Teaching Tip of the Week

Teaching Tip of the Week (117)

Here are some of the blueprints my 4th graders made during our 3-week Dream House Project. The students began by creating a two-dimensional floor plan on a 38 x 24 square grid. They then calculated the area of each room, determined flooring costs, and transferred the floor plan onto this larger blueprint paper. On this paper, the kids measured the angles in their gardens, swimming pools, courts, and walking paths/dirt bike trails. Finally, everyone colored in the various parts of their property.

Saturday, 24 May 2014 00:03

Exemplary Sample of 4th Grade Writing

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A 4th grade student of mine recently wrote this paragraph as part of her Writing Workshop fiction story about a girl who showed poor judgment and then faced the consequences once her parents found out what she did. When I first read the paragraph, I was reminded how wonderful it is to work with children who fall in love with reading and make books an important part of their lives. Kids who read for significant amounts of time outside of school advance to higher levels of text that feature complex sentence structure. Over time, enthusiastic readers such as this child will begin to experiment with this type of sentence structure in their own writing. They will experiment with sentences of different lengths, include parenthetical phrases, and purposefully incorporate sentence fragments that add power and drama to their writing. If you have any noteworthy examples of quality student writing that you'd like to share, please feel free to send it along.  
Saturday, 24 May 2014 00:30

Make It, Take It (Teaching Tip #118)

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          "Make It, Take It" is a teaching strategy I use during word work and other frequently conducted whole-class activities that have the potential to become monotonous after a while. I adapted this idea from the realm of playground basketball. In organized games at the professional and amateur levels, when a team scores a basket, the other team then gets the ball. Playground games, however, sometimes follow the policy of "make it, take it," in which the team that scores a basket maintains possession of the ball.
          One day, when my students were practicing their editing skills by correcting sentences that I put on the board, the "make it, take it" idea popped into my head, and I decided to try it out, not expecting much of a reaction. After explaining the concept to the class, I was shocked when tons of kids raised their hands to answer the next question as if I was asking who wanted free ice cream.
          The way it works is that when a student answers a question correctly, (s)he gets to answer the next one. If a child makes a mistake, I choose a different student for the next question. Initially, I was worried that the kids might have bruised feelings if they missed a question and didn't get the chance to answer the next one, but this never became an issue.
          Many times, when a new idea is introduced, everyone is excited about it, but then the novelty soon wears off and enthusiasm wanes. After many months, this hasn't yet happened with "make it, take it." Perhaps it's because I have many athletes in my class, and they appreciate any connection to the sports world. Or, maybe the kids like having the chance to earn another chance to participate, and they enjoy their moment in the spotlight. Either way, making this minor change to how I call on students during whole-class learning activities has led to greater engagement, better attention to detail, and improved performance. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Friday, 23 May 2014 00:04

Check Out This Cool Mission Statement

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is a mission statement I recently found at a local restaurant called "The Counter." When I first saw it, I knew I wanted to add it to the collection of mission statements I share with my students at the beginning of each school year when we begin writing our class mission statement. Not only is the hamburger shape an attention-getter, but also the statement itself contains some powerful messages that apply to classroom life, such as "create something special," "creative construction," and "life should be about experiences." If you find any strong mission statement examples in your travels, please let me know.
Monday, 19 May 2014 04:08

Photos of My Students' Dream House Projects

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Here are some of the models my students constructed during our 3-week Dream House Project. The students began by creating a two-dimensional floor plan and then calculated the area of each room, determined flooring costs, measured angles, and made many other decisions about the house itself and the items in the backyard.

Saturday, 17 May 2014 20:00

The Dream House Project (Part 2) (Teaching Tip #117)

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Last week I mentioned how I like to use the end of each school year to try new things and test out ideas that I might want to incorporate into my practice the following year. Whether these ideas relate to curriculum, instruction, the physical classroom environment, or management, the potential benefits of this approach are significant, and there's really no down side if the ideas prove not to bear fruit.

Sometimes, experimenting with a new idea involves stepping out of our comfort zone. This was definitely the case this past Monday and Tuesday when my students constructed the 3D models of their dream houses. In the days leading up to the construction, I don't think a school project had ever been on my mind as much as this one. I felt a combination of excitement, uncertainty, enthusiasm, and stress.

I knew the kids were incredibly motivated to start turning their 2D blueprints into 3D structures, yet a bunch of questions flooded my mind. Did I purchase enough foam core boards, flooring and wallpaper sheets, T-square rulers, and glue? Would the 3 hours each day that I allotted for the construction be enough? Would enough parent volunteers be able to join us to provide the students with the help they needed, especially with using the exacto knives to cut the walls for the kids? Had I bitten off a bit too much by trying to adapt a middle school project for a 4th grade class? 

Monday and Tuesday turned out to be two of the most interesting, exciting, draining, and satisfying days of my career. The project was, without a doubt, incredibly labor-intensive, and we were fortunate to have a large parent turnout to make the event a big success. We needed to go into overtime on Tuesday and finish after lunch, but every child completed a terrific dream house and felt great about what (s)he accomplished. The pride that showed in the kids' faces made all the uncertainty and stress leading up to the construction completely worth it. The children now have a durable model that they can keep for years. Perhaps a seed was planted with some of them, and they may grow up to pursue an interest in architecture or design. Even if that doesn't happen, I take heart in the fact that every student had the opportunity to apply a wide range of geometry knowledge in an engaging, authentic project that they will remember for a long time.

You can see more photos of student projects on my "Teaching the Whole Child" Facebook page.
Saturday, 10 May 2014 20:50

The Dream House Project (Teaching Tip #117)

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I am a big believer in using the last few weeks of every school year to try new things and test out ideas that I might want to incorporate into my practice the following year. These ideas can relate to curriculum, instruction, the physical classroom environment, or management. The children enjoy a fresh approach at this time of the year, and there's really no downside to doing this. If the idea proves to be successful, I will implement it the following year, and if it doesn't, I won't.

