My 5 Favorite Holiday Classroom Traditions!

My personal favorite Christmas activities for school.  Christmas crafts, gift ideas, and activities your students are sure to love!  (The Polar Express activity is my favorite)

I am seriously like a big kid when it comes to holidays!  Some people dread this time of year...

Where this is what I am doing when I hear my first Christmas carol...

Every year, so many of my "Upper Elementary" colleagues decide not to do anything related to the holiday because "The kids are getting too big for that stuff".  Well, as a big kid myself, I believe you are never too old for a little holiday fun!

Here are my 5 favorite holiday traditions for my classroom...

1) Book Exchange

My personal favorite Christmas activities for school.  Christmas crafts, gift ideas, and activities your students are sure to love!  (The Polar Express activity is my favorite)

I ask each of my students to bring in a book that they have already read this year.  On the big day of the book exchange, students place their books on a table.  One at a time (random order), students get to come to the table and pick any "new" book of their choice.  I even give my students some time to meet with the original owner so they can talk a little about their new book.  You would not believe how excited my kids are for this one!

2) Gift Exchange

A classroom gift exchange works pretty much the same as the book exchange, except there is an element of surprise with this one!

I ask students to bring in a gently used, age appropriate, wrapped toy (or anything they think their classmates would want).  I always make sure I have a few extra small items I can wrap up just in case a student isn't able to bring something in.  On the day of the exchange, I separate the gifts into 3 groups; boys gifts, girls gifts, boys/girls gifts.  One at a time, students' names are called to pick a gift.  Once everyone has their gift, they all open them to see what they picked.

This has always been a big hit with my class, but I do stress a few key points before doing an activity like this.  1) This is just for fun, so don't take it too seriously. 2) Use your manners! Say thank you! If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.   Also, I do make sure gifts are appropriate before setting them out.

3) Pancake Breakfast

On the last day before winter break, I bring in my skillet, and all the ingredients I need to make my students a pancake breakfast.  I specifically use a mix that only requires water.  Not only are they extremely convenient, but they are super light & fluffy! :)  In addition, I add my secret ingredient...white chocolate chips! UN-BE-LIEVABLE!  Oh, and red and green sprinkles for fun. :)

I really think this "tradition" is most special to me because I have always taught in a Title I school where most of my students haven't experienced yummy homemade pancakes.  This one is just as awesome for me as it is for them!

4) Compliment Cards

Compliment Cards is something I have been doing since my first year of teaching!  This activity is FUN for students, and builds self-esteem like you wouldn't believe.  Did I mention it is also FREE!  You can download it in my TpT store. :)

Here is how they work...
1. Assign each student in the class a number.
2. On a sheet of paper, students will write one thoughtful compliment about each student in their class.  Students will write the compliment next to the students' numbers. (Make sure you discuss what a thoughtful compliment looks like).
3. Collect the compliments and compile them onto the editable templates. Here is what the templates look like.

***Many of the compliments repeat, so you will probably only have about 10 different compliments per student.  

Once you are done, give each student their very own personalized compliment card.  They will get to read, and keep, all the wonderful compliments their classmates gave them.  

5) A study of The Polar Express

The Polar Express is a movie my students watch EVERY YEAR!  Once they get to Upper Elementary, they start to not enjoy it as much as they used to.  My Polar Express Unit gets my students to start thinking deeper about the book and movie, and see it in a whole new way!

Beginning just after Thanksgiving, I use the last few weeks before winter break to complete my Language Arts Unit on the Polar Express.    I could seriously write an entire blog post about this unit, so I will try to just stick to the basics.

I begin this unit by reading the text. We then fill in a story map and discuss all the elements of fiction we notice.  Next, we reread the text and analyze any figurative language we notice.  This text is rich in figurative language! 

Next, we watch the movie and use a list of questions to have great discussions about things like theme, characters' actions, predictions, motivations, perspective, etc.  

After watching the movie, we fill in another story map and compare & contrast the book and movie.  Often I will complete this as a whole group activity using a large Venn Diagram and LOTS of sticky notes. :)

Finally, I end this unit with a writing activity.  Students choose a prompt related to The Polar Express, and we spend about a week going through the writing process.

