Friday, July 31, 2015

Try This! 6 Fun and Informative Activities to Use the First Day of School

Currently,the blog world is full of posts of "what to do on the first day of school" as well as "what NOT to do on the first day of school".  After 25 years in education, I have learned that your plans for the first day have a lot to do with your personal teaching style, your personality, and your teaching philosophy.  When I first started teaching in the late '80's, it seemed like standard procedure to set the tone for the year by lecturing about the class, team's, grade level's, or school's rules.  And from there, I would give an overview of what we would study that year.  Pretty boring and it didn't exactly set the tone that I wanted.  Yes, students need to learn procedures, expectations, and routines from day one, but we too need to learn all we can about our brand new students!  

I want to share with you 6 strategies and activities that I have used on the first day(s) of school to help me learn as much as possible about my students.  These are fun, active learning strategies that you can use to help build a classroom community, observe collaboration skills, and to learn a little more about your littles!

Just a little disclaimer:  Most of these are geared toward upper/intermediate elementary and middle school students.  However, you may be able to tweak and use them in the lower grades too!

1.  M&M~ All About Me- I have used this ice breaker for years, but do not remember where I found it.  Here's how I have used this:  On the first day of school, I greet students as they enter the room.  Before they search for their seats, I ask them how many M&M's they would like.  They can have between 1 to 5.  I place them in a little paper cup and give a reminder that they are not to eat them! Once students have all been seated I tell them that we are going to introduce ourselves by sharing our name and interesting facts about ourselves.  Here's where the M&M's come in.  They have to share one fact for every piece of candy they have!  So, if I have three pieces, I share three things about me.  Then, at the end, as we transition, they can eat their candy.  Kids love this and it helps me to learn a little about them personally and their public speaking skills!

2.  Group Collage-  I first used this fun and creative activity with a group of 8th graders!  My room was arranged in groups (we had tables which I loved!).  Prior to students entering the room on the first day of school, I placed a large piece of construction paper at each table along with old magazines, colored pencils, markers, crayons, scissors, and glue sticks. After my introduction and ice breaker, I gave the groups their directions.  They were to create one collage that represented each person in the group.  We talked about what a collage is and how they were to look for pictures that showed something about their hobbies, personality, likes, dislikes, etc.  For example, I would look for pictures of dogs since I have 4 dogs and adore them.  

This activity is fun for the kids, but it also gives me an opportunity to observe the collaborative skills of each group.  Who are the leaders?  Does the group divide up the work? Are there any students who are shy and not participating? Are all members on-task?  Do I see any indications that the group may need some conflict-resolution or time management interventions?  Five minutes before the end of the activity, I tell the class that they need a spokesperson who can share the collage with the rest of the class. 

Afterwards, we hung the collages around the room.  I adore this activity and the kids did too!  They had an opportunity to share a little about themselves, to learn about their classmates, and to express their creativity.

3. The Perfect Gift-   This is an all-time favorite of mine!  I have used it with 4th to 8th graders and the kids really enjoy it and learn a little about themselves as well as set goals for the school year. This is a week long writing activity that allows me to assess students' writing skills and to learn even more about them!   This is a deep thinking and abstract activity with a little grammar thrown in!  Click the picture below to read a blog post that I wrote about this unique writing lesson!
The Perfect Gift Beginning of Year Writing Activity Write

4.  Chalk Talk-  This is a fun strategy to use anytime during the year.  I like to use it after kids have had a group activity or a task where they had ample opportunities to talk.  Here's the gist of this activity.  On your chalkboard, white board, or on a large piece of bulletin board or butcher paper, write a question that you want students to answer.  On the first day of school I have used "What do you want to learn/do this year?" I briefly explain to students that I am curious about the Titanic, so I will write that down on the paper along with my name.  Here's the important part:  this entire activity is silent!  Students take turns writing their answer to the question on the board or on the paper.  

As they are waiting their turn, they are to think about possible answers to the question. I don't have students go up one at a time unless I have a small class.  If my paper or board is large enough, I can have several go up to write their answers.  Then they pass the "chalk" to a student who has not gone yet.

