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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thanksgiving Writing Activity

Hi there!  Can you believe there is only a week until Thanksgiving!?  I am in total disbelief that it's already November 14th... Time sure does fly.

I'm popping in to share an always-popular Thanksgiving writing activity!  This activity was inspired by my wonderful colleagues at Write Now Right Now, and the kids always ADORE it.  You can do it before or after Thanksgiving!

To start, I draw a picture of a table and I tell the kids to close their eyes and imagine their Thanksgiving table.  There are a lot of smiles and sounds of "yumm!!" And then I tell them to imagine their Thanksgiving table...AFTER all the food has been eaten!   We talk about all the different foods that are on their table and how the "after" picture isn't nearly as pretty!  I get pretty dramatic about this, drawing turkey bones laying next to the platter of turkey, cranberry sauce is spilling out of the bowl, mashed potato remnants are on the table, etc.  It's not a pretty picture!

Then, I ask them to tell me something to describe the picture.  We write a REALLY HORRIBLY BORING sentence to describe what we are picturing.

Then, we start brainstorming adjectives and verbs to spice up our writing!  We brainstorm different ways to begin our sentences, and it's just a fabulous way to work on sentence fluency and word choice.

Here is what the paper looked like when we did it together in class...  I'm warning you, it's a totally non-Pinterest worthy chart! I almost misspelled Thanksgiving, I'm not sure if it's spelled 'boney' or 'bony,' and my drawings are that of a three-year-old, but my students love it nonetheless!  I should have taken a picture of their version of the drawing because it was FAR superior!

Here is a copy of the "final" version that we end up hanging in the classroom.  I take a bit more time to make this one look nice and presentable!

Finally, they add a topic sentence, transition words, and a conclusion sentence to complete the assignment. It is SO much fun, and I highly recommend it!

If you are looking for a fun math activity to go along with this, check out my popular math project, Thanksgiving Dinner Digits!  Kids love planning and executing their Thanksgiving dinner.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Skittles Math!

There are a few reasons that I always keep Skittles on hand in my classroom.  First of all, they are one of my favorite sweet treats.  Second, I never know when I am going to need them for some math!  My students always get so excited when they see the big bag of Skittles come out, and anything that gets my kids excited and engaged is worth it to me!

Over the years, I have found dozens of ways to use Skittles to reinforce math concepts.  If you do a quick search of my blog for the word "Skittles," you'll see just how many ways I've used Skittles to teach math!   Most of the time, it goes really well.  Then, sometimes, it goes really poorly (like the time I tried to use them to teach algebraic expressions to my 6th graders.  That did not go well, and that's an activity that won't ever be published on this blog! Ha!)  Hands down, my favorite way to use Skittles is when I am teaching students about circle graphs.  Kids LOVE making Skittle circle graphs and it's a great introduction to the concept!  If you have a bag of Skittles, you can easily recreate this activity!

Circle graphs can be SO hard to create and understand, but when you add in Skittles, kids just really seem to get it!  The lesson shown above is actually related to multiple intelligences.  The kids have to do a multiple intelligences quiz to find out their strengths.  They earn points for each of the different strengths, and the number of points they get corresponds to a Skittle color.  They then create circle graphs with the Skittles to show their distribution of strengths.

You can also just give kids a handful of Skittles to do this and they can graph how many of each color Skittle they have.  So fun, so easy, and so meaningful!

You can even take it a bit further and use Skittles to teach percent, decimals, etc.  I wrote more about that in THIS blog post.

This is an older picture, but it shows all of the possibilities!
Here are a few more ways that I've created to use Skittles...  All of these can be found in my Skittles Math packet available on TpT HERE!  I love using these around Halloween time, too!

I've used Skittles to teach factors and mutliples, place value, perimeter and area, money, measurement, decimals, fractions, arrays, and SO much more!  I have included all of those ideas in my Skittles math packet so that you can use them all throughout the year.

