Saturday, March 29, 2014

End the Misuse and Abuse: Stand Up to High Stakes Testing

If you are a parent of a child in public school, or a taxpayer who is funding public education with your tax dollars, and you are frustrated with the amount of time, money, and energy that is being funneled into standardized testing, please take five minutes to help the people who are fighting to shift the focus off of test scores and back onto teaching our kids. This is of particular importance for parents of children with learning disabilities. In my mind it is emotionally and psychologically abusive when we test a child with a diagnosed disability at their chronological level rather than their actual learning levels. Is it really necessary to spend six days of instructional time telling these kids they can't read and solve math problems at the same level as their peers when they already have legal documentation to prove it?
I, for one, can no longer sit back quietly and allow this misuse of resources and this abuse of children to go on. I get sick every year when state testing comes around. I get caught in a horrible catch 22. On one hand, I don't agree with the way testing is being used in our schools, but on the other hand test scores ARE being used to make important decisions about school placement and other educational opportunities for my students. I don't want to spend time in my classroom teaching them how to "beat the test", but I feel like I would be letting them down if I didn't do my best to prepare them for this mandated assessment. I hate the look in the kids' eyes when the focus shifts to testing. I hate the way I am forced to change my approach to teaching. I hate that I know what I am doing is wrong, but if I don't do it my students will be at a systematic disadvantage to the students they are competing against for spots in good schools and future scholarship opportunities. I hate that I am forced to take part in a system that I believe is ethically and morally wrong. In a nutshell, I HATE what state testing is doing to our schools and our kids. I have sat back and been part of the problem long enough. I can't take the angst and inner turmoil it causes me any more. I've decided to take a stand and fight back. I hope people will join me.
NPE is going OLD SCHOOL with a mail in campaign! During the month of April, we are asking our Friends & Allies to print out and mail a copy of the letter ( to the offices of our friends at the Education Opportunity Network in Washington D.C.. On May 17 – the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education decision – we will deliver our letters to members of Congress.
Please share!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Add a Touch of Green to your Morning Meeting with these Irish Schoolyard Games

I was looking for Irish games to play with my class during our Morning Meeting on Monday since it's Saint Patty's Day, and I came across this page from The Heath Primary School in Portlaoise, County Laois, Ireland. I think the games will be a fun way to celebrate Irish culture in the classroom in a very relevant and child-friendly way.

This is the link to the actual web page, but I've included the directions for the games here, too.

I'm not sure that STAMP and HEY PRESTO would go over too well in an American classroom for obvious reasons, but I am using "The Letter" on Monday, and I definitely want to try "Red Letter" soon and "Queenie-i-o" once the weather gets nice and we can head outside. Enjoy!

Around twenty kids go to one side of the playground and whoever's 'on' stands facing them, about ten metres away. He or she shouts 'Bulldog!' and everyone runs to the other side of the playground , trying not to get caught by whoever's 'on'. If you're caught you become 'on' too. We play until a lot of people are caught and then we start a new game.

Everyone stands around in a circle. The object is to stamp on another person's foot, but only when it's your go. When another person tries to stamp on your foot, you must try and dodge them by moving one leg only. If your foot is stamped you're out of the game. The winner of the game is the person that didn't get stamped.

Five people play this game. First you find a place with four corners. Whoever doesn't get a corner is 'on'. He or she turns away and the children in the corners shout "Chucky Chucky", and try to swap corners with someone else. Whoever is 'on' turns around and tries to get into someone's corner while everyone is switching. If he or she gets the corner, the person who has no corner is now 'on'.

Four or five can play this game. One person is 'on' and the others say "Crocodile, Crocodile may we cross the golden bridge" and whoever's on says "Only if you have the colour green" etc. etc. If you're wearing that colour you take a step. When you reach the person who's 'on', you're 'on'.

Whoever's 'on' has a tennis ball. He or she turns around and throws the ball backwards over their head. Everyone else tries to catch the ball and if they do, they shout out "Caught ball", and now they're 'on'. But if they don't catch it, whoever has it puts it behind his or her back and everyone else puts their hands behind their backs as well. The person who is 'on' tries to guess who has the ball. If they guess wrong, whoever really has the ball is now 'on'.

