Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christmas FREEBIES!!!

The time before Christmas vacation is always a little crazy! Christmas vacation is about all the kids can think about.  To make those last days before vacation a little more sane for you, and more fun for kids as they review concepts, I have created a couple language arts freebies that might just keep you from pulling your hair out.  Many years I ended up almost bald before vacation, but that's beside the point.  The first is a language review freebie that has two language pages for each grade 1st-5th. It's great for differentiation and lots of review. The second is a homophone game. Kids NEVER get enough practice using those homophones! Enjoy and have a great vacation!!

Filled with fun language pages that even Santa would love!
Click on the picture for your freebie

Use this homophone game in centers, or for partner games!
Click on the picture for your freebie!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Strategies to Help the Struggling Reader

We all have had the student (or students!) who refuse to read, are frustrated by even the simplest task, and labor over every assignment. It's impossible to know all of the put-downs from other students this child has endured, or get into their head to know what they are thinking, but we can get a clue from their behavior. Poor reading skills impacts all areas of a child's life. When you think about struggling readers, usually the first thing that comes to mind is trouble with reading...right?  But other behaviors are just as likely to signify a reader who is struggling. Have you ever had a student who showed these behaviors?

What Does It Look Like?

Misbehavior...often students who struggle with reading revert to misbehavior as a cover. If they misbehave they won't have to read, if they misbehave no one will know.

Thinks he/she is stupid...This student thinks the assignment is stupid, the reading is stupid, and you're stupid.  What he/she is really afraid of is that they are stupid.

Says it is boring...If it's boring and he/she struggles reading, maybe you'll think they just don't care, not that they just can't?

Confused, says he/she cannot understand...This student is showing exactly what is going on, he or she really doesn't understand at all.

Things to Keep in Mind:

First, evaluate the student for his/her listening comprehension level to asses the actual comprehension skill level. If there is a big gap between the listening comprehension score and the silent reading comprehension score, then strategies need to kick in quickly to help with reading skills.

NEVER force the student to read aloud in front of the he/she feels more confident this will happen.

Use oral or video learning activities to supplement at least some of the written work.

Provide books for the reader that are easy for him/her to read regardless of grade level. My experience has been that reading easy material helps not only to decrease the stress of reading, but improves fluency. I tell my students that reading easy books will help them read harder books more quickly. The key is to read a lot, a whole lot!

Which brings me to...Reinforce that the only way to become a better reader is to read more. Then make sure books the student can read and enjoy are available.

Arrange for the student to read easy books to younger students. It makes him/her the "expert".

There are lots of web sites that students can use to help increase reading skills. Once you diagnose a skill need, google the skill to find a game/site that helps the student work on it. Games work a whole lot better than drill, drill, drill!

Ask students to draw simple stick figures to show information/ flow of the story rather than words all of the time.

Make use of reader's theater. Practicing a reader's theater part that is on the student's reading level gives him/her the opportunity to be excited about learning new words/strategies for a preformance. Doing this in guided reading is especially helpful, then present to the whole class.

In the Guided Reading Group:

1. Word work, word work, word work! With this group of students it is imperitive to make sure they know how the letters work together. I have had third graders who have missed this entirely. Check to make sure they know when vowels are long and short, know letter blend sounds, prefixes and suffixes and how they impact words and also understand homophones. If you teach third grade or higher you may be thinking this is silly, but believe me it is not. Some students have missed the basic phonics skills and need to have direct instruction to learn them. Direct lessons on these skills can easily be included in guided reading using the selected text.

2. Work on new content words for any new selection. Don't skimp on this step, for the struggling reader it is vital. Ask students to write new words down, and discuss the meaning. Get with a partner and read the words to each other. Ask students to make up sentences using the word and/or draw a picture to show what the word means. This step will take more time with struggling readers than with competent readers. Rather than using multiple choice tests with these students, use short writing, drawings and verbal discussion which are much more effective.  When finished reading ask students to write a very short summary of the text using at least one of the new words.

3. When you teach skills and strategies. Don't just "cover" them with this group. Make sure they really know each one through lots of practice and teacher assessment. Keep in mind that this group needs lots of structure and support at this point. Practice is imperitive as each skill/strategy is taught.

4. Prediction is very important with this group of students. It helps students use their own schema and share ideas with the whole group, rather than alone. This gives needed support to struggling readers. Ask students what words they would expect to find in the selection. Ask students to skim the selection to find any bold faced words, or titles that may include ideas/words that will be covered in the selection. Predict throughout the reading.

5. Read the selection silently. I use the sticky note flags (small, thin, comes in many colors, sticky on one end) and allow students to put them by any word that causes difficulty in the text. These sticky note flags are reusable. Mine are good for at least a month of use. After silent reading go back and discuss any of these words with the group. Click here to see what I'm talking about.

