Thursday, July 19, 2018

Organizing the Classroom Materials Shelf

I made a few minor changes to the Students' Materials Shelf a while back.  Since I decided the theme of my changes this year would be "consistency," I swapped out the few Sterilite shoeboxes to give my Math Manipulatives Area a cohesive look.  So I thought it would be a good idea to get more lime green and aqua containers for this shelf.  I love the little Unitz crates from Staples, so I thought I'd just get more of the same.

Unfortunately, it appears they have been discontinued.  :(

The Before Photo
My next dilemma was what to do with the larger items, like rulers, hole punchers, tape dispensers and staplers.  I've never been sure how to house these, and then I got a great idea:  paper trays.  I could create vertical storage and the kids could take a whole tray with them when it was time to distribute them to groups.

Unfortunately, that was not meant to be either.  They're not tall enough, the rulers fell out of them, and they sagged under the weight.  But other than that...

So I'm still not happy with my materials shelf situation.  If anyone could give me advice in the comments below I'd be grateful! 

On the other hand, I made a few positive changes.

I found some lime green baskets in Target's Dollar Spot.  They're not exactly what I wanted since I can't stack them, but they're a good size for my highlighters, Sharpies and scissors.  I also found some tiny striped boxes at Target that fit inside my wooden box to hold paper clips, staples and erasers.  That's a plus because the paper clips could slide under the dividers in the wooden box; hopefully this will contain them better.  And finally I found some cute pails, also in the Dollar Spot that I'm not sure what to do with; I only found a use for one of them (holding my chart paper markers).  That plus some Frixion pens on sale meant a successful shopping trip that day!

The next improvement I made was to my mini trash.  It fits in with the theme with the help of a bit of Duck Tape.  The mini trash was a real success last year when it came to reducing sticky note wrappers and the like being stuffed any old place on the shelf by kids who were too lazy to walk 15 feet to the barrel, haha.  Seriously, my class this past year was one of my neatest ever and I think organization tricks like this help.  Now it also fits in!

Another good use for the Duck Tape was to create a border on the lip of each shelf.  Like the bookshelf, this shelf is so old and worn it has given the kids and I splinters.  So not only does the border tie in with my color scheme, it will hopefully also prevent some nurse visits!

So this shelf is still a work in progress, unfortunately.  I'll check Pinterest, but if anyone can advise me on the ruler, stapler, hole punch and tape dispenser situation I'd be appreciative.  I'm sure they are not going to stay balanced on top of the paper trays as shown below once the kids arrive! 

  Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites

Update:  Thank you to Kim from Quintessential Lessons for a great solution to my ruler dilemma! Although a Pringles can is too tall to fit on my shelf, I could lay it flat if rolling wasn't such a problem.  However I had on hand a rectangular prism shaped can (Bentley tea tin) that now fits in well thanks to some Duck Tape!

Still looking for ideas on how to stack the tape dispensers, hole punchers and staplers.  Does anyone have a solution?

Originally posted on All Things Upper Elementary

Monday, July 16, 2018

Estimating on Number Lines

I have found that estimating on a number line was a big shift for my class.  At first, they looked like EXPERT estimators; I was ready to hug their third grade teachers.  But then problems kept cropping up.  Why were they suddenly struggling?  Everyone knew that 48,053 rounds to 50,000 and everyone knew 21,923 rounds to 20,000. 

It was pretty clear that when I asked them to round 34,356 to the nearest hundred and suddenly they looked like deer in the headlights that place value was the issue.  Oh, they all whizzed through chapter 1 and knew their word form and expanded form and lined up numbers in columns like pros.  And we've practiced regrouping on a daily basis in our Every Day Counts routine.  But they are still not able to put it all together to really conceptualize how numbers differ.

To fix this I designed two activities.  The first was "Pin the Number on the Number line."  I started out with a single sticky note with the number 35,421 on it.  Then I created four number lines on sentence strips based on that number.  Each number line represented a different place value:
Ten thousands:  10,000  20,000  30,000  40,000 and so on.
Thousands:  30,000  31,000  32,000  33,000  34,000   35,000  36,000 and so on.

And so on for the hundreds and tens...notice that the original number will fit on both of the number lines.  All the number lines were designed to have a space where the given number would fit into. 