One person says "One, two, three, hey presto!" All the others do a handstand and whoever stays up the longest is 'on'.

As many people as you like can play. The person who is 'on' starts by saying "The Red Letter is A" (or any letter in the alphabet). If your name contains letters the letter A, you can move. If a letter is in your name twice, you take two steps and so on. The winner is the first person to reach whoever's on.

We all sit down in a row with our hands on our knees. Whoever's 'on' tips all our hands and says "Black, black, black.... magic". The minute they say 'magic', they run. Whoever magic has landed on, shouts 'Stop'. Then he or she stands up and, in baby steps, takes as many steps as there are letters in their first name and surname. If they can reach the person who is 'on', they are 'on'. If not, the original person is still 'on'.

Any number can play. Whoever's 'on' is the wolf. We stand about five metres away and say "What time is it Mr Wolf?" The wolf says either "Tea-time, dinner-time, or breakfast". If the wolf says 'dinner-time' he chases after us trying to catch us. If he catches someone they're 'on'.

Children sit in a circle with one child on the outside holding a crumpled piece of paper (the letter). This child walks around the outside of the circle while everyone sings with their eyes closed… "I sent a letter to my mother and on the way I dropped it. Some one must have picked it up and put it in their pocket." After the song, everyone looks behind them. The person with the letter behind them chases "it" back to the original seat. Whoever reaches the seat first wins, and the child standing must pick up the letter and try again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Experts and Novices: A Peer Teaching Technique

Every now and then, I am in the middle of teaching a lesson and I step back and actually "see" what is happening in the room around me. Today was one of those days, and I have to say, I liked what I saw. We are in the middle of learning measurement conversions- customary AND metric. If you've ever taught this skill, you know it can be a doozy. There are so many conversion factors to memorize and then there's the whole business of knowing when to multiply and when to divide by the right factor. It makes kids' heads spin, and teachers' brains hurt.

After many years of trial and error, I have a pretty reliable method for teaching conversions. It involves conversion cheat sheets, calculators, the mnemonic "King Henry Died Unexpectedly Drinking Chocolate Milk", and memorization of this simple concept - "Smaller unit to larger unit means you divide, and larger unit to smaller unit means you multiply." It takes LOTS of practice, but most of my students can successfully convert between different units of measurement eventually.

Today was Day 3 of our measurement unit, and I noticed that some students were really starting to master conversions, while another distinct group was not making consistent progress. I decided to fall back on a tried and true technique I call Experts and Novices to narrow the learning gap.

My students are already used to self-assessing their understanding. We've been doing it since the beginning of the year. When we are learning new content, we'll stop periodically and rate our understanding using this scale:

It took repeated practice and a lot of relationship building to get to a point where I feel confident my students are making honest assessments and taking true ownership of their learning, but I do believe my kids are truthful for the most part when they rate their understanding.  On an occasion when I suspect someone is not being honest about what they know, I call them on it. It doesn't happen that often, but sometimes I have to remind a child whose pretending to know something they really don't understand that they are only hurting themselves if they are dishonest.

After practicing metric conversions together on, I had the kids do a quick rating of their understanding. Next, I used their self-assessments to make Expert-Novice partnerships. I usually let the students who are not confident in their understanding choose the "expert" they want to work with. This time, no one rated himself a 1, so I let the 2's choose the 5's they wanted to work with. Then, each 3 chose a 5. That left some 4's who partnered up quickly, and we were ready to roll.

There are two secrets to maximizing the effectiveness of Expert-Novice partnerships, and I am going to share them with you. First, the experts have to put their pens and pencils away. In our case, it's usually dry erase markers, but you get the point. This strategy works best when the novice does all the writing and calculating. Secondly, the expert can give directions and ask questions, but they can not tell the novice the answer. This may all sound very simplistic to you, but it is actually a very powerful peer teaching technique. An added bonus is that the kids really like it, both the experts and the novices.

