Monday, December 31, 2012

Journeys Reading Vocabulary Homework



One of the best parts of the Journeys reading program in 4th grade (besides the stories/articles are all really engaging) is the vocabulary.  The words are mostly "Tier 2," they're repeated in multiple contexts in different texts students encounter as the week unfolds, they have great activity cards, and the questions in the teachers book are great.  The way I use their resources are:

1. Read aloud that short text in the TM before the selection in the student books.  I even let my students have their books open in their lap to the page with all the "answers" on it.  I pause when I finish a sentence with a vocabulary word in it, and say, "your vocabulary word is ______."  Then the kids show me one of 3 signs I taught them.  They shrug if they, "never heard the word."  They stroke their chin if they, "heard the word, but can't really explain what it means."  And they point to their temple as if to say, "I know this word, I can tell you about it!" 

I call on kids who think they can explain it, and if they are close but not quite I'll call on another child and ask, "Can you add to the definition?"  In the end if I need to clarify I will.

2.  The words appear in the anthology and leveled readers, so kids get lots of exposure to the words in multiple contexts, which helps so much.

3.  I use the cards that come with the series.  I have the children sit in a circle, and pair highly verbal students with lower ones.  I hand out a card to each pair, and they have 2-3 minutes to talk about the photo and contextual sentence, as well as ask each other the questions on the back.  I set a timer to go off when time is up, and then the children pass their card clockwise.  This continues until every pair has seen all 10 cards.  I stay in the center of the circle to man the timer and also to provide guidance (or a substitute partner if someone has to use the restroom!). 

4.  I administer the vocabulary portion of the weekly quizzes.

So really, the only missing piece in this puzzle was homework.  There just isn't much (or any?) in the students' workbook.  I don't understand why this piece is missing!  Sure, I could assign the old, "write a sentence for each vocabulary word" standby assignment.  And then I'll get such gems as:
1.      I know how to spell original.
2.      I know what original is.
3.      I don't know what original means.
4.      Do you know what original means?

I was a kid once.  I INVENTED those sentences.  I learned percents by figuring "if I have 20 words, I can get away with 4 crummy sentences.  Which 4 do I least want to come up with a good sentence for?"

So with these other great activities at their disposal, I decided that those questions that appear only in the TM don't need to be used as discussion points, they would work great for homework practice.  By creating a template worksheet that includes a big text box in the middle for photocopying those questions, I get WAY better sentences now than I did before.  I even get the added bonus of teaching and re-teaching the skill of rephrasing the question in the form of an statement.  I hope this template provides a nice addition to your vocabulary instruction if you are using Journeys.  This Journeys vocabulary template is available for free in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you use Journeys, I hope you find it useful! 






Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Top Ten Classroom Culture Tips When the Kids Won't Play Nice (Surviving the Week Before Winter Break)


The day before Winter Break can be a little manic for kids and teachers alike.  Okay, so the week and month before Winter Break can be crazy too!  This year I had a pretty good week though.  Here are some things we did to be festive, productive, and ease in to vacation.

1.  The Holiday Concert:  Ours is during the day, and our music teacher was very clever this year.  She had the whole school sit in a horseshoe shape so everyone can see each other.  That way, instead of having each grade level transitioning up to the stage when it was their turn to sing, she just had to motion for that grade level to stand for their turn.  It worked out GREAT!  It works for us because instead of an auditorium with seats, the kids sit on the cafeteria floor for assemblies.

2.  We took the time to appreciate each other.  This was a "punishment" for my class because we had an incident last week where a student threatened another student after being picked on by a group of kids.  So I told the kids that before they were allowed to have a holiday party, they would be required to write something nice to every single student in their class.  This sounded like a horrible chore to them at first.

Then we brainstormed a list.  I told them I did not want them writing things like, "I like your shoes" or "You have nice hair" because they are not about the person, just their physical features.  I modeled an acceptable statement, "You helped me with long division when I was confused."  That was all they needed; over the next 3 days they came up with a list of over 20 ideas!

