Monday, September 2, 2013

Thoughts on Cooperative Learning

Someone once said, "You don't know tired until you know teacher at the beginning of the year tired."
But I have gotten some rest since the first week is over and we celebrated with a 3-day weekend.  Now that I can actually think for a minute, I wanted to share some resources that you might find helpful for the beginning of the year.
At this point I doubt there are many that have not heard of Cooperative Learning or Dr. Kagan.  If you haven't you should Google it.  I went to a wonderful university (TCU!!!) that had us read Dr. Kagan's book on Cooperative Learning.  When my district began implementing these strategies I was ahead of the curve (that doesn't happen too often).  As I have become a trainer / presenter I have heard some people mention that they aren't big fans of Cooperative Learning.  When discussing this I have noticed a few trends: trying to implement too many of the strategies and jumping in to the strategies with content immediately. 
First of all, as with any idea or resource - find the good parts of it and use those.  You do not have to use pieces that do not fit your personality or class.  I stick to a few tried and true Cooperative Learning strategies that work for me: inside/outside circle, 4 corners, numbered heads together, and mix-pair-share.
One major mistake I see new and veteran teacher alike make is that they try the strategy with content immdeiately.  For instance, they try inside/outside circle with a grammar activity.  The teacher introduces the strategy of inside/outside circle and then has the students try it with the inside circle holding a word card and the outside circle has to say if that word is a verb or a noun.  This sounds great...just not for the first time.
That is why at this point in the year I introduce many of the strategies even though I won't put real content into them...yet.  I introduce inside/outside circle and have the inside circle holding a card with their name on it.  The outside circle goes around and reads their friend's names.  So we are practicing forming circles, going around them, etc. but the 'content' is reading another child's name.
I do the same thing with 4 corners.  One day I have pictures of candy, cake, cookies, and ice cream in each corner of the room.  I show the students the four pictures and explain we will be playing a game.  Then tell them to think of which one of the four they would like most.  I have them close their eyes (so they don't pick what their friend picks) and tell the kids who like candy most to stand.  They move to that corner (with their eyes open).  I repeat for the other three choices.  Then I have the students partner up at their corner and read each other's name.  After we have that down I do another name activity such as look at each other's cards and find out how many letters you two have in common.  The point is that you are doing something super-easy at this point so the focus is on learning the stucture of the activity.
At this point in the year when we have the ability to take it a bit slower I teach the structures.  That enables me in a few weeks, when we are fully into heavy curriculum, to have my students use the structure with content.  So we might go to four corners, partner up, and re-tell the story I just read aloud or share what we learned from a science experiment.  These are great ways to enhance student learning if you teach the structure before you leap into content. 
Here are some pictures I use for 4 corners.  It is the only strategy that requires a little pre-work so I thought I'd share what I have so you don't have to re-create the wheel.  I hope you will try some of your own Cooperative Learning and help engage your students.  Maybe this will give you something to start with. 
Happy teaching ~

Monday, August 12, 2013

Where Are We? Signs

I'm getting really excited for this new year to start!  There is just something about the beginning of the year - filled with possibilities and nothing has beaten you down yet. 
Our school is going through a major shift:
new principal (and our assistant principal's first year was last year) and 13 new teachers!  That doesn't even count the grade switching of some teachers.  But I'm faces and new ideas make me happy. 
So to welcome some of the new teachers I got my craft on.  Here are some hallway signs I made.

I tried to match class themes if I could - safari, beach, camp, etc.  My personal sign is done with dogs - shocking, I know.

One of my teammates made the whole team matching 'Where are we?' signs as Christmas gifts a few years back. I stole the idea from her and started making these.  One of our school policies is to post where you are if you are not in the classroom.  This sign is easy to have as a classroom helper change as you leave.  Plus they are just so adorable.
Have fun getting ready for this upcoming year ~

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Daily 5: Book Bag Management Tip

I have tried many systems for changing out books. The system I used the last couple of years has been the simplest and best.

