September 29, 2013

Weekends Without Lesson Plans & a Flash Freebie

I have to say...

It's SO nice not to spend my entire weekends worrying about writing formal lesson plans to submit to my administration each week. This was my most dreaded task last year, and I'm happy to be rid of it!

Instead, I got to spend my weekend...

- Celebrating the pregnancy of Joel's sister who is expecting her first child in less than two weeks! I'm so excited for this little girl that I can hardly stand it. 

- Joining my cousin/friend (it's a long story) from college at Oktoberfest where we sang along with our favorite 80's cover band, Sixteen Candles with an awesome group we hope to hang out with again soon. 

- Helping Joel change the brakes on his car. (Okay, this part wasn't exactly fun for me, but it saved us like $300... and he made me feel appreciated so it was worth it.)

- Catching up on the season premiere of Grey's Anatomy. I feel like my life is complete now that my shows are back!

- Watching da Bears. Even though we lost, I was proud of the late comeback. It was looking like we were going to have an embarrassing game there for a while, but I'm proud of my guys for persevering and closing in on that crazy lead. 

- Uploading my second paid product to Teacher Pay Teachers. I feel like I'm finally starting to get the hang of this thanks to the help and encouragement of some great bloggy friends like Erin, and Susan. My new product is a zip folder of all of my notes and activities for teaching students How to Punctuate Dialogue:
  • PowerPoint with guided notes, guided practice, independent practice, and a fun activity where students get to write the dialogue for the subjects in pictures. 
  • Guided notes worksheet to accompany the PowerPoint.
  • Rally Coach activity where your students get to tutor each other.
  • Three practice worksheets.
  • One quiz and answer key.
The first three commenters will receive this product for FREE!

September 25, 2013

Flash Freebie: Protagonist, Antagonist, & Foil Character Sort

I know it's not Tuesday, but I tried something new today and can't wait to share it. I've just added my first for-sale product to my TPT store! I've been wanting to start selling, as opposed to giving everything away for a while now, but I honestly have been so overwhelmed at the thought of competing with all of the wonderful sellers out there.

So, I'm starting small... this product is an activity I made for my students last year to check for understanding of the literary terms protagonist, antagonist, and foil. It includes 27 characters names from popular shows/movies/books for your students to sort into the correct categories.

I've also suggested three ways to implement this activity into your classroom:

Option A: Interactive NotebooksHave your students cut out the character names on the “Character Sort” sheet provided. Have them glue the title row into their Interactive Notebooks, and then give them time to sort the characters into the correct categories. The sorting sheet is a perfect fit for a composition notebook.

Option B: Find Your PartnersDistribute one character to each student in your class and ask them to find the other characters from their stories. Once together, they should determine who fits each role and be prepared to defend their rationale to the class.

Option C: Group/Partner Sort Have students work together to sort the characters into the correct categories. This can be a race against other groups or a center activity depending on what best meets the needs of your students. 

I honestly never thought to share this until the ESL teacher (who helps out in our classroom two days a week) remarked, "This is an awesome activity!" today... and I thought I might actually have something worth sharing! :)

And since I haven't yet figured out how to upload a preview that won't give away all my hard work, I'm going to do something even better...

I will give a copy to anyone who does the following by 11:59 PM CST:
1. Follow my blog!
2. Follow my TPT store!
3. Leave me a comment letting me know that you've done both items above so i can respond with the attachment!

September 24, 2013

Holy Cuteness!

My sixth graders begin each day by answering a prompt in their writing journals. This year, our ELA block consists of 11 ESL and 5 SPED students (two of whom are at a functional level). When they have a hard time, as they often do, coming up with ideas on their own, my teaching partner and I will provide them with our own examples to get them thinking.

As I was circulating the room today, I came across this gem from one of our ESL kiddos. It made my heart smile, and I immediately took this photo to forward to my parents:

Both of my parents appreciated it, and my dad asked what kind of "meat" he was. And can I just say that I LOVE the phonetic attempt at spelling my complicated German name! I also love that this journal shows how they all call me "Mrs." despite the numerous times I've told them, "My mom doesn't work here!" They crack me up!

My students are the BEST part of my job!