6. Read the selection orally as a group (you might choose to read it to students on occasion as they follow along). Choral reading is a good way to support the struggling reader as they know if they "flub up" no one will notice.  Then allow students to get a buddy and read a chosen paragraph to each other.  When guided reading is finished I usually tell students to go back to their seats and choose one page to really practice and get perfect, then find a buddy and read that page to them orally.

7. The selection will then go into the review reading basket of past guided reading materials that are kept for rereading before each guided reading session begins. All guided reading groups should start with at least 5 minutes of rereading of past guided reading materials.


Get in touch with parents and impress upon them the importance of ready easy-to-read books at home daily. The best readers, are readers who have read more. It's not magic, it's persistance.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Maps! Videos, Freebies and More!

I love to teach about maps! It's hands-on, requires LOTS of pictures and kids love it! I've got a great map freebie just for your classroom, plus videos, name it! If it helps teach kids about maps, it's here!

This is great to begin and end a map unit...quickly goes over the main terms in song. Fun

Need a good video on latitude and longitude?  Don't miss this one! It's very clear and easy to understand.


This is a great includes videos for the use of color on a map, parts of a map, and so much more.

AND....a few games!

Learn about map features and play a game at the same time! Love this one called "Adventure Island" by National Geographic!!!

This great game reinforces longitude and latitude skills.

Do you have a SmartBoard? Don't miss this free activity! It is about symbols and keys.

Now for that FREEBIE!

If you are about to teach about map grids don't miss this freebie! It includes one teaching sheet and two student worksheets with grading keys! Click on the link below the picture!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Writing-The Math Strategy that Works

If you really want your students to remember those math concepts, there's one sure-fire way to get it done.....writing! By the way, this is true for any other subject too.
It's all about the brain, baby!

Why Does Writing Help Understanding ?      

1. The act of writing helps the brain take in, process, retain and retrieve information.

2. By writing, students gain comfort with, and success in understanding unfamiliar concepts, difficult material, and vocabulary related to subject matter.

3. Writing that is embeded into math (or the curriculum in general) helps the brain to focus attentively, boosts long-term memory, shows patterns and gives the brain time to reflect.

Why does this happen?

1. The fear of making mistakes in front of classmates is a big source of anxiety for kids, so it impacts learning. When writing individually that fear is taken away, and students can express their ideas without the fear that sometimes limits classroom participation. This happens because information must pass through the amygdala, which is an emotional filter for the brain. High stress impacts this part of the brain. In fact, when a student is under great stress the amygdala directs information to the lower reactive brain. Here the information is not retrievable because memories cannot be formed. The result---that math lesson just went down the drain, (actually, down the brain LOL).

2.  Writing relieves boredom. It helps to reduce the neural processing blockades that result when a student feels bored. Writing causes the student to be personally engaged and allows creativity of expression.

3.  Writing helps the brain to recognize, construct and extend patterns. When writing is used to make sense of graphic organizers, graphs and information, it gives the memory another pathway to understanding.

4. Writing helps to develop critical thinking skills while giving students the opportunity to include personal experience into writing. Including personal experience makes learning more meaningful.

What kinds of writing can be used?

1. Jounaling
2. Newspaper editorials
3. Math notebooks
4. Math autobiography...what has been your best/worst experiences with math?
5. One minute quickly write about a particular concept
6. Create a word problem
7. Write to ask/answer questions (sticky notes are good for this and fun to use)
8. Write creatively to explain math in new ways. For example use math poetry, math mad libs, math comics, or even make a math love letter from one number or operation to another
9. Write to inform others...write step-by-step strategies or description of math vocabulary
10. Write a letter about a math concept
11. Translate an equation into every-day language.

Need some writing prompts?

1. How are the numbers 20 and 200 alike? How are they different?
2. How many measurements describe you? (weight, shirt size etc.)
3. Explain how you could add 436 + 426 in your head.
4. Write a story problem that can not be solved because there is not enough information.
5. How do you use math in your life?
6. Describe money in your own words.
7. If you could be any number, what would it be?  Why?
8. Make an add promoting your favorite shape. Why should other people like it too? Write a poem about that shape.
9. Estimate how many kids are in your school. How do you go about making that estimate.
10. How do your parents use math?
11. In your own words, define parallel.
12. How do you know that 1/4 is less than 1/3?
13. What was the main idea in today's lesson?
14. What is a decimal?
15. What is multiplication?
16. When would you use multiplication (decimals, division etc.) in real life?

That's enough to get you started...let those creative juices flow! If you can think of another good prompt, please include it in the comments section!

Ideas for this post adapted from:
Education World

Friday, August 28, 2015

I've Lost Control! Now What?

It started out like any regular day, then BAM! Classroom control is lost somewhere in the netherlands. All it took was one loud yell, that crazy surprise, or that group of kids in the corner throwing paper airplanes. The result is the same. Everyone is talking, kids get up to go see what's going a headache yet?  I do!