Do you have a favorite way to use Skittles in your classroom? I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Mastering Multi-Step Word Problems

How many of you cringe at the thought of teaching your students multi-step word problems?  (RAISES HAND!)  I get it. I know.  It's tough.  It is overwhelming, and it's not necessarily something that just "clicks" for kids.  They need practice, they need time to think through problems, and they need to start really thinking like mathematicians in order to become proficient at more difficult problems.  Luckily, over the years, I've come up with a few different ideas and activities for helping students master multi-step word problems!  There are TONS of freebies in this post.  Enjoy!

I always begin problem solving (not just multi-step) by teaching my students CUBES.  This has been around for years, in many different variations.  An oldie but a goodie, if you will!

I REALLY, REALLY emphasize the "E" because this is where kids get stuck.  I created the three "What" questions that they need to be able to answer before they can move on and solve the problem.  Before they try to solve the problems, they need to ask themselves:

  • What label will my answer have? (This helps them narrow down exactly what they are doing with the problem, and maybe, just maybe, it helps them remember to include a label!)
  • What information do I HAVE to answer the question?
  • What information do I NEED to answer the question?
I have found that kids are almost always able to figure out the answers to these questions when they are required to stop and think about it, and this step ALWAYS helps to set them up for problem solving success! 

I also teach my students to use a pretty specific format for showing their work and solving word problems.  I have been using some variation of this for years, and it has evolved the more and more I have used it.

The sample problem I used in this anchor chart is a SINGLE-STEP problem, and I would highly encourage you to teach this format using a single-step format, then move on later to using it for multi-step (hang tight! I will address using this format with multi-step problems soon!).

Now, do I recommend you use this format for every single word problem students use? Absolutely not.  However, we do at least one or two a week this way simply because of the "answer" section and how important it is for students to be able to explain their math process.

Students always have to begin their written answers with "To solve this problem, I..." and they always have to end it with "Therefore, I know..."  Students are always very tempted to say, "To solve this problem I added 1,098 and 530.  Therefore, I know the answer is 1,628 calories."  Is this right? Sure! But is it the best answer and explanation they could have given? Nope.

I always encourage my students to be VERY specific about what the numbers are that they are addressing when they write out their answer.  This helps them really evaluate their thinking and see if it made sense.  There is a big difference between telling me which numbers you added and what those numbers represent.  This also encourages students to restate the question in their answer and make sure they have actually answered the question that is being asked.

**THIS IS ALWAYS A CHALLENGE!** It takes my students several examples to catch on to explaining their answers in this way, but it is so, so worth it once they truly understand.  Here is another student sample:

Now, before I have them use this model for multi-step problems, there are a few activities we do to prepare for that challenge and to get them comfortable with multi-step problems.

First, I have them do a little sequencing sort.  I give them a completed multi-step problem with all of the steps out of order.  The steps are written in the same format as described above, with very specific instructions walking the reader through how they solved the problem.  The students put the directions back in order and make sure it all makes sense.  They aren't actually having to do any math here, so it frees them up to simply think about the process. (These sorts are free! See link at the end of my blog post.)

Once I feel like students understand the basics of solving multi-step problems, we move on to some scaffolded practice using these handy little foldables that I created! (I have created ten pages of varying levels, and they are FREE for you to use with your students!  Click the link at the end of the post to access the freebies.)

Each page is split in half.  Students fold the paper in half, cut across the dotted lines on the right side, and fold the right flaps under.  They always start with the left side, where they read the problem, following the CUBE steps (with a special place for the Examine step, because I think it is SO important), and then they open the flaps to reveal step-by-step how to solve the problem.  The flaps give the student hints about what step they need to complete and sometimes how to do it.  It serves as a scaffolded guide for solving these tricky word problems. 

The purpose of the flaps is to guide students through the steps, but to also give them time to think about what the next steps are and then see if they are correct.

Now, the only tricky part about this is that students might solve problems differently (and possibly in a different order) and get the same answer and THAT IS OKAY.  These are meant to be used as an introduction to multi-step problem solving only!  There are so many ways you can let your students use them.

Once we have done several of these together, I let them start working on their own with task cards and our four square format I mentioned above.  I have them glue task cards in their notebooks and work through each problem.  Once they have done a few like this, I let them move on to working on them without the four square format.

