A Fun Way to Get Back on Track After Winter Break

Oh, winter break. How I loved and cherished you, and how sad I will be to see you go. But, since it's time to get back to the grind, its time to think about what to do with kiddos that are excited about vacation. Let's be real, they all want to share everything they did on their vacation. I do want to hear about their holidays and times with their families, but there just isn't time for it all smack dab in the middle of the day. In the past, I've had them write about what they did and share with a partner, but it just wasted enough. So, for the past few years I have been using a fun new activity that is working really well. I took an old game that I used to play in school, and put a fun creative writing twist on it: whose story is it?

The concept is simple. The kids get into small groups (4 or 5 students would be best) and share one quick story about their vacation. From experience, I will tell you that keeping the stories quick is the key here. If you have a super chatty group it can be useful to use a timer to give each person 1 - 2 minutes to share their story. The story can be really interesting, or it can be kind of boring. Totally up to the kiddo! After they all share their stories, the group chooses one story to use. This is the hard part, as we all know. Getting it narrowed down to one story can be a real challenge! Asking the kiddos not to vote for their own story can be helpful in narrowing down the choices. 

Then, the story that they have picked will be the story they all write, pretending it is their own story. They will have to put themselves in the narrator's shoes and invent some of the creative elements of the story. They should try to describe things as much as they can to make it believable! When they finish, the kids then each read their version of the story out loud to the class and the class tries to decide who actually told the story to begin with. It's a great opportunity for kids to use their creative writing skills in a different and enjoyable way. It's always funny to see who convinces others that a story is theirs when it is not!

This game is super simple, fun, and has some great academic elements. The kids are using perspective, point of view, and narration skills in their creative writing. They are super motivated to write the story well because of the game aspect of it. I let the kiddos who "win" and trick kids into believing the story is theirs when it is not pick something from my prize bucket. Best of all, they are sharing a story about vacation- like they want to do- while also staying on track academically. It's an all around win!

Literacy and Math

Summer is the best time of year. The weather is gorgeous, and I have extra time to devote to professional development while I get some sun! This summer I have been focused on math, particularly literacy and mathematics. It's something that has been on my mind a lot lately, as my district has designated writing as the focus of our instruction for this school year. So many teachers automatically began to focus on narrative writing, but I thought I'd apply it to my teaching in other ways, too- namely, in mathematics!

I have to tell you, math has a special place in my heart. In addition to my generalist teaching license, I hold a math specialist license. I think that people tend to give themselves permission to be afraid of math in a way that they do not in other subjects. I've heard parents dismiss a student's bad grade by saying "oh, well, I was never good at math either. Maybe he doesn't have a math brain" I've never heard a parent say the same about another subject though. No one dismisses poor reading with "well, maybe he doesn't having a reading brain." All the parents I have worked with have done everything possible to help their child overcome their reading difficulties, and when all else fails they have had them tested for learning disabilities. So, why the difference in math? I think it all comes down to how students are taught. Allowing students to apply the academic skills that they are good at and enjoy using will help them to deepen their mathematical knowledge. Sounds easier than it is, right? I totally agree- and there are a million ways to incorporate literacy and mathematics! They don't all work for upper elementary or middle grades, either. So- here are my quick tips.

Math Literature
Invest in some quality mathematical literature. It's expensive, but there are ways to get some reasonably priced books. I visit my local used bookstore, go to library book sales, and hit up yard sales. I also order them from half.com and check the used prices on amazon.com. When all else fails, I use my scholastic book points to order them. My math library is well stocked- I have something for everyone! I have created task cards to go with each math literature book, and have my students read them during one station of guided math. It's a win for everyone. My students that are avid readers can't wait for the opportunity to read some more, and my struggling readers get the opportunity to practice their reading some more. More than that, teaching mathematics through literature makes a stronger connection to the material. The students see it is a something that is learned organically, much like the morals or lessons that they learn from other stories that they read.