Next, I created a page of 18 text boxes that each ended with "Sincerely,____" and ran them off on our classroom stationery (which looks just like this).  The top of the page said, "Dear (name), We are glad you are in our class!  We appreciate you because..."  When the time came on Friday to actually write, they were so ready that they only needed 90 seconds per classmate (I had planned for 2 minutes each). 

At the end of the project, kids were so excited to read their pages.  One told me, "This is going right in my scrapbook when I get home."Not a bad punishment, huh?"  I teased.

3.  We reflected on GIVING, not receiving.  For Friday's Morning Work, I wrote, "Think about people who you bought gifts for.  Who are you MOST looking forward to watching open their gift?"  I told them the story of when I bought my brother a Dundee because he loves the show The Office, and several kids were able to talk about their excitement about giving.

And for that matter, I'm thinking about our Morning Meeting share the day we get back.  I want to avoid the "bring and brag" sort of, "I got this and this for Christmas" because we have a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds in our school.  I haven't decided the best approach yet, but I have a few days for inspiration to strike!

4.  We had a Yankee Swap that wasn't really a Yankee Swap.  They each brought in a gift for about $5 (usually I ask them to bring in a girl gift if they are a girl, and a boy gift if they are a boy).  Then I pull names out of a hat one at a time for a kid to go up and choose a gift and open it (and I snap a photo).  There's not actually any "swapping" allowed until the end, and it's only if two people both want to swap with each other.

5.  We talked about the important social skill of being gracious and hiding disappointment.  "How would you feel if you brought in a gift for me, I opened it, and did this?"  I sighed and pouted.  I reminded them that although they won't know who brought the gift, they are there, and watching.  It definitely helps!  Not everyone is an expert at it, but they all made an effort and no one brought down the mood with sulking or complaining. 

6.  I used battery operated Christmas lights to decorate our classroom bookshelf to look like a hearth!  The kids opened their presents in front of it, and the effect is always very homey.  One boy in particular, who is typically a real challenge for me, was especially appreciative.  "That was SUCH a good idea, Mrs. Thomas!  It looks AMAZING!" 

7.  I kept "extra gifts" on hand for kids who didn't bring one.  That way everyone could swap.  I even had a couple parents bring in their preschoolers to the party, so I quietly put a couple little teddy bears in gift bags off to the side, and midway through the swap, when I noticed the little ones were just starting to notice the gift-giving and looking doe-eyed, I said, "Okay, we're going to take a little break...(half my students yelled WHAT?! indignantly, haha) and have our Preschool Swap!"  I put both little one's names in the cup and after pulling one I said, "You can pick one of these gifts off of the chair."  My students all said, "AwwWWWww" as they opened up their teddy bears! 

8.  They had a "snack and craft" afterwards, and the hour flew by!  We listened to Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty the Snowman since they are nondenominational. 

Graphics by www.MyCuteGraphics.com
9.  I gave them optional homework.  I used to give plenty of vacation homework until I started working in a district where that is frowned upon.  Now I'm a convert; I'm happy to give the kids  a break and I'm happy to not be swamped with correcting once I get back in January.  However, some parents like their children to do "extra," and I thought I might even appeal to the kids' intrinsic motivation to achieve in math.  "Your test is after break, not the day you get back, but still, all the stuff you learned this month will be on it in January.  If you're worried that you'll forget, or if you're a kid who forgets how to do long division, then the next day remembers, then forgets again the day after, you might choose to do this page.  If you bring it back, I'll give you a sticker, but you don't have to do it if you're too busy."  I think I'll get at least 2 back, which is fine.  If you're interested, I have this Day of Math Review sheet available for purchase, currently for 49 cents, in my TPT store.   I plan to use it for Morning Work and maybe even if I need a sub; it should be useful through February.

10.  I let them know I'd be posting "12 days of Math Games" on our classroom blog!  Last week I researched games and wrote notes for a blog post for each one, and this week I've been posting one every day.  Hopefully they'll keep the kids from getting bored and help them review if the worksheet feels like too much of a chore!