Some students even like to create their own foldables (like those that I showed above) with the task cards!

When kids are ready, we then move on to multi-part problems.  Kids LOVE these, and they seem to really thrive on the challenge of not only having a multi-step problem, but also a multi-PART problem. 

...and when your students are really ready for an even bigger challenge, it's time to present to them... Math Detectives!  This is a new spin on Error Analysis that requires students to really analyze solutions and see which solutions and problem solving steps are the most reasonable.  Each card has a task on it (usually multi-step) and there are two different explanations for a solution.  The students have to figure out which explanation is correct and then solve the problem.  This is such a fun activity for my students!  They love being detectives.

Well, there you have it!  All of my ideas and resources for teaching students to love solving multi-step word problems!  It doesn't have to be (too) scary.

If you'd like to download the THIRTY pages worth of freebies featured above, please click the image below.  This freebie includes the two tasks mentioned above as well as anchor chart templates and printable posters. 

ENJOY, and please share your multi-step word problem tips in the comments!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Complete Sentences and Beyond!

Even though I teach fourth grade, I still find that, at the beginning of the year, I have many, many students who struggle with writing complete sentences.  It's usually a pretty quick fix to remind them what a complete sentence looks like, but then we have to go beyond that, too.  We have to teach them how to restate answers in complete sentences (I have a HUGE blog post about that HERE.)  Then, we have to move on to teaching them to expand on their sentences.

I have written before about how amazing our writing curriculum is, but I just have to say it again! We use Write Now Right Now and it is just wonderful.  The lessons featured here are based on lessons in the curriculum.  Seriously, if you need an amazing writing curriculum, go check it out!

We start out the year with a review of the five requirements of a sentence.  Here is the notebook entry that we use.

And here is the super fun chant we use to remember the requirements:

One thing that I added to my instruction last year was the Superb Sentences flip book.  It covers all of the requirements of a sentence (nouns, verb, capitalizations, etc.) in a step by step manner.  We used this flip book for several weeks while we were reviewing sentences, and it was perfect! 

This is also a great time to start pulling out my Using Pictures to Teach Parts of Speech lessons!  The nouns and verbs versions definitely come in handy here.

Once my students are comfortable with all of the elements of a sentence, we move on to our Team Complete lesson.  This one is always SO much fun!  I encourage you to really get into the act-- put on a jersey, maybe a baseball cap, and throw on a whistle.  The kids get such a huge kick out of it and remember it forever.

The idea of Team Complete (a clever idea from Write Now Right Now) is to really take your complete sentences up a notch.  I begin by telling the students that they are currently all on the pee-wee team, since they are writing wonderful complete sentences with all the requirements.  BUT! If they add more detail and more information, they can join me on the Junior Varsity team.  We talk about ways to write a JV answer and how it is different from a pee-wee answer.  Then, I ask them what the ultimate goal is in high school sports-- most of them know it is to join the Varsity team.  We chat about how they can make their answers a member of the Varsity team, and they all LOVE this challenge!

Here is the anchor chart I created with them while teaching the lesson.

After we complete the lesson, they each get miniature jerseys and glue them into their notebooks.  Then, they get to write their own sample sentences.  It is always fun to see what they come up with!

After this lesson it's amazing how excited they are to challenge themselves to write Varsity level answers.  It's rare that I see a pee-wee team complete answer after this point, and I leave the anchor chart up in my room for quite some time and we refer to it often!

If you'd like to teach this lesson, it's super quick-- maybe 15 minutes-- and you can grab the jerseys for free HERE.  I printed my big anchor chart jerseys on colored card stock.

Have fun!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Meet the Teacher Night Made Easy!

It's almost time for Meet the Teacher nights to commence around the country, and it has always been one of my very favorite nights of the year! I get so excited to meet all of my new students and their families.  This first impression is so important, and it can sometimes be a little bit overwhelming for everyone-- teachers, students, and parents!  I have written before about how important it is to instill confidence and build rapport with parents and students at this first meeting.  You can read about how I do that HERE.