I have also done this activity with sticky notes.  Students write their answers on the sticky note and then place on the board or paper.

It is interesting to see how long the class can be quiet!  BUT, this activity also gives me useful information about my students that I can refer to when planning lessons and activities as well as ideas for book recommendations I can make for students.

You can read more about the Chalk Talk strategy here.

5.  Multiple Intelligences- For the last few years, I have used Laura Candler's Multiple Intelligence survey to learn valuable information about students' gifts and learning style preferences.   I introduce the survey and have the students complete it.  Then, at the end after students have found their dominant intelligence, I have them write their name on a sticky note and place on the correct chart paper that I have hanging around the room.  For example, I will have Visual/Spatial at the top of one of the papers.  If this is my dominant intelligence, I place the sticky note with my name on this paper.  At the end, it gives me a quick assessment of the intelligences in our classroom.  Students keep the survey in their writing portfolios, as we will use these for future discussions and activities.

Be sure to check out this FREE resource over at Laura Candler's site.  She has a detailed explanation of how to use the survey and many suggestions.  Visiting her website is WELL worth your time!

6.  Exit Ticket- At the end of the day or class, I have students reflect on their first day and complete an exit ticket.  Now, you can get all fancy and have a cute ticket that you create, or you can just use an index card or sticky note.  Think of a question that has students reflecting on themselves or on the day/class.  For example, you could ask  "What did you learn about yourself today?", or just "What did you learn today?" or "What do you hope to learn/study this year?" or "What questions do you have?".  On their way out the door, students hand you their ticket.  It gives you great insight into the students interests and thinking.  I used this strategy frequently throughout the year, as well as using Entrance Tickets.

And there you have it!  Six strategies/activities that you can do the first day (well, in reality more like the first week) of school that not only taps your students' creativity, group skills, and reflective skills, but more importantly helps you to learn about your new students.  Where do I go from here?  I use the observation notes and students' verbal and written responses to inform my literacy instruction, as well as to help plan my lessons and mini-lessons.

Have you used any of these strategies?  Which are your favorites?  Do you have a fun and meaningful activity that you use on the first day of school?  Please share in comments!

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Minion Freebies for Math!

What makes you happy? Minions? Freebies? Well, how about Minion Freebies? 

(this post includes affiliate links)

I pretty much focus on literacy here on my blog, but this math center bundle was too cute to pass up, plus it's FREE!  And, I love, love Educents!

Minion Freebie - Educents 3

These free math activities on Educents offers 22 printable pages of math activities for Minion fans. It covers addition, subtraction, measurement, money, and more!

Minion Math Centers Freebie Includes:

  • Minion Addition (to 12)
  • Minion Subtraction (to 12)
  • Minions Making Ten
  • Minion Measurement
  • Minion Money Match
  • Missing Minion Numbers
  • Minion Number Cards

Minion Freebie - Educents 2

If you're looking for more ways to make math learning fun, check this out:

Early Math Musical DVDs

4dde_c6ab3b8_Early_Math_Collection copy

This DVD set from Rock 'N' Learn is a fun way to boost math skills for the early grades. Like the Minions, these DVDs have fun characters your little ones will love to get to know! Math facts are easy to learn with fun music and exciting animation. Learn all about counting coins and bills and practice making change. Kids will learn to tell time to the hour, half hour, and minute using traditional analog clocks. Includes Addition & Subtraction Rap DVD, Money & Making Change DVD, and the Telling Time DVD. 

I hope this math freebie made by Amy of Teaching in Blue Jeans makes you happy. Download the Free Minion Math Centers, then go ahead and do a little dance! :)

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Learn Like a Pirate in Homeschool: Part One

I had the best intentions.  At the beginning of the summer, I thought that reading two professional books and participating in on-line book studies would be completely doable.  You know how it goes: in early June summer is spread out way in front of you and the possibilities seems endless. And then I had a detour.  A huge detour that has consumed a lot of my time this summer.  That is, when I wasn't enjoying lazy days at the pool or park with my boys.  But, this detour is a good thing.  You see, at the end of June, I realized that I was finally healthy enough to homeschool my youngest son.  This is something we started two years ago, but then I got sick and two months into last school year, the youngest had to return to public school.

