Friday, December 27, 2013

"Wonder" by R.J. Palacio: A Book that is Making the World a Better Place

In the 1800's, British historian, James Bryce, said, "The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." Almost two hundred years later, I tell my students the same thing. When I choose read aloud titles, I always look for books that will push my students out of their comfort zone and challenge the way they think. I want the books I read to them to leave them asking questions about the way they view the world and the way they interact with others. I know it's a lofty aspiration, but I want them to grow in their understanding of human nature and the world around them as a result of what I read to them.

For this reason, I love reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my students. In summary, Wonder is the story of ten-year-old Auggie who is a normal kid on the inside, but not on the outside. August was born with a life-threatening facial abnormality, and has had to be homeschooled his whole life. His life changes forever when enters fifth grade at a private school in Manhattan. Wonder is the transformative story of Auggie's fifth grade year at Beecher Prep.

Though this plot summary is accurate, it does not do Wonder justice. The power of this book lies in its message, not in its story line. When asked why she wrote the book, R.J. Palacio said, she intended the book to be a "meditation on kindness".  She said she wanted to impress upon her readers the power of words. In an interview, she said, "You all have the power to change lives. Remember the power of words, and think about how you want to be remembered."

I've read this book to my last two classes and both groups were prfoundly impacted by the book. Their empathy for others increased, and it changed the way they interacted with their peers. I find it interesting that both classes were especially affected by the same quote from the main character. When Auggie goes to see his older sister in a play, she gets a standing ovation at the end of her performance. Auggie is impressed by the crowd's reaction to her performance and says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives." Later in the story, Auggie receives an award at graduation and gets a standing ovation from the audience. The kids totally got the significance of the standing ovation for Auggie. They recognized that the applause for Auggie symbolized how far he had come in just one year, and what a profound impact the love and acceptance of the Beecher Prep school community has had on his life. 

I have to admit, it warmed my heart and brought a tear to my eye, when I finished the book both times and my classes gave ME a standing ovation. And I am not the only one lucky enough to be on the receiving end of such a spontaneous display of love and appreciation from these kids. Last year's class, started a standing ovation for the retiring teachers at an assembly at the end of school, and this year's class gave the autistic support classes a standing ovation after their performance of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at our annual Holiday Show. It is powerful to be in their presence and see the kids look at one another tentatively and slowly rise out of their seats because they feel moved by someone or something, and they want to express their feelings.

There was another standing ovation at school last week that everybody's been talking about. I wasn't there to witness it personally, but it melted my heart just to hear about it. When a soldier returning from deployment oversees came to visit one of our teachers and her class that adopted his unit last year, the teacher took him on a tour of the building. The tour included the lunchroom, and our fourth and fifth graders happened to be eating at the time. When Lt. Nicholas Parisi from the U.S. Army walked into the cafeteria, my students actually started a spontaneous standing ovation for him. No adult TOLD them to do it. They just felt moved to show their respect and appreciation for our military and all the brave men and women who protect our freedoms and keep us safe, so they got up out of their seats and showed Lt. Parisi some love

I wonder if R.J. Palacio has any idea how far-reaching the impact of her novel actually is. Does she even know that ordinary people are choosing to be "kinder than necessary" because of Auggie's story? At the end of Wonder, Mr. Tushman, the school principal, gives a speech at graduation. In the address he says, "If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary - the world really would be a better place." From what I heard from the adults who were in the lunchroom when Lt. Parisi  got his standing ovation the other day, it was a beautiful moment. The world got a little brighter for a minute, and everyone who was there carried a ray of that light away with them in their hearts.

The world needs more moments like this, and I just want to thank R.J. Palacio for writing a book that gives teachers a beautiful platform for having conversations about kindness, love, and compassion with our students. The world is a better place because of her book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Figurative Language at Its Finest

Whether you're looking at it from the national, state, or local level, if you're a fifth grade teacher you are destined to come across a standard that requires your students to interpret figurative language. For Philadelphia Public School teachers like me, the hierarchy of figurative language standards is as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes. ( Common Core State Standards from

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in grade level text, including interpretation of
figurative language. (PA Common Core Standards from

E05.A-V.4.1.2: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. a. Interpret figurative language (e.g., simile, metaphor, personification) in context. b. Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs. (Grade 5 Scope and Sequence from the School District of Philadelphia Planning and Scheduling Timeline)

In reality, interpreting figurative language makes up 40% of the eligible content for fifth grade vocabulary. As a result, we work on identifying literary devices and interpreting figurative language all year long in Room 202. At the beginning of the year, we defined the terms, put the definitions and examples in a flip book, and interpreted examples from our independent reading on, but it's been a few weeks since we focused directly on figurative language in our lessons.

