Follow on Bloglovin

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Informational Texts

I am pleased to be a guest blogger at Mrs. Payton's Precious Kindergartners today, and my topic is kids and research writing.

When I was growing up, kids didn't start research writing until high school. When I began teaching, kids didn't start research writing until middle school. Who's researching today? All kids---big and little! Even kindergartners can read and write informational texts.

How can little kids do this? I've published a free document, Animals! Animals! Animals!, to give you some ideas and show you how research writing provides natural opportunities for differentiation in your classroom.

Bigger kids need bigger projects. Students in Grades 4-6 are ready for note cards, outlines, and works cited. This Animal Research Packet is one example of how big kids can handle research writing.

Gathering and synthesizing information is a big part of our daily lives. It's now second nature for us to google a topic, scan the available websites, select the most applicable, skim a few pages, and go on our merry way. Whether we realize it or not, that's a lot of high-level reading and thinking used in a matter of minutes! Our students, who are growing up in the Digital Age, need to know how to find, sort, and present information. Let's get started on those research projects!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Estimation Station

Estimation Station provides a fun, motivational way for students to practice and conceptualize measurement topics.

Each day for the past few weeks, a student in my class has been assigned a unit of measurement (for example, pounds). He or she chooses something for others to estimate (such as a filled backpack). In the morning, the student sets the item on our Estimation Station table and creates a record sheet. At the top of the page, he or she writes a question, such as "How many pounds does this backpack weigh?"

Students are allowed to visit the Estimation Station and write their answers on the sheet in the morning. When we return from lunch, the student in charge looks at the record sheet to establish the winner(s). Of course, we must then pull down the class prize box, and the winner gets to select a prize.

This year I've also added a Power Point presentation. As students are estimating, a corresponding word problem is displayed. Students must conceptualize, draw upon knowledge of measurement conversions, and practice multiple mathematical strategies.

After students have enough time to estimate, they answer by holding up their fingers (one finger for answer A, two fingers for answer B, and so on). I can immediately discern who understands and who does not. What an easy way to gather formative assessment data!

One strategy and solution are displayed. Then students are invited to discuss additional ways to approach the problem. To me, this is the most powerful part of the lesson. Learning to approach problems in different ways stimulates mathematical connections and deepens understanding.

Estimation Station is now available in my Teachers pay Teachers store! This five-week activity addresses the following Common Core State Standards:
  • 4.MD.A.1 - know relative sizes of measurement units
  • 4.MD.A.2 - solve measurement word problems
  • 4.MD.A.3 - apply area and perimeter formulas
  • 5.MD.A.1 - convert standard measures
  • 5.MD.C.3 - recognize volume
  • 5.MD.C.4 - measure volume
  • 5.MD.C.5 - find volume with formula

Monday, April 22, 2013

Online Skills Resources

This week my class and I are gearing up for Round #2 of state testing. We held a class pow-wow and decided that we could use some practice on specific skills. One of those was simple, compound, and complex sentences. That's all well and good, but where would I find the proper resources? I turned to my favorite twenty-first century teacher helper: Google.

Thankfully, I found a great resource from Parade magazine. This handy sheet asks kids to search for simple, compound, and complex sentences in news articles. Aha! A parent had just sent me a cute article, "Oh Rats! Why Rodents Are Becoming Increasingly Popular Pets" (also from Parade). Since our class hosted two rats this spring for a nutrition experiment, my kids would love it! Today my class will search for simple, compound, and complex sentences in the rat article.

In addition to the activity on simple, compound, and complex sentences, I also found these helpful sheets from Parade:
Editorials: Fact vs. Opinion
Summarize the News
Understanding Cause and Effect
Newspaper Main Ideas

You can find oodles of skills resources at Thanks, Parade!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Sentence a Day . . .

The first half of my fourth grade English book is packed with parts of speech. Chapter by chapter students learn about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and more.

The second half of the book presents a variety of genres of writing: personal narratives, persuasive essays, descriptions, informative pieces, and so on. Students move through the genres and learn how to tackle each one,

This makes perfect sense, right? Wrong!

