Thursday, December 6, 2012

Table Groups!

While seating students in table groups is far from a new idea, it's new in my classroom.  I have been struggling with the best way to seat students given that my classroom furniture consists of only right-handed desk/chair combos.  It's not practical to seat students side-by-side with these desks.  Putting them in groups of 3 is possible in a T shape but this set up ends up taking up more floor space than I am willing to give, even in my large classroom because I need 9 groups to accommodate all of my kids.  
Virco 9000 Series Student Desk w/ Bookrack (set of 2)
Unfortunately, this style of desk isn't as flexible as single desks with separate chairs and doesn't lend itself to seating students in groups. 

I'm taking a graduate class on Kagan's Cooperative Learning Strategies.  I was already very familiar with the structures but some of the rationale on team building is new to me.  I've been enjoying the class and I came home from it last weekend inspired to change my classroom set up.  I ran through a mental inventory of what is in my classroom and I realized that I had 5 trapezoid tables that could each seat two students.  I decided to use one trapezoid table plus two of the old desks per group.  I managed to get one more table from a coworker who had extras so I had enough to make 6 groups.  Students can get in and out easily and can work together.  The best part is that my classroom now feels huge!  There is a lot of space to move around. 
Here's a table group in my redesigned classroom!

Changing my classroom set-up felt like an impossible dream until I got creative and decided to let go of some things I thought I needed (separate tables for pull out groups).  The first day of the new set up (Tuesday) was rough as my students are just not used to sitting around a table and not talking constantly.  We're working on understanding when we talk to each other and when we work alone.  Wednesday and today were nearly perfect with my lower group of students.  My advanced groups are having a harder time containing themselves but I have confidence we'll model correct behavior and have everyone in line before Christmas break.  A few students have surprised me already at how well they're working together; I listened to some awesome coaching by a few pairs when we worked on volume problems using Rally Coach.  For those of you familiar with structures, we've done Rally Coach, Showdown, Quiz Quiz Trade, Takeoff/Touchdown, Timed Pair Share, Rally Table, and more just this week. 

Have you come up with a creative solution to a near-impossible problem?  Let me know about it.  I'd love to be inspired by your great idea!

Mathematically yours,
Miss B

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christmas Wish List

I’ve seen many suggestions of Christmas gifts for teachers floating around the internet.  Pinterest is full of adorable crafts and sweet treats to thank teachers this time of year.  As a middle school teacher in a relatively poor community, I don’t receive many gifts and that’s OK.  I decided that I would, however, put together a teacher's wish list from my perspective.  These are my top 5 most desired Christmas gifts in order of preference.

1.     A note of thanks.  Have your child write me a note about what they enjoy about class and what they’ve learned.  I keep notes like these in a box and I read them on days that have been particularly rough.  Everybody loves warm fuzzies! 
2.     A commitment from you to follow up with your child nightly regarding homework assignments.  One of the biggest frustrations I have is the lack of homework completion from my students.  Check in each night, ask to see homework, have your child explain the assignments to you, and follow up with the school’s homework hotline, online gradebook, or teacher if you think your child is not being responsible. 
3.     Your time at school.  Come to a concert, to a PTA meeting, or to chaperone a field trip.  Your children and their friends will appreciate your presence and support.  I will appreciate the opportunity to get to know you as more than Mrs. Smith at 123-456-7890. 
4.     School supplies for your child.  Spend $10-20 at Christmas per child to replenish school supplies for the second half of the year.  Check the condition of binders as the rings may have warped.  Then buy a few packs each of pencils and looseleaf.  I’m so happy when kids come to my room with these simple supplies; last school year I gave out approximately 700 pencils over the course of the year.  Think, too, about semester long classes which change in January and what supplies will be needed for second semester. 
5.     Classroom consumables. If you insist on giving me “things” for Christmas, please make a donation to my classroom.  Some of the items I purchase myself that we use are listed below in order of greatest need/use:
a.     Tissues
b.     Yellow #2 pencils
c.      Loose leaf paper
d.     Dry erase markers
e.     Post-its of any color of size
f.      Unscented hand sanitizer
g.     Sanitizing wipes
h.     Ziploc bags (sandwich, quart, or gallon)
i.       Paper towels
j.       Napkins, small cups, and small plates
k.     Small individually wrapped candies for rewards (no gum or lollipops per school rules)
l.    Glue sticks
I really would appreciate these items.  Just the fact that you would be saving me a trip to the store would be a great joy!  