Example Writing Prompt

Imagine you are the main character of The Polar Express, and you just returned home after meeting Santa.  Write a letter to your best friend telling them why they should believe in Santa too! 

This unit seriously saves my sanity every year! It helps me teach the standards while keeping my students highly engaged!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my FAVORITE holiday traditions.  I am always looking for new ideas, and would love to hear from you about YOUR classroom traditions.

Check out my Christmas Pinterest board for even more ideas!

Creativity in the Classroom

I've been doing this teaching thing for a long time...23 years to be exact.  The world and the world of teaching have changed a great deal.  When I started teaching we didn't have email.  I had no computer in my room.  I taught whole class for almost everything--and that was the expectation.  We didn't meet as grade level teams.  We gave letter grades at all age levels and those grades were based on percentages obtained from work done as homework and on tests.  My, how my educational world has changed.

That being said, there are certain things that remain constant.  Students come to school with a variety of needs and strengths.  We have certain content we are expected to cover.  There is never enough time to do it all.

As I have tried to figure out how to maximize my time with my students, I can't help but feel like we might be missing the boat as we try to pound in content.

I've decided to try to deliberately slow down and work on some things with my students...things that aren't listed explicitly in my curriculum documents.  We talk about kindness.  We talk about empathy.  We talk about using our "reasoning" to make sense of things.  We talk about risk taking.  We talk about working together. We talk about creative thinking.  I want my students to understand that there is MORE to education than filling in the blank.

To help with this, I try to build in some opportunities for my students to use their creativity in different ways...and for them to know that I value it just as much as the score they get on a math test!

Here are a few ways we celebrate uniqueness and creativity in my class!

1.   Enrichment projects:  During different content units I invite students who are really interested in a topic to do an enrichment project of their choosing to share with the class.  They can work alone, with a friend, or with their family--and I encourage them to only do this if they really feel passionately about the topic.  It isn't meant to be MORE work it's meant to be exciting and enriching.  I've had powerpoints about lightning.  Models of the digestive system that really work.  Chemistry experiments.  A life sized model of a vampire bat.  Some of my favorite projects have come from students who have never before seen themselves as "smart".  Choice is a powerful tool.

2.  Free choice writing:  Although we are highly scripted in terms of our writing units, I do try to build in time where students have opportunities to write about their choice of topics.  "Can we write made up stories?" is a common question--and the answer is can write about whatever you want.  I try to work this in on the days we do Words Their Way groups so they have free writing when they are not with me...and then they know that "Free Writing" is always a smart choice if they finish other work early.

3.  Creativity exercises:  As the video game world seeps into our students' brains, I feel a need to "counter" it by giving my students opportunities to "play" in different ways.  I actually ended up making two different resources to help with this because SO many people felt the need to have some quick, easy to prepare activities to get their students thinking "outside the box".  There is a link to these at the bottom if you are interested.

4.  Lots of opportunities for connecting art and content.  We illustrate electrical circuits on the computer.  We make a watercolor illustrated timeline of our state history.  We design new book covers for our favorite books.  We make learning posters that "Show what we know".  We make symmetry patterns.  I teach them how to cut 6 pointed snowflakes and we learn about how snowflakes form.  Art is a vehicle that makes connections for many students who may not learn by "sitting and getting".  Art is also the perfect vehicle to stress creativity, work quality, and how to show appreciation of the great work that other students do.

5.  We laugh.  A lot.  Take the time to savor the small moments and enjoy each other's company.  It goes a long way.  Students will work harder and longer and more effectively when they are happy--and their teacher is happy as well.

Want to check out the creativity resource illustrated above?  Here is the bundled set...each is also available separately.  It has become one of my best sellers!

Thanks for stopping by...make sure to tune in soon for a BIG announcement and some fun!


My Favorite Classroom Routine: Status of the Class

Happy Sunday!! Today I thought I would share a little bit about one of my favorite classroom tools!! There is no other strategy or tool that I use in my classroom that I cherish and value more than “Status of the Class”. I have been using this tool in my classroom for the last four years, to engage, reinforce, and monitor my students’ reading habits.

