Thursday, February 28, 2013

How Do You Sustain Students' Love of Learning with State Testing Looming on the Horizon?

Last week we filmed the intro for a video our school is making to help the kids get psyched up for state testing. We're doing a parody of Psy's Gangnam Style called "Kick It Hancock Style." We are lucky to have a professional film producer on staff, and the video is shaping up to be fantastic.

The premise of the video is that the kids are stressed about testing, and this one charismatic and enthusiastic child is on a mission to convince all the students they can succeed by simply "kicking it Hancock style." The video opens with my class dejectedly pulling out their standardized test practice books and complaining about how much they hate state testing. Talk about art imitating life!

In Room 202, we are in it up to our eyeballs when it comes to standardized test prep. Fifth grade takes the PSSA Writing test in two weeks, and then the Reading and Math tests are scheduled for two weeks after that. I haven't had to cover up the anchor charts and instructional aids on the walls YET, but the room has definitely taken on a much more somber and intense tone. You can actually feel the difference in the air, and it makes me sad.

The pressure gets almost gets unbearable at times. That's why we do fun things like making silly videos for the kids. It's a chance to let off some steam and focus on something besides substitution, elimination, and citing evidence from the text.

I try to think of all the ways I can build the children's confidence and sustain their love of learning as we head into testing time. Last night, I worked on a letter to our parents asking them to send in a "Testing Care Package" for their child. (I want to thank Haley James from TpT for posting a free letter template on the site.) I was able to model my letter off of hers, and I asked parents and family members to write notes of encouragement to the kids. I also asked parents to put the letters in brown bags with some healthy snacks for their son or daughter. I will collect the bags as they are returned to school and distribute them when testing starts. (I have a copy of my letter, a list of snack suggestions, and some cute owl stationery for anyone who is, or becomes, a follower of my blog and comments with their email address below.)

I also ordered personalized water bottle labels from Oriental Trading. (This is the LINK.) My labels say "Room 202's Secret Stuff". I plan on cashing in my "Show Your Students ONE Movie" card from my principal to show my kids "Space Jam" right before testing starts. The movie will be a welcome diversion for the kids, and a walk down memory lane for me.

I really want the kids to see the part of the movie where Bugs Bunny gives the Loony Tunes "Michael Jordan's Secret Stuff" in a water bottle at halftime because they are getting creamed by the Monstars in basketball. If you saw the movie, you know the "Secret Stuff" is plain old H2O from the water fountain in the locker room, but the Tune Squad believes it is a special concoction that will give them basketball skills comparable to Michael Jordan's. The Tunes go on to win the game with nothing more than what they already had inside them. (And the help of an AMAZING shot by MJ himself.)

I'm pretty confident my kids will get the obvious metaphorical allusion between the Tune Squad/my students vs. the Monstars/PSSA's. I think the kids will love it when I pull out the bottles of "Room 202's Secret Stuff" and explain how we're going to use it to help them "beat" the PSSA's.

I know nothing can totally eliminate the pain of standardized testing, but I'm hoping I can at least dull it a little for my students. I'd love to hear what you'll be doing to keep your kids motivated as we head into the final stretch before testing. Please leave your ideas and suggestions in a comment below.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Morning Meeting Activity That Will Build Your Students' Self-Confidence

Looks like a big mess, right? Would you believe me if I told you this pile of crumpled up papers did more for the self-esteem of some of my students than all the positive feedback I've put on their assignments this whole year? It's true! These papers are actually the flattened out "snowballs" from our "snowball fight" in class yesterday.

Before you decide I have gone off my rocker for letting the kids have a snowball fight in class, let me explain. I am a big proponent of the Responsive Classroom approach to classroom management. If you don't know about Responsive Classroom, you can read about it HERE. In a nutshell, Responsive Classroom is a widely used, research and evidence-based approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills and leads to more high-quality instruction.

A widely recognized component of the Responsive Classroom approach is Morning Meeting. Morning Meeting, in addition to being my students' favorite time in the classroom, is a powerful teaching tool for building community, increasing student investment, and improving academic and social skills. The daily, or in my case twice weekly meetings, include a morning message, a greeting, sharing time, and an activity. 

