Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2014

I have been sitting here reading blogs for the past two hours with a purring Boston Terrier on my lap (yes, my crazy dog makes this weird vibration when she sleeps that feels just like a purring cat!)  I love getting great ideas from other teachers--even if the grade level is completely different there is usually something that I can take and adjust to fit in my classroom.  Jivey's Top 5 Blog Posts link up has already given me a few things that I am going to try in the New Year.  Hopefully a few of you out there will get an idea or two from my top five (and if you would like to follow me, that would be awesome!)

Theme is something that I always struggled with understanding when I was in school, and I really wanted to figure out a way to give the kids actual strategies for figuring it out....as opposed to my method of choice as a student which was usually just a fingers crossed guess.  I don't know why this was so hard for me--but I remember the tears and frustration. This post explains how I taught the skill of determining theme this year.

Number 4 is a post about the magic of reading.....a trip to a bookstore in Los Angeles...and ways to try to motivate reluctant readers.

Error analysis was the theme of my 3rd most popular blog post.  Why is it that kids can figure out the mistakes of others, but don't see their own?!?

Number 2 is all about talking!  

And the number 1 blog post was about Wacky Buttons!  My kiddos love collecting these as rewards....I love them because they are unique and rather inexpensive.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014


This is what we saw as we got off the bus!
What a December!  The month just flew by for us--but the highlight was Outdoor Science School!  We spent the week before vacation up in the mountains learning about the environment, the planet, and teamwork.  For the majority of our kiddos, camp is the highlight of their sixth grade year. The camp we go to, Camp High Trails, provides a phenomenal experience year after year.  The instructors are full of energy, enthusiasm, and a passion for the outdoors that they share with our students.   The kids get to participate in a variety of activities including archery, dancing, hiking, and rock climbing.  They can hold snakes, work together in team building activities, and perform skits on campfire night.   And this year we had snow! There had been a huge snowstorm the week before we arrived and another storm was predicted.

Many of my students don't have rich and varied life experiences.  Growing up, I remember my mom taking me to museums and plays, to the beach and to the mountains, to historical sites and special events.  I didn't realize it then, but she was building background for me, broadening my knowledge base, and helping me see the bigger picture.  And while technology helps bring the world closer to them, nothing beats an actual experience.

The scene outside the
dining hall window.
We were packed in like sardines on the bus ride up--thanks to a transportation problem--but the kids were really good.  They were so excited when they first saw the snow--that is what they were looking to the most (little did they know that for our sunny Southern California mindsets snow is just fun to visit for a few hours, not to spend a few days tramping around in it.)  Weather was predicted for our ride up, so we had a lot of nervous parents--however, it held off until we arrived.  Just as we were tumbling out of the bus, it started to snow.  It was magical.  
The snow continued to fall for the rest of that day and part of the next one.  For the first time in my fifteen years of attending camp, I had a lot of kids asking me when the bus was coming on Friday--it was so cold!  Now, I know for a lot of you out there, this kind of snow is a regular occurrence--but around here, we shiver and whine when it drops below 55 degrees.  To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, "We can't handle the cold."

However, it was a great week.  We made it home with no problems (usually the bus ride down is really hard on their tummies--if you know what I mean.)  And we sent them off on their winter break.

Even though it is a lot of extra work to get them up there--paperwork, fundraising, countless phone calls & emails, two parent meetings, record keeping, etc--it is so worth it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Last Bookstore

I had a great Saturday....my husband and I went into Downtown LA and I found parking near The Last Bookstore which has been on my list to visit.  When I went to school in Santa Cruz, there was a fabulous bookstore there called Bookshop Santa Cruz--it had a great used book section.  I remember
when it was torn down after the big earthquake of '89 that devastated downtown Santa Cruz.  The new location and building is beautiful--but that old book musty smell was gone.  I was immediately transported back to that today when I walked through the doors of The Last Bookstore.

