Today is the Last Day of School!

Today is my last day of school, woo hoo!

I think the last week is always a lot of fun.  I feel like at this point I can truly relax with the kids and enjoy them.  No pressure to adhere to standards; testing is well over.  No pressure to adhere to routine; their routines will change next year anyway.  No pressure to mold these children into better citizens; they already know.  A knowing look or a good-natured joke as a gentle reminder is all they need.  My job is basically done, and I know the wonderful 5th grade teachers will pick up where I left off so that I can pick up where the third grade teachers left off in a couple months.  It feels so great to end this chapter, have a break (buy myself an end of the year present) and look forward to next year!

So what do we do to wrap up the year when there are no more standards to teach and test?  Oh sure, we collect textbooks (checking book numbers and collecting them in reverse alphabetical order so they're easier to redistribute next year).  And I have the kids empty their desks and bring their notebooks home (they were more excited about that than anything else).  I even brought my Dust Buster so they could vacuum inside (of course they loved that)!  And I enlist the kids' help with clean up (I even have end of the year task cards I've used for the past 2 years).  But my favorite part of the week is our portfolio/scrapbooks.

These have taken many forms over the years, but they always involve:
* Artifacts
* Reflection sheets
* Sheet protectors (so pages can be "double sided")
* Decorative borders
* Photos from class parties, field trips, and other special events
* Binders to keep it all in

The decorative borders are a lot of fun to make; each child makes a paste paper, I chop them into strips, and they get to share with each other. scrapbooks are of course going to be a treasured keepsake to look back on.  For a few of them.  I've learned that craft projects are not for every kid, and these books are no exception.  And reflecting (in writing) is just as painful for some kids as any other writing assignment.  But looking at those photos brings back happy memories for EVERY kid.  They start wonderful conversations, "Hey, remember when...."  They give the kids the time and space to look at their fourth grade experience with rose colored lenses.  And when those kids who don't like writing or crafts need a break, I hand them a task card to help me clean up for a little while.

We also had fun this year since the kids earned their marble jar reward (they voted for a movie, and that movie was "Flushed Away.")  I split my time between enjoying it with them and leaving them with an aide so I could watch my kiddos from last year at their "Moving On Ceremony."  I surprised them with ice cream sandwiches before I left since it was well over 90 degrees in our classroom.  It was kind of perfect, because as kids in the other fourth grade class finished their work, the substitute allowed them to come over and watch the movie with us, so by the time I got back there were nearly 40 kids, content and relaxed after a tiring day of cleaning, organizing, and reflecting.

I promise I'll go back and upload pictures of those scrapbooks and paste papers for this post another day, but for now you can pop over to All Things Upper Elementary for a quick post about my last day of school (or at least, what I have planned for it). 

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Phew, Back to Normal

Holy heart attack on a blog.

How many of you stopped by here today and saw this:

I came on for a minute as a break from writing report cards (last day is on Wednesday, yay!) and I find a broken blog.  Background, buttons, images from posts, all gone and replaced with blue minus sign circles.

Well, after about 15 minutes of internal panic and frenzied internet research carried out by my husband and myself, it's fixed now.  Luckily it was one of those things that could be fixed in one fell swoop, as opposed to re-uploading hundreds of photos. 

If you did see it, I'm glad you weren't too put off to return.  :)  Please see my previous post for a free product I'm giving to everyone who wants it, in celebration of my first 100 followers. 

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Blog Follower Appreciation: To My First 100 (plus a few extra)!

This is an exciting week here at Shut the Door and Teach!  Not only do I have just one week left of school, I recently and very quickly (in just the last few days) reached 100 followers!  As a result, my regularly scheduled post about the science unit my class recently finished will go up on next week.  I wanted to use this post for a proper thank you., I want to welcome my new followers.  I'm guessing at least a few of you found me through my friend The Peanut Gallery's giveaway (still going on at time of posting, but now closed). 

Second, I want to thank all my followers for signing up.  It's a wonderful feeling that I'm being heard by people all over the country, and even in other English speaking countries! 

As a thank you to everyone, new and veteran readers, I decided to do a giveaway.  Not a raffle...a giveaway.  That's right, for a limited time (one week) you can download a complete FREE copy of one of my fraction task card activities, normally available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers (sorry, this giveaway is now closed).  I hope you'll leave a comment below to let me know what you think! 

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Stop Bringing Home Homework to Correct: Two Years Later

Nearly 2 years ago I wrote a post about a new system for homework.  My principal told us: "Stop correcting homework!I wrote about what I imagined the pros and cons to checking homework would be, but of course I did what I was told; I started checking homework instead of calling one group at a time to hand it in so I could schlep it home.  The new home routine for my fourth graders goes like this:

  • First thing in the morning, kids put their homework on their desk.  They keep a bookmark (Post It) on the page in their workbook so I could flip to it as they did their morning work.
  • I glance over the work and draw a smiley face at the top to signify it's been looked at.  If I notice errors related to following the directions I mention it then and there and ask, "Do you think you can fix it?"  Or if I'm noticing several kids with the same error I'll get together a small group to reteach.
  • I walk around with a clipboard to keep track of who is absent, does not have their homework, or did the wrong page. 
  • One thing that has stayed the same in my 8 years, before and after this switch, is I collect assignment books of any student who doesn't have their homework.  I write a quick note to the parent such as "Johnny told me he left his homework on the kitchen table and he will bring it tomorrow."
  • I still give kids a "pass" if they forget once in a week's time (they still get the note in the agenda).  However if they miss 2 they have the naturally occurring consequence of missing Morning Meeting and/or recess to complete it.  They can rejoin the activity if they put in effort and complete it in time.
I've been using this system for the past 2 years so I'm due for an update to this post! Obviously, from a purely selfish point of view, it's been great not bringing home piles of papers.  It has freed me up to focus more on how to be a better teacher!

