Flexible Seating, Student Choice

Flexible Seating: Year 3

What a difference a year makes! My group last year adapted to flexible seating after maybe two weeks. They all used the furniture appropriately and I never had any issues. Fast forward a year, and it’s mid-November and I’m pulling my hair out. My new group is extremely inquisitive, yet they are struggling with all the choices. They literally push/steal each others seating when they get up to sharpen a pencil (true story), fall off stools daily, and are choosing seats next to their friends repeatedly… which drives me nuts. I refused to pull out the spooner boards and bike pedals for all of September and half of October, but realized maybe this group needs more movement.

While it has taken a while, I finally am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I had to set some parameters because the class is boy heavy (17 boys and 11 girls). Last year the rule was two boys and two girls at every table and they had to sit diagonally across from each other. This year I had to get creative: there must be at least one girl at every table, and no more than two girls. I even had to have students select their seats in the afternoon for the following day to cut down on fighting over seats. Students with good behavior got first choice.


Some of you may have followed my journey with flexible seating. I first dabbled with varying tables. Then I added yoga balls (and hated it)! I went back to stools, and added stationary bike pedals, a standing table, and bean bag chairs. Finally, I added crate seats, spooner boards, and now IKEA Snille ($6) seating with lap desks. Here’s what is working well and what I will adjust for next year:

Standing Tables – This is a popular choice. It has taken a while to get the students to understand the expectations for this table. There is no spinning or ‘surfing’ across the room on the spooner boards. They are only for rocking back and forth. I have stools under the table in case the kids get tired of standing.

Lowered seating – My crate seats are hugely popular. For about $100 I made eight seats. The only complaint is the kids would like some back support like a pillow.

Lap Desks – These have held up for a few years and I’m happy with them. The kids love them too because of the cup holder, etc. These have not held up as well and I will not be purchasing them again.

Foam Squares – These are so simple, yet so effective. While I did “steal” a giant rug from an empty classroom, these foam squares are used when kids have to work on the floor. Students love these and I got them for free on a mom-swap website but are similar to these.

Stationary Bikes – I think these are the most effective for wiggly students. The kids are calm from the waist up, but are peddling away underneath. The only problem is that most are broken after only two years of daily use. I’ll be ordering these again but maybe a different brand for more durability.

What’s working well in your room? Anything you absolutely hate?

Digital Citizenship, Personalized Learning

Accountability & Collaboration in Upper Elemantary

I often plan stations or rotations where I am at one station, and the students have group, pair, or independent work at the others. Students were (almost) always on task for me, but were often chatty, off-task, or goofing off during the others. I have worked for the past few years on getting the students to be both accountable for quality work during these times, but also truly collaborative. Here’s what I’ve been doing recently.

Exit tickets– These are an oldie but goodie. I downloaded this free template from TpT and edit it to fit my needs. I can quickly see which students get a concept, and which do not.


Organized rotations – I recently came up with this simple Doc to help with rotations. (Here’s a second version). Each color square also has a poster in the room, where students know exactly where to go. The Doc tells them the instructions, and how to turn in their work (often in a bin in the room, or on Seesaw). No one bothers me during small-group-instruction because I left them detailed directions.

Accountability forms – In math, the students fill out a tracking sheet each day, where they tell me which standard they’re working on, and where I can find evidence of this work. Even if I don’t check it daily, (or even weekly), they think that I can. In reading, I split my class in half, and we read two novels. While I’m reading with one group, I had been giving the other group comprehension questions but some students were waiting until the last minute, and having to re-read the entire book. I was given a similar version of this Independent Reading form, which I love. There are specific tasks for each day of the week and may-do lists after the daily must-do is completed. Many of the activities go along with the William and Mary Teaching models for IB and GT.

