Teaching Problem Solving at Recess

Believe it when they say play is hard work for kids.

I had recess duty today, and was approached by a pair of third graders.  Let's call them Mikey and Stanley.  They looked to me for help with their disagreement, even though I'm a fourth grade teacher and therefore immediately more intimidating.

Mikey:  Stanley won't stop chasing me.
Me:  Did you tell him that you don't want to play tag?
Mikey:  ...Well...I mean, I AM playing tag.

Later on, once we established that chasing each other is actually part of tag, and that Stanley is allowed to join a game without a formal invitation, I watched Mikey tag Stanley.  And Stanley looked me in the eye.  And then he was the one to approach me.

Stanley:  Mikey smacked me.
Me:  I saw that he tagged you.
Stanley:  He hit me though.

So I explained to Stanley that tagging is also a part of the game of tag.  "However," I added, "If this game is too rough for you, and you don't like being tagged because it hurts, you can let him know you don't want to play anymore.  Would you like to go play something else?"

(By the way, Stanley is about twice as big as Mikey.  Not that it makes it okay for him to actually be hurt or feel threatened, of course). 

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Stanley:  I dunno.
Me:  Well, maybe for now, you should let Mikey know you don't want to play tag anymore.  But if you change your mind, you can tell him that, and if he wants to play too, that's fine.

Hopefully, through the hard work of play, the boys started to make progress on a few life lessons:
1.  The rules and procedures of tag.
2.  Shy kids need to be included.
3.  If it's not fun, don't play.
4.  If someone hurts you, tell them, and walk away.
5.  If you can't work out your own problems, a mediator will help, but also probably take longer than just talking it out on your own would have taken.  (AKA:  Don't tattle).

Since I don't know these boys very well, I'm not sure which of these lessons they needed the MOST today.  But I think I covered most of the bases. 

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Let Kids Know You Are On Their Side

You know the sort of kid who's got the "My way or the highway" attitude?

Ever find yourself silently AGREEING with that kid?

As the adult/mediator in the room, you can't just let that kid wreck the self esteem of everyone he encounters, and walk all over everyone.  Yet time and time again, you see that actually, he was right.  He let the other kid know in an unacceptably cruel way, but he was right.  What do you do?

Well, when I realized this impulsive student is actually very bright, and often has a very good point about why he got so indignant in several social situations, I made time to talk with him.  He finished his test early (of course) so I pulled him to the back of the room, along with the kid he hit in line yesterday.  I listen to both of their side of the story without allowing interruption (from me or the other boy) as I always do, before asking questions, and finally I'm ready to pass my judgement.

"Like I said, Billy,* for now I'm going to have to insist that both of you stay sitting when I line everyone else up, and wait until the end when I can call you by name."

"But I didn't do anything!"

"As long as you THINK that, I can't allow you to line up normally, because it's not safe.  Once you realize you DID do something, and "hitting him accidentally" is never going to be acceptable, then I can let you line up with everyone else."

"But it was my place in line, behind bus 3 and in front of the kids who get picked up!"

And that's when I realized I needed to take a new approach.

This kid was right, knew he was right, and feels like the world is against him.  The only thing that was going to change his negative attitude was to feel like he had an ally.  Who's a more powerful ally than the teacher?  The only thing that was going to make sense for me to do here was to TAKE HIS SIDE.

"You're absolutely right."

I paused and let that sink in.

"You're right.  You're a smart kid, Billy.  And I bet you're right a lot, because you're so smart.  It must be very frustrating for you to be right, when other kids don't see it."

The look on his face was priceless.  It was like he felt I looked down into his soul and he finally felt understood.

"The thing is, how you ACT when you're right, and other people are wrong, that is what we have to work on.  So when you line up, I'm going to make sure you're letting the kids know what they should be doing in a polite way, and if they try to argue with you I'm going to be right there to tell them, 'Billy's right.'  Okay?"

All the fight just melted away.

