Classifying Invertebrates, "Playing" with Clay!

With state testing over here in Massachusetts, I feel like a weight has been lifted.  Sure, I still have nearly a whole month left with my fourth graders (and reading all over the teacher-blogosphere about people who are out already) but at least now I feel like I can just relax and enjoy my class a bit more.  And the way I do that without actually losing them for the last several weeks is to allocate extra time to the content areas!  Math and ELA, you get to take a back seat for now.  Make way for some science! 

After our unit on vertebrates (which I blogged about yesterday) I delved into our unit on invertebrates.  Although our book reverses the order, I think it's better to start with the familiar.  And I'm sure kids have more experience with our furry friends the mammals than they do with sea sponges.  Plus I enjoy getting questions from those deep thinkers who ask, as we are classifying animals into five categories, "What about ants.  Aren't they animals?"  It leads to great discussions when it comes time to rationalize why a sponge is an animal!
We start out as we did with the vertebrates, by classifying animals by their body covering.  That is, they learn about animals with and without an exoskeleton.  To drive the point home, we use CLAY!!

The exoskeleton is represented with tin foil.  It's not the easiest fine motor task, but of course the activity can be differentiated by assigning certain kids the worm.  They feel successful while the kids who like a challenge work with me on how to manipulate the foil. 
We did further research on key traits of various invertebrates on a scope and sequence chart. 

Next I reinforced the concept of the T chart with kids.  They were learning about how to compare and contrast in reading, and that was a perfect segue into how insects and arachnids are similar and different.  Then finally we honed in on how to classify 2 types of invertebrates, insects and arachnids.

They used the T charts to create captioned pictures for our hall display (Top tip:  Use paperclips to easily change out papers throughout the year!  Although it worked better with 2 clips, not one center one because they droop over time).

The checklist of expectations appears on the left below, while a close up might look something like my example (below on the right) that I used to help students evaluate their own work:

The kids have fun with our animal units, and although Common Core likes to take credit for weaving writing throughout the content areas, it's something I've been doing since I've started teaching (don't we all?).

If you're interested in this unit, I have my invertebrates unit available as a complete package deal in my TPT store.

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Vertebrates Unit: Classifying Animals

Now that state testing is over for fourth graders here in Massachusetts (and thanks to all the storms this year it's going to be a lonnnng June), I have felt the pressure of math and ELA lifted, and I've been fitting in more science and social studies into our days.  I also looked over my blog topics over this past year and I was shocked to find I have not posted a SINGLE piece on science!  I actually DO teach science, really!  So I decided to  start at the beginning share a topic that I love to teach the kids:  Animals!  More specifically we begin by studying the traits of, and classifying vertebrates. 
We start out with a study guide.  Instead of waiting until the end of the unit to tell kids what their test will be on, I give them a one page sheet at the beginning of the unit.  It has all the vocabulary concepts and examples that we are going to work on over the course of the unit.  Some kids like to check off each topic as we cover it.

Next, we talk about the stages of the life cycle for all vertebrates.  This eases kids into the year because who doesn't love to draw their favorite baby animal? 

Then we complete a concept map for vocabulary words including habitat, appendages, body covering,  and adaptations.  

My poster board is in sad shape unfortunately, but only because it's been so useful over the years for both science and social studies concepts.  I'm not sure yet if I want to create a new one on poster board (the kids complain that laminated posters are hard to read because of the glare, and I don't blame them) or some sort of shower board project from the hardware store.  We'll see!

But back to vertebrates.  Next we start our research, checking off which characteristics animals have when it comes to the above traits.


I often alternate colors to help students track on the board, and they've also let me know that the lines are helpful, so I started doing this consistently this year as well. 

One thing I love about fourth grade is some kids are starting to be able to verbalize what they need in order to be successful, and they advocate for themselves!

Then we begin research on student generated topics on adaptations, such as why birds can fly and why snakes don't need appendages other than their tails.  

I usually group students by their selected topics, and they do an oral presentation to the class about their findings.  