Fellow teachers, what’s on your Christmas list?  If there are teachers on your list, what are you giving them this December? 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Problem Master and Mountain Climber

My Facebook status this evening sums it up: "That was the kind of awesome day of teaching that will get me through until Christmas."

Have you ever had a day like mine when the lesson goes seamlessly (or nearly so), the kids enjoy what they're doing, you enjoy what you're doing, behavior problems are non-existent, and the learning conversations are rich.  

The best compliment I got from a kid today, "You know, Miss B, this is the highest class but we do the most fun stuff." ("highest class" = most advanced class offered to 8th grade)

So, what caused this awesome day?  Two new activities.  

The first activity was for my Algebra I class.  We have been studying probability for several weeks and it's been slow going.  Many of my students are struggling readers, so the questions are difficult for them to answer independently.  I decided to use an activity that I adapted from a math blog (I think it was ispeakmath but I cannot find the post now for anything and would love to give credit if anyone knows).  We'll call it Problem Master.

Problem Master Directions
  1. Create one problem per student on the topic you're studying. (I used a mix of all the kinds of probability questions we're responsible for in 8th grade: simple, independent, dependent, sample space, permutations, and predictions from experimental probability.)
  2. Assign each child a different problem.  Have them work out this problem (I used scrap paper for this step) and check the answer with you.  They need to understand and be able to explain how they arrived at that answer.  
  3. Create a packet (or use notebook paper) with a numbered space for each problem.  I have 21 students in Algebra I, so I had 21 problems and a packet with that many spaces.  
  4. The "Master" of the problem gets a copy of the question in green.  They glue it into the packet and show the work needed to solve the problem.  They also get a yellow sheet with 20 copies of their problem to give to classmates when they pair up.  You'll need to print one page with all of the questions once on green paper and then make a yellow sheet for each child with their problem duplicated enough times for everyone else in the class.
  5. Each child then pairs up with another member of the class, they trade problems to solve, work independently to solve the problem, check their partner's answers, and they coach as needed.  
  6. I had students grade each other with smiley faces for how much help they required.  
  7. When a pair is finished, they return to a designated area to meet a new partner.  (Rarely was anyone waiting for more than 1 minute.  You could choose to have a secondary assignment for anyone waiting or call out switching times, but my kids were able to handle this bit of freedom because they could work at their own pace.) 
  8. I had students carry their glue stick and scissors around with them.  We only cut out one problem each time we paired up instead of cutting them all apart at the beginning because I wanted to avoid them losing a pile of little yellow papers!  Envelopes or baggies would also work, but giving them an entire sheet limited my prep significantly and made it easy when we realized we would like to finish the activity in the next class period.  
We worked on this activity for almost an hour of our 90-minute block.  The kids were engaged the whole time and were taking their responsibility seriously.  They weren't happy that we didn't have enough time to finish and begged to get more time next class.  I'll happily oblige because they were doing an awesome job!  

With my morning class going so well, I worried some about the potential of my afternoon class.  After all, could I manage two new group activities in one day without pulling out my graying hairs?

This activity probably exists out there in one form or another, but I invented it last night without any direct inspiration.  It's called Mountain Climber. 

My students were very complimentary of my artwork.  Bless them for loving my scribbles!  Coming soon, there will be a picture of the poster we used to track our progress in the "game."  For now, just picture a crude half-mountain drawn on poster paper.  Starting at the bottom and going up the side, there are labels reading "level 1,"  "level 2," all the way to "level 10" and the groups all have a little mountain climber clip art icon colored a different color that they move up the poster.  

