The Importance of Prioritization

It took me a while to learn that as a teacher, the to-do list is never-ending.

In college, I could get my entire to-do list done. Therefore, it didn’t matter which item I decided to tackle first, second, or last. In the end, everything got done.

When I started teaching, I was always adding something new to the list. There is always something to do that will increase the effectiveness of the classroom. Therefore, when I tried to use my time management strategies from college, I started to flounder.

I would pick the fun to-do items first. Like making posters. Within my misguided system, it didn’t matter what I did first, right? Since everything was going to get done?

Um, no. I quickly learned that not everything on the list was going to get done anymore. Therefore, I had to start prioritizing the list and tackling the most important items first.

As I get ready for my ninth year of teaching, I find myself being lured by my old paradigm: “Oh, you have plenty of time to get everything done! It’s only July! There’s no need to waste time strategically prioritizing the list. Just start tackling it.”

So I’m having an intervention with myself. I am here to prioritize this list (and re-prioritize it every time I add something new to it!).

  1. Revise scope and sequence for all subject areas (5 hours)
  2. Correlate curriculum with state standards (5 hours)
  3. Create grading plan (2 hours)
  4. Set up shelves with curricular materials (8 hours)
  5. Revise reading long-term plan (2 hours)
  6. Revise writing long-term plan (3 hours)
  7. Create lesson plans for Week One (2 hours)
  8. Plan reading diagnostic and tracking (4 hours)
  9. Plan writing diagnostic and tracking (2 hours)
  10. Create print-rich environment (3 hours)
  11. Create line order and closet assignments (1 hour)
  12. Create family survey (1 hour)
  13. Call families to invite them to the orientations (2 hours)
  14. Create long term plans for science and social studies (2 hours)
  15. Set up system for observation notes (1 hour)
  16. Set up system for conference notes (1 hour)
  17. Create leveled book baskets and corresponding templates for tracking progress (6 hours)
  18. Create writing piece tracking sheet (30 minutes)
  19. Figure out math facts sequence (2 hours)
  20. Make math facts flashcards for home use (3 hours)
  21. Refill math facts work (1 hour)
  22. Create sight words work (3 hours)
  23. Prepare spelling curriculum (with high frequency words added) (4 hours)
  24. Prepare personal dictionaries (1 hour)
  25. Create system for goal setting and add to the calendar (2 hours)
  26. Fix word study sequence (6 hours)
  27. Make pocket chart for breakfast cards (2 hours)
  28. Make pocket chart for name cards (2 hours)
  29. Set up pen pals (1 hour)
  30. Create classroom jobs (60 min.)
  31. Create binder for published pieces of writing (30 min.)
  32. Set up system for graphing daily goal completion (2 hours)
  33. Set up handwriting curriculum (4 hours)
  34. Create a long-term plan for the Practical Life curriculum (4 hours)
  35. Create a system for shelf-cleaning (30 min.)
  36. Create a long-term plan for independent science experiments (10 hours)
  37. Create a plan for incorporating yoga instruction and silence games to increase focus and concentration (2 hours)
  38. Create a plan for holiday research to be done as a family project at home (3 hours)
  39. Chop white paper for fractions and time (1 hour)
  40. Create a plan for incorporating music instruction (5 hours)

After school begins:

  1. Assign reading partners for class and reading buddies for cross-class exchange (1 hour)
  2. Plan reading buddy lessons (1 hour)
  3. Get portfolios ready (1 hour)
  4. Add each child’s picture to the Published Writing binder (30 min)
  5. Set up professional development tracker (15 min)

So that’s more than 100 hours of work before school starts (and I’m sure I’ll think of new things to add to the list constantly). I’ll basically need about 10, 10-hour days. That’s doable.


Cultivating Agents of Change


In Montessori schools, we firmly believe that children learn by doing. When they learn to add, for example, they use beads to physically set up the ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands for the top number and then the bottom, and then they physically push the numbers together and count the beads to determine the sum.