Today, I was reminded just how effective Expert-Novice partnerships can be. While my kids were in pairs working on conversion problems from, I experienced that moment where I stepped out of the lesson and really watched what was happening from the perspective of an outside observer. What I noticed was that every single child in the class was 100% engaged and on-task. There was tons of learning-related conversation going on. Students were supporting one another and cheering each other on. The positive energy in the room was palpable. And most importantly, rapid clarification and new learning was occurring. 2's were quickly changing their rating to 3's, and even an occasional 4. Likewise, 3's were claiming to be turning into 4's as the practice progressed. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that Experts and Novices exponentially increases your ability to reach students who are struggling with new material. It's like you can be in 10 places at the same time. Each child who is struggling gets 1:1 support. But, the novices are not the only ones who benefit from this activity. The experts get an opportunity to refine their learning even further as they watch their partner work, and they have to  look for the breakdown in their understanding. Then, the expert needs to communicate the necessary information in a way that is understandable to the novice. This is a very natural and purposeful way of providing enrichment for students who excel.

I hope I've done a thorough job of explaining this peer teaching technique, because it is one of those strategies you'll find yourself using over and over again if you can implement it successfully.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Knowing Your Greek and Latin Roots Helps Your Vocabulary Grow

Last week, I had a plan. In an attempt to hasten the arrival of spring, I decided to decorate the bulletin board in the hallway outside my classroom with flowers. If you've seen Monday's forecast for Philadelphia, you know my plan failed miserably. With predictions of up to another foot of snow for us, it looks like winter will be hanging around for at least a little longer.

Even though my bulletin board design didn't shift the weather patterns around here, it did turn out very nicely. I wanted to share it with other middle grades teachers who are teaching Greek and Latin roots to their students. The bulletin board display is based on the theme that "Knowing your Greek and Latin Roots will Help your Vocabulary Grow".

Each student made a construction paper flower with a circular center and five petals. (I had a parent volunteer precut the pieces to save time.) In the center of the flower, the students wrote a Greek or Latin root with its meaning. The student, then, chose five derivatives for their root to write on the petals of the flower. Each root was written on a separate petal along with a child-friendly definition of the word that related back to the root.

We used the roots we've been learning using Vocabulary Packets: Greek & Latin Roots from Scholastic. If you are looking for a well-organized resource to teach Greek and Latin roots, read more about the book HERE.

My students completed this project in one class period and did a fantastic job, if I do say so myself. As disappointed as I am that the power of suggestion was not strong enough to stave off another assault by Old Man Winter, I do think this bulletin board display is brightening things up outside Room 202. Who knows when real flowers will finally bloom this year? In the meantime, you can enjoy these paper beauties knowing that you've helped your students increase their vocabulary.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Daily Word Ladders: A Fun Way to Increase Vocabulary and Build Decoding Skills

Have the test prep blues invaded your classroom? The symptoms include the appearance of an abundance of standardized reading passages, multiple choice math and reading questions, and open response prompts, often accompanied by moans and groans, as well as looks of helplessness and frustration in the eyes of your students. Sadly, I can not offer you a cure for this depressing ailment, but I do have a suggestion to help alleviate the symptoms temporarily. The antidote for the symptoms of the test prep blues is a simple, three-letter: F-U-N!

F-U-N recently arrived in Room 202 in the form of a teacher resource book that was delivered to my classroom two weeks ago. I had forgotten I even ordered Daily Word Ladders with Scholastic Book Fair dollars earlier in the year, and I didn't pay the book much mind when it arrived. It wasn't until I had a chance to look at Daily Word Ladders over the weekend that I realized what a great resource I had stumbled upon.

According to Scholastic, "Kids climb to new heights in reading and writing with these engaging, reproducible word building games! Kids read clues on each rung, then change and rearrange letters to create words until they reach the top. All the while, they're boosting decoding and spelling skills, broadening vocabulary, and becoming better, more fluent readers." The activities in the book look like this:

There are three levels of puzzles: K-1, 2-3, and 4-6. In addition to the reproducible sheets, the teaching resource comes with a CD of all the page files that can be uploaded on your interactive whiteboard using ActivInspire software. 