Mountain Climber Directions
  1. Each group is assigned a different colored marker.  My grouping scheme is discussed here.  I used groups of 3. 
  2. Create a variety of problems/tasks related to the topic you're working on and level them from easiest to hardest.  Put each problem on a separate page (half page, etc) and make enough copies for the number of groups you'll have.  I chose to make 10 problems, but this can be adapted to the difficulty level of the topic and the amount of time you have. 
  3. Students provide notebook paper.  Pass out one record sheet per group and one copy of the level 1 problem to each team. 
  4. Students work in their groups to solve the problem.   Group roles are recorder (writes on record sheet discussed below), messenger (delivers paper for corrections), and scorekeeper (keeps track of group progress).  
  5. As the students work on a problem and reach a consensus, the recorder fills in the record sheet, the messenger brings it to the teacher for checking, and the scorekeeper moves the mountain climber up a level when they get a problem correct. Give them the next level of problem when they get a correct answer.
  6. I emphasize accuracy over speed in this exercise.  You can see there are three columns on the right of the record sheet.  The first time the group gives me their paper, they get 3 points for a correct answer.  Each subsequent time, they earn less points.  This is a good motivator to help them reach a consensus before bringing me the paper!   The team with the highest point total at the end is declared the winner.  I do not care who finishes the 10 problems first.  
The kids were very excited to play Mountain Climber.  I teach a competitive group in Intermediate Algebra, so they all wanted to be fastest.  Some groups started to realize that they needed to slow down and read the questions carefully so they could get their points.  I had one instance of a team that tried to "divide and conquer" on a problem.  I marked an X in their first box for that problem, and they went back to helping and coaching each other as I'd asked.  Despite that one very minor incident, the activity went well and the kids again begged me to let them finish next class. 

My students want to do math problems.  That's my definition of winning! 

Mathematically yours, 
Miss B

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Notebook Check Strategy

I refuse to spend time grading notebook organization.  I know teachers who do this and I remember taking many classes in school in which there were binder checks.  Personally, I think trading notebooks to check them in class is a waste of instructional time.  Collecting them to check myself is just plain daunting.  And for what?  It's not like grading a student's organization indicates their mastery of the content the subject requires them to learn.  I'm terribly disorganized when it comes to paperwork, but I know my math! 

The only benefit of checking notebooks in the traditional way is that it encourages students to have the life skill of being organized.  I've started a notebook check this year that goes a step further to ensure a student is familiar with the location of papers in his binder.  After all, I want students to be able to reference their notes as needed to help them attack problems.  When we have a few minutes at the end of class to spare, I pull out a stack of "cat cash," the money in our grade level economy.  I name a paper and award $5 to the first child who can find it and $1 to any other student who can find it before I call out the next paper.  The catch- it must be in the binder rings in the right section to count.  I run through three or four papers and that's it.  In about 3 minutes, we've checked every binder in the room.  I've done this twice so far this year and the students have responded well.  I've reminded them of this system when I pass back papers and it appears that this year more students are actually using the binder rings instead of a folder or the pocket inside the binder's cover (or the trash can). 

What do you do to encourage your students to be organized? 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Classifying Systems of Linear Equations.

 I set my students to work today on a sorting activity for systems of linear equations.  Systems is a review topic from Algebra I, but a topic that still gives many of them trouble.  I gave the students this paper to cut apart:

After a few minutes of cutting, I gave them this chart onto which they pasted the vocabulary and examples after solving the systems on the reverse of the paper.  
 They ended up with a chart like this one. 

What worked well: The students were able to self-check because they knew there would be two of each type of system.  Since there were 6 graphs, the students had a couple of opportunities to practice the solutions to each kind of system. 

What needs improvement: I should have labeled the systems and graphs with A-F prior to copying the sheets; I had the kids do the labels instead.  The kids complained that the graph paper was too small, though most of them managed just fine. 

UPDATE 1/6/13: The files shown below are available for download as a pdf.  I've marked the graphs and systems A-F as indicated above.  Thanks for visiting!   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Implementing Rich Mathematical Tasks

My school system is partially through the transition to Common Core Mathematics.  Our lower elementary grades have fully transitioned, HS Geometry has transitioned, and 8th grade has transitioned to the point where we're teaching both the old and new together this year!  As part of the transition, 8th grade students who previously passed Algebra I in 7th grade are enrolled in a course we've titled "Intermediate Algebra."  The course resembles traditional Algebra II in a lot of ways and is designed to fill the gap that would be made by students moving directly from our state's Algebra I/Data Analysis curriculum into CC Algebra II.

One of the expectations for the course this year is that I provide my students with rich mathematical tasks with an open-ended quality.  I was a bit hesitant to get started with these as the students I teach haven't had many experiences with open-ended problem solving.  I feared they would be frustrated by the lack of rigid structure and be very needy.