I've never really addressed how I actually set up my Meet the Teacher Night, and it's always a little bit different from year to year. Last year, I tried my best to make Meet the Teacher night as simple and easy as possible. Here is how we set it up!

I met each family at the door so that I was able to interact with each family for a moment right when they walked into the room.  When nobody was walking in, I would roam the room and chat with whoever was already there.  When I met them at the door, I explained to my students that they would need to go to each of four stations and follow the directions there.  They did not have to go in order, but they needed to stop at each one. Here are my four stations:

First, they picked up the 7,000 papers that the school provides. :)

Then, they (really, their parents) head on over to the information table.  There were three forms to fill out-- a volunteer form, a student information form, and a "how are you getting home the first day" form.  Most parents sat at the desk you see and filled these papers out while their students went on to the next step...

Next, they had to put together their supplies!  Our school has started implementing a system where all of the students pay a fee and we buy all of their supplies for them.  Since they don't have desks, each student had a book box.  There was a paper next to the station that had their name and student number next to it, and they grabbed their book box.  We had pre-filled it with all of their folders and notebooks.  The only thing they needed to do was label them all so that we could avoid doing this as a whole class the first few days of school.  It worked out so well!

We set out a sample book bin (number 30 that you see here) so that they could see exactly what it should look like when they were done.  There were label sheets for every student and Sharpies so that they could write their name.  I made a little sample page on how to label their bins (which label went on which color folder).  

99% of my students did a fantastic job with this task.  There were a few who needed a bit more support, and it was a good experience for me to see how the students followed directions.  I'd do this again in a heartbeat to avoid the chaos of doing it as a whole class on the first day of school! 

Finally, they did this little prompt (I think I got this idea from someone on IG last year! If it was you, please please let me know so that I can give you credit!).  They each had to write one thing they were excited about.  I left it up the first few days of school so that they could all read each other's responses.

This Meet the Teacher Night set up was one of my favorites that I've ever done!  Kids and their parents had plenty to do while I greeted everyone, and they were there long enough that I had a chance to sit down and chat with all of the families.  It was very minimal set up on my part, too!  I'd highly recommend it.

Looking for more Back to School inspiration? Check out these Back to School posts!


Sunday, July 16, 2017

No Homework Policy: One Year Later

Last school year was a really big year in my classroom.  We started flexible seating (you can read more about that adventure HERE), we implemented a Bring Your Own Device program, and we did away with homework.  Like I said-- BIG year!

While each of those three changes contributed to a very different feel in my classroom than years prior, I was particularly nervous about doing away with homework.  I know that homework has its place, and I know there are concepts and skills (especially in 4th grade!) that require repetition to really grasp.  Yet, I still felt like the reasons to do away with homework were more important than the  benefits of homework itself.

Throughout the school year, I had many colleagues pop in and ask how our no-homework policy was going.  "It's going well!" I would respond, but I wouldn't give many details.  Now, after a full school year without it, I definitely have some reflections on how it went, what changes I would make, and if I would do it again!

First of all, here is the homework philosophy that we presented to parents and students at the beginning of the school year. (If you'd like to use it, I've added the full text at the end of the post so that you can copy, paste, and edit as you wish.)

You can see that we didn't COMPLETELY do away with homework, but we did do away with 99% of it.  We still STRONGLY encouraged students to be reading each night, and they were required to have a novel in progress at all times.  We also continued our weekly letter writing, where students had to respond to us in letter form by the end of the week.  You can read more about that idea HERE.  I'll never have a classroom where I don't do it!

We also had a disclaimer that if students did not complete their classwork in a reasonable period of time or were excessively off task during an assignment, they would need to bring it home to complete it.

Of course, when we first told students about this change, there was hooting and hollering and cheers galore! I let them have their moment and then gently pulled them back together.  I reassured them that it was totally possible that they wouldn't have homework, but that it would mean they had to give me their all every. single. minute of every. single. day.  Their eyes got big, they sat up taller, and an air of confidence washed over them. "We've got this, Mrs. M.!" I remember one kiddo saying.  In the beginning, it was as if they would do anything to keep this privilege.  We floated on clouds of no-homework bliss for a solid week...

