Friday, February 20, 2015

Beat the Test Day Blues!

We typically have four to eight days of standardized testing depending on the grade level- that's a LOT!  I always struggle with maintaining a balance of academics and fun because I feel so bad for the kids!  After a tough morning of testing, the last thing they want (or I want for that matter) is to do more "work," but you can only extend recess for so long before other issues start to pop up.  I have compiled a list of the projects that have worked successfully over the last few years to not only keep the kids engaged and excited but also maintain an academic atmosphere.  Hopefully you find something that inspires you and your kids! :)

1.  Teacher Exchange
It depends on what motivates your students, but this works well both within your own grade level as well as across grade levels.  Find a partner teacher to switch with and a read aloud that is grade appropriate for your new buddy class. Prepare a really fun art/comprehension activity to go with your book.  Once testing is over, switch places and show off your stuff with your new buddy class.  The change of scenery will do you good, and the kids LOVE having a guest reader.  Try to have a new guest teacher to switch with each day (but keep the same book and idea), and it really gives the kids something to look forward to.

Example:  One of my FAVORITE stories of all time is "Piggie Pie" by Margie Palatini.  It is so much fun to read with opportunities galore for exaggerated noises and expression.  My go to "fun project" for this book is to create a character flap book with a letter to the main character, Gritch the Witch, on the inside of the flap book explaining to her how misguided she was in trying to make Piggie Pie.  It's still academically focused but a relaxed and fun project for the kids to work on.   Here's a cheat sheet for the flap book-
2.  Students Teach "How To" Demonstrations
We love, love, love this project!  It's a great reinforcement for procedural writing and really motivates the kids to put on a show.  Students identify something they are really good at that can be demonstrated to their classmates in 5-10 minutes.  They plan their demo including materials, an appropriate text feature that supports understanding of the project, and procedures.  We set aside 5 afternoons with about an hour each day, and students signed up for a time slot.  It was there responsibility to remember to bring the materials that day.  A reminder in agendas was helpful.  We had lots of recipes (which was great for the antsy afternoons after testing), arts/crafts demos, and my favorite was our jiu jiutsu expert who showed us (successfully) how to break a board- he was the most popular kid at recess the next day!  This is also a great opportunity for you and your kids to learn a little about the special abilities some of your kids have you may not have even known about! Here's a quicky plan you can use in a pinch- thanks to Catherine S. for the freebie border.  If you end up with really great projects, have students complete a final draft of their "How To" plan and bind them into a book for a great end-of-the-year gift.  You can even add a picture of the students doing their presentations to each page if you're really organized!
How To Plan

3.  Student Book Exchange w/ Free Reading Time
This can be done across your grade level or within your room depending on how big you want to make it.  First, we set this up with the librarian and did the actual exchange in the library for reasons you will see in a minute!  Most students had a few books at home that they had read and were willing to part with.  I asked for students to bring in two books each and complete a rating sheet for each.  For students who didn't have books at home to bring in, we worked with the librarian who allowed each student to pick their two favorite chapter books to recommend and we had a special table for our book exchange.  These students also completed two rating sheets for these books.  On the day of the exchange, we displayed all of the books with rating slips attached to their covers on several tables in the library.  Students selected one book of their choice after previewing.  If it was a donated book, it was expected to be returned and become part of the classroom library.  Otherwise, they checked out the books from the library.  We designated 30 minutes of reading time after each day of testing to read in a quiet place.  I also allowed students 5-10 minutes of talk time after reading to share what their thoughts were so far with the original reader of the book.  We all looked forward to this time! Here is a copy of the rating slip.  Enjoy!
Rating Slip

4.   Student-Made Math Games
Brainstorm a list of topics you have studied so far in math.  Select teams and allow time for them to identify one of the topics.  We decided we didn't want repeats and so it was first come, first served for team selection.  As a team, students then develop a title, objectives, materials, rules, and a game board (we used file folders to keep it simple!).  I also put several of our favorite games' instruction manuals on the overhead camera, and we discussed what needed to be included for others to understand and be able to play the game independently.  It took 3-4 days for students to make their games/boards.  We scheduled the last day of testing as our "play day."   During play day, groups set up their games so it was easy to rotate around the room to play one another's games.  We set a timer for 15 minutes per rotation and saved 5 extra minutes to fill out an evaluation for each game.   Students didn't always get to finish the game, but after rotations, we had more time and students were able to select games they wanted to play more of.  I have included a planning template below.

