A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Engaging Digital Lessons

In the past two years I’ve been teaching online as well as in a brick and mortar school. I have learned that some things that work really well in class don’t translate very well to online learning. For example, in my class we use Task Cards as a way to move around the room and build in discussion and collaboration. But online, Task Cards don’t work the same way. So, how do you keep the learning substantive and keep the engagement high?

Just the other day, a parent emailed me after a one-hour introduction to Democracy class. She said, “Great class. I wasn’t sure if my eleven-year-old would enjoy it or not (she gets bored easily) but she was riveted to the screen the entire time. When the class was finished, she said she thought it was really interesting. That gets a thumbs up from me!” Here’s how to achieve that in your own virtual lesson.

Personalize the lesson – This is very hard to do. Keep in mind that I didn’t know that student before the class, and I may never see them again. Even in the classes I am teaching virtually to my brick and mortar students, it is hard to have that personal touch. I can’t look at them or use proximity. But you can build in personal touches to virtual lessons. I begin each Introduction to Democracy class with a map where we put an arrow to represent each student. About 10 minutes into the class, we revisit the map, this time in context of learning about representation from their own state. Within the first ten minutes I have made the information personal to the students twice and that helps to engage them.

I have another online class where I teach 4- and 5-year-olds to read color words. For that class, I embed their name into everything. Students love rhymes, so we begin with a color rhyme. Instead of saying the name of the color, I change it to a student’s name. At the end of the rhyme, a student’s name pops up on the screen. They love this, and right away they are engaged in reading their own name and the name of the other students in the class.

You can find this editable PowerPoint on TPT. I just change the poem to include the kids’ names. And find a free related practice page, also on TPT.

Names are powerful. When I see a student looking away from the camera or their body language signal dis-engagement, just as I do in my brick-and-mortar classroom, I ask them a question. I think it’s important to help them feel comfortable – remember, this is not a risk-free environment for them, so I always say, “Tom, I’d like you to take this next question.” Then I give a little information and ask them a question related to it. The purpose of the question is to re-engage the student, so it can be simple. Usually the student answers, I give them a high five or thumbs up, and we move on.

Be Positive – If you are using a presentation tool like Zoom, there are built in reactions. But if you are new to this, don’t dive into the deep end. A physical high five (right into your camera) or thumbs up works great. Also, your tone is extra important. Chances are, you are small on the screen, so your facial expressions carry less weight than your tone. Before I taught anything online, I opened my video camera and video-taped myself teaching a bit of the lesson. I’m so glad I did! Turns out my serious, I-love-this-content face and tone didn’t sound or look great on a video. So, I put a sticky note on my computer and I practiced until I remembered to smile – a lot! Another side benefit, it slows down my pacing.

A smile is worth 1,000 words!

Translate what you know about instruction to the screen – I begin by thinking about the old 10 and 2 rule. For every 10 minutes of a presentation, the kids talk for 2 minutes. Since I use PowerPoint and Google Slides as the bones of my presentations, I needed to translate that into slides. Think in terms of 2-4-8. One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

If you do the math, that means every fourth slide it’s the kids’ turn. When I create a presentation, I try to build in a response every four slides. Again, if you are comfortable using the tools in the tech, that can be pretty easy. Ask a question like, “If you think that a representative democracy is a better system than a direct democracy, use the thumbs up tool. If you think a direct democracy is better, use the applause tool.” Offering a choice works as long as you hold every student accountable. But the tech isn’t the only way to hold everyone accountable.

I ask students to fold an index card in half. They write A on the first section, B on the second, flip the card over and write C and D on the sections on the back. Every few slides I slip in a multiple choice question and students show the letter of the answer they choose. It helps me formatively assess, but more importantly, every child has to engage. Again, holding them accountable is key.

Harness the power of the technology – An image can often carry more meaning than your words. Be sure to embed images in interesting ways. I love this blog post on where to find free images and how to manipulate them in interesting ways. And kids love bells and whistles. I know the prevailing wisdom is to keep it simple, but I think interesting transitions, colorful and interesting fonts and animations, used strategically, engage students.

And don’t under estimate the power of video and music. It is certainly possible to overuse them. But a quick, 3-minute video embedded into an hour-long lesson can provide a great break for kids, and engage them in the content in a new way.

Tell a Story – I recently created a series of online classes to teach grammar. Not the most interesting content for most students, but entirely necessary. I wove a story of a search for Missing Mayan Medallions throughout the story. For five days those kids logged on and we spent an hour traveling through Guatemala and Mexico, learning about parts of speech and types of sentences. They completed 20 pages of grammar practice, all embedded in the story. And their motivation was high because along the way they found 24 missing medallions.

Humans love stories. Our brains are hard-wired for them. Use short stories, anecdotes, and longer stories to keep kids engaged for longer periods of time.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the transition from classroom teaching to online learning. You can do this. Start small.

  1. Personalize the lesson.
  2. Be positive.
  3. Translate what you know about instruction to the screen.
  4. Harness the power of the technology.
  5. Tell a story.

Start small, and remember, your students love you. Taking a risk and trying something new is a powerful model for them, and they will give you grace.

You got this!

Be sure to check out my other blog posts on digital learning.

Digital Tools for Distance Learning – Google Forms

Eight Things I’ve Learned about Virtual Teaching in the Past Two Years

Happy teaching!

ID 29899410 © Sabina Pensek | Dreamstime.com

Fraction-a-Day

UPDATED with a Distance Learning version!

As a fifth-grade teacher, I’m becoming more and more convinced that fractions are the hill students die on. This conviction comes from my experience as a teacher, and also as a student. A little flash to the past….