Now, back to Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz.  I devoured this book in about two days and was so excited to share my learning and how I planned to apply it to a primary classroom.  You can read a few of my posts here.  But then, with the beginning of July, I was spending my free time browsing curriculum and planning for my son's third grade year.  And even before I made the commitment to homeschool this year, as I was reading, I kept making applications and connections to parenting.  Parenting like a pirate!  Now, it is homeschooling like a pirate!

So, here are my thoughts for how I can be a pirate homeschool teacher and how my son learn like a pirate and take leadership over his learning even when he is schooled at home!

Peer Collaboration

Ok, so this one is a tricky one!  But, it just happens to be the one area of homeschooling that brings the most critical comments from others. Peer collaboration relates to socialization.  With my son being the one I am homeschooling, how in the world will he hone his peer collaboration skills?

Well, first a little background.  My son has Selective Mutism, which I have written about many times.  He will talk above a whisper at school.  He has never talked aloud, rarely participates in group discussions, and reading aloud is done in a soft whisper.  One of my educational goals is for Christopher to feel comfortable enough to talk with his peers (which he does, just not at school or with school friends) in an educational setting, whether it be in a homeschool co-op, at Sunday School, or back in public school.  We are taking one day at a time, one year at a time.  I agree with Paul Solarz when he states:

True collaboration causes us to think differently, access information that otherwise would have been missed or ignored, and combine ideas to come up with solutions to problems (p.38).

However, this is our long range goal that I need to scaffold over the next few years.  In the meantime, my son can practice expressing his ideas verbally to me, continue to use these skills when he is playing with friends or cousins, and start to be more expressive when with his peers in structured settings like Sunday School or in clubs.

That long range goal is not necessarily for this year, but by high school, I am hoping and praying that he will be able to collaborate verbally with his peers.  In the meantime, we take baby steps and practice at home and in other settings where he is comfortable and not anxious.  At home, he can still work on student leadership skills by having choice and voice in his education.  Lots of choice in where he learns (his workspace), what he studies, and projects and tasks that he will complete. 

 For example, at the beginning of August, we will study the Civil War, specifically the Battle of Gettysburg.  We took a day trip to Gettysburg, PA and toured the battlefields.  He was so intrigued that he said he wanted to learn more.  So will read Mary Pope Osborne's Civil War on Sunday, read informative books about the Civil War and Gettysburg, and complete a lapbook during and after his readings.  This was his idea.  He knows he learns best with active and creative activities, and enjoys creating and learning through a lapbook.

Improvement Focus vs. Grade Focus

This one is easy for me as a teacher, for just about everything is this chapter has me nodding my head and saying "YES!".  I will admit, it is a lot easier to focus on growth and improvement and not grades in a homeschooling situation.  I do not have to report grades in elementary school, but I do have to submit my son's learning portfolio for all required subjects and have a certified teacher (not me) evaluate my son's academic progress each year.  All of this is turned in to our local school district.

We can achieve this with the academic goals my son sets as well as the goals I have for him.  In our home, we discourage the "Practice makes perfect" mantra.  Instead, we say, "Practice makes better".  By writing long term and short term goals for the year, month, and day, we can steer the proverbial ship in the right direction.  And, he will have plenty of time for self- reflection and feedback from me.  For example, he is currently working on a lapbook for a state study of North Carolina and Emerald Isle where we vacation.  Along the way, I will not assign him a grade on the individual written pieces he completes.  But he will receive feedback during and after the completion of the lapbook.  Then, we will use this feedback to set a goal (e.g. a writing goal) for the next task or project.

Rigor is different for each student. ... I provide opportunities for students to find the rigor in our everyday work. Constant improvements, rather than mastery, is our focus  (Solarz, p. 88).