In addition to being excellent mathematicians, readers, writers, zoologists, geologists, etc., I also want my children to be excellent social activists. I want them to believe that they can turn their compassion into action. So what better way to teach them social action than to let them actually do it?

That’s where Make a Difference Day comes in. Make a Difference Day is a national day of community service, sponsored by USA WEEKEND Magazine. It takes place on the fourth Saturday of October each year. I like to use this event to plan a class-wide project. Through this experience, I am able to model how to plan and execute a community service project.

Following the concept of a gradual release of responsibility, I incorporate a significant amount of teacher support into the lessons, and the amount of student independence is lower. I do a lot of modeling and guided practice. This process will set them up to undertake their own projects in small groups later on in the year.

I will use our ten-minute “Lesson” time during our daily community meeting to facilitate the following lessons. I’m excited to see what they come up with!


What will children think, feel, and do by the end of the lesson?

  • Be excited about the possibility of doing something to make the world a better place.
  • Believe that kids can make a difference in the world.

  • Describe and implement the steps for planning a project: Identifying the goal, collecting ideas, developing ideas, drafting, revising, editing, and executing.


  • Observe body language

  • Observe questions and discussion


  • Book: Making a Difference by Time for Kids

  • Chart paper
  • Markers
  • Poster of “How to Plan a Project”

Agenda: Day One

  • TEACHER: In our class, we talk a lot about living like a leader. Leaders are people who work hard to make the world better. We already know that kids can be leaders. We’ve talked about the idea that peace begins with you.
  • Today we are going to read a story about kids making the world better. It’s called Making a Difference. [Read story]
  • As a class, we’re going to have a special opportunity to make the world better. Saturday, October 24 is the national Make a Difference Day. We are going to work together to come up with a project that we can do together that will make the world better. Tonight, go home and start thinking about your ideas. During our next community meeting, we’ll brainstorm our ideas.

Agenda: Day Two

  • TEACHER: During our last community meeting, we talked about how kids can make the world better [hold up book]. Now we’re going to start planning the project we want to do to make the world better on Saturday, October 24.
  • Whenever I start a project, the first thing I do is think of my goal. I ask myself, “What do I want to accomplish? Why am I doing this?” Our goal for this project is to do something that makes the world better [write on a piece of chart paper for the children to see]. Next, I collect ideas about how to accomplish the goal. Let’s go back to the book and get some ideas from it. [add ideas to list]
  • Now let’s come up with our own ideas to add to our list. When we are collecting ideas, we need to be careful to respect everyone’s ideas, even if we think they won’t work or sound silly. Everything that people say can give someone else another idea, so all ideas are useful and helpful. [call on students and add their ideas to the list]
  • Keep thinking about our ideas tonight. Talk with your friends and families and see if you can come up with any more ideas! We’ll come back tomorrow and pick one of our ideas.

Agenda: Day Three

  • TEACHER: We’ve been working on our Make a Difference Day project. We started by coming up with our goal. [read goal] Next, we started collecting ideas. [read ideas] Does anyone have any other ideas they want to add to the list?
  • Now it’s time to select one of our ideas. You are going to vote for your favorite idea. You can only vote one time, so listen closely while I read all the ideas again and you can decide which one is your favorite. [read the list through once]
  • Now I’m going to read the list again and you can vote for your favorite idea. Remember that leaders act courageously. Even if you are the only person who likes a particular idea, you should be bold and raise your hand. It takes courage to vote for something that is unpopular. [read through the list and record the number of votes next to each idea; ensure that each person voted once]
  • Now that we have our project idea picked, tomorrow we can start planning it!

Agenda: Day Four

  • TEACHER: We’ve been working on our Make a Difference Day project. We started by coming up with our goal. [read goal] Next, we started collecting ideas. Yesterday, we picked one of our ideas. Now it is time to develop that idea. Let’s make a web to come up with all the ideas we have about how to implement the project we selected. [make a web] Remember, when we are collecting and developing ideas, we need to be careful to respect everyone’s ideas, even if we think they won’t work or sound silly. Everything that people say can give someone else another idea, so all ideas are useful and helpful. [call on students and add their ideas to the web]
  • We’ve come up with a lot of great ideas! Tomorrow, we will come up with a step-by-step plan for implementing our idea.