Over 30 years ago I entered fourth-grade feeling pretty good about math. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, and I thought math was just fine. Then, I hit fractions. I didn’t have a strong understanding of what fractions were, and from that time on, I felt like a math fraud. I went on to advanced math classes and I made A’s and B’s, but inside, I knew. I was a FAKE! People thought I understood math, but I didn’t. I memorized it.

When I got to college, I pushed my math methods class to the final semester before student teaching, avoiding it until it had to be faced. Our professor introduced us to the idea of using manipulatives to understand mathematical concepts. One day he asked us to multiply fractions by folding paper. Dutifully, I followed the instructions, and then, I dropped my paper and gasped. All of a sudden I understood why fractions got smaller when you multiplied and larger when you divided. It was a pivotal moment for me as a human and as a teacher.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since I sat in a fourth-grade classroom in the 80’s. Students still struggle with the concept of a fraction. This blog post from NCTM suggests that they still struggle with it in Algebra class in middle and high school. Here is one strategy I’m using to help my fifth graders scale that mountain.

Fraction-a-Day helps students build fluency with fractions.

To help you navigate to the different parts of the multi-day exploration, use these links.

Fraction-a-Day Introduction

I begin math instruction with a Week of Inspirational Math from Jo Boaler, and then I launch into this fraction series. It is a great way to set the stage for the learning we will do and to build protocols like Expert Groups and Centers.

I introduce Fraction-a-Day with a model (included in the resource!). I model 2/3 because it is a familiar fraction to many students, then I ask all of the students to complete the page for 3/4, another familiar fraction. Over the next few days I ask students to complete a page as a warm-up for math, and we go over them together. I give them just 5 minutes to work. While they work, I rotate around the room and recruit student teachers to present different parts on the document camera so that the students have an opportunity to practice speaking about fractions and using correct vocabulary. I collect outstanding examples of each fraction and save them for a later lesson. After 3-4 days of guided practice, the students are ready for more independent practice.

Expert Groups Protocol

That’s when I pop the video in the Google Classroom and we use our Expert Groups protocol. (Click the link to find the video on my You Tube channel – FREE!) The video is just over 10 minutes. For this lesson I choose 5 different fractions that I want the students to focus on. By now they are familiar with the routine. As they watch the video, students complete the fraction they’ve been given independently. After 15 minutes, everyone should be ready to meet in their Preparation Groups.

Students meet in Preparation Groups with students who have practiced the SAME fraction. The purpose of this group is for students to compare their work with each other and make sure that everyone in the group becomes an expert on that fraction. Students generally have good conversations about the different ways they represented the fraction visually and check each other’s division – usually the toughest thing for students at this point.

Once everyone in the group is confident, I regroup the students in Expert Groups. The Expert Groups consist of one student from each Preparation Group. That means, everyone has a different fraction. Now the experts take turns presenting their fraction to the other students in the group. The listeners ask clarifying questions and offer feedback. This handout is included in the resource to guide students through the protocol.

This protocol builds students’ ability to understand and talk about fractions!

As the students finish up their Expert Group presentations, I ask them to put their fractions in order. This gives them another opportunity to practice talking about fractions as they compare the five fractions in their Expert Group. I collect one stellar example of each fraction to use on our class number line.

Number line

By now students have completed 3-4 Fraction-a-Day pages independently and they have completed 5 more within their Expert Groups. At this point if students are feeling very comfortable with the routine and the concepts, I want the activity to become more independent. I choose another 15 fractions to put in a Math Center. For four days, my students rotate through this center (and others, like my Unit Fraction Puzzles and Pirate’s Gold) completing a few Fraction-a-Day pages. I let them know that I am looking for high quality examples for our Number Line. As the week goes on, I collect a few each day until I have 25 – 30 fractions (it’s important to have one for each student).

Then, usually on Friday, I pass out one fraction to each student. I don’t give them one they completed so they have an experience with a new fraction. Our class task is to put all of those fractions in order! This human number line generally stretches around most of the classroom. All of the fractions in this resource are less than one, although there are many fractions that are equivalent to one. Students have to have conversations about size and equivalence in order to do this task, and it is generally 15 minutes of buzzing work and activity! Once we have it organized, I ask each student to announce their fraction, and we make any necessary adjustments. We also have to decide what to do with equivalent fractions. Do they stand side by side or in a column? I ask students to tape their fraction on the wall where they are standing.

Then, I give groups of students a large piece of butcher paper and ask them to create their own number line. Again, they have to wrestle with how to order the fractions and what to do with equivalent fractions. This is also a good time to talk about Anchor Fractions like 1/2, 1/3 and 3/4.

Finally, following the Guided Release model, I ask students to create an individual number line in their journals with their favorite fractions.

Fraction Friday

By now we are usually about three weeks into the school year, and I’ve built some routines and protocols, so we are ready to launch the math from the our district curriculum. It does NOT begin with fractions, but I think they are so important that we continue with this practice every Friday. The warm-up for our math lesson is for everyone to complete the same Fraction-a-Day page. They have 5 minutes, and then we do something fun, like Stand up, Hands up or Snowball to go over it. It only takes 8 minutes or so, but it keeps the fractions fresh in students’ minds. My hope is that none of my students will feel like frauds (as I did for many years) because they will have LOTS of opportunities to build understanding of fractions.

UPDATED – Distance Learning Lesson

So, we are implementing Distance Learning right now, just as I was getting back to fractions for the year. I’ve decided to dust this off and use it in a new way!