Here's how I organized the task process in my room.
  1. I presented the concept of a mathematical task as different from a BCR (the style of constructed response used on MD state testing which is quite formulaic) and explained to them that there are so many correct ways to answer a task that they should answer a task in the way that makes the most sense to them mathematically.  I stressed that I was not going to be answering lots of questions during this task, so they were to rely on their group and "figure it out."  (I still coached a minimal amount when groups were quite astray, but I wanted them to feel independent.)
  2. I assigned groups of four, making sure each group had at least one or two strong math students and a mix of boys and girls.  (Side note: I use pocket charts for grouping and it has been a breath of fresh air this year.  Something about this system, perhaps the groups being on the wall when kids enter the room, has kept the whining/eye rolling/ugliness entirely at bay this year.  I so much as mention the word "group" and their little heads spin to the back wall to check out who they'll be with, but they don't complain!)    
  3. I presented the task they were responsible for, indicated the variety of materials available, and set them to work.  
  4. After 30 minutes the first day, none of the groups were even close to fully answering the question.  Most had talked for 90% of their time and written very little.  All the groups stayed on topic and remained focused during that time frame.  
  5. The next day, I made some general comments about the task and gave a small insight or two into the problem to give a few hints related to common misconceptions.  The groups reconvened and were charged with finishing their answer. 
  6. We did a jigsaw grouping to share out.  Two students stayed put and presented their group's work to two students who came from a different group.  We rotated again so all students had a chance to present and a chance to review another group's work.  
  7. The original groups had some time to debrief about what they would change after getting input from other classmates.
  8. Homework was to write a reflection on the process. 
The tasks I'm using this year are from the Dana Center.  This is a great PDF resource to download if you teach Algebra I or II, or possibly even pre-Algebra with motivated students.  You can scaffold more or less depending on your group of students and the relative difficulty of the task.  This week, students worked in groups of four on the "Extracurricular Activities" task, part B.  The task gave students a scenario and asked them to write a function to model the scenario and find its domain and range.  From my description, I'm sure you're wondering why I needed to devote even 15 minutes to this problem.  We actually spent nearly 90 minutes in class spread over two days plus one night's homework on this task.  Here's why: 
  • The problem is embedded into the task in a way that students must make meaning of the situation.  Since the meaning wasn't immediately clear to the students, most every group restarted or made significant revisions to their work during the process.  (Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.)
  • Students have various ideas about the meaning of the problem and how to go about solving it, so they have rich discussions. My students were holding each other accountable for their ideas, asking pertinent questions to better understand their classmates' points of view.  (Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.)
  • Students were able to use any of the materials in the room, so some groups gravitated toward calculators, while others preferred to sketch a graph by hand or write out a table.   (Use appropriate tools strategically.)
  • The real world context leveled the playing field in an unexpected way in at least one group.  I overheard one student who is a weak math student leading his group through this task at the beginning because he was the only one with the real-world background knowledge to understand the problem.  His more "book smart" teammates were lost without his guidance.   He was more engaged in this task than I've seen him since school started. 
I was very proud of my students this week.  I wasn't really looking for their work as the final product.  I was hoping to see them demonstrate the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice.   I highlighted a few above, but I can honestly say that I saw all 8 standards in play during this process. 

Some students were already asking to do more tasks on Tuesday before we finished our first task.  They loved the interaction and I loved how involved they felt in solving the problem.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why my job is awesome

a.k.a. I'm going to show off a little and tell you about one of my wonderful students. 

Last year, I taught a very nice, smart, and motivated class of students.  I once joked that I could assign them the entire textbook, leave the room, come back hours later, and find them in the same place I left them, apologizing to me because they weren't able to complete the entire assignment in that amount of time.  They were literally that amazing of a group of kids! 

One of the standout personalities in that class was a student whose math confidence wasn't very high.  While very smart, this student never felt comfortable with math as quickly as most students in the group.  This student worked very hard to understand the material throughout the year. 

Today, I checked my mailbox in the afternoon and found a very fat envelope.  Inside was a letter, a piece of chocolate, and a bottle of wite-out. 