Collaboration – My class this year is a stubborn bunch. I’ve stressed time and time again about making good seating choices, yet they still gravitate towards friends. Finally, I implemented a two girls/two boys per table rule, and they have to be sitting diagonally, therefore when we do elbow-partner work, they have to work with someone of the opposite gender. Collaboration is hard, as one 4th grader usually takes the lead, and the other the backseat. Or two strong-headed personalities can’t figure out how to divide up the work. I’ve been loving the “commenting” feature on the Google Suite for Education, and encourage the teams to “talk” on there instead of out loud. After a few weeks (eek) of them typing “Hello” and other off-topic, random junk, they are starting to see that that wastes time.




Digital Teaching Resources, Inquiry-Based, Simulations, Uncategorized

Turning Paper Simulations into Digital Content

Ask any former student what their favorite thing about my class is, and most will say, “Simulation.” Simulation is something another teacher showed me from Scholastic that comes in a PDF form or you can purchase the physical packet for about a dollar more.  I have purchased all the ones below and they are well worth the $8!

Explorer Simulation
Revolutionary War Simulation
Bill Becomes Law Simulation
Oregon Trail Simulation
Civil War Simulation

First, I divide the class into smaller groups. I like six groups, which makes about 4-5 students in a group. I use this electronic group generator that is a Smart Notebook file so there are no complaints about who is in which group (although you can shuffle it as many times as needed). I do this before showing the students their groups.

These simulations are very much like the Oregon Trail computer game we played as kids, or the choose-your-own-ending novels. I read a passage, the small groups make a joint decision, and they listen to the consequences. During the Explorer’s Simulation, for example, the small groups make a decision whether to take the deal offered by King Ferdinand or Isabella for a fleet, or try their luck with the King of Portugal, Manuel I. Other times, the students have to spin on spinner board (paper clip and pencil) to see what their consequences are.

For a few years, I was printing each student a “Simulation Packet” where the kids would keep track of their data and write their journal entries. Then I decided to create them on Google Docs and share on Google Classroom. The reading passages are posted in PDF form, and the students keep track of their journal electronically. While it takes a long time for us to sit and wait for entire groups to spin on the electronic spinner (also available on a Smart Notebook file), it actually builds excitement as the other groups root for, and cheer on, their classmates. As part of most simulations (not the Bill Becomes a Law one), students whose health dips below a five, actually ‘die’. I’ve had entire wagon companies in the Oregon Trail simulation perish before reaching Oregon.

These simulations are great for many reasons. One, they put the students into the shoes of an actual person of the time period. I can teach them about famous Revolutionary War heroes, but when they are making decisions as if they were a soldier, they are soaking in the history and making it relatable. Two, the simulations foster those 21st century skills like communication and collaboration. Three, the Oregon Trail simulation includes a lot of math– the students keep track of how much money they have with them and the pounds of food and supplies they can carry. Interdisciplinary lessons kill two birds with one stone.

I’ve learned that a lot of those old worksheets or printable packets teachers love to share can be converted quickly and easily into electronic files. I loved Simulation but always hated printing the huge packets (even front and they back they could be like 6-10 pages per kid). I’m saving trees and still using the content the kids love. I just started our first simulation (the Explorer’s one) and already had kids thanking me and telling me how much fun they were having. Learning doesn’t have to look like textbooks and worksheets, people!

Art Integration, STEAM, Uncategorized

Art Integration in Upper Elementary

My favorite subject in school was always art. This recent Mind Shift article got me thinking about how I am using (or not using) art in my classroom.

During my Sharing the Planet unit, I teach Native American regions, early European Explorers, and plant and animal classification. This interdisciplinary unit focuses on the central idea: Native communities are altered when new elements are introduced.

For the Native American regions, we do a small craft for each region: paper canoes for Eastern Woodlands, Teepees for Great Plains, sand art for Southwestern, and totem poles for Pacific Northwest. I even have a 7-foot totem pole that we can complete as a class. This year, I also started a weaving project with wampum belts and the kids have loved it! I tied it into math as well, working on patterns; transformations, reflections, and rotations.