Because I'm with the same group for the majority of the day (anywhere from four to seven periods) as a teaching assistant, I have been able to develop great relationships with my students. We're at a point now that they often prefer my help over their classroom teachers simply because they're more comfortable with me. And there are a few of them who like to "fight" over me - each claiming, "She's MY teacher!"

I may not be the classroom teacher, but my students love me just the same! :)

Teacher TIp Tuesday: Listening Passes

You know how you give your students hall passes at the beginning of each term for them to use for locker/bathroom breaks at their discretion? Today's Teacher Tip is an extension of this suggested by another fabulous teaching assistant on my team.

Listening Passes

We've all been there. After painstakingly writing down the directions, reading them aloud and discussing any questions with the class, you release your students to start their work. Inevitably, though, hands will shoot into the air full of questions... related to things you just answered.

(For the record, I'm not talking about students with IEPs here, as repeating directions is a common accommodation for them. I'm talking about students who are too busy socializing, daydreaming, doodling, working ahead, etc. to bother paying attention to my instruction. I know I'm not the only teacher who has students like this.... right?!)

I don't know about you, but I find it extremely annoying whenever my students confirm for me that they are plain ol' ignoring the sound of my voice. I swear I try my best not to sound like that teacher from the Peanuts cartoon... but sometimes they still don't listen!

So, I propose that at the beginning of each term, we hand out Listening Passes to our students, and every time they ask a question that has already been addressed, they must submit a pass (or... if they're in my classroom, they get a punch on their punch card). 

But wait... we're not done yet.

I would make this a group activity. Each student has his/her own passes, but at the end of each term, I would have the entire group submit their leftover passes for extra credit/some other reward. Not only would this encourage students to listen more carefully, but it also encourages the "Ask 3 Then Me!" directive we all love so much.

If you get a chance to implement this in your classroom, I would love to hear how it works. Since I don't have that kind of control this year, I can only love this tip in theory for now. :)

September 23, 2013

What I'm Reading: If I Stay

I saw this list on Pinterest a while back of books that are currently being made into movies, and I decided to start tackling the list. I don't know about you, but I have a personal goal to always read books before seeing movies because they're always SO much better!

The book I'm currently reading is called If I Stay by Gayle Foreman. The story centers around Mia, a 17 year-old girl with an adoring boyfriend, loving family and bright future ahead of her attending Juilliard. All of this changes, though, when Mia and her family are in a major car wreck that takes the lives of her parents and leaves her body shattered and mind stuck in a coma.

What Mia learns is that she, and only she, has complete control over whether she will live or die. But she must consider the consequences of either decision. Can she live without her parents? What kind of life will she have after the physical trauma of the accident? Will she ever be able to play music again? Could she leave her brother behind and join her parents in the afterlife? How will her boyfriend respond?

To be completely honest, I haven't been that impressed with the writing of this book, but I am determined to see it through because I am interested in Mia's decision process. As a protagonist, I think Mia faces a captivating challenge that any reader would be interested in following. I think it brings to light a lot of the insecurities teens feel about the relationships in their lives, even within their own families, and I think it's pretty motivating to want to know what Mia decides.

Here's a quick trailer to tease you just a bit:

September 17, 2013

Cooperative Learning Strategy for Any Grade

One of the benefits of being a teacher assistant this year is that I get to observe six different teachers
each day. Even if they teach a content area that is completely different from my own, I have been learning from their management and engagement strategies each day.

I feel very fortunate to be working on a team with some wonderful teachers who are all Kagan-trained. This is an extra bonus for me because I've wanted to attend a Kagan training for years (I had a teaching partner one year who was trained and offered some great activities that year), and now I get to see more of those strategies in action. For those that aren't familiar, the Kagan strategies focus on cooperative learning and student engagement.