I have been using a word-ladder-a-day as a collaborative team challenge, and my students are LOVING it. I print four copies of each word ladder challenge, one for each team/table in my class. I give the sheets out face down and prepare the children for a timed competition. Each day, a different student gets to scribe for their team while everyone at their table works to finish the ladder puzzle before all the other tables. The teams work furiously as they vie to finish the puzzle first and win a coveted "house point"( think Harry Potter and the houses of Hogwarts) for their team. Three minutes seems to be a reasonable time limit for completion of a puzzle, and it takes another minute and a half to check the answers. That's less than a five minute investment for a pretty substantial return.

In just a few days, we've added the words "dame" and "tine" to our vocabulary repertoire, and my kids have gotten a crash course on nursery rhymes because nobody could fill in this blank:  "__________ be nimble. __________ be quick," during our second word ladder challenge. These benefits are awesome, but they're nothing compared to the fun we are having and the enthusiasm we are generating while thinking and learning together. It's such a welcome diversion from the intensive test prep regiment we've been following lately.

I can't wait until we've had a few more days of practice, and I can challenge my students to make up word ladders of their own. It will be interesting to see if they can successfully create original ladders to share with one another.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sum It Up: After Reading Summarizing Strategy

This is a quick share of a simple strategy that is working remarkably well with my reading intervention group right now. I've seen the Sum It Up strategy organized several different ways, but this is the version I use with my students.

The Sum It Up strategy requires readers to select words related to the main idea of a reading. After reading, the reader writes the specialized vocabulary, key terms, or repeated words or phrases from a passage in the collection box marked with the $. This focuses attention on key words that can then be used to build a summary. Once the collection box is filled, it helps to go back and star the words you think are most important from all those listed. This is a critical thinking skills and does require some practice. The final step is to use the key words that have been collected to create a summary statement of 20 - 30 words.

The Sum It Up strategy lends itself nicely to gradual release of responsibility. Initially, you can model it for your students. Then, you can complete the graphic organizer as a shared writing activity after a shared reading. I also like to add an additional bridge step where we collect the key words together, but the kids each create their own summary, and then we share. This is the place where we spend the most time practicing, before I ask the kids to use the strategy independently.

In Room 202, we call this process "Making a $2.00 - $3.00 Summary", and the kids LOVE doing it.
It never ceases to amaze me that such simple little twists on otherwise mundane tasks make all the difference when working with young learners. If I ask my students to summarize a passage they've read, I usually don't get the most enthusiastic response, and I can never be sure how succinct or accurate the actual summarizations will be. However, if I add the simple caveat of not being allowed to "spend" more than $2.00 - $3.00 worth of 10 cent words to create the summary, it's a whole new ball game. Suddenly, the kids are selective about what they want to say. They monitor and adjust their wording to stay under the allowed "spending' limit. They are competitive with one another, trying to see who can cover all the key points of a main idea while spending the least amount of money on their wording.

I've been using the Sum It Up strategy with my morning intervention group this week, and they have been very successful with it. One of my struggling fifth grade readers came up with this after reading a passage from a series of pretty complex texts about the U.S. Constitution and federalism. I am impressed with what they are producing, and they are proud of themselves. I love it when that happens!

