Learning Centers: How to Turn Your iPhone or iPad into a Secret Message Decoder

I recently discovered that I can set my iPad or iPhone up to decode Secret Message activities!

This means that if you have a newer Apple device, with iOS10 or higher, you don't need to purchase one of the decoder options or spend time making a decoder; simply follow the directions below to adjust the color settings on your device and then set a shortcut so that you can access the Red Tint  setting quickly!

First, you need to enable the 'Red Tint' setting.

Go into SETTINGS - GENERAL - ACCESSIBILITY - DISPLAY ACCOMMODATIONS - COLOR FILTERS. Next, click the toggle at the top to turn on the color filters option.

Scroll down until you see sliders for Intensity and Hue; slide both all the way to the right for red. The red tint will not show up in pictures or screenshots, but will alter what can be seen through the camera on the screen.

Your screen will look a bit like this with the red tint on:

For quick and easy access to this setting, you'll want to set up a shortcut.

Go into SETTINGS - GENERAL- ACCESSIBILITY - ACCESSIBILITY SHORTCUT. Click on the 'Color Filters' option on the list. Now the red tint setting can be easily accessed by triple clicking the home button. If you have multiple accessibility shortcuts set up, you'll need to choose the Color Filters option from the list

When you go to use your shortcut, you'll press the home button quickly three times. Depending up on what app you have open, you might have to choose 'Color Filters' from a list of shortcuts you have set up. It looks like this:

Now you're ready to use your device to reveal the hidden words in my Secret Message Literacy Centers! Simply turn on the Red Tint setting and then go to the Camera App. Point the camera of your device at one of the Red/Blue Secret Message cards to reveal the hidden word; you will be able to view the word on the screen of your device like this:

If you're not sure you want to purchase these activities just yet, give this FREEBIE a try! It includes the first 10 Fry Sight Word Secret Message cards, 3 different recording worksheets and an answer key.

Playful Math: Flower Pie & Other Whimsical Recipes

In March, as we all impatiently waited for spring to arrive, I brought a huge bag of silk flowers to the classroom for the kids to explore. With snow on the ground and colder than average temperatures outside, we had colorful little reminders inside that spring *should* soon be on its way.

Initially, my idea for the flowers was to sort by color and create rainbow designs and patterns, but my students had different ideas... and began cooking with them in the play kitchen area one day during yet another indoor recess. They made a colorful mess of flowers filling every pot, pan and cup available. The kids served up flower tea, flower muffins, flower cake, flower pie, flower pizza and much more! My students became a little obsessed with the flower cooking so I began exploring how I could sneak in a little play-based math practice. 

At first, I scribbled some quick Flower Pie recipes on scrap paper with markers and showed them how they could record their own recipes by drawing pictures.

Before I knew it, students were creating their own recipes, drawing their pie creations, talking about numbers and making comparisons all on their own!

The following weekend, I sat down and created this huge pack (there are over 100 pages!) of play-based math activities using silk flowers and other materials that can easily be found at the Dollar Tree (or maybe even things you already have in your own kitchen at home or supply closet at school)!  I introduced the activities a few weeks ago and they've been a huge hit.


Since I have such a wide range of ages and abilities in my own classroom, I created activities that are easily differentiated and enticing to students between Preschool and Kindergarten age.The simplest activities focus on visual perception and include a sort by color or size activity with printable vases for sorting...

... and many activities that focus on visual perception and copying skills.

There are over 50 different recipe cards that focus on counting and creating sets of up to 10 items.  Recipe cards for quantities 1-5 and 5-10 are included for flower pie, flower pizza and flower ice cream!

Several three-dimensional printables are included which require some simple assembly. Sorting 'vases' for sorting by color, size and creating sets up to 10 are included. Simply print, cut the page in half along the dotted line, roll into a tube and tape the edge where marked. Along with the Flower Ice Cream activity, I've included a template for an ice cream cone. Simply print, cut around the edge of the template, roll into a cone shape and tape or glue the edge where marked.

Each activity also has a 'make your own' option (in color or black and white) where students can fill in the numerals to create their own recipes, place the flowers on or draw a picture of their recipe.


You'll need to purchase an assortment of silk flowers and some inexpensive props to go with the activities. Silk flowers can be found relatively cheaply at the Dollar Tree; look for stems that have smaller flowers with many blooms for the counting activities. You'll need the following colors: pink, red, orange, yellow, blue, purple and white. Blue flowers were the most difficult to find, but with a little searching I was able to find enough.  I bought about 2 stems of flowers for each color spending between $12-14. Leave the flowers on the stems for the color, size and counting vases activities; remove the flowers from the stem for the recipe card activities.