  • Parts of speech, though necessary, are only one of the many aspects of language. And teaching them as isolated components is not effective. I've learned this from experience. Kids learn about nouns, take the test, forget about nouns, learn about verbs, take the test, forget about verbs... You get the picture.
  • Writing employs nearly all language skills. In order to become effective writers, students must work on it all year long. Delegating it to the second semester robs students of important practice time.

How can this problem be solved? I believe that the "old school" had it right: sentence diagramming. I dedicate about one-fourth of my daily English instruction to grammar and mechanics. The remaining three-fourths is spent on writing and speaking. With ten or fifteen minutes of daily sentence diagramming, my students master their parts of speech in ten to twelve weeks.

The process is easy. We start small. During the first week, we review nouns, verbs, subjects, and predicates. Each day students label parts of simple sentences like this:

Ducks quack.

As the weeks progress, we add articles, conjunctions, adjectives, etc. We learn about sentence types and simple subjects and predicates. Daily sentences start to look more like this:

Close that blue and red door.

Adverbs and prepositional phrases, which have the annoying habit of moving all around in a sentence, are taught last. By focusing on one part of speech per week, students are soon flying through sentences like this:

As the ruby red sun set in the distance, a gleaming jet bent its wing and headed home.

A sentence a day is the best way! Students learn the role of each part of speech and how they interact with one another. 

You can easily "layer" parts of speech in your language arts instruction time. Need help? Check out Parts of Speech Compacted Moderate Pace or Parts of Speech Rigorous Pace at my Teachers pay Teachers store.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Classroom Walls CAN Talk

The classroom walls CAN talk. They can tell a visitor what's going on in that room. When a parent, administrator, or evaluator visits your classroom, the walls provide a wonderful way to show and tell. You can show the important work your students are doing and tell how you are addressing the Common Core State Standards.

The title of this display is "Owls from J.K. Rowling." The other page says, "Exploring Theme: What message has the author sent to the reader?" This classroom wall tells the visitor that the students have read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and learned how to find a theme* (CCSS RL.4.2). Reading the students' papers also allows them to see that they can support their answers with evidence from the text (CCSS RL.4.1).

Here the students are showing that they can create tally tables, frequency tables, and line plots (CCSS 4.MD.B.4).

This display demonstrates students' ability to conduct research (CCSS W.4.7, W.4.8, W.4.9) and develop multiple-paragraph persuasive essays (W.4.1). Since these essays were in the form of letters to their congressmen about a bill being considered, social studies standards are also being addressed.

These are only a few ways that your walls can talk. When your students do important work, hang it up! Let your classroom walls sing your praises!

Would you like to teach your students to find a theme? Try these products at my Teachers pay Teachers store:
RL.4.2 Finding a Theme and Summarizing Lesson Plans - Use adaptations of Aesop's fables to practice finding a theme.
RL.4.2 Finding a Theme Power Point - This presentation guides students through the process of finding a theme.
RL.4.2 Summarizing and Finding a Theme with Ella Enchanted Lesson Plans
RL.4.2 Finding a Theme with Ella Enchanted Power Point
Hatchet Bundle

Friday, April 5, 2013

You Are the Cheerleader

Lean to the left,
Lean to the right,
Stand up, sit down,
Fight, fight, fight!

When I began teaching 30 years ago, a wise veteran teacher told me, "You need to honk your own horn." Now let me tell you: I wasn't really keen on this advice. Raised in a middle class midwestern family, modesty was driven into me at an early age. But this proved to be one of the most valuable pieces of advice ever given to me.

With the Era of Assessment upon us, teachers must demonstrate their effectiveness more than ever. I say, "Let your classroom (and hall) walls do the talking." Displaying student work and photos of students involved in learning is essential. Of course, you can also share with parents through newsletters and websites.

When you're out in the community, talk it up. Let others (friends, family, community members) know about the important work that's going on in your school and your classroom. Become a cheerleader!

Why should we cheer?

  • Our communities, which fund our schools, need to know that their dollars are being well spent. They, in turn, will become cheerleaders.
  • The public, which has somehow soured on our noble profession, needs to see that we are competent, caring, and hard working. They, in turn, will become cheerleaders.
  • The parents, who can be the best assets or our biggest nightmares, need assurance that their children are in good hands. They, in turn, will become cheerleaders.
  • The administration, who hold our evaluations in their hands, need evidence of our effectiveness. They, in turn, will become cheerleaders.

