Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Failure & Flexibility

"Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes." ~John Dewey

I saw this terrific idea on Pinterest and shared it with my grade level team this week as we were planning out something special for our students on Earth Day. In theory, it sounded great! Plant seeds in ice cream cones and then put the biodegradable cone in the ground when the seedlings are ready. Cool!

Everyone was so excited as we gathered three classes of third graders under an outside pavilion to plant our special pots in celebration of planet Earth! Of course, I grabbed my camera to capture the moment. The planting part went smoothly. Then we all returned to our classrooms to add the last ingredient. . . WATER!

Okay, so the ice cream cones did not exactly like the water very much. Picture this. All of the cones were originally standing upright in two plastic tubs. We added a small amount of water to each cone, and within minutes the cones started to shrivel and shrink. They pretty much turned to mush right before our very eyes!

Luckily, I had some cups in my cabinet and we were able to quickly transfer the cones into cups. We laughed so hard at ourselves as the bottoms fell out and our classroom turned into a mess of potting soil and gooey dough! I had a palm to forehead reaction as I thought about the many times in my life when drippy, wet ice cream caused soggy ice cream cones to collapse. Why did this not occur to me when I saw that awesome picture of the dry ice cream cone with a beautiful seedling sprouting from the top?

One of the lessons we learned today is that water makes ice cream cones disintegrate.  We also learned that you can't believe everything you see and read on the Internet. Most importantly, we learned about the importance of flexibility in teaching and learning.

Thankfully, the rest of our day was a big success! My students are making these fun Earth Day circle books

I found this free Brain Pop video that fits perfectly with this project. It gave the kids lots of ideas about how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Happy Earth Day everyone! If you were unable to fit Earth Day into your plans today, you can teach about conservation any day of the year! If you decide to plant seeds, just remember to plant them in something other than ice cream cones. ;-)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mother's Day Gift Idea

Are you looking for something unique and special for your students to make for Mother's Day this year? Potato bracelets are so surprisingly beautiful. They are gifts that mothers will actually wear and brag about to their friends. The best part about making potato bracelets in the classroom is that the project is a science lesson, writing lesson, and craft all wrapped up into one! Score!

I have to tell you that I do invest a little bit of money into this project. Mothers are really special people, ya know. :-) You can cut costs by eliminating the glass beads if you want, but I really love the way they add a little sparkle in between the potato beads. Here are the supplies you will need.

I use paper plates for a work surface, and I also bring a sharp knife (for me) to use for slicing the potatoes. 

First, using your sharp knife, cut the potatoes into slices that are about one centimeter in thickness. Give each student about 2 or 3 slices on a paper plate. Students should use a plastic knife to cut off the skin around the edges of each slice first. Then, they should cut the slice into "cubes" that are no smaller than a one centimeter place value model. The potatoes will shrink as they dehydrate, so it is actually better to go a little bigger like a sugar cube. We found out the hard way that small beads break easily when you remove them from the skewer. The beads do not have to be uniform in shape. Different shapes add to the beauty of the bracelet!

Next, the students will need to put the potato pieces onto the skewers for drying. They should press the skewer into the center of each potato piece and then *carefully* slide the beads to the end of the skewer, holding the pointy part of the skewer away from their eyes. The beads should be close together, but should not touch. This year, I had each student fill two skewers so that we would have plenty of extras in case of breakage.

Then, you will want to place your beads on a countertop or window sill to dry. Have your students observe the changes and turn the skewer once a day as the potatoes dehydrate. This is the perfect opportunity for journal writing!

The potato beads took three days to dry in my classroom. You can see that the beads get darker and smaller each day. This is a great time to talk about evaporation. The beads will look black and become hard to touch when completely dry. 

Once the beads are dry, you are ready to paint! I think it is easier to paint the beads when they are on the skewer. Metallic acrylic paint covers nicely and gives the beads a little shimmer. You can use any type of acrylic paint you like, in any colors that you like! Acrylic paint is nice because it dries very quickly. My beads were completely dry in an hour. If you want to give the beads some extra protection, spray them with a coat of clear gloss acrylic sealer and let that dry for an extra hour. 