The letter was touching.  I won't repost the whole thing, but I will quote a few of my favorite sentences. 

I truly enjoyed being in your class.  Math, for me, is my least favorite subject.  It is so confusing, disorienting, scary, easy to get wrong, and a HUGE stressor/frustrator.  (Oh yeah, it's bad.  The night before 6th grade I had a minor freak out...over math class!)  Yet in your class, when I did figure it out, I felt on top of the world.  [...] And everything was so fun!  I looked forward to class.

This student include a "personal and used" bottle of wite-out signed on the bottom as a gag gift/inside joke.  I am a wite-out queen.  My kids are always poking fun at me for my obsessive use of wite-out.  I write in pen on any papers I project under the document camera because it shows up easier than pencil.  Unfortunately, if I don't write so neatly or I make a mistake, I can't erase it.  Therefore, I always have a supply of the wite-out runners and use them generously.  I got one from a girl in that same class for a Halloween present last year.  :)

I'm adding the letter and wite-out to my teaching keepsake box.  Letters like this one, while few and far between, are what keeps me going as a teacher.  What keeps you motivated? 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Update: Storage pouches

Before school started, I posted about the storage pouches I was planning to use for my kids' desks this year.  As a middle school teacher, I see several groups of students throughout the day, so I wanted to have an easy supply set-up that wouldn't require materials to be passed out and collected each class period.  I also wanted a system that would be quiet and easy to operate.

So far, the storage pouches are doing their job nicely.  I did have three come off of the desk when the fabric loop unraveled.  Because they were all together and the same color, I'm going to blame that on faulty craftsmanship, not my kids.

Students have already accessed most of the materials in the pouches.  They are able to get what they need without leaving their seats or dumping the materials onto the floor, my two main worries prior to trying this out.  They're even doing a fairly good job remembering to put away what they've used and I'm doing a good job reminding them to do so.  I've only caught one runaway protractor on the floor in a week, so I think we're doing well. 

If you're looking for a way to organize supplies at student desks (and you aren't terribly worried about theft), I would recommend this method!  This wouldn't be a good method to use if you can't trust your students to return their materials when you ask them to do so.  I'm lucky to have a fairly trustworthy group most years, so I don't have too many materials walk.  Most of the materials that walk eventually find their way back because they've been accidentally liberated.  ;-) 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The joy of a rich question

I was considering the first unit for my Intermediate Algebra class and how I could enliven it.  My first unit isn't even really part of Intermediate Algebra but rather part of my state's 8th grade curriculum.  Because I teach high school courses in middle school, I'm responsible for delivering two courses worth of curricula in one school year.  Thankfully, we operate on a schedule that allows a year-long every day block of 88 minutes for math and reading, so I can get it done. 

I'm challenging myself this year to find a really rich question to ask near the beginning of every unit with the intention of answering it throughout the unit.  Today, I started my measurement unit with my students.  Our state standards require students to find the area of composite figures composed of polygons and circles and to find the volume of cylinders.  I posed the following question to my students: "How much would it cost to paint the ceiling throughout the school?"  Our school is highly irregular in design thanks to its age and at least three renovations/additions of which I'm aware.  The map is far from rectangular; my room is a trapezoid and our cafeteria has a wall that bows out in an arc.

I set the students to work in a Think, Pair, Share in which they had to list factors we would have to consider when evaluating the cost.  I meant to take photos of their posters.  They'll get added to this post when I get back to my classroom.  Here are a few of the "obvious" answers and some highlights that show they were really thinking about this in depth:
  • The area of each ceiling tile and number of ceiling tiles
  • The amount of paint per can, its cost, and how much surface it would cover
  • The amount of masking tape, plastic sheeting, brushes, rollers, stir sticks, paint trays, ladders, and gloves needed. (I get the feeling these kids have painted before!)
  • The salary of the crew, how long it would take to paint, and when the painting would happen
  • How the lights would be treated, if at all.  (This was a point of great contention.  Some students thought it was a fabulous idea to paint the lights and give everything a blue cast.  Others thought they would like regular white light in the classroom.)
  • What kind of paint would be necessary. (They realized that the gym has a different type of ceiling than the classrooms and that they would need to research the proper materials.)
  • The need to consider HVAC and proper ventilation. (They pointed out that we would waste A/C if we left the windows open to let the fumes escape.)
I was very impressed with their quick brainstorm.  Now I would like to hone this into a class project that culminates with a presentation to our principal.  She used to be a math teacher, so I think she would appreciate it.