Game Plan

5.  Recycle Days
You may need a little patience for this, but once the kids get started, they are so engaged!  First, you need to send a note home to parents asking for their CLEAN recyclables like egg cartons, paper rolls, jugs, fruit containers, Styrofoam trays, bottle caps/lids, buttons, and any small, unusual objects that the kids visualize as part of their new invention.  We reserved a corner in the room for students to create a stash and had two parts- the pile with grocery bags labeled and reserved for students and the community pile to share with everyone.   I've done this at two different times- once for a compound machines unit which was graded and once just for fun after testing which was not graded.  When we did it as a compound machine activity, we created plans for Rube Goldberg-type machines after perusing the many examples of his crazy machines.  Students then attempted to replicate their plans and presented their projects to the class.  They worked in small groups for this project.  The second time, students were challenged to invent something, anything NEW and they were allowed to work independently, in pairs, or small groups of no more than 3.  Again, they planned their project, replicated it, and then presented them.  Similar to the "How To" projects, we created a sign-up sheet for times/days to present that helped keep the groups focused on a finished product.  As far as safety concerns, I kept ONE small, snap off razor blade with me, and I was the only one who used it.  It helped tremendously with altering plastic bottles, etc.  I also had several hot glue guns which in fifth grade, the kids were very good about using- no one got burnt and the fire department got a day off.  I recommend adding to your parent letter a request for hot glue guns/sticks, duct tape, and masking tape as this stuff disappeared pretty quickly.  Although, it can get a little chaotic, I still found this project to be one of the most satisfying ones, because the students were so engaged with the production and presentation of their final products.  They spent hours without issue which is certainly a welcome reprieve after a long morning of testing!  Here is a list of the suggested recyclables I sent home several weeks before doing the project.
Materials List

Just remember that you've done everything possible to help your kiddos succeed!  They will do their best for themselves and make you proud.  Hopefully one of these ideas will help you celebrate their success and allow everyone to relax a little while still staying academically focused.   I have also created a "Testing Fun Card Game with Writing Menu" that the kids have enjoyed tremendously and has helped me keep them focused.  First, kids play an addictive game of "In a Pickle" which requires students to place various nouns IN each other, defend their decisions, and attempt to steal the card sets from one another.  All of the nouns in this set relate to testing terms/issues except pickle of course...those are the troublemakers and there just to make the kids think a little extra hard!  Once students have collected several card sets, they use these words to complete a selected number of activities from 9 choices on a writing menu.  Also included are more specific descriptions, instructions, and writing templates ready to attach to file folders for independent use, literacy centers, or a quick homework assignment.
Testing Fun on TPT

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Intermediate Word Work Expanding Bundle....It's a STEAL during the TPT Sale!

As my moniker suggests, I am truly wild about words!  In an effort to immerse my students in ongoing word exploration, I have developed weekly word work units that engage students in whole group, small group, and independently through a combination of instructional strategies including cooperative learning.  Each unit focuses on a very large word that can be broken into smaller focus families enabling the teacher to explicitly address difficult word patterns, affixes, roots, and more.  A 5-day unit looks something like this:

  1. Students develop their word list using manipulated letters and contextual clues that are already prepared.  (Usually this is done with partners, small group, or independently.)
  2. Introduce the list and echo read.  Students compare their list to the actual list, fill in any blanks, and make corrections. "Brainstorm" additional words in contest form...we LOVE anagrams!
  3. Choral reading of the list.  Explicit whole group instruction focusing on sorting and identifying word families, expanding the focus families, and adding to word wall.
  4. Timed reading of the list.  Cooperative review activity.  
  5. Assessment.
Each list offers a 5-day plan and suggestions for weekly implementation and includes everything you need, ready to print out.  Once you've done a week or two, the kids are hooked and so are you!  Before you know it, they will be bringing you new and bigger words to be their future week's list, and that is actually where this huge project started for me!  

