Sunday, October 4, 2015

Writing with Intention: Personal Narratives!

We've been busy working on my Personal Narratives: Interactive Notebook Resources and Minilessons unit, and if I am being totally and brutally honest,  it has been taking longer than I anticipated.  Not because of the unit itself.  It was designed to be fluid.  Each lesson can  be done in a day (within 30-40 minutes), or they can be stretched out and over a few days, as needed.  As all good teachers know, sometimes, you just have to slow things down.  I know that I could always race full-speed ahead and pack a bazillion things in, but I know that's not in the best interest of my kids.  This group needs a little extra time, and so rather than trying to make them fit into my plans, I am adjusting mine.  I am slowing it down.  Ultimately, I want my students to fully grasp how to plan, write, revise, and edit their personal narratives.  I want them to experiment with author craft and learn how to write purposefully for an authentic audience.  Rushing them would almost certainly curtail my attempts to make that happen.

I will say this, I have been teaching personal narratives in a writer's workshop capacity for about seven years (out of my ten years in the classroom), and I honestly have never felt so organized with my mini-lessons-- ever.  I know this may come off sounding biased since this is my own product, but all of that aside, I have found it SO helpful to have scaffolds and organizers for every single mini-lesson to guide my students toward the writing target each day.  Being able to walk them through each stage of a mini-lesson (the teaching point, the explicit instruction, the guided practice, the independent practice, the sharing, and the closing) and having resources to support them (instead of just having them record them into their notebooks without a template) has shaved time off of my lessons, and since we are slowing things down to begin with, this has been a huge blessing.  It also has really helped my less-organized students to be more productive as writers.  When I create something for my classroom, I always try to anticipate the needs my students will have, and I always have faith that it will enhance my teaching, but in this case, with this particular product, it has greatly exceeded my own expectations, and it has made my job easier.  Truly.

For one particular lesson, my students helped me create an anchor chart about a shared memory.  They chose to write about our Many Luscious Lollipops lesson from earlier this year.  One student gave the example of what "telling" sounds like, then we worked together to expand that into a more detailed account of what happened using transition words.  We talked about the positive elements of the "showing" account, but we also discussed how it could be enhanced even more.  After we completed the chart, my students used a template in my Personal Narratives unit to list the main events that we described.  This template was a precursor to the accordion template that they were about to utilize for their own seed stories.  Scaffolding learning is SO important.  It seriously cannot be underestimated or underutilized!

If you take a look at the photo below,  you will see Silly Putty next to an accordion template for the interactive notebook.  A few years ago, I started using Silly Putty to make the concept of seed stories and watermelon stories more concrete and tangible. First of all, I love that the container looks like a seed, but I love that when you crack the seed (ahem, idea) open, you can stretch it out.  This year, I wanted to find a way to capitalize on this and create an organizer that would allow my students to intentionally sequence their story from beginning to end using sequencing terms, then I wanted them to be able to stretch it out.  I LOVE how the accordion template literally expands and stretches out just like the silly putty...just like a good story should!  In theory, I loved it, but in practice, I loved it even more.  As you can see, my students planned out their stories, folded the accordion back up, then proceeded to work on one box at a more details about each important event in the story.  This broke the process down for students to make it less overwhelming, and it also helped them to be more focused and intentional about each moment in their stories.  I was really pleased!

Once my students started to expand on their seed stories,  I gave them time to write and elaborate.  Eventually, we stopped (despite the fact that the writing is still a work-in progress), and I designated some time for students to confer with one another.  This is something I always try to incorporate, and I do my best not to short-change this component, even when we are short on time.  They need real audiences.  They need to see themselves as authors, and authors collaborate.  They have people in their circles who offer advice and compliments along the way, and I want my students to have the same thing.  So, I make time for it.  I foster it.  I model what it should look and sound like and what their discussions should be like. I explain what effective feedback is... I model it... I have them practice it... and eventually they own that.  Now that I have 31 kiddos in my class, it's even more important to do this because I cannot conference at length with every kid every day, and it frees me up even more to float around the room to listen in or offer my own advice before we share out.  My students like hearing what they are doing well...especially from peers.  They also seemed appreciative of the fact that friends helped point out something that was confusing or a word that was misspelled.  Many also really liked that they were able to get inspiration from their friends.  All of this made my teacher heart happy, of course.