Not only is it crammed head to toe with tons of books--it is also a place of beauty.  There are many nooks and crannies just waiting to be discovered, chairs scattered throughout the store, and some amazing book displays/constructions.  I could have spent hours and hours there (but the husband--who was a model of patience since I promised him lunch at the Grand Central Market-- wouldn't have been able to make it.) I spent most of my time in the children's section, happily finding great bargains, and promised the upstairs "$1 labyrinth" that I would return another day.  For $31, I purchased 6 hardcover books and 1 paperback--which I considered to be quite a steal. If any of you live near LA or find yourself visiting, I highly recommend you check this place out.

I spent hours reading as a child--my mother would take us to the library regularly, buy us books from the book orders and bookstores, and would introduce me to her childhood favorites. My father was constantly reading and was willing to listen to me prattle on about whatever story I was reading.  Books were an essential part of our lives.  I wish I could say that my students feel the same way--but most of them don't.  The majority of my class read when asked--but rarely more than that.  We just finished the novel Al Capone Does My Shirts and quite a few of them remarked that it had been more than a year since they had read an ENTIRE book.   I congratulated them and cried a bit on the inside.  How is it possible to convince kids that reading is magical when they come from environments where reading is a chore?  I've struggled with this for years and, unfortunately, I have never found a magic potion that works for all students.  However, I have found that a few things I have tried have motivated some--so I thought I would share those with you all today--and link up with Joanne at Head Over Heels for Teaching.

Like most of you, I spend hours finding a wide variety of books for my classroom library.  I try to make sure to buy the book coupons that Scholastic offers to get books at a greatly reduced price throughout the school year.  When one of my kiddos tells me that there is nothing to read, I ask her what she is interested in--and hopefully I have a book to match that interest in my library.  I have a special section for new books--and most get snatched out of my hands before they even make it there.  

I discovered the Six Flags Read to Succeed program last year and a free ticket is a big incentive for my kiddos.  If you are located near a Six Flags park that is participating, I encourage you to check it out--it is simple to sign up for and the teacher materials make it easy to implement.  (The participating parks are:  Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Six Flags Over Texas, Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags Great America Chicago, Six Flags Over Georgia, Six Flags America, Six Flags Great Adventure, Great Escape, and Six Flags New England.)  The students earn a free ticket by completing 6 hours of reading for pleasure--and the deadline to complete the reading is in the beginning of March.

There are lots of great reading challenges on TPT.  My sixth graders really enjoyed this one by More Than a Worksheet--best part was that it was free!  I am considering trying this one by the Thinker Builder next year....I am just not sure if there is the necessary home support.  I am trying to figure out if I can modify it and find a space for it in my classroom.  

Currently I have a "bookcase" in my room and when a student reads a book, he has an option of filling out a "book spine" and adding it to the book case.  After reading six books, he gets to pick a book up to $5.00 from Scholastic BookClub (thank you book coupons and bonus points.)  Last year, one of my students earned 12 books--he was a voracious reader and couldn't afford to buy books himself.  Interestingly, two of my readers never participated in this--they read constantly but never wanted to fill out a book spine--which requires the title of the book, a sentence about it, and a name--not exactly a tough requirement.  (Maybe it was because their parents would regularly purchase books for them from the book order.)  I have about 12 kids participating regularly this year--better than last year, but still room for improvement. 

Monday, December 1, 2014


I love a good sale and have found so many interesting products with the TPT 2 + 1 Cyber Sale Linky.  I thought I would jump on the bandwagon and link up with it as well.  

My first most wishlisted product in my store is a Decimal Operations Scavenger Hunt with a panda theme. The scavenger hunt is a fun way for students to independently practice their skills with immediate feedback---if they can't find the answer, then they know they made a mistake.  The scavenger hunt allows me to pull a small group for intervention while my other students are happily engaged in practicing the skill we are working on.

My next most wishlisted product is called "Determining Theme."  I always had difficulty with this concept as a child, so I worked at breaking it down step-by-step for my kiddos.  I used it for the first time this year and had great success with it.  It is more functional than cute--but it gets the job done.  The best part is seeing the kids refer back to it in their Language Arts journals.

And now the fun part...I already went shopping the moment the sale went live yesterday (talk about a lack of deferred gratification!) But when I was blog hopping this morning I came across Runde Room's Stick-it Together Reading Response product.  I really to have my kiddos talk about their reading in a structured way and to all be focused on the same question/response.  And my 6th graders love sticky notes!  So it is a perfect product for me.  