For today's teacher tip, I wanted to share a strategy I learned last week: Hand Up, Stand Up, Pair Up. I can see this activity being used for many purposes, but we did it as a review game for the upcoming reading strategies quiz. Here's how it worked:

  1. Half of the class was given a sandwich bag containing the reading strategies and definitions. 
  2. On our command, the entire class had to stand up, put a hand in the air (signaling that you need a partner) and find a partner. 
  3. Students with the reading strategy bags had to find partners without them and vice-versa.
  4. Once students find an acceptable partner, they can high-five and put down their hands.
  5. The student with the bag then asks his/her partner to identify one reading strategy from the definition provided on the card, coaching as necessary.
  6. Once the partner has identified the correct answer, the bag of cards is given to the other partner.
  7. The new student with the bag then asks his/her partner to identify one reading strategy from the definition provided on the card, coaching as necessary.
  8. One both partners have identified a reading strategy, both partners raise their hands (again, signaling that you need a new partner) and mingle around the room in search of a new partner. (The partner who started with the bag should NOT be the partner leaving with the bag.)
Teacher Tip: I asked students to hold up the bag if they had the reading strategies so it was easier to see who should pair up. Otherwise, we were seeing pairs of students without strategy cards and other pairs with two.

Depending on the activity they're doing, your students could absolutely sit with their partners during each round. This would make it even easier to identify who needs a partner for each round. Since our students were only together for about a minute each time, we let them stand together instead, which worked out fine once they raised the bags in the air. 

This is a great way to make sure your students are working with a variety of people in the classroom, as it is not really possible for them to only work with their friends. It was easy for us to walk around and listen to the answers to see how much more practice they needed to prepare for the quiz. Our students really enjoyed being able to move around and give each other some creative high-fives. :)

September 15, 2013

Interactive Writing Notebook Giveaway

Honestly, I debated whether or not I should share this giveaway for fear that I'm welcoming more competition for myself... cuz I want this baby! But, since she's been such an amazing bloggy friend and teaching resource for me, I figured I can't be that selfish.

Erin from I'm Lovin' Lit is hosting an amazing giveaway for her new Interactive Writing Notebook, and it's not even available in her TPT store yet! If you've used either of her Interactive Reading Notebooks, as I have, you know they are an invaluable resource. Seriously, Erin is the teacher I want to be when I grow up!

If you haven't already, run over to her store RIGHT NOW to get yourself entered for her giveaway. There's not much time left!

Hunters & Gatherers Activity

Today I want to share a fun activity my team did to help our sixth graders grasp realities of life as hunters and gatherers.

To do this activity, you will need a large space (a small gym would work great), a bag of candy, squirt bottles filled with water, and the leftover holes from the 3-hole punch. Sounds weird, I know.... trust me.

To begin, students are instructed that our ancestors didn't exactly stand erect as we do today, which meant they had to participate in this activity on all fours. This immediately got students giggling. Also, this is another reason I love sixth graders. They are game for anything. There's no way you could get seventh or eighth graders to crawl around on the floor in front of their peers. haha

At the sound of our whistle, students began to crawl around in search of jolly ranchers teachers were throwing around the room. After about a minute, the whistle blows, signaling that all students must freeze.

Anyone without candy in their hand has failed to hunt & gather food and is now dead from starvation and must go to the perimeter of the classroom (our room had a ramp with a railing, which was perfect for confining our "dead) in an area dubbed "The Cemetery" and can no longer speak.

Once the dead are buried, round two can begin. After all of the candy has been collected, blow the whistle again. This time, any student with RED candy has been poisoned and must drop all candy and go to The Cemetery.

For the third round, students can race to pick up the left-behind candy while the teachers walked around with water bottles, spritzing them at students. This time when the whistle blows, any student who got wet has been killed by a tidal wave and must drop all candy and head to The Cemetery.

In round four, teachers will sprinkle the paper punches into the air as the students crawl around for the abandoned candy. At the sound of the whistle, anyone with "snow" on them has been caught in a deadly blizzard and must abandon their candy and head to The Cemetery.

For the last round, teachers were purposefully throwing candy under the tables in the room, causing students to enter the "shelters" to get more food. When the whistle blows for this last round, any student not under a table is dead.

For our team, this left only four students alive. We discussed how hunters & gatherers needed to be in groups of about 30 for survival and that it would be nearly impossible for only four students to sustain life against all those odds. At this time, all of our cemetery inhabitants told their friends, "You're dead!"

And then we gave our entire group a one-minute free for all where they could scramble for as much candy as possible.