As we continue working through this unit (and the others from this product series), I am encouraged.  I have already witnessed so much growth in a short time.  I relish the cheers when I say, "It's time for writing, please take out your writing journal."  I silently cheer when I see sensory details or interesting comparisons that help paint a clearer picture of the narrative.  We have made steady progress already, and it's only the beginning.  I know without a doubt... the best is yet to come!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My New Normal

Normal.  It's a word that gets tossed around a lot.  Ironically, although it's supposed to describe the status quo, there really isn't a standard bar for "normalcy".  Everyone's normal is different.  My "normal" as a single teacher was different than my "normal" as a married teacher, and now that my son is a part of my life (and a wonderful part of my life at that), I am adjusting to a whole new normal.  Life as a teacher-mom.  Oh my word.

My new normal consists of waking up entirely TOO early to get my son ready for daycare... and sometimes there are tears... from both of us.  My new normal consists of coating my semi-unkempt hair with product to tousle a few of my natural curls before running out of the door.  My new normal consists of locking myself in my classroom for lunch and planning and scrambling to keep my head above water.  My new normal consists of running out of the door at the end of the day to pick my son up and staying up after he's gone to bed to tie up loose ends.  I had NO idea.  I was naive.  :)

That said, I am still happily teaching.  Some days, I crave more time with my son and wish I could stay at home with him.  Most days, I know I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I feel called to do.  I've just had to make concessions, and blogging has been one of those things.  I have managed to update a few files, and I have a new writing unit in progress (barely), but it's just not a priority right now.  My son will only be this little for a moment.  He is already five months old, and I feel like I am going to blink and he will be walking, and then I'll blink again, and he'll be in kindergarten.  So, while blogging and creating are great creative outlets for me, I just can't justify losing out on precious moments that I will never get back.  I'm trying to find that ever-elusive thing called balance, knowing that I can always throw myself back into things online, but I can't always snuggle my baby.

I do want to keep updating you all on our classroom happenings though, so I will do my best to pop in and play catch up whenever circumstances allow for that.  So, that's the plan for today.  Here are a few snapshots to show what we've been up to lately.

We started out with a little Interactive Notebook 101 action to teach the how and why of interactive notebooking.  I used this last year too, and it has replaced some of the generic "getting to know you" activities that usually take place over the first couple weeks of school. This packet, in particular, helps students learn to manipulate templates and understand why we are doing what we are doing.  I LOVE IT! I use it and my We Are Authors pack to lay the foundation for future learning.  The writing pack is the perfect lead-in to help students begin to see themselves as authors with stories worth telling!

Early on, I always start with lessons on metacognition, so I started out with our Metacognition Salad anchor chart, Tanny McGregor's minilesson, and a little extension that I created for students to do during independent reading.  You can get this template for free HERE.

We've been working on personal narratives using my Personal Narratives: Interactive Notebook Resources and Minilessons.  Here's a few photos of the first day of the unit.  I LOVE how the templates help my students with prewriting, planning, and organizing, and then they are able to write their seed stories and elaborate beneath the templates.  It has made a world of a difference this year!

We have also been working on novel studies.  The third graders read Freckle Juice, and we used my unit to examine character traits and story elements more closely.  The fourth graders have been working with Because of Winn Dixie.  I am trying to teach them Literature Circle jobs through the class novel studies so we can launch those sooner-rather-than-later.

Since we are shuffling around our curriculum a bit this year, I decided to tackle "Prudy's Problem" a little earlier this year.  Since we are working on character traits so much lately, this was a fun and meaningful way to explore character traits with a really lighthearted book.

Of course, sometimes we have to do some heavy lifting too, and our homework is part of that.  My kiddos are still expected to read 20 minutes a night, and they choose one box from their Reading Response Menu each night.  I purposefully created prompts that require not only an answer, but also justification for that answer.  It's a bit of a learning curve at first, but once they start getting the hang of what a quality answer looks like, it is pure magic, and it definitely helps prepare them for the extended responses they are responsible for on state tests.  Practice makes proficient!

On the opposite end of the daily routine, we have our morning work.  My students have fallen head-over-heels for the Out of the Box Morning Work.  I think, if I could give them one daily, they would literally squeal, but as it stands, it's the perfect way to encourage critical thinking on a weekly basis without compromising time that can be spent spiraling through previously taught material.  :)

We've also been cycling through my September Quick Checks.  This was a snapshot taken on Picture Day for a review of visualizing.  The photos came out so cute... and this one made me smile with the pink cotton candy-esque trees.  Oh, third graders. 