  • I have been creating checklists and curriculum maps to stay on track with the Common Core. 
  • I've been reading more professional resources (for example, persuasive writing is more of a focus in fourth grade so I've been brushing up on how to teach it). 
  • I've created more engaging activities for my students to use in class (I have lots of math games and task cards for topics covered by the Math in Focus program that we adopted 2 years ago).
  • I feel more free to "recharge my batteries" one day per weekend to go do something fun with my husband instead of playing catch up on piles of papers.
As for how it's impacting the kids, I feel that there have been a lot of positives in addition to those above.
  • By having homework on their desks instead of handed in, those who have their homework are more...visible.  What I mean is, it's more of a norm for students to see others with their homework on their desk and talking to me about how they did, what was challenging, and how to fix it.  More kids are apt to be part of this norm, especially those in grades 4 and 5 who are at the stage in their social development when they are starting to notice and care about social norms.
  • It's not just a routine to either bring up papers or not; it's part of the teaching and learning process between student and teacher.  Because let's face it; not too many 10 year olds get their homework back and read over the problems they get wrong in order to work out what they need help with!  Instead, if I notice glaring errors, I will stop to point it out and in some cases I can say, "Do you know how to fix it" and they can! 
  • If a group of kids get something wrong, I might need to change my lesson for the day to reteach before I can build on the concept they missed.  Back when I'd stick the pile in my bag to look at that night (or the next day, longer) I wouldn't have known; I'd have plowed ahead and the kids fall farther and farther behind.
  • Kids can go home more empowered.  For parents who have homework concerns, they can either hear from their child about the immediate feedback they've got or they'll see your corrections.  If you need more help with communicating your homework expectations to parents I have homework policies available.
The only real drawback which has lessened over time is the amount of time it takes to check each student.  My "shortcut" to the system is to check one student per group and have them "look over" each other's assignments and share strategies they used to get their answers.  Obviously there are pros and cons to that system too, and the success varies greatly depending on how well your students work together.  Let's just say I used it very sparingly this year!  For classes like mine this year it's a good opportunity to practice cooperative work, although it's not a substitute for reteaching. 

So overall, I think this homework system has worked BETTER than the old system.  It's not perfect, but if there was a perfect system everyone would be using it.  If you haven't tried it before, I recommend you STOP CORRECTING HOMEWORK!
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Animal Adaptations: Camouflage

Last week I wrote about two of my animal research units, vertebrates and invertebrates.  Well, not every unit I teach is done in isolation; I like to make connections and spiral back and blur the lines between topics whenever it's conducive to learning.  One lesson that can really go in either unit, so it tends to end up either in the middle the animal units or after both is my lesson on camouflage.  This is one of those projects that I look forward to every year because the kids get a constant reminder of it.

I start out by asking the kids to each pick a "spot" in the room that will become a "habitat" for an animal.  Then we color our paper to look like the spot.  As an example I color a wood grain pattern on my paper to look like my door.  I layer on color to make it not just look brown, but the right shade of almost orange-y brown.

Next, I challenge kids to think about what type of animal might live there.  A moth could spend some time on the door.  A bird might be found up by the ceiling.  What adaptations make both of those animals suited for being up high?

Then I have students fold their paper in half.  I instruct them to draw their animal on one half of the white side of their paper.  I check their drawings before they cut, otherwise some will mistakenly draw half a butterfly thinking they're doing a symmetry project instead of getting 2 separated animals in the end!

After completing a processing sheet that requires them to describe their habitat, animal, and its adaptations, I let them tape their animal to its "spot" (unless it's out of reach, in which case I climb things to make it work).

I put each animal's "twin" on a poster.  This year I took it a step further, and put them in a zoo!  I was hoping it would spark discussion and concern for caged animals as opposed to those still in the wild, but this group didn't take the bait.  Maybe next year.  On the other hand, one of my students who doesn't always shine in every academic area referred to the matching animals, not as twins, but as doppelgangers!  I was so shocked and impressed with that vocabulary word that I included it on the poster.  :D

The animals are left up all year round as a teaser.  Soon we'll be be ready to clean our room and it will be a nice reminder of an activity they did "a long time ago."  I treat it like a scavenger hunt.  "Can anyone find a camouflaged animal that is NOT their own?"  At the end, any animals that are only visible to their creator are deemed the most well adapted and thus the winners! 

The hawk IS there, but very hard to see!
As an added bonus this year, just two days after we completed this activity, one of our neighborhood wildlife friends, a hawk, came for a visit at recess.  By which I mean it came in a little too close for (my) comfort!  Normally they're overhead, or in a tree on the edge of the grounds, but this one came in on a very low branch to sit and watch the children (shudder).  Now, some of the kids had trouble seeing it and so, you guessed it, my students started arguing.  It went down like this:

"I don't see it!"
"It's right there!"
"You're lying."
"No, I'm not, it's really there!"
"It IS.  You just can't see it because it's camouflaged!  Right Mrs. Thomas?"

I think they've got it.

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