Then you are ready to go! Gently pull the beads off the skewers and string them on the jewelry cord. I give each child about twelve inches of the stretchy cord. This allows plenty of room for tying. My students each selected six glass beads to put in between the potato beads for some extra bling. Depending on the size of the beads, it will take about 20-24 beads per bracelet. Tie the cord securely with several knots and then trim off the extra cord. Finally, it is time to sit back and admire your their beautiful bracelets. Trust me, you will want them all. :-)

I made a cute little gift booklet that my students complete throughout the process and then give to their mother (or grandmother, aunt, etc.) as a part of the gift. The booklet includes a potato bracelet poem that I wrote to go along with the gift. I always encourage my students to give the bracelet first and ask their mother to guess how they made it before giving the booklet. My students are SO excited to give these gifts and I know that their moms will love them! 

Here is a copy of my potato bracelet booklet and gift poem. This set also contains step-by-step photo illustrations of the bracelets I made last year. You can see that I used a different color scheme last year and they were equally as beautiful. If I use new colors each year, maybe I'll have a bracelet to match every one of my outfits by the time I retire! ;-) 


Sunday, April 12, 2015

While the Others Are Testing

If you have not read Opting In and Opting Out (Part One and Two), you may want to start there.  Otherwise, read on! :-)

Now that the icky part of the process is over, it is time to refocus my energy on the positives that have come about from this "opting out" situation. Having the opportunity to plan out sixteen hours of tailor made, independent learning time for my daughter has actually been such a gift! Creating powerful learning experiences for kids is one of my favorite parts about teaching, and it is a rare circumstance to be able to step away from the curriculum and customize something so special and meaningful for a student. I really, really, really wish that all of my students had this opportunity. They certainly all deserve it! 

So, as promised, here are the activities that my daughter will be working on during the test over the course of the next two weeks. They are all highly engaging and geared towards her personal interests. We are really excited about how she will be spending her time. ;-)

Are you familiar with this book?
This is one of my all-time favorite books to use with kids. It has forty short stories about common inventions that came about because of a mistake. The stories are so appealing to kids, especially because the inventions are things that they are familiar with such as potato chips, Velcro, Post-it notes, and doughnut holes! Charlotte Jones did a fantastic job with this book. As a teacher, I really appreciate the chance to teach my students about good things that can happen as a result of making a mistake. It is also the perfect book to use for teaching about cause-effect relationships.

During the test, my daughter will be selecting five of her favorite short stories to read from this book. She will make a cause and effect flip book about each of the situations, using her own illustrations and retellings. Here is the flip book that she will be making. I can't wait to see what she decides to read and write about! I also found plenty of used Mistakes That Worked books by Charlotte Jones on Amazon for $4.00 (including shipping) in case you want to grab one for your own classroom!

My daughter is an animal lover and she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She has dreams of living on a farm with her own veterinarian office right there on the property. :-) Lofty dreams (I know), but she is very serious about it and truthfully, I can imagine her doing this. 

I thought that this would be a fun opportunity for her to read about and explore the career some more. So, during the test, she will be doing some research in the library about being a veterinarian. Of course, since I had something to do with it, she will be putting together a lapbook about her findings! It will be such a fun keepsake! Here is the career exploration lapbook that we will be using in case you are interested. It works well with any type of career and could be used by a variety of age levels (right on up through high school).

Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, "Oh my gosh, so and so just NEEDS to read this?"  That moment happened to me when I reread a classic a few years ago. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is an English children's novel that was first published in 1911. While thick with old fashioned language and mature themes, the novel unfolds into a beautiful story about hardship, friendship, nature, and compassion. With the exception of the sour disposition, the main character Mary Lennox reminds me of my own daughter. From the garden full of secrets to the friendly robin redbreast, I know that this book will be right up her alley and I think the timing is just right for her.

Since the independent reading level of this book is a bit advanced, my daughter will be listening to the story by method of Playaway. Lucky for us, our school library has a nice collection of these awesome audio tools. Playaways are so easy to use. She will just attach her own headphones and press play! The volume and chapter controls are also extremely easy for children to manage independently.

I found this terrific Secret Garden novel unit on TPT by Pam Olivieri of Rockin Resources. I really love the variety of skills and activities that are included in this unit. My daughter will work her way through a couple of chapters per day while the other kids are testing.