Four years later, I still find it to be one of the most rewarding parts of my day. Status of the Class is an idea that came from The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Along with the many other ideas from this life-changing book, Status of the Class is an amazing tool for engaging readers in your classroom.

Here’s how it works my classroom...
  • I keep a binder full of “Status of the Class” forms for each of my students. At the top of each page I record their names.
  • During our independent reading time, I flip through the pages and call out each student’s name, one at a time. When I call their names, they pause their book to tell me the title of the book they are reading and what page they are on. I record the date, title, and page number. If a student is reading the same book as the day before, then I only record the date and the page number. (This helps speed things along!)
  • If a student has completed a book since the previous day, then I record an “F” for “Finished”. Likewise, I record a “Q” if a student has “Quit” a book.
  • I repeat this process {almost} daily.
  • All in all, this process takes about 5-8 minutes for me to get through all 33 of my students. In the beginning it takes a bit longer. But once students are used to the routine, it’s a breeze!

6 Reasons Why I Use (and Love) Status of the Class....

  1. I ALWAYS KNOW WHAT MY STUDENTS ARE READING. This quick five minute routine, allows me to communicate with each of my students on a daily basis about what they are reading. I don’t have to keep track of reading logs, or even hope that my students are completing them accurately and honestly. I know what they are reading!
  2. I CAN TRACK MY STUDENTS' READING HABITS. Not only do I know what my students are reading, I know how quickly they are finishing books, how often they are quitting books, what types of books they like to read, and what types of books they don’t seem to finish.
  3. MY STUDENTS ARE HELD ACCOUNTABLE. My students know that I am going to check their reading status {almost} everyday!!! They want to come to school prepared and ready to share!!
  4. IT GIVES ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO REINFORCE AND PROVIDE FEEDBACK. During Status of the Class, I am able to provide positive reinforcement for students who have finished books, or who have read more pages than usual. I can also provide students with gentle reminders to read daily if I notice they are moving slowly through certain books.
  5. IT OPENS UP COMMUNICATION ABOUT READING. Since I have an ongoing record of my students’ reading habits, I am able to have endless conversations with them about reading. I know what books I can recommend to which students. I know when to talk with a student about branching out into a different genre. I know when to talk to a student about a book they are reading that might be too challenging. Status of the Class is also a great tool to share with parents during parent-teacher conferences. It allows you to have conversations with parents about their children’s reading habits.
  6. MY STUDENTS LOVE IT!! One thing I am guaranteed to hear AT LEAST once a day is, “Are you going to do Status of the Class today?!” My students LOVE to report when they have started new books, what pages they are on, and when they have finished a book!! 
Click here for this freebie!

If you are not currently using Status of the Class in your classroom, I strongly urge you to give it a try. The short time that it take is worth every minute. You simply won’t regret it!!!

A Thanksgiving Favorite

One of my most favorite Thanksgiving books is Thank You Sarah, by Laurie Halse Anderson.  The main character, Sarah, is one bold, brave, stubborn, and smart woman who saved Thanksgiving!  This story is inspirational, historical, and teaches perseverance. 

If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it!  It’s an all around great book, and perfect in many ways!  To top off this personal review :), I have created a few printables to go along with the book.  Within the printable, students identify character traits, describe cause and effect relationships, and write a friendly letter. 

You can download the Thank You Sarah activities by clicking the image below.

Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving book?  We would love to hear about it!


Eight Reasons to use Exit Tickets in your Classroom

Hello, everyone!  It's Deb from Crafting Connections. I still remember my first formal teaching evaluation.  The principal wrote several positive comments about my lesson, but naturally, I remember the suggestion she gave me for improvement.  Checking for understanding.  Yep, it was the classic case of simply running out of time.  The class ended before I had time to complete my "closure" activity (as it was called back in 1998!).  Well, you can bet that I nailed the "closure" part of my lesson on my next formal evaluation the following spring!  :)

Ever since that day seventeen years ago, I have tried hard to always leave time to wrap up the lesson.  Has it always happened?  Of course not!  But more often than not, I am able to follow through with my closure plans.