 And don't forget the promo code:  TPTCYBER  :)

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Homework is such an interesting beast.  Everyone has an opinion about it and it can be such a divisive topic.  We just finished parent conferences and one of the funniest moments (at least to my twisted sense of humor) occurred with a pair of back-to-back conferences.  At the first one, the parent was concerned with the "small amount of homework" that is assigned.  The next parent wanted to know if I assigned a "normal amount" of homework because it seemed like too much to her.  It took all of my restraint not to let a smile flicker across my face.  All of my restraint.

Personally, I think homework is important to help develop responsibility.  It can also give parents (the ones who review it with their kids) an idea of their children's academic strengths and weaknesses.  However, I don't think it should be a battle at home and I don't punish kids who don't do it.  I pull a few easy assignments each week to use as a grade and figure that the kiddos who don't do it earn the logical consequence of lower grades.

Years ago, our leadership team read a book called Rethinking Homework which I found to be interesting.  The topic came up because one of our teacher-parents, who has children at another school in the district, was struggling with the amount of homework assigned to her own kids.  Reading the book led to many spirited discussions--and a general agreement to follow the guidelines of 10 minutes of homework per grade level---so 3rd graders would have 30 minutes of homework and 6th graders would have 60.

I have found that consistency is helpful for our kiddos and their parents.  We assign two assignments nightly (Monday-Thursday) and spelling practice activities (I posted about this earlier.)  Many of the assignments are similar...for example, every Wednesday we assign "Fill the X" for math.  This activity helps students practice facts and number sense.  The difficulty can be increased easily and it also helps them in the future since it is a strategy for factoring polynomials.  It lets us review skills we have already taught and work with some concepts that always seem to a lot more practice than our pacing guides allow.

On Monday, we use Brad Fulton's pyramid math activity--we were lucky enough to have him do a workshop for us years ago and I highly recommend his books.  Like Fill the X, it is very easy to up the level of difficulty, it is great to review skills, and it really works their number sense skills.  We always give them the answer at the top of the pyramid so they can check their work (got to sneak those mathematical practices in whenever possible.)

Another consistent activity we do is "Word Detective"--this is our Monday night Language Arts activity.  It was inspired by Patricia Cunningham's Making Big Words--which I used to do regularly when I taught 4th grade.  The kids seem to enjoy it and it helps them think about spelling patterns, exposes them to lots of words, and leads to great discussion when we are going over the answers.  Many of them tell me that they work on this activity with their parents which makes me happy.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Variety is the spice of life

I do love Spark Motivation Saturdays with Joanne at Head Over Heels for Teaching.  It is always inspiring to read how others motivate their students.  For me, I always know I have hit the "motivation jackpot" with my kiddos when cackles of glee fill the air.

This year our grade level is trying (again!) something new with spelling.  For the past few years, we have really focused on spelling high frequency words correctly utilizing some Rebecca Sitton strategies.  However, it seemed too easy for most of our kids, and the ones who had trouble with spelling didn't seem to make much improvement.  So frustrating.

Over the summer, I looked into different spelling programs/schools of thought.  I liked the idea of individualized spelling, but I have tried that before with Words Their Way and I wasn't able to implement it successfully.  Then I found these root trifolds by Teaching in Room 6 and I thought it might be a great addition to our Language Arts program--after kicking around different ideas, our grade level decided, even though the words are difficult, to have them work with them in spelling .  Years ago we had students complete a spelling packet and less than half the kids completed it consistently and it was miserable to grade--kind of why we abandoned it.  So this time, we decided that a parent signature affirming that the student had worked with the words would do.

10 weeks later--the kids seem to be learning their word parts pretty well, you can really tell with the weekly spelling tests who is working with their words, and many parents reported at conferences that they hear their kids working with the words--as one parent said, "She really enjoys doing those crazy things."

Students have a list of about 10 activities to choose from to work with their 12 words--and every three weeks I swap out about 3 of them and put in some new choices.  Some activities--such as taking a practice test, working with spellingcity.com, and making a foldable--never change.  But the "crazy" ones do.  I think the variety and the silliness are great motivators.

