By Kate Hill
For the past several years, retired teacher Shea Palmer has been using her knowledge and experience to help other educators address their students’ needs through her New Woodstock-based business, Shea’s Classroom.
Palmer creates and shares elementary school teaching resources targeted at educators seeking lessons and tools to develop their students’ critical thinking skills.
Using social media, YouTube, and her website, sheasclassroom.com, Palmer provides her clients with posts that offer insight and perspective on teaching-related questions and challenges. Each post shares methods, strategies, and resources that Palmer employed in her own classroom.
“Webinars and workshops are offered to provide teachers with both resources and the opportunity for professional development,” said Palmer. “Consulting appointments are scheduled for the purposes of collaboration, planning, and instruction.”
Palmer develops all the resources she offers for purchase through the Teachers Pay Teachers platform. However, in cases where her own materials do not meet the specific needs of her clients, she researches and shares other resources that would better serve them.
The educator, who holds a master’s degree in teaching from Le Moyne, taught in the Chittenango School District (CSD) for 20 years, spending her tenure in the third and fifth grades.
Palmer, who describes herself as an accidental entrepreneur, began her journey with Shea’s Classroom in 2016. That year, approximately half her class was receiving Reading Academic Intervention Services (AIS), which the NYS Education Department describes as services designed to help students achieve the learning standards in English language arts (ELA) in grades K-12. AIS consists of additional instruction that supplements the regular classroom instruction and/or student support services needed to address barriers to improved academic performance.
“This was an unusually high number of students who required additional support to be successful,” said Palmer. “The model for ELA instruction that we were using was not proving to be effective.”
Palmer explained that literacy instruction at the time was based on “guided reading,” a practice where students are assessed to determine their reading levels and then divided into instructional groups. Teachers meet with the groups as they work with texts suited to their reading levels. According to Palmer, the ideal number of groups to work with is three.
“The rule of thumb was that we should conduct a quick mini-lesson at the beginning of each class,” said Palmer. “Then we would spend 10-15 minutes working with each group. When they were not meeting with us, they were given activities that they were expected to complete either in their groups or independently. Best practices dictated we should meet with students reading below grade-level every other day or once a day, if possible. We met with the students reading on or above grade-level less frequently — every other day or every third day.”
According to Palmer, applying this model to her classroom would have required finding texts for six to eight different reading levels that could be used to study the same ELA concept/strategy. It would also require activities to accompany each text.
“Since all students were working at their instructional level, they all needed about the same amount of support and guidance to make good progress,” said Palmer. “While the students who were working below grade-level made progress, their instruction with grade-level text was minimal, making it difficult to ‘catch up.’ [If you had] more than four groups to work with, it would have been very challenging to create a schedule where every group would receive the instructional support they needed.”
After careful consideration and research, Palmer approached her principal to discuss a new model for providing instruction and practice to her students.
Instead of using leveled books and activities for all the different reading groups, she suggested choosing one grade-level book that the class could read together to introduce a specific ELA concept or strategy. The students would then practice/apply that concept through activities that were leveled to meet their needs.
With the principal’s support, Palmer gave her approach a try.
She said they both noticed an improvement in student engagement and, to their surprise, growth.
“By the end of the year, we were able to release half the students from AIS reading services,” she said. “Their test results indicated that they were now able to read [and] comprehend grade-level text.”
When creating the leveled activities for her students, Palmer turned to a teaching tool called “task cards,” which each feature one assignment/question that gives students quick practice working with a concept/strategy.
Palmer explained that a character trait task card, for example, would have a short story about a character that describes their actions and reactions. The card would also list three character traits, and the students would be tasked with picking the most appropriate one.
Using task cards as a foundation, Palmer developed activities designed to encourage the development of critical and analytical thinking skills beyond those required to simply choose a word.
“For each word, the students needed to define it, then list the characteristics of a person who exemplifies that trait,” she said. “Once they did so, they used this to identify which trait described the person in the story. After that, they planned and wrote a short, constructed response explaining/analyzing how the text supported their conclusion. All students would have an exemplar to refer to that we had created using the grade-level book.”
To level the activity for different instructional groups, Palmer created three versions. Students who were reading above grade-level were expected to complete all the steps listed on the card. Students on grade-level were given the definitions and asked to identify characteristics and write a response, and students below grade-level were given both definitions and characteristics and asked to choose a word and write a response. They were also provided writing supports, like sentence starters, to guide their thinking and writing.
The benefit of this approach, Palmer said, is that all students are exposed to grade-level text and objectives, so everyone gets the opportunity to be successful with grade-level analysis and comprehension.
As she was developing the activities, she shared them with teacher/author Rachel Lynette, whom Palmer credits as the creator of task cards.
“She was the one who encouraged me to consider creating a store that would enable all educators to take advantage of my resources,” said Palmer. “So that’s when I created my business, Shea’s Classroom.” Palmer added that although she started her business in 2016, she thought of it as a hobby until she retired from CSD in June 2021.
About a year ago, Palmer joined the Women Business Opportunities Connection (WBOC) — a Syracuse-based nonprofit that supports women in business through educational programs, networking, and collaborative opportunities — to help her start developing her business more seriously.
Although she had a solid background in education, Palmer recognized that she required assistance with the “business” side of her business.
“In education, I had a team of colleagues to refer to whenever I was feeling discouraged or challenged,” she said. “Working as a sole proprietor, I do not have the same kind of support system. WBOC has provided me with a network of warm, friendly, female entrepreneurs who are always willing to listen and provide assistance when asked. I always leave our gatherings feeling empowered and grateful. The advice that they’ve provided me with has deepened my understanding and ability to become a successful entrepreneur.”
Today, Shea’s Classroom is prepared to work with a range of clients, including upper elementary classroom teachers, AIS/special education teachers, and administrators.
Palmer said that when asked about her decision to continue working in education post-retirement, she thinks about the impact of her work on one student who was facing difficulties in school and was prone to violent outbursts.
“Anything to do with writing was definitely a trigger,” she recalled. “Using a scaffolded resource [that] I had created, their job was to write a short response. This had been a struggle up to this point. Working with assistance, they brought their completed response over and asked me to read it. As I read it, this student was standing nervously, both hands in their mouth, waiting. Using the scaffolds provided they were able to write a complete response. When I told them so, they looked at me and quietly said, ‘I think I’m beginning to like writing’. . . School can be so challenging for many of our students. If my resources help just one student feel they can be successful, then I’ve done a good job.”
To learn more about Shea’s Classroom, visit sheasclassroom.com.
In 2016, retired schoolteacher Shea Palmer established Shea’s Classroom, a New Woodstock-based business that creates and shares elementary school teaching resources.