I decided to revisit figurative language two weeks ago. First, we watched a great YouTube video clip from The Amanda Show called Meet the Literals ( The video reinforces the difference between the literal and figurative meaning of words and phrases using a highly entertaining series of mistakes a young girl and her family make because they take everything literally. The Amelia Bedelia-like escapades of the Literal family stem mostly from their misinterpretation of idiomatic expressions, but I used the clip to remind the kids that not everything an author says can be taken literally. THE KIDS LOVED IT!

For a more in depth review of each individual literary device, I used a PowerPoint presentation I've been working on for quite some time. The PowerPoint is available in my TpT Store for just $3.00. I love it because, the students are given an opportunity to read a short passage from a famous children's novel and discuss its meaning before having to identify what type of figurative language is being used to convey the author's message. There are also opportunities in the PowerPoint for the children to practice writing original examples for each type of literary device. The PowerPoint ends with slides of the lyrics from some pop songs the children are familiar with. They are asked to find the figurative language on each lyrics slide and explain what the songwriter was actually trying to say. If you need to revisit figurative language, I highly recommend a lesson centered around this PowerPoint.

Right before Thanksgiving, we followed the Figurative Language PowerPoint up with a gratitude writing project with a twist. Instead of simply having the children make a list of the things they are thankful for, I asked them to describe five things they are grateful for using similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and idioms. We put the gratitude statements on the feathers of a turkey to tie in the holiday theme. The children loved coloring the turkeys, and I loved the statements they came up with. Here are some examples:

Makayla: I am thankful for my phone, because without it I would die. (hyberbole)

Molly: I am thankful for my home, because it holds its arms out to welcome me when I come home. (personification)

Enrique: I am thankful for outdoor recess, and I want to have it for a hundred years. (hyperbole)

Arianna: I am thankful for my friends, because they are like clowns in a circus who cheer me up when I am feeling down. (simile)

Gabby: I am thankful for the books I read, because they take me on adventures. (personification)

Briana: I am thankful for my family, because when I am sad like a lost puppy, they are there for me. (simile)

Delrick: I am thankful for my phone, and if it had arms I would hug it all the time. (personification)

Ashley: I am thankful for books, because they wrap their arms around me and tell me their adventurous stories. (personification)

Ehsan: I am thankful for my family, because it is a nest filled with warmth and love.

Trevor: I am thankful for my weekends, because it feels to me that I can fly when I have free time. (hyperbole)

Kylie: I am thankful for my family, because they are the tree whose branches will always be there to catch me when I am under pressure. (metaphor)

Jake: I am thankful for the woods, because they are my playground. (metaphor)

Gia: I am thankful for my friendships, because my friends are a mailbox that is always open if I need to drop off my problems. (metaphor)

Kayla V: I am thankful for school and education, because without it I would not know a thing. (hyperbole)

Taylan: I am thankful that my mom is not a giant ogre. (metaphor)

Kevin: I am thankful for my dad, because he makes the piano sing. (personification)

Kayla K: I am thankful for my teacher, because my brain would be mushed up like melted ice cream without her. (metaphor)

Allie: I am thankful for my best friend Emily who is a human calculator. (metaphor)

Eli: I am thankful for my house, because I do not have to live under a rock. (metaphor)

Patrick: I am thankful for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and the military, because they protect us like a watchdog. (simile)

Mark: I am thankful for my pets, because they are funny little clowns that make me laugh. (metaphor)

Nick D: I am thankful for food, because without it there would be no reason for my tastebuds to dance. (personification)

Nick P: I am thankful for my brothers. Without them there would be a hole in my life. (metaphor)

The Thanksgiving project was such a huge success that I immediately started thinking of how it could be adapted for Christmas. What I came up with was a "Christmas List" project. Students make a list of what they want for Christmas, and each item on the list must be described with a simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, or idiom. (A more altruistic version of the project could be done by asking students to write about five gifts they'd like to give to other people.) These three links are my early Christmas present to you. They take you to a rubric, a Christmas list template, and a Christmas Presents coloring sheet. 

Don't forget to use the Figurative Language PowerPoint from my TpT Store as a review before you start the project.

Merry Everything and Happy Always,

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Holiday Cheer for our Soldiers Overseas

I am a sucker for military reunions. It can be a parent and a child, a husband and wife, or young couples in love. Regardless of the pairing, that spontaneous emotional embrace that marks each reunion gets me every time. I never get through a televised reuniting without shedding a tear or two.

I admire the sacrifices that our servicemen and women make to protect our freedoms and ideals, and I respect them for their courage and dedication, but I can't help feeling sad that families have to be separated to achieve this greater good.

