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Winning Week One – Day 1

There have been millions of texts written on how to launch a school year successfully. Really. Google it. Millions!

So, why do I feel the need to write my own? Well, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I don’t exactly follow the rules. In fact, we don’t even talk about the rules on the first day. Yep, we don’t talk about the rules. In the many, many years I’ve been doing this, I find that the vast majority of students are well behaved on Day 1. They are trying to impress you. After all, you are going to be a big part of their life this year, and they know that a good first impression is important. I think we should learn that from our students, and worry more about making a good first impression on them. Here’s how I try to do that.

First, I greet every student at the door with a smile, a high five, a hug…. Whatever they need. I will do that every morning for the rest of the year and it’s best to set that expectation early. Also, many kids are nervous, and your smile goes a long way toward making them feel welcome and bringing down the affective filter a bit.

When they walk into the classroom, they encounter desks with no name tags, but lots of books stacked on them. I ask them to choose a spot where they can learn well, choose a book and start to read. My first act as their teacher is to express confidence that they know themselves as learners and are going to be able to manage their own behavior. I do the same thing whether it’s a kindergarten class or a fifth grade class. Then, I let them know the most important thing we will do this year – read. We will start every day with the most important skill – reading. Now they know what I value, and they will automatically value it because I do.

That first independent reading time is full of opportunity. I notice what kind of book they choose. I see who immediately starts reading and never looks up from the page. I learn which students need to talk about a book to process it. I get a sense of the stamina of the class. After about 15 minutes, I know so much about my students. Then, I tell them that if they have found a wonderful book that they would like to continue reading, they should keep it, and I show them the check out procedures and where to keep their books. If not, no worries. Just put the book back in the pile.

Now it’s time for the first group activity of the year. School has been in session for less than an hour, and I want them to know that we work together. It is their group task to sort the books into groups that go together. I store books in my classroom in a variety of ways – by author, by genre, by topic…. Every year the system changes slightly because the kids come up with it. After all, the system has to work for them. This is our first stab at figuring that out. I make labels and use velcro to attach them to the tubs, so it’s really easy to change labels. Students will likely work for about 30 minutes on creating the system. In that time, as a class, we will probably categorize about 200 books. This is the beginning of a process that will take us several days, but in the end, the kids will be independently able to find, check out, and return books. And that saves me time all year! For step-by-step about how to do this in your own classroom, click here!

Now that the kids have learned that I expect them to make good choices and keep things organized (and remember, I have not said that to them at all. I have just shown them my expectations), I want them to know that I am interested in getting to know them, and in sharing myself with them. So, we play Two Truths and a Lie. I start with two true statements about myself and one lie. The class tries to guess which is the lie. They almost never do….. 🙂 Then I give them their own sheet to fill out, which you can download for free on my TPT store. Over the next few days, we work our way through what they have written and find out who is good at lying (just kidding, we find out all kinds of cool stuff!). We usually do 4-5 per day, so it will take us that first week to read everyone’s.

At some point in the day, and every day for the first week, I want to surprise them. While they are at recess or lunch, I set up a little surprise. On my stool I set a box. It is wrapped, and just to be extra mysterious, I cover it with cloth. I choose some really dramatic music to play. The theme from “2001, a Space Odyssey” is a great choice. As the students file in, I start the music. Even if I stream from You Tube, I don’t turn on the video. I want all eyes on me, and that’s not usually too difficult because I start dancing. Yep. And I’m no dancer. Mostly they watch because I’m so bad. As I dance around, I throw the cloth off the box, then rip off the paper and toss it too. Trust me, the kids are totally transfixed. Clearly, something in this box is pretty special! Inside the box we discover – layers of tissue paper! As I toss those around the room, all eyes are upon me. Then, as the music builds to a dramatic finale (you may want to practice your timing!), I gasp with joy, and then triumphantly hold up – a writing journal! As I bestow (no, I do not pass these out, I bestow them, as befits a great treasure!) the writing journals upon each fortunate student, they can’t wait to get started. Trust me. Every student has something to write about – the crazy teacher in room 205! (By the way, in their end-of-year reflections, this is always someone’s favorite day of fifth grade. The crazy teacher throwing tissue paper even beats out the field trips!)

The Writing Journals are revealed!
The Writing Journals are revealed!

After we write, I give them their first homework assignment of the year. Take those journals home and decorate the cover with at least five things that they love. I show mine, which has pictures of my kids on the cover, graffiti art about favorite books, places I’ve traveled recently, music symbols, and other things that I love. The kids have a week to get their cover decorated, and when they bring them back, we have our first writing conference. They tell me why they chose the things on their cover, and I get to know them a bit more. We also have built in topics to write about! I cover each journal with clear Contact Paper to make sure the pictures etc. don’t fall off during the year. For an update on how I’m doing this digitally, click here!

You are probably wondering about math. Of course I do math on the first day! My goal with math on the first day is always to awaken their curiosity and build the idea that math is creative and we have to be flexible. This year, I used a lesson from Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, Grade 5. Her first lesson on using numbers and symbols flexibly is just what I want to start the year right. We first watched a brief video from her website, You Cubed, about the importance of struggle in math. Then, I asked the students to look at images of squares grouped in different ways. This was our first Number Talk, and so I guided students through our procedures. Again, I’m not talking about the rules, but I’m setting expectations, and because it’s the first day, students are willing to go with it. Seriously. They do. This activity showed students that there is more than one way to solve a math problem, and the images lower the affective filter and make it approachable for all students. Not bad for day one!

Once in my 25 years of starting this way I had a student misbehave in a pretty disruptive way. Other students talk or goof off. It does happen. I don’t mean to imply that students are perfect robots on Day 1. Of course they aren’t! I gather data on the behaviors they will default to and that helps me plan when behavior focused mini-lessons I should teach, which rules we are likely to need and when students are likely to need more attention from me than others. Day 1 is key for gathering data to inform my practice. Most misbehavior on the first day can be handled with a Pull-Aside – a quiet, private chat with the student where you let them know that they need to reset.

For me, this is a pretty perfect first day. We have gotten to know each other, and we have worked together to create the most important learning space – the Book Nook. We have collaborated at least twice, but also had quiet, independent reading and writing time. We have engaged in interesting reading, writing and math work, and the teacher did something just a little crazy! When I do this well, students leave the classroom at the end of the day tired, smiling, and curious. On day two, they show up eager to see what will come next. Hopefully, they will still be wondering that on day 179!

Keep reading about Day 2 to find out how I keep the learning, and excitement, going!

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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!

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.

Poetry Slam

One of my favorite fluency exercises is called Poetry Slam. It gives students a chance to read lots of great poetry AND practice their fluency at the same time. And kids love it, especially boys. Yep, boys love poetry. Here’s how to implement Poetry Slam in your classroom.

First, find a poem you love. Rhyme helps, but isn’t necessary. This year, I started with It Couldn’t Be Done by Edgar Guest. This is a great poem for teaching about perseverance and grit, so it was a terrific way to start off the school year. I read the poem to the kids, and then I spent some time teaching the kids about the poem. We talked about the stanzas, the rhyme scheme and the theme. This free Poetry Glossary might be a useful tool as you do that.

I then had the kids read the poem chorally. We generated a list of criteria for fluent reading. I then asked each student to take their copy of the poem and read it to the wall. This is a protocol I have the students use often. They spread around the room, facing the wall, and read. They don’t have to read loudly because the wall bounces their voices back to them, and they can hear themselves reading. Afterwards, I ask the students to reflect on their own fluency, and they write a goal for themselves on the bottom of the poem.

Then, I issue the challenge. How many times can you read this poem in the next two days? Five? Ten? Twenty? Every person that they read the poem to signs the back of the poem. They can get more than one signature from each person.

The next day, we read the poem again and talk about it further. Sometimes I have the students respond to the poem on the second day. They might answer questions or work with vocabulary. And, I energize them about getting more signatures! Usually, by that point in time, some kids have 3-4 signatures. A good poetry slam is ten signatures. I know that by the next day, someone will have fifteen or twenty.

This is such a fun activity, and it takes hardly any time. Many kids are highly motivated to practice, and they spend time reading at home, to their bus driver, to the cafeteria ladies…. Anyone who will listen. Little brothers and sisters are usually especially supportive, and it helps them hear some great poetry too!

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? 🙂