I also wanted to tell you that the other children (and parents) do not yet know that my daughter has been opted out of the test that begins tomorrow. We have been very careful not to bad-mouth the test in front of our daughter because the last thing we want is for her to make the other kids feel bad about taking it. We have just explained to her that every family is different and that we feel it is not the best option for her. We have also coached her on what to say when other kids begin to question her about leaving. We helped her to understand the importance of not making a big deal about it. If they ask, she is just planning to tell them that she is going to the library. Most likely, they will ask more questions when she returns, and her plan is to simply say, "My mom and dad decided that I am not going to take the test." At that point, we are hoping that she can just casually change the conversation. She is usually really good at being positive and steering a conversation (apple. . .tree), so hopefully our plan will operate without a hitch. ;-)

Have a nice week everyone! The weather here in Pennsylvania is finally starting to feel like spring. May will be here before we know it and I can't wait to tell you about the Mother's Day gifts I will be making with my students! Stay tuned for a unique and beautiful gift idea!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Opting In and Opting Out (Part Two)

In Part One of this blog post, I told you about my personal decision to have my daughter in my own third grade public school class. My husband and I "opted her in" to this situation which has been a wonderful experience for our family. Now I would like to speak on the topic of opting out.

I'll be honest, state testing is a topic that makes my blood boil. As elementary school teachers, my husband and I both see firsthand the damage brought about by this era of inexhaustible testing. It is shocking to us that parents and teachers have not yet taken a stand against these issues in education that are destructive to children and society as a whole. The heart of the issue is that too many decisions about education are being made by non-educators, or people who do not spend daily time with children, especially inside a classroom.

Please understand that I am not speaking out against the Common Core Standards. There are certainly a lot of opinions about standards these days. My standards as a teacher have always been high. I actually enjoy the rigor of the new standards. I especially like the way that the new standards promote higher-level thinking in math. Yes, it is true that children these days are learning math in different ways, but they are developing a deeper understanding of math instead of just memorizing algorithms like I did in school. Also, I appreciate the new ways that children are being asked to interpret literature. My students are able to infer and make connections like never before!

Now back to the testing dilemma. Here is a look from the inside-out. These are my own personal opinions about testing, based on my experience in working daily with young children in a public school setting.

  1. Children are people. They are all unique and special in their own ways. Standardized tests will never be able to measure the value of a child or determine their success in life.
  2. Tests should be used to guide instruction in ways that help learners. State test results are used to gather statistics for headlines and rate schools and teachers. By the time the state test results reach the teacher, those students have moved on to the next grade level. These tests will never be able to accurately guide my instruction like the performance based tools that I use everyday with my students.
  3. State mandated testing (and the resulting hours of testing preparation) is taking away from real, meaningful teaching and learning. All combined, including the actual testing hours plus the hours of test preparation, I would estimate that I have wasted spent a total of 58 hours of instructional time dedicated towards our state test. That is A LOT of instructional time. With that amount of time on my hands, I could add back in two full social studies or science units per school year! The students could learn about real, valuable things like they did before state-mandated tests.
  4. Constant testing and retesting leads to boredom and frustration for students in school. This is real, folks. Now more than ever, children don't want to come to school. Teachers work hard to dance around all the tests and sneak in some real, actual lessons in between. We strive to make school fun for our students, despite the mandates that have been imposed. Only a classroom teacher would know the sound of twenty four moaning students who are rightfully upset by the sight of yet another stack of tests.
  5. The state test questions are developmentally inappropriate. Let's just say that (in my opinion) the people who write these tests do not understand children. If the item sampler questions provided by the state are any indication of the actual questions on the test, it is quite apparent that the test writers are not aware of the developmental levels of children. Many of the questions are poorly worded and confusing. Even many of my strongest students cannot get beyond the wording of the questions. The constructed response question samplers that I have used with my students would be difficult for most adults.
  6. Professional development hours for teachers are being compromised by the test. Eighteen years ago, I actually looked forward to professional development days because it was an opportunity to learn something new that would directly impact my teaching and improve student learning. I remember when our school district used to hire experts and consultants to come motivate and demonstrate cutting edge instructional techniques. Now, we spend endless hours scrutinizing data. We highlight student names and sort kids into groups according to performance. We judge them for their scores on one standardized test. Needless to say, I no longer look forward to professional development days.
  7. State testing is big business. Lots of people are making money at the expense of our kids. Imagine the resources and improvements that could be made to schools if all things related to the state test were removed from the budget!
  8. Teachers are being judged unfairly and this indirectly impacts children. In our state, the test has now become a large component of the teacher evaluation system. I could devote an entire blog post to this issue, but here it is in a nutshell. There are way too many factors and influences that shape a test score. Teacher effectiveness is only a very small portion of what actually drives a test score. Imagine if doctors were evaluated by disease rates. It just doesn't make sense. My effectiveness as a teacher is much better evaluated by my actual performance in the classroom. My administrators are welcome to come and observe me in action anytime. Then they can really gain a sense of the job I do. The reason this evaluation system poses a problem for students is because teachers teach differently when they are fearful of losing their jobs because of a test score. Teaching becomes less about children, and more about meaningless numbers.