 My students have several morning jobs: notebook check with me, lunch choice, bathroom, morning work, etc. When they finish their morning work they know to do unfinished work. If they do not have any unfinished work then they may choose centers (basically Daily 5, computer, or math games).

Another option is to change out books. They do this independently because I have trained them how to look at books and decide if it is a ‘good fit’ book or not. This helps make sure not too many students are changing out books; many are still working on other morning jobs. I have also noticed that my students that need to change more frequently make sure they get everything done so they can change out books. 

This also works in reverse - if a student wants to change out books but didn't get a chance to do so then I use that as a teachable moment that he / she needs to be more diligent at getting work done in the morning so he / she can get to change out books.  Works like a charm! 

If a student makes a bad book choice…it happens every so often…I notice within a week because I have them bring their book bags to my guided reading group.  That way I can monitor what is in each book bag.

This is the simplest management for book bags I have found.  After the students have been trained, it practically runs itself.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Books, Books, Books

No one ever told me this about books. I wish they had! It might not have taken me 3 years of teaching before I got my books in order. We all know that an early literacy classroom should be full of books. However, I believe you should have 4 distinct sets of books.

First, you should have a class library. These are the books the students will choose to read on their own. These books should NOT be leveled (because in life the books are not leveled). They should be grouped by theme: Berenstain Bears, Clifford, sports, Magic School Bus, fairy tales / folktales / fables, etc.
If you haven’t done this yet – take all your books (this will take time) and spread them out. Then start noticing the categories that emerge. I noticed I had a lot of books on the United States symbols. I never could read all of them during that unit so creating a library box of USA was the perfect way to utilize those books I didn't teach from. One more note about your classroom library – the books need to be facing the students. I have never been drawn into a book because of its spine. The cover is what catches my eye and interest. This is the same for students. Find a way to let the students easily see the covers of the books as they browse.

I have use color dot stickers to easily mark my books. You will want to find a system that works for you and your students. A friend of mine didn’t have the space to have her books facing out, but she still made it easy for the students to pull a box and browse the covers. The classroom library is going to be the main source of books for the Read to Self book bags if you use Daily 5.

Second, you should have your teacher books. These are books that you cannot have in the class library because you need them every year to teach from. I have started buying duplicates of books that I notice my students really love. That way after I have read and taught from that books I can put out the other copies for them to add to their books bags.  However, teacher books are not for student use. They are for a specific teaching purpose. These books I have organized in book bins with the spines out since they are for me.

Third, you should have homework books. These are books that can get sent home each week. I use the basil adoption leveled readers, phonetic book (i.e. Starfall books), and the old basil adoption leveled readers. Because my district mandates that I use the basil to pace my spelling I have the books ordered by the phonetic rule / spelling rule. Most of those books are leveled-ish…I don’t always agree with the level. I have many copies of each of these books so if one happens to get lost then I still have many other copies. Once a students has lost several books I go to photocopy / black and white books only for them. In 8 years of teaching I have only had to do that twice. If you have a good organizational system to send books home and return them then you will not lose many books.

Fourth, you should have guided reading books. These are leveled books that you plan to teach in small group. I use a lot of Wright Group Leveled Readers / Rigby Leveled Readers / Reading A to Z books. During my first few years of teaching I had to do my guided reading using books from the school’s leveled library, the basil adoption, or just a few books I had multiple copies of. It was not a good system – I didn’t do enough guided reading because of this.

So my lesson learned is to make things easy: easy to see, easy to organize, easy to use. I hope you will consider looking at your classroom books and thinking about breaking them into these separate categories. This would have made me a better teacher if I had thought about it sooner.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I love fractions! It is one of the areas that our math curriculum - Investigations - does not really cover. So we use a bunch of resources to put together to help the beef up the sad enVision lessons. Here are some of the ideas I use. Hopefully you can find something fun to add to your fraction lessons. Also, please share if you have something that really works for you.

