Friday, July 15, 2016

Use the BRAIN to Make Reading Easier!

Teaching can be hard...really hard! Sometimes it feels like we are banging our head against a wall. Why aren't they getting it? I know I've felt that way more times than I want to think about! What I am discovering is that the problem just might be the way lessons are delivered. As humans, our brains work in a particular way. We have to make sense of things, be social, and move! We're wired that way. SOOOOO  to teach smarter instead of harder, lessons need to reflect the brain research that has come to light over the last few years. It means our students will learn more, enjoy it more, and we'll have fewer discipline problems. Let's look at some of the research about reading and the brain.
(By the way ... a lot of it can be used for any other school subject too!)

What Makes Reading Easy for Some, Hard for Others?

First of all, reading does not come naturally. There's no "reading" area in the brain. We are hardwired for sight, hearing, and the like, but there's no single area for reading inside the brain. Reading disabilites aren't only genetic, they can happen because of environmental influences. That means that during the learning process, reading instruction went terribly wrong for the child. To fix it, we need to work with the brain, not against it!

Why Use Brain Research?

Many studies have shown that brain based teaching not only increases academic achievent, but increases motivation, mood, and class effort and interest. What else could a teacher want?

Brain based suggestions for teaching reading

What Research Says
1. The National Reading Panel found that in order for reading instruction to be effective, it had to be taught comprehensively, systematically and explicitly. Good phonics development is crucial. Students need to play with words, know the sounds of letters, and how they can change.  Students must be able to easily understand and use phoneme manipulation, and all letter sounds.  Don't go too fast with these skills. If they are missed, they don't magically appear later. I have often had a third grader that doesn't have even first grade phoncs down very well. We have to go back and fix the problems, before moving on.  Here's what I find fascinating. With good brain based instruction, even struggling readers can change the neural pathways used in reading from those that are ineffective, to those that look more like the pathways used by profecient readers.

Personal Connections to Reading:
2. Students find it easier to comprehend reading material when it relates it to their own life experiences. That's because our brain is great at using memories and connecting them to new leaning. The brain pays more attention and is more alert when it sees a connection to the learning going on and real-life applications. That's what kept our stone-age ancestors alive! Start a lesson with a demonstration, or student activity that shows how the topic is a real-life concern. For example, if you are teaching about character traits, relate the lesson to a well-known tv or movie character. Then move to how it all works in books.

The connection to reflection
3. The "Gum and Chew" of learning. The gum is the content, the chew is the process. If we don't give kids time to chew it over, reflect and connect, the learning just  isn't as meaningful. That means engaging students in activities such as an art centered activity (drawing what might happen next, making a cartoon of the plot line of a story), doing a foldable, or other hands-on activities to give students time for needed reflection. That's what makes lasting connections. Some people see these "extra" activities as non-essential and something that only takes time away from test preparation. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Want to go fast?  Then Slow Down!
4. If you want to hit a target in darts, bow and arrow or whatever, do you just sling as many darts as possible toward the bulls-eye, or do you take your time to aim, then let it go? Teaching reading (or anything) is like that. Teach a point or two at a time, make sure the kids get it, then move on. It's so much easier than teaching too much at once, then needing to go over it time and time and time again.

Make it Fun
5. As often as you can, include a joke, games, classroom activities and anything else you can think of that is fun, the brain will learn and retain all of that information better. In reading, choose a really fun book to read aloud, and "ham" it up. I love reading All About Sam by Lois Lowry to my third graders. Another favorite is The Best Christmas Pagent Ever. Any book that starts with the sentence, "The Herdmans were the worst kids in the history of the world." has got to be good! What are you teaching? You're teaching what fluency sounds like, you're tickling their interest in reading more by that author, and you're making them love school.

6. Move!
Focus time is generally the students' age in minutes. For a nine year old third grader, have a lesson presentation by you that is no longer than nine minutes, then choose a follow-up activity that gets them moving in some way, group work, partner activity, game, whatever as long as they have to move.

