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  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Stacy-Schwab 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.