Paul Solarz's classroom philosophy is that students have equal power as the teacher in the operation of the classroom (p.107).  He states further:

I let them know they can do anything I can do (within reason) and they don't have to be asked or ask permission to set up the task. My expectation is that they identify what needs to be done, figure out the best way to do it, and then make it happen  (p.107).

When I first read this statement, I immediately thought of ways I could implement this at home with my two boys.  Specifically, I thought of how I can have them take care of our home and complete chores in this manner.  It's kind of like classroom jobs, except there are only two kids.  I want my boys to take charge and share the housekeeping and yard tasks with their father and me.  Hopefully, they will transfer and make use of these skills in their classroom and in other "real life" situations.

With homeschooling,there are many times during the day where my son can take charge and exercise his leadership and responsibility. Whether it is cleaning up the science experiment and getting the books and materials for math, or whether it is cleaning up after lunch, he can do much of what Solarz discusses in this chapter.  It's just in a smaller microcosm of the real world.  My hope and prayer is again, that he will use these skills when he is in other public settings, whether it is when he is at a friend's house or in a classroom.  One of his gifts is recognizing when things need to be done.  He can anticipate and prepare for and begin independently tasks that need to be completed.  Some of these are part of daily routines and rituals, while others are special and isolated.  In any case, I will continue to praise him and work off this strength of his and encourage collaborative responsibility along his learning journey.

So, those are the first three PIRATE characteristics and how they can be implemented in a homeschool environment.  Now, I realize that having only one students is a totally different classroom situation than you may be in.  I get it.  I really do.  I taught in the public and private schools for over 20 years and had my fair share of classes of 30+ students.  And Solarz gives so many ideas for how to implement this style of learning and teaching in his book. However, I still need to be as intentional as you when it comes to what I plan and how my little pirate learns.

What do you think?  Have you read Learn Like a Pirate?  How do you implement these ideas in your homeschool or classroom?  I'd love for you to share in comments!

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Friday, July 17, 2015

The First Day Jitters

The first day jitters. No matter how long we have been teaching, we all have them.  In fact, if you are like me, you start worrying and obsessing about that first day weeks before.  If you are a brand new teacher or are in a new school, then you know exactly how Mrs. Hartwell feels in Julie Danneberg's classic picture book, The First Day Jitters.    

We as teachers know that our students, no matter their age or grade, are nervous and jittery that first day of school.  What our students may not know, is that we are just as anxious (if not more!) than they are!

This must-read book is a favorite first day read-aloud for many of us! In fact, the story may be included in your basal or anthology! Whether you teach kindergarten or fifth grade, this book is worth sharing the first day of school as an ice-breaker and as a humorous way to put yourself and your little learners at ease.

If you are looking for something new or are planning to use the book for the first time, you may want to check out my First Day Jitters literacy packet that I just completely revised and updated.   You can make those jitters productive and have students dive right into thinking!  You can see the listing in my TpT store by clicking on the picture below.

Included in this forty page packet are before, during, and after reading activities that you can use whether you read the book aloud or have small groups or the entire class read the story.  If you don't have enough copies for all students, you can use one of these digital books and project on a white board and then have available on a laptop or desk top for students to access in a small group or computer center. 

Digital- video of read-aloud - click here
On YouTube-  Click here

I have designed many of the literacy activities to be completed independently, or you can have partners or small groups work together.  I like to allow students time to collaborate on activities like the one below (a visualizing and writing task) which allows me time to observe and assess students' collaborative skills at the beginning of the year.

There are lots of word work pages from vocabulary to adjectives to compound words.  These activities could be placed in a literacy center.

To assess how well students think during reading, I included this "Stop and Jot" organizer.  Depending on the ages and abilities of your students, you could complete this together as you are reading or listening to the story.  

There are several after reading activities to have students dig a little deeper into the text such as inferencing, analyzing the main character, compare/contrast, and more.  The final after reading activity is a flip flap booklet (you could also use in an interactive reading notebook) that has the students summarizing and reflecting on the story and on their own first day of school.

