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Back to School Essentials

It's August ... and that means my thinking about back to school time has kicked into high gear.  This year I'll have a new grade level AND a new classroom so my prep is a little more ... and a little more stressful.  ;)

This year I will have a 4/5 split - although I will have mostly grade 5 students, I will have a handful of grade 4 students, and the grade 4 curriculum is brand new to me, so I've been doing a lot of curriculum reading this summer.  I'm also moving into the classroom next door to mine ... which makes me a little sad, honestly.  I was in the same classroom for about 12 years (even through grade level switches) and had put a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and money into making it the perfect little environment for my students and me.  The classroom I'm moving into is the exact same odd little trapezoid shape, but it is completely bare, and doesn't have a smartboard (sniff, sniff).  I'm excited to start decorating again (and my living room is FULL of goodies I've begged, borrowed, and bought to make my space), but I am going to miss my smartboard ... big time.  I can't wait to show you the pictures once I start the set-up process (but since I don't actually start until September - you'll have to wait).

One of the main questions I get from my blog and facebook followers around this time of year is "Of the resources you've created, which ones are your favorites or must-haves in your classroom?"


You can click on the image above to see all of my Back-to-School Essentials - resources that will take you through the entire year in your classroom, and are the backbone of my teaching - all student tested and loved.  

For math I always turn to my:
  • Interactive Math Journal - we do one entry every week - and I wouldn't trade that time for anything in the world.  My students love the entries and I love how self-sufficient they become as learners as they have created their very own reference guides.  
  • Math Reflection Fans - these go hand in hand with my math journal as I use the questions for the reflection portion of their journals
  • Building Better Math Responses - we start on this the second week of school, and the scaffolded goals have been essential to the students' success in math communication
  • Stick-It-Together Math Responses - perfect for small groups and peer work when learning new concepts.  LOVE the collaboration that happens with this resource.
My reading must-haves are:
  • My Reading Comprehension Binder - so many graphic organizers that I can grab in a pinch to support any reading comprehension strategy
  • Comprehension Fans - I use at least two questions every single day - and use these questions to give the students a purpose for their independent reading and guide their pair-shares after reading
  • Building Better Reading Responses - again - absolutely essential to my program - my students' responses have improved so much with this resource
  • Stick-It-Together Reader Responses - once a week I use this instead of their traditional independent reader response questions - that peer collaboration really helps bump up their answers
  • Reading Comprehension Posters - I love having a variety of posters I can use to pull from to use as formative or summative assessment activities and informational reading in the content areas, plus, they make a great bulletin board display of learning and portfolio piece.  They are also a perfect sub day activity.

The BIG Back-to-School TeachersPayTeachers sale is happening this Monday - Tuesday (August 3rd - August 4th) to help you gather some resources you'll need for back to school.  For two full days, all my resources will be on sale for 20% off, and if you use the code BTS15, you'll receive an additional 10% off at the check-out (don't forget to use the code - I'm telling you this from personal experience - lol).

I'm filling my wishlist with grade 4 materials right now!!!

Happy Sunday!!





Scaffolding the Learning



It's getting pretty close to back to school time again (and it's already that time for some of you).  Don't panic.  I've gotten together with some of my best upper grade blogging friends to create a back to school survival guide full of our best tips and tricks for you.  So ... relax and breathe.  And then breathe again.  We're all in this together.

If you are a brand new teacher, or are starting a new grade level this year (like I am), one of the first things you do is start to scour the curriculum to see the expectations and standards you need to cover.  And usually the second thing you do is start to panic, wondering how you are going to fit it all in and tie it all together in a neat little package so that your students are demonstrating their learning in those perfect little constructed responses that are required. The most important thing to remember is that these standards and expectations and constructed responses are something that students should know by the END of the year (or by testing time, which is often sooner ... but that's a post for another day).  You (and your students) have TIME to get there.


Scaffold the Learning:
Although you do need to start out right away teaching the expectations and standards, you don't need to expect full constructed responses from your students right away.  Let them start slow - their brains are hard at work learning the new concepts - give them a chance to master the material first.

When I do start them on constructed responses, I start out with one simple step.  I introduce our first response learning goal by the second week of school - and I keep it easy by starting with "start with part of the question in your answer" in reading and "plan your organization" in math.  We talk about why each learning goal is an important part of the constructed response, and we color code these parts when practicing our responses.

I scaffold the learning by introducing one step at a time, and give them time to master it before adding a second step.  This way the students aren't struggling to remember all the steps to constructed responses as well as the lesson standards and expectations for the concepts taught.  I keep a bulletin board of these learning goals (our response learning goals) and we slowly add to them each time I introduce a new goal (adding a new goal about every two weeks or so).  By January, we have a complete set of learning goals for our constructed responses, giving the students the rest of the year to practice combining the concepts they've learned with their constructed responses learning goals.  And by keeping the learning goals posted (written in the color they should use to color code their responses) they have a reference they can use independently to improve their responses.  By having them color code their responses, I find it increases student accountability and accuracy incredibly - they know what is missing from their responses and have time to add to their answers before handing something in for assessment.