Last year, when my good friend asked if I could have my students make Christmas cards for her nephew who was recently stationed overseas in Afghanistan, I jumped at the opportunity. I figured some homemade cards and heartfelt gratitude were the least I could do for Michael, in return for the huge sacrifice he was making for all of us.

On the day we made the cards in class, we listened to "Soldier's Christmas Eve" by the Scooter Brown Band and analyzed the lyrics as a literacy lesson. Once the kids concluded who we were making cards for, they set right to work making the most sincere and adorable missives. The care and detail that they put into their illustrations and their writing was heartwarming. I never saw them so motivated to spell and punctuate everything correctly.

Since they were so enthusiastic about making the cards, I decided to extend the activity when our kindergarten buddies came in the next day. I came up with a cute little poem and a simple Christmas tree for the kids to color together. This is the poem:
We mounted the poems on construction paper along with the red, white, and blue Christmas trees (Here's the link: colored by our buddies, and I mailed the cards and poems along with all the love and support that would fit in one large manila envelope.

Yesterday, I received this email:

 Hi Stacy,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you and your students. I just wanted to express my thanks and appreciation as well as that of all the other guys in my platoon. Your cards and poems were awesome and incredibly well done.  I can see you have some very talented students in your class! Your work made our holidays extra special.  We hung up your letters and poems around the office and made it as festive as possible. I wish I could show you pictures, but our office is a secret so unfortunately we can not take pictures of it! Now the holidays have passed, but we still keep your cards hanging just to remind us of the support we have back home!
Thank your students and send a special thanks to the kindergarten class that helped with the project. We felt the love in every card and appreciated every word that was written. Please share this with your students and let them know how much we loved what they did! Maye one of these days I'll be able to send you guys a picture of us!

With love from Afghanistan,
Michael Hiltwine

If you have the opportunity to correspond with military personnel stationed abroad, I strongly recommend you seize the chance. If there was ever an authentic audience your students will be motivated to write for, this is it! And your heart will be full of the goodwill and love you are putting out into the universe.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mathcraft: A New Approach to Fifth Grade Math Review

Today we had a blast in math class! It's not every day that I get to say that, but today it's the truth. I generated a real buzz in my classroom when the children noticed a new math packet on my desk. If you teach, you must be asking yourself, "How do you get kids excited about a math packet?" Here's the secret. Turn it into a video game. That's right, a video game! In deference to MineCraft, a popular video game my students play that's focused on creativity and building, I changed the heading of a cumulative math review sheet to read "MATHCRAFT". Then I added phrasing and graphics at the end of each section of the review packet to indicate that students had "defeated that level" once they got all the problems in the section correct. It looked like this:

These seemingly minor tweaks really had a huge impact on the level of motivation my students had for completing this assignment. Once I explained the directions and handed out the papers, they were begging me to let them get started on the assignment. (That is NOT an exaggeration.) 

This is what I told them. The packet was divided into four "levels". As a student completed all the problems in a section, he or she had to bring it to an adult to have the work checked. If any problems were wrong, the student had to go back and correct their work before bringing it back to be checked again. No student could advance to the next level in the packet until all the work in one level was correct. To make it even more interesting, the first four students who finished all four levels of the worksheet were allowed to play Connect Four. Everybody who finished ended up being rewarded with computer time on First in Math or time to read independently, an amazingly surprising motivator with this group.

Once they started working, the difference in my students' focus and concentration was amazing. Children who typically throw in the towel without even trying, were actually asking clarifying questions, consulting reference sources, and applying problem-solving strategies. It was a big payout for a small amount of effort on my part. Another benefit for me was that I could see where students were still "stuck" on the first quarter content we've covered. I now have a few days before marks close to go back and remediate (AGAIN) as needed.

The following is a list of fifth grade PA State Academic Standards for mathematics that are addressed in the packet. It is everything the School District of Philadelphia required us to cover this quarter. If you are interested in using this packet in your classroom, you can find it in my TpT store for just $2.00. Check back to my store throughout the year for more video game inspired materials. I know I'll be creating them, because my students made me promise we would do more work like this in the future.


Apply place value concepts to show an understanding of multi-digit whole numbers.

Apply place value concepts to show an understanding of operations and rounding as they pertain to whole numbers and decimals.

Apply place value concepts to show an understanding of operations and rounding as they pertain to whole numbers and decimals.

Extend an understanding of operations with whole numbers to perform operations including decimals.

Represent and solve problems involving the four operations.