What I discovered in those periods of wishing I could be at the ocean somewhere, was that there are ways to get them back. In fact, some of these strategies helped keep those incidents from happening in the first place! Below are some of the strategies I have used and that worked great for me and my third graders. They are golden in my book! Most are ways to keep problems from happening in the first place.

What to do?

1.  Establish a clap, or signal that means face me, feet on the floor, mouths closed. This has to be done before the problem happens of course, but it is really effective. I clapped out the tune of "shave and a haircut" and the kids responded with the clapped " two bits". It's one of those things that's almost impossible not to respond to.  I've also done counting down from ten, and at zero all students must be sitting face forward, mouths closed etc. It's  one that must be practiced before you use it. Practice is the key here. Practice any and all signals you plan to use a number of times, then do it occasionally just to make sure they do it perfectly. When they don't do it perfectly, I redo it again until it is done right.

2. Time activities. Students tend to work a little harder when they are under a time crunch.

3. Use soothing music while students work individually. I was amazed at the difference this one little strategy made. I used it in the morning as they came in and started morning work, and during the day.

4. When you notice you are loosing the group during a lesson, choose one student who is doing a great job or gives a good answer, and do a cheer for them. Cheers are WONDERFUL classroom management. Kids get to be active for a brief amount of time, cheers give a boost to all involved and they are fun. Once the cheer is over, you have them back!  Here are ten good ones with a video to show you how each is done  Classroom Cheers

5.  Videotape your lesson. Kids are on their best behavior when they are being recorded. Just tell them that you are videotaping the lesson, so that you can look closely at it and make improvements for next year. I have to admit that sometimes I'd just have the camera out, and not tape anything at all. After you've videod them a couple of times, just having the camera out is enough to elicit good behavior.

6. Take pictures of your kids during work time. Occasionally you could use some for your website, or print for a special bulletin board, but mostly just take a picture here and there. It's amazing that it works so well, but it does.

7. Turn the lights low during a work period. For some reason it relaxes kids and they work more quietly.

8. Never raise your voice or yell at students. It only makes them talk/yell louder. Plus it gives them a "story" to tell their friends about how they made their teacher "lose it".  The best strategy is to lower your voice even more. Stay cool, calm and collected...even if you aren't. Remember the old saying, "Never let them see you sweat."

9. Proximity control. If you see a potential problem (kids talking behind books, silliness going on) just take a walk in that direction while you continue teaching. Once you get there ask one of the kids who are misbehaving a question about the lesson. I've done this LOTS of times, and usually by the time I get to the problem, they have noticed me coming and settled down. Asking the question tells them you expect them to follow along and know the answer. I don't make a big deal if they don't know the answer, I just ask "does anyone else think they know the answer?"  You get control without losing a beat.

10. Always treat even the worst offenders with the upmost of respect. You never know what they are facing at home. When it was needed I took a student into the hall, asked him/her to sit on the floor as I sat in front of them. I started the conversation with, "So, what's going on?" I always end with a handshake and a "I know you will do great!" and sent them back into the room. Respect gets problem students on your side. They know you aren't "out to get them", and only want the best for them.

11. This goes with proximity control....move around the room as a matter of your teaching style. If students know you could end up by their desk in the next minute or two, they won't start that conversation with their friend next door in the first place.

12. Make sure you have shared your expectations with the class. They need to know what you expect. Remember that kids need time to talk together in groups, we're all social after all. If given the opportunity to work in groups, have a time to talk to friends etc. they will be quieter when you need them to be.

13. Don't transition to a new activity until every student understands what they need to do. After giving directions I ask students to retell what they will do in the correct order. Knowing they will have the chance to respond, they listen more closely.

14. At the end of the day/lesson ask students to write one thing they learned on a sticky note and put it in a particular place on the board. Don't do it all the time, but now and again. It's like Pavlov's dogs (remember the experiment?) reinforcement is stronger if it is not done consistently. If kids think they may have to write about the lesson, they will listen better.

15. If you have a student who has really set your hair on fire, I have found that asking them to call their parent and explain what they have done and how they can improve is pretty powerful. I have never done it more than two or three times a year, so it has to be something serious. I ask the student to think about how they will explain the problem they are having, and one way they plan to improve. I listen (of course) so he/she knows the tale must be truthful. After the student has talked I get on the phone and say how proud I am of their child for owning up to the problem and finding a way to make things better. I thank them for their time and hang up. Believe me it works, and parents are pretty darned impressed. That's so much better than sending a nasty note home about behavior, or holding a conference in which the parent may get defensive. With the phone call he/she hears the problem from their child (no denying it happened) and the solution. Over and out.

I hope you find these tips useful, if you have one that is surefire for you, please add it below!

Why Oral Reading Matters

"You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading  happens through the ear." Wow! Jim Trelease (the read-aloud guru) has said that a child's listening level doesn't catch up to their reading level until about eighth grade. That "gap" is the magic space we teachers have to inspire readers, introduce new vocabulary and show them that there is REALLY great stuff out there to read!