It's time to inject some positive energy into our profession, and who better to do it than a cheerleader?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Lesson Plan for Long Evaluation, Part 3

Objective? Check!

Connections to prior learning? Check!

Now it's time to develop the instructional processes for my lesson on the coordinate plane. The lesson must contain a hook and/or introduction, direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice.

I begin with my original plan of reading A Fly on the Ceiling and having students complete coordinate plane pictures. But these ideas are not enough. I have to build on them to show what I can do. Since the evaluator only sees me teach a few lessons, I must demonstrate as many indicators as possible during the evaluation. Collaboration, differentiation, checks for understanding, and higher order thinking must be included. My lesson will go better if I plan for these in advance. And my evaluator will recognize them more easily if they are spelled out in the lesson plan.

  • Establish background information and hook students by reading A Fly on the Ceiling by Julie Glass. This fanciful story presents the myth of how Rene Descartes created the Cartesian coordinate system (also called the coordinate plane or coordinate grid).
  • Review x- and y-axes. Use arms and fingers to simulate the two axes. (When facing class, right arm goes straight up in the air and hand makes peace sign. Left arm is held out perpendicular to body with fingers crossed. The peace sign is the top part of a "y" while the arm is the stem of that letter. The fingers crossed on the other hand represent "x.")
  • Introduce additional terms: ordered pair, coordinate, and origin.
  • Check for Understanding: Fly Swatter Game (When a definition is called out, students "swat the fly" with their left hands and indicate the answer by holding up the correct number of fingers on their right hands.)

Direct Instruction (Modeling - positive integers only)
  • Demonstrate how to plot an ordered pair on a coordinate plane.
  • Demonstrate how to write an ordered pair for a point on the coordinate plane.
Extension (include negative numbers)*
  • Show Brainpop video entitled "Coordinate Plane."
  • Check for Understanding: Brainpop quiz (oral)
*The extension reviews terminology and provides information that will prepare more able students for today's differentiation piece. When checking for understanding, I do not expect all students to get all answers right. Instead, it will help me determine which concepts need to be reviewed and emphasized in our next two lessons.

Guided Practice
  • Hand out simple coordinate plane mystery message worksheets (created at
  • Have students complete worksheets in pairs. One partner reads the ordered pairs one at a time using the correct terminology, the other plots the points. Switch.
  • Check for Understanding: Ask students to present correctly completed pictures as concept checks before moving on to independent practice.
Independent Practice.
  • Allow students to select coordinate plane picture puzzles (Quadrant I only) and complete.
  • If a student feels ready for a bigger challenge, he/she may complete a simple four-quadrant activity to show readiness then select a four-quadrant coordinate plane picture puzzle to complete.
Wrap Up - Connect to future learning with questions such as these:
  • How do people use coordinate planes in the real world?
  • Can you think of some ways that you might be able to use them in your life?
  • If we can plot coordinates for x and y, what do you think we will do next?
  • Have you ever seen lines that are plotted on coordinate planes? Where?
  • How would graphing an equation help us better understand it?
  • Randomly distribute a variety of simple line drawings (clip art) and graph paper.
  • Explain that each student will create his or her own coordinate plane puzzle.
  • Provide these instructions: (1) trace the line drawing onto the paper, (2) place points at key coordinates, (3) list ordered pairs on the class website for all to try.
  • Give students the option of creating a more elaborate coordinate plane puzzle, if desired. This could mean a more elaborate picture or using all four quadrants.
Extensions (available on class website)
This lesson plan now feels finished to me. Sure, I could add a few more things. But that would probably be overkill. One thing makes me nervous, though. Since I teach high ability students, I'm accustomed to asking higher order questions, and I know when an activity requires higher order thinking. Will my administrator be able to recognize them? I decide to add a graphic showing how the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy are addressed in this lesson.