My favorite example of this idea in action pertains to room arrangement. At the beginning of my career, my students sat at tables of 6-8, but I didn't like the fact that many children had their backs to their classmates. Plus, there wasn't much space for a rug area in the front of the room near the board. So, at the end of the year, I experimented with a "horseshoe" shape. I loved it so much that I have arranged the desks in this formation ever since.

This year my new focus is a geometry unit called the Dream House Project. Last summer, after I found out that I would be moving to 4th grade after many years teaching third, I researched different units and projects, and this was, by far, the most promising, engaging, and challenging. The only potential problem was that each version of the project that I found online was designed for 6th graders. The project brings together a host of geometry standards and calls for students to design the floor plans of their dream houses and build three-dimensional models.

Over the past two weeks, my students have been creating their blueprints, calculating the area of each room, determining the cost of their flooring, measuring angles, finding the perimeter of the entire house, and making many decisions about the backyard area. This coming Monday and Tuesday, with the assistance of several parent volunteers, we will build the models. The picture you see shows the model that one of the parent volunteers and I made as a sample. It took the two of us five hours to complete, and we learned a lot along the way. Without a doubt, this project is the most ambitious endeavor I have tried with students, and I am looking forward to seeing how everything turns out. 

Launching this project hasn't been easy or stress-free, but it has been exhilarating, and I have never seen children more excited about a project. Many have even chosen to come into the room during their lunchtime to select their flooring, wallpaper, and exterior. In the coming weeks I will update you on our progress.

Saturday, 19 April 2014 19:50

It's Time for the Happiness Project (Teaching Tip #116)

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A few years ago, I was inspired by a TED Talk given by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., entitled "The Happy Secret to Better Work." Achor asserts in his talk that people in our society tend to believe that we should work hard in order to be happy, and he suggests that this way of thinking could be backwards. He argues that happiness makes us more productive, creative, and successful. In short, happiness should come first. At the end of his talk, Achor shares some ways that people can use to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and become happier. After watching the talk, I tried one of these ways with my students, and it had a wonderful effect on the children and the learning environment as a whole. I call it "The Happiness Project," and it has become a yearly tradition in my classroom.

Beginning this coming Monday, my students and I will kickoff this year's edition.
Achor makes the point that individuals who try this idea for 21 straight days can train themselves to think differently about their lives and actually re-wire their brains. The idea is to think of three things in your life for which you are grateful. So, for three weeks (fifteen consecutive school days) my students and I will do this. At the end of our daily, morning movement warm-up routine, I will give everyone about a minute of quiet "think" time. Then I will ask several volunteers to share their "gratitudes" with the class. During this daily gratitude activity the primary challenge will be to think of new things every day. By the end of our three-week endeavor, the hope is that students, over time, will realize just how many positive things they have in their lives, and as a result, the classroom environment will change, their overall perspective will expand, and we can all more easily find that positive mindset that is so critical for performing at our highest levels and producing our highest quality, most creative work.

I have seen wonderful results arise from this exercise over the past few years, and I'm very much looking forward to getting started with my fourth graders. I invite you and your students to join us in this endeavor. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing some of the "gratitudes" my students express on my Facebook page, and I invite you to do the same. I believe this type of professional collaboration to be highly valuable, and it would be great to learn from one another.

Recently I learned of a tremendously helpful tip that builds cooperation among students, increases class efficiency, and holds students accountable for heading their papers correctly. I am excited to share this idea with you in this Teaching Tip. The idea may seem a bit complicated at first, but once you implement it, you will never know how you got along without it.


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Let's imagine your students are about to start a math activity on lined paper. You want everyone to head their papers by putting their name and the date in the top right-hand corner and the title of the activity in the center of the top line. Any time we ask students to perform a task such as this, it's important to hold them accountable for doing it correctly, but it takes time to get around to everyone, time that would be better spent helping individual students or focusing on more important responsibilities. With this tip, students can now hold one another accountable quickly and effectively.

Here's how it works. I have 4 students at each table, and I assign them each a number, 1-4, so they can take turns performing this job. (I have a spinner on the board with four spaces, and I keep track of whose turn it is to perform this task by moving the spinner.) Let's say on this day, it is the #2's turn to do the job. As I am about to dismiss the class from the instructional lesson on the rug so that they can start working at their desks, I call up all the 2's and hand them a set of 4 index cards. The 2's then put a card on each of their tablemates' desks as everyone begins to head their papers. Once everyone at the table is done heading their paper, the 2's go around to check to see that all papers are headed correctly. If so, that person brings me back all the cards. If not, the leader politely reminds any student who hasn't yet finished this task to head the paper correctly and then brings me back all the cards. The kids love this system, and usually within about a minute or two, I have the cards from all the tables.

To make things even easier, each table has its own unique color of cards. On one card I write a circle, and the leader keeps the card with the circle. (Printing a circle on the card reminds me which student is acting as leader that day). This strategy can be used with any subject area. It works best when students are heading their papers, but it can also be applied to any situation where the kids are completing a routine task for which we need to hold them accountable, and we want to focus on more important matters. Any time the kids can accomplish a task on their own while building cooperation skills and improving class efficiency, that's a win-win for everybody.

Sunday, 14 July 2013 08:45

The Most Important 30 Days of School

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“Back to School” time is approaching in many parts of the country, and once the new school year begins, I always emphasize to fellow educators the importance of focusing on four critical priorities. Giving these four priorities the time and attention they deserve will pay big dividends for you, your students, and their families. In this article I list these four priorities.

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