There are currently 19 available units (check out this spreadsheet for focus family information on each family) but more are being added each month.  There will be a minimum of 35 units once the whole unit is complete.  I have created an expanding bundle which allows you to purchase all 19 units for a discounted price AND gives you access to all future units at NO CHARGE!  I simply update the file, notify you in the updates section, and you've got access to the new units easy as pie.  Individually, the units are $2, but the expanding bundle is available for $33, which during the sale (28% with my 20% discount and TPT's 10%)  will be a steal at $23.76!  Take advantage now---I have two new units to add next week and the price will go up.  

Stay wild!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Grading Smarter, Not Harder! Homework Freebie!

I have linked up with Jen Bradshaw of Teaching, Life, and Everything in Between and others to do a book study on "Grading Smarter, Not Harder" by Myron Dueck.  What an interesting book!  Chapter two focuses on "uniform homework" which the author notes is homework that requires the same answers from every student as follow up or review to something that's been introduced in class.  He is not referring to projects or more in depth assignments that require work from home time.  Dueck proposes eliminating ALL "uniform homework."
Benefits of eliminating uniform homework:
  • More "you" time
  • More authentic planning time
  • Student data is more accurate as you've removed the behavioral/compliance component
Problems with uniform homework:
  • Confuses completion with understanding
  • Decreases intrinsic motivation- Why do it if it's not graded?
  • Inflated grades for students with parents who help
  • Deflated grades for struggling learners and students with challenging home environments
Suggestions for making homework meaningful:
  • In class quizzes that are a condensed form of optional homework the students can use for review.  Students are also provided options for retakes for improved mastery.
  • Homework profiles- Categorizing students in one of nine categories based on homework practice vs. classroom performance.
  • In-school assistance during ISS, lunch, or after school with administration.
  • Flipped classroom using technology to engage students in the basics and then extending these ideas in the classroom.

The barriers to homework completion are wide and varied!  In my personal experience, the environment was the greatest barrier.  Little brothers and sisters running around hootin' and hollerin', lack of parental routines, distractions from video games and other fun techy stuff, and the million other things that are way more fun than reading that silly old book for 20 minutes!  For my students with parents struggling financially, it was sometimes a food or electricity issue.  It's not much fun doing your homework in the driveway under the streetlight. 
In my fifteen years, it doesn't seem that there has ever been a set rule as to whether or not we should grade homework or even the quality/quantity of homework.  There are usual general guidelines per grade level which for my fourth and fifth graders was around 45 minutes to an hour.  This has always left me free to implement homework as I choose.  Generally, I provide a weekly newsletter that lays out our weekly expectations which includes reading at home every night, a short math practice (exit slip style), and I faithfully included National Geographic student magazine articles each week with close reading activities (before close reading became a buzz word!) to reinforce our reading strategies.  It was predictable and usually completed without much ado.  I did NOT generally grade these assignments.  They were meant to inform me of students' progress as I would conference with students each morning, or at least every other day.  Because parents/siblings can become involved in homework, which is FANTASTIC, it also alters the results, and I don't think it's fair to grade students because they may have more interaction at home than another student.  I also believe this is partially why I didn't have a lot of resistance, despite working in challenging schools!

