Thursday, June 25, 2015

How LiveBinders Keep Me Sane and My Digital Resources Organized

I love the internet for resources of all kinds: class and group lessons, images, videos, music, PowerPoint and Prezis, activities, games, worksheets, Google forms, and more.  But sometimes it can be absolutely overwhelming!  I know you know what I'm talking about! I have seen dozens of the above items and think, "That is so cool! I want to try that," but then later, I can't locate it or remember what it was called or where I saw it.  I then waste untold time in a desperate search trying to find it again. Sometimes successfully, most of the time not. Or, I start clicking away to download things on my computer, only to have an enormous jumble of stuff in my download file that I find difficult, if not impossible to sort through.  So when I discovered LiveBinders, I knew that was for me!  What a great way to save my sanity and organize my digital resources!

LiveBinders is a FREE web-based service that allows you to create up to 10 digital binders with 2 levels of tabs and storage of 100 MB for storing, organizing, and sharing all your digital resources. Like a real paper and vinyl 3 ring binder, LiveBinders lets you create and organize your binders in whatever way that makes sense to you; binder by subject, tabs, subtabs, even color coded.  Tabs can be across the top of the page or on either side. As you explore LiveBinders, you might decide to have entirely separate binders for things like lessons, activities or videos. At this time, I have chosen to organize all my School Counseling resources alphabetically by subject area in one binder titled "All Things School Counseling."  You may also view my LiveBinder on the navigation bar at the top of my blog page.

In some ways LiveBinders is like Pinterest, as you can add a LiveBinders button to your tool bar and add items of interest to the tabs you have created in your binders, just as you do to your boards in Pinterest.  However, LiveBinders is a closed system and it will not suggest other "pins" for you or take you to similar binder resources. You may choose to make your binder public, keep it private, collaborate with others or share with select individuals by giving them an access key.

There are dozens of free, public binders you can view for ideas or to utilize their collection of resources. Some of those public LiveBinders include some pretty amazing School Counseling LiveBinders!  Unlike websites like Facebook, Pinterest, and some School Counseling blogs that are blocked by many school districts, LiveBinders (at this time) is still a web tool with resources I can access at my school.

There are numerous videos on YouTube and tutorials on the LiveBinders website to help you with set-up and organization of your binders along with other ideas for their use.  Check out this video for information on "How to Use LiveBinders in 7 Minutes."

In addition to cataloging your digital resources, LiveBinders can be used for organizing and sharing your lessons, collecting presentation resources, storing your School Counseling newsletters, even creating informational binders for parents.  Want to venture into the paperless domain? Maybe a "Back to School" LiveBinder for teachers or families with things School Counselor related like your introduction letter or PowerPoint, job description, services provided, curriculum plan for the year, special events announcements/calendar, School Counseling Advisory Council information, goals for the school year, data from the previous year, etc.  I am currently working on a Community Resources binder to share with the School Counselors in my district covering services available in our county and surrounding areas. The Community Resources binder will be a great tool for my local colleagues and I and an important addition to my school counseling website for parents. There are even step by step instructions to help with embedding a LiveBinder to your website on the LiveBinders "Help" page.

What can I say?  I love LiveBinders! When I'm surfing the web and I see an activity, lesson reosurce or article I like, I can just click on the LiveBinders button on my tool bar and it asks me which binder I want to put the resource in and which tab I want to put the resource under.  Click, click, click and your resource is saved.

The possibilities are endless for managing, organizing, and sharing your digital content as you surf the web and dream up ideas to improve your School Counseling program. So go to the LiveBinders website, set up your free account, add the LiveBinders button to your toolbar, set up some basic tabs by topic and start clicking. And the next time you are looking for that video or that activity sheet, you will be glad you did!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Is Being in the Special Area Rotation Right for You?

Call me crazy, but I LOVE being in the Special Area rotation at my school!   Will this schedule work for everyone? No, it depends on the size of your school, your special area scheduling and resources.  Have you been asked to be in the Special Area Rotation?  Don't panic!  Read on about how I've made this decision work for me, the benefits I have experienced, and the questions you should consider if you think you might be interested in experiencing one of the most worthwhile things I have done in years!