Depending on which activities you want to do with your group, you might need a pie pan, a pizza pan, a muffin tin with 6 spaces and a muffin tin with 12 spaces; I found everything except the 12 space muffin tin at the Dollar Tree. I think that I purchased my 12 space muffin tin from a thrift store for less than $2.

Lastly, I made a pie crust and pizza crust for my activities out of an old tan sweater by tracing my pan and cutting out a circle. If you don't have an old tan sweater (who knows why I had it laying around!) you could use tan felt or fleece from the fabric store (the edges of these fabrics will not fray and do not need to be hemmed); take your pan to the store with you so you know exactly how much to buy.

I also made this lattice-top crust (completely optional!) for my activity by cutting a second circle into 1/4-1/2" strips, arranging them in a crisscross, over/under pattern and hot gluing where the strips overlapped.

Check out this YouTube video for instructions on how to make a lattice-top crust design:


Most of the material prep is pretty simple. Just print, laminate and cut. If you print the recipe cards as they are, most of them are 1/2 a page (2 per page). I found that I preferred most of them smaller and adjusted my print settings to include two pages per sheet (4 cards per page); printing the cards smaller also saves on supplies including ink, card stock and lamination!

If you're not sure how to adjust the print size to two pages per sheet, this video by 3rdGrThoughts explains it well:


Coping in the Classroom: Teachers Dealing with Depression & Anxiety

Teaching is hard.

No really... teaching is REALLY REALLY HARD.

Teaching can be so incredibly stressful, overwhelming and tiring. That stress often follows educators beyond the school day, creeps into their personal time and seeps into the cracks and crevasses and into every aspect of their lives. The stress that I'm talking about here is just the 'normal' stress that pretty much all teachers deal with. This high level of job related stress can become almost unbearable when combined with other common mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

If you're a teacher (mother/father, wife/husband... human....) who struggles with depression and/or anxiety, you are NOT alone!

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 40 million American adults deal with some type of anxiety or depressive disorder. More specifically, about 16.1 million American adults are affected by Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and depression is the LEADING cause of disability in individuals between 15-44 years of age. About 6.8 million American adults are affected by Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and women are nearly twice as likely to be affected as men. And to top it off, anxiety often co-occurs with depression! Those stats are NOT just a drop in the bucket; there are millions of people out there dealing with this!

I personally have dealt with my own anxiety and depression for more than 15 years and have only recently come to understand it better. I struggled silently for far too many years and kept my challenges a secret from most of my colleagues and friends. I felt ashamed and even felt that anxiety and depression made me a less competent educational professional. I've finally come to know, beyond a doubt, that anxiety and depression do not now, nor ever did, make me any less of a person, teacher, mother or wife; if anything, depression and anxiety have absolutely made me a stronger and more self-aware person!

For the record, the following isn't intended to be used a medical advice. I'm just sharing the coping strategies that I've found helpful over the years in hopes that something on my list might also help others. I've also included affiliate links for specific products that I personally LOVE and find helpful.

1. See a professional - Don't be ashamed to ask for help - revisit the stats above to remind yourself that you are NOT alone! If you're struggling with stress, anxiety and feeling depressed, this is where I'd start. Find a professional to talk to: a social worker, psychologist, religious counselor etc. Unless you're certain you need medication, you don't need to go straight to a psychiatrist; then, if and when the time comes for medication, a primary care doctor might be willing to prescribe and manage medication if you can't see a psychiatrist right away.

2. Fuel your body with something healthy -
  Try to remember to care for your body a little. This can be really difficult when you're sinking into depression and/or anxiety. Eat something healthy a few times a day. I strive for as much balance as I can find in this area because my first response to stress and feelings of anxiety is often to eat unhealthy, high fat comfort foods like french fries, cookies or chips or not to eat anything at all. This is where I employ things like a good multivitamin, a high quality fish oil supplement, a green food supplement and easy usually pre-packaged ready to eat (because preparing healthy food when I'm feeling lousy isn't going to happen!) healthy foods like green juice, pre-packaged salads and packs of veggies, fruit, yogurt, nuts etc. This doesn't always work, but I figure that if I eat a salad with my french fries or green juice after the chips or cookies, I'm probably better off than if I skipped the fruit and veggies all together.