This chapter focuses so intently on homework, it had my head spinning and thinking how I had never done enough!  Quite honestly, however, I think the perspective is also different from elementary school to middle/high school which is where this author is grounded.  From an elementary school teacher's perspective, really all of my questions revolved around one topic- TIME!
  • Where do you get the TIME to create the charts, compare homework practice to classroom performance, create the optional homework with mini quiz and secondary quizzes, grade these quizzes, and do your time in the cafeteria, ISS, or after school?  Again, from the elementary perspective, with multiple subjects on my plate, this all starts to sound overwhelming.  I can't imagine doing this for hundreds of students either and maintain your classroom instruction as well.  The implementation is probably tricky, but once you get it streamlined, the benefits are clear. 
Overall, I 98% agree with eliminating uniform homework, or at least the grading of uniform homework.  It does, in my experience, pad grades for the already successful kids and only serves to frustrate and deflate the grades of already struggling students.  I think I have created a system that works with my classes in my grade levels with my personality so that students, parents, and teachers are all satisfied and continuing to progress positively.  I have attached a copy of the form I use to track my conferences with students each morning as well as their progress in the homework concepts.  I generally use a simple scoring scale for my own reference  from 0-3.  I use these scale scores to pull groups, documentation for RTI meetings and/or ESE staffings, conferences with parents/students, and report card comments.  Stick a date on it, and file them for future reference!  It is totally editable for your use....I print mine out and keep it on a clipboard for the week.

This is definitely a book that makes you think about your practices and consider some alternatives that may really open students to more authentic learning experiences.  A worthy read!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

5 MORE books that will make your kids WANT to write!

1.The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
A truly fantastic compilation of 14 mysterious pictures each with a title and a simple caption (the newest portfolio edition has a 15th picture!). The pictures were supposedly left for Van Allsburg one day with a promise by Burdick to return the next day with the actual stories. Surprise…Burdick disappears and all that remains are these mysterious illustrations just begging for a story.

If you are working on fictional narratives, this is the book for you. No child can look at these photos and not have some fantastic ideas ready to go. I actually took one paperback edition, tore out the pages, laminated, them and made it part of our permanent writing center in a narrative writing ideas folder. We did complete the writing process for at least one idea, however. And now there’s a huge BONUS! Fourteen well-known authors wrote their own versions of each story in “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” including Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry, Jon Scieszka, Stephen King, and an introduction by none other than Lemony Snicket. I saved these until the end of the year to share what these authors envisioned during our publishing party. The kids had fun comparing their creations to that of the “pros!”

2. The True Story of Three Little Pigs by Jon Sciesczka
I am totally biased as I think ALL of Sciesczka’s books are inspiring and hysterical, but this one in particular offers a great starting point for kids as writers. Told from the perspective of the wolf, he offers a tale that stretches what we know of the original three little pigs. After all, wouldn't YOU eat a hamburger just sitting there?

 It’s a simple story and idea but we analyzed this story to death as we compared it to the original. My students not only grasped the idea of perspective but also developed a better feel for voice and plot development as we picked each section apart. As a class, we brainstormed other well-known stories with antagonistic characters, and each student selected a story to rewrite from the antagonist’s perspective.

 3. Grimm’s Fairy Tales
My fifth graders absolutely loved the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales, almost to the point of obsession! There are hundreds of tales to share with similar themes and patterns that run throughout. The tales are generally short and not so sweet like the newly revised fairy tales, which is what the kids just loved! There is even a fabulous app, Grimm, that includes a large number of the most popular tales for free.

This turned into another one of those “never-ending” projects. We analyzed dozens of tales (starting with Cinderella...fascinating story to compare to the Disney version!) whole group, small group, pairs, and individually for themes, patterns, character analysis, plot, and MORE. Students then compiled all of this information to create their own tales with specific requirements. We published these stories using the Student Treasures program and ended up with beautifully hard bound books for FREE which we then invited parents to share at a breakfast. The students were so proud!

 4. The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee 
This book holds a special place in my heart thanks to Aaron from my fourth grade class about 10 years ago.  He brought this book to me in wretched condition and recommended it as our next writing project.  How could I resist?  Felix Clousseau is an unknown artist who enters his not so fancy duck painting in the kingdom’s premiere art contest.  After, being mocked and shamed, something mysterious happens and leads to an interesting change of events with a nice little twisty ending the kids get a kick out of.  It’s a very simple story and a super quick read but such a charming little story!