Monday, November 4, 2013

It's All Greek (and Latin) to Me

If you are a fifth grade teacher you know the Common Core State Standards require fifth graders to "use common, grade appropriate Greek and Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word." This actually makes a lot of sense given that each root a student acquires can lead to the understanding of twenty or more English words, rapidly expanding the child's vocabulary. As learning progresses, this knowledge of Greek and Latin roots  proves to be essential since 60% of the words students encounter in school textbooks have recognizable word parts, many of which are Greek and Latin roots.

Knowing how important it is for my students to learn the meanings of the most common Greek and Latin roots, I looked for materials last year that I could use to help structure my delivery of this essential content. As usual, Scholastic came to my rescue. For under $10.00, I was able to purchase Vocabulary Packets: Greek & Latin Roots: Ready-to-Go Learning Packets That Teach 40 Key Roots and Help Students Unlock the Meaning of Dozens and Dozens of Must-Know Vocabulary Words by Liane Onish. This teacher resource book introduces 40 of the most common Greek and Latin roots across eight units.

I now use Onish's book to introduce five new roots every other week, alternating the etymology lessons with more traditional spelling lessons on the off weeks. On the weeks we do work with Greek and Latin roots, I introduce the new roots in class on Monday with a worksheet from the resource book. 

For homework on Monday night, the students complete a crossword puzzle from the book using derivatives of those roots. 

Then, my students practice the words throughout the week using a Root Word Tic-Tac-Toe homework sheet I created. 

On Friday, we add Onish's Word Cards for that week's roots to our Literacy Copybooks. The cards are actually my favorite feature of the resource book. The children glue a picture card for each root on the front of a folded third of a notebook page. Under the flap, they glue a card that gives the meaning of the root, definitions of three common derivatives, and examples of enrichment words for the root. We, then, use the Word Cards as study aids, because every three weeks we take a cumulative test on 15 roots and some of their common derivatives.

We are about to take our first cumulative test on Greek and Latin roots for this year, and I wanted to come up with some motivating review activities to help the children prepare. I ended up using a free Jeopardy site to make three review games to play in class, and I made several sets of "I Have, Who Has" cards to use as well. I am eager to use both of these activities in class this week, because I know how popular both are with fifth graders.

I am combining the "I Have, Who Has" cards, the links to the Jeopardy games, the Tic-Tac-Toe homework sheet, and my written assessment and answer key into a companion resource packet for Onish's book that is available in my TpT store. The companion materials I've created can be used on their own, but they are more effective if used in conjunction with Onish's book. If you decide to purchase Onish's book, and I recommend you do, you can use the link on the right of this page. Then, you can go to my TpT store and purchase the companion materials I've created. For under $15.00, you will be well on your way to having everything you need to teach Greek and Latin roots for the entire school year. Then, if you follow my TpT store, you will be notified as I add the next two sets of companion materials for the Vocabulary Packets book. I plan on using these resources to teach my students Greek and Latin roots for years to come, and I recommend you do, too. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Perpetuating the Legacy of 9-11 through the Lessons We Teach

Like most elementary school teachers, I have always been intimidated by the prospect of creating a fitting lesson to present to my students on 9/11. Last year, I finally came up with something that I feel is perfectly suitable. Instead of dwelling on the atrocities that happened on that tragic day, I found materials that focus on the power of the human spirit instead.

If there can even be a silver lining to such a horrific event, the bright side of 9/11 would have to be the renewed sense of patriotism, solidarity, compassion, and philanthropy that surged in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

In my search for appropriate materials to use with my students last year, I stumbled upon a gem of a book. 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy is the touching story of how a Massai tribe in a remote village in Kenya responds when one of the villagers returns from his medical studies in New York with tales of the tragedy and destruction of September 11th. By the time you get to the afterword which is a biographical note from Kimeli Naiyomah, the traveler in the story, students can totally relate to the outpouring of love that swept across the globe following 9/11.

Cows are revered in the Kenyan village in the story. The author eloquently explains how they are a symbol of life to the Massai. It is a moving scene in the story when the villagers present a gift of 14 cows to a diplomat from the the US Embassy in hopes of healing some of the pain in the hearts of Americans. 

The cow in the story is a perfect jumping off point for a deeper look at symbolism. When we finished discussing the book, we watched a video clip from called Patriotic Patchwork. This video clip from 2010 features the National 9/11 Flag, a 30 foot flag that was found dangling torn and tattered from a construction site across the street from the Twin Towers after they fell. The flag is being stitched back together with fabric from other American flags that have flown in all fifty states. When it is done it will become part of the National 9-11 Memorial. The people in the news segment talk about how the flag is a symbol of American values like freedom, sense of duty, spirit of helping, resolve, and compassion. The National 9-11 Flag is the perfect symbol of the power of the human spirit and the resilience of the American people, and that is exactly what I wanted my students to take away from our 9-11 lesson.