Here's a list of some of the odder spelling activities we have done:

*Get a ball and "bounce spell" your words out loud (bounce the ball each time you say a letter.)
*Write your words in three different sizes: normal, jumbo, and minuscule.
*Write a letter to your favorite superhero and use all the words in your letter."
*Get permission to use sidewalk chalk and write your words on the sidewalk outside."
*Draw a picture and "hide" the words in the picture.
*Spell whisper your words to a pet, a plant, or a stuffed animal.
*Cheer your words--pretend you are at a sporting event and spell your words out loud with great gusto.
*Write your words in a list--in reverse alphabetical order.

*And this one---the one that made them cackle with glee--give an adult a spelling test with your words and then grade their answers.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Group Quiz

I recently went to a workshop in which I learned about a great strategy called "group quiz."  Once I tried it, I knew it would be a great thing to share on Spark Student Motivation Saturday.

I love the group quiz strategy because it encourages productive discussion.  Students are put into groups of three to four and are given a review assignment to complete (each student gets their own copy of the paper.)   They are given about 10 minutes of independent work time and then they put their heads together to discuss the answers.  There are two ways you can proceed from this point:  you can have the students choose which paper they want you to grade or you can tell them that you can pick any paper out the groups to grade.  The one paper you grade is the grade that everyone in the group gets.

The first time I tried it, I let them decide which paper they wanted me to grade.  Each group put the paper of their choosing on top and stapled the other papers beneath it.  I asked the kids what they liked about the activity and they said that they enjoyed being able to talk about their responses.   One said that it "helped me find my careless errors." (A dream come true for this teacher!!!)  As a teacher I liked that I have less to grade--although I admit that I did sneak a peek at the the ones underneath the top sheet.  Interestingly, I found that pretty much everyone in the group did the assignment (YAY!) and that sometimes the paper that they chose to put on top was not the one that was the most correct.  They fell victim to the belief that the "smart kid" is always right.  When I passed their papers back, I had them get into the same groups again and we went over the answers.  Perhaps next time a few of the less confident students (who had the correct answers) will feel more empowered to speak up.  As we debriefed, I asked one of my shyest students (who I knew had a 100% paper) what she might do differently next time and she said, "I will not give in so easily--especially when I know I am right."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Spark Student Motivation Saturdays: Error Analysis

I am a little late today linking up with Joanne from Head Over Heels for Teaching, but it was one of those days.

Error analysis is a great way to let see what your students actually understand about what they are learning.  It forces them to explain what is wrong and how to make it right.   And you might be wondering how error analysis can be motivating, but I am going to share my secret for it.  When I write error analysis assignments, I make myself or my dogs the mistake makers.  I don't have any children of my own, so I talk about my dogs a lot in the classroom when I am trying to help them understand a concept or "see" something.  For example, last week the word "banshee" came up in a novel we are reading and ones of the kids made the connection that it makes a noise like my littlest dog when she is angry--which is sadly true.  (I had played them a recording of it as a reward one day--kids are so funny as you wouldn't believe how hard they worked in order to hear a screaming dog.)

For some reason, the interest level, and the quality of the work, is much higher whenever my dog or I make the mistakes.  I have tried it with a random name, but whenever I personalize it, the results are always better.    Here is a recent assignment on nonrestrictive elements in sentences.  Can you believe how sweet the responses are?!?!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

When I started teaching in 4th grade 24 years (ack!) ago, I was introduced to this great book by Chris Van Allsburg---The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Every year I would bring the book out and share the mysterious circumstances of its creation.  Then I would have the kids imagine what the "undiscovered stories"were--and each would choose one picture and craft a story of his/her very own.  I loved reading those stories and the kids loved hearing each others.  I scooped up the "portfolio" when it was released so that the kids could see all the pictures at once.  However, the first year I moved to 6th grade, I had many of the same kids and, when I pulled Harris Burdick out, I heard "We did that in 4th grade."  But we trudged on, and they wrote their stories--but they were uninspired and unmemorable.  And I was deflated.  And sad.  Maybe they were just too old for the magic of Harris Burdick.  And so the book went onto my bookshelf and sat there.  For years.