Aaron came armed with his writing idea already, but we found several ways to inspire writing as students actually brainstormed possible venues to explore.  This was a LOT of fun and something we did later in the year, making sure they were good and comfortable with exploring their creative sides!  (I have to keep the ideas somewhat vague to preserve the surprises you have in store for you when you read the book!)  Several students wanted to make themselves the lead character and create their own gallery in comic book form or a version of one of the mini books we had created earlier in the year (accordion/flap/index card).  Another group wanted to create one specific Clousseau painting as a springboard for an entire story.  Others wanted to rewrite Clousseau’s tale altogether, starting with the last page and moving forward.  However, you decide to use this little gem, your students’ will be sure to love it!

5. My Map Book by Sara Fanelli
An inspiring book Illustrated from the perspective of a child with two-page spreads of the stuff that is important to kids, mapped out. There are ordinary maps like the neighborhood and school, and then my favorites…a map of my heart and a map of my dog. LOVE IT! Each “map” points out the important aspects like mud, chocolate, and mommy and daddy.

This is such a perfect way for students to start brainstorming writing ideas. Anything can be mapped, and this is such a unique way to encourage kids to elaborate as well. Starting with a map of your heart might include your parents, your pets, school, books, etc. Each of these is a “seed” for a new map. As students draw their maps, they begin to naturally recount personal narratives.

Read about five OTHER books that have driven us to WRITE, WRITE, WRITE on Minds In Bloom and grab your freebie that correlates with "The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups," my #1 favorite book that inspires writing for kids!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups....Twist Your Classroom Rules!

Click the image for your freebie! first few weeks of school are always so chaotic for me with the paperwork, county assessments, and STUFF!  What I want to do more than any of those things is really give the kids a view to how our classroom will work for the year.  Many years ago, a teacher friend gave me the book, "The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups," by David Wisniewski.  I read it, laughed hysterically, and filed it in my brain under "someday."  Wisniewski introduces an ordinary rule like "eat your vegetables" and creates an outlandish "truth" behind the rule, with the understanding that grown-ups have a responsibility to keep all of these truths guarded from children (apparently broccoli used to resemble a dinosaur and was a meat eater?!). 

This book is a dream as far as mentor texts go.  Wisniewski's word choice and voice are second to none and, incidentally, he won the Newbery Award in 1997 as well!  So not only are there a ton of opportunities for modeled writing lessons, but his use of illustrations and text features to add meaning to the text are superior.  The stories are short- usually about 2-3 pages with illustrations- just right for a quick read aloud, mini lesson, and independent time.  BONUS!!! There's a "Second File" I later discovered that helps extend our read aloud and analysis time!

After routinely introducing the classroom rules for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that this book would make a fabulous link to this otherwise dull task.  I started by reading just one rule to the students, and they were hooked!  It snowballed from there.  Each day we read a new rule, examined his stories for structure and technique, and completed a small part of the writing process.   Some students used our classroom rules as inspiration, and others chose to use rules from their house.  In three weeks, we had completed the writing process, talked in depth about voice and word choice, initiated conferencing structures, practiced cooperative learning structures, and explored multiple reading concepts including summarizing, plot, and text features.  This was a fabulous way to start the year as it enabled us to address so much of the curriculum on a daily basis, and the kids looked so forward to working on it each day (as did I!). 

We ended up with a display of file folders that mimicked the author's cover illustration and followed his introduction for each story.  They were PERFECT for parent night!  I think this would also be a good way to end the year during that last month when the kids need a little extra "fun" in their days.  This has become my "go to" lesson now!

I have a little freebie that will get you started with the story if you are interested.  Included is the plan we created together, draft papers, a scoring rubric, and a feedback form.  The feedback form was really fun!  The first time we used it on parent night and parents and family left positive notes for their stories.  We left them on the desks, and the next morning, I had donuts for the kids.  While they munched away, they circulated and read each others' stories, leaving positive and specific notes.  This was a nice finish and the kids enjoyed reading their feedback. 

Have a super start of the school year, and keep "The Truth" from themmmmmm.  I hope you enjoy this book as much as we have!

:0) Heather

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Face Lift, A Baby, and A Freebie!