During our study of habitats and biomes, I started a torn art project. The students had to pick one habitat/biome we have studied in class. They were to create a scene from the habitat using torn pieces of construction paper, magazine pages, and tissue paper without using scissors! They had to include at least two examples of plant life and one example of animal life that is native to the habitat. I found examples on Pinterest and posted them to Google Classroom in a Doc. Finally, the students use their knowledge of animal classification to design their own zoo.

Finally, their summative assessment involves creating a cartoon similar to the Mark Trail Sunday comic strip by James Allen. Students had to pick an invasive species (or put a species in a new habitat) and explain how the original habitat would be affected. The specifics can be found here. As always, I like to include choice in my projects, so they could either draw them, or create them on a Google Slide.

For my second unit, How the World Works, I teach early European settlement in North America with the water cycle and weather. This interdisciplinary unit focuses on the central idea: Natural cycles are interconnected and impact the world.

For weather, I have a few ideas (thanks, Pinterest.) In the past, I’ve done the tornado in a jar, but would like to add more art to this unit. I was thinking of doing crayon and water color clouds, textured tin foil art, sensory snow, rain and wind process art, or even salt and water color art. The summative assessment for this unit is a written DBQ (Document Based Question).

For social studies, I have the students create a colonist. They research names, jobs from the 1400’s, and dress their colonist accordingly. I saw this post on having the kids trace themselves on butcher paper and could make the colonist project really come to life! We also work on Colonial Quilts, a Scholastic activity, and combine our individual squares to make a large class “quilt”. This year, I would like to make hand-dipped candles and/or weave tapestries to show how hard and labor-intensive life was back then. Do I dare try needlepoint? Corn husk dolls are popular and I found some guides here and here. There is even a yarn version…which might be easier.


Check back for a future post on integrating art into other units. And leave a comment with how you’re using art in your classroom. I’d love to get new ideas!

Digital Teaching Resources, Social Media

How Technology Changed the Teaching Profession (and it’s not what you think)

The internet at your fingertips.

Virtual Field Trips.

Google Earth.

Google Classroom. Google anything, really….Drive….Slides….Docs…Calendar. What did we do before Google?

Those are all great, but not what I was thinking.


During graduate school, we had to write two-three page lesson plans, which were a total waste. Three pages per lesson, at five subjects a day, 180 days… that’s like 2,700 written pages a year. Who has time for that?! But in 2007, I used the Internet to look up lesson plans. A few were online and were a great place to start. Here is my take on how technology shaped how educators beg, borrow, and steal.

Next came Pinterest. Educators quickly saw the value of Pinterest and I started following EVERYONE. Not only were teachers posting lesson plans, there were pictures…oodles and oodles of pictures. You could see classroom decor, see lessons in action, copy organizational tips, teacher hacks, and find sales for supplies. This totally beat the large stack of overly-copied and mimeographed worksheets I was handed (and completely grateful for) during my first year by a veteran teacher. (Full disclosure, some of those were really great and I still use them.)

Then came Teachers Pay Teachers. I jumped on the TPT bandwagon. Now there were more worksheets than I could ever imagine! I could  search for things before creating them myself because $2 was a small price to pay for not having to recreate the wheel. Heck, I even threw some of my Smartboard Notebook lessons on there and some worksheets my mom (graphic designer genius) created for me my first year, and made a few bucks on the side. Some sellers are now millionaires. While I still search for the occasional printable, even TpT has branched out to more digital and editable resources. (See my previous post about top TpT digital resources.) They’ve also gotten a little more expensive. Gone are the $2 days, as things are $10, $15, even $50 for full units these days.