This summer, as I was deep-cleaning my room, I came across the book and as I looked it over,  I was transported back to that time of my early teaching--when every thing was new and fresh, and I was bubbling over with enthusiasm for learning.  I remembered how I felt when they rejected the book--but with a different perspective.  They wanted to be grown-up and when they did the same activity, with the same teacher, that they had done 2 years earlier, they rebelled.  I didn't see it then.  But time often brings clarity, and I could see what went wrong that year.

So, a month ago, I lowered my voice as if I was getting ready to spill a secret, and told this new crop of 6th graders that I had something incredible to share with them.  A book that has been around for years--a mystery that has yet to be solved.  And I read the story, and shared the pictures.  And as I heard them excitedly chattering about the pictures and saw them getting up out of their seats to "get a better look," I realized that the magic was still there.  For the next 40 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop in the room--and there were groans because we had to stop writing (it was lunchtime.)  Upon returning to the assignment the next day, I heard one girl tell her friend, "I really don't mind doing this" and I had to stop myself from running a victory lap around their desks.

Their stories have been turned in.  And many of them are inspired.
If you have never had the pleasure of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I encourage you to check it out.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Scoop

I thought I would try linking up with the Teaching Trio for the Sunday Scoop.

I actually thought I would try this weeks ago, but it took me a while to figure out how to get my text into the graphic and back into a post.  (Thank you to the iphone photo app Over!)  I am torn between feeling good that I figured it out and feeling sad that it took me so long!

Enjoy what remains of your weekend!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spark Student Motivation Saturdays: Wacky Buttons

Time to link up again with Joanne at Head Over Heels for Teaching!

I love teaching 6th grade---secretly I am scared that it is a great grade level for me because I have a personality that meshes well with an 11-12 year olds.  Yep.  There are so many things to love about that age--but one thing that tickles my fancy is that many of them "think" they have seen it all and know it all.  Of course they do--they are the big kids on campus, after all.  (Such a rude awakening they are in for next year when they head off to junior high.)

So finding ways to reward them that are novel is a lot of fun.   I do believe in rewards and I think they can be motiviating--I think it is mainly because I have always loved getting prizes--always.  I remember carefully choosing tiny dolls after every dentist appointment, collecting good behavior cards from my 2nd grade teacher, "buying" a cool pencil case in 5th grade with my "classroom money," etc.  I still love carnivals and going to arcades (do they call them that anymore?!?!) and collecting tickets to get prizes (and spending way more than the prizes are worth.)  A former principal used to give us duty passes as rewards---I amassed quite a few (which I never got around to using before she retired--argh!)

A few years ago I stumbled on a website called wackybuttons.com.  It is really easy to use and the buttons are quite affordable (if you purchase 50 of one design, they are about $0.25 each --a little more after factoring in shipping and handling.)  I give them out for a variety of reasons (completing all assignments for the week, being kind, helping out, putting forth effort, etc.)   I
design my own by grabbing images off the Internet.  Some of the buttons are inspirational, some are of current pop culture, some are instructional.  You are only limited by your own imagination and size (I buy the smallest one to keep costs down.)  I also learned the hard way that, for designs that aren't simple, ordering one as a sample is better than taking a chance and ordering 50.  I store them in jewelry organizer boxes that I found at Jo-Ann's Fabrics.

The kids figure out ways to display them--most put them on their backpacks.  Some use them like accessories and wear different ones every few days.  This year one kid is choosing the same one over and over again--he wants to see how many he can get.  Crazy!  They suggest new designs in their secretive 6th grade way (yesterday I heard "Wow...there are so many to choose from--too bad there aren't any Star Wars ones--that would be awesome.")  I guess I am going to get to designing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Red Ribbon Week