If you've never tried this summarizing strategy with your students, I recommend you give it a try. Here's a link to a graphic organizer to get you started.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

Room 202 needs your help. Can you take a few minutes to complete the Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? survey found HERE Please do not phone a friend or access any online resources for assistance while answering the questions. After you've completed the survey, please leave a comment on this page summarizing your experience with the questions. We'd like to know your age, profession, time spent on the survey, and opinions about the questions. My students and I are convinced that a lot of the questions that the PA Dept of Ed has released as sample items for the fifth grade math PSSA's are too wordy and complicated for fifth graders. We'd like to hear your thoughts. If you can share the link to this survey on your Facebook wall to help us get more participants for the survey, we would appreciate it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Head Up, Seven Up with a Twist: Valentine's Day Fun with Idioms

      Most of us know Heads Up, Seven Up, because we played it when we were kids. These rules are nostalgically familiar: Seven people are chosen to be “it”. Everybody else puts their head down on their desk, closes their eyes, and puts their thumb up. The seven people who are it, each sneak around the room and gently push down one person’s thumb. When seven thumbs have been pushed down and all the “its” are back in the front of the room, the teacher calls, “Heads Up, Seven Up”. The seven students whose thumbs were pushed down, try to guess who picked them. If they are correct, the guessers switches places with the person who picked them and become “it”. If the guesser is wrong, he stays in his seat and the person who chose him is "it" for another round.
       In Heads Up, Seven Up with a Twist, the rules are essentially the same except for one thing. Instead of pushing down a person’s thumb when you are it, you leave a slip of paper on someone’s desk. The slip you drop matches another slip you keep in your hand. When “Heads Up, Seven Up” is called, people with slips on their desk stand up and try to match up two slips correctly.
       The possibilities for creating slips for this game are as endless as the content we are required to teach. Think math facts and answers, vocabulary terms and definitions, famous historical figures and their accomplishments. You can review just about anything using this game.
       For Valentine’s Day, the fifth graders in Room 202 will be playing Heads Up, Seven Up with a Twist to review idioms. This link takes you to a file that includes enough cards to play two rounds of the game. It is my Valentine's Day gift to you and your students. If you want to return the love, you can sign up to follow this blog or you can "like" my Facebook using the button on the left.
       If you'd like a more robust review of all the types of figurative language you have introduced to your intermediate elementary grade students, check out this activity in my TpT Store. Your students will appreciate this brief respite from all the standardized test practice they've been doing lately. They'll be happy to be playing a game and having fun, and you'll be happy to know that your students are actually reviewing eligible content with smiles on their faces.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Opportunity to Integrate Math into Morning Meeting

Our schedule only permits us to meet for Morning Meeting twice a week, once on Monday and again on Friday. It's not as ideal as being able to meet every day, but it's a routine that my students look forward to with enthusiasm. I admire teachers who hold Morning Meeting daily and still manage to keep it fresh and exciting for their students. Even though I share the responsibility for planning our two weekly meetings with my grade partners, I still struggle with finding new greetings and activities that are engaging and relevant for our fifth graders when it is my turn to plan. I regularly scour the internet for ideas, and I do find lots of great stuff. Occasionally, I even come up with a good idea of my own. This is post is about a Morning Meeting activity that I came up with that reinforces fraction concepts while encouraging students to get to know one another better. I don't have a name for the activity, and, for all I know, it may have been done before, but it's new to me. It's also simple to implement, and the kids loved it so I decided to share. 

The activity will only work with students who understand fractions. They need to know that the denominator of a fraction represents the total number of members in a set, and the numerator represents some portion of those members. If you have students that understand this basic fraction concept, you have everything you need for this activity. Just gather your students in an area where they can move around a little bit and tell them they are going to BECOME fractions. After all the "Hey, you can't cut us apart," comments die down, you can explain the real rules of the game. 

For each round of play, the teacher calls out a fraction like 1/3 or 4/5. Then, the children need to get into groups that represent the target number. For example, two boys and one girl could get together to represent 1/3. When it is their turn to report out, a representative from the group would say, "1/3 of our group are girls." Then, you give every group a chance to report the fraction they came up for each round of play. If 4/5 is your next fraction, you might have a group of five boys and only one of them has glasses. Their representative would report, "4/5 of us do NOT wear glasses." You can repeat the sequence as many times as the clock and your students' tolerance allow. We played about 7 rounds before time ran out, and my kids were disappointed that we had to stop.

