Category Archives: Teaching Tips

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 from a few days ago.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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!

Building a Community of Readers – the Sticky Note data activity

My main goal as a reading teacher is to inspire a love of reading in my students. If I can do that successfully, the rest will take care of itself. Voracious readers become competent readers, although the reverse is not always true. If you haven’t read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, you should. She’s a master at helping kids love reading.

As a teacher, the only daily homework I require is 20 minutes of reading a night. I’ve tried every type of reading log imaginable – daily slips with daily reinforcement at school, weekly logs, monthly logs, points systems, computerized tests…. You name it, I’ve tried it! And guess what? The kids who read at home in September are still reading at home in June, and the kids who weren’t reading in September were seldom motivated to read by any system I could impose.

So, I don’t use reading logs anymore. Instead, I’ve implemented some simple activities to build motivation and interest in reading. One of those is the Sticky Note data activity. I use it a lot, especially at the beginning of the year.

It’s pretty simple. Students will walk into class and find a blank sticky note on their desks. They know that we will start our day, every day, with at least 30 minutes of Independent Reading. As they filter in the door, I ask them to write the title of the book they read at home on a sticky, and not to put their name on the sticky. This is NOT about embarrassing kids, so it’s anonymous. If they didn’t read at home, they write Nothing on the sticky.

After their Independent Reading time, I call them to the rug and ask them to put their sticky on the board. We then organize the sticky notes, usually by genre at the beginning of the year since I’m working to build their understanding of different genre. We then have a data talk about their sticky notes. Sometimes, I turn it into a math activity and ask them to organize the data in a graph or line plot. Sometimes I ask them to create questions that can be asked and answered using the data. And sometimes we just discuss our noticings and questions.

This super simple, quick activity is motivating to many students. Don’t use it every day, once or twice a week is better. That gives students time to finish books so the data changes.

You can also vary the question. Other things I might have them write on their sticky are:

  • Where did you read at home last night (or this morning)?
  • When was the last time you read at home?
  • Who do you like to read with at home?
  • Are you reading fiction or non-fiction at home right now?
  • How long did you read at home last night (or this morning)?

Once the data is organized, I snap a quick picture of the board, and I send it to parents. Key to helping students read at home is getting parents on board, and a picture is worth 1,000 words!