Each week I’m uploading 5 Fraction-a-Day pages into my Google Classroom. I ask the students to choose one and complete the work for their favorite fraction of the week. Then, in 2 min. or less, they present their fraction to the class on Flipgrid. My students ADORE Flipgrid, so some of them are doing all of the fractions each week! Since we’ve done all of the fractions less than one, I’m adding in some fractions that are greater than one. Check back soon and I’ll have those on TPT too!

In the meantime, please enjoy the FREE video for this lesson and check out the resource on TPT.

Digital Tools for Distance Learning – Google Forms

Today I want to start a new series about tools that work well for digital learning. There are tons of blog posts out there that will give you tips and tricks for using digital tools. I’m definitely a novice there. What I’d like to add to the conversation is how the tools can be used to deliver effective and engaging instruction.

First, I have been teaching online in addition to teaching in a brick and mortar classroom for the past two years. And in that time, I’ve definitely learned a lot about engaging kids long distance. For more tips and advice about how to get started with distance learning, check out my post, Eight Things I’ve Learned about Virtual Teaching in the Past Two Years.

Today I want to dive into Google Forms. This is a free tool to anyone who has a gmail account, which is also free. Google has put a lot of effort into creating tools that allow people to communicate and work together virtually. Forms was originally meant as a survey tool. But savvy educators realized it could be used for teaching. It is very easy to create multiple choice, short answer, long answer, and other types of questions.

So, clearly Google forms is a great tool for a quiz. Under the Settings, you can set up three different types of Forms – Presentation, General and Quiz.

I almost always set things up as a Quiz. One of my favorite benefits of Quizzes is auto-grading. As soon as the students submit their answers, they receive their score. Additionally, you can provide general feedback for them. I usually set it up so that the feedback is targeted towards common errors. For example, I’ve just created a resource for my students to practice Order of Operations (FREE on TPT!). One typical mistake they make is not expressing ordered pairs as a pair, or reversing the order of the pair. So, I targeted the feedback towards those errors. This image shows what a student would see after they submit their work. Their answer is highlighted in red because it is incorrect. The correct answers are shown and the feedback points out a likely cause of the error.

What I love about this is that it puts the responsibility firmly where it belongs – with the student. Certainly, they might just skip the feedback – I know some students will be tempted to do that. But most won’t. Most students are genuinely interested in learning, and this gives them the power to take charge of that learning, to notice what they know and what they don’t, and to figure out how to do better next time. And it happens immediately, when the students’ interest in their progress is the strongest. Even at my best, (and I’m not great at grading papers in a timely manner!) I can’t give feedback to every student that quickly.

Another thing I love about Google Forms is how easy it is to embed a video. For distance learning, that is a key strategy for engaging kids and also for teaching. It allows me to be with them in their living room for a moment. Sometimes the videos I embed are created by me, and sometimes I find them on the internet. Check back in a few days for my next post about how I create short videos to teach my students.

Last week I gave my students a Pizza Fractions lesson on equivalent fractions. I started the lesson with this scenario:

After students had a chance to do some thinking and enter a short answer, I provided this video with the teaching point. (Click here to watch the video on You Tube.)

Because the video is embedded into the Google Form, the students DO NOT go to You Tube. I really love that. You and I both know once they go to You Tube, we’ll never get them back. The video is a short, mini-lesson on equivalent fractions that I made using an app called Explain Everything.

Besides quizzes and teaching, Google Forms is great for Escape Rooms – something my kids are really loving right now! With not a lot of effort, you can set up a scenario, embed questions, and even videos and photos, and students are off on a learning adventure! I’ve just finished an Escape Room on Order of Operations for my kids for this week. Here is the scenario:

I think my students will be highly motivated to work through some Order of Operations problems as they try to get into the Escape Pod!

The final way I use Google Forms is for reflection. I am constantly working to help students reflect on their own behavior and learning. Google forms has this great feature called a Checkbox Grid. You can use that to help students tap into their own thinking. I’ve used it in several ways – for self-reflection on Habits of Mind during a project, to help students form an opinion about a topic and to give them help reflecting on their own behavior in class. Here is part of the tool I use to have students reflect on their Growth/Fixed Mindset (FREE on TPT!).

After students complete the self-reflection tool, I receive their responses, and then I have an individual conference with each one. This gives them a chance to reflect first, and also gives me a chance to think about the shape of the conference before we have it.

In this time when many of us are exploring distance learning, Google Forms can be a great way to create quizzes, to embed learning, and to help students self-reflect. There is a lot of power in this tool, and it’s intuitive and simple to use. Leave a comment about how you’ve used this tool or a question about something you’d like to know. Let’s get the dialogue started!

Click here to find these, and other Google apps products on TPT.

8 Things I’ve learned about virtual teaching in the past two years

In addition to being a brick and mortar teacher, I also create and teach classes online. It’s a great side gig for lots of reasons – I get to make additional income by doing what I love, I get to share my interests that fall outside of the standard curriculum, I get to teach in my slippers….

Now, my school is closed for the next few weeks, and I’m having to put that skill to use for all of my students. Many teacher friends are reaching out to me to ask for some advice, so here are the tips I’ve been sharing with them.