This lesson plan looks different than those I prepared for last year's evaluation. That's because this one was specially prepared to meet the specific criteria on which I will be judged. It's tempting to say, "I do it every day; they just aren't in my classroom to see it." As true as that may be, I now have the responsibility to demonstrate all (or much) of what I can do during my long evaluation. After all, this is high-stakes assessment. For teachers. And it'll be fun to have the chance to strut my stuff.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lesson Plan for Long Evaluation, Part 2

My new credo is S-P-E-L-L  I-T  O-U-T. I don't want any question about whether or not I've met a criterion on my teacher evaluation. I decided to get started on my coordinate plane lesson plan by writing the objective and connections to prior learning.

Objective: Students will be able to identify and plot ordered pairs on a coordinate plane.

This could be more specific. It just depends on what the evaluator wants. For example, I could say, "Students will plot ordered pairs in Quadrant I of the coordinate plane with 90% accuracy."

Connection to Prior Learning:
My students have arrived at an important mathematical intersection. This is the place where algebra meets geometry. They are traveling away from elementary mathematics and entering new territory. Number sentences and shapes will soon be replaced with algebraic equations and their graphic representations.

These students did not arrive at this intersection by mistake. No, this journey was carefully planned.

Geometric Preparation
  • August 15 - On the first day of school, students participated in an ice-breaker activity involving birthdays and graphing. First, they were presented with the challenge of creating a human graph against an outside wall of the school without talking. Once back in the classroom, they created a pictograph on the classroom wall with one candle representing each birthday. After introduction to the x- and y-axes and discussion of purposes of various graphs, they independently converted the data to a bar graph.
  • September 10-12 - Students learned about latitude and longitude, building more conceptual knowledge of coordinates.
  • December 10-20 - Points, lines, rays, line segments, and planes were introduced during the study of one- and two-dimensional objects.
  • January 7-25 - Each student created a graph to illustrate his/her data for the science fair.
  • February 26-March 15 - Students explored relationships between data and graphs. They learned to read and create frequency tables, bar and picture graphs, line graphs, stem and leaf plots, histograms, and circle graphs.
Algebraic Preparation
  • August 16-December 7 - Students worked toward mastery of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers, as well as adding and subtracting fractions and decimals.
  • February 7-22 - Students learned how to write and evaluate algebraic expressions.
  • February 14 - Our class began weekly exploration of "legal moves" when dealing with algebraic equations using Hands-on Equations.
  • March 18-April 5 - The study of algebraic equations heated up with daily Hands-on Equations and formal lessons in algebraic equations.
My students now find themselves at the intersection of geometry and algebra. That intersection is called the coordinate plane. Where will it take them next?

Future Learning Experiences
  • April 23 - Students will formalize their knowledge of positive and negative integers.
  • April 24 - All students will plot ordered pairs on all four quadrants of the coordinate plane.
  • April 25 - Using values for x and y, students will determine distances between two points on the coordinate plane.
  • April 26 - Students will finally see where all of this has been heading. They will graph equations on the coordinate plane.

You may be thinking that I'm crazy to include such comprehensive background for the lesson that I'm teaching, but I think it's worth it. The entire process didn't take long. I just looked in my plan book and made some notes about connections. Then I typed it up. This lengthy summary of past and future connections will (I hope) show without a doubt that I understand where this lesson fits in the scope of my students' mathematical education.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lesson Plan for Long Evaluation, Part 1

My long evaluation was scheduled for April 22 at 1:00 in the afternoon. What should I teach? Since my last evaluation involved reading, I decided to tackle math.

Hmmm, I'd be done teaching measurement by then. State testing would begin the following week, and we sure could use some review. Next on my list to teach were probability and graphing equations. An integrated math and science lesson like Big Banana Peel from AIMS would be fun . . .

I looked back at the list of criteria on which I would be evaluated. A review lesson certainly wouldn't cut it. Probability would be active . . . but maybe too student-centered. Not enough opportunity to demonstrate direct instruction. The AIMS activity was cool, but it didn't really focus on one particular academic skill. How about graphing equations? If my schedule worked out the way I thought it would, the topic for that day would be coordinate planes.