Next I wrote 7 more sticky notes that could all fit somewhere on the tens number line, since of course that line would have the most limited choice.

For the activity, I put a number line at each table and had students rotate through, working with a partner to determine where to place the sticky note would go each time, and record it onto their sheets.  As they finished they switched sticky notes with others to get more practice. 

This activity was simple enough for all students, yet it gave them the practice they needed to start looking at a number more than one way.  They had to switch the focus of the place value at each spot.  Since they already had the concept of the 5 determining if a rounded number is larger or smaller than the original, I didn't even focus on that in this lesson.  It was all about find the place value and determining what the higher or lower value was.  In fact, when they sat down and looked at their recording sheets with the higher and lower value their number fell between, they automatically made the connection to circle which of the two the number rounded to.

I had an extension activity that I cycled students through, which I wrote about on my other blog.  This estimating activity was also hands on, but instead of using number lines as a tool I used money to help us estimate!  

Originally posted on All Things Upper Elementary

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Classroom Rules Activity: Main Idea and Details

Every year I start out by talking to my fourth graders about rules.  But by fourth grade, they already know, on paper, what classroom rules should be.  So I've always asked them what they think the rules should be instead of telling them "these are my rules." 

And yet until last year, I would alter those rules, combine with other ideas, throw out "obvious" rules, until lo and behold, their rules were the same as I happened to have on my poster that I'd secretly kept from the previous years.

I don't do that anymore!

Of course, when my students list rules, some are too general, some are more motivational phrases than actionable rules, and a couple are rules that I feel are actually unnecessary.  They also used to be an overabundance of "Don'ts," however once this went out of fashion a few years ago, it seems that by the time they get to my class nowadays they've had enough models of rules phrased as a positive ("stay quiet" instead of "don't talk") that I don't even have to "fix" those (I allow some, I just keep them in the minority).  So of course I still need to "tweak" their rules, but I do NOT put up the same poster every year.

The trouble we DO run into is that we can end up with nearly 50 rules.  So I tell them, "obviously we are never going to be able to remember every single rule on its own.  So it's going to be very hard to follow them!  Are there any we can throw out?"  Once we realize that they are in fact all important, I promise them, "tomorrow I'll teach you a way that we can group these rules to make them easier."

This is when our discussion about rules turns into a reading/writing/executive functioning lesson: sorting details from main ideas.  This is usually SO difficult for kids to grasp, and I used to think it was so hard to teach (since I used to be bad at it when I was their age).  So I model it in the easiest way I know; so simple that many preschoolers would have some success: relate it to animals. 

I start sticking these cards on the board, and at the end I write the sentence in blue.  They're all yelling out the answer before I can even finish the question.  

Next I tell them to think about ways they're alike, and tell me what groups to put them into.  I draw 3 columns as a hint, and listen in as they "turn and talk with a partner."  When they answer, they will usually say, "These 3 are all birds," I'll ask, "How do you know?"  This is because we'll be talking about "finding evidence" a LOT this year.  And finally we name the groups.

Next I ask if there is any other way we can sort these words.  I move "eagle" over into the middle column and ask if the animals are all related in some way.  Kids might see that they are all wild animals.  I ask if robins and blue jays are different; are they not wild animals?  We start to find that there is more than one way to name the groups; sometimes it results in the cards being in different columns, and there is no one right answer.

Next, I gave each group a set of sentence strips.  Last year I "fixed" the strips so that each group would come to a single main idea.  I even threw a main idea strip into the mix to see if they could find it and check if the rules below it "fit inside it." 

This year I mostly fixed the strip distribution it so that each group would have 2 sets of details, and they had to figure out the main idea on their own.  They still have plenty to learn when it comes to compromise and hearing all voices, but I was able to point out some positive behaviors for others to watch and learn from.

In the end, we were able to come up with 5 topics.  Some groups realized their main ideas were synonymous so we needed to combine their piles into one.  Some strips needed resorting the next day, and another lesson was needed to change the topics into main idea sentences (the model I gave them was "Learn as much as you can.") 