There were obvious benefits to this activity. It's a very concrete way of reinforcing what the numerator and the denominator of a fraction represent. It also got the kids talking to one another. When there was not the right proportion of obvious physical differences in a group, the kids had to come up with other criteria to form the correct fraction. For example, after asking one another questions and suggesting different things they might have in common one group came up with, "3/7 of our group are only children." The activity even promoted some out of the box problem solving. When the fraction was 2/3 and nothing seemed to be working for one group, two of the boys in the group put their arms around one another and they reported out, "2/3 of our group is hugging." 

Overall, the activity was a success, just as I had expected it would be. What I hadn't anticipated was that the same students would be left out every time the denominator I chose was not a factor of 24(the number of students present in class the day we played). I pride myself on knowing my students, and I thought this group was kinder than that. Heck, I read Wonder by R.J. Palacio as a read aloud earlier in the year, and we all agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Tushman when he said the world would be a better place if everyone was kinder than necessary when given the choice. After watching the same three kids get left out time after time, I came to realize R.J. Palacio's message did not sink in enough, and we still have a lot of work to do in Room 202 when it comes to sensitivity and inclusiveness. 

That gives me plenty to think about the next time it's my turn to plan for our weekly meetings. You can bet I'll looking for, maybe even creating, activities that focus on inclusion. If I come up with anything good, I promise to share.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Newest Not So Reluctant Reader, Maybe?

I have a student who shall remain nameless in order to protect her identity as a kid who "hates to read". On Friday, I sent said student to straighten up the classroom library. It just so happened that her space was already in perfect order when I gave the kids time to clean out their desks, and she needed something else to do. I wish I could say that I had a devious ulterior motive for choosing this particular job for this particular child, but, alas, I did not. The library happened to be in my line of vision when she asked what she could do next, and, truth be told, the shelves looked a little messy.

Now fast forward five minutes to when I looked over in the library and I noticed my lovely little reading-hater looking at a book. At that instant, I didn't give it a lot of thought. Oblivious to what what was about to come, I simply went on organizing the mountain of mess on my own desk, and forgot about the library cleanup job. A couple minutes later, I turned around, and the library cleaner-upper was standing in front of me holding a book. 

I must pause at this point in the story and point out that this young lady has loudly and repeatedly professed her dislike of reading all year. So much so that I told her it had become my personal mission to get her to like just one book before June. And if you haven't already figured it out, this little lady tugs at my heart strings. She is about as lovely a young woman as you will ever meet and one of the most cooperative and sincerest of learners I have ever had the pleasure of teaching, BUT she has a severe reading disability which interferes with the matching of sounds to letters. If you've ever read anything, you know that being able to consistently and automatically call up a sound when you see a letter is pretty important. I'm not surprised she hates reading. It's been a Herculean task for her to make the modest reading progress she has made so far, and I don't blame her for wanting to avoid independent reading like it is the plague. I feel like an ogre sometimes when I remind her that the only way she is going to get better at reading is if she READS. It's like having to give your child the worst tasting medicine in the world. You feel bad, but you do it because you know it's the only thing that is going to cure what ails them. Luckily, this girl trusts me, and she has been heeding my advice. Together, we have tried four or five different series of books this year that are on her reading level, without being insultingly immature for her chronological age. She's hated some of them, tolerated a couple, even liked a few, but in spite of her fluctuating level of enthusiasm she has done as I've asked and READ, twenty minutes a night, four nights a week. Like a good little patient, she has taken her medicine. 

Knowing the backstory, I hope you can now fully enjoy the climax of this little anecdote. Travel back with me to Friday when I turned around, and Little Miss I Don't Like to Read was standing there with a novel in her hand. I looked at her and she very shyly asked, "Would it be OK if I checked this out from the library?" I resisted the urge to backflip across the room, fire a confetti cannon, and expel all the oxygen in my lungs screaming, "YYYYEEESSSS!" Instead, I smiled politely and said, "Sure, you can."