How it Works on a Daily Basis

The first thing you must know is I am NOT in the schedule full-time.  I split a 6 class daily schedule with our Media Specialist and each of us does three classes a day. Each class is 45 minutes long so that comes out to only 2 hours and 15 minutes.  I still have 2 hours and 45 minutes to see students individually or in group and that takes into account I actually  take my ever elusive lunch and planning period of 30 minutes each.

Our special area schedule is divided into A week and B week.  On A week, I have the first 3 classes of the day (grades 2,1,and 4) and Media has the last 3 classes of the day (grades K,3,5).  That means I am finished with class by 11:00 and have the rest of the day for lunch groups, individuals or whatever I need. On B week I have the last 3 classes of the day and Media has the first 3 classes.  With this schedule I am free from 8:00 to 11:35 and have classes until the end of the day at 2:00. Teachers get a calendar labeling the weeks A and B to help them keep track. If a class falls on a holiday, or a class goes on a field trip the lesson is missed the same as if it were Art, Music, or PE.  When I have to be out, I get a half day sub and prepare a sub appropriate video with activity or coloring sheet for my classes. I am not comfortable leaving my regular lessons for a sub!

I have my own classroom which is wonderful and since teachers are not in the room for the lesson, I take the last few minutes of the class when the teacher comes to pick up the students to summarize the lesson, highlighting any important vocabulary or concepts I would like for them to reinforce.

1) Scheduling!
Before being in the specials rotation, I had to chase down teachers to schedule my classroom lessons. What a frustration and a waste of time! In the days prior to high stakes testing, it was relatively easy to get in the classroom for lessons and pull students for groups at anytime.  In addition to high stakes testing, We have Common Core, and teacher evaluations based on student performance. This makes taking students out of class or scheduling classroom counseling lessons nearly impossible.  Teachers are extremely protective of all instructional time and at my school they were all asking for last 30 minutes on Friday for a lesson.  Being in the rotation gives me regular access to students and a ready made schedule.  No more chasing teachers to sign-up or walking into classes where the teacher says, "Oh, we have you today?  We were just headed out for recess," or "I forgot you were coming, we're taking a test."

2) Knowing All Your Students
I think this is the best part.  My school has about 580 students and I am able to get to know them ALL and they know me.  When I see students for individual counseling we have a frame of reference from classroom lessons that allows us to apply previously learned concepts and ideas.  Whether a small problem or crisis counseling, all students have a large "bank" of skills from which to draw from our work together in class.  They "get" what I am talking about and referencing from class lessons and activities.  This creates a more productive individual counseling time and reinforces the problem solving skills of students.

3) More Services, More Students, Less Time
This is another reason I love being in the specials schedule!  It is the best way to deliver the most services to the greatest number or students for the least amount of time.  In a comprehensive school counseling program ASCA states, "Every student gets everything." Classroom counseling is the most effective way to deliver those lessons deemed essential by your school data.  The ASCA recommendation of 80% direct/indirect services to students includes classroom counseling, but at no specified percentage.  My 15 classes a week only has me spending 56.2% of my time with my students.  I still have 43.8% of my day remaining in which to see groups and individuals.  By seeing all classes twice a month I am able to cover a wide range of topics from social skills to bullying to career education  to personal safety.  Not only does every student get everything, but I feel our regular lesson schedule gives my students the time to also explore and practice these skills.

4) Taking Classroom Lessons to a Deeper Level
The opportunity to really explore a topic with my students is another thing I especially love about being in the special area schedule!  Rather than 1 bully lesson and 1 RRW lesson in the fall, I was able to go much deeper. I did 4 lessons on bullying and cyberbullying and 3 lessons on healthy living and peer pressure. We were able to discuss topics and try activities I would never have had the opportunity to do otherwise.  Because of my regular classroom schedule I have been able to pilot 2 different Personal Safety curriculums in grades K-3 and dedicate 8 sessions to thoroughly training my student mediators. Before being in the special area schedule lessons felt rushed and like I was only scratching the surface of a topic.  With more class lessons, I can take the time to engage students in meaningful conversation and role play rather than rushing to finish a topic in 30-40 minutes.  It's amazing the things students come up with and share when you have the luxury of time to allow them to explore a topic.