Next came Facebook. Let’s admit it, I’ve been on Facebook since the beginning when it was only for college kids (circa 2003). I was already on it, so I started followed a few other teachers, schools, and educational resources. This was also a great place to see some teacher humor (helllllo Ryan Gosling memes and Gerry Brooks videos), but also to get access to other blogs and articles pertinent to education. Here are a few pages that are worth the follow:
Mind Shift
Making the PYP Happen
We Are Teachers

Finally, there is Instagram and Twitter. Following other teachers on Instagram (and following who they’re following) has been instrumental. I can go down an educational Instagram rabbit hole and not surface for hours. My iPhone camera roll used to be filled with pictures of my kids. Now, it’s all screenshots of classroom things I want to save and view later. Literally.

People also swear by Twitter. Following top-ranked educators, inspirational speakers, and even colleagues can be a great place for inspiration. Not only can it be a great place to get ideas, it’s also a great place to help our students. I haven’t been able to get into Twitter as much (I waste enough time on FB and Instagram, plus I do have that other full-time job, mommy-hood, that constantly interrupts my educational stalking/researching) but if you have any tips or suggestions of people to follow on Twitter, please leave a comment and I will check it out.

Back-To-School, First Day, Flexible Seating, Inquiry-Based, Student Choice, Uncategorized

Reflections from Day 1, Year 8

I was very excited to start school this year. I have a new teaching partner, a new class theme, and 28 newly minted fourth graders. I wanted my first day of school to look different than previous years. I wanted to build excitement and focus on fostering individual relationships with the kids. While I have always greeted my students at the door every morning, I made an effort last year to have the biggest smile and greet each kid by name, and a positive comment. Even on my most exhausting mornings, by the time the ninth or tenth kid came in my room, I really was happier and that rubbed off on the kids (and me!). Fake it until you make it. 

While I have flexible seating, I chose to put name tags on the seats today. I have several students who are new to the school and I didn’t want them to feel isolated or left out. The first day in a new classroom is overwhelming as it is, so I wanted there to be as little distractions as possible.  It really does pain me for the first, maybe month, of school as students run down the hall to pick the “best” seat first or grab a table with only their besties. They just aren’t ready to handle that much freedom and choice after four years of assigned seating habits. I clinch my teeth, let them sort it out, intervene when necessary, and wait for it to pass. Around mid-September they start to realize they will get to sit in all their favorite places, and the novelty wears off.

I had a packet on each desk with some coloring pages, crossword puzzles, etc so there was something there to do when they finally settled on a seat. There were directions (dry erase markers on plastic picture frames…genius!) at each table and colored pencils available as well. The packet had one blue page with some personal questions about how they learn best and what they hope to get out of fourth grade. This was on colored paper and I collected it at the end of the day. (It also did double-duty as I modeled how I collect all my papers for the year…calling them in reverse alphabetical order).

I went over my expectations for flexible seating next. I described how I want the students to select a seat for the hour/day/subject and I have a student model how each seat would look when used appropriately  (and what it would look like when used inappropriately). Finally the students signed their “Flexible Seating Contract” and went to foreign language class. I like to follow my schedule as closely as possible even the first week of school. During my math period, we set up our math notebooks, during science, the same. It is my belief that students thrive with structure and routine. When they know what is expected of them (every morning after the bell rings, we do math…therefore they anticipate and have math notebooks ready) the easier it is for them and me.

In between setting up notebooks for each subject area, (this takes a while…gluing in an index page, writing our table of contents, numbering every page), I put some posters on each table. Each had a question or sentence starter. I got many of the ideas from the blog Making Good Humans which was posted on the Making the PYP Happen Facebook page. Even if you don’t teach at an IB school, this page is worth the “follow”. My questions were as follows, and students responded with markers:

What stops you from learning?
What helps you learn best?
What does it mean to be an inquirer?
What was the most fun day you had all summer?
Last year I….
This year I’m going to…
The answer is “Mrs. Biggs”. What could the question be?

The students rotated from table to table, adding their response until they had visited all six tables. This also was important because it showed the students we move around a lot in my class and it gave each student a chance to try each seat, even if just for a minute. Some of the responses were silly (Last year I… was in 3rd grade) but we discussed those and modeled new ones, which were much better (Last year I struggled in math; Last year I loved science because we did hands-on experiments), etc.