And then here's what really happened when I did away with homework...

I expected more from my students than ever before. 

When I was planning my lessons this year, I packed in more than I ever had before.  While that might send like a negative effect of this little experiment, it was actually one of the best parts for me.

In math, in particular, this was a game changer for me.  I knew that my students needed to deeply and fully understand these concepts and be able to compute with automaticity.  I also knew they wouldn't be going home and doing 20 extra problems each night like they had in the past.  This meant that 1) I had to make sure they understood the concept like the back of their hand and 2) They could apply that understanding to a wide variety of problems.... Of course, these are two non-negotiables that any math classroom should have, but I was going to be doing it with less practice and repetition than before.  Therefore, when I was planning, I ended up with FAR more inquiry-based lessons and practice (so that they would really get the meat of the concept), and far less direct teacher instruction.  I jammed as much as I could into my whole group time (10-15 minutes a day) and then jammed even more into their workshop time.  Kids were collaborating, practicing, and learning more than ever... Simply because I had this sense of urgency that I was missing before.

A few people have asked about spelling and how this worked without homework and studying at home.  We use a word study philosophy, similar to Words Their Way, which means that students are studying patterns in words rather than the words themselves.  I incorporated this into my reading rotations and would occasionally devote some of our writing to it, and I would highly recommend it!

Another option to fit in what would have previously been homework is to rethink your morning routine.  I usually use my Think It Through critical thinking packet as morning work, and when I did away with homework this year and had to give them some more "intense" morning work, I started using the packet during Morning Meeting instead.  I used our morning work time this year to review and reteach grammar concepts some days and math skills other days.  It was the perfect balance!

This brought out the best in some kids

When I say it brought out the best in them, I mean it changed their study habits permanently.  They created habits that I hope will continue on with them for years and years to come.  They knew that in order to continue having no homework, they truly had to give me their all during the day.  It wasn't easy.  They had to not only complete their assignments, but complete them well. We had very, very little down time, and I expected more from this group of kids than ever before.  Some rose to the challenge and THRIVED under the challenge...

...and some kids didn't care. 

I did have a handful of students who were not at all motivated by a lack of homework.  These were the kids who repeatedly ended up taking work home because they weren't completing it in class (usually due to them being distracted and not on-task).  Some kids learned quickly that this isn't what they wanted, and a few kids never did quite learn.

Some parents loved it. Some parents hated it. 

On Back to School Night, when we handed out this homework policy, the general consensus was all the praise hands in the world! Parents thanked us for giving them FREEDOM in the evenings to take their kids to gymnastics without worrying about homework and some parents thanked us for eliminating the nightly homework battle they had fought for the past few years.

We also had a small number of parents who wanted their kids to have homework.  They worried that they would become accustomed to not having homework and have a difficult time next year when their teacher required it again.  They worried they wouldn't get enough skill practice.  These were valid concerns, and we reassured parents that, if they requested it, we would send home supplemental practice.  Not one of the parents who initially expressed concern over the policy ever ended up asking for homework.

...but some KIDS asked for homework!

I'll never forget the first time one of my kids ASKED for homework! It was about a month into the school year, and we were working on Error Analysis in small groups.  One of my students looked up and said, "I LOVE this.  Can you PLEASE give us some more to do at home!?"  How could I deny them that opportunity!? :)  The rest of the kids in the small group chimed in that they wanted to bring some home too.  During my lunch break, I printed a few more tasks out for those kids, and guess what? Every single student in that group brought it home and returned it the next day-- BY CHOICE!

This happened multiple times throughout the year, primarily with my math projects and error analysis tasks.  I never, ever denied them when they asked to bring something home for homework.

Some kids NEED homework. 

Usually, these aren't the kids who were requesting the extra homework, but I had another handful of students who needed homework.  They needed skill practice, they needed reading fluency practice, and they needed fact practice.  I talked to each of those students individually and contacted those parents privately.  They (both students and parents) understood why I needed to send supplemental work home.  Once a quarter, I put together packets based on those kids' needs.  I gave them free reign to complete it at any time throughout the quarter, and every single packet came back completed by the end of the quarter.