5) No Extra Duties!!!
No, maybe this is the BEST part!  Since I am part of the the special area schedule that rotates each week, it was impossible for my Principal to put me on any kind of cafeteria, playground, or testing duty.  She tried a few times then realized, "No, you can't do that you have class."  You know, I would do classsroom lessons anyway, but choosing to put those lessons in the specials schedule has eliminated my availability for non-counselor related duties. Awesome!!!

6) Administration Learns the Meaning of Emergencies
Prior to being in the special area rotation, I would often get called to the office to help with "emergencies."  Only about 99 times out of a 100 the calls were not counseling emergencies, but discipline cases that administration did not want to deal with.  I don't know about you, but I want to stay as far away from discipline as possible.  Yes, I am happy to follow up with a student after the referral and consequence phase to develop a plan for the future. However, I DO NOT want to be there when the student is "getting in trouble with administration." It is important for administration to understand real emergencies are those regarding potential threats of harm to self or others, mental health crisis, abuse/neglect, or family traumas.

Counselor Concerns
1) Handling Real Counseling Emergencies
I know lots of School Counselors hate being in the specials rotation because they feel it prevents them from responding to a student crisis.  However, my question is what do you do now when you are in a class or a group and such a crisis comes up?  What happens then?  In my school, if it is a real counseling emergency, my administration will send someone to cover for me like the AP, media specialist, a teacher with an intern, or the academic coach.  Other situations that are serious but not of an urgent nature, were handled after class.

2) Managing Classroom Behavior
Some School Counselors have concerns about teachers being out of the room and having to manage the class.  This does not have to be an issue.  I have my own classroom, therefore I have my own expectations, rules, and procedures.  Even if you are going into a teacher's classroom, establishing your own behavioral expectations is important for good classroom management.  It is also a lot easier than trying to remember the different rules and procedures for 34 different classes. 

I have heard School Counselors express concerns about having to be a classroom disciplinarian and how it is contrary to being a School Counselor.  I agree, that is why I manage my classroom the same way I parent my children with love and specifically communicated expectations for behavior. We are a PBIS school and I teach and re-teach my students our school-wide behavioral expectations and what is expected in my classroom. Because I am constantly reinforcing Perform personal best, Act responsibility, Work and play safely and Show respect and reminding the students in a positive way what that looks and sounds like I have few behavior problems.  For more ideas about classroom management check out my post about Positive Behavior Cones, 3 Simple Ideas for Managing Classroom Behavior, the  PBIS website, CHAMPS  by Randy Sprick or Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a Champion.

3) So Many Lessons, So Much Planning
First let me say, stay calm.  Don't try to plan a separate lesson for every single topic in every single grade level.That is a recipe for burn-out or insanity.  Plan two lessons, one primary, one intermediate for each topic. That's year one. You will get to do these lessons numerous times and really make them your own, figuring out what works and what doesn't at each grade level. In year 2, create two more for each topic, building on what you created the year before, doing the new lesson for everyone who previously heard year one's lessons.  In year 3, create two more lessons for each topic, again teaching it to those who have heard the previous lessons for year 1 and 2.  And now, you have a separate lesson for each grade level and quite possibly, your sanity as well.
Here is a link to a post about exploring free lesson resources on the web.

4) Teacher Does Not Hear the Lesson
In a perfect world teachers, parents, and administrators would all reinforce the fabulous lessons and concepts we teach.  However, I feel like these people are adults with relatively good life skills and they don't have to hear all the basic details of my lessons.  A nice summary at the end before returning the class to the teacher or an email or hand-out of lesson highlights is sufficient.  If it is a lesson that is being shared across the grade levels or school-wide, where you are introducing a new skill set to all the students, then sharing a 5 minute explanation at faculty meeting can be just as effective.

5) This is NOT Why I Became a School Counselor
Many School Counselors have stated "This is not why I became a Counselor." And I agree.  To a point.  ASCA tells us an important part of a comprehensive school counseling program is providing counseling for ALL students.  If I spend the majority of my time with individuals and small groups I am not providing a comprehensive program that meets the needs of ALL.  ASCA does not specify the percentage of time to spend in each of the direct services to students, but tells that is to be determined by the School Counselor based on the needs of the school as indicated by the data and the school size.