Our students REALLY enjoyed this activity, and have to say that I found it hilarious to watch. Although I will admit that we had to re-visit its purpose after several students reported to me that it was, "To get the most candy." Oh, sixth graders! :)

September 10, 2013

Teacher Tip Tuesday - Table Challenge

Today I want to share a teaching tip I learned from one of the teachers I'm working with this year. The group I'm with this year is very chatty during the last two periods of the day. I know it has something to do with the fact that they're coming from lunch, which always gets them talking... but it's not a good time of day for them to lose their focus because it's when we go to math and science.

It's one thing for us to reward students on an individual level, as I suggested with my classroom management apps. And, of course, the 100 chart encourages good choices for the class as a whole. But the table challenge is a great way to reward students for making good choices within their small groups. I feel this is important because peers have more influence over each other in small groups where there is more accountability.

Table Challenge Guidelines:

  1. Record each table number on a popsicle stick.
  2. Set a specific start time for the Challenge to begin.
  3. If any student is breaking the rule, remove that table's stick from the group.
  4. At the end of class, select a popsicle stick from the remaining table numbers and reward the entire table with a Brain Booster or other reward that you use in your classroom. 
Anyone who works in a middle school can tell you the power of peer pressure, and I've already talked about how easily I can convince my students to do pretty much anything with a piece of candy. With this management tip, you get the benefit of positive peer pressure for a small reward.

I can tell you that when we started the table challenge yesterday, our noisy classroom became silent. Today, while we were cutting and pasting a foldable for the entire period, our students actually asked if we could do a challenge. They LOVE it!

Instructional Students and Common Core

This year, my district made some pretty dramatic changes in order to prepare for the big switch to Common Core, which happens fully next year. One of the major game-changers is the fact that they have done away with our instructional program. This means that all of our instructional students have been thrown into inclusion classes for the first time in their lives and without the proper preparation.

My job includes working with these students in each of their core classes, and I can tell you already (so
early into the year) that this is a bad idea. These students do not have the cognitive or even physical abilities to keep up with the mainstream curriculum. Our bilingual and SPED students are so lost, and I feel like a chicken with my head cut off, running from student to student trying to put out fires while the classroom teacher continues the lesson.

I understand that the district's rationale comes from the fact that Common Core doesn't leave room for the modified lessons of an instructional classroom, but this simply cannot be the best alternative. All day long I hear, "This is too hard," and so far, all we've been doing is reviewing what they should already know from elementary school. We were reviewing 4h grade math, and you would have thought we were asking them to do calculus. The students are frustrated, and the teachers are frustrated.

Another issue I'm already seeing is that we are holding back the students who are capable of this curriculum. These students are the ones who can finish the warm-up in 2 minutes while the rest of the class takes 15. Of course, they get bored waiting and start socializing and goofing off with friends, which only distracts those who are still working and results in them getting into trouble.

Today, we prepared an answer document for the upcoming Gates assessment, which meant students had to record their names and then bubble in the corresponding letters. More than 25% of the class could not handle this task, despite our explicit instructions and modeling. In fact, here's a conversation that actually happened about it:

Teacher: John, you spell your name with an A? (As in J-A-N-A-T-H-A-N)

John: Yes

Teacher: Really? I did not know that.

Me: So, does that mean John is spelled J-A-N (thinking he was going with a European spelling, despite the fact that this child is hispanic)

John: No, John is with an O. J-O-H-N.

Me: Wait... so you completely change the spelling of your name when you shorten it?

John: I've always spelled it that way.

Teacher and I look the attendance list in the computer and confirm that his name is spelled J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N as we suspected all along. So, we ask him to come look.

John: That's wrong. I never spell my name like this.

Me: What does it say on your ID?

John: (Looks at his ID, which says Jonathan.) 

Teacher: This is how your name is spelled on our official records, which means one of your parents spelled it this way on your registration forms (6 years ago).

John: My dad always spells my name wrong.

Seriously! This is SIXTH grade, you guys!

I'm not against Common Core at all. But it seems to me that there has been a major oversight in regards to consideration for students who need modified instruction. If these kids can't even spell their own names, what are we supposed to do with them in an inclusion class?!

