Drama Circles: One Awesome Solution to the Post-Exam Slump

One of the most common questions I see before the AP Lit exam is not about test prep, but about what teachers should do with their students on the exam days are over. It is more than a valid question. For months, a good AP teacher cultivates an environment of exploration and rigorous learning. To abandon all work once the exam is over seems wrong, and depending on your school calendar, can be a huge waste of student time. But at the same time, upperclassmen often face burnout after their AP exams and it can be hard to get them to continue the rigorous work that comes with AP-level classes.

Like many teachers, I was faced with the dilemma with filling class time with purposeful activities that didn’t push the kids past their breaking point.

The best activity I have found is a book club unit analyzing plays from the AP reading list. 

The focus for this activity is on reading and discussion, and the summative assignment is a simple presentation to the rest of the class. Overall, my students find it entertaining, enlightening, and a learning activity that is not too intense for those waning days of May.

Unit Design & Procedure

Step 1: Group Up – If student reading choice was the only factor, this activity could result in too many small groups of 2 or even 1, which won’t work for this unit. Instead, I ask students to get into groups of 3-5 before they choose a play. To add to the more relaxed atmosphere of the unit, I allow them to form their own groups, a strategy I would not normally use during the regular school year.

Step 2: Choose a Play – Once they are in groups, they will need to select a play to read. There are two parameters for this: 1) it must be AP-level; 2) no one in the group can have read it already. There are many plays on the AP Lit reading list, but some of my favorites for this unit include:

  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
  • An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
  • Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Fences by August Wilson
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance

I usually type up descriptions of some of my favorites, or provide students with time to look online for descriptions of each. Goodreads.com is a great resource for this.

Step 3: Form a Plan – To cultivate a student-led design, I ask students to form their own reading plan. Ideally the plays should be read aloud in class and should take about 1 to 1 1/2 weeks to finish. I also ask students to give themselves roles or titles, such as:

  • President: Someone to keep the group on task and lead discussions
  • Vice President: Someone to fill in for any absent group members
  • Secretary: Someone to take notes and submit daily attendance
  • Presentation Preparer: Someone with a computer open turning notes into a final PowerPoint or preparing a presentation for the final assessment

Step 4: Assign Formative Assessments – To keep this a learning activity (instead of an approaching summer free-for-all), make sure there are assessments in place both for group discussions and individual close reading. I usually grade discussions as I would a Socratic Seminar and assign individual students reading journals or written reflections 2-3 times a week.

Step 5: Design a Summative Assessment – The students need a final grade to aim for, and I’ve had good luck with a group presentation. I ask each group to give a plot premise and overview of the main characters. They then have to summarize some of the main themes and plot events they analyzed during group discussions. Finally, each student should provide a review of the play, including what they liked and didn’t like about each play. These presentations are usually paired with a dramatic recreation of a scene or two from the play, as well as why the scene is significant.

Here’s one group presenting a scene for their group project.

This is just one idea for filling the 2-3 weeks after the AP Lit exam, but I have had excellent luck in my own personal experience. I’d love to hear more, what activities do you use after the AP Lit exam?

Looking for more literature circle ideas? Check out my Gothic Novel Unit for AP Lit. It gives you everything you need to guide students through 5 different gothic novels, including six different rubrics for scoring!

Flexible vs. Assigned Seating in the High School Classroom

Flexible vs. Assigned Seating

If you’re like me and you are on Instagram or Twitter, the most buzzed about educational topic this summer seems to be flexible seating. And while it may be a movement more common among teachers of younger learners, there is still a lot of merit in using flexible seating in a high school classroom. However, as many seasoned high school teachers will realize, allowing students to sit wherever they want by whomever they want often drastically competes with good classroom management.

I’ve always been a fan of assigned seating, but over the past few years I’ve incorporated many different kinds of “learning stations” in my classroom to allow students to work comfortably and in their best environment.

The end result is that I use a healthy mix of both assigned and flexible seating options in my classroom instruction.

And since I just finished setting up my classroom yesterday, I thought I’d show you some of the strategies I use to balance flexible seating with assigned seating in my classroom, and how I facilitate between them.

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Here is an overall image of my classroom setup. I use tables rather than desks because I incorporate small group discussion and differentiated activities quite often. Since the students rearrange themselves frequently, tables have been a much better fit than the traditional desks I used to have. I have five groups of two smaller tables pushed together, and one group of a large table in the back of the room. When students have time to work on their own or in a group, I encourage larger groups to sit at the back table.

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I also have this smaller table near the door of the classroom, and if you see below it there is a surge protector underneath it. This is my “laptop charging station,” so students who need to charge laptops but prefer a table top can sit here and continue working as they would at their desks.

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This is one of the most coveted spaces in my room, which has been nicknamed the “cozy corner.” The pillows with armrests (bought from Target) are great for leaning against the wall. Students like to get comfy and work individually or in small groups here, but last year I started to find students using it to nap on the sly.  This year I incorporated this pretty coffee table ($50 on Facebook Marketplace) to encourage more sitting and less laying.