My next plan is to have them consider the list they made and decide what math skills they know that will help them with each aspect.  I see applications of area, perimeter, volume, proportional reasoning, and likely percents (when items are on sale or using the percent of ceiling covered in lights in my room to predict the amount covered in the whole school).  Just my luck, all of these are within my curriculum.  :)

Students will then work on determining the area to be covered.  I know we can do this with the maps of the school that we have, but I think I might be able to use my classroom GPS units at some point to get measurements on the outside corners of the building to help the students calculate the total area of the ceiling of the school.  I honestly don't know much about how the GPS units work and need to learn what to do with them.  That's a goal I have for this year.  I did buy a book of lesson plan ideas so I could try to incorporate them this year. 

Next, I will divide the class into teams, each of which is to research one area of interest (paint type, salary for workers, other materials, color selection) and provide two or three options for the proposal along with their recommendations for which one is the best choice.

At that point, we can put together a PowerPoint as a class and (I hope) "brief" our principal on the idea in our teams.   

I really doubt we'll be painting anything, but it's food for thought! 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Measures of Central Tendency Cootie Catcher or Fortune Teller

First, a PSA: Tomorrow is the first day of school!  Hooray!

Back to your regular programming...

I've seen some academic uses of the so called "cootie catcher" or "fortune teller" and I decided to make one for my kids to use this week as we review measures of central tendency in Algebra I.

Here's the basic template I made in Word.  If you want the file, please just leave me a comment and I'll be happy to share   download the PDF from Google Docs.  Obviously, you could just have your kids fold a plain one and write things on it.  I don't know my clientele yet, so I'm doing most of the work for them this time. 
The four corner squares are labeled mean, median, mode, and range.  These are the measures of central tendency and variation that my students should have mastered in 7th grade.  Generally, they come in pretty well prepared on this topic, with some of them mixing up the "m" words.

I filled in everything but the solutions and definitions for them.  There are 8 data sets given and there are places for the kids to write in the mean, median, mode, and range for each of the sets.  My plan is for them to work in partners to "play the game" and collaborate on finding the answers for each data set, only recording their work if they both agree.  They can then take this home as a study guide/review game.   The colors on the words are just pretty.  The colors around the data sets and answers are there to keep the kids from getting switched around. 

Again, you can download the blank template here if you missed the link above!  If you'd like the filled in copy (in my lovely handwriting, sorry), you can get it from my updated post.

How do you make review activities fun and unique to keep kids motivated?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Storage pouches

I find that one of the most frustrating aspects of organizing my classroom is having supplies accessible to students in a way that minimizes the time and movement needed to get the supplies out and put them back. 

I've had plastic shoe boxes with supplies on shelves for my entire career.  The kids understand the organization and do a good job managing the supplies.  I've even made it through 4 years on the same $1 bins, so I think that's definitely a plus, too.  What I dislike is the ordeal of either passing out the supplies, having students pass out the supplies, or managing the parade of students gathering their own supplies. 

Enter what I hope will be a fix for these messy transitions.  Each desk will have its own set of supplies that are meant to stay there until we need them.  I searched high and low for the right container that wouldn't infringe on a students' book storage space.  I got these great mesh zipper pouches at the Dollar Tree.  Because they're mesh all over, the students will be able to see what's inside and not feel the need to dump the contents out to get an item (I hope).  I attached each one to a desk using a single zip tie through the fabric loop on the pouch.   The direction the pouch hangs is nice because the zipper is facing upward so things won't inadvertently fall out when it's opened. 

Inside, I placed our most-used items: protractor (which we also use as a ruler/straightedge), yellow highlighter, red pen, dry erase marker, and eraser cloth.  The expectation will be that the students may only use the items in the pouch when they are instructed to do so.  If I know kids will need other items like scissors or glue, I can add the items to the pouches for a particular day or pass them out in the first class and have the kids store the items in the pouch until the last class. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Summer Recap

I often wonder if other teachers view summer vacation in the same way that I do.  From September to May, the words "summer vacation" evoke a feeling of longing.  That's longing for calm, relaxation, freedom from a schedule, and no dress code.  From June to August, my life feels fuller than it does during the school year and I wonder why on Earth I thought "summer" was synonymous with "relaxation."  Don't get me wrong, I pack enough fun into my summers that they don't feel like work, but I do wonder why I never feel rested!  Since I go back to work on Tuesday, I thought I'd share a little recap of my summer bucket list. 