7. Do it Together: 
We are social animals, and that doesn't stop at the schoolroom door. Use this natural need to talk and be with others by using group and partner activities such as think-pair-share. The very best way to learn something is to teach someone else. Ask students to get with a partner and explain a concept that has just been presented to them. Often, if one student is "fuzzy" on the idea, hearing a peer explain it just might be the ticket to understanding. PLUS the student who explained it will "get it" even better. For example, after discussing the elements of a non-fiction text, ask the two members of each pair of students to get a different nonfiction book. They then go through their book showing and describing to their partner the elements of their book, such as captions, index and so on.

If you have any other suggestions, please add them in the comment section! I'd love to hear them!!

Follow me on Pinterest at: Dragon's Den Curriculum

Thursday, July 7, 2016

What's the Key to Student Learning? Earthworms!!!

Every year when I would teach my rocks and minerals/soil unit, the kids had fun. There are lots of great things to do, but something was missing. I wanted a "Wow" factor.  When I saw an article about using earthworms in the classrooms the lightbulb went off! That was it! I could use earthworms to grab my students' attention, and reach into every area of the curriculum at the same time!  

Using Worms in Science

1. Science:  Of course the first thought about using worms in the classroom is science. During our study of soil I set aside one special day to invite worms into our classrom.  I got nightcrawlers from the bait store, aluminum pans with high sides, aluminum foil, a misting bottle, and made sure paper and pencil was available. Worms are escape artists, so it's important to keep a lid on them that is secure, but has holes in it. I used a piece of aluminum foil or tight cling wrap secured tightly around each pan. I then put small holes in the top to let in air. I did this when we needed to leave the room for lunch or whatever. 

So, what to do?  

1. Prepare your kids for the big day. Put up a sign announcing the date. Discuss with students that the worms will be guests, and must be treated with respect. Any student who does not treat a worm like a respected living thing must sit out, and watch only. Students who don't want to touch them don't have to. They can just watch worm behavior. I've done Wonderful Worm Day with my kids for years, and I can say that by the end of the day EVERY kid, even the most squeamish, have not only touched the worm, but have become friends with them.

2.  Make sure you have a spray bottle of water. Worms need to be kept moist, but NOT wet. (think of all those worms on your driveway after a rain) I usually just walk around while the students are observing, and give a spray where needed.

3. Do observations of the earthworms. I get three or four worms for each groups of four to five students. Students can keep notes on worm behavior. First ask them to draw the worm in as much detail as possible. Discuss that each line, and feature should be in the drawing. Ask students which end they think is the head.  Next put a black piece of construction paper over 1/2 of the aluminum tin. Record what happens. Do worm research on the computer, then make a poster with a group.

4. At the end of the day, take the worms outside with students. Go to a nice grassy spot and sit the students in a circle. I usually have a circle of boys, and a circle of girls. Put the worms in the center on the grass. If you have a stop watch it's fun to time how long it takes the worms to burrow into the ground. If the ground isn't too hard it's pretty fast.

Take lots of pictures! It's a day your kids won't forget. My kids talked about it even on the last day of school as one of their favorite activities.

I've included some fun worm sites below! Enjoy!

Ok! Now that you have their attention! Time to take Earthworms into the rest of the curriculum!

1. Math: You have their attention! Now it's time to use their interest to draw them into math. Use your curriculum to make up story problems involving worms. You can using any math strand, just include worms! If you can find worm pictures to include on your worksheet, all the better! Ask your students to get with a partner and make up one great story problem involving worms. Then ask students to swap their question with another group's question.

2. Social Studies:  Ask students to do research on where different kinds of worms can be found.  There's a giant blue earthworm that lives in Borneo, and a worm discovered in 2007 that actually lives below the ocean's surface. There's LOTS of terrific worms out there! This would be a great research project. Students must also give a one paragraph description of the country/area where the worm is found.

3. Reading: There are great books out there about worms, both fiction and non fiction. They are great to use in guided reading, as a class read-aloud, or for individual research. Below are a few of my favorites.

