Sunday, September 28, 2014

Teaching Theme part 2

So here is how I taught theme this year.....I think there is still room for improvement (don't we always feel that way?!?!?) BUT it was better than what I have done in the past.

Day 1:  We went through a general powerpoint on theme.  Then I read them a story called The Cloud Spinner by Michael Catchpool.  I told them that in my opinion one theme of the story is "Take only what you need" and asked them to figure out why I thought that.  They had to write their responses on a post-it note and about half of the class put down some text evidence that could be used to support my thinking.  I looked at the post-its that evening and set aside the ones that used the text evidence.  (The most common mistake was that they tried to explain what the theme meant.)

Day 2:  We completed the first two pages for our notebook.  They had to write down their understanding of theme after we talked about it and about 8 kids were randomly selected to share what they had written down. 

Then I reminded them of the story we had read the day before and told them that I wanted to share some of the post-its from the day before.  I asked them to think about why I had chosen those particular post-it notes.  They figured out fairly easily that the ones I had selected proved the theme by referencing actual story details. (I hid their names.)  We discussed that themes needed to be proven with evidence from the text.

Day 3:  I wanted to make sure that they understood the difference between theme and main idea, so I had them work in partners to complete this activity from Teaching with a Mountain View.  They did the sort and the reflection.  It was a lot of fun for them and I loved hearing them debate about which category a card belonged in. 

Day 4:  We completed the next two pages for our notebook.  I made sure to stress that when determining theme there were three things that they needed to do:  develop a theme statement, prove it with text evidence, and make a generalization to real life.  I let them know that, for me, theme was a difficult concept to learn as a kid until one teacher taught me how to be successful by asking a series of questions (yes, I will change history to emphasize a point--in this case, I wished that mistersato411 was my teacher.)  

Then I shared a story about Carrie and her phone that a colleague found online here:
We went through the questions one at a time and I charted the responses.  Then each table group had to come up with a theme and write it on their desks with dry erase markers (blew their minds!)  The groups moved around the room from table group to table group in a gallery walk fashion, discussing the  themes that their classmates had come up with.  Some were incredible and some were way off base.  Each table group was then able to put a star by the three themes that they thought were the best--it was interesting to see the discussions when they were limited to picking only three (out of eight.)  Finally we shared out the top three star getters.

Day 5:

Finally we put it all together today.  Heading back to the story The Cloud Spinner,  we worked together to craft a theme response.  While many of my more advanced students would be able to construct an acceptable response on their own, about 70% of my class needs to have a framework with which to work--at least initially.  So, I gave them a different  theme from the story--"One can always try to make things right" and told them that we were going to need to prove that theme today.  They easily generated the evidence to the support the theme and then we wrote the response below.  After we wrote it (and they copied it down in their journals,) we went back and annotated it.  As we were writing the response, I purposefully made a change to make the connection back to the theme more obvious.  

The next week they had to write a response for a story we were reading from our anthology.  Lots of my kiddos used their notebooks to complete the assignment. While not all of the kids were able to do this successfully, many of them did a great job.  I think they will get stronger and stronger at this as we continue to work with theme as the year progresses.  The pages for their journal and a typed copy of the theme response are available on TPT here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teaching theme part 1

So, I have a confession to make at the beginning of this blog post.  I have always hated teaching theme.  When I was a youngster, this was a concept that I struggled with every single year.  I was a voracious reader-- I loved being transported to other times and places,  and gobbled up story after story.  Fairy tales were my number one genre and I would read them over and over again.   And I learned life lessons as I read---lessons that I definitely applied to my own life.   However, whenever I was asked "What is the theme of the story and how do you know?" I was never confident in my answer.  I felt like I was just guessing...making something up and hoping that I would fool the teacher.  Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn't.

But, I have had to teach it--and teach it at least well enough to have my kiddos be able to choose the correct answer on a standardized test.  I talk about coming up with a life lesson and making sure the theme could universally be applied.  We would look at a list of themes that I found on the Internet and find one that would work well with the novel that we were working with.  We would write responses that I was satisfied with--and every so often a student would blow me away by coming up with a unique theme and being able to support it with evidence from the text.  Kids are so amazing sometimes.

This year I vowed that I was not only going to teach what theme was but to figure out a way to teach kids how to determine the theme and to justify their opinion.  There are an incredible amount of  resources out there that teach what theme is, but not as many that help kids generate one on their own---especially not for kids that are so lacking in background experiences and a view of the world as a whole.  Many of the children I teach come from homes where parents love them dearly but don't understand the importance of taking them to libraries, museums, parks, etc.  The families work at surviving day by day in a world that isn't the safest or kindest place to grow up.  My kids tell me that their beds are couches and they didn't sleep very well last night because the television was too loud.  So, I knew that I had to really break it down for them.  

I found a great resource via Teaching with a Mountain View and looked up teaching theme on pinterest which had a lot of anchor charts that helped me formulate some ideas.  However, the real aha moment came when I was watching a YouTube video called "How to find a theme" by mistersato411.  I was finally ready to put the pages together that they would be able to glue in their interactive notebooks and when I finished, I felt like I finally understood how to teach theme.  We took it slowly, and it is clear that some kids still have a way to go, but I feel like we are on the right track.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ruby Slippers Blog Design

Barbara at Ruby Slippers Design is the mastermind behind this blog design.  I had a small vision in my head as to what I wanted and she was able to not only make that a possibility, but to surpass all of my expectations.  I had tried to do my own blog design, but it was very frustrating--and made me not want to blog at all.