We followed up the read aloud and the video clip with a concrete symbolism activity. The children colored these patriotic hearts while we listed to songs like "God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood.

I haven't heard what the children had to say about our activities today. I sent this cloze comprehension sheet home with my students for homework. I am eager to read what they came away with from today's lesson. I also hope the homework activity stimulated some healthy conversation at home about 9-11 and  the American spirit. 
It's not easy to talk about the tragic events of 9-11 with children, but I believe we have an obligation to do it. The best way we can honor those who lost their lives in the September 11th attacks is to ensure that they did not die in vain. As educators, we can perpetuate their legacy of renewed patriotism and a rekindled American spirit by sharing it with our students year after year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Now Trending: Pop Culture in the Classroom

Thanks to one of my totally awesome grade partners and her devotion to Pinterest, I have two new ways to bring pop culture into the classroom this year. My new students were pretty excited to learn that they will be posting Facebook statuses and tweeting in class. You may be wondering how this is possible since we are not a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school, and we actually have a "no cell phones" policy in our building. The secret is poster board. That's right - poster board. We have a cardboard Facebook page hanging near the carpet where we hold our class meetings. Each child has a sentence strip where they can "update their status". I have one velcro dot attached at the beginning of the strips so that I can put each child's "profile picture" up, and another velcro dot at the other end of each strip for little "Like" icons the kids can add to each other's posts. In the past, we always used to sign in with a response to our Morning Meeting message right on the dry erase board where I wrote the message. Today, I had the children respond on the Facebook wall, and it added a whole new layer of appeal to our meeting. Here's the board:

On another wall over in the area where we line up, we now have a Twitter board. The board has a "Trending" topic that changes daily so the children know what they need to "tweet" about at the end of the day. After homework is copied, each child creates a tweet of 140 characters or less on a Post-it note that addresses that day's trending topic. So far we've done: "Best Part of the First Day" and "Something You Learned from the Brochure Activity". Tomorrow it's "Rate Your Summer Reading Book". The kids really enjoy reading each other's tweets, and I get an up to the minute insight into what everyone is actually thinking. The Twitter board can also be used throughout the day as an exit slip parking lot. I can't wait to ask the kids to tweet the definition of a new literary concept or an example of a math term. (The possibilities are endless.) The Twitter board looks like this:


The rest of this entry is from my Pop Culture post from last year. If you haven't read it yet, take a peek. If you have already seen the old post, go get started on your own Twitter Board and Facebook Wall. I have the logos and graphics I used saved as Word documents. If you are a follower of my blog or an email subscriber and you want the files, leave a comment and let me know.

This is a repost of a blog entry I wrote back in November. I've been eagerly awaiting the return of everybody's video releases so I could update the post with a 30 second video that we made in class on Wacky Wednesday during Read Across America Week.

This post is all about bringing pop culture into the classroom and right now, you can't get more mainstream pop culture than the Harlem Shake sensation that has swept across YouTube. The short video clips have made their way onto Good Morning America AND the Today Show. Even the Miami Heat has gotten in on the action.

The Harlem Shake is a dance that starts out with one masked dancer busting a move while the people around him are seemingly oblivious to the commotion, until the video cuts away and returns with a wild rumpus of costumed dancers joining in. Our Room 202 version of the Harlem Shake may not be as impressive as the underwater version by the University of Georgia swimming and diving teams, but we did have a lot of fun making the video using the free Harlem Shake app I downloaded on my iPhone.

The kids could not wait to show our clip to their family and friends. Taking five minutes at the end of the day when we were already suited up in goofy garb for Wacky Wednesday was the perfect opportunity to once again bridge the gap between what happens in the kids' lives outside of school and what is going on in the classroom. As you'll read in the rest of this post, I think it's really important that the kids know that what matters to them, matters to me.

People who come in my classroom often comment on the "good feeling" in Room 202. I don't take this compliment lightly. I put a lot of thought and effort into creating a positive climate in my classroom. I want it to be a place where kids "want to be". I know how vital it is that they feel safe and welcome, if they are going to take the risks necessary to be successful learners. I'm not going to bore you today with all the instructional strategies and psychological principles I rely on to achieve the right balance of expectation and support that underlies the positive climate in Room 202.

Today, I am going to tell you about a few fun ways I have brought pop culture into my classroom so my fifth graders understand that I care about them as more than just students. By taking the time to find out what songs they are listening to and what video games they like to play, I try to let my students know that what matters to them, matters to me.