I found this particularly true of my third grade students when the Harry Potter books came out. The first book was much too hard for many of my students, but once I read it aloud in class many better readers could hardly wait to dive in and read it for themselves. Those who were struggling set it as their goal and they really worked to be able to read it for themselves. How? I told them the only way to become a better reader was to read more. And they did!

Why read aloud? 

1. Students can wade into complicated subjects and have experiences beyond their years. Oral reading gives students the opportunity for discussions, not with only the teacher, but with each other. In fact, they learn life lessons. 

2.  Reading aloud is a terrific way to introduce students to new subjects within the content areas. For example, if you are studying the Civil War, try Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World by Kathy Lowing. The list is enless. 

3. Research shows that reading aloud with older readers actually increases scores on standardized tests. The Commission on Reading said, "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success is reading aloud to children." Talk about a way to meet the Common Core! This is it!

4. Reading aloud introduces students to books they would never have thought about reading, genres they didn't know were interesting, and authors they can grow to love.

5. Reading aloud increases a student's desire to read independently.

6. When teachers read aloud they demonstrate fluency. Using voices when reading makes the story real, and when a difficult word is encountered the teacher can demonstrate how she determins the meaning from the text. 

7. Oral reading helps the writing process. If you want good writers in your classroom, read good books to them.

8. Its enjoyable. My students' favorite time of the day was after lunch when we all sat down together to hear the next installment of our shared book.

Below are some great lists of books to read aloud to students, I hope you find the perfect one to read next! Enjoy!!

Read-Aloud America  (for books k-12)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Unlocking Fractions!

Mysterious! That's how a lot of kids see fractions, but with a few helpful tips fractions can be much easier to learn! Why is it SO important for kids to REALLY understand fractions? A long-term study of 4,276 students in the United States and Britain compared student scores on math tests at about age ten, and again at 16. What they discovered was (and this is a little scary) A student's understanding of fractions in the fifth grade predicts performance in all high-school math classes. That's enough to give any teacher the heebie jeebies! What it also means is that we all have to do a better job making sure all of our kids "get" fractions! To see more about this study click here.

1. Start with food!

Learning about fractions has to be visual, so starting with food is a sure-fire way to grab EVERYONE'S attention. To open my fractions unit each year with third graders, I brought in two giant cookies. I divided the kids in half and each half got a cookie. Each child got to make one cut (or part of a cut, depending on class size). First we cut it in half and looked at the fraction that showed 1/2.  Then cut it smaller and smaller and looked at what happened with the fractions. Kids were amazed to see that the denominator got larger but the pieces got smaller. We discussed why that happened, and to my amazement, it really "stuck". The larger denominator/smaller piece is always tricky in kids' minds....but not when food is involved!

2.  Draw pictures!

All through the fractions unit the teacher needs to draw pictures, kids need to draw pictures and if the principal comes in have her draw one too. I like drawing pictures on the board, because parts can be erased to ask new questions. Pictures are especially important when you teach equivalent fractions. You don't have to be an artist, a circle or rectangle will do. I've read that fraction bars and number lines are easier than circles for children to use in dividing up fractions. I think circles are good to begin with, but when fractions get bigger I have to agree than bars and lines seem to work better.

3. Get tactile!

Manipulatives aren't just for younger students. Older students needs them just as much, and even more since they are dealing with more complex problems. There's just something about that tactile experience of moving pieces around that helps concepts become better understood in the brain. Fraction bars are wonderful to use with kids and also allow students to line them up one under another to do some comparisons. If your school doesn't have fraction strips you can print some here.  If you print them on cardstock they last longer. If you have students who are just learning about fractions (2nd and 3rd grades you might really like the 7 tactile and kinesthetic fraction games here.

If you would like some great videos on teaching fractions you can't do much better than the Teaching Channel. Check this one out!

If you are looking for an already-done unit for fractions (sounds like a time saver to me and 96 pages) check out this pdf here.  I didn't make this one, but it's a goodie and FREE! A few page samples are below:

I hope these ideas are helpful! If you have any of your own, be sure to add them in the comments section!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


If you want to see reluctant learners perk up...start that unit on the American Revolution! It has everything! Excitement, deceit, battles and even a crazy king. The trick is to take it from words on a page, to activities, videos and more to get your students to be totally emmersed in the 1700s! My goal is always to get my kids so excited about this period in history, that they talk about it at lot! With the use of a few of the resources linked below, your students can time-travel back into time, back into the birth of our nation!

You can't do better than the Colonial Williamsburg website. It has games, information and so much more to make the unit come alive!

I can't even begin to list all of that amazing links on this site! The Continental Cartoons game is one your kids will really enjoy! Don't miss the virtual Liberty Bell for sure!

To get your kids into the danger patriots had to face in the Revolutionary War, don't miss this game from the National Park Service. Students must take on the role of Patriot spy and deliver a litter to Paul Revere.

This game from PBS is based on their TV series, "Liberty". Students test their knowledge about the American Revolution to see if they can make their way to independence. Great for review before a test!

From Mr. Nussbaum, 14 sites student can go to to learn everything from the battles of the Revolutionary War, to Revolutionary flags. Terrific for research.

This site has a number of short videos from the Ben Franklin Story, to the treason of Benedict Arnold. Very nice assortment to supplement lessons! 

Sixteen 6 minute or less videos from the History Channel on this site are simply outstanding. They include, Lost Treasusre of the Founding Fathers, Rebels With a Cause, Boston Massacre, and Sons of Liberty.

This is a tried and true activity that kids really love, and learn a lot from doing! It's Called the King's M & M's: The Stamp Act. The activity has three pages and is free from TeacherVision.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why is Prediction Important When Students Read?

It's SUCH an easy part of reading to skip over, but if we skip prediction when teaching our students to read, we are missing a key part of the reading process! Prediction is more than figuring out what happens next. It involves asking questions, finding evidence, and inferring.

Why is prediction important?

1. Prediction activates prior knowledge about the text. Students take what they already know, and apply it to new information.

2. Prediction before, during and after reading connects students to the text. They have a reason to read, and want to know if they predicted correctly.

3. A reader who makes predictions is focused on the text and what is about to be read. In short...they care!

4. Prediction helps kids get excited about what they are about to read. Reading isn't just word calling, it's making a connection to the text...prediction helps this to happen.

Simple Ways to Teach Prediction

1. Prediction needs explicit instruction on how it is done and modeling from teachers. This is particularly easy to do during oral reading to the class with a favorite book. For example, as you read give your own predictions of what might happen next. Tell what evidence in the book makes you think this will happen, ask for student predictions.

2. Using titles, headings, pictures and diagrams in non-fictional text helps students think about what they are about to read. Since students are more comfortable with narrative texts than with non-fiction, helping them become familiar with the text features and use them to make predictions helps them feel more comfortable with more difficult reading.

3.  Ask students to turn to a partner. Ask them to share with each other at least one prediction based on evidence found in the text. 

4. Make a simple anchor chart with "Prediction" on one side, and "Evidence" on the other. As a story is read, add predictions and evidence on the chart. Remind students that the evidence could be found on the book cover, pictures or within the text. If the prediction was correct, put a red check in the box, if it did not happen, and was a surprise, put a blue explaination mark. Discuss why it was a surprise. Did the author purposefully mislead the reader to surprise him? Was evidence missed?

5. Draw a picture! All grade levels really get into drawing pictures of what they think will happen next. Art is often a direct route into a student's thinking! After reading a chapter of a class book to the group, ask them to go to their desk and draw a picture of what will happen next. Allow students to share their pictures and tell what evidence they used to make their predictions. 

Seeing is worth a 1000 words. Great prediction lesson!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Teach Students to Create Mood in Writing

Humorous, mysterious, eerie, happy, gloomy. whimsical, the list goes on! Creating mood when writing is what gives a piece of writing life! Often students struggle with this literary element unless they are directly taught how to create mood. is that done? The ideas below give you a place to start. If you have other ways you teach mood, be sure to add them in the comments section!

Mood: The feeling you have when listening to or reading a story

1. Discuss words that describe a mood for a story, chapter or written piece. Make the list on the board. Ask students to choose one word and give a few sentences orally that could be used to support that word. ie. mysterious "He was confused. That hallway wasn't there only a minute ago. What's going on here?"

2. Read a short selection from one of the Edgar Allen Poems or stories. If you want spooky, you can't do better than Poe! Choose selections from other stories your students may have read in class, or on their own. Decide the mood. Discuss that mood will most likely change throughout a story. Another great book is "The Best Christmas Pagent Ever". The first paragraph is terrific!

3. Write different types of mood on slips of paper, fold and put in a hat. Ask students to pull our a slip of paper and write a paragraph that would show that mood. Exchange with a partner and ask them to read the selection, then guess what mood is being conveyed.

4. Show pictures from the Internet. Ask students to write one word to describe how they feel about that picture. List the words on the board and discuss.

How about some great videos about teaching Mood (and tone)

This short video is an illustration of pictures and words that describe the tone. It would be great to use in an opening lesson.

This video is about teaching mood and tone in poetry to fifth graders. It's great for third and fourth as well!

If you need some good pictures to use with your lesson, check out the sites below:

This is a terrific Pinterest page with loads of great writing pictures...great for mood!
Writing Picture Prompts
This site has a PowerPoint of 50 great pictures:
50 Picture PowerPoint

If you have a great way to teach mood, be sure and add it below!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Teach Your Students How to Use Magic in Writing!

If you have any reluctant writers (of course you do!! LOL), you already know that to get them to write ANYTHING, they must be totally engaged in the topic. What kid isn't enthralled with magic? The Harry Potter books prove that!

Get the discussion started by grabbing their attention with a great hook! For example, the video below shows one spell after another from Harry Potter. You only need to show a few to get the discussion started. How did magic make the Harry Potter books interesting? How do you think J.K. Rowling decided on the magic to be used? Did she follow any rules? Make a list of other books that use magic. How are they alike? Different?


Discuss with students that authors do follow certain rules to make sure the magic seems real. It's called suspended disbelief. The reader is willing to "believe" what they read because it makes sense.  To make that magic seem real, students should think about the rules below:

1. There must be rules for the magic! As the writer constructs the story, certain magical laws need to be put into place. For example, wands are used to do magic, magic carpets fly, a magic ring makes the one who wears it invisable.  These laws are as dependable as gravity, and can not be changed on the writer's whim.  That means before the story is started, the writer should plan out the magic. Who can do it, how is it done?

2. Magic has to have limits. If a magic word can solve all problems the minute it is said, where's the story in that? Magic may need certain tools to be carried out, like a magic lamp, or certain knowledge might be needed. It may take a special person (thinking fairy godmother here) or maybe it can only be used under certain conditions. These decisions should be made before the story is begun.

3. Be inventive. If the magic is the same, old same old, it's not as interesting as a fresh take on something. For example, maybe the car is magic, or a pencil.

4. The magic has to be important to the story. If it's not important to the story, why is it there? Students need to find a way to use the magic in the plot of the story. Students should ask themselves, "If there was no magic, would the story still work?" if so, then the magic isn't really needed in the story at all.

5. Use lots of descriptive words to describe what the magic looks like, feels like, or even how it smells! That's the way to pull the reader deeper into the story.

6. While magic is important in the story, it shouldn't be more important than the characters. Their story should shine through with the support of magic.

7. Make the magic unpredictable. What are the costs, problems, affects of using the magic. What happens when the magic doesn't work, or works in an unpredictable way?

8. Have fun with it! Writing a magical story should be exciting and fun. A student's mind should be pondering the next chapter or scene before going to sleep at night, on his way to school, or even during math class. Yes, it's true, that far away look in your students' eyes during fractions might just be the plot of the next best seller. Enjoy!!

These ideas were adapted from:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Importance of Setting in Writing

If ever there was a time to learn about describing words, it's when writing the setting of a story! It's been said many times that the setting of a story is actually another character in the story. Nothing could be more true! Think about actors of a science fiction movie acting in front of a green screen. This is a scene without a setting! It doesn't come alive until that setting is added in! The setting is the skeleton writers use to build and develop the characters and the story. can we, as teachers, help our young writers learn how to write a good setting? Below are a few practice exercises that have worked well for me. Many of the exercises below can be added to the writing notebook. That makes them available should students want to expand on them later. 

1. Show students a picture of a setting. You can use picture books, magazines or pictures you find on the Internet. How does the picture make them feel? List adjectives that dscribe that feeling when looking at the picture. Why does it make them feel that way? Ask students to brainstorm a sentence or two about the setting that could start the story.  Finally, ask students to write a paragraph describing the setting and give a hint about how it may impact the story later on. i.e. "The forest sparkled in the sun that drifted to the ground through the trees. It seemed friendly, even a welcoming place as it stretched it's arms out to meet Sarah. Little did she know what was hidden behind that welcome." 

2. Ask students to visualize their favorite place. Ask them to not only see it, but listen to sounds. What do they smell? What can they touch? Next ask students to write down what they visualized. Finally, ask students to use that setting to write the first paragraph of a story, and how a fictional character might fit into that setting. Remind them that the opening of any story needs to hook the reader and make them want to read more!

3. Give students a setting, (the hospital, the side of a mountain, deep inside a cave etc.) and ask them to use it to write one or two of the first paragraphs of a story using this setting. Allow students who want to share, to do so. I never force students to read this type of writing. Some students take time to overcome shyness. Forcing them to read stunts what they will write. Doing this type of writing at least once a week or so will become something your students look forward to, and can be the spark they need to create a great story. 

4. Choose a favorite fairy tale. How would it be different if it happened in a different time, or a different place? What types of things would change? Would the three pigs build different kinds of houses if they lived in the desert? What would change if Snow White was the president of the United States? Choose one fairy tale to brainstorm ideas with the class, write the ideas on the board, and the first couple of sentences the group generates. Next have students choose their own fairy tale and change the setting. Write at least one or two paragraphs to start the story.   

5. Use improv! Choose one story, movie, or fairy tale and have a group of four or five students come to the front of the class. Give them two or three changes in settings to act out in a minutes or two. It's not only fun, it really makes kids think! It is a great way to see how setting can change everything!

6. Give a setting (desert, swamp, city street etc.) and ask students to get with a partner and write a description of the setting using what they see, hear, smell and touch. 