Besides being very talented, Barbara is also incredibly patient.  Not once did she get frustrated with all of my questions, and she went above and beyond accommodating my wishes.  I loved the fact that I could see her work in progress via a test blog--it allowed me to see my suggestions (and then change my mind once I realized that it was a bad suggestion!)  She also works quickly---it took her less than a week from the time she started working on the blog design to the final installation.  

Now, here is the best part.  Two weeks after she finished, I realized that I didn't know how to have my profile picture be the same as the blog button and to be able to link back to my blog when I made a comment on another blog.  I emailed her, asking to be added back to her calendar to have her help me with these extra things I needed.  I heard back from her that night, not with a calendar date, but instead directions with how to add a link to my blog, and questions about what I wanted with the profile picture.  She sent me two versions the next day.

I am so grateful that I discovered her by blog hopping one day this past summer.  If you are in need of a new blog design--customized to your wishes, I highly recommend Barbara.  You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Spark Student Motivation Saturday

I am attempting my first link-up ever--Spark Student Motivation with Head Over Heels for Teaching!  (I hope I manage to do it correctly!)  Motivating 6th graders (especially as the year progresses) can be tricky.  What they love one day, they can turn around and hate the next.

However, they always love it when I break out my stamps which I use in a variety of ways.

One thing I do is use them when they are reflecting in their journals, working on their mentor sentence activities, solving a more challenging math problem, or completing a sentence in their Academic Vocabulary books.  As I walk around the room, monitoring their work, I stamp the responses that I want to have shared with the rest of the class.  Not only do the kids want to get a stamp in their book, but it also helps me remember who had a response that I want the rest of the class to hear.
(I also have a stamp with my name on it--I break that out occasionally and proclaim I am looking for a response that "Mrs. G" worthy--they eat that up!)

I also use them when I am reviewing concepts and want them to put forth their best efforts.  I pass out two stamps per table and tell them that they get to stamp every correct answer.  I will give them a short paper to work on--around 8-10 questions---and some time to finish it.  (Sometimes, they do one problem at a time, and we correct it before going on to the next one.) Then, as we go over the answers, they get to stamp the responses that are right.  Sounds silly, but they love using the stamps--even 6th graders.  (However, I do have to remind them that stamps are for the paper, not for body parts.)  Sometimes to up the ante, so to speak, I give out a prize for every student who gets my "magic number correct." (I don't reveal the magic number until the end to keep hope alive.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

First Week Activities

During the first week of school, I like to do a variety of "getting to know you" and team building activities.  We practice routines and they get to know my expectations.  This year I tried a few new things as well as some of my older standards.

One of my favorite things to do each year is an activity I call "ABC Me!"  It is incredibly simple, but it reveals so much about each student.  At a glance, you can tell which students are likely to need a lot of extra support during the year, which students are very creative, which ones race through their work and which ones take a long time, etc.  In addition, it makes a quick and easy display for Back to School Night.  On a legal size piece of paper, I run the letters of the alphabet down the left hand side.  I include a line after each letter and a line at the top for the student's name.  The directions are simple:  in phrases, tell me all about yourself.  Each phrase needs to start with the letter of the alphabet it written next to.

A new activity I tried this year was "Save Fred."  I saw it originally on a collection of First Day of School Activities on the blog "Teaching with a Mountain View."  Then in searching for more information about it, I came across this link:
It was a lot of fun...some groups were more successful than others in saving poor Fred, but they all managed to reflect on strategies they had used to solve the problem.  I really liked the kids that told me that they could have figured it out if they had only had a bit more time.

 Every year I have them create tear art self-portraits.  I think that they are hilarious and I love that the kids who are not as artistically blessed can feel successful too.  The best part, for me, is that there are always a few kids who actually manage to create a self-portrait that actually looks like they do.  I limited their time on it this year, and actually all but one completed on time--which was a first for me!  (Usually I give them two blocks of 45 minutes and end up with three to four kids who never finish it--this year, they just had 60 minutes--which included 10 minutes of instruction on how to pinch the paper as it is being torn in order to maintain better control.)

I also like to teach being kind and empathetic during the first week.  For a lot of our kiddos, their home lives are difficult. Many of them come to school without the skills that they need to succeed socially.  In their world, taking offense and fighting back (either with words or physically) is often the first thing that comes to mind.  By specifically teaching the skills of empathy and practicing kindness, I have found that my year will generally run a bit more smoothly.

I have two posters hanging in my room:  one is the classic "Before you speak" and the other is one I made a few years ago called "Practicing Kindness." (I had a particularly difficult class one year that needed weekly lessons on how to be kind.)  The first day I review empathy with them and go over the two posters.

(I created two versions of this poster--one with a blue background and one with a black background--then I had them printed on Vistaprint.)

Then the following day, we do the classic toothpaste activity (the one where they squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube and then have to try to put it back.)  They had a lot of fun trying to get the toothpaste back, but were ultimately unsuccessful.  Then they shared their thoughts about "What happened to the toothpaste" and I hit pay dirt when one response was, "It made a big mess."  (Don't you love it when that happens!!)  After I finish charting their responses, I flip over the chart paper to the statement to the
right.  Maybe it is because they are 6th graders, but the light bulbs go on immediately.   We discuss how mean words and things are like the toothpaste---once they are out, no matter how much we apologize, we can't take it back or get a "do over."

Then this year, I took it one step further.  The next day (yep, three days worth of discussion and activity) I passed out a statement to each group (I have 8 groups so I had to include a quote as well.)  The statements were specific ways that a person could practice empathy.  They discussed the having
empathy skill with their groups and then shared their thoughts about it.  If a group didn't really understand the statement, I helped steer the conversation in the right direction.  It was a great discussion and at the end of the week reflection they did, many of the kids talked about how important it was to have empathy.  Success!  I created an anchor chart that we can refer back to during the year (if needed!)