  1. Think about the big picture. – Just as we do every day, it’s important to teach kids in a consistent, holistic way. If your inbox is like mine, every company I’ve ever come in contact with is offering me free resources right now. I’m grateful, but if it’s overwhelming to me, it will overwhelm my kids. Think of the big picture, and then choose wisely, just as you do in your classroom every day.
  2. Use the power of the technology to engage students. – It can be difficult to keep students engaged electronically. I’ve found that their attention span is about half of what it is in my classroom. They don’t have anyone to turn and talk with, there is no teacher using proximity…. So, think in short bursts. I put together hour-long PowerPoints and keep the kids’ attention by embedding videos, songs, questions, color, new fonts, pictures…. When you can’t give them the evil eye, interesting technology can be almost as effective! For more about that, check out this blog post on using Google Forms.
  3. Try something new. – It is always a great idea to model learning for our students. In the past week I have been experimenting with an app called Explain Everything. This app is a digital whiteboard that captures whatever is on my screen, and also captures voice over. By careful layering, I am beginning to create short videos to teach my students. They know that I am learning this, and that encourages them to try new things too.
  4. Meet them where they are at. – After I created my first video using Explain Everything, I posted it to You Tube. Even before I had sent my students the link, they found it! They are all over the digital world, and they are very excited when we enter their territory. Check out my first video about equivalent fractions.
  5. Don’t forget the Social-emotional aspect of learning. – In these times, people need each other more than ever. Two days ago I posted an optional Reading Response assignment in my Google Classroom. Using Flipgrid, the students were supposed to give a brief summary of a book they are reading independently. In two days, my students have already spent 10 hours recording videos, watching each other’s videos and responding. They are hungry to connect with each other right now, and technology like Flipgrid and Google Hangouts can meet the need. If you don’t have a Flipgrid account, they are free and easy to open.
  6. Support your parents. – Even during normal times, as a virtual teacher I rely on parents to support the students. Parents are very stressed out right now and hoping that you, the expert, can solve at least one of their problems for them. Be available, and let them know the best ways to contact you. If you send work for students to do at home, send the answer keys so that parents know what you are looking for and can steer their child in the right direction. (If the Answer Key is part of the pdf, use free services like I Love PDF to split the resource that you have downloaded or created so that the Answer Key is separate.) Understand that parents generally don’t feel qualified to teach their children, and it is daunting for them!
  7. Find your village. – One of the most difficult things about this is teaching in isolation. I learned early in my virtual teaching career that teaching from home is much more lonely than teaching in a brick and mortar school. Schedule digital hangouts with your friends, text and call, and most importantly, share! Celebrate your successes! Bemoan your failures. And pick each other up and try again. Together, we can do this! To help with this, I will be uploading at least two free resources for distance learning every week for the next 6 weeks. Check my freebies page and follow my blog so you are notified about each new upload. The freebies for distance learning will include things like this “I Can Write Colors” practice page for K-1 students and resources for upper elementary students like this non-fiction article, “Chocolate – the sweet history of the world’s favorite flavor.”
  8. Take care of yourself. – You know how there is always one more project to plan, one more set of papers to grade, one more cool set of task cards to laminate…. Well, online teaching is no different. Once you jump in, your creative juices will start flowing, you’ll head down a rabbit track, and 3 hours will go by! Set healthy limits, and get up to move around periodically. Exercise, and spend time in the sun. You will be more creative and energetic about tackling this if you do it wisely.

This is a whole new paradigm for many of us, and for our students and parents. But if there is one thing I know, it is this. We can do this! We have done hard things in the past and we got this!

Keep calm and teach on!

UPDATE

I’ve just added some new freebies to my TPT page. Check out this Google Forms on 5th Grade Order of Operations.

Decimals and Dollars is a free Google forms lesson with an embedded video so instruction and practice are combined!

Wander Words

As you know, teaching vocabulary is near and and dear to my heart. And I love to do it in a playful way whenever possible. I’m always trying to figure out a fun way to engage my students in word play, and Wander Words is the newest craze in my classroom.

Wander Words is pretty simple. The word “wanders” around, and students have to decode it. The word can start anywhere, and can travel horizontally or vertically in any direction. Each word comes with a sentence to give context. For example:

Everyone knows that Ms. Cotton’s favorite cookie is a _________.

Students would connect the letters to spell Snickerdoodle.

I’ve been using these cards in my classroom to help students step up their writing by using more scholarly transitions, and they are having a blast!

This is a really fun activity that exposes students to lots of Tier 2 words. I’ve created sets of task cards, with and without QR codes, that give students practice with lots of great scholarly words. My March 2020 freebie is a great set of these cards to practice scholarly transitions for writing. Be sure to download them today!

You can get other Wander Words Task Cards in my TPT store. Click to go straight there!

Cookies and Catapults – a STEM Valentine’s Day adventure

As I wrote about last month, I’m really working hard to improve STEM in my classroom. I’ve created posters to teach the engineering design principles that students need to learn (download for free in my TPT store!), and we are working to incorporate them every chance I get. Valentine’s Day seemed like a perfect opportunity.

Before we go too far, I have to admit that the cookies had nothing to do with the STEM activity. It has been my tradition for 25 years to bake heart cookies for my students on Valentine’s Day, and I really liked the alliteration of cookies and catapults. So, full disclosure, this blog post will focus on catapults!

First, I decided to teach my students how to build catapults rather than have them explore and design themselves. There is a benefit to having them experiment and figure things out, and that’s exactly what we did in the First Americans Shelter Design Challenge. For this activity I wanted my students to focus on controlling variables and collecting data over multiple trials. For that reason, I used the catapult plans I found at DevonCollier.com. Each group needed 9 large popsicle sticks, several rubber bands, and a handful of candy hearts and a handful of Hershey’s kisses. I got the supplies ready that morning and after lunch, the building began!

The question we decided to answer was “Which would fly farther, a Hershey’s Kiss or a candy heart?” The students worked in partners to build the catapults, then we grabbed our measuring tapes and went outside to collect data. Each pair was responsible for collecting data for three trials for each type of candy. They collected their data on a data collection sheet, and then we went back inside to put our data together and find an average. You can download the Valentine’s Day Catapult data sheet for free below the pictures! They had to do some great math because they converted centimeters to meters, and then added and divided to find the average.

The students put their data together on a class data collection sheet, and then they had an answer to their question! Most importantly, they had a blast while practicing some key math and science content in a real-world experience. And they ate candy! What’s not to love?

Thank you to Sonya DeHart for designing the border I used on the Data Collection Sheet and to A Primary Kind of Life for creating the font on the Data Collection Sheet. Check out these talented teachers!

STEM adventure!

I am really fortunate to have a principal who supports me in attending a national or regional conference every year. This year, my whole team got to go to the regional NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) conference, and I was really inspired to jump into STEM! I had dabbled before, but the conference helped me see how to take the next step. What I really wanted was something that tied to my required curriculum, and also intentionally taught my students about Engineering Design Principles. I was looking for something more than an opportunity for kids to play around with cardboard and gadgets. Here’s what we did.

Students built background knowledge with a Gallery Walk.

I decided to incorporate required social studies standards about Native Americans, required math standards about subtracting and multiplying decimals and required science content about climates. We began with a Gallery walk including maps and pictures of traditional Native American Homes. Students worked in teams of 4 to look at a group of 2-3 pictures and record things they notice and things they wondered. After a few minutes they rotated to a new group of pictures. We also read an article about the First Americans to arrive that focused on the land bridge theory and the ways different cultures adapted to different climates. I wrote the text at three different levels so that all of my learners could access the information. We used a close reading protocol , so spent three days working with the vocabulary and ideas in the text. You can get the text and the Gallery walk maps and pictures in my TPT store here.

After my fifth graders had developed an understanding that people have adapted to different environments by using the available resources, we learned about the Engineering Design Process. We had gone through it before, but I created these posters so that my students could begin to internalize the steps. (The posters are free on TPT!) Then I put my students in groups of three. (I use an Excel spreadsheet to randomize the groups.) Each group randomly chose a climate card and a lifestyle card. The climate cards match the standard climates (Mediterranean, Tropical, Tundra, Arid, Temperate). They have two choices for lifestyles: permanent and nomadic. The challenge is to build a shelter that matches the climate and the lifestyle. So, a group might be building a permanent shelter for an arid climate, or a temporary shelter for a Mediterranean climate.

After we had explored the challenge together, each group got additional research materials: a short description of the climate including some of the natural resources, an analysis of each available building material’s Pros and Cons, and a list of the cost of each resource. The cost varies by climate because some resources are more difficult to get in different climates. The groups took a day to take notes from their research materials.

Then I guided students through the Engineering Design Process using the Student Guide. They completed the first few steps together, and then I met in a five minute conference with each group. The conference is essential! I used that as an opportunity to make sure that each student was involved in the planning process and understood the essential content about the climate.

Many groups had designed a traditional native home based on what they had learned about, and had not taken into account the climate and/or the lifestyle. For example, one group had chosen the tundra with a nomadic lifestyle. They initially planned to build a tepee, which was great for a nomadic lifestyle but a tepee in the tundra is not a suitable match! By meeting with that group, I was able to ask questions that helped them uncover that difficulty and they changed their design. Flexibility is a key attribute that I try to teach my students any chance I get!

Then, it was time to build! I gave students one hour to create their shelters. The next day I gave them one hour to test their design and improve it. All of the groups improved their design, so I felt really good about that! The final day of the project we invited parents and key staff (like my principal – always good to let him know that his PD dollars paid off!) to come to our presentations. Two students presented while one student from each group rotated to see the other groups. Then we switched, so after 3 rotations, everyone had seen the other projects. Each student left feedback for the other projects and then the projects went home.

Each student turned in an individual reflection, budget and self-assessment of their Habits of Mind, which I used to grade the project. I did grade the actual shelter, although you could. I focused my grading and feedback on the individual analysis of the features of the building and the individual student’s assessment of the design.

My students really loved this project, and so did my parents and my principal. I loved the way we brought together essential content and Habits of Mind like flexibility, innovation and problem solving. I purchased or found these materials for this project: clay, pipe cleaners, styrofoam, cardboard, hemp string, leather remnants and glue. My total cost for the class was under $20.00. All of the resources you need to complete this project are available at my TPT store. If you try this project or have suggestions for how to improve it, please leave comments.

Info-Gap Math Routine

I am really excited about Info-Gap Math Activities right now! If you’ve never tried an Info-Gap, read on, and be sure to download the freebie!

The purpose of an Info-Gap is to get kids talking about math. They ask questions, they clarify, they think about what they need to know. Those skills are so important in math class, and they mirror the way math comes to us in the real world. Sometimes you have context, but not enough information. Sometimes you have lots of information, but no context, so you aren’t sure what to do with it. That’s what the Info-Gap helps kids learn to grapple with.

In an Info-Gap problem, each student has a card which they do not show to the other student. One card might look like this:

As you can imagine, the student is generally full of questions like, “How much do the puzzles cost?” and “What kind of puzzles were they?” and “Where is this toy store?”

Some of the questions will be pertinent, and some won’t. The first few times students try this routine, they will go off on tangents. That’s great! Knowing what not to ask is almost as important as knowing what you should ask!

The other card looks something like this:

Ahh, that’s what we were missing!

As you can see, this card contains all the information that the other student needs, and even some that they don’t! Since the students cannot see each other’s cards, they have to ask each other questions to find out what the other person knows. The freebie has a sample conversation that you can use to model it for your students.

Once students agree that they both understand the problem, they work together to solve it. Then, they switch roles and try another. I always do Info-Gaps in pairs so that both students practice each part.