The components of Morning Meeting appear simple, but they are powerful. The power starts with the idea that every child is guaranteed to be acknowledged in a positive manner during greeting time, and increases with sense the of safety, trust, cooperation, and community you can foster with carefully planned sharing topics and purposeful play.

The kids may not always be consciously aware of all of the social and emotional benefits of Morning Meeting, but they do LOVE the activities and games we play toward the end of each gathering. The kids like the activities, because they are fun. I appreciate how the games and activities build community, encourage cooperation, and foster group cohesion. It is so awesome to see the kids relax around one another and have fun TOGETHER.

Yesterday's meeting was an especially good one. The kids signed in with the name of a movie they've been wanting to see after reading my message about the Oscars. We did a quick "Numbers" greeting where one student went and greeted another student before giving them a number between one and five. The "greeter" sat in the other student's spot and, the "greeted" student then counted off the assigned number of students and passed the greeting on.  This continued until everyone had been personally greeted by someone else in the class. This greeting is effective for two reasons. The randomness of assigning numbers forces children who might not normally talk to one another to at least exchange a pleasantry. I also like how this greeting switches up the seating arrangement in the circle.

Everyone then took a turn sharing about the movie they are looking forward to seeing. It was great for the kids to see who had interests similar to theirs. Since the kids were no longer sitting next to their "friends"after the "Numbers" greeting, they were actually turning and talking to children they might usually shy away from every time someone brought up a new movie release they were all interested in.

Yesterday's activity, Snowball Fight, is a real crowd pleaser., a great site for finding morning meeting activities for students of all ages, explains Snowball Fight like this:

How To Play: Players write their names on a sheet and crumple it into a snowball. On the teacher's count, players throw them in the middle. Each player then picks up a snowball, opens it, and writes an acknowledgement. This can continue for several rounds.

I'm not going to lie. I actually let my students throw the snowballs AT each other. This may sound a little wild, but it's really not. I state my expectations before we start: NO running, NO throwing at anyone's face, and NO hiding behind furniture. The kids are great about following the rules, and it's a nice opportunity to incorporate some physical activity into the day. Letting the kids have the freedom to throw the paper balls at one another has a huge payoff. The kids get so caught up in the fun of the fight that they forget to feel uncomfortable about writing nice things about one other. They are so eager to get to the next round of throwing, and ultimately to hearing the compliments that were written about them, that they come up with the compliments readily.

The last time we had a snowball fight in class, (It even sounds fun.) the children wrote very vague compliments on the snowballs. This time I took a minute before the activity started to reinforce the importance of specific language and meaningful praise. I projected this handout that I found online on the SMARTBoard and left it up for the duration of the game. It was a big help!

When we sat back down in the circle after three rounds of throwing and writing compliments, the children shared the compliments written on the last snowball they picked up during the game. Then, they returned the paper to its owner. The expressions on the kids' faces, as someone read the compliments about them aloud, were priceless. 

When I asked the kids how they felt hearing the compliments, most of them said it felt good hearing nice things about themselves. One student summed it up well when she said she liked knowing that people saw her as a good friend because it was something she worked on really hard. One student did acknowledge that it felt a little awkward hearing nice things said about her. For me, that was the perfect segue into a conversation about positivity and negativity. I was really able to illustrate the power of kind words, and the importance of taking the time to recognize each other's good qualities.

I want to leave you with a sampling of the things my kids' got to hear about themselves yesterday. I think the list clearly demonstrates how a simple activity like this can have a lasting impact on your students' self-image and their confidence.

~You're a good friend, and you cheer me up when I am sad.
~Your science fair board was very awesome!
~You're really good at getting rebounds in basketball.
~You make everyone smile!
~You always come to school with the coolest sneakers.
~You are a fair player when it comes to games.
~You make things better.
~ Love the bun!

So, is it time for a snowball fight in your classroom? I hope so!