I would do it all over again. 

At the end of the year, I had parents come up to me and thank me for this policy, telling me how they had enjoyed a better relationship with their student this year without the nightly homework battle.  They had taken more walks, participated in more after school activities, and were generally so thankful for the reprieve.

As a teacher, I saw happy kids coming in every day and relaxed kids leaving every afternoon.  There were no battles over missing homework, and kids worked hard to keep the privilege.  I had no noticeable (anecdotally or with data) drop in achievement or growth over the course of the year.  I felt like a better teacher because I worked even harder during the school day to make sure they were getting exactly what they needed while they were with me.

...Oh, and I had a lot less grading to do, too! :) :)

I would do it again a heartbeat!

Homework Policy

We strongly believe in the power of play and the importance of letting children be children. Further,  research does not indicate significant benefits of homework at the elementary level. We believe that when students give us all of their day, they deserve to have all of their night.  Therefore, we have eliminated the majority of our standing homework assignments. Eat dinner as a family and ask them how their day was, enjoy your child’s extracurricular activities without worrying about homework, and know that your child is working hard at school each day and has earned their evening playtime!

To foster community and self-reflection, your student will have a weekly letter from their teacher (more about that below!) to respond to, and we highly encourage you to read a book of choice with your child each evening. Please Note: If a student exhibits off-task behaviors during the school day and fails to complete an assignment, the assignment will be sent home for completion.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Teaching Students to Dissect Responding to Reading Prompts

I have a list a mile long of activities and concepts that I want and need to blog about, but I just HAD to take a few minutes today to share this one. It truly is a game-changer for those of you who are tasked with the daunting job of teaching kids to respond to texts-- especially multiple texts!

In the upper grades, students are expected to be able to read two or more texts on a similar topic, then write a short essay or paragraph responding to a specific prompt about those texts.  Sounds easy enough, right?! Wrong!  In my experience, this is one of the most difficult writing concepts for students to grasp.  After all, they have to combine their reading skills with their writing skills-- analyzing multiple texts, referencing text evidence, making sure they completely answer the prompt, following writing formats, etc.  There is so much that goes into this skill!

For the past 8 years, I've worked with an incredible team of teachers in a wide variety of grade levels. This school year and last, I have been so lucky to be teammates with one of the creators of our phenomenal writing program, Write Now Right Now.  The program has changed me as a writing teacher, and all of these ideas come right from the program.  You can learn more about it HERE!

I begin teaching this skill by creating an anchor chart with my students, which we title "The Three Ps of Written Response."

We always encourage our students to go straight to the prompt before they even begin reading.  After all, how much easier is it for students to read when they know what their purpose is for reading?  After they have read the prompt, it's time to dissect it.  They cloud the format, they box the topic, and they underline the big ideas.  Then, they make a plan.  This is always a little bit confusing for students because they can't quite grasp how they can make a plan without reading! BUT, they can, AND if they do, it's going to ensure that they fully respond to the prompt.

To show them how easy it is to dissect a prompt and make a plan without reading the text, I give them a bunch of prompts without the accompanying texts.  In fact, none of these texts actually exist!  These are just examples.  We dissect all of the prompts first, looking for the format, the topic, and the big ideas.  Then, we make a plan for each of the prompts.

 Above, you can see all of the different prompts we dissected.  Some of them are more tricky than others.  Below, you can see the plans we made together for each of the prompts. Remember, there were no actual passages, and the kids knew we had no intention of completing the plans, so it wasn't completely overwhelming for them.

After we had done a bunch of practice, we applied it to an actual prompt with actual passages.

We used the two poems The Land of Counterpane, and Sick, and the short story You Got Me Sick for this one.  Again, we read the prompt first and made our plan outline BEFORE we read the poems and story.  This was so critical because then the kids never forgot that they had to mention EACH of the stories, and they didn't forget about the extra prompt at the end.  As we read, we underlined our text evidence as well.

We will continue to practice with basic prompts (and no passages) as well as do a few here and there that do incorporate passages.  This really has empowered my students to be successful with such a difficult skill!