Some of my other first day go-to activities involve index cards. On one, I have the students write 3-5 questions down that they may have. It could be a question about my personal life, our classroom, or the year as a whole. Throughout the day, I read a few and answer them during transitions or if we have a few minutes to spare. This is a safe way to let students anonymously ask me anything. I obviously only read and answer the appropriate ones. On the second index cards, we play “Two Truths and a Lie”. I ask the students to write down two true things about themselves and one lie. I always read mine first and see if the kids can spot the lie. I also pull a few index cards throughout the day and have the class guess. By the end of the day, they are begging to me read a few more. I know this game gets old in the upper grades, but fourth graders have always loved it.
This has been a longer-than-expected post, but I had such a wonderful first day. I’m really looking forward to this year. What are some of your favorite first-day activities?

Flexible Seating, Personalized Learning, Student Choice

Back-to-School & Student Choice

I am five days away from heading back to school. Five days. I’m not sure where summer went, but this one flew by. Maybe it was the constant playdates and pool time with my toddlers, or my brother’s wedding, or the IB training in Austin, Texas, but either way, I’ve been doing some reflection and trying to figure out how to give my students more choice this year. Here are three ways I will include choice in my class this year:

Flexible Seating:
My class has had flexible seating for two years now. I did a small blurb on my seating choices in a previous blog post “Top 5 Reasons I Use Technology in my Classroom” (see #2). Previously, it looked like this: My students may sit/stand wherever they like as long as they are on task. I have seats with stationary bikes, standing tables with spooner boardsHokki stools, and bean bag chairs. I noticed that once a student picked a seat for the day, they sat there and wouldn’t move. I wanted there to be more movement between subjects and throughout the day. This year, I am removing two large desks (each desk seats two students) and I am making crate seats. Four will be placed in a semi-circle in the front of the room, and four along the back wall for a “couch/bench” like seating area. Below you can see how large the tables are and I’m looking forward to the extra space this will open up. I found lap desks at Hobby Lobby and students can bring them to the crate seats or to the floor. I would like to offer some incentive for picking more than one seat in a day.


Morning Work:
I stumbled upon this blog about “Rethinking Morning Work.”  I love the idea of morning work choice! My daughter’s preschool teacher offers this for four-year-olds, why wouldn’t it work for fourth graders? Every day when she walks in, her teacher has set up a few tables with arts/crafts, small toys, Play-Doh, etc. She can choose which to engage with after she hangs up her book bag. I’m interested in this Suspend Game and Legos for a collaboration station. Since we are 1:1 ipads, we could have a technology station, a game station (hello task cards and sudoko!), and an artistic expression station focusing on an artist or genre each week or month. I am hoping to have this fleshed out soon but would not start it on the first two days of school. (Our district starts school on Thursday, we have class Friday, then three days off for the weekend and the solar eclipse.)

Choice Boards & Novel Selection:
I have used choice boards for many topics, but especially math. I give students a “Must Do/May Do” list where they have certain things that are mandatory to complete and others are optional. I would like to be more creative with academic choice this year, for example, offering my students more than one summative assessment for each IB unit. I do many station-rotation models in my classroom, but I would like to offer maybe six stations, where only four or five need be visited.  I usually select two or three novels for each IB unit based on the topics covered. I always group the students by ability, but would like to offer the students a choice in which novel to read (as long as I have sort-of evenly numbered groups). I’m thinking I will read the jacket covers of the books out loud and have students record on a note card their first choice. I want the decision to be independent of their friend’s choices. It is always hard at the beginning of the year, since these students don’t know my routines and procedures. They also don’t have experience being given so much choice in a classroom. Hopefully, I’ll have them whipped into shape in no time!

A very special thanks to the blogs who I’ve borrowed/stolen from today. And my dad, who I begged to help me make these crate seats!


Inside the Trenches
The Apple Tree Room
The Science Penguin