Well, that's pretty much all I have managed to remember to take photos of.  It's been quite the whirlwind, and sometimes I just get so caught-in-the-moment that I forget to take a photo, and afterwards I think, "Wow, that went great!" Then I realize... DOH... I forgot to document it!  You win lose some! I'd rather win on the content delivery and lose on the documentation piece...but I certainly will TRY to do a better job at capturing the ins and outs of our classroom journey this school-year.  I have a few really fun lessons up my sleeves over the next few weeks, and I can't wait to share them with you!  I hope your year is off to a fabulous start!!!

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Carson Dellosa Stash!

Hello, friends!  As I mentioned before, I am currently serving as a Brand Ambassador for Carson Dellosa.  That means that I get to check out really awesome products to review and share with all of you!

Today, I am going to be sharing a few wonderful resources that I've been able to get my hands on for this school-year.  When I was able to, I went for fifth grade materials since I teach third and fourth grade gifted clusters, and I am so glad I did. 

First of all, let me tell you about the Common Core Assessment Book.  It's a great way to track the standards you have hit throughout the year to ensure that you don't skip anything.  It's also a great way to track progress and mastery.  As someone who is just making the switch to standards-based report cards this year, I think this resource is a time-saver.  It is ready for you to fill it up to the brim with documentation by standard, by date, and it also has the standards at a glance and the crosswalk to compare standards across grade levels.  I love that, because we know that are kids don't come to us as carbon copies.  We sometimes have to take a step back or kick it up a notch, and I love that I can quickly flip a page in the book without having to look it up online.  That's a time-saver, and as a new mom, I am all about saving time.  Oh, and it's cute.  That's a nice little bonus.

But don't just take my word for it.   Check out a video highlighting the Common Core Assessment Record Book below!  You'll quickly see exactly what I mean!  It's such a great resource.

Awesome, right?  I also had the opportunity to check out Carson Dellosa's Language Arts Interactive Notebook resources.  I chose the 5th grade set because I wanted to stretch my kiddos, and I LOVE it.  The pages are simple yet eye-catching.  The directions are clear, and I think the content is spot on.  I appreciate that they always list the term at the top with a definition of some sort, have a meaningful component for students to actually interact and annotate and provide opportunities for note-taking.  I think note-taking is so important, and it needs to be taught explicitly in upper-elementary.   Interactive Notebooks provide this in a fun, dare I say it--- "interactive"--- way without doing all of the thinking for your students. The thirty lessons contain teacher notes to guide the lessons, but perhaps more importantly, they provide space for students to create their own meaning on the opposite side of the page.  The way interactive notebooks are intended to do. I'm sometimes hyper-critical of the "interactive notebook" stuff that ends up being basically a fill-in the blank fluffy resource, but this is NOT THE CASE with this resource book.  It's a great resource to get your students thinking.  You can see it in action below!

The last resource I had an opportunity to review was their Spectrum Focus Reading for Main Ideas and Details in Informational Text resource.  I, again, chose fifth grade to review as an enrichment piece.  I like that it's relevant to the standards .  I appreciate the focus on citing evidence and having students articulate why they chose the evidence they did. I loved that higher level thinking skills like inferring were emphasized heavily.  They used excellent text features, which is a must-have for informational text resources.  I also liked the variety of responses and graphic organizers.  Overall, I was impressed by the complexity of the texts and responses.  I know that this resource could help stretch my kiddos in a multi-dimensional way.  It's not the same approach to main idea over and over again, and I like that it addresses the complexities of finding main idea and details in informational text.  There is only one thing I was a little less enthusiastic about...and it's the layout of the pages.  I just feel like they could have used a tiny bit more white space between questions to make it less visually overwhelming to students.  That's small peanuts though.  I'll take great content over a great layout any day... and that's coming from someone who believes "cutesy" DOES have a place in the classroom.  Here's the great thing though.  You can actually check out the inside of the text HERE to see for yourself.  You can preview every single page!  You can actually do the same thing for every print resource.  Just find a resource you are interested in, look under the photo on the page, and click where it says "Look Inside" just like the image below. 

This is actually part of a larger collection of texts for math and reading that address various skills, so if you like that you saw in the fifth grade resource, it's worth searching the site to find one that fits your grade level needs, plus it's a very inexpensive resource!  You can't beat that! #winning  What are you waiting for?  Head to Carson Dellosa to check it out! :)

Review Disclaimer: I participate in the Brand Ambassador Program for Carson-Dellosa and have received these products for free to review.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Go Noodle GO TIME!