Hey! I already had some great resources for a coordinate plane lesson.
  • A Fly on the Ceiling by Julie Glass - This little book, which I've mentioned before in my blog, tells a fanciful story of how Rene Descartes developed the Cartesian coordinate system. I've used it as an opener, or hook, for this lesson for years.
  • Coordinate Plane Pictures - A set that I've had for years provides lists of ordered pairs for students to plot. When they connect the points, a picture can be found. It's sort of like "big kid dot-to-dot."
Yeah, I think this lesson just might work. Just to be sure, I looked up the standards. My fourth grade students have been double advanced in math and are working at the fifth grade level.
  • 5.G.A.1 - Use a pair of perpendicular lines, called axes, to define a coordinate system, with the intersection of the lines (the origin) arranged to coincide with the 0 on each line and a given point in the plane located by using an ordered pair of numbers, called coordinates. Understand that the first number indicates how far to travel from the origin in the direction of one axis, and the second number indicates how far to travel in the direction of the second axis, with the convention that the names of the two axes and coordinates corresponds (e.g., x-axis and x-coordinate, y-axis and y-coordinate).
  • 5.G.A.2 - Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation.
The word "intersection" in the standard made me stop and think: "Wow, graphing equations is the intersection of several major units I've taught this year: computation, algebra, and geometry."

Eureka! It looks like I have a winner! This lesson has potential for connections to prior knowledge, a fun-filled hook, direct instruction, guided practice, and active independent practice. I like it!

Monday, April 1, 2013

You Are the Defense Attorney

Teaching in the twenty-first century is demanding. Although it may sound cynical, I believe that our profession has been deemed "guilty until proven innocent."

"Guilty of what?" you might ask. Incompetence. Public perception of our profession has taken a negative turn in the past decade or so. And everyone knows that perception is reality.

With that said, let's get on to what can be done to counteract this trend. Each teacher must become his or her own defense attorney.
  1. Look at the standards by which you will be judged. Get a copy of your state or local criteria and become familiar with it.
  2. Think long and hard about what you have done to prove that you have achieved those standards. 
  3. Compile all of the evidence and submit it to the jury. Or, oops, I mean your administrator.
As detailed in the website Teachers RISE Above, you can gather documents, data, reflections, and more to prove your own competency. I would like to go on record, however, by saying that spending too much time on this pursuit can actually damage your teaching. If you are spending more time worrying about your evaluation than teaching your students, there's a problem.

How can we strike a balance? In my opinion, the best hard evidence of your teaching is your cache of lesson plans. Spending time on lesson planning will not only prove your competence, it will also make you a more competent teacher.

This week I worked on a lesson plan for my next long evaluation. I studied the competencies in the Indiana RISE document to see what was expected. Two domains, Planning and Instruction, will be assessed. That's fourteen separate competencies. It seemed overwhelming at first, but then I noticed that some criteria were mentioned again and again. That allowed me to shrink the list into something more manageable:

Domain 1: Planning
  • Write assessments based on the standards. Work backward to create meaningful lessons based on specific objectives that directly correlate with the assessments.
  • Differentiate instruction.
  • Use multiple data points, including formative assessment, to guide instructional decisions.
This tells me that I must write a standards-based assessment and create multiple lesson plans to support it. This unit of study must demonstrate how instruction will be differentiated (for students who are struggling, as well as those who have already mastered the material). Showing how data led me to develop this lesson, as well as how formative assessment will guide decision-making as the lesson progresses, is critical.

Domain 2: Instruction
  • Present a focused, well organized lesson that includes connection to prior knowledge; concise, meaningful, rigorous instruction; practice and application of new skill; and additional learning opportunities, such as homework or extra credit. Include multiple delivery methods, including collaboration and technology.
  • Engage all students through dynamic, active instruction, as well as open-ended and higher order questioning.
In addition to the objective, differentiation, and checks for understanding needed to fulfill Domain 1, my lesson plan should include a "hook" that connects with students' prior knowledge, direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice, and some sort of extension. I need to use technology during instruction, and students should spend some time in pairs or groups. The lesson must be dynamic in nature, and questions must be developed in advance.

In other words, the lesson planned for a formal evaluation must be one of the best lessons I've ever created. It should not be just any old lesson. It is something special, chosen for this occasion. Because my administrator cannot be in the classroom seeing me teach every day, I need to show everything I've got on that one day.

In my next blog, we'll take a look at the lesson I chose to teach for my evaluation.