That's why I borrowed this awesome idea for a book talk bulletin board from Scholastic when I saw it posted in my newsfeed on FaceBook. I made my own version of the catchy phrasing and had it blown up to poster-size at Staples. It was so much fun watching the kids eventually figure out that the saying was a spin-off of the "Call Me Maybe" pop song by Carly Rae Jepsen that they had been listening to all summer.

More recently, I generated a similar buzz when the children noticed their math study guide on my desk. If you teach, you must be asking yourself, "How do you get kids excited about a study guide?" Here's the secret. Turn it into a video game. That's right, a video game! In deference to MineCraft, a popular video game my students play that's focused on creativity and building, I changed the heading of a math review sheet to read "MATHCRAFT". Then I added phrasing and graphics at the end of each section of the study guide to indicate that students had "defeated that level" once they got all the problems in the section correct. The difference in my students' focus and concentration was amazing. Children who typically threw in the towel without even trying, were actually asking clarifying questions and applying problem-solving strategies. It was a big payout for a small amount of effort on my part. This is what our math study guides look like now.

These previous successes, combined with the need for a place to "park" the unanswerable questions my students come up with during lessons, led to this latest pop culture addition to my classroom. I'm actually working on this one right now, so the kids haven't even seen it yet. If you've been browsing online lately or window shopping at the mall, you may have noticed a lot of "mustaches". Thanks to hipsters and their ironic 'staches, the mustache has become one of the latest pop culture fads. I know the trend annoys some people, but I crack up every time I hear, "Excuse me, I mustache you a question. Do you want me to shave it for later?" Knowing that, you'll understand why I can't wait to blow this image up and have it laminated so I can use it to park the kids questions in class until we find the answers.

Hopefully, there's something here that will inspire you to bring some pop culture into your own classroom. Your students will definitely appreciate it and you'll reap the benefits of their increased motivation and enthusiasm.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Remind101: Keeping Parents Updated Has Never Been Easier

I'm back! I can't believe my last post was in March. I guess the three graduates living under my roof and the unwanted 15 pounds around my middle edged out blogging for a while, but I am back and bursting with information and ideas to share. 

My first post for the new year is actually a rerun. I had separate conversations with two colleagues recently which both included a reference to a texting tool I use called Remind101. After our conversations, both of my teaching friends went home and registered for the program immediately. They were so impressed with Remind101 that I feel compelled to share it with everybody again. In case you missed it the first time around, here is my Remind101 rerun...

Right now, I am really excited about the latest addition to my digital technology toolbox. It's an app called Remind101.You can look for it in the App Store on your phone or visit their website at Remind101 is an application that allows parents and students to text a code to a phone number assigned to you by the program. Once parents and students have completed this step, they are added to a roster and you can send them group text message reminders and updates. It is a one way system that only allows parents and students to receive messages, but they can not reply. The teacher does not have to worry about responding to incoming texts. You simply have the luxury of reaching parents with important information in real time. 

Since I started using Remind101, many of my parents have approached me to tell me how much they appreciate the reminders and my efforts to keep them updated, and I see a direct impact on the rate of return for assignments, signed forms, materials, supplies, etc...

To get started, download the app for FREE or register on the website. Then send home this reminder that is provided as a PDF when you register. (Since it is the beginning of a new school year, you could have the flyer on your students' desks at Back-to-School Night. That way you can walk parents through the registration process.) It takes two minutes to set up the class, and parents are automatically added to the roster when they text the code. The simplicity of it, is what makes it so perfect. 

I teach fifth grade and several of my students got permission to register their own phones on Remind101. I think I gained a couple "cool" points in their eyes when they got that first text from ME. I know the children who have been publicly recognized for achievements like mastering their multiplication facts on, have appreciated seeing it appear on their phone at home. 

Remind101 has earned itself a permanent spot in my digital technology toolbox. I know I'll be using it with my classes in the future. If easy and effective is what you like, add it to your toolbox, too.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tools for Teaching the Civil War in Fifth Grade

Recently, one of my students asked me what was my favorite subject to teach? I explained that's a tough question for me, because I love to teach every subject. In all honesty, whatever I am teaching at a given moment is my favorite subject until the next lesson starts. Except for social studies, that is.

Social studies is my Achilles Heel when it comes to instruction. I never feel like I know enough, and I am always second guessing whether or not I am focusing on the most critical information. The standards help with narrowing the scope of what needs to be covered, but I never feel confident that I am doing the content justice.

Two weeks ago I sat staring down the barrel of the Third Quarter Social Studies Planning and Scheduling Timeline. I sat for hours trying to decide how to teach my fifth graders the causes of the Civil War, the events that lead to the War, the importance of slavery to the Southern economy, the elements relating to the abolition of slavery, the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, the major battles of the Civil War, the contributions of African Americans to the Civil War, the government plan for Reconstruction after the War, and the challenges the South faced after the War. Initially, I was paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge, but then I took a deep breath and went back to what I know best - children's literature. I figured if I found the right picture book to introduce the unit, at least I'd have a place to start.