I'm not usually a fan of oral presentations, but when it comes to animals students are usually so interested in the topic that they can overcome their shyness to share.
Finally, my favorite part of our unit is to create our own animals!  They need to decide if its a mammal, fish, amphibian, bird or reptiles, and have the correct traits, but otherwise they can be as creative as they like!  Yet I can still assess which students can apply what they know about the characteristics of each of the animal classes.

The unit that follows is on invertebrates, which I have written about over on my other blog.  So if you're interested in more animal activities, check out my post tomorrow!  Also, if you're interested in getting these activities and more in a package deal, I have this vertebrate unit over at my TPT store. 
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How to Teach Mixed Numbers and Improper Fractions

Once my fourth graders were finally comfortable with equivalent fractions, it was time to introduce the idea of "bigger" fractions:  improper fractions and mixed numbers.  However, using those plastic fraction pieces was going to get cumbersome really fast.  My group this year are not really pros at sharing or taking turns, so combining sets of fractional pieces would have been a headache for all of us.  Instead, I turned to a model that is very, very common on our MCAS tests:  the fraction number line.

The thing I've learned, in my years of using number lines, is that kids are more apt to count the lines than the spaces.  They need to learn right away that the only right way to use a fraction number line is to count the spaces, and they need lots of opportunities to practice doing so.  We draw a line under to form boxes and they see it.  We label blank number lines starting with zero and they see it. Yet when they are asked to find 1/2 on a number line that is divided into eighths, suddenly they forget all about equivalent fractions.  They draw their point on the second eighth instead of the 4/8 mark. they needed was practice labeling number lines with confidence.  That means that before they do anything else, they must remember to find the denominator of all the fractions on the number line.  I gave them several blank number line worksheets that ask them to draw a line of varying lengths, but the first step is always to find the denominator and label the lines.  The last step is to find an equivalent eighth for the given 1/2. I've made these these fraction number line worksheets available for your students as well!

After spending a while using number lines to relate improper fractions to mixed numbers, it was time to find an algorithm. Once again, I had them write two equivalent fractions (a mixed number that equals an improper fraction) on two separate Post Its.  They had their labeled number lines to refer to so that they knew what to write.  Then they stuck them randomly on the board for me to sort, and they had to guess how I figured it out.

I did give them a hint in red on each Post It this time, because I was afraid too many kids just wouldn't see any rhyme or reason to the matches, or worse, see coincidences like "there are lots of even numbers." You might notice that on 1 1/4 I drew a little 4 on the left and a little 5 on the right.  This really helped a lot more students get a dialog going! "Method 1" was how the majority of kids explained the process (different partnerships chose different examples when they "turned and talked" but most explained it the same way).  Method 2 was the same steps, but in a more visual, less wordy form for those kids who get bogged down with language.  And finally, I added a picture so they could go back and forth in their minds' eye that the 3 2/4 really does look just like 14/4.  Circle fractions are used in our Every Day Counts program so it's a familiar model for them.      

Finally, we did the inverse, which was to change an improper fraction to a mixed number.  Again, I wrote hints, however a few of my students predicted, before we even started, "it's just going to be the opposite!"  "What do you mean?"  "Instead of multiply then add, you divide and subtract!"  Isn't it awesome when they can apply their thinking to new contexts?  :) 

Although Math in Focus is more about "decomposing numbers," and I focused my reteaching efforts on Method 2 (really just shorthand for method 1) a lot of the kids overall liked the traditional "Method 3" the best because long division actually stuck with this group of kids especially well this year (could it be all the fun task card practice?)  :D  Nothing wrong with it as long as they can see WHY it works.  

After a final (multi-day) lesson on problem solving, which I forgot to photograph, I felt like they were ready for their test.  I made them SWEAR to me that they would check the directions on each questions to tell if their answer needed to be in simplest form, a mixed number, or an improper fraction.  In the end, half the class missed, on average, only one question due to their answer being technically correct, but in the wrong form.  And if you teach Math in Focus, Chapter 6, I bet you can guess which completely, and I have to think purposely, misleading question I'm talking about. 

Overall, their progress from the beginning to now has been amazing!  I saw so much growth from my lowest students as well as my highest ones!  I had a high student at the beginning ask on the pretest, "What even IS fraction of a set?!  Is my answer going to be a fraction or a whole number," and get 8/11 wrong.  He got a perfect score on the final.