There are some rules that I think fit better on a different poster, and the "talking rules" makes me cringe because it's not a fantastic main idea sentence, however the class feels a sense of ownership over these rules.  When we had a fire drill today they pointed out that we needed to add to the safety rules.  Having 5 main ideas to focus on, especially when they were all their own ideas is very manageable.  And yet for those "black or white" thinkers, having the sub-rules that help clarify and define the general rules is helpful.  

We still have more work to do such as talking about how it feels when others break the rules that the rest of us are following (using role playing) as well as talking about their rights as students in our class (which will lead into our unit on government and the Constitution).  But for the most part, after a week and a half our rules are finally finished!  

How do you get kids to "buy into" rules in your class? 

Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites

Originally posted on All Things Upper Elementary

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Use Summertime Efficiently for Next Year's Class

I hope you're having a fun, relaxing summer vacation! Although my vacation has just started, I know some of you are getting ready for next year.  Besides, there are some years I get started on the next year the week after my former kiddos leave!  Often I don't mind giving up some vacation time to devote to school; it's such a nice contrast to be able to pace myself instead of feeling rushed the week before.

After everything was packed up, I started looking over my photos to plan my shopping trips for a few projects.  You can read about my "Summer Projects" that are all about updating several areas of my classroom to improve the look and organization of our daily work. 

I've also started printing, laminating, and one of those tasks that is one of the most time consuming (but somehow gratifying!) each summer, which is personalizing the space for this group of kids.  All the name tags, folders, bulletin board name plates and labels require names.  And I know, fourth graders can write their names on a lot of items like notebooks and folders.  However I happen to enjoy writing them myself.  It's a small way to model my expectations for neat printing, give them a taste of things to come with carefully written cursive letters, and it helps me remember who's in my class more easily, even if I can't match names with faces until the first day. 

So for now, all the printing, laminating, cutting and handwriting names will continue each summer.  I've created a to do list for myself so I can stay on track.  Just because I enjoy a leisurely pace doesn't mean I want to waste time with more than one trip to the laminating machine!  My Back to School to do List is free and editable if you're interested in getting a system in writing that you don't have to have to think about much from one year to the next (other than some updating). 

A final tip I have for you if you're like me, and you like using some of your summer vacation to prepare for a smoother school year:  Make extra EVERYTHING.  In the above picture I have at least 5 blank name tags, 5 blank leaves for my Welcome Back bulletin board, and so on.  There are at least 3 good reasons for this:

  1. The laminator inevitably eats something. 
  2. The class lists inevitably change.  I know, some teachers feel that names should not go on things until those lists are finalized.  However I feel it's much less stressful to write 1 or 2 names 10 times a few days before school starts than have to write the entire class's names on everything a couple days before. 
  3. New students inevitably join our class later in the year, often with very little advance notice.  I keep an envelope titled "New Student Materials" in which I toss all my extras that I make at the same time as everyone else.  This, along with my New Student Orientation List has significantly cut down on the stress of getting that phone call from the office, "You have a new student coming in tomorrow."  Now I can devote my energy into thinking about how to integrate him/her socially and academically instead of having to reprint a leaf for a bulletin board.  My New Student Orientation List is free for a limited time, and of course it's editable.

Do you have any tricks and tips for using summertime efficiently?

This post originally appeared  on All Things Upper Elementary.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Help Students Keep their Desks Neat

Does helping your fourth grader learn organizational skills ever feel like a losing battle?  For years I have felt that way.  I have color coded folders, notebooks, Catch Up folders and a list of "items you may keep in your desk."  I have a dedicated whiteboard that details what paper belongs in which colored folder at any given time. 

And yet when I tell students, "Put this paper in your yellow writing folder," there is always a handful that decide to use the transition time to chit chat and pop the paper in their desk instead of making the effort to take out their yellow writing folder. Which the next day results in, "I can't find my paper; can I get another one (not to mention the implied, "Can I also have another half hour to catch up")?  What's a teacher to do?

In the past I've been able to help those kids who need extra time to clear out a desk they did not organize with the rest of the class; I just stayed in the room with them during recess time.  However with changing duty schedules, I no longer have that luxury.  Therefore I had to develop a system to scaffold this organizational process.  My solution to this problem was to create a mini instructional manual:  "How to Clean Your Desk."

The instruction manual includes step by step directions for how to clean out a desk that needs some work (dump all your stuff all over the floor is not one of those steps) as well as a photograph of what a neat desk looks like.  I double sided this resource when I printed them off so that the result looks like a card (I also edged it all in Washi tape to make it look more attractive and less like a punishment).

I printed 4 of these instruction manuals, (they come 2 per page) and before I go home each afternoon I check a single group of desks.  If a student has any loose papers, I leave one on their desk.  Then when they come in the next morning, they need to clean their desk out.  It might be worth missing Morning Work some days, other days they will need to miss Morning Meeting (which includes a game, so of course they are motivated to get organized more quickly).  The result is every group gets checked once per week, so no one ends up with a "black hole" by the time midterm rolls around.

If you are interested in this resource I'm making it available for free for a limited time!  You can download my How to Clean Your Desk Instruction Manual here.  It's a great little companion to my Organizational Tools Bundle. 

The instruction manual has been a hit in my room this year.  How do you help keep your students on track? 

 Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites

This was originally posted on All Things Upper Elementary.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Equivalent Fractions Lesson Fail (and Fix)

The week after vacation, as every teacher knows, is crunch time.  We know that the state math test is rapidly approaching and equivalent fractions lesson reviews are in order.  And we know that the pressure is ON.  As veteran teachers, the whole thing is old hat.

It's not old hat to our kids, however!
Usually my fourth graders tend to be well rested after a vacation (a benefit of teaching upper elementary kids; they don't forget about classroom expectations like the little ones).  But during Monday's equivalent fractions lesson, my kiddos were just not on their game. 

The Equivalent Fractions Lesson Fail

First, I was all excited to do an equivalent fractions activity involving stations and manipulatives and exploring different shapes and amounts of pieces that can equal one whole.  I was going to lead a discussion on patterns we notice and post photos of all their ideas and it was going to be collaborative and hands on and foster real mathematical thinking.
That is not what occurred.  At all.  
Similarly, my plan was to end the day with a fantastic board game I created that help kids practice how heating and cooling results in a solid, liquid, or gas.  I spent my vacation finding cute fonts for the game pieces, typing up directions, and looking forward to more thank yous like I got on 100s day for the fun activity that helped them practice a tricky concept until it was mastered.
Again...nope.  Most of the class was so off task that I called off the game.  I let the kids who had done focused work help me with some coloring/cutting prep, and left it for the next day.
It just confirms the fact that no matter how carefully you plan a lesson, no matter how fun you make it, and no matter how many classes it's worked for in the past, not every equivalent fractions lesson works for every group of children.  Otherwise there would be a single curriculum that everyone uses.
So here's how I turned a day 1 equivalent fractions lesson fail into a day 2 triumph!

Changing the Content Delivery for My Equivalent Fractions Lesson

The first problem was that the kids bicker, a lot.  Despite Morning Meeting and Responsive Classroom, and student generated rules and setting expectations for group work and reminders 5 minutes prior to starting, they still bicker.  
The second problem was that despite modeling each station, posting the model and directions on the board, and answering questions/the same question 10 times, lots of kids just did not understand concept and/or, more likely, the directions.  
So what I decided was to give them an extra day of break...from each other.  I love collaborative learning and I do lots of it.  Which is strange, because I'm an introvert.  Or maybe it's BECAUSE I'm an introvert, and it doesn't come naturally to me, so I want very much to impart the strategies I've learned in order to help other introverts in my class.  But when it's not working, there's no sense beating a dead horse.  When the concept is too hard AND they have to focus on collaborating well, it's too much for them to handle; one of those things has got to give, and today it was the collaboration.

The Equivalent Fractions Lesson Fix

The equivalent fractions lesson fixSo for Tuesday's equivalent fractions lesson reboot I came in with...a worksheet.  I know, I know, what a horrible teacher I am.  Antiquated methods and all that.  But you know what?  They did it.  They did focused work for the period, they noticed patterns during this revised equivalent fractions lesson, and they enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere that coloring patterns tends to evoke. 

