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, 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?!?!