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Pangrams: a no prep fun activity for writing enrichment

What You Need:
  • paper
  • pen/pencil
  • Thesaurus and/or dictionary (optional)
What You Do:
  1. Show the students the following example of a common pangram: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
  2. Explain that a pangram uses all of the letters in the English language in a single sentence. At this point, the kids will probably underestimate how difficult writing a pangram can be. They’ll find out soon!
  3. Challenge the kids to write their own pangram! Once they get the hang of it, they can compete to see who can write the shortest pangram that makes sense. Students can work on their own, but this activity really lends itself to collaboration and is best in partners or small groups. If kids as they get stuck, you can help them by giving ideas for words they can add to their pangram in order to incorporate some of the less common letters of the alphabet.
  4. Award the kid whose pangram has the fewest letters, the kid whose pangram has the fewest words, and the kid whose pangram makes the most logical sense.

You can also extend this activity and have your students make pangram posters using construction paper and markers. They can write their pangram in marker along the bottom of the poster, and then illustrate the pangram on the rest of the poster board.

If you need more fun activities for spelling and writing, check out this list of activities from education.com. I always find great ideas, worksheets, and resources to help my kiddos there! 

3 Realistic Tips for Guided Math Success

I'm just going to come right out and say it: guided math is one of my all time best teaching decisions. This is my fifth year using the guided math model in my classroom (to varying levels of success!) and I have to say, my kiddos are engaged, on task, and making great progress. I'm not going to pretend it isn't without challenges- sometimes we have to go back to the beginning and review all our expectations (repeatedly). One year we could only handle one station per day, other years we can do four stations a day. Most years are somewhere in-between. There are definitely some things that have made a difference for me, though.

1. Make your plans work for you
Don't plan 4 stations a day each day. Make sure you have some stations with staying power! Look at what your grade level fluencies are in the CCSS, and find activities that target those skills. In fifth grade, one of our fluencies is multi-digit multiplication using the standard algorithm. You better believe we practice that every week! I found lots of games and activities that help to reinforce this skill at varying levels, and I rotate them in and out. Very low prep! Another station is intervention, which is with me and whiteboards. Here, I only need to know what skill I am targeting. No need to copy or prep anything! The other two stations are typically either problem solving, literacy in math, a game, or a math "exploration" of a topic that the kids chose.

2. Find what works in your room, and do it. Be flexible!
Don't listen to the 42 other people that can be super human and plan 4 differentiated lessons per math period per day. That isn't real life! Figure our what works for you and your kids and stick to it. If you are having success with two stations per day, great! Work it, girl. If you can swing three or four, more power to you! If you are struggling to get one station in, that is ok. It is a starting point, and it is definitely better than nothing. Don't try to keep up with the Jones'. You are a professional, and you know your kids best. Do what works.

3. Set clear expectations
Seriously, I can't stress this enough. I go over my rules and expectations for math workshop repeatedly when we start. When I think I've done it enough, I do it twice more to be sure. Then, I am an evil, wicked, mega-strict teacher and make sure that I watch the kiddos like a hawk and address it every single time they don't follow the guidelines. I post a big copy of our expectations and then give every kiddo a small printable copy to keep in their math folder. We create the expectations together so the kiddos feel invested, and then every single person in the classroom signs the poster to agree to follow it.  I don't even start working with groups until I am sure that the expectations are clearly understood and being followed. Finally, I ask each kiddo to fill out an accountability sheet each day after each station. They tell me how well they understand the math and how focused and on task they think they were. Of course, 11 year olds can inflate their effort level a bit, but with some training they are decent at self reflection!

It's over simplified, I'm sure, but it's what works for me. If you do guided math, I'd love to hear what works for you!

Equivalent Fractions on a Multiplication Chart

There's no getting around it, fifth grade math can be really challenging- especially for kids that are still struggling to understand the foundational skills. I have had so many kiddos over the years that could not master adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators just because they did not know their math multiplication facts. Math facts are super important, but as a teacher I always felt it was my duty to find a way to help them understand the more abstract concept of equivalent fractions. So, I started using multiplication charts to help my struggling learners understand and create equivalent fractions- but maybe not in the way you are thinking.

We all know that kids who haven't memorized their math facts benefit from multiplication charts. That is no surprise! The process for using a multiplication chart to find equivalent fractions is time consuming, though. You have to find the correct product for 2 numerators and 2 denominators- that is 4 separate math problems to solve before you can even begin to solve the problem. That is a challenge for kids with low attention spans, processing speed issues, or even just kids who are easily distracted. Instead, I have my kiddos use the multiplication chart as a reference sheet for equivalent fractions for benchmark fractions.

If you look at the chart, you can use the factors listed on the left hand side as the numerator and denominator. In my example above, the rows colored red show fractions that are equivalent to 1/2: 2/4, 3/6, etc. The rows that are colored blue show fractions that are equivalent to 3/4, yellow shows fractions equivalent to 5/6, and so on. I train my kids to find the benchmark fraction they are looking for, and then look at all the equivalent fractions shown for the original fraction. We talk about why this works, too, which is an incredibly important part of understanding so this doesn't become just a "trick" that they will memorize without any value or meaning behind it. Since both the numerator and denominator are multiplied by the same number, it creates an equivalent fraction. To deeper understanding for all of my kiddos, we talk about the identify property of multiplication and the fact that it relates to all numbers- fractions included! Since you are multiplying both the numerator and denominator by the same number, for example 2, that is the same as multiplying the whole fraction by 2/2, or 1 whole. 

In the past, I have printed a blackline box on cardstock to help kids track the fractions. The guide works to help kids with tracking issues to follow the equivalent fractions across the page. It also helps students with focus or attention trouble stay on task with a reduced amount of visual "clutter." On the colored multiplication chart, I like to use a white guide and on a white multiplication chart I like to use colored cardstock.

If you want to give this idea a shot, I've created a freebie with a blank multiplication chart, a color coded chart, and several variations of those. The freebie also includes a template to cut the paper guides to help students track the fractions across the page!  To download it, click here.

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! 

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