Red Ribbon Week has arrived once again.  Our PTA  asked us to make a banner for the front of the school--and they wanted it to be "spooktacular!"  It is difficult for me to take time out of my packed schedule (especially because I feel like I am already falling behind,) but it is hard to say no.
So we diligently crafted it today...the kids were quite happy with their finished product and I am quite happy it's done!  :)   They looked at clipart on the Internet to get ideas of how to draw monsters--that was a lot of fun for them.  One of my girls is rather concerned that she probably won't get her Frankenstein back (it is the cute little guy with the brown outfit on the right hand side.)  I hope she doesn't somehow manage to sneak it off the banner when it is hanging outside.  Another kiddo had the idea of having a human escaping from the monsters, so I told her to draw it and I have to say that it really increased the cute quotient of the banner.   Their creativity can be so amazing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I have finally admitted that I have a love/hate relationship with Common Core.  I was indifferent for a long time.  I figured it was just a new set of standards--ones that were supposed to make a little more sense when compared to the old California state standards.  It would be something new to teach--a challenge, if you will.  And I like new challenges--within reason.

Inherently, the concept of a set of nationwide standards is logical and a step in the right direction.  It never made sense to me that politicians and the media compared the test results of tests that were not the same.  Honestly, I don't even like it when test scores are compared of schools that are not similar.  Having taught in a school with at-risk students for so many years, I have a definite opinion that poverty is the biggest obstacle to learning--and it is an obstacle that affects generations.    I like the fact that the standards "establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach." (corestandards.org)  And I love that teachers from all over the country can share ideas that are specific to their grade levels.  The varied ideas and perspectives can only help make my teaching stronger.

However, there are three things I hate.  The first thing is that there are not enough examples and materials.  I have spent the past week grappling with "Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements."  Figuring out what it meant took some research, and then figuring out how far to go with it is a major problem.  Do I have to teach the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive elements, for example?  I don't know.  That ambiguity is frustrating.  So very frustrating.  I will figure it out...and as I teach it, I will figure out what I need to improve upon.  But finding the time to figure all of this out is exhausting--and I am sure that I am not the only teacher feeling this way.

Another difficult thing is when someone tells you "that is not common core."  I think we are all stumbling around in the dark trying to find our way and it is going to take years to get our bearings (yes, years!)  A colleague was recently told by a teacher on assignment that there should be no more worksheets in the classroom, and she would know because she has been to many more trainings and so she has a greater understanding of it.  Mind you, they had just finished creating a multiple-choice assessment using a "one-stop system" that the district has purchased.  Balance...teaching is a delicate balance that uses a variety of resources and techniques to help students reach an deep understanding of the myriad of concepts that they are expected to learn.  

I am also upset that my students are going to have major holes and gaps in their learning.  That was predictable, but it doesn't feel good.  So I try to plug them here and there, but it reminds me of some of those impossible Cutthroat Kitchen tasks (like making a cake in a colander.)  When the end of the year rolls around, you want to feel good about sending them on, not worried.

I know that my frustration will pass.  I remember feeling like this before when the old standards were introduced.  And, in time, I figured it out.  That is something that we always need in education--just more time.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Picture Books

Linking up again with Joanne from Head Over Heels for Spark Student Motivation Saturdays!

I remember thinking when I first moved to 6th grade 16 years ago that I was going to have to get "more grown-up" with my teaching style, book selections, rewards, discussions, etc.  But, after a few years, I realized just how wrong I was.  These little 11-12 years olds, who yearn so badly to be grown-up, are just little kids deep inside.  Stickers--they love them.  Tiny toys for prizes--they collect them.  Tell them that they can twirl around on the grass at the end of PE, and you have 30 6th graders falling to the ground in a dizzy delight.  And listening to picture books--they sit spellbound and ask to hear the story again.  You would think the "big kids" would turn up their noses and sniff "That's for babies..." but they don't. 

Over the last few years, I have incorporated using picture books as mentor texts into my reading instruction.  I teach skills with the simpler shared stories so that they can grasp the concepts more easily.  Picture books are more non-threatening to them than the longer novels.  The pictures help them make meaning more easily,  and they only have to follow about 32 pages to see how an author builds theme, or to examine how characters undergo change.  They are fun to listen to and seem to motivate their discussions (in fact, my class this year can barely keep themselves from shouting out as they are listening to the story.)
Usually, I will teach the skill first, and then we will practice using it with the picture book after that.   And later on we will apply that knowledge as we are reading novels.  A kiddo who can't recall how to find theme can head back to his interactive journal to see what it is and how we practiced it.   It is also a good way for me to make sure that my students who head off to Read180 during our reading block are at least exposed to the standards.  I also integrate them into other areas, such as writing or art, as much as possible.