Also included are open-ended writing prompts to have students write about their reading and to foster comprehension.  There are enough literacy activities for the first week of school!

Extension Activities

If you just can't get enough of this book and want to include some active and fun learning, check out these ideas for extending students' learning!

  • Visit Julie Danneberg's  website- Readers can get a peek into the author's life and what it's like to be a writer.  The FAQ link at the top of the page has more interesting information about the author.  Be sure to check this out!

Depending on your students' ability and grade levels, you can visit the site together by projecting the page on a white board.  Or, you can have students visit the site at a computer center where they are working together to read and explore the site.  If you do the latter, an idea is to have students write interesting facts they learn about the author on sticky notes and place on a piece of chart paper when finished.  Then, once all groups have had a chance to visit the center, you can discuss with the whole class the interesting facts that were learned.

  • Another site with biographical information is here

  • Make Jitter Juice!  Click here for a recipe. There are many recipes for "Jitter Juice", but you can make it however you want.  Use your favorite punch recipe!  Some teachers also include a small bag of snacks like pretzels, small piece of chocolate, raisins, etc. for students to eat with their juice to ensure that the jitters do really disappear!

  • At some point during the year be sure to read the sequel- First Year Letters. In this book, readers find out how the rest of the year went for Mrs. Hartwell and her students!  Click the picture below to read more about the book on Amazon.

Hopefully, you have found something useful to help ease those first day jitters for you and your class!  In the comments below, let me know how you ease the back to school jitters and/or how you use this picture book in the classroom.


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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Learn Like a PIRATE: Focus on Improvements NOT Grades!

Today, I continue my reflections on my reading of Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz.  This section on grades hit home with me for many reasons.  Grades and report cards have always been something that I struggled with.  With an emphasis on standards-based learning, active learning, performance assessment, rubric scoring tools, and student-led learning, traditional grading practices seem to conflict.  It is often very difficult to translate progress and performance into a percentage grade or letter grade.  In the primary grades, it is a little easier than the intermediate and secondary levels, as many districts have made the change to standards-based report cards.  Plus, many times, grade reporting in K-2 uses a system of O,S,U, I  (outstanding, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, needs improvement).  If your classroom relies heavily on tests, quizzes, and grading mountains of papers, this section will challenge you and really grow you as a teacher!

The gist of this section is summed up by Solarz:

Start by downplaying grades and placing priority on personal improvement- shift the focus from external motivation to internal improvement.    (p.80)

This is easier said than done, yet it is something that I completely agree with!  When students focus on improvement instead of grades, they are being pushed toward growth in an intrinsic manner.  When using portfolio assessment, performance assessment, and active learning, feedback from the teacher is crucial.  When students are put in charge of their learning, the teacher has the freedom to observe students and to provide timely, on-the spot feedback.  This feedback is much more effective in the learning process than a letter grade.  I can get "inside" a student's head and gain valuable insight into their thinking processes.

Whether I am in the classroom or leading an intervention group, keeping anecdotal records from my student observations  (i.e., "kid-watching") is a big part of my routine.  This allows me to give specific feedback to the student and to their teacher if they are in an intervention group.  An "A" or a 75% on a reading comprehension test does not communicate much to the student or to the teacher.  If instead, I can report that a student had an easy time retelling the story, but struggled with identifying the theme and did not reread, that is more specific feedback. After talking with this student, I can offer suggestions and active reading strategies that they can use to help them dig a little deeper into the story.  I can identify misconceptions and help them clarify their thinking.

Solarz comments that he does not give many tests or quizzes in his fifth grade classroom.  They don't receive grades on any of their work or projects.  He does give constant feedback to students as they are working.  Again, this is similar to my language arts classroom, as I do not give many tests either.  Grammar tests?  No! Spelling tests?  No!  These can be assessed more effectively and authentically through the child's writing.  However, I do use rubrics, "spec. sheets" (specification sheets) checklists, written and verbal feedback.  I conference with students, both formally and informally, and use my anecdotal notes to communicate progress, strengths, and areas for improvement to students and parents.  But, the report card is always there, looming in the distance. I have to give a grade. So, many times, my rubric scores are correlated with a letter or percentage grade.  But, this reporting system has always seemed contrived, inflated, and just a plain, old inaccurate picture of student learning.