Once the kids learn the routine, you will find that they are asking the right questions most of the time, clarifying their thinking, and building their precise math vocabulary. This routine not only helps students master content, it also helps them:

  1. MP1 – Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. MP2 – Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. MP6 – Attend to precision.

The Mathematical Practice Standards are built in to this protocol. I have seen real growth in my students’ understanding of how to approach word problems, logical reasoning skills and communication (both listening and asking questions!) because of this routine. Give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments section!

Did you download the freebie already? 🙂

Three books that will hook intermediate readers, and won’t make you cringe!

Sometimes, as an intermediate teacher, it feels as though my biggest challenge is getting kids to read, not because I tell them to, but because they want to. Somehow, in an age of YouTube and XBox, kids are spending less time curled up on their beds reading and more time curled up on the couch with a device.

Besides the obvious academic benefits of reading, books fill a basic human need for stories. Think of the lessons you learned from reading Little Women or Tom Sawyer. Think of the times you felt sad or angry, and a book made you laugh and forget your troubles for awhile. Think of the connections you feel when you discover another reader who enjoyed the same story. Stories are an essential part of our humanity.

So, how to get them to put down the device and pick up a book? Here are three titles that I’ve found hook reluctant fourth and fifth graders. Not only do they get pulled into these stories, but each of these stories leads on to another story. Like following bread crumbs in the forest, pretty soon they’ll arrive in I-Love-To-Read-Land!

The links take you to Amazon, not because I get a kick-back, just because that’s where I normally shop. Feel free to buy anywhere you want, or better yet, get them from the public library!

Jacky Ha-Ha

by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Jacky Ha-Ha will hook readers because it is both funny and poignant. The book is set in the past, during Desert Storm, and Jacky’s mother is fighting in Iraq. Her father is left to raise seven girls, yep, seven! Jacky is in the middle of the pack. She has a stutter, so when she was asked her name in kindergarten, instead of Jacky Hart, she said, “Jacky Ha-ha-ha-ha.” A nickname was born. She decided to embrace it, and became the class clown. That’s where the funny comes into the book. Kids will love the crazy pranks she pulls – climbing to the top of a Ferris Wheel, making strange Slushies for her friends (mustard, anyone?), skipping school to go to Atlantic City and be a street performer for a day…. There are just enough crazy antics to keep a kid hooked.

Despite her best attempts to keep everyone at a distance, two adults step in and help turn her around. The drama teacher, Ms. O’Mara, and the assistant principal, Mrs. Turner. They decide that Jacky can work off 20 detentions by performing in the school play. And then they enter her in the American Legion Speech Contest! With her stutter, Jacky is sure that she will fail. And that’s where the poignant comes in. Without spoiling the ending, let me just say that kids will laugh a lot, cry a little, and be asking you for more!

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

Full disclosure, I didn’t love this book. It is a graphic novel, and I don’t love that genre. But many of my students do. This book appeals to many kids, and especially to girls who are struggling to read fourth and fifth grade level texts. At this age, saving face is important, and this book looks like an appropriate level for intermediate readers, so that is a big draw for some kids. The story is appealing because the main character has typical kid problems, sort of. The story begins when when the family has to move to because the main character’s little sister is sick, and they need to be in a better climate. That means, the main character, Catrina, has to leave her friends behind and start over. That is a problem that resonates with many students. Another draw is the secondary story of Catrina and her family reconnecting with their Hispanic roots. That story-line adds complexity to the book, and helps elevate it in my opinion. That’s where the Ghosts come into the story. These are friendly ghosts for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Finally, the author does a really good job of building tension and suspense because it seems as though the book will end with the younger sister’s death. No spoilers here, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I find that this book, and others by Raina Telgemeier are often confidence boosters. After reading these books, students are often ready for a classic fourth grade level text like Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

The Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale is a tongue-in-cheek examination of history. This is the first story in the series. The premise is that the author, Nathan Hale, is the first American spy, and he is going to be hung by the British for treason. In this title, Hale tells his own tale – of his unlucky days at Yale, his unlucky days as an officer in the American army, and his unlucky career as a spy, leading to the gallows. And then, Hale is swallowed by a US History book! When he is spit out, he knows all there is to know about US History, and the tales begin. To stall his execution, he starts to tell true stories from history. The hang man and the British officer keep putting off his execution as long as he tells them another story.

The set up is pretty simple, but the text is not. Full of smart, funny, and accurate depictions of history, the text will draw the reader in, and the pictures (it is a graphic novel) actually add to the interest. The meaning is carried by the text, but the illustrations add nuance and information. One great example of that comes in a book later in the series, Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. This tale focuses on World War I, and to help kids keep track of the countries on either side of the conflict, Hale draws them as different animals. It’s subtle and helpful all at the same time!

Kids who read this series end up laughing so much they hardly realize that they are learning history at the same time!

Next Reads:

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! The Three-Tiers

In 1987, Beck and colleagues introduced the idea of a three-tier system to guide teachers as they chose words to explicitly teach. Their purpose was to help teachers understand which words should receive the most explicit instruction. As they built the tiered system, they focused on the function of words in language. Basals and reading programs often have different goals when choosing words for explicit instruction. It’s important to note that Beck and McKeown’s work focuses on the function and meaning of the words, not the spelling or reading difficulty. As a teacher, you might choose to intentionally pre-teach a difficult word or a spelling pattern. That goal differs from the goals of vocabulary instruction, which include building familiarity with words and capacity to use a word in speaking and writing.

Tier One

According to “Bringing Words to Life“, Tier One words are “typically found in oral language”. These are words like dog, warm, run, talk, tired, party, look and swim. Because these are common in everyday speech, children are exposed to these words in a variety of contexts and with great frequency. This familiarity means that for a native speaker, these words rarely need to be taught. Keep in mind that we are focusing on students’ ability to use these words in their speaking and writing. You may want to explicitly teach how to spell these words, but that is a separate focus from building the capacity to use a word.

Tier Two

The second tier is where teachers should spend the majority of their instructional time. In this tier we find words that cross many domains and are used by mature language users. In my classroom we call these “scholarly words”. Tier Two words include words like circumstances, contradict, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect. One hallmark of Tier Two words is that they are seldom used in conversation, but are frequently found in written text. That means that students will seldom encounter these words in daily life. However, knowledge of these words can enhance a student’s ability to read grade level texts and also to express themselves exactly and precisely in their written work. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Mark Twain

You are probably wondering how many Tier Two words there are and which ones to focus on. Good question! Beck and McKeown helpfully analyze a study from Nagy and Anderson (1984) that focused on words in printed school English for third through ninth graders. They found that:

  • Good readers in this age range typically read about one million words per year.
  • There are about 88,500 word families in printed school English. A word family is a group of related words, for example introduce, introduced, introduction and reintroduce.
  • About half of these word families are extremely rare, meaning that even a voracious reader may encounter them only once in their lifetime.
  • About 15,000 word families would likely be encountered at least once every 10 years. Those are the words that Beck and McKeown have designated as Tier One and Tier Two words.
  • Approximately 8,000 of those word families fall in Tier One, so students will likely learn those words through repeated exposure and multiple contexts without explicit instruction.

So, that leaves us with about 7,000 word families to teach. If we start in kindergarten with a goal of teaching those words by ninth grade, that averages out to about 700 words. No problem! Right?

Well, not exactly. I’ve been at this for a long time, and in my best years I am able to get in about 500 words that I’ve taught explicitly. And if I’m perfectly honest, just because I’ve taught them explicitly, it doesn’t meant that my students have learned them. I would love to think differently, but that just isn’t realistic. Beck and McKeown suggest that if just 400 words are taught explicitly each year, that would have a significant affect on students’ ability to comprehend text at their grade level. In fact, they have research to prove that it does! That is a bit easier, but still a lofty goal! We’ll cover strategies to meet that goal in future blog posts.

Tier Three

Tier Three words are domain specific or extremely rare. These are the words that students need to understand science, social studies and math concepts. Think of words like quotient, epidermis and filibuster. These words generally don’t cross domains, so Beck and McKeown suggest teaching them in context. When a student encounters a Tier Three word, that is moment to teach it. The other type of Tier Three word is a very rare word, such as abecedarian. Quite possibly you’ve never encountered that word, and it’s likely your students won’t either. (Interestingly, an abecedarain is a novice learner.) Because these words don’t have great utility in the majority of texts, teachers should not spend a significant amount of instructional time on them. In my experience, that’s where we spend the majority of our vocabulary instruction time – just the reverse of what we should be doing!

So, how to reverse that trend and still find time to eat dinner with your family? My blog post, “Words, Words Wonderful Words! – Strategies to engage your students” will give you some of my tried and true ideas. And, Bringing Words to Life has lots more great ideas. Get the book! It’s really worth it!

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! What does the CCSS say?

As promised, I’m going to dive into the research and resources that I have found to be most useful in building a robust vocabulary for students. We’re going to start with the Common Core State Standards.

What? The standards are a resource? You bet! If you haven’t spent time with the Appendices, I totally recommend you do. They give a great overview of key research and important ideas in each subject, and can really point you in the right direction. Achieve the Core is a great resource for unlocking the standards and what they really expect.

Just in case you don’t have time to read what the ELA Appendix says about Vocabulary, here is a brief summary (but you really should pour a cup of coffee and read it sometime!)

The stance of the standards towards vocabulary is that “the importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.” The appendix references several researchers, including Beck, McKeown and Kucan who wrote the essential book on vocabulary instruction, Bringing Words to Life, and have been instrumental in unlocking effective and engaging vocabulary instruction for teachers for many years. According to their work, and quoted in the Appendix, “Key to students’ vocabulary development is building rich and flexible word knowledge. Students need plentiful opportunities to use and respond to the words they learn through playful informal talk, discussion, reading or being read to and responding to what is read.”

The appendix briefly traces the development of language, beginning with oral language. According to the document, initially students acquire vocabulary through oral conversation that is rich in context. However, by grade 4 or 5, students are no longer learning vocabulary through conversation because they have mastered the majority of words that come up in conversation, even in academic conversation.

The appendix asserts that written language contains a far greater array of words, however, it lacks interactivity and context that aids students in acquiring language. Therefore, inherent in the standards is the idea that purposeful, ongoing instruction in vocabulary is necessary. Research shows that students need to grasp about 95% of the words that they read to comprehend a text, yet only 5-15% of new words are retained the first time a student reads them. Thus, the focus on playful talk and discussion to support reading.

Finally, the appendix references Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s work in categorizing words into three tiers. These three tiers help teachers know which words to prioritize in vocabulary instruction. For more on that topic, see my post Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers!

The College and Career Readiness Standards, from which all of our K-12 standards are derived, have 4 standards devoted to language acquisition in the Language portion of the document (CCRR.L.3, CCRR.L.4, CCRR.L.5. and CCRR.L.6), one standard in the Reading portion of the standards (CCRR.R.4). As you can see, the heavy emphasis on vocabulary instruction in the standards really cannot be overstated. We’ll keep exploring this topic together in future posts and unlock how to make that a reality in your classroom!

Happy teaching!

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

“The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight.”

“And like it or not, you’re in it.”