Do you have other ways you help your students write about setting? Be sure to jot down your ideas below!

Monday, June 15, 2015

What to Do When Cooperative Grops go BAD!

The first time I put students in groups I thought I'd lose my mind. It was chaos! What was I thinking?  There is nothing that can ruin your day (as well as that of the students') faster than cooperative groups that devolve into chaos.  But cooperative groups are great for learning...right??? I wasn't so sure,  but over time, I knew I had to read the research. That made me realize that  if I wanted my students to really think deeper, gain communication skills, and really (and I mean REALLY) learn the content, then I had to learn how it was done! 

Why does working in groups work so well for students? I think it's because we are tapping into a basic part of our human evolution. We are social creatures that work together to solve problems. I don't think that caveman thought he could bring down a mammoth by himself! If our students are deprived of the time they need to work with each other, behavior management gets harder and kids are less happy. In my own classroom, I discovered that after group work, students were ready to work alone, and even that distracting classroom chatterbox was quieter. The trick to tapping into this powerful tool is preparation. Below is the procedure I used that was very successful. I ended up doing group work in some form many times a day. Sometimes it was just to choose a partner and read or discuss something for a few minutes, sometimes it was to do experiements, sometimes to brainstorm. Does it work? All I can say is everytime I was observed by the principal she would remark on how well the kids got into groups, and stayed on task. They did, and more importantly, they learned lots!

1. Gather students and discuss the rules for group work. My main rule for getting into groups is: If you do not have a partner and someone asks to be your partner, that is a huge complement. It is rude and cruel to say no. If someone asks to be your partner and you already have one, tell them you will be their partner next time....and mean it. Students have to understand that being rejected hurts. Learning how to work with everyone is a life skill that begins right here. Then practice. I have students practice choosing a partner two or three times, and responding politely and kindly to each other. We keep practicing until they get it right. I always start with selecting one partner. Self-choosing larger groups would work the same, but starting with a partner is enough to begin with. Each time we go into groups throughout the year, we go over this rule again. Often I tell students they must choose a partner that they have never had before, or have not often worked with. This gets them out of always pairing with their best buddy. I do put students into groups myself when I have a particular purpose for doing so, but I prefer to give kids some choice in the matter. It has been my experience that it works better that way. If I have two kids who should NEVER work together, I talk with them privately and tell them they can spend all the time together at recess that they want, but in groups I want them to branch out and experience other people. Actually what I want to say is "You guys drive me to an early grave when you work together, knock it off!"  But I don't. 

2. Have a procedure in place once partners are chosen. Decide ahead of time where you want students to go. Should they choose a spot on the floor, pull two chairs togeher, push desks together? Vary where students work, as variety spices things up a bit. It's amazing how just changing where groups go puts a smile on their face. I don't understand it, but it does. Write this on the board. Then write other directions students should follow. Be specific about the job to be done and the product (if any) that will be made. If students are getting together just to read, you may write on the board where they will go, what is to be read, go over listening skills for the child listening, and at what point readers switch. Students have to know for sure what they are to do in the group, without that, the group goes to "chaos" in a flash. The LAST thing you want to happen is for kids to get into their group and ask, "What do we do?" and get the answer, "I don't know!"  

3. Before releasing students, go over the behavior you expect to see. All students must participate and all opinions must be heard without making fun of anyone. This is absolute. If I see someone abusing the group rules they must sit out and not participate. I usually have to do this a time or two at the beginning of each year. Once kids know I mean business, they do whatever they can to stay in the group. Kids love working in groups and don't want to miss it. 

4. When first starting groups during the school year, bring the class together after group work and discuss what worked and what didn't. What can be done to make groups run smoother next time? Discuss with students why there are strick rules about kindness when chosing a partner, and kindness in dealing with all partners in a group. If working in groups of three or more, how did they get all members of the group to participate?

5.  If you are ready to get your students working in groups, think about your seat arrangement. I always arrange seats in tables of five or six. Then when I want a larger group they are already seated in one. No choosing is necessary. I change groups around every couple of weeks, just so they don't always have to work with the same people. When working in a larger group like this, it is helpful to have a procedure in place when working through projects (like science). In that case the group chooses a recorder, a "getter" who collects materials needed, a "putter" who puts things away, and a student to report findings. Other group members are "the brains" who help complete the task. 

6. Kids like to report what they learned, discovered, or wrote in their groups. Giving each group a minute or two for the reporter to "report" is a nice way to share information and bring the lesson to a close. 

My job is to circulate like crazy while students work in groups. That way, I can defuse problems before they start, find students who are hogging the floor, or remediate misunderstandings. The more kids work in groups, the better they get at it. After a month or so my students can get into pairs, or groups of three in a minute or two. It takes practice, and I have to be really consistent in making sure rules are followed, but the results are worth it! 