What did you do to prepare your kids for Winter Break?







Monday, December 17, 2012

How We Coped with School Tragedy


In a way it was good to have the weekend to think about what to say on Monday.  I mean, it was probably not good for my own mental health to dwell on it, so I did intersperse holiday shopping and baking in order to keep myself from despair.  But I didn't shut off the news completely either.  That is probably the best thing if you have children under 7 who you teach or parent.  But fourth grade is in a different developmental place.

They're still young enough that the "youngest" of them have trouble distinguishing real from fantasy.  But the more mature 4th graders watch the news with their parents, and love to show off their knowledge of current events.  Even when you really wish they would keep it to themselves.  They also don't have a "filter" in terms of what they should share with younger children in the lunchroom.  So I needed to read the news AND teach them how to filter.

Another teacher found a very useful article here on how to talk to kids about tragedy.  The main points I reviewed in my head before Morning Meeting:

1.  Don't bring it up unless they do.
2.  Be honest, but "not too honest."  Let them know that children were hurt in school.  Don't divulge any other specifics.
3.  Assure them that they are safe.  I was REALLY struggling with this one prior to reading the article, because, well, I DON'T feel safe.  We have a plan in place for emergencies, but there are flaws in any plan, and those flaws are scary when you're on the inside.  But then it hit me.  I could tell them in full honesty, "We know you are safe here, because we have plans in place to keep you safe.  But also, you know that you are safe in school because if there was any doubt, they'd have cancelled school.  I mean, if they cancel for snow, they would have cancelled for this, let's face it."

I knew I could do it, and I also found a project to do if we needed a way to transition out of the conversation.  I was as ready as I could be.

I arrived at school, and there were policemen at the entrance.

I walked in, and the superintendent was there.

I said good morning to each of my colleagues who I passed by, and they all looked wide eyed.

Upstairs was so quiet. 

I put on my classical music along with my other routines that I always do to prepare for the kids.  I wrote the most basic Morning Message on the board that we've had since September, simply, "please take out your homework and start your morning work."  As they came in, I said good morning to a few.  I asked for them to take out their homework, joked with the kids who came in first who beat my usual first-one-in, and pretended like nothing was wrong.

But it was still so, so quiet.

The tension was palpable.  I was pretty sure that they knew.  And I was pretty sure that they knew that I knew and they were waiting for me to say something.

We collected lunch money.  I checked homework.  They met in their small groups to go over their "extra homework."  We pledged the flag.  We did our exercises.  We sat in a circle in Morning Meeting and shared books we read over the weekend and nominations for Student of the Month.  But they were uncomfortably quiet and still.  They weren't acting like the kids I had last week, when I was thinking how badly behaved they were.  Now I wished they would exhibit just a little bit of those annoying but normal kid behaviors.

The last nomination was read.  "Okay," I said.  "So...share time is over.  It's time for our game..."

Finally, as if on cue, a girl next to me meekly asked, "Are we going to talk about...the thing?  That happened...in Connecticut?"

Phew. 

"We can if you want to."

So I told them, just like the article said above.  There were questions.  There were lots of "I heard..."  Nearly all of them were correct.  Only one student started to talk about the guns, which I quickly shut down, and the others students did too.  They knew that it was in bad taste, and I explained why:  "Those details aren't what matters; it's the families that matter."  Which led perfectly into our project with the broken hearts being mended.

I was prepared for tears.  It wouldn't be the first time I've handled a class of weeping children.  It turns out there was only one boy who was so taken off guard that he broke down.  The others were very appropriate in their response.  They looked truly saddened, they looked horrified when one of their peers told them that the children were kindergarteners, but they were also very strong.  They channeled their feelings into writing beautiful messages to the families on their hearts.  They took pride in the final project.  And they got their snack and started in on math cooperatively and calmly.  They weren't stiff and silent, but they weren't as callous as they were last week, either.  And that boy who was crying at 9:15, well, by noon he was dancing Gangnam Style down to the lunchroom. 

My fourth graders are informed, compassionate, and resilient.  I'll draw strength from them this week.  If you walked by my classroom, you might think I they drew it from me, but I was faking it for them.  I got in my car at the end of the day and cried. 







Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Other Classroom Blog: For Students!

Earlier this year, my principal told us that we have a new school website, with built in links to teacher pages, so we should each create a website.

While I'm not sure website design is everyone's kettle of fish, I've been blogging in one form or another for about 10 years (I probably wouldn't have met my husband if it wasn't for my blog).  So since it's a hobby I enjoy anyway, I thought why not?

So I began learning the ins and outs of Weebly, since that was the recommended platform.  I prefer Blogger, but I thought it best to keep my commercial account here separate from my school blog, which could evolve into something that showcases students' photos or original work.  I came up with a name (different from the one you'll see below, again, for privacy purposes) got a design I liked, wrote an introduction, uploaded a photo, and I was on my way!

As I was designing, which is the fun part, I was thinking at the same time about what content to include.  I didn't just want a rehash of the school information because that's dull and unnecessary.  I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to updating it weekly with news and homework.  It's great that some teachers do this, but to me, that would be a chore, and I don't want to get called out on lagging behind in it.  The kids should be copying their own assignments in 4th grade, not using the site as a crutch and blaming their teacher for not updating, haha.  No, I wanted my page to have a little more personality than that.

And that's when it hit me.  If this website was going to really be my own, it had to be about the things I'm already doing in class, and the things I'm already doing online: blogging.  I just happened to start taking photos on my phone of lots of anchor charts I made this year.  I could post those.  Then parents could see what we were learning.  Like, the actual content of what we were learning.  And then I realized something even more important.

The KIDS could see the actual content of what we were learning.

Suddenly, the idea of blogging about my classroom took on a whole new level of importance.  Imagine: the kids could be home, doing their homework, notebook open, unable to make sense of their notes in math.  They could go to the website, click on "math," and see the most recent post with a full color photo of the steps involved.  Or a photo of the manipulatives they used to model the equation.  Those kids who have trouble focusing with 17 other kids in the room could go over the exact material they need.  The parents who look at the Math in Focus and throw their hands up in frustration because they learned to multiply a different way can look over their kid's shoulder and read the steps to them.

But I had to make it fun, or they wouldn't care.

So I decided to go out on a limb, and make the blog interactive.  That's right:  I decided to open comments on posts.  Real time comments.  Is this irresponsible for elementary students?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I think it's naive to believe that students aren't texting each other, and in some cases lying about their age on other websites like Facebook, writing comments online already.  At least if I allowed comments on my own site, I could monitor them.  I could teach about audience, and representing yourself well online since it's a worldwide audience.  I could teach about written responses being on topic, something every fourth grader needs to learn for standardized tests.  And it would all be motivating because it's for an authentic purpose. 

I worked for 3 days over Veteran's Day weekend, publishing and post dating the photos I'd taken and wrote short, easy to read posts, post dating them from the beginning of the year to the present.  Then I waited until Friday, the day the kids had computer time, sat them in front of the Smartboard in our media center, and said in a low, conspiratorial voice, "I've been keeping a secret from you."

The reaction from the kids was overwhelming.  They were SO excited, seeing photos of things they'd already experienced, and knowing that they were allowed to comment.  They rushed to the computers once I walked them through the site, and they flooded it with comments.  Half of them were, sure enough, needing deletion as spam.  But it's lead to great discussions and self/peer evaluation during subsequent computer lessons.  And some of the comments have shown me how invested kids are in their school experience.  Some of the kids (and parents!) have commented to thank me in heartfelt ways that they might be too bashful to say in person.  My classroom blog does NOT feel like a chore.  It feels like an online snapshot of the things I want my students to know, and a place that they can safely visit any time for information or entertainment.