Now it is time for my favorite part of the post. As a teacher, I have never had the option to opt out of state testing. I perform my job responsibilities with great compassion toward student needs. I arduously strive to prepare my students for the test as required. This year, however, has presented itself a unique opportunity for me to exercise my right as a parent. You can probably guess that my husband and I have decided to opt our daughter out of the state test this year. The teacher's daughter will not be taking the test.

Every state has different guidelines. In the state of Pennsylvania, parents can opt out of the test for "religious" reasons. Religious affiliations can not be questioned and the school or state cannot deny the request. Parents are required to schedule an appointment to view the test and then make their appeal in writing to the superintendent of schools. In our unique case, since I will be the test administrator, my husband set up the appointment to view the test and then we together wrote and submit the letter. We are united in our belief that this test and all things related to it are bad for children. Heck, we'll start our own religion if we need to. ;-)

It is a bold move on our part. We realize that many people will have opinions about our decision once they find out about it. After all, it is my understanding that she is the only child in the whole school who is opted out. I teach in a school district that puts high priority on state testing. Our school district is usually ranked within the top three of the entire state of Pennsylvania. We strive hard for those rankings, but we also have a community of amazing students, parents, and teachers. It certainly does not require a Scantron test to make that determination. 

Just in case you were wondering, my husband and I have done some research on how our decision to opt our daughter out of the state test at this point in her schooling could possibly impact her later in life. We found out that the PSSA test is not used for college admission consideration, if that is the path that she decides to take in life. Of course we do realize that at some point in her school career, standardized tests will be inevitable.

Now, at least you know why my daughter will not be a part of the statistics. Maybe you will think twice about the impact these tests are having on your own students and children. Maybe you will even decide to take a stand.

Follow along with me to find out how my daughter will spend her time at school while the other students take the 16 hour test (8 days times 2 hours per day). More coming soon!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Opting In and Opting Out (Part One)

Here is a picture of my daughter. :-)
Yep, there she is living and breathing at her desk in my real, live, public third grade classroom.  My decision to have my daughter in my class was a personal one. It is not something that I had planned for years in advance. It was just something that felt very "right" to my husband and I as the time approached.

When people find out that my daughter is in my class, they always curiously question if it is even allowed. I'm sure the rules are different from school to school. Lucky for me, there are not any rules in my school district about teaching your own child. My principal has been extremely supportive.

Many people wonder about how this scenario pans out on a daily basis. My answer to them is that if an outside observer came to my classroom, they wouldn't even know that she is my daughter. It is business as usual in Room 222, and she receives the exact same treatment as every other child in my class. It works out well in our case because she is an independent kid who loves to learn. She is also secure and confident (not clingy). 

My daughter and I have both become quite skilled at wearing our different hats throughout the day. I am "Mom" until 8:34 A.M., but become "Mrs. Rissmiller" at 8:35. She is my sassy eight year old daughter until 8:34 A.M., and then becomes my high-spirited student at 8:35. The same shift happens in reverse at 3:25 P.M. You get the picture.

Many people also wonder about what she calls me during the school day. The answer to this question is that (by her choice) she really does not address me by name. She never calls me "Mom" during the school day, and occasionally calls me "Mrs. Rissmiller" if she needs to get my attention for something urgent. For example, I heard her say "Mrs. Rissmiller" the other day when she interrupted my lesson to tell me that a water bottle had just spilled all over the floor. ;-) 

This opportunity has taught me a lot about both motherhood and teaching. In fact, I may have learned more this school year than the other 18 years combined. It is a whole new ball game when you are helping at home with the homework that you have assigned. Believe me when I say that I have gained new insights on projects, study guides, and reading logs. Teaching my daughter has reaffirmed what I already knew about the value of loving my students.