Questions to Ask
Interested in being in the specials rotation but still not sure it is right for you? Here are some questions you should consider and discuss with your administration before deciding if this is something you would like to try at your school.

Do I enjoy sharing classroom counseling?
Do I have good classroom management skills?  
Do I have enough curriculum?  
Are there resources for purchasing curriculum?
Will I be allowed to choose my lesson topics and curriculum?
Do I have a bank of lessons from which to draw?
Will I have a classroom or be expected to travel from room to room?
If I am traveling will I always be allowed to access the technology in the classroom?
Will I be in the schedule half-day or all day?
Will I have input about what the schedule will look like?
What will our procedure be in the event of a student emergency?
What will happen with the special area schedule during state testing time?
What provisions will be made for the School Counselor absence in case of illness, workshop, or personal time?
What is the expectation for classes missed due to school holidays or school- wide events?
What if the arrangement isn't working? How long will we give it and how will we handle removing the School Counselor from the schedule?

Choosing to be in the special area rotation was a big decision for me and one I have not regretted.  It has allowed me to control my calendar, protected me from extraneous non-counselor duties, and has gotten me out of handling "student emergencies" that were really disciplinary situations and not counseling crisis.  In many ways being in the special area schedule has simplified and enhanced my services to students and allowed me to provide a more comprehensive school counseling program.

I would be interested to hear your experiences about being in the special area rotation.  What benefits or issues have you seen?  Please feel free to post below or on the Exploring School Counseling Facebook page.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Half-time Counselor, Full-time job!

For 5 years, at two different times in my School Counseling career, I was a half-time School Counselor split between two schools. It was challenging and at moments, many moments, difficult.  However, I learned a lot about myself, my insecurities, my ability to accept my limitations, how to delegate, and to get organized.  Two very different situations. However, organization was the common thread to keeping my sanity.

Situation #1   Half-time, 2 small schools, the ONLY School Counselor
For 2 years  I served two small schools that each had only a half time counselor, me. During those years, I chose a Monday/Wednesday, Tuesday/Thursday, every other Friday schedule due to the distance (almost an hour) between schools. Of course, when I was away from either school, I worried because I was the School Counseling program.

The first thing I learned, and had to accept, was I could not do a full-time School Counseling program at either school, no matter how badly I wanted it or how hard I was willing to work.  I was only at each school alternating 2 and 3 days a week.  I had to modify my expectations of what was realistic to accomplish for my own mental health.  I also learned there were other very caring teachers and staff who were already stepping in to help students and it was important for me to embrace that help and not feel threatened or defensive because someone else was doing a part of my job when I was not there.  I think that was the hardest thing for me.  I admit, I did not handle it well at first and got my feelings hurt.  But, when I took the time to reflect on the needs of my students and what was best for them, I realized it had to be about the kids, not about me. I made those ladies my closest friends at each of my schools and checked in with them weekly to keep up with what was happening with my neediest kids while I was away.  They weren't doing any counseling, but filling the gaps.  They did things like checking on pressure bandages for a burn victim, meeting with parents about attendance issues, and giving out information about community food sources.

During those years, I kept my program very basic, just seeing classes, groups, and individuals using the same lessons and materials at each school. Again, it was a sanity thing.  I would schedule a combination of no more than 4-5 classes and/or groups in a day.  That  still gave me time to see students individually.  I did no testing, no RTI, 504's, IEP meetings, or SST.  There was no time.  When I did do something special like Red Ribbon Week or Career Week, (more like half week) I did the same program and activities at both schools.  Both were done on a small scale just to give the staff and students a taste of each event.

Situation #2 Half-time, 2 large schools, the "Extra" School Counselor
Later in my career I worked for 3 years at two rather large elementary schools that were each pushing 1000 students.  Both had a full-time counselor.  I was the extra help. This time around my schools were close in proximity (15 minutes door to door) and I was able to split my day, mornings at one school and afternoons at the other. This was a far better situation because I knew when I was not there whatever was going on would be handled by the full-time counselor who was providing a full service School Counseling program.  The full-time School Counselors I worked with were the best, and I was never treated like the "extra help."  Together we worked out that I would take 2 entire grade levels at each school and all that entailed.  I took 4th and 5th grade at both schools (which made planning and lesson delivery a lot easier) and did all classes, groups, individual counseling, parent and attendance meetings for my students.  If a problem arose while I was away, the FT Counselor would handle it until my return.  Each morning I would check in with my partner at my morning school and each afternoon I would have lunch with my afternoon partner to check in on the students and situations there.  While at those schools I was not involved in any sort of duty, testing, SST, or IEP meetings.  I did do a few 504's, but not many.  Big school-wide events like Red Ribbon Week, Career Week, Family Fun Fair, and Parenting classes were planned together, but I was only given a small portion of the duties to help with implementation.  It was a successful collaboration and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with 2 different principals and faculties, and 2 incredibly amazing School Counselors.