What would you add to help students work in groups? Add your commments below!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Organisms and Habitats

Organisms and habitats is one of my favorite well as the kids! To round out any unit we all need lots of "extras" to make it come alive for our students. I've searched the Internet for the best I could find for any organisms and habitats units. Included are games, online lessons and more.  I hope they help you out!!

This site has great activities about nature, the watershed (the picture below), backyard wildlife, building a food chain and much more!

This site is AWESOME! Kids discover all about habitats the fun way...with the Magic Schoolbus! Perfect for centers! 

This site allows students to choose an animal, and play with they type of habitat they would need. Perfect for younger students. From Switch Zoo.

This activity is perfect to learn about food chains!

This is actually a video lesson on habitats...perfect for centers! There's even an online test after each part of the lesson. Meant for third grade and up.

Ok! Now for serious fun! Students play this futuristic game in which they match aliens to their correct habitat...they must use the alien facts given to get it right!

Don't miss this video lesson on population size!

This is a fun one for students third grade and younger! Find out about seaasonal changes in trees, what trees need to live and grow healthily and how trees both living and dead support life.

These movies are terrific to add to your unit!

This is a 22 minute video that pretty much covers habitat!

This one is terrific to show how adaptations happen to help animals and plants adapt to extreem environments. From Animal Atlas.


This is a video lesson on ecosystems, habitats and ecological niches. (covers biotic and abiotic factors)

Great anchor charts help kids understand concepts better, check these two out!

If you need some task cards, a game or even PowerPoint slides to round out your unit, check out my resources below.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Take A Closer Look At Guided Reading!

The last in a six part series on guided reading

In past guided reading lessons we have looked at finding guided reading materials, doing running records, keeping the rest of the class constructively busy, creating a schedule and getting ready for the guided reading session. So, actually conducting the guided reading lesson is the core of it all. How can we do it in the most constructive way possible, that is the best use of our time and that of our students? The ideas below might give you a few ideas! Keep in mind that I am no guided reading guru...just a teacher who has done guided reading for a long time!

1. Always start by asking a group to come to the reading table and take a book from the review basket to read for about five minutes or so. The review basket should be filled with books that have already been read by that particular reading group in earlier guided reading sessions. This is important in the guided reading process, as re-reading builds fluency. This is also a good time to do a running record or two on students who may need one. Each guided reading group will need their own basket of books.

2.  Introduce the new guided reading book, story or chapter book you are using. Introduce the vocabulary and give a short one-sentence idea of what the book, chapter or story is about. Take a picture walk and make predictions about the story. Build any background knowledge students may not have, and set a purpose for reading. Ask any "before you read" questions at this time. Assign a portion of the story, or chapter to be read silently.

3.  Ask students to whisper read the section. When they whisper read you know they are actually reading. Tell them it is not a race, and if they finish reading early they should re-read the selection again for fluency. For older students, you may not choose to have them whisper read. This is a preference based on the needs of the group. This is a good time to go from student to student and ask each to whisper read a little louder, so you can hear them read. This is a perfect time to see what strategies they are using, help them use new strategies you have taught, and get ideas on new lessons that may need to be taught directly to the group.

4.  Once everyone has read the selection, have a discussion about what has been read so far. This would be the time to use "While you read" questions. Finish reading the selection silently stopping now and again for questions and insights. Once the slection is finished, discuss "after you read" questions.

5. To include oral reading you can incorporate any of the following during guided reading:
a. Choral reading: Read a selection as a group. Choral reading is helpful for struggling readers as it gives support in numbers, helps with fluency and in vocabulary attainment. 
b. Echo reading: One person (teacher) reads a sentence or phrase with feeling while the rest of the group follows along, then echoes the reading orally. This is very useful for younger students.
c. Paired reading: read short section in groups of two.
d. There are other ways to incorporate oral reading. If you haven't had the chance to read "Good-bye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies" by Opitz and Rasinski, you can pick it for a few dollars on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It is an amazing book (and short)...just sayin'

It is not imperitive that the entire selection is read orally, as long as students get the chance to read at least some of it orally.

6. Go over the words students had difficulty with. Using highlighter tape as students read to cover problem words as they read makes this easier.

7. Present a 5 minute lesson on a strategy appropriate to the group. Give students a worksheet or activity to work on at their desk. The worksheet is due at the next session. Remind students to keep the worksheet in their guided reading folder.

8. Make any notes on what you noticed in the guided reading session, as well as next steps for this group.

9. I often do not have time to finish an entire lesson in one reading group session. There is nothing wrong with taking two sessions to complete a lesson if your group needs the time. This is one thing that I have found that causes teachers the biggest to get everything in during one session. Be kind to yourself and make guided reading work for yourself and your kids...use two days if you need to.

If you need lesson plan forms for guided reading, you might like one of the following ideas. They are downloadable in  If they aren't exactly what you like, they may be able to give you an idea of two.

To read other lessons in this series see: