Author Archives: scotton23

Encounter by Jane Yolen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book feels especially timely because Columbus has been folded into the ongoing conversations that we are having about race. The other day I overheard a fellow teacher explaining that she understood why we were pulling down the statues of Confederate soldiers, but why pull down statues of Columbus? If you (or your students, or your students’ parents) are wondering the same thing, this is the book for you.

The arrival of Columbus in the Americas led to the Columbian exchange, which caused the genocide of the indigenous people. I know that word genocide is harsh, but I looked it up in the dictionary. It is the correct word for “the deliberate killing of a group of people”. This book uses the scant facts we know about the Taino people (mostly from Columbus since the Taino people are extinct) and the author’s imagination to paint a picture of the beginning of that extinction.

I have loved this book since the first time I read it. Told from the point of view of a Taino boy, (the Taino were the indigenous people who first encountered Columbus), it is a new look at some old history. Definitely, put it on the top shelf! The words are lyrical and there is a rhythm, and a feeling of music, to many of them. David Shannon created absolutely marvelous illustrations that connect you to the long-gone Taino culture. Which brings us to our first teaching point.

  1. How illustrations enhance the mood or tone of a story – The final illustration is very powerful. It shows the narrator, now an old man. At first you notice his posture and the setting. As you look more closely, you notice that parts of the setting show through him, as if he is transparent, and his feet fade into nothingness. This is definitely a magic-paper worthy illustration! (What! You don’t know about magic paper? Read on!) Put the illustration under the doc camera and ask students to start with what they notice. No inferences yet, please. As they share the things they notice, hold a piece of white paper (cardstock if you have it) about a foot out from the projection and it will be magnified. Ta da! Magic paper! After students have noticed, I would ask them to turn and talk to share their wonders. Again, no inferences yet. Just questions. Finally, I would ask, “Why did the illustrator draw the final illustration this way? What is he trying to say?” Then, using their observations as evidence, and their questions to guide them, they will make some inferences about this. Along the way, you will probably have a very rich conversation about tone and mood!

2. Point of view/perspective – This is a great text to talk about different perspectives. I like to contrast the boy’s view of the explorers with Columbus’ own writings about the Taino people. His journals are readily available online, and at the bottom of this post I’ve put the excerpt that you can use. It is from his first meeting with the Taino, and there are clear comparisons between what he actually said and what the narrator of Encounter says. Some fascinating conversations can be had!

3. Symbolism – On the first page the narrator dreams of large winged white birds that descend upon the village. The illustration helps even the most concrete thinker understand that the ships are the birds. It is a great symbol to explore, and it carries the narrative.

This book is a really great addition if you are looking to bring new perspectives to your tired, old explorer unit. I recommend it for students in grades 3 – 6. Younger than that will miss some of the nuance, but it is a great book to bring that Age of Discovery unit alive.

Be sure to check out some of my other recent posts about great resources to use with kids to help them understand other perspectives.

Intersection Allies

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Intersection Allies

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had the wonderful good fortune to spend the first part of this week at a virtual conference called “Be About it: Unpacking White Privilege, Bias and Anti-Racist Instruction”. It was a powerful conference and I’m feeling even more inspired to be part of the solution. The concept of intersectionality came up frequently from many presenters. Which lead me to dig through the mountain of books I’ve purchased during the quarantine to find “Intersection Allies”. I purchased the book a few months ago, intending to use it with my fifth graders. Things (like distance learning) got in the way, but I’ve dusted it off, and I still think it is an absolutely marvelous book. I can’t wait to share it with my students!

The book is written in charming verse. Each page features a different child, each with a unique situation that might set them apart. One is in a wheelchair, another is a recent immigrant who must translate for her mother. One of the most moving illustrations shows a young girl participating in a Black Lives Matter protest. The rhymes help move the rhythm of the book along and help build a feeling in the reader that what unites us is more important than what divides us. The premise of intersectionality is expressed beautifully about half way through the book by these words.

Race, religion, citizenship, class, and ability:

Each of these intersects to form identity.

Age, gender, size, and skin color, too,

Can make living life different for a friend than for you.

Intersection Allies, by Johnson, Council, and Choi

I think this book has a powerful message that is expressed in simple terms. Little kids can understand big messages, so I think this would be a wonderful book for 2nd – 5th grade classrooms. Older students might think the illustrations are a bit young, and the book is probably too long for most 1st graders.

Here are some possible teaching points.

  1. Authors write to express an idea. This book is perfectly set up to help students discover the theme. In fact, it is expressed, twice, in large print. The final page of the book says, “Where there’s room for some, we make room for all. Friends can be allies no matter how small!” This book lays out plenty of evidence to support a central message or theme of inclusion.
  2. Understanding characters can help us understand ourselves. Each page features a different character. There is rich opportunity for analyzing characters and, in turn, shedding a light on ourselves. Invite students to connect with a character and to explore that connection. They will have to dive deeper than outward characteristics to do so, but that is exactly the point!
  3. Point of view – This is a really interesting part of the book. It is written in first person, but each page has a different narrator, and then there are pages, like the quote above, which address the reader in second person. Tracking the narrator is part of the complexity of the book for young readers, but the illustrations are super helpful with that. You could have a great discussion with kids about using the illustrations to help you comprehend this piece of the text.
  4. Authors use a predictable structure when they write. I would teach this structure as a compare/contrast structure. Several of the characters actively compare themselves with another character. For example, one character introduces herself this way. “My name is Adilah, and just like Kate, what I wear inspires endless debate.” Again, I think this ties in beautifully with the idea of using characters in books to better understand others, and ourselves.

This is absolutely a top shelf book for me. I think the language is beautiful and the ideas are inspiring. If we all spent a little more time “making room”, what a difference we would make! The simple message will inspire your students as well, and before you know it, we’ll have made the world a better place, together!

Here is a free character analysis to help you use Intersection Allies in the classroom.

Be sure to check out my other posts on great resources to use in creating a more just and equitable classroom.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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!

To my surprise, this was a top shelf book for me because I really fell in love with this character. Jackie is complex and relatable at the same time, and many intermediate readers move on from this book to devour other James Patterson books.

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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. This book doesn’t quite make the top shelf for me, but still, it’s a great read for many intermediate readers. I’d pair this book with a girl who struggles to read, but wants to keep up appearances. Raina Telgemeier has written several books, all of which will be quick reads, even for struggling readers, and build credibility with other readers.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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! This is a top shelf book for me. I’ve known so many reluctant readers, especially boys, who got hooked on this series and then went on to read other history books with greater understanding and enjoyment. Plus, “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood” was the first graphic novel I read that I actually enjoyed! Give it a try – you may find yourself enjoying it too!

Next Reads:

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Like most people, I have found these last few months to have their ups and downs. A world-wide pandemic, civil unrest, police brutality…. As teachers, even when we are reeling from difficulties in our world, we have an additional burden – helping our students make sense of the times in ways that don’t indoctrinate, but educate. I am going to spend some time in this blog highlighting some of the really great resources I’ve been finding to help you do that. If you didn’t catch it, check out my blog post from a few days ago about Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow ( a perfect book for intermediate classroom libraries!)

Everyone probably learned about Brown v. Board of Education in college. In case that’s many years ago for you (as it is for me!), Brown was the landmark Supreme Court case that reversed over 50 years of segregation in our schools. What you may not have learned was that a key turning point in the case was the data presented by two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They had spent years studying the effects of segregation using dolls to judge children’s perceptions.

In 2006, a seventeen-year-old named Kiri Davis decided to recreate their study to find out how children’s views have changed in the last 80 years. Just as the Clarks had done, Davis got two dolls, identical but for the color of their skin. Then she asked students which doll they would like to play with… which doll was the nice doll… which doll was the bad doll. The questions mirrored those asked in the 1940’s by the Clarks, and so did the results. 15 out of 21 children preferred the white doll and thought that the black doll was bad.

Davis then made a film, weaving her experiment into testimony by several lovely black girls. A Girl Like Me is a quiet reminder that nothing has really changed. These beautiful black girls calmly cut through the shouting and slogans you see on the news today, and tell about their experience.

I think the film, which is only 7 minutes long, is a great option to show in upper intermediate and middle school classrooms. It does not point fingers or lay blame, it merely presents facts, and would be a great conversation starter. Most importantly, it places discrimination and racial struggle squarely in the present, not in the comfortable past.

Here are some possible teaching points for using the film in class:

  1. Theme – the film lays out a clear and easy trail to follow, leading to the theme of identity. This is a key theme in lots of middle grade literature.
  2. Scientific Process – Because Kiri Davis recreates the study of the 1940’s, there are lessons about setting up valid studies, communicating your process clearly so that the study can be verified by others, controls and variables.
  3. And of course, there are so many ways to tie this into the ongoing struggle for civil rights that African Americans have been engaged in for over 400 years. For a free resource that gives an overview of the civil rights movement from 1619 to the 1960’s, check out these BOOM Cards on The Civil Rights Movement.
  4. Powerful language – There is one use of the n-word in the film. That moment will likely shock many viewers but is a great opportunity to discuss the power that words have and how we should choose our words carefully.

I highly encourage you to show this film, A Girl Like Me (not to be confused with the Lifetime movie of the same name!) to your students and pause for some meaningful conversation. It may take some courage. But it may be one of those moments that changes minds and hearts. And that is worth 7 minutes of your time.

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.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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. All of those elements combined to make this a top shelf book for me – my highest rating!

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/

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It is no secret that I don’t always appreciate graphic novels. So it may surprise you to learn that “Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow” is a top shelf book for me – my highest rating. This graphic novel really delivers. Like one of Satchel Paige’s fastballs, it’s by you before you know it, and you think about it long after he’s retired from the mound.

The illustrations use only three colors, and immediately evoke a feeling of scarcity and suppression that help the reader connect with what it must have felt like to live under Jim Crow. The story is compelling. Told from the point of view of a sharecropper, Emmet Wilson, the story opens with a baseball game where Emmet plays against Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. The authors do a beautiful job of building the suspense in the game, only to end the scene with Emmet getting a hit off Paige, but also sustaining a career-ending injury.

As the story continues, Emmet ekes out a living for his family under the restrictions of Jim Crow. Baseball weaves in and out of the story, a not-so-subtle reminder of Emmet’s glory days and of the system built to ensure that African Americans see little glory. Even Satchel Paige, the most highly paid athlete in the world at the time, lives in a system where a white man won’t shake his hand after a good hit.

This book is a perfect fit for the reader who devoured the Nathan Hale history graphic novels and is looking for their next read. Like the Nathan Hale series, this is history told through smart text and engaging graphics. As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking about one fifth grade boy in particular. I think this will get him out of his Nathan Hale rut and hopefully lead him into biographies.

It’s also a great read for any baseball fan, so grab a copy for fans of Mike Lupica and Matt Christopher books. The baseball scenes in “Satchel Paige” are essential to the story, so this is a great bridge from sports books into non-fiction. I can see this being one of the books that travels through a classroom, igniting conversation and anticipation as the kids wait their turn to read it.

Put this on the top shelf and watch it fly off. Perfect for 4th and 5th grade fans of the Nathan Hale books and for baseball fans of all ages!

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!

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