Creative Writing
 I mentioned earlier that my focus on writing this year has tied into my mathematics instruction. So far, it has really worked. Each morning as my "do now" activity I give my students an equation that relates to what we learned the previous day. Their job is to write the story of the problem. They write a word problem that ranges between a few sentences and a paragraph. I have seen some seriously creative writing come out of this! More than that, their stories have given me some really good insight into their mathematical understanding. Do they know the key words that indicate operations? Do they correctly describe which operation to use within their story? Do they understand  how to indicate what each number represents? I feel as though I have been able to learn more about what the students actually understand by reading their stories than by checking their computations on word problems I provided.

Expository Writing
Some of my students really need to talk about their learning to help build permanent knowledge. Usually, this isn't a problem in my classroom as we work in small groups and talk frequently throughout the lesson. Sometimes, though, we just don't have enough time to talk as much as I would like. So, I ask my students to "talk it out" in writing like they would with a partner. I often have them write a letter to another student explaining how a particular mathematical concept works- for instance, how to create equivalent fractions. I always ask them to pretend the person they are writing to has no mathematical knowledge so they explain everything.  The act of putting the words on paper makes deep connections that some students need. Sometimes, we even write letters to an alien from "Planet No-Math" to explain what we are learning. Of course, he is from a planet that doesn't have math, so they have to explain every last step. We post them on the board with a picture of our alien, which I usually let a student draw. It's something a little fun and different! 

So, that's it- how I incorporate literacy and mathematics instruction in my classroom. I'd love to hear what's worked for you, too!

Writing Wednesdays

Summer has finally arrived! It's so incredibly nice to have some time to work on professional development, play with my son, and read some teacher blogs. I could totally get used to this. 

My friend Lyndsey over at Lit with Lynds is hosting Writing Wednesdays, a linkup that talks about common core strategies for teaching writing. This is part of my district goal, so it's pretty perfectly aligned with my focus for the next year! My main focus this year is going to be expository writing, specifically research writing. Fifth grade can be tough, because the kids are making some pretty heavy leaps in curriculum. They are expected to start to look at the content more analytically, and to pull information from multiple sources in a more refined way. They are building on what they learned up to this point, and using it to create a final, polished research project.  That's no small task for fifth grade students!

To help my kiddos successfully meet this challenge, I have been using PROBE notebooks. The premise is simple- they receive a topic to briefly research, and complete a short report on the topic following a basic template in a composition notebook. They must write a fact page (in their own words), draw a border that is relevant to the topic, include 4 illustrations with captions, and sum it up with a sentence or two stating what they have learned.  The kids love it because it involves coloring and decorating, parents love it because it is a predictable assignment, and I love it because I have the opportunity to work with students on their research and report writing skills regularly. As a bonus, the students have a composition notebook full of their writing and they can reflect on at the end of the year. It is pretty cool to sit with a student at the end of the year and show them their writing progress as we flip through the notebook. It makes their growth really tangible, which really brings them so much pride. It's great evidence for me to use for my evaluations, too!

The PROBE notebook activity bundle is the complete one-stop shop that you need to set up and start using PROBEs in your classroom. The file contains a teacher guide, rubric, completion checklist for students, exemplars, research graphic organizer to prevent plagiarism, a poster for your classroom, a sample schedule, and an editable schedule. Colorful and blackline versions are included.


The research notes is my favorite part, I must admit. My fifth graders struggle to avoid plagiarism. I created this document to help them to understand how to combine sources and put things in their own words. The students first identify the question that they are going to answer with their research. I've identified the topic for them, but they must narrow it down a bit. For instance, I chose "The First Thanksgiving" for a PROBE topic, but the students needed to decide what aspect of the First Thanksgiving they would be writing about. Then, they complete the research. I ask that they read the information FIRST, then turn away from the computer (or book) to take notes. They write down what the big take away was from this site, then go back to the source to add dates, locations, or other info they couldn't remember. Of course, they can use the same source more than once. This ensures that it will be in their own words and note a direct copy from the text. Check out the sample from one of my SPED students! They rocked it. 

You can totally implement PROBE notebooks in your classroom in a million different ways. It can be homework, classwork, enrichment, or core instruction. It's easily adaptable to meet the unique needs of your students, no matter the grade level! 

Don't forget to head over to Lit with Lyns to see the rest of the Writing Wednesday link up.

Teaching Inference to Big Kids with a Picture Book

I have to admit, I love a good picture book. I may teach upper elementary (actually, fifth is considered middle school in my district) but let's face it- fifth graders are still kids. They love sitting on the carpet and listening to a story as much as the younger kids do! I try to read at least one picture book to my students a week as a mentor text. They are interested, engaged, and have fantastic conversations about the texts. It's incredible how one piece of literature can be adapted for many different grade levels, isn't it?

Last week, I decided to try something new while I was teaching inference. A co-worker had shown me a beautiful book called The Lion & The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. It's an absolutely gorgeously illustrated version of Aesop's famous fable, which won the 2010 Caldecott medal. What sets it apart from every other book? It has no words.

The story is told almost exclusively in pictures, with the only words being sound effects on a few pages like "screech" or "hoot". The illustrations are incredibly detailed and well drawn, however, and let the reader do so much with the story.  In my classroom, we used this book first to discuss inference. We had learned about it earlier in the year, so it was a review before our big state test- but it was a valuable one!

I brought my kiddos down to the carpet and had them sit with their reading buddy. I showed the pictures and asked the kids to discuss what they thought was happening in each picture, and to be sure to include WHY they thought that was happening. I heard some incredible conversations about what was happening in the story and why they thought that. My kids were discussing the story without even reading words. I was blown away!

We stopped a few pages in and worked together to complete a graphic organizer with evidence.

We used the Claim Evidence Reasoning (CER) method. We've been using this a lot this year, and it's fantastic! It can be adapted to just about any topic in just about any subject. I've used it in math for constructed responses, in social studies for chapter end comprehension and discussion questions, in opinion writing to help organize thoughts, and in reading to prove students responses. It breaks down to:

Claim- what you know
Evidence- how you know it
Reasoning- why you know it

Click here to download the graphic organizer freebie. 

To wrap it up, I had my students finish reading the book with their reading buddy. Then, they chose one page of the book to rewrite with words in their reader's response notebooks. It was a great way to practice incorporating dialogue in writing, and a quick formative assessment for me to judge their comprehension of the story and their ability to inference. 

So, do you use picture books in your "big kid" classroom? I'd love to hear about it- leave a comment and tell me how! 

Order of Operations Scavenger Hunt

So many of you are off on Spring break, and I am SUPER jealous! In Massachusetts, we don't have one March spring break, but instead have a week in February and a week in April. That leaves us with this loooooooong, endless chunk of time right before state testing that I affectionately refer to as March Madness. The kids are going stir crazy, the teachers are tired, and the test is almost here. It's hard for everyone! So, in an effort to get my friends to pay attention, I decided it was time to jazz up my lesson plans. With the help of a super creative co-worker (who thought of so much of this) we decided to do an Order of Operations Easter Egg Hunt Egg-stravaganza!

I started off by reviewing the order of operations and using my "Order of Operations without Aunt Sally" freebie. This really helps my kiddos understand the correct way to perform the order of operations without relying so heavily on "PEMDAS."

If you are interested, you can read more about that from my previous post here.

Thanks to Easter egg sales and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, this lesson was pretty easy to put together. I found the Order of Operations bingo from the NCTM Illuminations website. I made a few modifications to make it work with an easter egg hunt though.

First, I labeled all the problems with letters so the kiddos could put them on their recording sheet and keep track of which one they solved. This would help me correct their work later on in the day, as well.

After that, I cut up the problems and removed the answer. Then, I put 2 or 3 of them in each Easter egg. 

Then, I hid the eggs (in plain sight) all around my classroom!

The original game is meant to be played as Bingo, so the recording sheet is built for that.

I love the idea of having the kids record their answers in a column that corresponds to the value, so I decided just to cut the word "bingo" off the top when I photocopied them. As the kiddos found the values of the expressions, they wrote down the value AND the the letter that I had labeled the strip of paper with. This way, when we went over our work it was easy to tell if they solved the expression correctly. To amp up the "fun factor" my kiddos were trying to fill an entire card with correct solutions for a small prize. 

