Monday, December 29, 2014

Opinion Writing for an Authentic Purpose: Classroom Job Applications

Right before Christmas vacation is a natural time to introduce opinion writing.  Kids love to persuade Santa why they have been good girls and boys.  A call to action is simple:  "Santa, you should bring me..."  Kids are natural negotiators when it comes to Christmas!

After a few free writes to Santa to get the excitement started, it's a good time to move on to persuasive writing for a wider range of topics.  I found a fantastic list of persuasive writing topics here.  Not every topic is appropriate for my fourth graders, so you don't want to simply print it off and make copies.  However, I do keep this list handy for myself to help students who struggle when it comes to thinking of a cause they believe in. 

As the kids are considering their options for their persuasive writing pieces, they need to hear a lot of examples of quality opinion writing.  This book has many great examples, as well as mini-lessons to help you plan your persuasive unit.  I read several examples to my class so they could hear the difference between providing reasons and out and out begging.  "I really, really, really, REALLY want..." does not cut the muster!

We talk about the structure of a good persuasive piece, and begin to analyze what tricks writers use when articulating an opinion.  The idea of using the OREO acronym is not new, but I added my own examples on this anchor chart.  The topic of low performing students being kept off athletic teams came from the Writing to Persuade book.  My fourth graders were very passionate about this topic so we had a debate about it in order to practice providing reasons and examples.  After practicing giving reasons and explanations orally, they were ready to draft.

After the kids created their drafts we moved on to revision. On our first day of revision we talked about up to 3 different points in our writing that benefit from transition words:
  • Adding similar ideas
  • Introducing examples
  • Additional information
I start out with my own list, and add to it as we brainstorm.  Having this list posted as kids write is powerful.  Giving the kids transition words to use in their own writing can help even the most reticent writers get over their writer's block.

The next step in our writing process is to hold peer conferences.  During this time, students ask each other questions about their writing, and also identify their favorite part.

After the conferences we held a share time and I asked, "What was the most important point your partner made?  Did your partner figure out what your most important point was?  If not, tomorrow, we will talk about how to make it more obvious."

On the final day of revision, we talked about more transition words:  adding emphasis.  Instead of all caps, underlining, exclamation marks, and using "very" or "really" once, twice, or fifteen times, these terms create more urgency in our writing. 

As students finish revising they move on to editing, and continue the process from the start with a new topic.  Once everyone has a completed piece we will be moving on to the final independent writing assignment:  Classroom Job Applications.  My fourth graders need to write a cover letter to persuade me to "hire" them to do the job of their choosing.

Of course at the start of the school year, I assign jobs randomly and rotate students through.  However by this point in the year I have a pretty good sense of students' strengths and levels of responsibility.  There are some jobs that some students are more suited for.  So I have created job postings for many of my old jobs, and even a few new ones.

Each job posting has a description, as well as qualifications I am looking for.  This way students have some idea of the examples they need to include in their cover letter.

The kids take their letters very seriously.  In order to take some of the pressure off we talk about which job each person is interested in, so they can change their minds to apply for less sought after jobs before writing the complete letter.  I also let them know I will "repost" each month so if they want to reapply for a job they don't get this month I will reconsider them for the next.

This means that some jobs change hands, but not every single job.  It also means that the kids who can handle more than one job get to do just that, and the kids who prefer to focus on other aspects of their school life don't have a job to worry about.  It's a little more to manage than a straight up weekly rotation, but I feel like it's been really helpful in my classroom.

I have the job application packet available in my TPT store.  It gets the kids excited about opinion writing because it's for an authentic purpose.  Have any of you tried using job applications for your classroom jobs instead of a rotation chart?  How did you manage it?

Shut the Door and Teach
Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Freebies and a Cyber Monday Sale

It's hard to believe December starts tomorrow!  For the first time since I can remember, I actually got to RELAX this year on my little 2 1/2 days off.  Our district is sending home report cards the week after next so I took full advantage.  I ate, I exercised, I cleaned, I decorated, and I added to my Cyber Monday wishlist over on TPT.  That's right, Teachers Pay Teachers is once again having their Cyber Monday (plus Tuesday) sale on December 1st and 2nd!  You can save up to 28% off of your purchases by entering promo code TPTCYBER at checkout.  My whole store will be a full 28% off as long as you remember the promo code!  