Tuesday, February 19, 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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Measuring Degrees of Hurtfulness on a Bullying Thermometer

People who know me, know how much I love the school where I work. It is a teacher's version of heaven on earth. My colleagues are caring and dedicated. The students are earnest and hardworking. The halls are brightly decorated and orderly. The classrooms are buzzing with the sounds and sights of meaningful learning.

For the most part, the teachers teach and the students learn from 8:28 until 3:09, Monday to Friday. I recognize my good fortune, and I work very hard to maintain this optimal learning environment for my students. That's why I took swift action when I recently started hearing rumblings of inappropriate social behaviors that were posing a potential threat to the emotional and psychological well-being of my students. The behaviors were relatively minor, name calling on the internet and razzing each other in the hallways, but I know how quickly these things can spiral out of control and wreck havoc in an otherwise peaceful classroom, so I wanted to nip the situation in the bud.

I spent a few days searching for an activity, or some resources, I could use to remind my students that their actions can have hurtful consequences. Eventually, I ended up on a site sponsored by the University of Kentucky. There are several resources at, but it was their Bullying Thermometer Activity that really caught my attention. Knowing my students, I was confident they would benefit from discussing the different types of bullying behaviors identified in the activity, so I printed out the bullying behavior cards, and I was on my way.

The cards became the basis for a three-day lesson sequence that resulted in the bulletin board pictured above, a few new tentative friendships in my classroom, a bit of meaningful student self-reflection, and some great blog posts from the fledgling bloggers of Room 202.

I used our Closing Meeting time last Friday to start the lesson. We started with Alexis O'Neill's "The Recess Queen", a cute story about the stereotypical schoolyard bully, followed by a class discussion about the inappropriate behaviors that were being brought to my attention. Next, I introduced the Bullying Thermometer activity. We counted off from 1-6 and made random groups of four. Then, I distributed the bullying behavior cards from the website and we discussed what each one meant. Once I was sure the kids knew the vocabulary they needed, I sent the groups off to work on a pretty challenging task.

They had to narrow down the eighteen behaviors on the cards to the five most problematic behaviors for kids their age. Then, each group had to rank the behaviors by degree of hurtfulness. They created the Bullying Thermometers in the photo above to display their ideas.

The task spilled over into our Monday Morning Meeting, and the kids were so sincere and focused during their group work that I had to document the moment.

I hadn't anticipated the overwhelmingly positive response the kids would have to this lesson, so I made a decision "on the fly" to monopolize on their enthusiasm and have them blog about the activity for homework on Monday night. It was immensely rewarding for me when I logged on to read their blogs. With permission, I am reprinting a few snippets from their reflections:

"When I first thought of bullying I thought of being physcial and really hurting people, now that we are doing this project about bullying all my thoughts changed. So far in this project I have learned that bullying is more than hurting each other and more than being physcial. Bullying is making people feel uncomfortable in the place they  were they should feel comfortable. It's also making people feel uncomfortable in their own skin because people make fun of them for their weight, their color and their hair or glasses."

"By doing this project I learned some things about myself. I learned that working in a group helps build up your bonds between you and others. Another thing I learned is that people working in a group don't make choices themselves, but ask the other people what they think they should do. The last thing I learned is that working together and talking with one another will make you want to volunteer more in class because you will be used to talking around others."

"And, I learned that there are many types of bullying like teasing, harassment, isolation, name calling, etc... I not only learned the types of bullying, but also how hurtful they can be. I am glad that I am not a bully."

"From doing our bullying thermometers I found out that I would NEVER want to be a bully, because there are soooo many things a bully can do and I never want to do them. I also realized I was once a bully and now knowing I was one I NEVER want to be a bully again. Bullies are hurtful, mean, and cruel. I never want to be like that. People who are bullies are normally jealous or were once was made fun of and they take their anger out on other people. Why do we do that? Making other people feel our pain. It's just not right! There should be a room or a class that people who are bullies go and talk about why they bully so we can try to make them stop!"

We wrapped up the activity today with a shared writing activity. The groups reconvened and wrote a short essay to explain their rationale for selecting the behaviors they chose, as well as the way they ranked those behaviors. It was an authentic opportunity for them to write argumentatively and defend their position. 