So, with a few modifications, Order of Operations Bingo become our Egg Hunt Egg-stravaganza! How do you add the "fun factor" into teaching this time of year?

Flocab: extended free trial!

I know I’ve blogged about it before, but I’m back to tell you more about my undying love of Flocab... just in time for an extended freetrial offer!

If you haven't heard of it, check out my previous post detailing all the different features available on Flocab here. But, if you want the cliffnotes version, here it goes! Flocab is a library of hip-hop songs and music videos that can be streamed online and are aligned to the Common Core.  Seriously, they have videos on E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

One of the focuses of my district over the past few years has been to increase student engagement. Evaluators have been paying close attention to the ways in which we, as teachers, are presenting information and getting to all students. In particular, they are looking for multiple modalities and ways to meet the needs of the kids whose interest isn’t sparked by “traditional” teaching. I had an unexpected evaluation walkthrough a few weeks ago while I was reviewing for a math midterm test. I was playing the Decimal "Chilling on the Line" video when my Assistant Principal walked in. I was a little nervous (like I always am during an observation!) but my kiddos were so engaged that they just kept on rapping along with the video. We played a review game after the video was over, and the kids did fantastic. Best of all, I got a really great evaluation write up. Win-win-win. :)

Flocab has some free content, but most of the raps and videos require a subscription to access. Real talk- that scared me! I have a really hard time spending money without knowing that whatever it is I am about to purchase is worth it. Happily, you don't have to take my (or anyone else's) word for it about Flocab. They offer a free trial.... which has been temporarily extended from 14 days to a whopping 75 days with this link! 

Full disclosure: Flocab reached out to me to tell me about this great extended free trial offer, but I am not being compensated for this post. My Flocab love comes to you free and clear. :) 

So, check it out- I think you'll love it!

Currently February 2016

February is one of my favorite months. Valentine's day, President's day, vacation, and my hubby's birthday- it's all right there, one after another. To top it off, it's a short month- so there isn't even time to get sick of it! :) Linking up with Farley for this month's Currently.

Listening: American Ninja Warrior in the background. I have to admit, I kind of love watching it! It's definitely incredible to see the athletic feats that people can accomplish. I am soooo not in that kind of shape... nor will I probably ever be! 

Loving: A few months ago, a friend of mine from grad school posted an instagram pic of her new pencil dispenser. She had gotten an old straw dispenser from her Dad's diner and repurposed it. It is seriously SO cute! I looked around a bit and shockingly they are less than $25 on Amazon. Just be careful to buy the right size- I got the "stirrer" size at first and had to return it because the pencils didn't fit in it!

Thinking: I'm trying to plan out my read alouds for February, and it's tough! There are so many books I love to read with them. It's hard to find the "just right" books for my fifth graders, though. They totally love a good interactive read aloud, but they also like to pretend to be "too cool" to enjoy it. Although they will totally love anything I read, I try to choose books that they can feel free to enjoy. I end up reading books with more complex themes, like Sister Anne's Hands (which addresses racism and prejudice in a school in the 50s) and Crow Call (which explores the complicated relationship between a daughter and the father she barely knows as returns from WWII). I highly recommend both books- they are incredible!

Wanting: One of the few perks of working in a New England school: February Vacation. I'm not sure why it started initially, but here in Massachusetts (and most of the surrounding states) we get a week off in February, starting with President's day. We then get an additional "spring break" in April, kicked off by Marathon Monday. Less than two weeks until our winter vacation.... even if it doesn't feel like winter here in Boston, where we have had less than 5 inches of snow all year. Totally not complaining, though, after we got over 9 feet last year!

Needing: I have always been an organized person, especially with my time. My desk may not always reflect my level of organization (can we say papers everywhere?!) but I have a method to my madness. Lately, though, I have been struggling to keep my schedule organized. I seem to be running a few days behind, and just can't catch up! My son is getting older, and the schedules that had been working for us are just not cutting it anymore. I will have to spend a day over vacation reorganizing it all to get my life back on the organization train.

Swooning: the Valentine's day decorations at Target are so cute this year! If only I could shop the dollar spot online... or maybe it's better that I can't. ;)

Happy February!
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