The hardest trick is finding stories that are new to them.  I know that they wouldn't mind hearing an old favorite, but the novelty is part of the magic.  
Here are a few titles and the reading skills that I teach with them:
Martina and the Beautiful Cockroach: Plot
Mi Abuelita: Figurative language
The Cloud Spinner:  Theme
The Dead Family Diaz:  How characters change
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: Comparing a book to a film

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Get them talking....

I love linking up with Joanne for Spark Student Motivation Saturdays!

Sixth graders, in general, love to talk....they talk with their friends, they talk with their enemies.  They talk when they arrive to school in the morning, while they are standing in line, when they should be working, etc.   I think the only time they don't like to talk is when their parents ask them "What did you learn in school today?"--the answer to that is always "nothing."  So I have made a conscious effort this year to use their gift for gab to my advantage and I have them talk to each other all the time---about what we are learning.

A few years ago we were trained in Kagan active engagement strategies and I try to use the ones that get them up and moving.  I really like to use a modified version of inside/outside circles to have them share responses with each other.  In previous years, I would have to go outside because of a lack of space---and getting them organized into two facing circles was a nightmare.  This year I set my tables up into two longer rows to accommodate this strategy.  The students on the outside move and the students on the inside stay put.  And if I want to change it up a bit, I just have the two inside rows swap seats before we start.  Kids love it, and I love that it is more controlled and wastes less time.

I do have some students who have a hard time talking in groups---you know the kind--super shy and/or scared of looking "dumb" in front of their peers.  After they have written a response to a question (or questions) that I have posed, I will have them break into groups and I will plop a container of centimeter cubes down in front of each group.  I tell them that every time they speak, they need to take a cube.  I set a goal of everyone getting a minimal amount and also caution them to be aware of monopolizers.  It is interesting to see how each group encourages participation.

I also have been using many of the task cards that I have purchased over the years a bit differently.  I print out multiple copies and have them work on them in small groups.  For example, this week we were working on inferences.  I have some inference task cards that I have used for intervention previously.  This year I printed out a few sets of some black and white copies, quickly cut them apart, and handed them to each small group.  I told them that I knew that they would easily be able to come up with the answers---in fact, it would probably be too easy for them--but the goal that I had for them was to explain how they knew their answer was correct--I expected to hear "the text evidence that proves we are right is..." and "my background knowledge that leads me to this inference is..."   And not only did I hear them using the words, they complained when I stopped the activity.  It was one of those moments that fills your teacher's heart with joy.  And then it got better--they completed an independent practice worksheet on inferencing right after, and all but two supported their answers with background knowledge and text evidence--best results ever.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Spark Student Motivation

I'm linking up with Joanne over at Head Over Heels For Teaching for her Spark Student Motivation Linky.  

One way that I try to hold the interest of my 6th graders (which, if you know 6th graders, can be quite challenging---friends are so much more important than learning in the 6th grade) is to incorporate little bits of my life--or my made-up life--into my teaching.

I have two Boston Terriers who have made their way into math problems, practice with sentence types, compare and contrast essays, etc.  I reward them by letting them listen to a recording of my littlest dog screaming in rage because my husband has the audacity to dance in the house.   I have a small stuffed Boston that will get to spend the rest of the day on the desk of a student who blows my mind with something that they did or noticed, such as an act of kindness or a remarkable math connection.  I even have one of them featured on one of my good behavior cards.

I will tell them that when I was younger I had a hard time with a common trouble spot of whatever difficult concept we are currently working on.  For example, two weeks ago we were working on dividing with decimals---so many places to make mistakes!  I told my group that struggles that I had trouble remembering the zeros in dividing decimals, so I learned to put boxes over each digit in the quotient to remind myself that I need something in each place.  Now I can't recall whether or not I had trouble with this math concept--but as one of my students said to me "I didn't know that teachers had trouble with learning too, " it nearly broke my heart.  They have so many unspoken fears about their abilities.

Making things personal has really paid off in ways that I never even imagined.