When I have a challenge come up in class, my mantra is "I'm here for you."  When a kid is talking when I'm talking, interrupts, or breaks some other rule, although I have to discipline, I tell myself silently, "I'm here for YOU."  In the first few years of teaching, before I had a reputation that speaks for itself, I felt like every broken rule felt like an act of disrespect aimed at me, and it made me look bad.  But now, I know I don't have to take it personally.  And I've also realized that when it comes to school, these kids don't work for me.  I work for them.  I am literally paid to work for them.  That doesn't mean I let them walk all over me, because that's not what's best for them.  It doesn't mean that I let them be completely dependent on me to wait on them, because teaching them how to be independent is important for their development.  But I try to approach every problem that arises with the attitude of, "How can I fix this FOR YOU."  Not for me. 

I kept my promise when they lined up, making sure he spoke politely before stepping into his place in line, and we were a lot more orderly than we had been the last few days. 

*Names are changed to protect the guilty.

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Parent's Night: Involving Students When They're Not Invited

Is there anyone who doesn't feel stress before Parent's Night?

We teachers get nervous that parents won't like what we have to say.  Parents get nervous to hear a professional's opinion of their pride and joy.  And students?  Well, we all remember what it's like knowing that the grownups are talking about us!

In order to alleviate that stress, I had my students process the upcoming evening as part of their Morning Work:

Parent's Night is Tonight!

Write a note to your parents for tonight.  You may:
Thank them for coming.
  1. Tell them something you want them to see while they're here.
  2. Tell them a question you want them to ask me.
  3. Tell them what you're learning about in class.
  4. If you know they can't come, choose option #4 and you can bring it home to them.  
If you need more ideas for Parent's Night, check out my Back to School Night Packet.

Do you have any tips for helping your students feel included in Parent's Night?

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Teaching and Enforcing Discipline: Lining Up Quietly

When you teach kindergarten, many of the kids have NO idea about what's expected of them at school, so the first 6 weeks are hard.  But when you teach fourth grade, the kids are old enough to know expectations for behavior in class.  And they're also mature enough to implement all those exemplary behaviors.  Because they're also mature enough to start worrying about what other people think of them, but young enough to be dependent on adults, so they seek out their teachers' approval.

Kids graphic from
For as long as the first 2 weeks.

Once the honeymoon is over, it's time to test their teacher: 
  • She SAYS those are the rules, but does she really mean it?  
  • What if we did THIS because she didn't say, in so many words, we couldn't do this.  
  • And what about THAT rule?  
  • Is THAT rule so important to her that she's REALLY going to take recess away if I break it?  
  • Or will she just give me a bunch of reminders?  Because I can live with nagging, no problem."
And that's where my class is at right now.  They are in that "testing" stage.  This is when a teacher has to be more focused than ever about her expectations.  I'm still getting to know who they are, so it's a learning experience for ME too.  Taking a certain tone with one kid might not faze them, yet take the same tone with another and you'll get tears.  We all hate the unwarranted tears.  We have to constantly walk that balance between, "Maintain discipline and command respect," and "Gain their trust so they'll see you as someone they can open their mind to."  This is a good time to send a copy of your behavior policies home for parents to be involved. Mine are editable if you need someplace to start. 

One of the toughest lessons that my class is trying learn (of the unacademic sort) is our 4th and final rule: "Know when, and how loud, to talk." Specifically, they were having trouble lining up quietly to line up for the hall, and walk through the hall.

This became a serious problem one day last week when one of the children was so silly in the hall that a woman carrying her toddler almost tripped over him.  I reenacted the scene with them.  "Judy, pretend you're the mom, and my lunch box is the baby.  Carry it like a baby...good.  Kevin, you pretend you're the uncle (if I said they were the mom and dad the rest of the ten year olds would have had the opportunity to tease them for being married).  Now, pretend you're not really watching where you're going because you're talking with a preschool teacher.  Suddenly Johnny dives across the floor because he dropped his pencil."

I dove a foot in front of Judy.

"The baby's uncle reaches out to steady her shoulder.  Otherwise, she would have fallen right over him, and landed on her baby."

The class went wide eyed and silent.

Since this was in clear violation of rule #1: Safety, we had no choice but to practice lining up safely.

The next day, at recess, I was on duty.  I had to watch 6 classes, not just my own.  So I told them in advance to line up where they usually do, before they come inside.  I directed them to go left toward the door as usual, then another left onto the sidewalk, past the kids doing hula hoop, around the tree, and back to where they started.  A creative route, if I do say so myself!  And as they walked, I walked away, off to my "post" halfway across the playground so I could see the rest of the kids too, but turned to watch them carefully.  They went around twice before I came back over to them.

