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!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

(Harlem) Shaking Things Up in Room 202

Pop Culture in The Classroom: (Harlem) Shaking Things Up in Room 202

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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Enlisting Parents to Help Motivate Students for State Testing: A Success Story

I cried in school today, but it's OK. They weren't tears of anger about the certification test I had to take in order to be able to administer the PA state test, or tears of frustration over the glitches with the SMART Response remotes that I so desperately want to use with my class, but just can't figure out. They were actually tears of happiness. The good kind that come out of nowhere and just have to be shed.

Today, we started the Writing portion of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. I recently wrote a post about my plans for sustaining my students' motivation for learning as state testing was approaching. You can read the post HERE. Reading that post will probably help you understand this one better.

Before testing started this morning, I gave the kids their bottles of "Secret Stuff", and we had a small toast. The kids LOVED the special water bottles. They totally "got" the extended metaphor yesterday when I showed them the locker room scene from "Space Jam"so they understood the symbolism behind the labels. One little girl even crossed out "Room 202's" and wrote her name on the label. I KNEW she was ready to tackle the test.

Then we passed out the "PSSA Survival Kits" that the parents sent in. (I got that name from a bag that one of the parents sent in, and I love it!) I am thrilled to report that the "kits" accomplished everything I hoped they would - and more. I am blessed with fabulous students who come from equally wonderful homes. I was not surprised that the children's parents responded to my request for notes of encouragement and healthy treats with thoughtfulness and enthusiasm, but I was blown away by the impact that the notes and the letters had on the kids.

As the ruffling from the tearing open of the goodie bags slowly faded, you could hear a pin drop in our classroom as the children opened their notes and read them to themselves. Once everybody had digested the words of support and encouragement from home, a murmur slowly spread around the room, gradually increasing in volume and intensity. The children were so eager to share all the nice things their families had written to/about them. They just couldn't wait to point out phrases and sentiments from their letters to anybody who would listen.

As I moved from desk to desk listening attentively to each child share his or her comments, I could feel the lump rising in my throat, and the tears welling up in my eyes. By the time I got to the desk of a student who showed me two eloquently written letters from his teenaged brothers, the tears were flowing freely.

For a few minutes, I was able to ignore the sheets draped around the classroom covering up all the anchor charts and instructional aids we use to help us learn when we are NOT testing. I was able forget about the intense pressure of the countdown to the 15 remaining class days before reading and math testing starts. I looked around the room, and I felt GOOD. Instead of being afraid of failing, my students were relaxed and happy. They were sitting up tall, and there was a look of confidence in their eyes.

As I left my classroom, as I am mandated to do by the state of Pennsylvania, to administer the test to another class, I felt a total sense of satisfaction and contentment. I love knowing that I was able to help my students believe in themselves. I know that it meant a lot to them that we started testing on such a positive note, and I am so glad I took the time to focus on THEM instead of the TEST when it really mattered.

It didn't hurt that I opened this email when I got home from work: "Mrs. Schwab, I just wanted to send you a thank you note. Elijah said his notes of encouragement brought tears to his eyes. He said he thinks he did better on today's test because of our support...And we have you to thank you for being thoughtful and motivating us to inspire our children...YOU ARE THE BEST!!!!"

I told the kids to keep their notes in school so they can reread them each morning of testing. I suggested they refill their "Secret Stuff" and bring it back to school. There are more nutritious snacks in their bags for the rest of the week. Their PSSA Survival Kits are well-stocked. Now we just have to get through testing so we can get back to what we are supposed to be doing in school - learning and growing.

What will you be doing to make sure your students feel confident and ready to tackle their state assessments?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I've Got a THING for Order of Operations

In Room 202, we've moved on from order of operations to measurement and geometry, but that doesn't mean the kids couldn't use a little more practice, right? I already blogged about the strategies and activities I used to introduce order of operations in a post called "Room 202's Order of Operations Arsenal" back in February, but I just wanted to share this extra fun review opportunity the kids are going to get tomorrow.

Tomorrow, is Wacky Wednesday at our school. The kids are super-excited about the opportunity to wear crazy socks, silly hats, and mix-matched clothes to school. Everybody, adults and children alike,  get caught up in the spirit of the day. I suggested that my grade partners and I dress up as Dr. Seuss's THINGS for Wacky Wednesday. Initially, I proposed our "numbers" should be our room numbers like they did at the school where my sister teaches, but then I had a an even better idea. When I made the red t-shirts for everybody, I created a unique numerical expression for each shirt. Our fifth graders should be able to simplify the expression on each shirt using PEMDAS. I'm hoping they'll get a kick out of figuring out which "THING" each of us is.

I've also created this homework sheet for the kids. This is the perfect time to review order of operations since we've been away from the skill for a couple weeks. We'll be able to use the homework to assess whether or not the kids have retained what we taught them about using order of operations to simplify expressions last month.

UPDATE: Wacky Wednesday 2013 is history. We survived a day of inside out clothing, mismatched shoes, fake mustaches, wigs, and a lot of other tomfoolery. As hard as it is to believe, we even managed to squeeze in some learning. 

I wanted to add this photo of our fifth grade team wearing our THING getups. The shirts were a hit! The kids totally "got" it. As soon as we walked into the cafeteria for morning announcements, the kids started doing mental computations and calling out our "numbers". Later in the day, it was fun to see their faces when they realized their homework problems were the same problems on our shirts. 

I often talk about how you have to throw a concept at kids as many different ways as you can think of, in the hopes that it will "stick" eventually. This was definitely a fun way to "throw" order of operations at the kids one more time.