Friday, January 22, 2016

Thinking Deeply About WONDER


Do you use task cards in your classroom? I started using them a few years ago, and I feel that they have really enhanced my instruction. I love the versatility of this teaching tool. Task cards can be used in so many ways. Until recently, I had only used task cards for skill instruction. Then I came across these task cards by Rachel Lynette for the book Wonder. Am I the last teacher on the planet to discover task cards for novel study? 

Let me just say that the book Wonder, by P.J. Palacio has quickly become one of my favorite books to read aloud to students.  This book has amazing characterization and a theme that moves you. My students actually show feelings towards the characters in this book, as if they were friends. 

With the increasing rigor of comprehension questions on state mandated tests, this year I knew that I needed to dig a little deeper. Instead of skimming the surface of this novel, I wanted my students to practice critical thinking skills. I wanted them to become actively engaged in the read aloud. These Wonder Question Cards were exactly what I needed to take things up a notch. 

My class enjoyed using them in three ways.


First, I used the carousel strategy to promote movement and active discussion. For this lesson, I stapled some of my favorite question cards to chart paper and hung them around the room. I carefully divided my class into groups of three and had them rotate around the room to the various stations. At each station, one group member would read the question aloud. Then they would reflect on the question and share ideas within the group before constructing a response to write on the chart paper. A special signal was used for students to rotate every 2-3 minutes. I assigned a different color marker for each group to record their responses. As the groups traveled around the room in a carousel, they had an opportunity to read the previous responses from classmates and then add their own ideas.


I was giddy with excitement over the conversations that were unfolding as a result of these question cards. Honestly, I have never seen my students so passionate about their answers to comprehension questions.


The second way I used the Wonder question cards is with a method I call "scatter". During this lesson, I placed laminated cards around the room at various desks and tables. With notebook and pencil in hand, the students scattered around the room to the various stations, on cue. No more than three students were allowed at each station, and the groups had to reshuffle each time, requiring them to interact with a variety of peers. This time, each student recorded his or her own response for each question after a short group discussion. This activity was fast-paced and lively, but the chatter was on task and meaningful. Third graders know a lot more about the world than you might think they do.


I really like the way these cards promote writing. Thanks to an incredible novel and some well-crafted questions, my students were so excited to write that it didn't feel like a chore!


Lastly, I projected the question cards on my Smart Board using a document camera. This time, we read each question together as a group, but the students wrote their own personal response on a dry erase board without any discussion beforehand. I asked them to hold up their board to signal a completed answer. Then, when all were finished, volunteers read their responses aloud to the class.


These kids were so eager to record their thoughts on the white boards. You could have heard a pin drop in my classroom and that doesn't happen often. This was serious business and let me tell you that the answers were DEEP. Some of the kids made connections that had not even occurred to me! One of the questions even stirred up a good, healthy debate.


So, I made a little storage envelope for my new question cards, as I know that I will be using them for many years to come. Click here if you want to find out about that nifty task card storage container. :-)

If you have not yet read the book Wonder, I encourage you to move it right up to the top of your list. It is truly a WONDERful novel for kids and adults alike. If you decide to read this book to third graders like I did, there will be some words and phrases you may want to omit due to maturity level. It is definitely necessary to read the book to yourself before reading it aloud to students. That way you can modify as needed.

I highly recommend Rachel Lynette's Wonder Question Cards as an accompaniment to the novel at any grade level. They will surely add depth and complexity to your lessons! 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Multiplication Fact Fluency


If you teach third grade like I do, I bet that you are working on multiplication fact fluency with your students.  Do you have a system that works? When I first started teaching third grade, I used to move through the multiplication tables, starting with the ones and gradually progressing through the twos, threes, fours, and so on. This system worked well for some children, but many lost focus and became frustrated as the facts became harder. Also, I noticed that many children could memorize each level of the times table for a test, but did not truly retain the facts for long term application.

Then, I tried a different method that was less conventional, yet highly effective! I have now used it in my classroom for more than ten years with an extremely high success rate. The idea behind my system is that facts are presented in very small doses, with some of the harder facts first so that learning the facts feels less like an uphill climb and more like a downhill slide.


There are three things that contribute to the success rate for how I teach multiplication fact fluency.


The first (and most important in my opinion) factor in teaching multiplication fact fluency is the classroom environment that is established before starting the process. I let my students know that I believe in them. I tell them that they will succeed. I make it very clear from the start that my focus is on progress, not scores. I help them understand that failure is a part of the process and that I actually expect some degree of failure along the way. I tell them that they will all move through the stages at their own pace and that it is not a competition. I assure them that I will never be upset about a score as long as they tried their best. I encourage them to support each other along the way.


The second important factor that leads to success with multiplication fact fluency is front-loaded organization. Lots of effort and preparation at the beginning pays off immensely throughout the rest of the process. I make a file box that has color-coded storage pockets and flash cards for each level. It also contains many copies of the timed multiplication test for each level. This file box is conveniently placed on a shelf at the entrance to my classroom, where students can easily access the materials they need.