Don't get me wrong, there are challenges that arise when you teach your own child in a public school setting. Interesting situations frequently come up that keep me on my toes and force me to make quick decisions without crossing the line. My daughter's friends are my students, and their parents are the ones with whom I sit with on the sidelines of basketball and softball games. This is the year when all of my worlds collide.

The silver lining is that we have this very special year in our lives to spend together and bond in ways that were never before possible. She gets to see me in action, doing what I love to do. I get to experience her as a student and learn things about her that I never knew when I was "just" her mom. 

Now you know all about my decision to opt in. Stay tuned for part two of this blog post. Then you will learn about why we are "opting out".

Monday, April 6, 2015

Channel "Insert Teacher Name" FREEBIE!

Here is a simple little tool that I use with my students when it is time to "tune" them back into the conversation. I try not to overuse it, but they know for certain that I am about to say something very important when I tell them to tune their remotes to Channel Rissmiller. Rissmiller is my last name of course. Sometimes they just need a little visual to turn off the talk show channel (weather channel, comedy channel, news channel) if you know what I mean. :-) My students like to pretend that Channel Rissmiller is number 222 on the remote since that is our room number. They pull out their imaginary remotes and hit the three magic buttons that bring them back to the lesson.

It is really just a simple little sign to laminate and clip to your board when needed and I wanted to share an editable version with you in case you would like to insert your own name and use it in your classroom. It comes in really handy this time of year!

Here is a link to my Google Doc. It is in the form of an editable PowerPoint. Just click on "Channel Rissmiller" and insert your own name! Then print it out, cut it out, laminate and voila! You have a class of perfect angels! Ha ha! Now, wouldn't that be nice? 

I have used the free font CooperCardShark by Wizard of Boz. If you like that font, you can download it here, or you can use any of your own favorite fonts. 


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Sale April 5th & 6th!

I am joining together with many other TPT stores for an unofficial Easter sale! All products in my store will be on sale at 20% off on Sunday and Monday, April 5th and 6th. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to see other stores that are participating in this sale and feel free to link up if your own store will be having a sale!

Here are some of my new products that you might be interested in for the coming months. :-)

At 20% off, you can snag my Plant Lapbook for only $3.80! It includes 32 pages of step-by-step photo directions and black line printable pages.

If you plan to teach your students about animal classification this spring, this flip book and poster set will be on sale for only $3.20! The flip book is really easy to assemble and it includes a picture for every characteristic of each animal class, plus full color corresponding posters.

This one is an oldie but goodie. Since standardized testing is inevitable, I use this Testing Strategy Flip Book during the days before the test to help my students feel comfortable and confident. It includes six testing strategies with picture icons. There is an explanation of each strategy that can be easily applied to your own test prep materials. Of course, I keep the door wide open for this activity. ;-)

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday with your family, blessed with both old and new traditions! If you have some time to relax and browse at the end of the day, "peep" into the following stores for some savings!

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Pick 3 Pinterest Linky

April is the month of rain for us here in Pennsylvania. Bulbs begin to poke their way out of the ground, and gardeners begin to prepare the Earth for seeds and seedlings. With Earth Day just around the corner, April is also a month to reflect on our global footprint. I have been busy planning new ways to make this month meaningful for my students.

I'm happy to link up again with PAWSitively Teaching and Inspired Owl's Corner for the Pick 3 Pinterest Party!

Here are my favorites for the month of April.

Click on image to view the original Pinterest link
Doesn't that look fun and educational? In the past, I have planted in egg cartons, egg shells, milk cartons, and ziplock bags. Planting in a CD case is a new idea for me. All the parts of a plant are so easy to see, and I really like how it is so portable. This project will integrate nicely with our measurement unit. I am planning to have my students measure and record growth to the nearest quarter inch right on the CD case with a permanent marker.

Click on image to view the original Pinterest link
This rain gauge seems like a nice way to teach about recycling and measurement at the same time. :-) Perhaps I can enlist the help of some parent volunteers to cut the bottles in advance, but marking the measurements will be a great task for my students.

Click on image to view the original Pinterest link

I am always looking for simple, high interest activities that will keep my students independently engaged when they have some extra time in the classroom. This easy bird feeder seems like the perfect way to welcome back the birds, and it only requires Cheerios and pipe cleaners!

If you are looking for some more April inspiration, check out what others have picked for the month of April! The April Pick 3 Pinterest Linky is open through April 30th. All are invited to link up below to join in the fun!