Our first learning goal for responses in reading is "start with the question".  It gets posted on our bulletin board.  As we continue to add learning goals over the coming weeks, I place each one on the bulletin board below the one before it.
Our first learning goal for constructed responses in math is to "plan your organization".  This starting point helps them think about how to show their solutions in a neat and organized way that makes it easy to read (and assess).  Again, like in the reading, we continue to add learning goals to this bulletin board.




By January, our boards are a lot fuller and look more like this ...




















The wonderful thing about scaffolding the learning is that you can work at the pace your students need - they will not get left behind.  Because you have time, you can spend longer on a certain area that your students have not mastered yet.  And because everyone continues to work on the same goal, there can be a lot of peer collaboration and helping in the classroom.  I like to do a lot of "turn and talks" where the students discuss with a neighbor how they will include the new learning goal in their answer and show each other what they have written.

You can read a little more about the strategies I use and see some of our work along the way in other blog posts I have written about this step-by-step process to building better responses.  Click HERE to see our scaffolded reading goals in action, and HERE to see our scaffolded math goals in action.  Each blog post also contains links to other blog posts I have written about this process.

You can create your learning goals based on the needs in your classroom, or if you're interested, I have made ready-to-use resources for scaffolding the learning that contain all the learning goals, posters, book marks, reflection sheets, scaffolded handouts, assessment ideas and activities for the students.  These are some of my most favorite resources I've created and they are invaluable in my classroom.  Click on any of the resources below or on the picture to the right to see a preview of my Building Better Responses resources.





Be sure to visit the blogs below to read their best Survival Tips, as well.  Have a GREAT start of the year!!!



Get Up and Moving in Math Class

Get Moving in Math Class
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, hopefully know I'm not much of a "worksheet teacher".  If there is a way to get my students to learn the material without a worksheet or textbook attached, I'm all over it.  And even when a worksheet is necessary to consolidate the learning, I try to make sure it has a certain collaborative or reflective nature to it to take it a step further.

The one area I've been trying to get my students more active in is in math.  Again, I'm not too tied to worksheets or the textbook in math.  My interactive math journals are just that - students INTERACTING with and reflecting on the material - not simply gluing a work sheet into a composition book and completing it with colored pencils (which I have seen way too much of lately ... but that's a post for another day).  We do collaborative problem-solving like my Stick-It Responses and group and paired work with Building Better Responses, and work with manipulatives all the time, but all of these still have my students sitting through the activity.  And that's just not good enough.  I want them moving.  I want them fully immersed in the concepts - mind AND bodies.

I've done a little of this in the past - some work with place value and having the students wear a number and then build different numbers based on questions I've asked them.  I've also done some in geometry where I've asked them to model certain concepts or shapes with their bodies.  And each time I've done something like this, the students have had a blast.  And they retained the information by the end of a unit.  Problem was, I haven't done it enough.

Students modelling an acute angle
And then, just about a month ago, when I was working on a drama circle, I had a great idea to turn these kinds of math activities into Math Circles - just like the drama circles my students enjoy.  I turned the questions I was already using into a more student-centered activity, where they need to collaborate with each other and follow along to complete the instructions on the cards.

Students modelling 3/6 (or 1/2) of the hands in fists
These math circles are just like the drama circles in which there are 40 cards - each one with a different direction or instruction.  Similar to the "I have / Who has" format, students follow the instructions on the card to know when to perform their card.  However, the math circles are more collaborative in that students must work with other students to perform the task.  Because of this, I encourage a little more "turn and talk" at the beginning of the activity - when they first get the cards - this also helps alleviate a little of the anxiety for students who are unsure of how to carry out the task they have.  Also, because the cards vary in difficulty, I can choose which students get which cards when I hand out the cards, so there's differentiation built in, too.

Students modelling an octagon with their feet.
I can't wait to bring these math circles into the classroom in September - starting with Place Value.  I'm going to continue to add sets through the year as we do the activities - I think they will be a perfect Friday activity for review.  You can click on the links below if you wish to see some of the math circles I have already finished:


If there are any other circles you would like to see, please leave a comment below.  I'm currently working on a few more, but I could always use some great ideas.  Also, if you have another way to get your students up and moving in math class, I'd LOVE for you to share your ideas below.







Learn Like a Pirate - Improvement Focus

Chapter 4 of Learn Like a Pirate is all about Improvement Focus versus Grade Focus.  "On-going descriptive feedback" is a phrase that is as common as reading and writing in my area, so I knew as soon as I read the chapter title that this would be a natural fit.

Early in the chapter, Paul states that his students don't take many tests or quizzes.  Instead, they spend the time working and learning more.  In my classroom, that ongoing descriptive feedback happens daily through our classroom work and formative assessments.  We regularly go back and improve work, and students engage in meaningful discussions and reflections on how to take their work to the next level.  However, summative assessments still happen - and are required to happen through data walls, evidence pieces required for PLC meetings, porfolio pieces ... the list goes on.   The formative work is where the learning happens, but the summative is where the learning is proven.  And in my opinion, there is too much focus on the summative which detracts from all the work and effort done through the formative ... but I'm not sure how to get admin and parents on board with that shift.