The third and final key to success is to make sure that the system practically operates without you! Set up and practice the rules of operation. If you are very clear with your expectations at the beginning, you can then let go of the control and basically allow the students to manage themselves. 

Here is the way it works in my classroom. At the very beginning, I give all of my students a file folder and the first pocket with flash cards for level one. I model how to cut and fold the pocket. I show them how to write the answers in pencil on the back of the six flashcards for this first level. Then I give them a few days to practice those flashcards before taking the first timed test (timer). 


Eventually, the student file folders will look like this. I show them a sample so they know what they are working toward. The students usually get excited about adding the assorted colors.


On the day of the first timer, I have each student get a level one assessment from the file box and turn it upside down on his or her desk. I have them write their name on the back of the paper, so they don't waste time with this once the timer starts. I always give a few helpful hints and reminders to help them relax on this first day. We do a quick breathing exercise. I suggest that they skip and move on if they come to a problem they forget. They can always return to those problems if there is time at the end.

The timers look like this. There are 25 facts on each. The facts are mixed up and repeated. In my class, the requirement to move on to the next level is to get at least 24 of the 25 correct in 1 minute and 15 seconds.


After that first timer, I hold true to my word. I give them all high fives and draw big smiley faces on every paper, even the ones with only 2 or 3 correct. This one single gesture makes them all want to work really hard for the next timer. About half of the class will usually pass that first timer. I tell them that if they see a star on their paper, they should go right to the file box and get their next pocket and set of flashcards. From this point on, students add pockets and cut flashcards as a part of their homework. That way it does not take away from class time.

Here is a picture of some scored timers. Checking them actually takes very little time. Sometimes I am even able to hand back the timers on the very same day, which the kids really appreciate. A quick return rate will give them more time to study their new set of flashcards.


Ideally, I hold timed tests on Tuesdays and Fridays. It literally takes less than five minutes at the beginning of class. Sometimes I will allow time for buddy practice with flashcards during class, but it is also a part of their nightly homework. The students keep track of their own levels and get what they need out of the file box when it is time. They really can handle this independently. Take it off your plate. Of course, I oversee the process, but I very rarely need to step in. Again, it is all about the environment of trust and positivity that you have established.

Here is just a brief word about those students in your class who are especially anxious. Regardless of your methods for teaching fact fluency, you will always have those students who battle anxiety when it comes to timed tests. My best advice is to be patient and supportive. I have found that most of these kids gain confidence and feel success after they pass the first level. In some cases, I have made special accommodations for students to take the timers alone in a quiet place. I have also been flexible with the requirements for moving to the next level. Of course, as teachers we do what is best for our individual students.

After my students pass through the eight levels, I do give them a 50 fact mixed multiplication timer. They have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to complete this timer with at least 90% accuracy, which is a school district requirement. This is when all the hard work pays off. My students are almost always able to complete this requirement with ease after going through the process. We celebrate these accomplishments in class with certificates and rounds of applause. :-)


If you are ready to try something new for multiplication fact fluency in your own classroom, click here to check out the Multiplication Lapbook in my TPT store. It contains all of the printable pages that I have mentioned in this post, plus a parent explanation sheet, and a layered book that teaches basic multiplication concepts and strategies.


Having the right tools for a project always makes a challenging task seem much easier. Whichever method you use to teach fact mastery, I wish you and your students much success! 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Sock Snowmen

I decided to make sock snowmen with my students this year. Cute, huh? Well, I must have been feeling really ambitious that day.


I'll be honest. This was one of those special crafts that turned out to be a lot more costly than I had originally anticipated. 

I'm sure that you can relate. You know those projects where you start out thinking, "Oh, I can easily make this for about a dollar per student." Then, the next thing you know, you realize that all the grocery money is gone. Yeah, that was this project.

Apparently I am terrible at estimating. How many pounds of rice do you think it would take to fill 25 sock snowmen? I'll reveal that answer shortly. First, let me show you how we made the snowmen.


I set up the first part of this craft as a station. Students came back one at a time to fill each part of the snowman. The base of each snowman took two cups of rice. I used a 1/4 cup measuring scoop in a big bowl of rice. To minimize spills, it was helpful to hold the entire sock over the bowl when filling. I used a bar model to illustrate that it would take 8 scoops of rice. We had to practice making level (not heaping) scoops.


We closed off each section of the snowman with a rubber band. I checked each one and tightened as needed.


For the middle part of the snowman, we used 1 and 1/2 cups of rice. Since we used a 1/4 measuring scoop, this took 6 level scoops. You can see from the picture that some students were better at measuring than others.


The top part of the snowman took 1 and 1/4 cups of rice, or 5 level scoops in our case. We secured that last part with a rubber band and then folded the rest of the sock over to look like a hat. At this point, the socks actually started to look like snowmen. Yay!


Then for the fun part! It was finally time to decorate. I set up a smorgasbord of snowman accessories. I had pre-cut the scarves from some fabric scraps I had at home. The little sticks came from a cherry tree in my backyard.