Agenda: Day Five

  • TEACHER: We’ve been working on our Make a Difference Day project. We started by coming up with our goal. [read goal] Next, we started collecting ideas. Then, we picked one of our ideas and developed it. Now it is time to come up with a step-by-step plan for how to implement our plan. In other words, what do we need to do first, second, third, etc. in order to undertake this project? Also, what materials do we need? [create a draft of the plan and the materials list—skip lines on the plan to allow room for revising]
  • Now that we have our plan, it’s time to revise it. Let’s read back over it and see if there’s anything we need to add, delete, rearrange, or replace.
  • Now let’s edit it to see if we need to add/change any capital letters or end marks or if we need to fix our spelling.
  • Is there anyone who can turn our rough draft (“sloppy copy”) into a final draft during work time tomorrow?

Agenda: Day Six

  • TEACHER: We’ve been working on our Make a Difference Day project. We started by coming up with our goal. [read goal] Next, we started collecting ideas. Then, we picked one of our ideas and developed it. Finally, we came up with a plan and a list of materials we need to gather. Thank you so much to ______________ for excelling as a leader and taking on more work by making our final draft.
  • Now we need to read through all of our steps and decide who is going to do them and by when.
  • We’ll check in every day to see how our project is going!

Make A Difference Day is the most encompassing national day of helping others — a celebration of neighbors helping neighbors. Everyone can participate. Created by USA WEEKEND Magazine, Make A Difference Day is an annual event that takes place on the fourth Saturday of every October. The next event is Saturday, October 24, 2009.

Family Involvement Phone Magnets

We’re having a Meet & Greet tomorrow night with children and their families. I’m putting together phone magnets to hand out. I like to pass out magnets with my phone number, the school’s phone number, our classroom webpage, and our class values so families can stick it on their refrigerators and have easy access to it.

Directions for Making Your Own Refrigerator Magnets

  1. Design a sheet of magnets using the table option in Microsoft Word (or work from my template)
  2. Print the sheets on cardstock
  3. Either laminate the whole sheet and then cut or cut out each card and laminate it separately (I usually just laminate the whole sheet and then cut, since magnets get stuck on the fridge and pretty much left alone).
  4. Apply a piece of peel-and-stick magnetic tape (I’ve seen it sold at Office Max and Wal-Mart in the craft section)
  5. Voila!

Montessori First Great Lesson

I’ve decided to tell the First Montessori Great Story about the Big Bang on the first day of school. Part of me likes to wait a few days because I see the benefit of building anticipation and excitement (I just read all about it in Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning). However, I’ve decided to do it on the first day of school this year because I want to start the year with–you know it’s coming!–a bang.

I want them to realize that the entire universe is within their reach and that our three years together will help them uncover the tools within them that they need to explore their world.

In my Montessori training, we learned to tell a rather involved story that incorporates a lot of experiments. When I was listening to the story during training, I found myself getting lost in all the digressions. I decided that I would tell the story more coherently, cohesively, and concisely and then do follow up lessons with some of the experiments that were in the original story.

I use a PowerPoint presentation to help me tell the story. Then I provide the same story in card form so the children can revisit the story again and again.

What are your thoughts about how and when to most effectively tell the First Great Story?

The Neverending Story (Er, “To Do List”)

It’s getting to that point where I finally acknowledge that I won’t be able to accomplish every single ambitious item on my to-do list before school starts next Monday.

I’ve come a long way since I started my career in education ten years ago in 1999. I used to make my to-do list on sticky notes. Millions of them. Everywhere.

When I first started teaching full-time in 2000, I hadn’t yet realized that I couldn’t get everything done (I’ve always been overly-optimistic!). So, I naturally did what any other person listening to their id would do: I did all the fun things first.