Fraction Lesson Plans

Start off your fraction lessons with asking students to choose how much of a cookie they want. Casually make a t-chart with ¼ and ½ on the chalkboard and have kids put sticky notes with their names to vote. Use the projector to cut a cookie and go over what the different parts of fractions mean…then watch their faces as they realize what a terrible choice they made! Then have pity on your students and let them re-vote.


I also have some shapes cut up into pieces and pass them out. Then we put them together and talk about if they are fractions or not – they have to be equal pieces to be a fraction. Notice the purple paper has 3 parts and 2 are the same and 1 is not. I also have 2 hearts – one is broken into 2 equal pieces and the other is not. Make sure you have examples and non-examples for this activity. It really helps drive the discussion.
One of our warm up activities during our fractions unit is a picture match up. I take current class pictures and cut them up into equal parts. Then I play music and wait for them to find all of their pieces to make a picture. I write the fractions on the back each piece but don’t say anything about it. Once we have all found our groups I have them turn over the pieces and ask what they notice. They are all SO surprise that they have the same thing as their partners. And that all the groups that had 4 pieces have the same thing written. Again – this type of intention before the lesson helps drive the discussion during the lesson. This activity is always a favorite because it uses pictures and kids do love pictures of themselves and their friends.

I'm not going to lie...another reason I love fractions is I know summer is right around the corner when we get to this unit.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hallway Flashcards

With pressure to not waste a single moment in the day I tried to find a way to buy back some time in my day. We take a couple of whole class bathroom breaks a day. To help my students use that time more efficiently I put some sight word flash cards and math fact cards on rings. This is completely optional for them to use, but I’ve only seen 3 students choose not to use them since I started it. I guess it’s all in how you sell the idea. I told them I didn’t want to waste their brains and that they could do some bonus learning in the halls. It’s amazing how the word ‘bonus’ makes kids want to do something.  

Most of my students know their sight words so I tell them the halls are the perfect time to learn how to spell them. It took some training on how to read the word, close your eyes and try to spell the word, then open them and check. But after a few days you can see them using the strategy. If you use the Scholastic Systematic Sight Words curriculum then the flash cards are in the back. But you could print off cards for any sight word system you use.

Our school is also pushing that the students memorize math facts. Although I highly disagree with this age group memorizing facts I do try to follow directions. Our math program (Investigations) focuses on patterns in numbers – especially the number 7 and 10. After we have covered those units I create 7 and 10 facts specific flashcards. So that way they are memorizing facts…but with the help of patterns in addition and subtraction.

Flashcards - 10 Facts

I also created a few extra math flash cards throughout the year to spice up our choices. Some of the ones I’ve used are place value – rods and units with the answer written on the back. I also have coin flashcards. Sometimes I throw in some science flashcards or sight word phrase cards. If you have a PowerPoint of anything you can print off the 6 slides per page, laminate, cut out, and ring. Just make sure you write the answers on the back so they are self-checking.

 Flashcards - Place Value 10s and 1s

All of these flashcards go in little bucket that I take with us to the bathrooms. As the students finish in the bathrooms they can get a set of flashcards and sit in the finished line.  This also gives them incentive to not stay in the bathrooms so long - they LOVE these flashcards and can't wait to use them.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Responding to Text

One of our standards is that students write brief comments about a text. After demonstrating this repeatedly during read alouds – science lessons, chapter books, etc. – I put a stack of sticky notes out and tell the students that I want them to start using them during Read to Self and Listen to Reading. They can write a comment on something they learned or write a question they had during reading. I make sure that all students have done this several times by having them leave their books out after a round of Daily 5 and making a quick checklist. This has also helped them be more concise when they share after a round. Who would have known sticky notes would be so easy to implement and keep track of?


I hope the pictures show that this can be used in Read to Self and Listen to Reading, with fiction and non-fiction, and at all levels of reading.