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In the corner of my room I also have these five colorful stools which I purchased from Amazon last year (here is the link). We use these when students want to pull up a chair or move around frequently. These are lightweight and small, so they’re a lot safer to move across a room than my bulky chairs. I was also incredibly lucky to snag this amazing rolling, adjustable standing desk from my principal last year. So far this little baby has been used as a mobile workspace for me when I have to move around the room with my laptop, a podium for giving speeches and presentations, an extra student desk with a chair, a mobile standing desk for a student with a back problem, and a portable desk for a student in a wheelchair. I highly recommend every teacher have one of these in their room if they can find the space in the budget. It’s a lifesaver!

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Last year, I also discovered another problem with allowing students to move throughout the room to work. While many wanted to sit on the floor or by a partner, I found that most were confined to spots near an outlet because so many of their laptops needed to be charged (my school is on a 1:1 with devices, so each student has their own laptop or tablet for classroom use). So this year I hit the Target dollar spot and bought a few surge protectors and extension cords to reach to the middle of the room. I can’t keep them out all the time because of tripping hazards, but on writing days (which occur frequently in ELA classrooms) I can extend power to the middle of the classroom so students have more flexibility in where they sit.

The last tool for managing a mix between flexible and assigned seating is this sign that I printed double-sided and laminated. It is posted on my whiteboard, right next to our learning targets and daily homework posts. Students will simply need to look at the sign when they walk in to learn if they need to go to their assigned seat or if they can grab a comfier spot where they choose. I can also flip the sign in the middle of class if we move from whole class discussion to work time in groups. This product is a free resource in my TpT store if you are interested in downloading it! Just click here!

These are some of the flexible seating strategies that I am able to manage in my own classroom, but I still can’t move beyond assigned seating for at least part of the time. Please feel free to comment below, what elements of flexible seating have you found success with? Are there any ideas included here that you want to try out?

Why I’m Obsessed with Guided Reading Notes

A few years ago, back in the first few years teaching at my current school, I was teaching on what was called an “overload” schedule. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the schedule they give you when all the money is gone. For three years I taught six out of seven periods, five preps a semester, seven preps total a year. For those of you currently on a schedule like this, I offer you my deepest sympathy and bow to your fortitude. After three years on this schedule, money was found to hire an extra English teacher (praise the Lord!) and I was asked to “hand over” two of my electives. Initially, I targeted my Shakespearean Lit course as one I was willing to lose. However, I realized I couldn’t really hand over any materials to an incoming teacher. Sure I had handouts and tests, but there were no notes.

Why? Because the notes were all in my head.

After that moment I realized that the knowledge of my literary content, the knowledge that I spent a lifetime learning, analyzing, creating, and teaching, really ought to be written down. Therefore in the following school year, basking in all the extra time I gained with an easier schedule (joking, there’s never extra time), I created notes to pair with my instruction for every literature unit in my Shakespeare course. The following year I did it with my sophomore classes. Then I started making them for AP Lit. I call them Guided Reading Notes, and they have saved my sanity.

Here is an example of one of my slideshows of guided reading notes from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers: 

  1. Absences. Face it, kids are gonna miss school. Even the darling try-hards have to miss once in a while, and sometimes even more when you factor in college visits, field trips, and testing days. It seems like the older they get, the more school they miss. I got tired of having students ask me what they missed when they were gone. It put me in the position of having to sit down and re-teach the material one-on-one, or simply saying, “We read and discussed chapter 4. Good luck, it’s important.” With guided reading notes, I teach the material in class, but post the notes afterwards on an online learning platform. My school uses Schoology. Before this I used Moodle. Many teachers love Google Classroom. Any of these will support guided reading notes. Simply use them to teach in class, then upload them afterwards. Once you start doing this consistently, students who were absent will know to read over the notes from when they were gone. If they still have questions afterwards, I am happy to give them one-on-one time. But at least this takes the bulk of the extra work off of my plate.
  2. Review. One thing that I find so eccentric and endearing is how quickly the teenage brain can forget something. It helps that I, too, am extremely forgetful. And unfortunately, if a book is long, students tend to forget the events in chapter 1 by the time the test rolls around (which stinks, because as everyone knows chapter 1 sets up all the good stuff for later). Guided reading notes help students review for tests by outlining important details and pointing out big-picture themes, symbols, and plot events. Sometimes students don’t even notice something big until they go through the review. These notes prove even more helpful before our AP Lit exam. I mean, seriously, who remembers what we read back in September? But with 10 minutes of easy review, students can brush up on those important literary units and turn short term knowledge into long term knowledge.
  3. Teacher Sanity. As I said before, my memory is quite bad. Sometimes I think of something brilliant, teach it, and next year I can’t make any sense of what I meant when I put a certain question on the test. By making guided reading notes, I maintain my own sanity from year to year. My students don’t know this, but I use my own notes as a review before I give literature lessons. It has also proven useful when I am absent and need to make sub notes. Instead of writing notes for a full chapter or reading assignment, I can simply assign students to read the guided reading notes, then use class time to complete the next assigned reading. My job: upload and post. I cannot even begin to describe the sanity they have saved my three maternity subs, who found themselves in the intimidating task of subbing for AP Lit. By using my notes, they felt confident that the challenge level was appropriate. Plus, they used my notes to learn the material beforehand!
  4. Multiple Learning Opportunities. My notes don’t simply review everything that happens in a chapter. In fact, I avoid this as often as possible. Guided reading notes are not Sparknotes summaries that replace reading. They are teacher-designed notes that help guide students through the material, pointing out things they might have overlooked and helping them make connections in the literature. I have used guided reading notes to do point out literary elements, pose discussion questions, give a pop quiz, lead a small group activity, organize jigsaw learning, give hints to tough study guide questions, break down important quotes, and more. My students learn very early on that if they want to do well on my tests, they need to study from the notes.