An Earthworm's Live (Nature Unclose) by John Himmelman

Earl The Earthworm Digs for His Life by Tim Magner

Earthworms (Minibeasts) by Claire Liewellyn

Wiggling Worms at Work (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Wendy Pleffer

4. Writing: Once students know all about earthworms, ask them to make their own diary of a worm. They should write a diary that covers one week, including activities worms would experience.  Research is always a good writing activity. Once the research is finished, ask students to create a poster about what they learned. When the study of earthworms is concluded, ask students to write about what they learned, and what surprised them. 

If you would be interested in my "Wonderful Worm Day" resource that gives handouts, ideas, and everything you need to have to conduct your own Worm Day, Click Here

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Here They Come!

It's almost that time again! Didn't the summer just start???? 
Get some inspiration and great ideas for those first days of school right here! 

Getting the room ready is always, always a biggy on my list. I want my students to feel at home the first time they come through the door! Once they are in the classroom, those first lessons are crucial for setting the tone! I hope the ideas, sites, and the freebie make this your best year yet!

First is the classroom! 

Until the classroom is ready,  I'm a little crazy.  Here is a Pinterest board with every idea you will need for decorating your door, bulletin boards or classroom organization throughout the year! Get ideas, ideas and more ideas!

Next comes those first day plans!

Do you need first day activities your students will love? Try some of these:

1. True or false? Give your students ten true or false statements about your curriculum this year. Ask them to write their guesses on a piece of scrap paper. Choose your very best curriculum ideas for the true answers (special days, special lessons etc) , and some really grueling terrible things for false, (for example "you will need to stay after school at least one hour each week to do extra work throughout the year). It's a fun way to give kids an idea about great things to come this year, and give them a laugh at the false statments. 

2.  Ask students to make a self portrait with a sentence or two describing themselves. Make sure you make one of yourself too. These are great to mount on construction paper and put into the hall for open house.

3. Sticker Pals:  Have enough pairs of stickers to cover your class. As students come into the room on the first day put a sticker on his or her hand. Make sure another student has a matching sticker. Soon after entering the room (before the stickers fall off!) ask each student to find their sticker pal. They then interview each other for about five or ten minutes to find out their partner's name, hobbies, etc. When all interviews are finished get in a circle and have partners introduce each other. 

4. Write a "Dear Me" letter. This is a letter students write to themselves on the first day of school. They can discuss their feelings about starting the new year, what they expect to learn, what they think will be hard/easy, or anything else they would like to include. Give each student an envelope for their letter, and ask them to write their name on the envelope and seal it. Collect the envelopes and put them in a special file. On the last day of school pass the letters back to your students to read and discuss. They make a great discussion for that last day, when books are put away and there is little to do. This makes that last day meaningful and memorable. Just a note: When you get new students throughout the year, have them do the same "Dear Me" letter as they enter your classroom. That way they won't be left out. 

5. End the day with a great book! I always read "All About Sam" by Lois Lowry. It's about Sam from the moment he is born and what he thinks. It is hilarious, and with a little "hamming it up" when you read it, they will absolutely leave school the first day with a smile! I read it every day before they go home. It takes about a week or so to finish. When they find out there are a lot more "Sam" books they are off to the library to find them!

6. Toothpaste Challenge. This one is to teach respect and let students know that respecting each other is a requirement in your classroom. Divide students into groups of three or four. Give each group a small travel size tube of toothpaste and a paper plate. Ask each group to squeeze out every bit of toothpaste they can. Next ask them to use only a toothpick and get all of the toothpaste back into the tube. Of course they can't. Explain that the toothpaste is like the words we say. Once they come out of our mouth, they can't be put back in again. 

7.  Ice breakers! For lots of icebreakers and other first day activities download my FREEBIE  below. Just click the "click here" link at the bottom of the pictures. 

I hope you've found some ideas that can make this year start out better than any other so far! 

For other ideas in guided reading, science, social studies and more be sure to follow me on Pinterest: