Periods of Reflection

Just random musings from an elementary perspective. Views are my own.

Category: Blogs by Sapia

My Blank Slate – Classroom Setup

At the beginning of each and every school year, excitement mounts, nervousness ensures, and our blood begins to flow.  We all know the feeling.  Well, there are many reasons for that.  However, one of the most important aspects of the beginning of the school year is classroom setup.  It speaks volumes to your personality and should be a reflection of you.  A classroom with exceptional flow and organization will be noticed by your incoming students.  Think about setting up your classroom is a systematic way to ensure transitions can be made smoothly and successfully.  Below are some examples of how my classroom is organized and “bare.”





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I prefer to look at my classroom as a blank slate.  Besides having my bulletin board banners laminated and hung,  our classroom library organized, a student objective corner, and “lockers” ready for students to encounter, my classroom is bare.  Sounds non-engaging, right?

Think about it.  Students should own their work.  Charts should be co-created with students.  Why?  Because it enables students to become stakeholders in their own learning and encourages buy-in.  As my new eager fourth graders enter my classroom, they are fully aware how bare the walls are.  I always ask them why they think that is.  It leads to a powerful discussion about building our classroom together, in a systematic way throughout the year.  If students walked in and there were is a word wall filled with words, charts created, and other helpful “second teachers” hanging, would they utilize it? Past experience says I’m not so sure.

However, involving them in the creation can promote a culture of pride as well because students recognize their voice is heard and valued.  It’s also powerful to hear student’s input on how the little nooks around the classroom could be organized.  Between the shag rugs, couch, camping chairs, and other comfortable spots for reading, students are given a chance to stretch their imagination and provide input about classroom design.  Empower our young minds and watch the magic happen.


“Thank You,” PLN.

Thank you for welcoming me with open, or “virtual” arms.

Thank you for sharing your insights.

Thank you for questioning me and challenging my thinking.

Thank you for forcing me to think on a deeper level than I ever have before.

Thank you for sharing your incredible wisdom and knowledge.

Thank for you sharing your resources.

Thank you for making me a reflective thinker.

Thank you for reading my blog posts and commenting so thoughtfully.

Thank you for working tirelessly to ensure our students get the best education possible.

Thank you for keeping me inspired and motivated.

Thank you opening my eyes to thoughtful and purposeful technology integration.

Thank you for making me realize that it’s ok to be wrong, admit it, and that I can learn from my mistakes.

Thank you for encouraging me to take chances in the classroom.

Thank you for organizing chats so passionate educators around the world can collaborate and connect.

Thank you for introducing me to the Ed Camp “Unconference” model.

Thank you for sharing pictures of your students working collaboratively in their respective classrooms.

Thank you for your book recommendations and ways to instill passion and a love for reading into my students.

Thank you for sharing ways to help engage parents in their child’s education.

Thanks you for making me laugh.

Thank you for letting me participate in web-chats,  via Skype and Google Hangout, to extend learning outside our four school walls.

Thank you for helping me forge new friendships, as well as reignite past working relationships.

Thank you for showing me the power of what global collaboration can lead to.

Thank you for sharing your well thought out blog posts.

Thanks for encouraging me to set goals for professional growth.

Thank you for helping me become a connected educator.

I was driving to school this morning, blasting music, and having a  period of reflection. I could not let another day go by without saying thank you.  I am currently in my ninth year teaching.  While I have grown each and every year, this past year has been one of incredible personal and professional growth.  I have learned more in one year then I have in nine years by forming such a wonderful PLN, and having access to 24/7 PD via social media.   Gaining a perspective of educators around the world has shaped the educator I always wanted to be, but never knew.  I am a stronger educator because of you all.

So, “Thank you.”

A “Semi-Paperless” Classroom using Google Forms and Edmodo

Continuing with the recent posts about my affinity for Edmodo, this post will focus on using Google forms and Edmodo.  The more and more reading I’ve done regarding purposeful implementation of Google forms in an educational setting, I decided to dive in.  To read more about Google forms, check out the links below, or just do a quick Google search.

Google Form Templates

Google Forms Gets a Refresh

80 + Ways to Use Google Forms (Huge List, but worth a quick glance)

Holding students accountable for their work is always an uphill battle for teachers.  How can we possibly correct everything? Do we really need to correct every piece of work? How do you deal with a mountain of paperwork?  I often have struggled with these questions throughout my short nine year career.

One way to alleviate paperwork is the attempt to go paperless in same areas.  I am very fortunate to have access to six iPads in my room, as well as three working computers, so having this technology is essential to my success to go somewhat paperless.

How I Use Google Forms:

The most impactful ways, SO FAR,  that I have been using Google forms in my classroom is during math centers and reading conferences.  To read how I structure math centers, click this link.  Because of the large amount of data collected daily for the Everyday Math program, it gives me powerful information to guide my instruction and use Google forms to meet the needs of my students.

In addition to Everyday Math curriculum implementation, we are currently preparing students for the Connecticut Mastery Test in March.  Because our math department embedded CMT type questions into each unit, we have collected valuable data.  If I notice a large amount of students not performing well on a specific CMT skills, I will create a self correcting ten question Google form for students to complete at a center. (Note – Directions to creating a 10 question self correcting Google Form can be found here. (Credit for creating the Google form goes to Kern Kelley.)

The link is sent to all students who need support through Edmodo.  The power of this approach is that it holds the students accountable for their learning, and gives me important data, while eliminating paper.   I can then use laser-like-focus to ensure my students are getting help in the areas that they need.  If students don’t need assistance on that specific skill, they can complete unfinished math boxes or journal pages, use the various EM apps available, or become content creators using EduCreations app.

I would be doing you a disservice if I did not mention that this does take planning, but I feel it’s my moral responsibility to give students what they need. The way I look at  it is it takes time to create a form, maybe 10 minutes or slightly less.  By the time I walk to make copies, pass out the work, collect the work, and correct the work, it is much longer.  So, viewing it from a global perspective, it actually takes less time  AND you have that form for future use to tweak in anyway you see fit.

Furthermore, I can also assign Google forms for homework, using Edmodo, to students who need assistance in certain areas.  Of course, as I have mentioned in past posts, if students do not have access to technology at home, I will provided a paper copy for them.

Reading Conference Checklist Using Evernote:

Another way that I have been using Google forms is for conferencing with students.  The photos below will give you an example of how I set up the form.  I have already made numerous changes to it, so feel free to customize it to fit your needs.


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I have a digital portfolio for each student in Evernote and the link to the checklist in each portfolio.

As I am conferencing with students I check boxes of things I noticed he/she is doing well.  I will also type down a sentence or two in my observation and compliment box.  Collectively, the student and I set a teaching point or goal for themselves to become a better reader to revisit after a few weeks.  Additionally, once I submit this form, it automatically populates to a spreadsheet for me to revisit for future use to drive my instruction during small group time.

I realize this post only brushes the surface of what’s possible with Google form integration, Edmodo, and Evernote, so I’d love to hear from you about how you utilize Google forms in your classroom.  As always, any feedback and/or questions is welcomed.  If you’ve made it this far, feel free to follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

Edmodo for “Book Clubs”

How many of you have ever felt that you were not meeting the needs of students in your literacy block?  Do you have difficulty engaging all types of learners in reading? Is differentiation a challenge? If you answered yes to any of these questions, here is my methodology to meeting the varied needs of students in my classroom during literacy.

Enter Edmodo for Book Clubs

This post will cover how I meet the needs of my higher level readers, but can be adapted for all reading levels.  The first step to a purposeful book club is giving students multiple choices of books they can read.  I usually give three options for students to review over the course of a few days and have them discuss which book might be the most engaging.  It’s valuable for students to have a voice in what book they’d like to read.  Students then create a list of rules they will follow for the duration of the book club.

SIDE NOTE: I know what you’re thinking, what if they don’t agree. A consensus must be made in a respectful way.  I’ve been doing book clubs for five years and have yet to run into an issue.

What are the jobs?

When students participate in a book club there is 5-6 main roles and responsibilities.  The sixth job, if applicable, would be the story sketcher.  They can sketch their visualizations of what they read on construction paper or using an app like Skitch of Educreations.


Vocabulary Real

Passage Rea


The next step would be to create a small group in Edmodo within the larger classroom group, so only students I assign to the book club will have access to the materials.  Then I create a folder to house all the required materials in the small group, as well as the book club job google docs.

Each job has a specific google doc the students type in.  This becomes a digital notebook, where each student contributes to when they are assigned that specific job.  Jobs rotate after reading a predetermined amount of pages/chapters.  The students, as well as myself, find it very powerful to be able to see other’s ideas ,build a true collaborative learning environment, and maintain a digital footprint.

My role and responsibility is to meet with the group once a week.  If I notice students are not comprehending what they are reading, I will meet as nessesary to clear up any misunderstandings.  During the meeting time my job is to be a participant, not be the leader.  I usually read the books with the students as a way to ensure they are understanding what their reading and for my own enjoyment.  I also question and comment, as I see fit, to deepen understanding.

My other main role is to provide purposeful feedback on their google docs.  As I mentioned in this earlier post, I can’t stress the importance of providing explicit, focused feedback to augment understanding and ensure students are reading the text “closely.”

If a student does not have access to technology at home, they can write out their responses in their Reader’s Notebook.

UPDATED: 3/23/2013 – Based on student feedback, students felt they would like to respond only 50 percent of the time because they felt they were too focused on completing their job and it was hampering their comprehension of the story.  

As with any blog post, any feedback would be greatly appreciated.  I am always looking to connect with others and learn from your perspective and experiences. I am also very open to the idea of connecting classes for a remote book club! So drop me a comment to inform me how you run your book clubs!

If you’d made it this far, feel free to follow on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

My Global Read Aloud Experience Reflection

Thinking about the many adjectives to describe my experience with the 2012 Global Read Aloud would be an insurmountable task.  It was an experience that I look forward to participating in again next year, and the year after, and the year after that.  You get the idea.

The Global Read Aloud came to fruition from the vision of Pernille Ripp.  I’d like to publicly thank her for making her vision a reality, and providing the necessary support and blog posts to get us “rookies” up and running. Additionally, how about a hand for Katherine Applegate for writing an amazing story that tugged at our hearts and souls!


How it Was Done

My students used Kidblog, Edmodo, and Skype to purposefully connect with others around the world.  We connected with a class in Switzerland, Chicago, Texas, and California.  Students developed relationships with others through this incredible shared experience of reading the same book. Teachers shared  resources aligned with Common Core Standards in the Edmodo One and Only Ivan teacher group.  Many connected educators from around the world created with links to informational text about the story of Ivan.  You can read about it here.  The One and Only Ivan

Social Studies and geography were tied into the Global Read Aloud by using Google Maps to drop pins on the locations where collaborations took place.  Math was integrated as well, because we charted and tracked mileage from Connecticut to all the states and countries mentioned above.  We also discussed the importance of animals living in habitats that suited their needs, such as their natural habitats or zoos.  STEM, at it’s finest.

The rich conversation, exchange of ideas, and global collaboration was so refreshing.  The collective spirit of assisting others truly benefited the students and teachers participating.  While reading through my student’s blogs, my administrative team was floored by the in-depth nature of their responses and the focus and purpose in which my student’s were exchanging comments with others around the world, while building a global mindset through purposeful collaboration.

Creating a Culture of Readers

Ms. Laura Lynam, our Assistant Principal, discussing The One and Only Ivan with my students.

Ms. Laura Lynam, our Assistant Principal, discussing The One and Only Ivan with my students.

After the first day of reading, I had over half of my students in our classroom visit the local library and/or book store to pick up a copy for themselves.  Think about it.   When is the last time that happened?  Sure we have student’s who recommend and share books, but it’s been quite sometime since so many student’s collectively, and without me even asking, bought the book.  That’s the power.  No rewards were discussed. There was no demand to assign homework with this project.  Students, on their own accord, blogged and discussed the text because they wanted to, not because they had to.   Can you say intrinsic motivation for reading!

The other thought that kept running across my mind during the Global Read Aloud was how all students “were on the same page.”  Like many of you, I have students who vary in their reading ability.  To be able to equal the playing field in such a collective environment brought chills to my body and confidence to all students.

Can We Write a Song Mr. Sapia?

Finally, in conjunction with our wonderful music teacher, student’s wrote a song summarizing The One and Only Ivan in collaborative groups, ensuring everyone’s voice was heard.   I have posted a thirty-second preview below.  I can’t wait to watch this song grow into a masterpiece and have my students sing it in-front of our school community.  I will post the final version when it’s done in a few weeks.

If you’ve made it down this far, feel free to follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

Differentiating Homework Using Edmodo

A tool that has simply transformed how my classroom operates is Edmodo. If you are unfamiliar with this platform do yourself a favor and follow this link. In short, Edmodo is a secure learning management system that can be used to form groups, share links, embed videos/projects, track progress, organize uploaded content, join support communities, share folders and resources, distribute parent codes, connect with others around the world, back channel, and so much more. Many teachers and students from around the world have dubbed it “Facebook for Education.” While I use Edmodo for many reasons in my daily routines, this post will only focus on differentiating homework using Edmodo.

How I Use Edmodo to Differentiate Homework:

Meeting the varied needs of students in any classroom is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching. Teachers work tirelessly gathering resources, analyzing data, collaborating with grade level peers, and connecting with their Personal Learning Network on Twitter to meet the needs of their students. Needless to say, differentiation requires hard work and a significant time commitment to implement it effectively.

Enter Edmodo.

Each student in my class has a teacher created username and password. In addition to having individual student accounts, I also created a google doc for each student, which are housed in their “backpack.” The “backpack” feature is available to all students and provides a great way for students to maintain organization of materials they upload or save. Students are the only ones that have access to these resources, so privacy is maintained.

The google doc acts as their online notebook. Literacy homework usually consists of students responding to reading in an open-ended format, answering text-dependent questions, and typing reflective entries. Homework is strategically assigned and aligned to meet student’s needs.  The power of using the google doc comes from students having an ongoing record of their responses, with purposeful feedback given by me that always highlights strengths, as well as offers suggestions for improvement. I can’t stress the importance of giving purposeful feedback to students. Gone are the days of just saying “Good Job,” or “Nice Work.” With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, it’s imperative purposeful feedback becomes a daily part of our practice because of the heavy focus of text-dependent/evidence based questions being asked. Furthermore, parents have unprecedented access to their child’s work, via google docs, with teacher feedback, to assist in building the home/school connection to help their child grow.

Small Groups:

Teachers can create small, flexible groups to send homework assignments to. For example, I have 3
“Teams” in my class. Depending on the needs of students I can send three different homework assignments to those individual groups. It’s as simple as uploading a file from my /Edmodo library/desktop/flash drive/Dropbox, or a link from the internet, and sending it out to the appropriate teams. After students complete the assignment, they click “Turned-in,” and I have a record of who has submitted their work. Diving deeper, if a student needs significant readiness or enrichment activities, I can also send assignments to those students individually and not as part of a team.

SIDE NOTE: Thanks to some great questions, I will clarify most post even further.


If students do not have access to tech at home, I give them the assignment in their response notebook or worksheet.


Depending on the complexity of the assignment, I determine the length of time per assignment. However, it is usually one day. Once I begin literature circles, the time to complete assignments will increase.


If a student does not hand in their Edmodo homework because they could not log in, I will forgive them a couple of times. If it becomes a greater problem after that, I will call the parent and speak about this method of homework delivery. If it’s becoming problematic or not feasible to complete because of after school activities, or inability to log in to Edmodo, I would revert back to having students complete homework in their notebook or worksheet.

If you have any questions or need clarification, please drop a comment below. I am always looking to improve my implementation. I’d also love to hear about the exciting ways you’re using Edmodo to reach the varied needs of your students.

Follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

Teaching and Improvisational Music

I listen to music.  I listen to music A LOT. I consider music to be the fuel that drives me on a daily basis.  Depending on my mood, I have an artist or genre that fits my specific needs for that moment.  Going deeper, the genre of improvisational music really tugs at the soul and inspires me.  I admire artists who create musical conversation on the spot with their bandmates, knowing full well it may not produce the greatest outcome.  But let’s face it, when you have an adventurous spirit, anything can happen.  The moment when a band locks into a groove that abandons the theme or  central chord structure of the song is when the magic happens.  Of course, these moments can lead to inspiring musical interplay that maybe would never have seen the light of day if the band had not pushed themselves. Through audience and band interaction, it becomes part of their historical lure.  Taking chances when improvising can also lead to flat, uninspired moments.  Let’s face it, it’s the risk you take.  How does this all related to teaching, you ask?

Improvisational music has helped mold my teaching style. I enter the classroom everyday with an idea about how’d I’d like to see the day progress.  All academic areas are intertwined to form a cross curricular environment that uses every second of our precious day purposefully. Materials are gathered at a rabid pace to ensure all students have an opportunity to be successful.  As we all know, even the best laid plans don’t always get executed, and sometimes we need to seize that improvisational, teachable moment.

The bell rings and I wait outside your door to greet their smiling, eager faces.  Everyone is settling into the day and the lessons are progressing as planned.

In Social Studies, my students are currently studying Colonial American children and their roles and responsibilities. A question from a student begins to spark some deep, meaningful conversation.  The conversation continues for a few minutes and I begin to realize  I am clearly delineating from the plan.  My mind begins to race, and I know deep down the conversation being had is meaningful for students.  Do I “Let go?” Do I seize this moment of improvisation and become a facilitator?  Do I enable students the opportunity to explore content based on questions they’d like to know the answer too? Of course! I begin to quickly reflect and realize that my plan for the lesson was not deep enough for students because they were craving more.

Cue the spirit of  my improvisational teaching pedagogy. Students began to seek out more information about colonial children in groups.  I watch as 24 students become groups of three, each with a very specific task. Slowly, these smaller microcosms pool together resources from around the classroom, internet, and various iPad apps.   The laser like focus in their eyes, the purposeful nature of their conversations, and the smiles on their faces radiate one of excitement and passion.  I could not help feel the magic and adventurous spirits of the children taking over the classroom.  Chills run up and down my arms, as I take a moment to just “sit-back” and watch.  I begin to think about improvisational music and how this moment would have never happened if I stopped the questioning from students and did not have an environment for purposeful student exploration.  What started as a read aloud, has now blossomed into a collaborative, improvisational “arena” where students took a risk and true ownership of their learning.  Students become the “band” and I was the “audience,” encouraging them at every turn. The outcome of this activity become such a positive learning experience for the students, as well as myself.

That night, I received two emails from parents telling me how excited their child was when they arrived home because of this activity.  As if watching their faces as the magic unfolded was not enough, the emails assured me that students will develop a love for learning when given the chance to have a voice and a classroom to take risks and improvise.

Purposeful Chatter Through Collaboration

In a effort to review our content area vocabulary words that students have explored throughout the duration of the school year, we have been playing numerous games, ranging from Jeopardy, Scategories, and “Head-Band.” This school of review comes from Marzano’s strategies for teaching vocabulary.

The premise of head-band is students chose words from a pile, hold it up to their forehead so they can’t see the word, and their partners give them clues to solve the word. Students have created index cards of their vocabulary words. The clues can range from synonyms, antonyms, non-verbal actions, kinesthetic movements, etc. The greatest part about this activity is the purposeful chatter. For so many years, we’ve been led to believe that quiet equates to better focus and student achievement. I tend to disagree. Of course, certain activities need to be done independently in order to get a valid assessment of where children’s strengths and areas of improvement are to drive instruction. However, the power of head-band is the frantic energy students display.

One may walk by my room during this time and think it’s absolute chaos and disorganization. How can there be any learning going on with all that chatter? This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I walk around monitoring progress, I hear students using their own individual techniques in order to enable their partner to guess the words correctly. The level of purposeful student engagement is real and alive. Students giving the clues and students guessing the word need to tap deep into their memory and use many skills they’ve acquired throughout the year to be successful. How can you not love a game that combines engagement, focus, demonstration of learning, and FUN?

Learning From Letting Go, Failure, and Reflection

Failure is powerful. Why? How? The key is reflection.

Through failure and reflection we grow. Holding up the mirror to ourselves and not being afraid to admit faults and errors can enable significant growth.

This year I have undergone a powerful shift in my teaching pedagogy. I learned how to relinquish “control” and truly instill trust in my student’s ability to think for themselves and/or cooperatively. (That’s not to say in years past I did not practice this, but not to the extent I have this year.) For example, I am not afraid to tell students when I don’t know the answer to a question, or ask them for their input to make lessons more creative. This was empowering both for them and me, and I have not looked back since.

Learning to Let Go.

Take for example Everyday Math centers. During a grade level meeting earlier in the year, the idea of implementing math centers was brought up. I was very adamant about not incorporating them into my classroom. What’s wrong with how I teach math now? Where will I find the time to meet all the varying groups of students and their needs? Who will support me? How will I ensure all students are on task and focused? An overwhelming feeling took over without fully thinking it through.

I took a step back and a deep breath.


I began to think to myself, I have rituals and routines already set up and students are very capable of making appropriate transitions around the classroom. I knew my understanding of the math curriculum was strong. I always arrive at school with plenty of time to properly plan to ensure all students can be successful.

Oh, I get it! The remaining barrier was myself and letting go.

That’s when the decision was made. The next day I jumped into the deep end of the pool.


Since that fateful meeting earlier in the year, I have not looked back. Math centers are an integral part of my routine. Day after day, I reflect about what was successful and what can be improved in a very systematic way. I have mentally and verbally acknowledged mistakes made along the way and rectified them. Guess what? More mistakes happened, reflection took place, and the cycle repeated itself.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague and we discussed how our year has progressed. The animation and hand motions (yep, I’m Italian 🙂 I was exhibiting were of pure excitement. I mentioned that I felt like a new teacher and how I’ve learned so much this year from letting go, failing, and reflecting.

True growth for the WIN!

Transference of Power

Picture this. Students sitting anxiously on the carpet in the front of our classroom.

Lesson objectives are written on the board and students are ready for an adventure of learning. The objective of the lesson was finding the theme of a poem. Our curriculum binder called for posting twenty or so various themes that students will encounter in literacy. Suddenly, a funny thing happened. Since developing a PLN (personal learning network on twitter) I have shifted my pedagogy in many ways. I will delve deeper into that topic in another post. I will say, however, I’ve truly put my trust behind students having a voice and an opportunity to prove themselves.

I decided, instead of giving students too many options for themes, which they probably would have had a difficult time understanding, I transfered the power to them. I read aloud the poem and asked them to immediately “turn-and-talk” to their neighbors on the carpet to discuss the theme. The discussion that formed was one of empowerment and engagement. Students were discussing the theme, as they saw it in their mind, and used evidence from the poem to support their theme. Additionally, students were making well thought out inferences using the author’s words. This sent chills of excitement up my spine.

I began to think to myself, “Do we not provide students with an opportunity to think for themselves?” “Do we provide almost too much support that narrows their thinking?” While I will never argue with the idea of providing supports so  all students can be successful using a variety of strategies, sometimes you just have to leave it in their hands. The results will most likely astonish you.

After having this “A-HA moment,” students partnered up to read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. Anyone familiar with this poem will understand the depth of it. The students quickly went to their book nooks to partner read, discuss the theme, and respond in their reader’s notebook. During that time, I took small groups of students who needed  additional support and we broke the poem down line by line to deepen understanding and ensure all had an opportunity for success.

I was overjoyed when we returned to the carpet at the end of the lesson for reflection. Students proved, that given the opportunity to think for themselves, they can and will deliver. The themes that were discussed were extremely well-thought out and concise. The looks of confidence and pride radiated off their faces, and they were overjoyed with their successes. My friends, it was a powerful learning lesson for all.