Tomorrow, they will use the following rubric to assess their group participation skills.

This is the first time I am using this rubric with them and I am eager to see the results. I want to see how honest they are with one another, how honest they are with themselves, and how they use the feedback they get to reshape their behavior. 

That's a lot of good stuff jammed into a few instructional hours. Most importantly, it was motivating and relevant for the kids. Secondarily, I can rest assured knowing that we were "covering the Common Core." 

CC.1.5.5.A (CCRS.SL.5.1)

Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on grade level topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Room 202's Order of Operations Arsenal

If you are a fifth grade teacher in Philadelphia like me, you'll be covering order of operations in math during the third marking period. We are knee deep in PEMDAS, as I speak. Much to my delight, most of the kids have grasped the skills and concepts necessary to:

Interpret and evaluate numerical expressions using order of operations.

Analyze and complete calculations by applying the order of operations.

Use multiple grouping symbols (parentheses, brackets, or braces) in numerical expressions, and evaluate expressions containing these symbols. (THIS ONE ACTUALLY NEEDS A LITTLE MORE WORK.)

Use order of operations rules to calculate problems that include two or more operations.

(Even my 10 students with I.E.P.'s are experiencing relative success, which is a really beautiful thing!)

I anticipated this concept was going to be challenging for my students, so I pulled out all the stops when I planned this week's math lessons. I have a SMART Notebook lesson, a PEMDAS rap video,  a great anchor chart that we copied in our Interactive Math Notebooks, and a couple of really cool online games to round out my instructional arsenal for order of operations.

My kids LOVE the video. We've watched it multiple times at their request. They use the excuse that each student who has been absent needs to see it upon their return to class. I actually don't mind, because I think it's pretty cute, too. Here's THE LINK. (Don't say I didn't warn you when you are singing, "Oh, oh, oh, order of operations..." for a few days after watching it.)

I make a big fuss out of the PEMDAS mnemonic when we start order of operations. Then, I tell the kids they are actually going to MEET Aunt Sally. This usually creates just the right amount of commotion to get everybody tuned in to learn the new material. Once they've watched the video and met "Aunt Sally", I've got them hooked.

There are tons of anchor charts for PEMDAS, but I have one I prefer over all the others. It looks like this:

(I'd like to credit the site where I originally found this chart, but the identifying information is too blurry to read, and I haven't come across it again in my recent Google searches.) I recopied the graphic on chart paper and added brief explanations for each step of the algorithm, and I have the chart displayed all year. (A picture of my version of the chart will follow once I am back in class tomorrow.) I also had the kids copy the anchor chart into our new Interactive Math Notebooks this year.

TRUE STORY- We were copying the PEMDAS poster into our notebooks on Tuesday, and one of my struggling math students looked up and asked, "We can take this book with us to middle school with us next year, right?" I quickly replied, "Of course, you can." The boy had no idea he had just melted my heart!

The SMART Notebook lesson we used for order of operations is from an awesome site where I get a lot of great lessons that are aligned to the Everyday Math materials we use in Philadelphia. If you are using Everyday Math and you teach fifth grade, you HAVE to check out Lesson 7.5 is the one we used on Monday.

I modified the opening slide of Yates's lesson to include a link to the PEMDAS rap and a copy of the problem from the video. I love to start my order of operations instruction with a really complex expression for the kids to solve on their slates. Once they've come up with at least 10 different answers to the problem, I have a perfect segue into why order of operations is so important.

Another little gem I want to share with you is an online game that I came across in my exhaustive search for resources to help my students master order of operations. It is called EXPLORING ORDER OF OPERATIONS. The kids really enjoyed playing this game on the SMARTBoard, and I liked that it forced them to focus on the order that operations needed to be completed in and wouldn't let them move on until they had figured out the correct sequence.

I'm going to wrap this post up with a strategy suggestion. I like to use something we call "Pass the Pen" in math class. It works beautifully with order of operations, and I use it with other longer algorithms like partial quotients and even multi-step word problems. One child starts the problem on the board and only completes the first step. He or she hands the pen off to a volunteer who wants to complete the next step of the problem. This goes on until the problem is complete. This is a great tool for collecting observational data on your students.