With those words, Steve Sheinkin closes his gripping account of the making of the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union’s attempts to steal the bomb, which eventually led to the Cold War. There’s a reason this book was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newberry Honor Book. Sheinkin’s spare yet descriptive prose introduces readers to the real people, real problems and real solutions that led to the end of World War II and launched the world into the Atomic Age.

As a student of history, I had no idea how far ranging the process of building the bomb was. From saboteurs in Norway to scientists and spies from all parts of the world, this really was a team effort. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, who features prominently in the book, scientists overcame one dramatic obstacle after another. Meanwhile, spies raced around the world preventing the Germans from completing their bomb, but unaware of the Soviet plans to steal it. At its heart, this book has many elements of a good old-fashioned spy novel, mixed with a fair bit of science and a lot of history.

Because its not a topic that is typically studied in school, I think many intermediate grade readers will struggle to understand this book because they lack background knowledge. Another qualitative consideration is the number of characters. Although Sheinkin provides lots of supports to students, often reminding readers of pertinent details about the characters, for example, there are many players in this complex story. At times, it is difficult to track the minor characters. The Lexile level of the text is about 1000 which puts this text at the high end of 5th grade, and firmly in the grades 6-8 text complexity band.

I have had a few advanced 5th grade readers with a strong interest in this topic read and love this book. I think more typically it will fit in a middle school classroom library because of the qualitative demands of the text. Keep this book on hand for any reader who loves a good spy novel, is interested in World War II, or has a strong interest in science. All three topics weave together in this text to make it a great read guaranteed to capture the interest of even the most jaded middle school reader!

I couldn’t put this book down, and devoured it in two days! I can’t close this review without encouraging all my teacher friends to read this book too. I suggest putting on your running shoes, grabbing this book and hopping on the treadmill. You won’t know if your heart is racing because of the exercise or the book! I guarantee that you will work out a little faster than usual – so that’s a win win!

http://stevesheinkin.com/books/bomb/

No more prepping, no more plans. Summer reading – oh, so grand!

Ah! Summer, with its tall, frosty drinks, loungy chairs, and good reads. If you’re like me, you’ve been stockpiling books since Christmas, just waiting for long, easy afternoons to dive in. By now I have a pretty good stack of kid books, teacher books, and one or two just-for-fun books by my bed. Here are ten of the books that are waiting for me. I’d love to hear what’s on your summer reading list!

Links are to Amazon. I don’t get a kickback or anything, but I like Amazon! Feel free to buy wherever you like, or get them from your local library!

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie- Let’s start with fun. Every few years I go on an Agatha Christie binge, and this summer I’m heading for one. I’ll start with my favorite sleuth, Hercule Poirot, and my favorite mystery – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I just can’t get enough of that dapper Belgian who famously solves cases using “Order and Method, Hastings! Order and method!” Perhaps I can channel my inner Poirot and bring some order and method to my closets this summer…. Hm…..
  2. Mindset Mathematics: Visualizing and Investigating Big Ideas, Grade 5 by Jo Boaler- In my classroom, we believe in the Power of Yet, and I spend a lot of time on Youcubed, Jo Boaler’s website. So, a book that brings together Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler seems like a gift. Plus, my principal let it slip that he’s reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler, and I’ve got to keep up with him! She’s written a book about the big ideas at every grade level from 3rd grade to 8th grade. She’s likely got you covered!
  3. Differentiation and the Brain by Carol Ann Tomlinson- I first read Carol Ann Tomlinson’s amazing work in 1999, and I keep coming back to her. I can’t wait to find out more about the connection between brain research (a longstanding interest of mine) and differentiation. I imagine this book will revitalize my teaching for next year.
  4. A Framework for K-12 Science Education by the National Research Council- I’ve been dipping my toe in this book since November, but this summer I’m looking forward to a good, long dive! So far, it’s completely wonderful, and I am really excited to have the time to spend with it. I imagine I will spend most of the summer really digesting this book and pulling out all of the information I need to bring Science alive in my classroom.
  5. Big, Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale- I have to admit, I keep trying, unsuccessfully, to understand the appeal of graphic novels. My students devour them, and so, I keep on trying. My son assures me that, with my love of history, this book will grab me. We’ll see.
  6. Americanized – Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi – I want to be ready for the current issues dredged up by the election next year, and I suspect immigration will be one of them. This book looks like a great read for my advanced readers, and I think it will be very timely. Plus, it’s supposed to be hilarious, and I do love a funny book!
  7. Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: a Practical Guide for Teachers by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen – I don’t know these authors at all, but my book clubs this year have been, well, lackluster is probably a kind adjective. If this book can help me revitalize things for next year, that would be amazing!
  8. Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – This has actually been on my reading list for years, and it just keeps slipping down the pile. We briefly studied the Manhattan Project this year, and one of my students stumbled on this book. He thinks I will love it, and frankly, so do I. Update: I finished reading Bomb. Loved it!!!! Click here to read my review.
  9. The Birth of Black American: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown by Tim Hashaw – I actually just started this one, and it’s really great. It’s not an easy summer read – I’m taking it one chapter at a time, with some lighter reading in between chapters. but, I’m learning so much that I didn’t know, and I can’t wait to get back and teach history next year. We can really get beyond the textbook next year.
  10. Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder – This book was published the year I student-taught, and it was required reading for us that year. Tracy Kidder followed Mrs. Zajac and her class for a year, and this true story resonated with me immediately. Every August I return to this wise, poignant classic, and it puts me in the right frame of mind to start another year. Each time I learn something new from Mrs. Zajac and the students in her care. I hope it will do the same for you.

Those are a few of the books I’m planning to read this summer. I’d love to hear what you’re reading. I’m always on the prowl for a good read, so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Happy Reading!

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