This part required a glue gun, so I recruited a few parent helpers to come in and work one-on-one with each student. The resulting snowmen were just so adorable. I attempted to keep them all for myself, but that didn't go over so well with the kids. ;-)


Now back to that estimating question. Each snowman took 4 and 3/4 cups of rice to make.  It took about 120 cups of rice in all to make 25 snowmen. That required 60 pounds of rice in all! Yikes! :-( That much rice could feed a lot of people!

So, I'll have to chalk this one up to experience. Will I make them again next winter? Hmmmm. I guess I have a whole year to decide if 60 pounds of rice was worth it. What do you think?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

January Pick 3 Pinterest Linky

As the holiday break draws to a close, it is time to shift gears back into school mode. I have tons of curriculum to teach in the next few months (AKA state test crunch time). In order to keep the kids motivated and engaged, I like to shut the door and sneak in a few special seasonal surprises. 

That being said, I am so happy to link up once again with Inspired Owl's Corner, Pawsitively Teaching, and Just Reed for the January Pick 3 Pinterest Party!


Here is what I have been eyeing up for the month of January!


Click on image to view the original Pinterest link
Since Mother Nature has yet to bring us snow this season in Pennsylvania, I am thinking about making some myself with the students! I have seen many recipes for making snow, but this one from Playtivities seemed the easiest with only two ingredients. It only requires baking soda and shaving cream. There is a great video in the blog post that shows how to make the snow. This activity will also lend itself nicely to an upcoming "how-to" writing unit.


Click on image to view the original Pinterest link
Then, when the REAL snow comes (fingers crossed), it might be fun to make this snow dough. This recipe from Lemon Lime Adventures uses corn starch, plus real snow as the secret ingredient! The kids will surely enjoy a trip outside to scoop up some real snow. The dough sounds like a fun sensory experience that could be used as an introduction to my matter unit in science. 


Click on image to view the original Pinterest link   
Finally, I found this terrific idea that will be the perfect hook for a lesson on equality and acceptance. Martin Luther King Day is coming up on January 18th, and I am in the mood for something new and fresh this year. This egg cracking activity from The Seasoned Mom will open up an important discussion about how people may look different on the outside, but are the same on the inside. I am excited to give this one a try! 

Actually, I'm going to cheat this month and share one more pin from my winter collection. This is one that I plan to use with my own kids at home on a snow day (again, fingers crossed).

Click on image to view the original Pinterest link

These recipes for snow ice cream from The Kitchen is My Playground sound way better than the snow ice cream I used to make as a kid with regular milk and sugar! I bet the sweetened condensed milk will make a huge difference. I need to stock up on these ingredients now, so they are available when needed (hint, hint Mother Nature).

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


Friday, January 1, 2016

Undercover Christmas Tree


Did you display a Christmas tree in your classroom this holiday season? Does your school even allow Christmas trees for classroom decoration? I know that it is a controversial subject.

In just a minute, I will tell you a story about my own classroom Christmas tree.

First, I want to share another story about a teacher from Maine who made headline news this holiday season because of her classroom tree.


Here is an ABC News interview with the teacher, Catherine Gordon. Click on the picture for a link to the video.


This story does have a happy ending. Catherine Gordon's Facebook post spread quickly throughout social media and many prominent officials weighed in on the topic. In the end, the original order was reversed, and Catherine was able to set back up the tree in her classroom. Yay!


Being a public school teacher, I must admit that I have tip-toed around for years over the display of a Christmas tree in my own classroom. Some teachers have cautioned me about getting in trouble. It is kind of hard to hide a Christmas tree! I have been mentally preparing myself for the year when I am told to take it down. Stories like this certainly get me thinking.

In case you were wondering, Christmas trees are allowed in public schools. The Supreme Court has ruled that a Christmas tree is a secular symbol of the holiday season and that using a Christmas tree for a temporary display within the school setting is not a violation of the Constitution. Tuck that information in your back pocket in case you need it some day.

Now for the story about my classroom Christmas tree.


According to my calculations, this Christmas tree has lit classrooms for nearly 100 years. During my very first year of teaching, Mrs. Brookes, a teacher from across the hall, brought this tree to me inside a giant trash bag on the last day of school. I still remember what she said to me on that hot, June day.

"Chrissie, this tree has lit my classroom for 40 years. When I was a new teacher like you, a teacher down the hall gave me this tree before she retired. She bought the tree when she was a new teacher and had it in her classroom for 40 years. Now it is your turn."

Mrs. Brookes retired that year and left the tree to me. I will decorate and light this tree for the 20th time next year! 40 + 40 + 20 = 100! That tree has brought joy to many children and hopefully it will continue to spread joy for many more years to come. Someday I will hand it down to another new teacher.

That is the story of my classroom Christmas tree. :-)

Happy New Year! I'll be blogging again soon about my top Pinterest picks for the month of January. I also have a snowman craft to tell you about in the near future. Enjoy the rest of your break!