Some of my summer fun included:
  • vacationing with my family in Seattle (and seeing Mt. Ranier up close and personal in the snow in June)
  • eating steamed crabs three times in a month (probably a personal record)
  • going to Massachusetts twice to visit family
  • throwing a bachelorette party and bridal shower for my best friend
  • playing trivia night at the local pub (and nearly winning)
  • reorganizing my craft room
  • culling unwanted clothing and shoes from my closets (and subsequently buying more items to replace the cast-offs)
  • catching up with all of my closest friends (mostly in person except for those who live very far away)
  • welcoming soon-to-be-born babies at two baby showers (can't wait until next month to meet them along with the baby that my cousin is due to have later this month!)
  • planting my best garden to date (and then watching it wither under the extreme heat and drought conditions my state dealt with in July)
  • watching way too many DVDs
  • making hundreds of cards for Operation Write Home
  • spending 5 days working on PD at school related to Common Core and Universal Design for Learning so that I'm prepared to deliver inservice to my co-workers this school year
  • setting up my classroom (work, but fun work!)
  • having each of my parents come visit for a few days on separate mini vacations so we could have some quality time together
  • spending a day at the beach
  • taking in Summerfest, my town's annual festival
  • ordering ice cream at the local deli where a single scoop (the size of a grapefruit) costs just $2.49 and is often served by a former student
  • finally covering my sofa (goodbye blue plaid fabric, hello tan fabric)
  • completing three unique baby blankets and finally feeling like I know something about knitting and crocheting
Some things I wish I'd done but never got around to:
  • kayaking (this might still happen in the next few weeks)
  • organizing my filing cabinet in a way that it will be useful (could be tomorrow's project)
  • emptying the pantry and reorganizing it (just not enthused on this one)
I'm happy that my list of thing undone is so short and that the things on that list are possible to complete during the school year.  My best friend is visiting over Labor Day weekend and we are planning on kayaking if spending the day at the beach doesn't pan out.

How are you winding down summer and gearing up for the new school year?  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What to do about "I'm done!"

We all have experienced the joys trials of teaching a group of students who work at very different paces.  There are those children who must be encouraged, coaxed, and refocused so that their work gets finished.  There are the kids on the opposite end of the spectrum who, it seems, have finished the worksheet before their classmates have even managed to get started.  What to do with the children who finish early? 

Obviously, you want to ensure that they're producing their best work and not rushing through an assignment simply to be finished.  I had one child who was such a pro at finishing everything quickly that I always saved my classroom chores for him (passing out papers, sorting things, taking a note to a classroom, etc).  It helped him to have something physical to do because he was very prone to getting into trouble and pestering other children within seconds of being finished his work. 

Other than classroom chores and the overused, "read your free reading book," there weren't many options in my classroom for early finishers.  I decided that this was the year I needed to make it happen! 

I'm going a totally different route with my Early Finisher choices.  I'm putting together brain teasers, puzzles, pentominoes, tangrams, 24, and the like with instructions for a short activity.  It's sort of an homage to elementary school math centers.  Each center will be stored in a zippered pencil pouch that the kids will select and take back to their seats.  I think the fabric pencil pouches will hold up and be easy for the kids to use.  I put a binder ring though the zipper on each pouch so it's easy to hang.  My hope is that these stations will build logical and spatial reasoning which are applicable across many subjects.  The start-up cost for me was about $20 for the pouches ($1.50 each at the discount store in my town, probably at Dollar Tree but not worth the drive for me) because I already had the other materials.  Most of them were sitting unused because I either didn't have enough for the whole class to use at once or because they weren't strictly related to my curriculum.  This is a step in the right direction!  I hope to create enough materials so I can swap these out mid-year.  Every term would be awesome, but I don't have enough materials for that just yet. 

These pouches are left over from previous students.  I purchased 12 more (not pictured) for a total of 16.