Once they finished the worksheet, I pulled out the manipulatives once again with a different, higher level skill to work on.  But by starting out with a coloring worksheet (you can get it free from my TPT store) with the exact same skill that didn't come to them when they were collaborating with a hands on activity, suddenly they could do it.     
Image credit:
Image credit:
I continued to rethink the cooperative work hiatus in the afternoon.  I didn't let them play the science game in their groups.  Instead I told them they were going to "play with me."  I chose only 4 kids to get a game board, and I got one too.  I situated them so that kids could look on with those that got to play.  And then we each took turns, drew cards, read them aloud, talked about our move, practiced the good sportsmanship I was modeling, and applauded the first person who got to the finish line.  
I'd never tried a board game this way.
I liked it!
I'm absolutely using this strategy at the beginning of the year, and whenever a class has a case of the "bickers."  It really helped, and actually, the nearby kids weren't too bored.  They started saying "us," instead of "her" (the person near them playing).  They formed informal teams.  That created a much nicer atmosphere than having 5 separate groups with every man for himself, and bickering.

Sometimes you just know:  It's time for plan B! 

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Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT

I originally posted this on All Things Upper Elementary.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Happy Square Day's Eve!

Happy Square Day's Eve, Readers!

At my school, along with Math in Focus, we use Every Day Counts (or "Calendar Math," as we commonly refer to it).  The beauty of this system is its daily repetition.  However kids, like all people, learn things better if they are emotionally involved.  So in looking over the math Common Core frameworks for fourth grade, I started thinking about where I could fit in square numbers.

I always feel like square numbers is one of those things that is easy to forget.  And what a waste that they get it wrong on their End of the Year tests or MCAS test, because it's not actually that difficult!  They just need a quick reminder every so often, and they'd all be capable of getting it right.

This year I realized how easily square numbers could fit into the Every Day Counts portion of our day.  It would work especially well during a month when we work on area and perimeter every day.  So one day, after we looked at our improper fraction with a numerator of 9, the perimeter of a random figure we had drawn with 9 square centimeters, the geometric figures in our pattern, and the next entry in our running cash total, I wished my fourth graders a "Happy Square Day." 

"What's Square Day?"  They asked.

"What's Square Day?  It's the happiest day of the month!  You don't get brightly wrapped square presents, or eat square shaped cake or sing, Happy Square Day to You, but it's still the BEST holiday."

"Why?"  They asked excitedly.

"Because it happens FIVE times every month!"


Hey, some of them saw the humor.  The ones that didn't, well, their curiosity stayed piqued as I started to demonstrate how to create square numbers with one, then two, then three, and finally 4 small squares, the latter which formed a larger square.  "We had a Square Day on the 4th.  It's a 2 by 2 square."  I continued around the first square with 5, then 6, 7, 8 and finally nine small squares that formed a square.  "And today is also Square Day!  3 long by 3 wide is 9.  A perfect square."

"So it's basically a doubles fact" my smart little former third graders recalled.

"That's right.  But here's why we call it a SQUARE number.  You CAN'T turn 5 blocks into a square.  You CAN'T turn 10 boxes into a square.  But you can with 9, and you can with 16, and you can with other Square Numbers, nice and even and neat.  That's why I love Square Day!

After giving them time to draw their own squares with a partner, I challenged them; "So when is the next "Square Day's Eve this month?"

Instead of drawing the squares on an anchor chart, I drew it on the white board so I could erase one square from each corner. 

"When is the day after Square Day, also known as 'Extra Boxing Day' in England?"  We added a box to each corner. 

Once we explored squares (as well as what it looks like right before and right after a perfect square is drawn) I challenged them to redraw their previous figures for the month.  I asked them to create figures that were as compact as they could.  That is, I wanted figures that are as close to squares as possible.  Although sometimes it's great to draw creative, zany shapes to find the perimeter, interesting patterns emerge when the figures are more compact.

As a result, the kids started to see patterns in their work.  They were noticing that the figure that is one off from a perfect square has the SAME perimeter as a square!  "It's like that one square is just inside out; it goes in at the corner instead of out to fill the corner."  They also noticed that the perimeter never went down as we progressed.  Previously there was no rhyme or reason to how area and perimeter were connected, because many kids were drawing skinny rectangles instead of allowing for irregular figures in between squares.  Now they actually had some data to analyze and draw conclusions from. 

And so, in my class we celebrate Square Day, and they know that on the day before Square Day their weirdo teacher is going to be giddy with anticipation.

How do you keep square numbers fresh for students?  Will you try Square's Day tomorrow on 4/16, or next week on 4/25?

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