September 9, 2013

What I'm Reading - Devil in the Details

The novel I'm reading this week was actually a recommendation from my sister, Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jenny Traig (not to be confused with Jenny Craig).

Jenny narrates her expeiences, beginning at age 12, growing up with OCD. Her battles include anorexia and scruplosity, which she desribes as an obsession with religion, especially its rituals. Jenny was raised in the 70s by a Catholic mother and Jewish father, who are initially amused by her compulsions.

This novel actually takes on a humorous tone yet leaves me with some profound insights. As with other mental illnesses, these anxiety disorders often go unnoticed by outsiders, and I find it intriguing to see how hers evolved over time.

During one of her bouts with anorexia, Jenny contemplates the societal pressures for women to achieve this thinness. One of my favorite quotes in this book was when she discusses the irony of her ancestors emigrating to America to escape famine. "They didn't know," she said," that famine would become our national industry. That we would learn to market it, repackage it, new and improved."

Here is the excerpt from Good Reads:

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS announces Jennifer Traig as one of the most hilarious writers to emerge in recent years and one of the strangest! Recalling the agony of growing up obsessive compulsive and a religious fanatic, Traig fearlessly confesses the most peculiar behavior like tirelessly scrubbing her hands for a full half hour before dinner, feeding her stuffed animals before herself, and washing everything she owned because she thought it was contaminated by pork fumes. The result is a book so relentlessly funny and frank, its totally refreshing.

September 7, 2013

Brain Boosters

Joanne over at Head Over Heels for Teaching has a great linky every Saturday where she asks us to link up with our favorite ideas for motivating students in the classroom. Today, I want to share with you my BEST motivation strategy...

There is nothing more frustrating for a classroom teacher than when you have that Ferris Beuller moment after asking a question. That silence can be deafening for me.

And despite the fact that my students never know the movie, I have been known to call out the teacher quote from the movie in a mockery of the awkward scene.

Here's how it usually goes:

Me: Anyone?... Anyone?... Bueller?... Bueller?

Students: blank stares

And then I'm reminded that I'm old and that they have no idea who Ferris Bueller is, which is a shame because it's really a classic.

Once I wrap my head around the fact that my students will never understand the amazingness of my own childhood, I turn to my tried and true motivator: Brain Boosters!

When I employ this strategy, here's what happens:

Students sit on the edge of their seats.

Hands shoot into the air.

Fingers flail in every direction, hoping of gaining my attention.

Suddenly, the entire class is eager to participate.

So, what is a Brain Booster, you ask? Honestly, it's the simplest form of motivation ever created. Candy.

Okay, okay. I know I'm not sharing any new ideas. I'm sure you've all done this, barring any district-wide bans on such things.

I'm just keeping it real. When our other efforts fail to work, sometimes, the best motivator is a piece of candy.

I mean, do you KNOW what a kid will do for a jolly rancher?


From picking up that nasty half-eaten pencil off the floor to going the extra mile to prove that they're thinking critically, my students are slaves to my Brain Booster bucket.

All I have to do is give it a little shake as a reminder, and I no longer feel like Ben Stein.


September 6, 2013

Raising Readers

I've been on a personal mission, since the start of my teaching career, to instill a love of reading in my students. This week, we completed several reading surveys and reading assessments to learn how to best reach that goal. I have to admit, I was saddened, as I am every year, at the number of students who report that they hate reading. 

Mark my words... they will change their tones before the end of the year. 

This infogram from Usborne books shows some pretty staggering numbers, in my opinion, and makes me even more ambitious about my quest. I thought I'd pass it along for those of you that might want to share with your students' parents via email or in your next newsletter.

September 5, 2013

Be a Scribe

OK, I know Thursday is almost over, but I wanted to support my Best Bloggy Bud, Erin at I'm Lovin Lit, with her Thursday Throwdown linky.

As you know, I'm in a different role this year as a Teacher Assistant, so I'm seeing things from a very different perspective. I've already learned how hard it is for me to remember that these are not my classrooms - things will not always be the way I would do them!