I'm linking up with Jivey to share with you some of my own products that are on a lot of people's wishlist right now, as well as one that's in my own wishlist.  One thing I have in my own wishlist are these gift tags from Creative Clips.  So cute!

Here are a few items from my own store that are in high demand and have kept my own students engaged in their learning each year during the second trimester:

This Long Division Games Bundle provides students with the repeated practice they need to internalize the long division process.  By turning this practice into games and hands on activities, the kids actually enjoy honing their long division skills!

Like the division bundle, this Equivalent Fractions Activities 3 in One Bundle is hands on, and helps students enjoy their math block. 

If you're looking for a more complete fractions unit, I am launching my finished FRACTIONS UNIT on Monday, just in time for the sale.  This product has been months in the making, and I wanted my readers to have the opportunity to get the maximum savings on it.  Check out my most recent product and save 28%! 

If you really want to plan ahead, Poetry Month is traditionally in April.  This is the time to save big on a complete poetry unit for fourth grade.  It has everything you need for high stakes test prep.  This Fourth Grade Poetry Mini Unit helps students meet the standards while also providing opportunities for creativity and appreciation for a variety of poetic forms. 

And finally, if you're looking for my best deal, you can save 28% on my largest bundle, my 5 US Regions Unit Plans Bundle.  Normally priced $25, it will cost just $18.75 for two days only! 

So start filling your wishlist, and come back Monday and Tuesday to save a bundle on some fun, engaging resources for your class. 

As a thank you for following along I also wanted to direct you to a few of my favorite seasonal freebies.  There are a few must-haves if you are teaching elementary, and a few if you are specifically teaching fourth. 

1.  Tissue box hygiene reminders.  I rubber-band these to each tissue box in my classroom as a not so subtle reminder!  If you have a sink in your classroom, the place to hang a reminder is not over the sink (where they are already washing their hands).  It's on the tissue box itself.  Slow the spread of germs this flu season!

2.  Holiday Aid for Low Income Students   Here's a seasonal freebie 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 page will help you get started with that.

3. Mentor Sentences for Complete Sentences.   Many grammar tasks ask kids to find what needs to be fixed in a sentence.  As a result, kids are exposed to models of incorrect writing!  Stop reinforcing models of common grammatical errors.  Mentor sentences require them to analyze quality, model writing, then explain what makes it so.

4.  Kinesthetic Map Activity.  This is a fun whole group activity that gets kids practicing continents, countries and directions.  It's not every day you let your fourth graders crawl around on the floor to learn, but I think you'll like this one as much as they do.

5.  Using one half as a benchmark coloring page.  This coloring page reveals a "mystery picture" as kids determine if each fraction is greater to, less than, or equal to one half.  The writing component allows you to differentiate as well as gives students practice justifying their answer. 

I hope you enjoy the freebies and save lots of money at TPT.  Do remember to enter the promo code TPTCYBER when you shop on Monday (and Tuesday) in order to get the full 28% discount.  One new product that I'm launching today will be FREE for the next two days only is Line Up!  Compare and Order Fractions Movement Activity.  This is a great way to get the whole class up and talking about fractions, justifying their responses with reasons and details.  And I finally had a little time this week to polish it up so that you will be able to introduce it to your class with confidence, just in time to save you 28%. Happy bargain hunting!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

How to Teach Density (Solids, Liquids and Gases)

Last time I told you about how I introduce my fourth graders to the states of matter.  Today I'll share how to teach density.  Part of our states of matter unit includes an understanding of density.  We tested out a variety of objects.  Although kids as young as preschool can perform "sink or float" tests, fourth graders still have some misconceptions!  I wrote on the board:

Large             vs               Small
Protractor                         Eraser
Scissors                          Foam dice

How to Teach Density of Solid Objects:  Sink or Float?

How to Teach DensityMany students thought the larger items would sink, while the smaller items would float.  They were only half right!  Our tests showed that the eraser sank, although the plastic protractor floated. 

As a result, we determined that size and weight do NOT relate to density.  Density is about how tightly packed molecules are.  Tightly packed molecules sink, while loosely packed molecules float. 

A real world example I gave was the ship they boarded on a field trip earlier in the year.  Obviously that floats!  And it's bigger than any item they tested today. 

To bring the point home, I have them test materials of their choosing.  They record their predictions and the results.  

Another misconception some fourth graders have about density is that all gases float and are equally dense.  Many don't believe you when you tell them gas takes up space.  And the idea that some gases are lighter than others doesn't stick.


How to Teach Density of Gases

The best tool to help kids understand about varying density of gases is balloons!

"Oh yeahhhh!  Helium!"  Many kids know that if you blow (carbon dioxide) into a balloon, it won't float.  You need to fill it with a helium tank.  What they may not understand is how helium is stored and measured.  Otherwise how can you tell if you're buying the right amount for all your balloons?

I explain that when you rent a tank of helium, they charge for tanks of gas by volume.  Volume is similar to liquid capacity.  This chart shows how big the tank must be, depending on how many balloons you want to fill.  

The size of the balloons matters too!  The larger the balloon, the more helium you need to fill it.  If you have sixty 14 inch balloons, you need a larger tank than if you have sixty 9 inch balloons.  

With our Student of the Month assembly this month, we were able to do double duty with the decorations/science demonstration.  I found this helium tank on Amazon.  The kids got to prove how many balloons could be filled with our little tank, and the cafeteria got a little more festive in the process!
How to Teach Density of Liquids

The quickest way to teach density of liquids is attempting to mix oil and water.  After making predictions, students partnered up.  One poured water into a cup of oil, and the other poured oil into a cup of water.  Of course the oil, being less dense, rose to the top.

This was a fun unit, which I've made available here on TPT.  Along with the activities you've seen on these blog posts, I've included several other printouts for you:• Density and Mass lesson with activity sheet
• Mixture and Solution lab sheet
• Water Molecule writing prompts (with vocabulary) expository and narrative writing prompts
• Matter Test (multiple choice, open response, and answer key)   

Shut the Door and Teach
Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Multimodal States of Matter Activities


You know those science chapters that have the life sucked out of them?  Our textbook is probably the WORST.  Luckily I was free to create my own unit with multimodal states of matter activities. 

Some chapters I can use as  a jumping off point to my instruction, but I really had to start from scratch with this one.  Not only is this is a concept that needs to be hands on instead of read, but recently I've also started using the miracle of YouTube helps bring the scientists right into the classroom.


Multimodal States of Matter Activities

States of Matter ActivitiesDefinition and Examples

After defining three of the states of matter (we don't cover plasma in fourth grade, although I do let them know that solid, liquid and gas are not the only three states in existence).

I add student generated answers (in a think pair share) to our anchor chart for examples of solids, liquids, and gases.

I also like to write a few of their questions for further research.


Kinesthetic States of Matter Activities

Then I like to do some activities from my States of Matter Unit to get them moving around and pretending to be molecules!  One of my favorite states of matter activities is when we pretend to be solid molecules, so we sit close together and hardly move.  As liquids we move around a defined area (the reading rug) and as a gas, I tell them, "Now fly!"  I get lots of laughs, and model flapping my arms and power walking around the whole room.  They follow suit and get the idea!


To keep the definitions and concepts fun, I play Mr. Parr's Four States of Matter Song.
Even though they are more geared toward middle school, they are current and get the kids excited about science class.  
Visual Arts

When we talk about matter changing state, the kids are pretty comfortable with the concept of freezing and boiling water.  However, the idea that glass can be a liquid (or even a gas on the sun) is hard for them to swallow.  Once again, I turn to videos to drive the point home!

The Chrysler Museum of Art has a great video on blowing glass, including the art and science involved in working with liquid glass (also known as molten glass).  The artist reveals the temperature they have to heat the glass to turn it to liquid.  I tell them, "Don't try this at home kids; your oven can't get that hot!"  John Pomp's Studio focuses more about tools used to create glass ornaments, and makes for a nice enrichment video for kids who want to learn more.  

These activities all lead up to learning about density, which leads us to a better understanding of weather later in the year!  Next week I'll tell you more about our density lab reports and tests.


Shut the Door and Teach
Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blogger Meetup: Folks You'll Want to Follow

I was so excited and nervous about the New England Blogger meet up that I could hardly sleep the night before!  I kept dreaming about being at school and having to fill out forms.  I think the children were "helping" me.  They were done wrong so I had to do them over and over again.  It was such a restless sleep that I actually felt relieved when the alarm went off.  I felt like I was done with work and going to play!