My celebration may be premature, but I decided to revel in it just a bit, nevertheless. Maybe this won't be THE BOOK for my little friend. It might turn out to still be a a tad too difficult. Maybe it won't live up to the title and the blurb on the back that caught her attention, but that's not important. What is important is that this little girl who has never thought of herself as a reader ASKED to take home a NOVEL. In order for that to happen, she had to have the confidence in herself to think she could read it, and she had to have the intrinsic motivation to want to read the story for her own entertainment. And that my friends, is reason enough for me to celebrate!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Building Better Problem Solvers: One Step at a Time

Aubrey has a shelf full of books.
• Exactly 1/3 of the books on the shelf are mysteries.
• Aubrey has read 10 of the mysteries on the shelf.
• The number of mysteries Aubrey has read is greater than 1/5
of the number of mysteries on the shelf, and less than 1/ 4
of the number of mysteries on the shelf?

Which could be the number of books on the shelf?
a. 120
b. 142
c. 147
d. 150

Most people read a problem like this and their initial reaction is, "WHAT?" Teachers read this problem and the first thing they think is, "How the heck am I going to break this down so my students can solve it?"

Solving open-ended, higher order math problems is messy business for a lot of reasons. First of all, these kinds of problems really highlight the range of abilities in a classroom. You present this type of problem to a class and some kids have the answer before you've even finished reading the problem, and other kids will stare at the paper for as long as you leave it in front of them because they haven't the foggiest idea where to even start. Then, there's the fact that by the very nature of their design, these problems are not cut and dry. There may be only one correct solution, but there can be as many strategies and methods students use to get to that answer, as there are students in your class.

As teachers, we know it is our responsibility to scaffold instruction for students and gradually release responsibility for learning to them, with autonomy being the ultimate goal. This is easier said than done in the best of circumstances, but can seem impossible when you have 20-30 students with a wide range of cognitive abilities and different learning styles who have all been given a problem that is intended to stretch their understanding and push them to notice obtuse patterns and relationships.

It's no surprise that teachers get intimidated by higher order, open-ended math word problems. The problems are HARD, and they're so unpredictable. I've always struggled with finding the best way to scaffold open-ended problems for my own students. For most of them, solving higher-order math problems is a battle, but I am bound and determined to arm them with as many weapons as possible so they can be victorious.

I am pleased to announce that I have finally found a problem-solving template that is working in Room 202. At least, it gives all my students a common starting point and a reliable framework for dismantling these complex problems into smaller components that they can tackle incrementally. We have been working with the template all year, and I have seen some measurable growth in most of the children's problem solving skills. My revised version of the template looks like this:

We solve problems like the "Aubrey" problem on Fridays in Room 202. The problems we work on are aligned to whatever eligible content we are covering in math that week. Initially, the lessons were entirely teacher-led and featured a lot of me "thinking aloud" at the SMARTBoard. At this point, we only work on Step 1 together as a class. After we have read and scrutinized the problem carefully, my students now work through Steps 2-5 independently. There are still several students who are not able to move passed Step 2 on their own. I provide very targeted, explicit 1:1 instruction for the students who still need it, as I circulate during problem solving time.

I have also developed a rubric for measuring my students' implementation of this problem solving platform. The rubric is tailored to the steps on the template and it looks like this:
My goal is to practice these problem solving strategies with my students frequently enough that they become automatic for them. (I do see the kids underlining the question and circling key information in other classwork problems, so I know there has been some transfer.) Ultimately, I want my kids to feel confidence rather than intimidation when they read an open-ended math problem. I want them to intuitively apply the strategies we have practiced together so they can systematically get to the point of what the problem is asking, make a plan for how to answer that question, and be able to explain why they did what they did. Sounds simple enough, but we all know it's NOT! It's actually about as complicated as it gets when it comes to math instruction, and often seems utterly impossible, but I refuse to throw in the towel. It's when the work is the hardest, that our students need us the most, and this is really a life skill the kids need.