Anatomy of my blog:
  1. Our school logo brings students to the homepage from any page.
  2. Posts appear on the homepage in chronological order.  
  3. There are different pages that are not interactive.  The Journeys page links to explicit directions for how to log on to Journeys so they can read their books or print off workbook pages.  The Contact Me page has a form which students can use to Email me privately, and the Email goes to my school account.  I clarified that by "private," my principal can read my Emails if he needs to, just as a way to cover myself.  I also explain on this page that I will not Email the kids back; I will reply in school.  I've only gotten 2 Emails from students so far, and both times it was accidental; they wanted to comment but forgot how, haha.
  4.  The categories help students find posts from specific subjects. 
  5. Commenting Rules remind students of posting requirements.  They are forewarned about public put downs of other students, and they are not allowed to post under aliases.  They don't know it yet, but if commenting ever goes down a bad road, Weebly has an option that allows me to monitor comments BEFORE they are published.  I will use this feature if I need to, but as long as they are enjoying the feature and being responsible, I'd like them to experience the instant gratification because it encourages more interactivity! 
  6. The comment link after each post.  Even weeks later, kids are still commenting.
If you're interested in creating a classroom blog with your students, I've created a freebie to walk you through the planning process, as well as step by step instructions on how to create a website and your first post on a free blogging platform.  Check out How to Create a Classroom Website (Blog) in my TPT Store!






Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

And I don't mean Thanksgiving and Christmas season, though that's all good too.  I mean, you've got to love that point in the year when you and your class have well and truly gelled.  They know your expectations, they feel like this is their class, and you can just get down to business.  Not to mention have some serious LAUGHS.  Because both students and teacher know the other well enough to truly appreciate what we each bring to the group.

Today, mid-lesson I got a phone call from my principal about a serious issue and had to step outside of my classroom. When this happens I have the door open a crack because of the phone cord.  There's also a window so I can see most of the kids as well as hear them well enough. So I can see that as usual, kids will be kids, they get all chatty and silly as I'm on the phone.

The call put things in perspective for me, so really all I was thinking as I re-entered the classroom wasn't, "how dare you get off task," but, "yeah, they were noisy but no one's hurting anyone," so I was probably only about to say something like, "okay kids, back to work," but before I could, my resident wise-guy calls out from the back of the room with a manic grin:

"We were SO good when you were gone. Really quiet, too."

I paused a moment, just appreciating the kid's sense of humor while fighting back a smile, and letting him see the reaction of his peers.  Who stood up for him and laughingly agreed, who betrayed him and said, "yeah right."  And I also took a moment share a knowing look with that patient, watchful student who said nothing, imitated my wait time and half-smile, and made me think not for the first time this year, "this one is definite teacher material if she chooses that path."  

If it was September, I wouldn't have the luxury of enjoying that moment.  And if it was September, I certainly wouldn't have told him, "Yes, I thought I saw your halos shining from the window over there."







Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Immigration Unit: Liberty Island Discussion


There's nothing like GENUINE interest from your students when you're a teacher.  :)

We are wrapping up our unit on immigration, and we've been reading Coming to America:  The Study of Immigration by Betsy Maestro.  We got to the section in that talks about Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty.  The kids had SO many questions and fun facts about it!


"What is it made of?"
"Did you know it's from France?"
"What do you mean the Statue of Liberty is not on Ellis Island?"
"How tall is it?  Bigger than an SUV?"

But even more interesting was our debate on the regulation of immigration.  A line in the book says that at one point, people from some countries were not allowed in, at the same time that people from other countries were.  When I asked why the United States would pass this regulation, a lot of misconceptions came up.  Similarly, when I asked why they thought inspectors would need to check people who were coming in, I got a lot more "grown up" answers than I was anticipating:

"To make sure people didn't have guns?"
"Weapons?"
"Drugs?"
"Bombs?"