3. Move your body - Research suggests that 30 minutes of exercise, 3-5 times a week can be very  helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression; even as little as 10-15 minutes can be beneficial! I find this strategy very difficult to actually employ when I'm feeling my worst, BUT when I can get my body moving, I feel so much better almost immediately! I've used a Fitbit to track my steps and challenge myself to hit a minimum step count daily. If you can, get out of your classroom during your lunch break and talk a quick walk around the block or to your car to get your heart rate up.

4. Find someone to confide in - Once I started talking about my anxiety and depression with a few trusted coworkers, I immediately felt like a weight was lifted; I was no longer carrying around this shameful secret that no one around me knew about. On days when I'm  really struggling, I let my classroom assistant or teacher friends know and they check in on me, remind me to take an extra bathroom break or just offer a smile when the day gets crazy. Surprisingly, I don't think anyone has judged me harshly or made me feel bad about my anxiety and depression; in fact, I've come to find that many of my colleagues can relate because they have had similar struggles of their own.

5. Remember that 90% is still an A - This is often my go to strategy for when my anxiety gets bad quickly.  I've worked very hard to reframe my expectations for myself on any given day; there is only so much that I can realistically accomplish. I have come to realize that perfection isn't required to be successful, so I've lowered my expectations a bit. Realizing this has taken a huge weight from my shoulders and allowed me to spend just enough energy to finish the things that NEED to be completed and have a little energy left over for myself.

6. Do a little self-care - Find something that you enjoy and do it. Remember to care for yourself a little each day because a small bit of self-care here and there can go a long way. Somedays this means stopping for a coffee on my way to work (or simply having good instant coffee on hand at work for the days that I forget!), walking through a charming local bookshop right after work or listening to my favorite music on my commute. Other days it  means leaving my kids at aftercare a little longer so that I can walk around the thrift store or go get my nails done before I pick them up. Sometimes it means having a glass of wine and ordering takeout when I'm just too tired to cook. When I have a lot of trouble unwinding so that I can actually enjoy these fleeting moments of self-care, a cup of tea, some of this raspberry lemonade or a couple of these homeopathic tablets sometimes help.

7. Try to Think Positive - Consider starting a Gratitude Journal or choose an #anchorword to focus on. Centering your thoughts on something that you're grateful for can be helpful for some; writing down and coming back to the things you're thankful for can remind and retrain your brain to focus on the positive rather than the negative feelings that you're coping with internally. I started #anchorwords to help refocus my thoughts on productive and positive things rather than the chaos that my anxiety was stirring up. Check out my posts on #anchorwords for more ideas.

Do you have any other suggestions to add to the list? Feel free to comment!

A Few of My Favorite Books: Peter Spier

(Affiliate links included for your convenience)

If there were just one special book that I could have from my childhood it would be People by Peter Spier! I have the fondest childhood memories of repeatedly checking this book out from the library and spending hours examining ther detailed illustrations of people from all over the world. When I finally came across this book in my adult life, I grabbed it up for my own personal collection of children’s literature. Eventually, I found another copy for my classroom and was saddened by the fact that none of my students have connected with it in the same way that I so fondly remember…

That hasn’t stopped me from introducing several of Spier’s books to my students over the years and I still keep a copy of People on the shelf just in case…

Spier’s books are beautifully illustrated with very detailed drawings and often wordless or nearly so. There is always much to talk about when reading his books and someone always seems to notice some new detail in the pictures. I appreciate that the books are sparsely worded which allows me the freedom to interpret the book based on student interests and needs.

Here are a few of my favorite Peter Spier books:


Gobble, Growl, Grunt 

Crash, Boom, Bang 


Noah’s Ark

The Fox went out on a Chilly Night

This one is a great folksong and is fun to sing rather than read. Here's one of my favorite versions of the song (there are many other versions available!):


We the People

Unfortunately, many of Spier's books are currently out of print. However, I've had good luck finding his books at thrift stores, Amazon used books and on Etsy. Happy hunting! 

#anchorword: OBSERVE

My #anchorword recently has been: OBSERVE.

Lately, I've worked to focus my energy on more closely observing my own classroom and engaging in opportunities to observe other classrooms and teachers. I've found that peer observations, both those that I've done in other classroom and those that have been done by other teachers in my own classroom have been very beneficial for my professional growth and development. However, in general, I think that that most teachers don't often get many opportunities to visit with other teachers, watch how and what they're teaching and gain fresh ideas to bring back to their own classrooms.

Of course good educators know that so much can be learned by watching others teach, but when do we really have the time (and energy) do do it?!