Problem solving is a fixture in life, and it is my goal as an educator to prepare my students for LIFE. Problems pop up everyday. Sometimes they are small and sometimes they are large. You run into problems everyday, from flat tires to a failing product line at work. Sometimes solving a problem is a matter of life and death, and other times it is merely a matter of keeping your sanity. Regardless of why we need to use problem solving, we can not deny that we do need it. There is also no denying that the best problem solvers become the most successful and productive citizens, and that's ultimately what I want for the kids I teach.

If you want your students to be good problem solvers, too, you can get my problem solving template and rubric along with 15 problems (and answers) aligned to the fifth grade Common Core Math Standards in my TpT store. Click HERE if you'd like them for your classroom.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Presidential Bio Poems

With just over a month until President's Day 2014, I wanted to repost this entry. I am looking forward to doing this project with my class again this year, and I thought other people might be looking for an alternative to the run-of-the-mill "President Report" as well. 

Have you ever done bio poems with your students? I love doing them with my classes. We do them as a "getting to know you" activity every September. They are always hanging on the bulletin board when parents come for Back-to-School night, and everybody loves them. 

Last year we did our personal bio poems in September, but then I decided to put a new twist on the bio poem template, and I reworked the format so that the kids could write presidential bio poems for part of a unit we did on the novel "The Kid Who Became President"by Dan Gutman. The presidential bio poems the kids wrote were fabulous, and we ended up displaying them as a Presidential Timeline for the whole school right before Election Day.

As President's Day quickly approaches, I wanted to share a sample poem with you. If you like the sample below, and recognize the value of having your students synthesize research about an assigned president in this creative format, visit and check out the Presidential Bio Poem packet you can purchase there. You can get a poem template, a student work sample, and a scoring rubric just in time for President's Day. I assigned the poems as an at-home project, but they can just as easily be completed in class. I hope you'll take a look at the packet. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Making Big Words

Making Big Words by Patricia Cunningham and Dorothy Hall is a teaching resource manual which includes 144 lessons consisting of active, hands-on, manipulative activities through which students discover letter-sound relationships and learn to look for patterns in words. Students are given a set of letters and are asked to make between 15-20 words, beginning with short words and continuing with bigger words until the feature word of the lesson is made using all the letters they've been given. The book has step-by-step directions for implementing the program in your classroom, but I chose to modify the materials to fit my own needs and those of my students. What I came up with has been one of the more popular literacy activities in my classroom this year. The children love it because it is fun. I love it because it is easy to manage and accommodates a wide range of ability levels.

Here is what Making Big Words looks like in Room 202. My first adaptation of the program was to ditch the reproducible paper letter tiles in the back of the book and replace them with plastic ©Bananagram letter tiles. I have two ©Bananagram games that I purchased at yard sales so I have enough tiles to make three "packets" for each week's lesson for our Word Work Station. Having three packets allows me to cycle all 25 of my students through the activity every week. The book's authors describe Making Big Words as more of a teacher led activity, but I've made it an independent partner activity instead of using teacher directed lessons. Finally, I add my own written extension component to each week's lesson. These additional activities are more focused on vocabulary development and meaning rather than encoding and phonics. I can easily customize each week's written requirement to match whatever vocabulary skills we are learning at the time. For example, multiple meaning words is eligible content in fifth grade so when "pitch" was one of the small words the children had to make in one week's lesson, one of their "On Lined Paper" activities was to find three different meanings of the word pitch and write a sentence with good context for each meaning.
I store each week's lesson sheet and the letter tiles needed for that week's words in a plastic page protector. I keep the letter tiles in a small Ziploc bag that fits neatly inside the page protector along with the list of that week's words. I pair students in flexible partnerships and they take turns asking and making the words from week to week. Each pair of students works on the written component of the activity together and hands in one paper with both of their names on it. This system works equally well when pairing students of like ability, or with partnerships where one student is an expert and the other student needs more support.

This is a routine that has become a staple of my literacy program this year, and I can see it being an integral part of my instructional programming in years to come. The book is definitely worth the $13.36 they are asking for it on Amazon. Once you have the book, you can quickly set up a Word Work Station in your classroom that is easy to maintain, update, and correlate with whatever vocabulary skills you are teaching.