Did you know that brains are hard-wired to crave certain things?  Novelty is just one example, and it makes perfect sense. Humans are natural explorers.  We are always trying to make sense of our environment and our life experiences.  We are curious... we problem-solve... and we have fun when we encounter something shiny and new.  Researchers have found that novelty causes a number of brain systems to become activated such as the the dopamine system.  Although, dopamine is typically thought of as the "feel good neurotransmitter", a growing body of evidence suggests that it's more like the “gimme more” neurotransmitter.  Dopamine also is very much involved in learning and memory, which occur in the brain through changes in the way that neurons connect to one another. From biological and survival standpoints, it makes sense that we would literally be hard-wired to pay attention to novelty over the mundane.  As teachers, we cannot ignore the fact that our brains crave novelty.  Instead, we must harness it and use it to our greatest advantage.  Of course, there are countless ways to engage students in the classroom using a little bit of novelty, but today, I just want to focus on brain breaks, because let's face it, they are magical. Pure MAGIC.

What is a brain break, you ask?  A brain break is a purposeful break during instruction that is intended, quite literally, to give your students brains a break.  :)  I have enjoyed a variety of brain breaks over the years.  I still love cross-over exercises because they activate both sides of the brain, but I also LOVE using videos that tie into our lessons. That said, GoNoodle has definitely become our go-to-source-for-brain-breaks.  Oh my word.  The kids are obsessed, and it's easy to see why!

Here it is...straight from my kiddos' mouths:
1. "GoNoodle helps us refocus our brains so we can learn more."

2.  "GoNoodles is a great way to use up some of our energy."

3. "GoNoodle is really fun, and they have lots of funny characters called Champs."

4. "It's fun to watch the Champs grow and max them out.  They have funny names too."

5.  "I like that there's a variety of different videos.  Some are fun, and some help us relax."

6.  "Some videos can challenge your brain and help you learn new things."

7. "It gets you out of your seat for a little bit and let's you dance.  I LOVE to dance!"

Let's talk real talk.  First of all, as I mentioned, GoNoodle is a FREE resource.  Although it does give you the option to upgrade, the free version has a plethora of videos to enjoy!  I don't know about you, but I LOVE FREE QUALITY RESOURCES!  What teacher doesn't?  (Am I right?)  I love that the videos are so kid-friendly, and they allow kids to engage in short bursts of physical activity.  This gives them a "break", gets their blood and oxygen pumping, and helps them refocus on our classroom responsibilities.  Ultimately, it helps keep my kiddos focused, engaged, and motivated, and it only takes a few minutes each day.  The videos are perfect as transitions, as an energizer, or as a reward at the end of the day.  Personally, I really like that there are different kinds of brain breaks.  I can pick calming brain breaks that help prepare my students for concentration, I can choose energizing brain breaks to provide a controlled-outlet for extra wiggles, or I can choose focusing brain breaks, like stretching, that help my students refocus on the tasks at hand.  The other thing that my students enjoy is watching their classroom "Champs" grow and evolve as earn minutes.  They choose their own itty bitty baby Champ as a class, and they watch it mature until they max it out.  Then they have a chance to pick a new Champ and begin the process all over again.  It's amazing how excited my third AND fourth grade kiddos are about watching the Champ go into the "Transmogrifier".   

Personally, I love that my students dance together, sing together, and grow closer together as a community through each brain break.  They laugh, they exchange glances, and we become more of a school family each and every time.  That has been an unexpected bonus, and it makes my teacher heart so full and so happy! 

Now, enter to win an awesome Champ t-shirt, then make sure to sign up for a FREE GoNoodle Account!  I promise, you won't regret it. and your students will thank you!  Make your students brains happy today!  It's Go Noodle Go Time!  

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Character Traits: Many Luscious Lollipops!

Have you ever heard a teacher say, "We used to have fun in school, but now we just test, test, test", or "We used to have fun in school, but now we don't have time because of testing"?  In this standards-driven, results-driven educational climate, sometimes student engagement can get the shaft.  Honestly, that's just sad to me.  I don't want to offend anyone here, but let me be clear about something.  We are not teaching our students to be professional test-takers.  Teaching to a test is not a to be a life-changing, transformative gift to bestow upon your students.  In fact, you don't even need to "teach to the test" to prepare your students for the test.  Quality lessons will trump drill and kill lessons any day of the week.  Lessons that are memorable and fun certainly deserve a place in the classroom, and this one is one of my favorites.  Student engagement is a snap when you use lollipops as a vehicle for teaching character traits (and reviewing adjectives) with your kiddos, and it's something they are sure to remember for years to come. 