One big question that I had as I read and reflected on this chapter is how the author determines grades for the report card if he rarely grades student work.  Again, I agree with the philosophy that my time is better spent conferring, observing, and providing feedback to students rather than grading mountains of paperwork.  However, figuring out how to do this when required to give a grade is the tricky part.

Solarz spends a good amount of time discussing how he uses ePortfolios in his classroom. Much like a "hard copy" portfolio, this learning and assessment tool allows for student goal setting, reflection, and a peek into student growth and improvement, Couple this with Blended Learning or Quasi-Blended Learning, and you have a recipe for effective synthesis of learning.  The portfolio showcases student work and contains "evidence" of growth over time, "snapshots" of student learning.  Although his classroom is pretty much paperless, I have yet to make the move to digital portfolios.  I still prefer to have a hard copy of the work my students do that is kept in a file or folder.  I still see great worth in having students physically leaf through their writings, graphic organizers, and notes, sorting papers by subject area, their "best" work from the marking period, or sorting by standard. Plus, primary students would greatly struggle with typing all their work on the computer.  In any case, I agree with the author that portfolios are "...more effective than worksheets or quizzes for getting children to synthesize the information they learned"  (p.90).

In the primary classroom, portfolios, anecdotal records, feedback, and focusing on constant improvement is one way to create life-long learners without the frustration that traditional grades often bring.

"In our class, we don't care much about grades.  We don't care much about who's better than whom.  We care about working together to become the strongest "Me" we can each become"  (p.97)

Yes!  This is what it is all about in the student-led classroom! Grades are confining and many times do not accurately represent a child's learning. 

 Now more than ever we need a report card that allows teachers to communicate student learning, improvement, and growth.  

What do you think?  Does your reporting system mesh with your classroom practices?  Do you have an alternate suggestion for replacing the report card?

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Life as a Gamer!

Today I am linking up with Reading Toward the Stars for Book Talk Thursday!  As an end of the year gift, I purchased My Life as a Gamer by Janet Tashjian for my son who just finished third grade.  As many other kids his age, he is extremely interested in video games, but he also loves to read.  When I ran across this book while browsing on Amazon, I knew it would be the perfect book for him!

Target Audience

Written for children ages 9-12 years old, the book has a Lexile of 850 and a Guided Reading level of approximately "T".  I would recommend the book for readers in grades 4-6.  


Twelve year old Derek is obsessed with playing video games and is thrilled when he gets the chance of a lifetime to be part of a focus group to try out a brand new video game! With his friends, he attends the focus group each Saturday and along the way he learns much more about himself not only as a gamer, but also as student and as a person.

Why I Liked It

On the surface, the book has an interesting plot, mainly because the characters are believable, as well as an easy to read format. The main characters play and discuss  video games, and some of the action takes place at school where Derek struggles with learning, especially reading. Plus, the reader will be able to relate to some of Derek's thoughts and conflicts at home as well as with his friends. As the story goes on, we learn that the B I G state tests are approaching which causes Derek's circle of friends to worry as much as their teacher does.  Derek's parents hire a tutor to help him prepare for the tests, but he finds the sessions boring and frustrating.  In an unexpected twist, Derek's learns his own best way to learn from playing video games and is able to apply that to his test prep and to school in general.

In addition to theme that everyone learns differently, there are smaller themes in the book such as keeping one's word, the disadvantage of bragging, and how one can overcome an obstacle with a little creativity and thinking "outside the box".  As a teacher, I especially liked the doodles in the margin of the book that Derek draws to help visualize the meanings of new words.  Except for the ending of the book where Derek gets a kiss from a girl in his circle of friends, kids are sure to enjoy reading the book!

There are four other books in this series that I plan to read next!

Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?

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