I hope you'll take advantage of some of the resources and suggestions I've discussed here. If you need practice problems check out and click the Order of Operations tab at the top. You can really differentiate the practice in your classroom with the different levels of worksheets the site offers.

I'd love to hear how it goes if you use any of these resources in your classroom. Please comment below with your success stories (or your struggles).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

From Reading Logs to Reading Blogs Using

Do you know Robert Fulghum's poem, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? If not, you really need to read it. If so, you may remember that "Share Everything" is at the top of the list of essential life skills according to Fulghum.

Well, I'm really glad my colleagues were paying attention back in the early days of their school careers. It's great to work in a school where teachers are willing to share their knowledge and expertise. Recently, a colleague sought me out to share her latest technology "treasure" with me. My friend Hayley and I share a love of children's literature and a passion for encouraging that same love in our students. We're also both big proponents of educational technology, so Hayley knew I'd be interested in when she came across the site.

As soon as Hayley started telling me about this classroom blogging site and how she was going to use it to usher her students' reading logs into the digital age, I knew it was something I was going to want to try with my own students. is easy to set up and administer. I had all my students' user accounts set up in ten minutes, and it took less than an hour to familiarize myself with all of the options available on the site. is my kind of site - simple and free.

Next, I chose a background theme I liked and posted my first blog entry. It is the prompt I want my students to respond to in their first blog entries this week. Here it is:

For your first Reading Blog, I want you to update your Reader’s Autobiography from the beginning of the year. In the first paragraph of your entry summarize what you said about yourself as a reader in September. In the second paragraph, explain how your attitude toward reading, or your reading habits, have changed this year.
Submit your entry when you think it is ready, and I will approve your entry for posting if it is error-free and contains enough detail. Otherwise, I will return your post with suggestions for the necessary changes you need to make, and then you will resubmit the post with the corrections.
I can not wait to see what my students have to say about how their reading attitudes and habits have changed since September. I have observed remarkable growth, and I am eager to see if they recognize it, too. Once we read my post on the SMARTBoard, the children were totally engrossed in reading their readers' autobiographies from September. It was so much fun hearing them share different portions  of their autobiographies with each other. Many of them couldn't wait to call me over and show me a part of their September entries. I heard a lot of "Hey, Mrs. Schwab, do you remember when I ...?" 
The beauty of the blogging platform, aside from the fact that I won't have to carry a bag full of notebooks home on the weekend, is that the students can read one another's entries and make comments. I see this as a valuable tool for strengthening our bond as a community of readers. My students really take our status as the Room 202 Family to heart. I'm confident they'll use their comments to encourage and support one another.
I am curious to see how this format will impact the book selections the kids make for independent reading. I envision students reading one another's reading responses and discovering books they are interested in reading. We already have book talks hanging up in the classroom, but this is a much more dynamic and interactive basis for making a book selection.
I also love the fact that the children's posts can not be published without approval. When my friend showed me how you can make editing and revision suggestions in another text color and send the post back to its author, I was very impressed. I'm looking forward to a significant improvement in the quality of the reading responses my students will publish versus the handwritten entries I have been receiving lately.
The kids didn't necessarily dwell on the value of making our reading community stronger, and they actually groaned when they learned I would be returning their posts for editing and revision before they could be published, but they did LOVE choosing an avatar for their user account and selecting a theme for their blog page. They had plenty of questions about being able to comment on one another's posts, and they can't wait to figure out how to imbed images and videos in their posts. The site is very kid-friendly.
I can't thank my friend enough for sharing with me. It is the perfect antidote for the complacency and halfheartedness that was starting to crop up in some of my students' weekly reading responses. I am looking forward to reading their rejuvenated responses this week. I wish I could share their work with you, but the site is secure. 
(If your students have not written a reader's autobiography this year, and you'd like to have this valuable background information to help you structure your independent reading program, I have the guidelines I give my students for the assignment along with my own autobiography to use as a model. I'd be happy to email the document to anyone who is an email subscriber to my blog. Just let me know if you need it in a comment below.)