About three years ago, I read the book Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. He discussed the concept of "exit passes", and I was immediately hooked!  To me, it was basically taking the "closure" part of the lesson and elevating it to the next level!  Over the past three years, I have most often heard them referred to as "exit tickets", but the premise is the same.  At the end of a class or lesson, the teacher asks his or her students to respond to the lesson in some way, often using an index card or a sticky note.  Each student writes his/her response, and then hands in the exit ticket as their "pass out the door" or their "pass into the next activity".
There are so many reasons why exit tickets are powerful classroom tools! This blog post lists how and why you should be using exit tickets in your classroom. It also includes FREE exit tickets and classroom examples!

What are the benefits of using exit tickets?
There are countless benefits, but these are the eight big ones for me!

1.  Exit tickets allow the teacher to check for understanding.  Let's say that it's time to wrap up a science lesson on solids, liquids, and gases.  I give each students an index card, remind them to write their name on the back, and then tell my students to "draw pictures or use words to explain how particles are distributed differently in solids, liquids, and gases".  When they turn in their exit tickets, I can quickly scan each card and determine whether the students understand the concept.

There are so many reasons why exit tickets are powerful classroom tools! This blog post lists how and why you should be using exit tickets in your classroom. It also includes FREE exit tickets and classroom examples!

2.  Exit tickets can guide your instruction.  If you find that all of your students were easily able to complete the exit ticket activity independently, you know that it is time to move on to the next concept.  On the other hand, if you find that most of your students are a bit confused with one aspect of the exit ticket activity, you can take a moment to clarify that concept at the beginning of the next class period before moving on.  

3. Exit tickets can assist the teacher in organizing small groups based on need.   As I go through the exit tickets, I can divide them into three piles: students who fully understand the concept, students who partially understand the concept, and students who do not seem to understand the concept at all.  Then, I can organize small groups based on that information.
There are so many reasons why exit tickets are powerful classroom tools! This blog post lists how and why you should be using exit tickets in your classroom. It also includes FREE exit tickets and classroom examples!

4.  Exit tickets hold students accountable.  If students know that at the end of the lesson, they will most likely have to complete an exit ticket, they will likely pay attention!

5.  Exit tickets keep students engaged.  There are so many fun exit ticket activities.  A few of my favorite free ones I've run across:
This freebie is by Science Teaching Junkie.

This freebie is by Maryann Saylor- Secondary Strategies.

This freebie is by Presto Plans.  
6.  Exit tickets clarify the main concept of the lesson for students.  In a 40-minute class period, students are presented with a lot of information; some bits of information are much more important than others.  Students quickly realize that whatever concept was included in the exit ticket was the MAIN concept of the lesson.  Exit tickets help stress what was important about a lesson.

7.  Exit tickets allow students to ask questions in a non-threatening way.  I love 3-2-1 exit tickets for this reason.  Students may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed raising their hand and asking a question during class, but hopefully they feel safe about jotting a question down.  What about those students who say they understand everything completely and do not have any questions?  I require all of my students to write down a question, even if it means extending their thinking into an aspect that we have not discussed!  
This freebie is by Chelsea Silvers.

8.  Exit tickets allow students to self-assess.  The district where I recently taught used proficiency scales, where students were placed on a scale of 1-4 with each particular standard.  The following anchor chart hung in my classroom.  Therefore, as an exit ticket activity, I was able to ask students to write where they felt they were in regards to their understanding of a particular concept, and explain their reasoning. 
Do you use exit tickets with your students?  We'd love to hear about exit tickets you've used in your classrooms!