It was lucky I set my alarm early, both to escape the dream and to catch the train.  I left with plenty of time, but because I was unable to go to the station I'm most familiar with, I forgot where to pay, and had to wander around for a while.  I also realized I looked at the weekday times instead of the weekend times.  Oops.  Nevermind, I still had ten minutes on the platform to finish my bagel.

When I arrived at North Station, I knew that Science Park was the stop I wanted, and that I could walk the distance for a single stop.  I just wasn't sure which direction to go.  Fortunately there was a man on the train holding a sign for the Museum of Science.  With an arrow.  So of course I followed him.

I am not making this up.

Once I could see the building, I took a little detour through the park on Nashua Street to take pictures and soak up some sun.  Gotta stock up on vitamin D before the winter!  ;)  It was also fun to see the Duck Tour boats on the Charles.  I saw the one my husband and I rode last year.

I arrived 15 minutes early and found the right entrance and the cafe on my first try (anyone who knows me well will never believe that I found the first station, museum, entrance, and cafe without incident but I am not making this up either.  Props to the man with the sign and the arrow). 

I wandered around the cafe a few times, counting myself lucky that it was too busy for the staff to be concerned why I was doing this and not getting food.  After asking one woman sitting in a corner on a laptop (sounds like a blogger to me) if she was meeting Jodi and getting a no (glad I didn't ask "Are you a blogger because I can see you have a laptop), I sat near-ish the windows and Emailed her to say I was there and wearing purple. 

And within 5 or 10 minutes, there she was!

She didn't ACT like a celebrity, even though I know I wasn't the only one who was a little bit in awe of her.  I think it helps that she and I are practically neighbors (turns up she even lived in the same town I grew up for a few years).  So she was just so easy to talk to about local stuff and teaching. 

Soon Mrs. Mack arrived, and once again I was starstruck (although her daughter is the bigger Instagram star; half my feed is of her little cutie!)  It was so surreal seeing a stranger posting on IG "walking my dog" one minute, and within the hour sitting down to lunch with her and putting a voice with the updates! 

I prefer taking photos to being in them!
More people arrived, Furnell and Vera.  I didn't know I knew Vera until later on in the lunch when we started swapping business cards (feels weird to call it that...I'm a teacher.  I guess I'm a business person thanks to Teachers Pay Teachers, but really, even on there I feel like I'm a teacher.  Can we call them teachers' cards?).  That's when it clicked!  Vera!  The Tutu Teacher!  I have seen her around!  And she was so lovely to talk to.  She had such a wonderful story about making the move from Texas and how the tutus came to be part of her teacher persona.

It was great talking to Furnell too, because she had certain work experiences that I could relate to and learned from.  Next came Susan, who is one of my readers, and got the ball rolling on getting everyone's blog address and a group photo.  And finally, a grade level partnership from Connecticut arrived!  Props to Sara and Emily for driving out (even this MA native took the train in). 

It was so amazing to meet the bloggers I knew before, and those who I didn't know have some super cute blogs to follow.  I'm linking up at the bottom of the post so you can go check them out too.  It was a very casual meeting; we talked more about our home towns and teaching than about blogging.  But only because Jodi forgot to bring along her slideshow (joking).

Once we left I was not ready to leave so I went back to the park to enjoy the sun, make some notes, then tinkered with my phone until I was able to make it find me some "local places of interest." 

I would not have guessed that the closest spot was the Cambridgeside Galleria; I haven't been there in years!  So I shopped until my feet hurt.  I was so ready for some updates to my fall wardrobe (and so in need of some sneakers).

If you're a blogger reading and not sure if you want to go to a blogger meetup, DO IT.  Part of me was nervous to send Jodi a confirmation that I'd attend, because I'm quiet in person.  Blogging is a great outlet for me to share ideas, and I wondered if many other bloggers would be the same.  But no, there was lively conversation throughout.  I'll definitely pursue the next opportunity if the timing is right.  Having a four day weekend (with our school letting out for Rosh Hashana) made this the perfect time to do it.  So I hope to see you (and the bloggers I met today) there!

Here are the bloggers I met (by the way, the grade range is K-3):
Jodi @
Mrs. Mack @
Furnell @
Vera @
Susan @
Emily @
Sara @

I hope you find someone new to follow!

Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tuck Everlasting Unit Resources

When my district adopted the MDESE's model unit for Tuck Everlasting, I was dubious.  EVERY kid was going to have to read this old book?  I knew the gist of it (spoiler alert) which was the family lives forever.  I'd read an excerpt when I was in school (older than fourth grade).  So when the books arrived I cracked one open.

My first impression (first few chapters) was how DRY it was.  I know, lots of descriptive language is a great model for kids to have for their own writing.  But it did not help me get into the story.  Sure enough, when I was halfway through reading the book with my class last year several admitted, "I thought this book was really boring at first." 

Once I got through the first part, it did start to feel more intriguing.  I knew that some of my fourth graders would appreciate the story, so I was feeling a little better.  At least those who didn't love it would be exposed to something new and different instead of the same old Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (not that I'm knocking them; they have an important purpose too in that they get reluctant readers reading).

And then I got to the scene where the mother kills the stranger.


I was so upset.  I had to use this book, a story where a woman commits murder because she doesn't like what someone is going to do.  Here we teach kids that hurting someone is never an option, and we're exploring situations where the only option someone has is killing.  I know this is an important dilemma to explore and debate, but for ten year olds?! 

I opened up my model unit with a chip on my shoulder.

I had to admit, the unit itself was actually pretty good.  It has stopping points, discussion questions, suggestions for the gradual release of responsibility, vocabulary lists, examples of figurative language, assessments and even suggested ideas for anchor charts.    It is well organized sequentially and the appendices are useful.  This really is a well thought out, complete unit. 

What it did not have is a single student friendly practice page. 

So of course, I made my own. 

One thing I wanted my students to do was to analyze characters.  I started out with three (Winnie, Mae and The Stranger).  Then I wanted them to focus on the main character's thoughts and feelings, and what caused them.  I created a set of pages that tracks Winnie's feelings in each chapter. 

Next, I wanted students to record how the characters were connected to one another.  We used a folding organizer for their reader's response journals as well as a homework page.

I also wanted a space for kids to write their ideas about the theme.  I felt that this needed to be done once every 5 chapters in order to keep students thinking about it as they were reading.  Their ideas would evolve as more of the story unraveled, so it was unlikely that they'd know the theme by the end of the first few chapters.  Yet they needed to be thinking about the big picture from the beginning in order to synthesize a response at the end. 

The book is rich with figurative language, and I wanted to make sure that the kids understood the meaning and who/what the phrases were describing.  I created recording sheets for the language being used in each chapter.  They include the page numbers of each example of figurative language in order to guide their search.

The vocabulary is at a very high level for most fourth graders, so I needed to have a system for previewing and writing kid friendly definitions for the words before reading each chapter.  I kept these pages small enough to be glued into their reader's composition notebooks.

Some of the other things the kids needed to demonstrate, such as comprehension, was mostly covered by the model unit.  I will post about how I made these more accessible in a future post.
Overall, the unit was a BIG success.  I was really surprised.  I thought if I was not excited about the book, they wouldn't be either.  But I think with all the work I poured into these pages, they must have picked up on my energy.  They really were excited about reading the next chapter each day, and our debate about whether or not Mae was justified was thoughtful and worthwhile.  So I'm really proud of this packet of materials.  If you need to teach Tuck Everlasting, you can download the free unit here:  If you find that you need supplemental pages to make the content accessible for you students, I have (finally, after months of refining) my Tuck Everlasting Activity Pages available for you.  
And finally, an unrelated side note.  If you are a long time follower, you may have noticed that my posting schedule did decline over the past few months.  I thought that was forgivable due to summer vacation.  However I wanted to let you know that I expect to be posting less than I did in past years.  I've had a fairly big life change and as a result I've had to re-prioritize my time.  Posting every week just isn't feasible for me anymore. 

Now, this does NOT mean I am ending this blog.  On the contrary.  I feel a great sense of pride in this blog.  Even two weeks ago I got the sweetest comment about how helpful my posts have been.  The blog is here to stay for anyone to stumble on and learn from.  The reason I'm going to post less is to MAINTAIN the level of quality.  I would rather post once every two months than post filler every week.  Just as my time is limited and precious, so is yours.  I am committed to keeping my posts interesting and informative for you all.

So I hope you will stick with me here on Shut the Door and Teach, because I still have a passion for teaching fourth grade and sharing what works for me in my classroom. 

Thanks for reading. 

Amber Thomas's Classroom Favorites on TPT

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