Woohooo....I've had a face lift!  Thanks to Oxana at Teacher's Clipart.  She has given my blog a face lift, and I love it!  It's so much cheerier and colorful. I have been away from the blog world for quite some time thanks to the arrival of my little girl, Sarah.  Yes, I am going to plug this cute, sweet, pinchable little face hehe...
Now that I am staying home and we've got our routine together, I have finally finished a project I have worked on for the last 3 months!  This project started out as a simple 5-page set of Tic-Tac-Toe choice boards I created in my classroom for introducing metacognitive strategies.  It finished as a 40-page product!  As I began the suggested implementation pages, I realized how many other activities we had done in the introduction of these activities.  The result is a product that I think you will find is easy to implement, motivating to students, and a project that really enables your students to dig deeper as they begin to understand their own thinking style.
There are 5 choice boards (tic-tac-toe style), each specific to a metacognitive strategy (visualizing, predicting, summarizing, questioning, connecting).  Students explore one strategy each week first with you through read aloud, think aloud, and modeled examples, then with their partners and small groups as they practice utilizing classroom discussion norms, and finally independently in the following weeks during centers or independent reading time.  To reinforce the same responses on the choice boards, there are accompanying discussion cards and response sheets as well as rubrics that you and your class can practice using together.  Lesson plans are included for introducing these strategies in five weeks.

I have also created a freebie that is a little more generic and great for independent reading responses. 
There are 9 responses to choose from including theme, setting, summarizing, and more!  Also includes a response sheet and a rubric for you to assess student progress.  Click any of the images below for your free download.
:0) Have a restful summer.....Heather

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Great Anytime Student Gifts and Curriculum Tool! Wordle & Visual Poetry...
Visual Poetry
I'm a little late on posting my Christmas goodie for my kids, but it's something you can do any time of the year including birthdays or even a nice New Year's back to school surprise.  Most of you have probably seen Wordle and others like it floating around on Pinterest, but for those of you who don't know what it is, Wordle is awesome!  It is a very simple program that you type a word list into and it creates a "word cloud."  The more times you repeat a specific word, the larger that word is in relation to the others, and you can spend tons of time playing with color variations, font styles, and layouts.

Last year I used Wordle to make rectangular bookmarks that I laminated using phrases to describe each child, our grade, school, and other fun facts, with their name repeated most frequently to make it the biggest.  The past few years I've been a bit of a scrooge because it drives me crazy when I spend time handmaking something and proudly giving it to the students only to find it crushed, trashed, or otherwise!  Well, that did not happen with these bookmarks last year- the kids kept them for the entire rest of the year and used them.  They were so appreciative and gave me the confidence to spread the niceness again this year.

Our school gave us iPads this year and I figured there must be an App by now.  I didn't find Wordle exactly, but rather "Visual Poetry."  This app enables you to select different shapes and letters.  I wanted to use students' first letters to make their bookmark this year.  Wow was this easy!  It took all of about 20 minutes to make all of their letters using the copy/paste feature.  The time consuming part was matting, laminating and cutting, but somehow this proved to be a relaxing and mindless break that was greatly needed.  I punched holes, added a few beads on a string, stuck candy canes on them, and the kids were thrilled again.   (After checking it out today, I see they have Christmas shapes too!)  The $0.99 was well worth it!


Even better- the kids were DYING to know how I had done it.  I showed them the App and also Wordle so others could access the similar program on the class computers.  They turned this into a whole new lesson!  One group made a thank you for the local meteorologist who had visited our classroom and he showed their Wordle on the news (we had it framed--shown is a screenshot).  The group that had my iPad, secretly made one for me (The red, green, and blue heart below).  On our last day together, we had a crafty day (I know, in fifth grade?- how dare we????) and they were begging to use Wordle to make Christmas cards for their family.  It was the quietest, most relaxing day I've had with them all year!

I have now made Wordle an ongoing part of extra credit in our weekly newsletter.  Students can take a concept we are working on in science, a character we are focusing on, or a math concept and create a Wordle with at least 20 different terms strategically repeated depending on importance.  It's so fun, they don't even know they're thinking!

Have fun!

:0) Heather