Teachers get so caught up with the immediate needs of their own classrooms, preparing for assessments, planning lessons, collecting data ..... not to mention fighting for livable wages, dealing with politics and paperwork and so much more....  that we feel drained, overworked and overwhelmed far too much of the time. And people wonder why teacher burnout rates are so high in the first few years?!

What is Peer  Observation? 

Peer Observation is an innovative but often under-utilized and lesser-known professional development tool for educators. While traditional observations done by administrators leave most teachers feeling stressed and anxious, peer observations are far less traumatic and can be beneficial for both participants. 

Peer observation is a type of collaborative professional development that occurs between two or more educators. While there are many different peer observation models out there, the essential components for productive observations include: an observer, a teacher delivering instruction and scheduled time for discussion before and after the observation. There are many other factors concerning the teacher and observer that may impact the effectiveness of peer observation including experience level, communication skills, personality types, comfort and trust level, level of administrative support etc.

The process that I generally follow for conducting or hosting a peer observation includes the following steps: Plan, Observe, Reflect, Discuss, Apply, Evaluate.

1. PLAN - This part is relatively simple. I set up the observation AND a time to discuss following the observation (ideally immediately afterwards) with the teacher, ask a few basic questions about what the teacher will be teaching, if there is anything that I should know before my visit etc. I also ask the teacher if there is anything they want me to look for during the observation; perhaps  they have a professional development goal that they've been working on and would like feedback.

2. OBSERVE - This step is also reasonably clear. I sit, watch and listen actively; I try to stay objective and stick with the facts of what I see and hear. Usually, I take notes about what what's going, what the students are doing, how the teacher manages the group, what the lesson is on, how the class is set up... I might write down ideas that I think I could try, thoughts about how the observation applies to my classroom etc. Be sure to write down questions that you want to ask the teacher later!

3. REFLECT - After the observation is over, I usually spend a few minutes reflecting on what I saw. In this step, I consider my thoughts and feelings about the observation rather than the objective facts of what I actually saw and heard. What did I like? What didn't I like? Why do I feel as I do? Following an observation, I often take a quick assessment of how I feel; was the group chaotic or calm? How do I think that the students felt in that class?

4. DISCUSS - During this time, I chat with the teacher about what I saw and ask the questions that I noted during my observation. This also might be the time that the teacher asks for thoughts about his/her teaching, the strategies that were used or perhaps ideas from the observer. Remember that peer to peer observation is NOT evaluative.

5. APPLY - Choose a concept or idea from the observation to try in your own classroom. Note how it worked out, further questions that you have about the idea or changes that you made to the idea to make it work in your classroom. This information from your application might be valuable to discuss in a follow up chat with that teacher in the future.

6. EVALUATE - Remember we're not evaluating the teacher. Evaluate the peer observation process. Consider how to make the process more valuable and beneficial, what parts were most helpful and what wasn't necessarily valuable.

This is the form that I use (you can grab it for FREE here!)

My Experience with Peer OBSERVATION

I recently stepped out of my own classroom and spent an entire day observing at another Montessori school just a few hours from my own. As the only Montessori teacher working at my school, I often feel like I teach alone on my own island that few people really understand. When I have questions or challenges in my classroom, I can't just walk down the hall to ask a colleague for advice. Sure, I have plenty of professional connections online that I could ask, but it's not quite the same as real live coworkers.

Fortunately, I have an AMAZING and supportive administrator who encourages teachers to visit other programs, see what other teachers are doing, connect with like-minded professionals and find fresh ideas to bring back to our own classrooms. She realizes that the short time that teachers might be out of the classroom for a professional day is exponentially beneficial for both the teachers and the students. Of course, it isn't that I get to take professional days all that often, but I fee lucky that I do get a few here and there!

Although I work alone most of the time (aside from my classroom assistant) I felt less alone while observing other Montessori teachers. It was refreshing to see a a few different classrooms, get ideas for new activities and observe how the teachers interact with their students. I took pages and pages of notes on various topics from ideas for new lessons, variations on old lessons, ideas for classroom set up, new ways to plan lessons and ideas for recording and using data. I had a chance to chat with several of the teachers that I observed and it felt great to be able to chat about the classroom and connect with others professionally. It was even nice to realize that the problems that I encounter in my classroom are not isolated only to my group of students; the teacher struggle is absolutely real!

When was the last time that you had a chance to really OBSERVE another teacher work in their classroom? What do you think the greatest benefit of professional observation is?