I'm with the majority of the same kids for all of my core classes, which means I get to see them in every subject area. I can see the benefit of this, as you elementary school teachers do, because I get to see the entirety of my students' strengths and weaknesses.

One of the weaknesses I see often is a huge reluctance to commit anything to paper. Wether it's writing or drawing, this group of students is very hesitant to put that pencil to paper. I think a large part of it has to do with the high percentage of ESL and SPED students who are lacking confidence in their abilities. We keep encouraging to just try it out so we can learn where to help them.

One of the things I've been doing to help them is offering to be the scribe. "You talk; I'll write," I tell them. And then I make them share their entire thinking process. This has been tremendously helpful in math because I've learned that some of my students are doing exactly the right work but are getting messed up because of their poor handwriting (some due to OT needs) or not lining up their numbers clearly. When they realize this, it's a huge boost in their confidence. For other kids, I've been able to hear where their thinking is wrong, which I wouldn't necessarily know if they were just "showing their work" as required.

When it comes to writing, I always teach my students to write exactly what they would say to their neighbor. Word for word. This is the best piece of advice my mom ever gave me as a writer. You can (and will) always go back and revise your words, but this gives you a great place to start. For the really hesitant students, I make them tell me their responses, and I will quickly jot down what I hear.

Offering to be a scribe has engaged my students who otherwise sit with a blank paper on their desks. I know this isn't a life-altering tip, but working with small groups of students with special needs, I can really see the benefit of this for many students.

September 2, 2013

What I'm Reading- Every Day

Yes, this is my second post for today, BUT I forgot that it's Monday, and I've been waiting to fill you guys (notice I'm back to speaking midwestern again) in on what I've been reading.

Last week, I read the book Every Day by David Levithan. My mom actually recommended this book to me, and I was instantly hooked on the interesting plot idea. 

A, the narrator, wakes up in a different body every day. Yes, every day. A can wake up any gender, any ethnicity, any religion... just a different body each day.  

Since A is only in each body for a day, (s)he is careful to respect the preferences of each host. A can "access" memories when necessary to make it through the day without doing anything significant.

But this all changes when A meets Rhiannon and decides, for the first time in life, that (s)he has to be with this girl. For once, A is willing to risk it all for the chance to be with Rhiannon, but how will she respond? Will she believe A? Will she be able to look past the outer appearance and have a relationship with the A who is consistent inside?

This was a great book. I was definitely enticed by the unique plot, and it was interesting to see how the characters navigated their relationship. I found myself constantly trying to define A separate from each body, and I definitely appreciated how the story brought up great questions about the impact of one's gender, physical appearance, what really matters in a relationship, and more. I think this book is best suited for high school and beyond, and I would definitely recommend it to my friends!

Currently September

I know I'm late again... somehow, the first of the month always seems to escape me. Good thing Farley doesn't cut off her linky at midnight! I might not get to meet more fabulous education bloggers!

Listening- It shouldn't be a surprise that I'm watching any episode of The Real Housewives. The whole series is probably the best and worst thing that has ever happened to television!

Loving - Two days off in a row with my boo! We used to be together ALL THE TIME, and I've missed him since he went back to work, especially with all the overtime he's been working. It was so nice to have two days together to hang out with family, relax together, and get ready for the upcoming week. I'm really blessed to have a partner I genuinely enjoy spending time with.

Thinking - I'm still feeling really good about my decision to take the TA position. Everyone who knew I was deliberating has been very supportive of my choice, which definitely gives me more confidence.

Wanting - My toes are needing a little love before sandal season is over around here. I must admit, I will miss the year-round flip-flop season down South.

Needing - Joel and I spent a couple hours at our storage garage today trying to get more of our "stuff" that we know we'll need now that we're staying with my parents longer. I managed to get the rest of the clothes that used to hang in my closet, but since we got home, I've managed to make a list of other items I forgot about and will eventually need. Boots and scarves are kinda necessary in Chicago winters.

Things That Make My Heart Happy -

  1. I am obsessed with DD iced coffee and love the $1 happy hour deal. I have to be careful not to allow myself this treat too often. 
  2. Singing in my car... it's my favorite. I don't care if you're watching.
  3. Comments from my readers. They make my heart smile. For real! :)