My literary scavenger hunt resulted in not one, but two, awesome books I could use to make the abstract concepts of politics, government, economics, and war more understandable for my students. The book I decided to use to introduce the Civil War to my class is Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. My thinking was that I had never gone wrong with Patricia Polacco before, so I figured I might have stumbled upon a winner. I was right. The kids were riveted by Polacco's retelling of her great-great grandfather's memoir from the Civil War. Sheldon Curtis (Say), passed down the touching story of his rescue by Pinkus Aylee (Pink), an African American Union soldier, to his descendants, and Polacco shares the story with her readers in Pink and Say.

The book sparked curiosity in the minds of my students, and compassion in their hearts. They had questions about fifteen year old boys going to war and the cruel treatment of Pink after he and Say were captured by Confederate soldiers. During our conversations, I was able to assess the children's prior knowledge of the Civil War, which turned out to be minimal.

I knew the kids were not ready to handle the Civil War content in their gargantuan Social Studies textbooks, so I fell back on another trusted "friend" to help them unwrap some of this complex material. Tim and Moby from BrainPop did an excellent job breaking down the background and the causes of the Civil War in two BrainPop videos. The first, called Civil War, is free. The second, called Civil War Causes, is not. The BrainPop classroom subscription is a little pricey ($205.00), but it's definitely worth asking your administration for, especially if you have off-level readers who can't handle the text complexity of an on-level textbook.

We set up Civil War folders for the graphic organizers and vocabulary sheets that come with the BrainPop movies and used our textbooks as a supplemental resource to help fill in the required information. So far so good!

After break, we'll be covering slavery in more depth. I can't wait to read Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine to my students. The illustrations are captivating, and I know they will be intrigued by the story of Henry Brown, a slave who MAILED himself to Philadelphia after his family was sold off to other plantation owners. The children do know a little more about slavery and the Underground Railroad than they do about the politics of the Civil War, so I am confident that they will do well with the slavery timeline assignment I have planned for after we finish Henry's Freedom Box.

At that point, I'll be two-thirds of the way through the eligible content. I found this awesome PowerPoint to organize the Battles of the Civil War in a meaningful way, and I know this SEMANTIC FEATURE ANALYSIS will further aid my students' understanding. Once we have finished this last part of the unit, it will be time to assess what everybody has learned.

We haven't played I Have, Who Has yet this year, but every class I have played it with in the past has loved the game. These CARDS will be a perfect review before we "test". Reviewing in a game format will help motivate my reluctant learners, and everyone will get to have a little fun.

I'm planning on turning the learning objectives from our Planning and Scheduling Timelines into a few constructed response items to assess how much knowledge the children have gained. Of course, the children will have access to their Civil War folders and their textbooks during the assessment, so I am confident they will do well.

Viola! I faced my fears and broke a seemingly insurmountable task into a manageable course of action. I am no longer feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of covering the Civil War with my class. Instead, I am looking forward to the Civil War biography projects we will be doing in the afternoons during state testing in two weeks. I am using an idea for cardboard cutouts like these that I found on a couple of the amazing blogs I follow.

My grade partners and I have agreed to set up a living museum once the biography projects are done. We plan on inviting the fourth grade and our kids' parents to view the projects and listen to the "autobiographies" the children will be writing.

Social studies may not be my forte, but I refuse to let anything hold me back from providing my students with the educational experience they deserve.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

April is Families and Reading Month: Celebrate with this Giveaway

The Keystone State Reading Association has proclaimed April as Families and Reading Month across Pennsylvania. The goal of the program is to engage families in reading or reading related activities for 15 minutes a day throughout the month of April. 
What's New in Room 202 is celebrating Families and Reading Month with a fun giveaway. Why limit this awesome initiative to Pennsylvania? Families everywhere should be reading together. Imagine getting a book a week delivered to your door for a month. Each week in April, your family can look forward to receiving a creatively wrapped reading surprise including some suggestions for fun family activities. The best part about the giveaway is you get to select the titles that are just right for your family. Visit the What's New in Room 202 Facebook page HERE"Like" the page and look for the GIveaway button in the top righthand corner.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What's Your Hook for Making Standardized Test Prep More Fun?

My Facebook status for today was, "The UN has declared March 20, 2013 to be the first International Day of Happiness. Do something to make yourself smile today!" I decided to take my own advice and spend some time doing something that puts a smile on my face. 