One of the things that I LOVE about this book is the QR codes Paul includes to further your understanding of the concepts he includes.  In this chapter he goes into depth discussing how he and his students use eportfolios - which I was very interested in learning more about.  And just as I was thinking about what they actually look like / include ... BAM ... a QR code that takes me to his blog where he has full examples and samples and links to more information.  I really LOVE the idea of eportfolios and want to dig a little deeper into this (and I love even more the fact that Paul says it eliminates all those homework excuses).  Last week I had a fabulous opportunity to visit my daughers' school where my middle daughter (in grade 3) led me through her student led conference.  Independently, she went through her portfolio and told me about her strengths, areas of need, and things she was most proud of.  I LOVED every single second of it.  (I will be writing more about it in an upcoming blog post).  I left there knowing this was definitely something I was going to do with my own students next year ... and now I'm thinking about how I can add eportfolios to this (just have to check up on our current technology situation / schedule for the year).  And it IS a tangible resource for showing student learning and mastery of goals (and embraces and celebrates student reflection which I already find invaluable).


My other favorite part of this chapter was his discussion about critical peer feedback (and yes, that's a positive thing).  ;)  We do A LOT of peer conferencing and peer feedback in my classroom - especially during writing.  And I, like Paul, see the value in it, but struggle when I don't a lot of value in the peer feedback.  I have done things like "two stars and a wish" which has evolved into  "SWAP Conferences" (where they swap writing pieces for feedback to provide: a  star, wonder (3 questions), advice for the writer, and plans for revision, but I often found that the advice was lacking from their peers.  I think my students' worried a lot about hurting their peers' feelings, instead of looking at it as an opportunity to improve.  Paul writes about a "Quality Booster" lesson he now does with his students to improve feedback - and this is DEFINITELY going to happen in my class next year.  (If you'd like a copy of this SWAP conference sheet I made, you can grab one by clicking HERE or on the picture.)
One chapter ... so many ideas ... so perfect.  :)  Happy Thursday!




Introducing the Student-Led Classroom

Reading Chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate (you can see my blog post HERE) got me so excited about next year.  Changes are in the air ... I'm switching grades (I'll have a 4/5 split with mostly fives), switching rooms (moving to the room next door and am so excited to get to decorate with a new theme and color scheme), and switching teaching styles (HELLO student-led classroom)!  SO excited.

Not 5 minutes after I finished writing my blog post for chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate, a fabulous idea for introducing our student-led classroom to my students popped into my head and I started writing a new blog post (and as an added bonus, I got to put off doing the dishes for a little while longer).

The Activity:

One of my favorite team-building activities to do on the first day is a cup-stacking challenge - you can read more about it HERE and HERE.  Collaborating like this is a great way to get your students working together to solve problems and helps set up great whole group discussions about how to work together to meet goals and learn from your mistakes.  Right away, I knew how I could use this group activity to introduce the ideas behind the student-led classroom.  You need 6 stacking cups (I use solo cups), one elastic, and enough string for one piece per person in the group (I usually do groups of 4).  Students need to move the cups from one formation to another using only the elastic and string - at no time can their hands (or any body parts, for that matter) touch the cups.  Teachers should give no hints or instruction about how to move the cups - groups need to figure out what strategies work for them as part of their team-building.

How I Will Change the Activity:

The first thing is to change the way the cups were stacked at the beginning.  Instead of having 2 rows of 3, the cups will first be stacked in a pyramid.  I wrote a "T" on the top cup.



They will have to break down the pyramid, starting from the top, before they can rebuild the stack (which will be the six cups fitting together in one stack with the T cup on the bottom).


If the stack falls while they are making it, they will have to work together to get it standing again.  All of this will happen without any teacher instruction or input outside of showing them what the final stack should look like and instructing them at the beginning that at no time can their hands touch the cups - they have to figure out how to move the cups using only string and elastics.




Explaining the Student-Led Classroom:

OK - here's where I turn it into our introduction to the student-led classroom.  After all groups have finished, we'll come together in a class meeting.  I'll stack the cups back into the pyramid shape from the beginning and explain that the formation represents the "old way" of how my classroom used to run.  The cup on top is the teacher (me) with the cups underneath representing the students (them).


The activity (like all activities in the "old" classroom) had to start with the teacher first (just like they had to move that cup first).  Through the activity, the students worked together, solved problems, and came up with strategies to change the formation (while I say this I will move the cups into the ending formation - the stack of 6 cups with the top cup now on the bottom).  I will explain that what used to be the top cup (the teacher) is now on the bottom - supporting all the other cups (the students).  All the cups fit perfectly together in the new formation (our "new" classroom).  The bottom cup (the teacher) is the strong foundation and the support for the students - who are now on top - forming a student-led classroom.


We can also talk (notice I didn't say "I'll tell them" - I'm working on these changes already) about challenges - sometimes the stack fell, just like we will sometimes encounter problems with this new way of doing things, but by working together, we can build it back up again.  We can end with a student-created anchor chart about our learning and insights from this activity.

I am SO excited about this.  It ties in the ideals of growth mindset AND introduces the methods of the student-led classroom.  I think it's going to be a GREAT year!

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