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.