For reasons I don't have time to analyze, blogging makes me happy. Since it's the FIRST official International Day of Happiness, I figured I might as well go all out and compound my happiness by blogging about a topic that delights me. Harry Potter has been a source of pleasure for my family for a very long time. That's why I am so thrilled about the Hogwarts-themed incentive I started in my class this week.

First of all, I want to acknowledge Mrs. S. over at All Things Upper Elementary. Mrs. S. recently posted an inspiring blog entitled "Standardized Test Prep: Where's the Hook?" In her post, Mrs. S. explained how she is using Pirate, the test prep mascot, and all sorts of other cool strategies to keep standardized test prep "fun" for her students.

The ideas over at All Things Elementary were so creative and motivating that I felt compelled to come up with a test prep hook of my own. I had been tossing the idea around in my mind for a couple days, when I decided to clean out an area of my basement to make room for an exercise space. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, must have been smiling down on me while I was reorganizing, because I came across the box my daughter's collection of Harry Potter books was delivered in, and a lightbulb went off in my head.

Before I knew it, I had a cool nightlight that resembled Professor Trelawney's crystal ball, an old wooden rod that looked a lot like a wand, a gilded plastic cup from the top of one of my son's trophies that I knew would serve nicely as a Triwizard Cup, and a plan for resurrecting the "house points" jars I had used in class a couple of years ago for behavior management.

When I brought all my loot to school, I had to rearrange the students' desks into four tables representing the four houses of Hogwarts and I needed to make new house jars to replace the ones I could not find anywhere in my classroom, but it was all worth it.

The kids had so much fun using the Sorting Hat (an old sombrero I found in the closet) to find out which Hogwarts House their table would be, and they can't wait for the Triwizard Tournament (think a small Harry Potter-themed field day) we are going to have if we can fill the Triwizard Cup (broken trophy) with the house points (marbles) the kids are going to earn for applying the test-taking strategies we've been learning all year during our final weeks of test prep.

It was awesome to hear my students cheering, instead of groaning, when I asked them to take out their test prep homework today. They were eager to earn points for their house in hopes of winning a small treat at the end of the day, and they were super excited when I dumped the marbles from all four houses into the Triwizard Cup, and they saw we were officially on our way to earning the Room 202 Triwizard Tournament.

Mrs. S. was absolutely correct when she wrote, "You can teach and practice the most intense skills, and if kids believe they are having fun, they will focus, pay attention, and learn." I saw more highlighting and citing of evidence while I walked around the room today than I ever have in the past, and children who usually avoid making eye contact with me during test prep were waving their hands emphatically to get me to call on them today.

I couldn't be happier about my decision to come up with a test prep hook for my class. I hope I can convince ALL of my students that they really do have the necessary "MAGIC" in them to score proficient or advanced on our state tests.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Music in Math Class: Our Standard System Rap Video

Does your class have a "thing" they share a common interest in? If so, is it different from what your students last year were into? It amuses me how each class I teach has a different collective personality.  In recent years, I've had different classes whose mild obsessions have run the gamut from Connect Four, to Mancala, to Duct Tape, to The Skeleton Creek book series. This year's class gets really excited about music. They love it when I put music on the SMARTBoard at the end of the day, and we've made three class music videos using VideoStar already. I've quickly learned that whenever I include a song or a rap in a lesson, I immediately have the attention of the entire class. 

The video that started this year's musical obsession was this cute little place value rap that I have embedded in a SMART Notebook lesson on place value.

The kids showed so much enthusiasm for this video clip that I could not wait to get to order of operations so I could show the "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" video from my lesson introducing order of operations. The kids went nuts over this video, too. (I've included a 32 second clip from the video here so you can get the general idea. If you want to see the entire video click HERE.)

Once my kids were bitten by the "music in math" bug, the infection progressed to the next logical stage. They started asking if we could make a math rap video of our own. We had already made a "Gangnam Style" video just for fun and a "Run, Run, Rudolph" video at our holiday party, so the kids knew it was a reasonable request. They know I have the Video Star app on my iPhone. That's what we used to make the other videos. I love the app, because it is super easy to use and the finished product turns out great. There is also a convenient link for sharing, and best of all - it's FREE!

When I came across the song "Standard System" from the album Rhyme, Rhythm, and Results on iTunes, I knew we were in business. It took me quite some time to transcribe all the lyrics after I purchased the song from iTunes, but I did type them up for the children to use as a storyboard for our production. It was well worth the effort. We made the following video as the culminating activity for our study of the standard system of measurement. 

If you are studying standard units of measurement, and you'd like to show this video to your class, my students would love to hear about it. 

If you are not using music in your math class, you should give it a try!