Another student, who is a low performer, who got 1 right on the pretest got 8/11 correct on the final.  I wrote right on his test how proud I am of him.  And although he can be a difficult kid, he was SO EXCITED.  "I actually get fractions!"  He has never looked so proud of himself.
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Responsive Classroom: Morning Meeting Kit

Teachers, you know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you're asked a great question?  One of those questions that isn't just on topic, but is asked for clarification.  A question that not only you can answer in depth, but you know, had it not been asked, the whole class may have been left with only a superficial understanding of what you were trying to convey, and now thanks to this question you get a second chance to make it all crystal clear for everyone?

Well I got one of those in my comment section last week, haha!  :D 

Kimberly, thank you for asking about my Morning Meeting Kit!  I mentioned it in passing last week, but thanks to you I thought, "Why not take the whole thing apart and show everyone what it actually entails?"

Before I do, first of all I should explain that the kit is really just a collection of things that I had been using for Morning Meeting that was cluttering up a nearby table.  This isn't a list I got out of a book or even planned at the beginning of the year.  Second of all, in case you're not 100% familiar with the term Morning Meeting, it's part of the Responsive Classroom method of building classroom community.  There's tons of information online, the Morning Meeting Book series is very readable and practical, and honestly explaining the whole thing would be beyond the scope of this post.  However, I will say that the four main components that my principal introduced me to right away, and that I still stick to is to have my fourth graders: 
  • Do a Greeting with each other
  • Share news and/or items
  • Have a group Activity (nearly always a game) and finally have
  • Announcements
So here are the items I use on a daily basis during Morning Meeting:

1.  The box.  I originally had all these things strewn around a table, and it was a little bit maddening how messy it looked.  Then I put it all into a tub, but even that looked like a box of junk.  In the end, I opted for vertical storage.  It works beautifully.

2.  My "Shares Sign Up Board."  I blogged about this system, but essentially I have a student roster, and each student needs to complete a task in their box in order to sign up to share in the morning.  There's a bit more to it, in that it's got a sheet protector to save paper and grade 4 common core aligned tasks to complete, but that's the crux of it.

3.  My Mystery Person envelope.  I got this idea from a teacher's forum (if I can find who to credit I will update this post).  I told the kids that two behaviors that I want them to work on is not blurting out, and being organized (specifically: quickly taking out the appropriate materials during transition times to get ready for that subject).  At the start of the day, I pick two names, but don't tell them who.  Then, throughout the day I watch those two students especially to see if they are completing the task, while reminding the class, "I see so and so is (name the desired behavior); I wonder if they are the Mystery Person!"  Everyone in the class then snaps to!  If a Mystery Person does not do what they need to do, I tell the class that for today they will remain a mystery!  However if they do, they get a round of applause/bragging rights, and they can pick out a sticker from my portfolio.

4.  Student of the Month information.  We focus on character education at my school, and we have a different trait that we strive to improve each month (such as cooperation, empathy, and responsibility).  This file folder contains a list of the traits, definitions to help me guide my discussion at the start of each month, and slips of paper for students who need a "warning" for not making good choices to improve themselves in this area.  I have this Student of the Month system available for purchase as well.

5.  Character building anchor charts (from Pinterest!) that I love, which I pull out on an as needed basis.  You can see my Pinterest collection of classroom posters here.

6 & 7.  Game materials include a white board, eraser, marker, and ball.  These come in handy for various games we play.  The bottle of water is actually out of place in this shot; it's for me for wiping off the Shares Sign Up board each week.

8.  The kids' names on sticks.  Originally I used their lunch sticks to pull for games and comments, but it started to become a hassle to use the sticks for a dual purpose on opposite sides of the room and at different times (thanks to rotating specials times).  It became more practical to have a new set right in the kit.  Also, I use these to pull names for the Mystery Person.  Then I use the lunch sticks for the rest of the day.  Because of course, if I used the lunch sticks for the Mystery Person, then I pulled Billy's lunch stick to answer a question in math, Billy knows he's not the Mystery Person today.  This way it can stay a mystery!

10.  More Student of the Month information.  The kids nominate each other every Monday for Student of the Month, so I have a roster (it's partly covered there to protect privacy) to keep track of each topic, who's been nominated for the topic, and who the eventual "winner" was.

11.  A pile of "Greetings" and a pile of "Activities."  I usually change these up each Monday, so if I feel like trying something new, or I want a specific purpose (such as cooperation) I can just flick through these for inspiration.  I did not make these; a simple Google search yielded loads of them for free, but I got the bulk of my Greetings and Games here, from Mrs. Bainbridge.

12.  Twitter Board:  Not pictured above, but I blogged about my Twitter board as a new Share system a few weeks ago.  This is so that anyone who didn't sign up, yet had big news could still have it posted, and if I feel it's big enough to talk about I do.

So that's my Morning Meeting Kit!  Just a bunch of stuff that I found myself scrambling for each morning that I finally put altogether.  I love it because now I'm starting out each morning super organized, and I think the kids have noticed that too.  Thanks again for your question, Kimberly, and I wish you loads of luck with your first classroom! 
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Got $12? How About a Classroom Makeover!

I can't believe some teachers are soon to be finished for the year!  Here in Massachusetts (well, this city, anyway), thanks to Nemo the kids don't get out until June 26.  Feels like FOREVER.  Although now that the state testing pressures are off, I can refocus my energies on poor, neglected little Social Studies and Science, woohoo! 

In order to breathe some life into the classroom during a school year that runs the risk of feeling really, really long, I did a little freshening up right before the state tests.  Some of you may remember the before that I posted at the start of the year.  I kept the same color scheme since our desks are teal, the bookshelves are blue and green, the walls are white and the floor is brown.  However I saw these fantastic tablecloths at CVS for $2 each!  I thought they'd add a new punch of color and let me join the "cover your shelving with fabric club" that so many teachers in my building and the blogosphere have been doing.  So here are my upgrades:

The round table got a round tablecloth of course, and I put some double sided tape in 8 spots around the circumference.  It seems to be staying in place very well. 

Behind that I took a rectangular tablecloth, folded it in half, and put Duck Tape on the fold at the top.  This gave it some durability when I hole punched it.  

I got the tiniest size of those 3M hooks for the edge (I think I used 4 in total).  This way I can easily remove when needed.

For my shelves near my desk, it's hard to envision the full effect all the way across (with my desk there in the middle), but I did a solid blue in the center, and then the striped panels on the ends.  For those I accidentally got round tablecloths!  D'oh!  So I cut each one in half, folded it, and again, Duck Taped the top where I'd cut for durability.  The little hooks make it easy to get to the books underneath.

 For the kids' shelves I decided to leave half of it open so they could find things more easily.  For indoor recess I told them to remove the panels so they don't rip.  I also used those little plastic hole-punch reinforcements applicators for even more durability. 

I had 2 panels left, so I put them over at the computer table.  We only ever use the middle computer anyway; the others each have their own little "quirk" that makes them undesirable. 

Finally, not really an upgrade in decor, other than to keep my "dotted table" a lot more organized, was the Morning Meeting Kit.  Previously all those things were spread out on the table and it looked messy.  Now we have the Shares Sign Up board, a whiteboard with marker and eraser, character education information, and a ball for games. 

I LOVE it, and I don't know why I didn't think of this earlier!  This vertical storage works so much better than the tub I put there first. 

Did anyone else feel the need to spruce up their classroom decor this spring? 

And do you have an Instagram account yet?  I just gave it a try!  You can follow me at: 

I am also linking up with What the Teacher Wants: you have never used Instagram before (like me 3 weeks ago) you need to download the app for your iThing or Android device.  From there you can set up an account, take some pictures, edit them, and post them on Instagram (it's often likened to Facebook in that it's all about sharing and followers and what-have-you).

Now I know what you're thinking.  Why bother?

Well, I'm bothering because I love to look at other people's classrooms.  :)  So if you love to get ideas about classroom setup and decor, you'll probably want to join in!

I already do so on Pinterest.  And I think Instagram will become an even better medium for this since you can post instantly.  Pinterest is great too, for websites and full blog posts.  But if you like just the visuals, it seems like this will be another great medium for you.  At least that's how I see it.  :) 
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