If you are brand new to teaching, guided reading notes are a wonderful tool to use, but keep in mind they take a while to prepare. If you are in your second and third year and you know your content fairly well, creating guided reading notes is a wonderful strategy to reduce prep time for yourself in the future and create study resources for your students to access in the future.

If time is tight and you are interested in purchasing any of my Guided Reading Notes, just visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store and click on the Guided Reading Notes category on the left-hand side. I currently have resources for the following novels and plays:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Frankenstein (AP Lit)
  • Othello
  • King Lear (AP & general student audience)
  • Macbeth
  • All the King’s Men (AP Lit)
  • Things Fall Apart (AP Lit)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Of Mice and Men (includes vocabulary unit)
  • Twelfth Night (AP Lit)

College Board & Common Core: A Look at the Future of AP Lit

Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.

Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.

Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”

Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.

It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.

“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”

When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”

Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.

It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:

“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie

“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff

“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY

“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc

Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:

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Taken from the Common Core’s FAQ page

Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:

“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank

“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc

Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):

“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts

Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.

“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach

While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.

“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”

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Trevor Packer’s series of tweets about the 2018 AP Lit results–and their implications

Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:

“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk

“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE

“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel

I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.

Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages)
Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages)
Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)

Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?

We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.

I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.

This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Three

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After four months of observation, preparation, and prayer, the day arrived to open our school’s writing center. And despite our modest beginnings, we had six different visitors on our first day alone!

We opened at the beginning of January, and in the four months we’ve been open we have had over 150 different appointments. For a school with only 325 secondary students, that is astounding!

Here are some pics of our coaches in action.

 

So much of our success is due to our amazing faculty members. Several teachers have offered extra credit for visiting the writing center, which is a wonderful promotion, as long as we know ahead of time! We learned quickly that when students are given this incentive oftentimes we have more visitors than writing coaches. But if I know to expect many students ahead of schedule, I am able to schedule extra coaches on for that day, and everyone is taken care of. So far this semester we have had 3 different “all-staff” days, where almost every coach was utilized due to our flood of traffic.

Some ways I’ve kept the writing center a well-oiled machine are through organized binders containing writing resources.

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I have a file box containing writing handouts given out in our school’s ELA classrooms, including quote integration, italicization vs. quotation marks, MLA formatting, and more. When a writing coach is stumped or I see them struggling to remember a concept, I can easily grab a handout from this box and bring it over to them. Receptionists often do this on their shifts as well.

 

All of our writing center resources are contained in these two locations: a shelf at the entrance of my room and a wooden organizer on a table near the entrance. The shelf holds the writing resource box (see above), binders containing assignment details and rubrics, sample essays, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other resources. Oftentimes the receptionist on shift will distribute these resources once visitors are checked in, and they know to re-file them when students leave.

The other container holds highlighters, post-it notes, a list of all writing coaches and skills (for receptionist use), scratch paper, and most importantly, the tutoring session form.

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This document is the most important in Writing Center success, in my opinion. It tells me what brought a student into the writing center, and gives feedback on each individual experience. The coach notes at the bottom are also very valuable. For example, one visitor gave positive feedback, but the writing coach noted that the student sat back and seemed to expect the writing coach to make all of the changes for her, which directly contradicts our policy. She even became angry when asked to do the work herself. This feedback was very useful to share with the assigning teacher, who was able to speak to the student directly about taking more initiative over her own assignment, rather than asking others to do the work for her.

Overall, the experience was grueling but incredibly rewarding. Our attendance is strong and so much of the work is done to implement an even stronger writing center program next year.

One benefit of going through this process is the ability to share what I’ve learned. I am so grateful to anyone who has taken the time to read this, especially if you read all three posts! To any teachers or administrators interested in forming their own writing center I have bundled all of my resources for training and running our writing center into a Writing Center Starter Kit, available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Click here to read Part One or Part Two of this post series. Special shout-out to Nicole Case for some of the photography in this post 🙂