Five Sanity Saving Suggestions
In both situations organization was key!!!  I was on the verge of losing my mind until I came up with the following guidelines for myself.  Hopefully these will help other split School Counselors.

1) Make a notebook.
I took a medium sized 3 ring binder and using my school's colors, I divided the binder between the 2 schools.  My morning school was in the front of the binder with the red dividers, my afternoon school in the back with blue dividers. Behind each divider I kept all the school schedules and calendars, special events, lunch, special area, recess, ESOL, Speech etc., for that school. I also kept faculty rosters, class rosters, parent contact information, and my group and lesson plan schedule. At my schools with a partner, I kept copy of her schedule as well.

In between the information for my two schools was a teacher lesson plan book I took apart, trimmed, and hole punched to go in my binder. The pages were printed front and back and the holes were punched on the right side of the  page. That way when I opened to a week I would see 2 pages and all that was happening in both schools at once.  The plan book was block style by hour with an entire day going across the 2 page spread. I liked the blocks because it gave me plenty of room to write. I have recreated a sample schedule and blank pages for reference.(These are best printed 2 sided.) The left side of the page was the morning school, and all the classes, groups, meetings, student and parent contacts I made for that school.  On the right side of the page was my afternoon school and my daily schedule for that day.  I also color coded my activities in highlighter for easier location and time tracking. Pink for parents, green for groups, yellow for classes, blue for individuals. This binder went with me wherever I went and kept me sane as I tried to juggle and schedule the needs of two separate schools.

2) Make duplicate copies of files and activities etc. for each school.  I can't tell you how many times, in the beginning, as a split School Counselor I would get ready to do something and realize it was at my other school!  Making 2 sets of files was time consuming, but saved me time and aggravation in the long run.  Books for which I only had one copy I placed in a crate which I kept in my car for easy access. One of those rolling carts would have been nice in my split Counselor days.

3) Keep your schools separate.
Only do the business for the school at which you are physically present. I know it's tempting to do a quick email or phone call. But don't.  Each school will want to claim your time as if they are your only school and you have nothing else to do. When at School A, give them 100% and address only their issues.  Same for School B. It truly does simplify things and ultimately, each school will appreciate your efforts to give them 100% of your time while you are there.

4) Don't play favorites.
I know this sounds silly, but I had people at both my schools that were forever trying to get me to say which school I liked better.  I was always very diplomatic and said something like, "You are both very special schools in your own way." or "Both schools have a lot of positives, I could never make that choice."  Teachers talk and word gets around. Even mentioning liking one thing about one school better than the other can damage your faculty relationships beyond repair. Just keep your thoughts on the subject to yourself.

5)Special Circumstances
Special occasions and events come up; so do emergencies.  Flexibility, planning ahead, and communication are crucial. There were times when I needed to be able to switch days between schools.  For example, my T/TH school had a longstanding May Day tradition that required I switch days with my M/W school to be there. I talked it over ahead of time with the administration of my M/W school and an arrangement was made.  One time I had an abuse disclosure that involved DCF and law enforcement and required I stay all day at School A.  I called School B and explained.  They understood and I agreed to make up that time by giving them an entire day the next opportunity in my schedule.  These things happened rarely,but communicating, planning ahead and discussing changes with administrations at both schools allowed me to be available for important school events and prevented any misunderstanding or hard feelings about scheduling and schedule changes.

Can a split School Counselor job work for you?  Absolutely! Stay organized, plan a realistic School Counseling program to match your time on campus, and communicate!
Are you a split School Counselor?  What strategies can you share that have worked for you ?