I wouldn't be the one to bring up those sort of topics with 10 year olds, but my philosophy is, once the cat is out of the bag, acknowledge it, but in a way that makes kids feel safe.  So I answered, "I feel like it's a sad sign of the times that those are the sort of things that you kids, and, well, we all have to worry about when we travel.  So nowadays we do have people who work in the airports airports to make sure those things don't come in to the country.  But back then, before airplanes, none of those things were their main worry.  What they were checking for was...symptoms of contagious diseases!"

The kids still had trouble wrapping their head around that.

"So they wouldn't check them for guns?  They'd just let them through!?"
"I'm not saying that.  I'm saying, back then not as many people HAD guns."
"So they wouldn't let you in if you had cancer?"
"Cancer isn't contagious.  Contagious means you can catch it from someone.  If you are around someone with cancer, you won't get cancer.  Most of the contagious diseases they were worrying about are not around anymore because they have vaccines and medicines that got rid of them."

So to get a feel for life back then, we ended with plays (semi-improv by the kids) that acted out different scenarios on Ellis Island, and went to lunch on a high note.  Even though I feel like I have less and less time for Social Studies every year, it's a really fun unit.  I have my materials for it available in my Immigration Unit product, and you can find Coming to America:  The Story of Immigration, on Amazon:






Friday, November 23, 2012

Cyber Monday TPT Sale


Is it me, or has November flown by?  I don't think I'm ready for December yet!  Report cards are coming, I'm starting to think about the teachers' Secret Santa, Cookie Swap, Yankee Swap, Holiday Party, gifts for volunteers, the children's gifts, the children's "Yankee Swap," and you know, actual teaching, planning, intervention, and, you know, enjoying the season with my family!

The good news is, now that I have a fridge full of Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner tonight, I can also start filling my shopping cart over at Teachers Pay Teachers.  They are participating in Cyber Monday (a holiday I can really get behind, because waking up for Black Friday when overdosed on tryptophan is the worst idea ever).  Like many sellers there, I'm having a 20% off sale on all my products over $1, so combine that with the site-wide sale and you will save 28% on your purchases!  Just use promo code CMT12 when you checkout. 


Some popular products this month have been my Long Division Games Bundle:



But if you are pinching pennies this season and would like a freebie instead of shopping the sales in my store, here's a seasonal one for your class.  It's designed to help target assistance for your lower income students if you have funds from the PTO to provide them with a little something for the holiday.  I'm lucky enough to work in a school where we give to the families in need every year, and this Holiday Aid for Low Income Students page will help you get started with that.  


Happy bargain hunting!






Saturday, November 17, 2012

Teaching Cause and Effect

Our reading comprehension skill this week was recognizing cause and effect in stories.  Once again, it was Pintrest to the rescue when I went to make my anchor chart!  I got my cause and effect inspiration here.  I really wanted to change it up a bit, however.  Notice the "effect and cause" on the bottom half:


I don't know why we English-speakers do that more often than not!  But I think a lot of kids get confused about cause and effect relationships for that very reason. 




Adding Dialogue to Personal Narratives

One of the kids favorite personal narrative lessons (and therefore, one of my favorites, too, haha) is adding dialogue.  This skill used to be difficult for a lot of kids.  It's hard know where to put quotation marks.

That is, it was until I started teaching dialogue using comics!

I give the kids a template with the boxes, and I model the kind of drawing I expect (no color, stick figures, just faces are okay).  I also require that every panel must have at least one character talking.

Once the comic is complete and the kids have had some time to share them with each other and enjoy them, that's when they're ready to learn the mechanics.  And it's really very simple.  Instead of the bubble drawn around the character's words, the start and end of their speech just goes instead quotation marks.  There's no "He said" in a comic, and there's no "My mom told me" in a comic.  Kids seem to understand speech bubbles a lot more naturally than quotation marks, so the transfer process is easy once they have the visual. 

This is one of the lessons I have included in my personal narratives unit, available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers.  Have you used comics in narrative writing lessons?





P.S., I'm linking up with Jivey for more Writer's Workshop mini-lessons.  Check it out here:


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