I like to use "Many Luscious Lollipops" as a read aloud because it sets the stage for lollipops to become our common denominator, so to speak.  We briefly read the book and discuss adjectives.  My students are typically pretty with it when it comes to adjectives, but character traits are usually tricky business.  Because we start out the year with characterization AND we begin writing narratives, I want them to understand that characters are multi-dimensional.  They have complex inner-workings, and they also have appearances that deserve our attention as readers and writers. This book sets the stage for those discussions...and a sweet treat.


We begin by discussing why adjectives are so important in general, and why they are so important in stories before I distribute lollipops to my students.  I like to use Dum-Dums because they are cheap, they have a ton of variety, and they are small so they don't require a lot of time to eat. (I literally spent $3.00 on 75 lollipops!  I love how inexpensive this lesson is!)

Next, my students fill out a sensory language sheet describing lollipops using character traits, and we discuss the process...and precise language.  I stress that precise language helps us EXPERIENCE texts as they are intended to be experienced.

Then, I pass another "lollipop" to my students--- a balloon on a stick.  This is always a highlight of their day.  (If you ever want to drive your students completely batty and build anticipation, just start sticking these balloons around your classroom during dismissal the day before you plan to launch the lesson.  I guarantee you will have students excitedly asking what the balloons are for and hypothesizing all sorts of scenarios.  I just let my students' imaginations run wild and build a little suspense, and it always seems to make the lesson that much "sweeter".

(As a side-note, another money-saving trick is to "recycle" the balloon sticks year after year!  I have had mine for six years, and I used the same set of sticks with two classes this year.  It took a little extra work to blow up the second set of balloons while my students were working during this lesson, but I was still able to walk about and conference with my students while simultaneously prepping for my next class.  This is definitely doable if you are departmentalized with multiple classes.  It just requires a little multitasking, but as you know, teachers are multitasking masters, right?!)

Just to be clear about adjectives and the purpose of them, the kiddos also describe balloons before we begin to contrast adjectives with character traits.

We spend a few minutes defining character traits and contrasting it with adjectives.  I like to use Spongebob as our example.  I have the students describe him using adjectives first.  They will say things like "yellow", "porous", and "square".  When I ask them to begin describing his personality, or character traits, they say things like, "obnoxious", "immature", and "friendly".  Using a familiar character makes the concept more universally accessible for all students, and they think it's fun.

Once I establish that they understand what a character trait is, I have them write their names on their own "lollipops".  Then I have them write five character traits that describe them.

The kids then pass the balloon around their tables, and they have to add one character trait that pertains to each friend without repeating any.  I give them a character trait list to use as a reference.

 Once the balloons make it all around the table, I have my students read the comments.  First of all, it's great affirmation for my students.  (I stress using this as a bucket filling time.  No put-downs are allowed.  We discuss that people and characters have positive and negative traits, but I stress that this is not a time to focus on the negatives because people's feelings are involved.  We focus, instead, on building confidence and building community, which is why this is great to do at the beginning of the school-year!)  Once they read the character traits, my students list the character traits that they believe do, in fact, pertain to them.  They also list adjectives that describe their appearances and draw an accompanying picture.  I love seeing what they come up with. :)

Eventually, we move on to group practice.  I always do one example with them, so I project it onto our SMARTboard.  We read the text, and we determine character traits that would pertain to the character, then my students have to support their answers with evidence from the text.  Since this is a short text, it is really accessible and doesn't take up inordinate amounts of time, but it still gives enough information to allow for a variety of student responses, and in turn, it opens the door to great discussions as a class.

Then, I randomly count my kiddos off, put them into groups, and they practice doing the same activity in small groups with different short passages.

They fill out graphic organizers to record character traits in the "Inside" box and adjectives on the "Oustide" box for each character.

You know they they are taking it all very seriously when the clipboards come out!  :)

 On the other side, the students choose two character traits to elaborate upon, and they provide evidence from the text to support their answers.  They also draw a picture of their characters.

In the past, I have projected each character on the SMARTboard while each group reads the texts and shares their character traits and evidence with their classmates.  Then it's the perfect time for an exit ticket!  I like to just have them write the difference between adjectives and character traits on a Post-It to keep it simple and effective.  Easy-peasy!

If you're looking for a fun way to teach character traits, this is a sweet lesson to help the concept stick, but don't just take my word for it.  This lesson is one of my best-sellers, and you can read comments from countless others who have successfully implemented this lesson with their students!  Click on the image below to learn more or CLICK HERE!