I also set up my classroom library in a much more inviting way than in years past.  I stacked some file crates sideways and used them as my bookshelves.  I placed some books related to math in a display.  I was so close to selling that pink locker storage piece because the pockets are so deep when it occurred to me that I could stuff the bottom with paper so items would sit up higher and be visible.  Duh!  My library last year, in comparison, had all of my books piled in one crate that was placed under a chair in a corner.  Not exactly inviting!  I could use some better books; most of what I have is so dated I don't even want to pick them up.  I will try to make it to a library sale this year in hopes of adding some attractive books to the collection and I'll go through my books at home to see if I have any that are age appropriate for the kiddos. 

Finally!  A classroom library with a bit of character.

Do you have any great ways to keep kids' brains active when they've finished their assignments?  Please share what works for you.

Miss B

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Building Vocabulary with a Word Wall

I think most teachers are familiar with word walls.  I've seen elementary teachers organize them alphabetically.  For my math students in middle school, I organize the walls by unit theme.  Each unit we study is assigned a color so students can look for related words in the group.  We make use of our word walls in countless ways, but here are just a few:

1. I place all of the words for a new unit on the wall.  As we work our way through a unit and learn a new concept, students try to guess which word could have that meaning.  This often guides us through a discussion of prefixes, suffixes, and roots as students break down the words and try to make meaning from them.

2. Students refer to the wall to help them recall words that have slipped their minds and for spelling.

3. Because I am lucky to have two metal walls, my words are most often individual strips with magnets on the back.  We take them down and use them for games.  One favorite game is the fly-swatter game.  Give a representative from each team a fly-swatter (clean, of course), scatter the vocabulary words on the board, and give a definition, example, non-example, drawing, etc that the students have to match to the correct word.  It's fast-paced and they get to smack the board, so they love it!  My rules are that they may only smack the board and they must alternate turns smacking words (otherwise it looks like whack-a-mole gone bad and the kids don't pay attention to the words).

4. Review/Study.  I give a final exam so I encourage my students to use the word wall to identify their weaknesses.  They can read through the words and decide what to study based on what vocabulary is most difficult for them.  This is true for unit tests and quizzes as well.  I also find my students using the word wall when they help each other.  They are frequently overheard asking each other about the words and the responses typically include the related words.  I love hearing my kids use their vocabulary! 

I have experienced a few set-backs with my word walls in the past.  First, the words get a glare once laminated so they can be hard to read.   Sometimes I end up with students who have trouble reading at a distance even with really large font sizes.  So, readability is a big problem in my classroom.  Second, the students can't take the wall home so they don't have that resource when they are completing assignments outside of my room.  In response to those issues, I decided to do a little more with vocabulary this year. 

New to my class this year will be personal word walls.  Hooray!  I designed a template to look like a brick wall complete with a graffiti title.  Kids will be responsible for adding words to their wall when we first learn them in class.  Each unit will be written in a different color and the kids will be able to place the words how they want to on the sheet though I'll encourage them to group like words in some way instead of randomly scattering them.  I'm going to have the kids lightly shade or outline the boxes with colored pencil when they feel they have mastered the term.  To me, that means they can describe/define it clearly, draw it accurately, and spell it correctly.  I think we'll need two or more copies to fit all of our words depending on the course as each size holds about 75 words.  When I taught Geometry in the past, we had nearly 300 words, so we would have needed 4 of these.  I'm going to make this double sided and copy it on cardstock.  They'll keep it in a sheet protector so they can use it to quiz themselves by marking things off with a dry erase marker. 

Here's the file.  You'll need the font "a dripping marker" for the title (or just choose a font that you already have).


Now, as we keep the personal word walls, we'll also keep up with the one in the classroom.  I want the students to take more ownership this year, so I'm toying with the idea of letting them write the word strips.  The problem is that they wouldn't all be pretty and uniform and I don't know if I could handle it!   I made a matching title for the word wall in the graffiti font I used on the worksheet.  I'll report back and let you know who is making the word strips, me or the kids. 

If you would like to use this with your class, leave me a comment with your e-mail address and I'll send you the file.  

How do you organize vocabulary with your students?  What makes it meaningful to them?  I'd love to hear more strategies that work with math.

Miss B