socioeconomic areas; but still full of high aspirations and dreams.         
     After fifteen years in the large metropolis of Dallas I found my way further south to Austin, Texas.  My first position was with Pflugerville ISD in a 5th grade gifted cluster classroom before I eventually moved on to Round Rock ISD and became a Talented and Gifted Specialist.  
    I reflect on of my journey in education with pride and esteem. I'm sure I have touched the lives of thousands of children, I have developed relationships of respect and admiration of young individuals from many backgrounds who have taught me more about myself than I ever could have acquired from a career in economics or accounting.   There have been bumps in the road as the financial rewards were minimal which many times led to a certain amount of stress in life that forced me to question my career choice.  I've dealt with a number of parents over the years who have caused a negligible amount of headaches as well as administrators for that matter; but I wouldn't change any direction in the path I chose. Had I started my career in one position and continued in that same assignment for decades I highly doubt that I would have the knowledge base I have today to teach children and guide adults.        
     Teaching has provided an outlet for my creativity, a way to fulfill my desire to write by developing an abundance of creative lesson plans that have touched the lives of many; but more importantly because of my career I have built relationships.  My career in education has followed me through raising a child as a single parent, divorce, marriage and the deaths of loved ones.  No matter the stress or tribulation I was dealing with at the time, the one steady thing that I could rely on the most was that I could walk in a school building and children's eyes would light up when they saw me; no expectations, just because they loved me and they knew that I Ioved them.  What more could anyone ask for? 
    As I begin blogging this year my goal is that I will be able to add inspiration and ideas that will add ease to your school year.  I hope that this year your education journey is challenging and invigorating and when you walk in that door every morning you will feel as blessed as I do that your students are waiting for you with the excitement and anticipation of a new day.