My first year, I had the most beautiful posters everywhere. But I had terrible lesson plans…

Going into my eighth year of teaching, I have a very strategic, centralized action plan (thanks David Allen and Stephen Covey!), and I also have the self-awareness to realize that not everything is going to get done. As a result, I have to start prioritizing. I’m thinking about Day One and everything that needs to be in place to have an amazing Monday (next week!). Thankfully, I’ve done lots of the bigger-picture planning (vision, goals, assessments, etc.), so I can make sure to align all of my day-to-day stuff with the end vision.

So, um, I guess I better go get to work!

Interactive Classroom Calendar


This year I decided to do something I haven’t done before: create an interactive calendar.

The idea is that I want the children to take ownership of our community and our classroom, and one way to do that is by co-authoring our days. They will be responsible for shifting the days of the month when the month changes, and they will add a variety of events to our calendar: birthdays, field trips, presentations that they want to make to the class, pen pal letter deadlines, reading buddy visits, etc.

The board started as an old chalkboard. Here’s how I transformed it:

  1. I asked some children and parent volunteers to clean the old surface.
  2. I used painters’ tape around all the edges to make sure I didn’t get any primer or paint on the floor (note to self: I should have also put down a drop cloth!).
  3. I then used a roller brush (with the smoothest roller attached) to add a layer of magnetic primer (which I secured from Home Depot for around $10).
  4. I followed the drying directions on the can and waited about 30 minutes before reapplying the next layer. In all, I had enough primer to do three layers.
  5. I let the surface dry for 24 hours and then used chalkboard spray paint to spray over the magnetic primer (note to self: buy chalkboard paint in a can rather than as a spray next time!).
  6. I measured out my calendar and put light chalk marks to approximate where I wanted to put the tape.
  7. I used a light blue painters’ tape from the teacher supply store to create the calendar grid. Wal-Mart sells a darker blue that is also very nice.
  8. I used my computer to print out the months, days, seasons, and dates in English and Spanish. I then cut out everything. You can download the template here. I used five different colors and fed them through the printer in a pattern. I ended up with a few mistakes, but if you print the entire document on five colors, it will all work out.
  9. I ran everything through the laminator and trimmed around the edges.
  10. I cut a roll of magnetic tape into pieces and attached them to the numbers. I used tape to attach the days of the week (since those are permanent). Because the magnets were on a roll, I had to bend each piece backwards to get it to lay flat. I put two pieces on each number, since the magnetic board has a pretty weak attraction.

Voila! When the children want to add events, they will use sticky notes and small magnets. I’m also going to make a magnet with every child’s picture so they can put their picture next to their birthdays, presentations, etc.



Let me know if you have any questions!

The Measure of Our Success: Educators or Criminals?

The ultimate measure of our educational system’s success is not who our students are or what they do in our schools but who they are and what they do in the world.

I’m at a charter school orientation offered by the state, and I just listened to a presentation by two agents from the United States Department of Education, Office of the Inspector General.

They talked about the importance of running charter schools ethically, and they shared several examples of school district and charter school fraud.

Honestly, it makes me sick to my stomach to think about school secretaries and charter school principals funneling money away from the public schools, so they can have a personal shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret. And then there are the superintendents and district employees convening on yachts to dole out multi-million dollar contracts.

One of the agents said about half the people he prosecutes go into their endeavors with ill intentions. The other half goes in with good intentions and then gets derailed by their own greed and the opportunity to satiate it.

When I hear about adults sullying the world with their actions, it reminds me again that our education system has to do more than teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We live in a complex, capitalistic society. We live in a world that elevates profit and often justifies the ends despite the means. We need to help our children develop an ethical sense of self. We need to help them develop an internal code of ethics that pushes them to distinguish right from wrong, even when they aren’t being directly supervised.

If we accept responsibility for educating our children to be ethical people, we will set them up to be ethical leaders in their 21st century workforces and communities.