"That was much better," I told them.  "Not only were you able to walk in a straight, quiet line, you did it with ALL kinds of distractions!  There were kids playing out there, kids using hula hoops right beside you, and I was halfway across the playground.  So if you can do it with all those distractions, I KNOW you can do it when you're just walking through a quiet hallway!  In fact, you proved you don't even NEED me there; I could stand on one end of the hall and you could get to the other end with no problem.  That's what you just showed me you can do."

Then I sent them off to play, on a high.  It didn't take a whole lot of time from recess (I had told them when they asked how much recess they'd miss, "Don't worry, we'll practice for as long as you need to").  And the class knew the reason why it had to be practiced.

I'm sure they'll still test me, but I'm one step closer to showing them that I'm the person in control, and I take my responsibility of keeping people in our school safe very seriously.

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Organizing Those Classroom Posters

I like making posters.  Or should I say anchor charts?  I'm not sure what the difference is, or if that's just the new buzzword for something teachers have been doing for decades, haha.  Anyway, as much as I love MAKING posters, what I hated for the first several years of teaching was trying to FIND my posters.  I invested in one of those big boxes and it never worked for me.  Chart paper is too thin to put in, flip through, and remove.  So I needed a better system for organizing my posters.  The answer:  binder clips on coat hangers

Each social studies and science unit has a simple label taped to the top(ish) of the coat hanger.  There are extra large binder clips to keep them attached.  During the time frame that I'm teaching the unit, I just have one coat hanger I take out to deal with, and just one to put away at the end.  It's much easier to flick through 10 posters at a time than an entire "science" section of a box.

I have a different system for math, reading, and writing however.  Since these units change every couple years, they're a little bit more lumped together.

Basically I stuck a few hangers (available at Staples and sometimes even in grocery stores!) on the inside of my closet doors.  There's one for math, one for reading comprehension skills, one for writing, one for language/grammar, and one for genres.  What makes this system easier is our chart paper has 2 holes already punched at the top.  So all I had to do is put the hangers through those holes before I stuck them on, and I had a perfect fit.

You'll notice that some of my posters are upside down. Well, the holes do inevitably tear, so sometimes I flip them and re-punch.  It's actually easier to look through the posters when the titles are down there!  The other option are these gadgets that look like single hole punchers, but actually stick a thin plastic ring around a hole that's already been punched.  VERY useful for this purpose.  I wouldn't use them on all loose leaf paper, but for posters it's worth it.

Anyone else have tips on organizing their posters?

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Pinterest Inspiration: Student Birthdays

Confession:  I'm terrible about celebrating my students' birthdays.  I'm not sure why, because I love holidays.  Maybe it was because of the Jehova's Witness I had one year, out of sensitivity I just made myself "get over it."  Maybe it's because I was a summer birthday baby so I never experienced the whole "Bring cupcakes in for the class" thing.  So although birthdays are announced over the loudspeaker each morning (thanks to the main office) and I do lead the class in song when they bring in a treat for the class, I've never given them gifts.

Well, as teachers we strive to get a little better every year, adding new things to our repertoire, so this was the year I decided to change all that!

Thanks to Pinterest, I got inspiration for a thoughtful, cheap, and fun way to keep track of birthdays and give students a little something on their own special day.  Birthday pencil flowers!

During the first week of school, among our "ice breaker" activities, I asked each student their favorite color.  Then I made labels with "Happy Birthday" on one side, and the child's birthday on the other, and attached them to pencils.  They all go into a jar, and when we hear the announcement that it's someone's birthday, they can go get their pencil from our "Birthday Bouquet." It makes a lively classroom display that is not just nice for me, but the kids know is actually for them, eventually for keeps.

Sure enough, when the kids saw these, and realized what they were, they were all smiles.  If you like this birthday pencil topper pattern, I have it available for purchase.

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Pinterest Inspiration: Summary Poster

Much like Twitter and Facebook, it took me a while to really "get" Pinterest.  Like any other social media, it's hard to know where to start.  You're not sure what you want to share, and you're not sure who to follow.  Then I heard it was great for teachers.  I started following a few teachers from TPT, and suddenly it all made sense!  Photos of classroom decor, products aligned to the Common Core, funny "vent about how draining teaching can be" sentiments, and anchor charts that I just have to duplicate for my own students.  I'm hooked. 

So here is one of my first Pinterest-to-real-life anchor charts.  You may have seen the original pin here or here.  I updated it with a few of my own favorite fonts and classroom colors:

What a fantastic way to teach summarizing!  I remember when I was a kid, I would write 5 pages about a book I'd read.  I KNEW I was writing too much, I knew I was making more work for myself than I needed to, but when my teacher told me, "Write only the important information," I could not distinguish what was unimportant.  The events in my favorite books were sewn together into a complex tapestry and if you removed a bunch of the threads, well, you get the idea.  Focusing on answering these 5 questions just makes so much more sense.

The other thing I love about it is the combination of simplicity and complexity.  Just 5 words to memorize, plus an explanation of each for kids who need it.  Post Its that allow for students who might be stuck on the "wanted" but know the "but" (problem) can fill in what they know instead of waiting to write that part until they figure out the part above.  That's how juvenille-writer's-block sets in.  Yes, I expect that this poster is going to get a lot of miles on it.  I'd better laminate it on Monday!

[Edit]  I've gotten a number of requests from readers who would like a copy of this poster.  I'm unable to post a product for it in my TPT store since the fonts I used are not permissible for commercial use.  I've decided instead to put a copy of this summary poster in my Google Drive.  Thanks for the feedback, everyone!  It's awesome to know how many people like my design.  :)

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Reading Corner Upgrades This Year

The bookshelves have been improved!

As I mentioned in my beginning of the year post, the bookshelves needed an update.  When I first inherited my classroom, my predecessor used a lot of pink and yellow.  I didn't think a room like that would feel very welcoming to 10 year old boys, so I changed that within the year.  But I didn't banish ALL pink from my room.  I also had some double sided pink and purple index cards, which I used to make labels for my book bins.  Well, they were looking a little frayed and ratty.  Most of them were laminated, but since I always change which books to feature and which ones I lump into the generic "realistic fiction" or "science" bin, sometimes I don't make it to the laminator every time.

Well, this year I decided it was time for an upgrade.  Not only was it time to change the colors to fit the color scheme I have going on (teal, aqua, lime green, with brown and white for neutrals) but I needed to change out my font.  I had tried to get creative with my fonts, but the result was not only a mis-mash of styles, they were also not as clear as a nice bold sans serif font is.  So I used the same font I use on the product thumbnail of my TPT store because I figured if it's been clear and eye-catching on a 1 inch picture for web surfers, it should be clear enough enlarged on an index card.

Result!, those of you who also follow my TPT store may be thinking, "Those are not the same book bin labels that you sell."  And it's true.  I personally like to have graphics on my labels even at the 4th grade level.  We all can't help to think of Nike when we see the swoosh; visual marketing is powerful.  But I can't sell those labels commercially for one simple reason:  Copyright infringement.  I know not everyone follows that rule, but there you go.  I also know that some upper elementary teachers think that having the graphics is too busy or too babyish.  So I use the style that works for me, personally, and the labels I sell are legal, contain all the same popular 4th grade titles that many teachers are looking for, have a nice bold, clear font, they're color coded for fiction as well as nonfiction, and they have an attractive, free for commercial use border.  Although there is space for a graphic if you wish to add one, those teachers who have bought and used them as is were saved a lot of work for less than $2.

But back to the organization.  My next fix was the Guided Reading Group materials that were previously located on opposite ends of my classroom.  See, the leveled books are on the windowsill shelf at the rug area, where I meet with my groups.  There are sign out cards in the book bins with the kid's names and book titles.  But then on the other side of the room were the postings of students' names, book titles for the week, and differentiated worksheets.  It was a pain all year.  It was never a smooth transition for the inclusion teacher.  I had to get everything in one spot. 

You may be thinking, "Why not put them on top of the shelf above," but I thought:
1. It might be to confusing for kids to know which books they should and should not take out when reading for pleasure/choice.
2.  I use the top shelf as well as the wall space for other things throughout the year.
So the best solution I could see was to move the postings from the bulletin board to the (non-functioning) window shade.

Not bad.  We'll see how it works out once we start groups later in the month!

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