Thanksgiving Writing: "What I Am Thankful For..." {PLUS FREEBIE}

Thanksgiving, and even the entire month of November, is the perfect time to reflect on the many blessings we have in our lives and all the things we are thankful for. Each year in my classroom, I spend some time with my students discussing the things they are thankful for, and I usually have them complete some type of activity. Recently, we've been focusing on the writing process and writing essays. This was the perfect opportunity for my students to practice these skills with a topic that is important and meaningful to them.
We started the process with brainstorming. My students created webs of all the things they were thankful for. In the beginning, I gave them about 10 minutes to reflect on their own. Then I gave them time to share their ideas with others and add to their web.
Next, my students had to narrow their topic by choosing the six most important things that they were thankful for. I emphasized the importance of choosing things that they would be able to write a lot about. They then wrote reasons, details, and examples for each item.
Finally it was time for them to start writing. They used the essay organizer to write an introduction, three body paragraphs (about three things they were thankful for), and a conclusion. When these were done, they got their red (or pink) pens out for some revising and editing. {I am so proud of how much my kiddos are growing with this step!!}
The final step of this process was writing their final drafts. They added illustrations, outlined their paragraphs, and added detail to the page. I was so proud of the entire process and how nice they turned out. To finish them off, we stapled all 4 pages onto a piece of construction paper to document the entire process. I was so pleased to read about the things they chose to write about. I am almost done reading them, and I haven't read one that mentions video games!!
The pages for this writing assignment can be found as a FREEBIE at my TpT store, along with a Thanksgiving Roll-a-Story!!!

Thank you so much for stopping by and have a wonderful (and thankful) November!!


6 Tips to Teach Compare and Contrast

Out of all of the million strategies that we are asked to teach for reading, this has got to be one of my favorites. I love reading passages and analyzing how they're alike and different and I think it's fun for the kids too. Whether it's a paired passage narrative or a set of informational texts, there are so many things you can do with this concept, that it's hard to narrow it down to just a few. But, narrow it down I did and here they are...6 tips for teaching Compare and Contrast:
1. Use Real Life Examples

One of my favorite teaching strategies for reading is to show the kids how they are already doing this in real life, practice that (without all of those pesky words), and then once the kids are comfortable with the process, we connect it back to reading.

For example, if I asked them how a hamburger and a hot dog were alike and different, I bet they could tell me right away! How about cats and dogs? McDonald's and Burger King? Even better, it's more powerful to have a few real life examples that the kids can see, right in front of them. For example, how are a basketball and a football alike and different? Or bring in some special guests (if they have agreeable personalities) and have them compare and contrast the custodian and the principal...could be interesting! All of these could be placed on a Venn diagram but personally, I think it becomes overkill, so we might do 1 - 2 of them now and just discuss the rest.

2. Teach Key Words

Once they are becoming more familiar with the concept, I like to teach them some of the clue words that they might see when asked to compare and contrast. We go over these phrases and actually practice using them with some of the real life examples I mentioned.

3. Compare and Contrast Fiction

Using mentor texts is a great way to compare and contrast. Not only are they short, so you can read one or two at a single sitting, but they really capture the upper grade kid's attention. My students always love it when I read them one of these picture books and guess what... they learn so much from them too. It's a win-win! These are great to do as a whole class, unless you are lucky enough to have multiple copies of the same books and can put the kids in groups of 2 - 3.

4. Examine Fairy Tales

I really love to take a fairy tale and to show how it's alike and different around the world. Cinderella is a great one for this, as well as Little Red Riding Hood and others. Besides having the kids look at books that share the same titles, it's also great to compare and contrast different fairy tales. I love to go to our school library and check out a whole stack of fairy tales for the kids to read in small groups and then compare and contrast. Like how are Snow White and Sleeping Beauty alike and different? Or Thumbelina and Rapunzel? The possibilities are endless. 
5. Read Some Fables

Not only are fables great to use for theme practice, they're also great for compare and contrast. I really like the fact that they're short in length, not that I'm trying to encourage laziness by any means, but it is so much less intimidating to kids, to deal with short texts than long ones. That way, we can do lots of them without it feeling like a chore...very important for the upper grade child!

6. Include Biographies

Every spring, our upper grade kids put together a wax museum for the whole school. They first research a famous American, write a report about him/her and then dress up as that person. You should see our gym, filled with celebrities! They love it. Of course biographies are great to read whether or not you do a wax museum. They're also great to use to compare and contrast famous people to famous people or famous people to ourselves.

Finally, I do love to use a resource (Compare and Contrast for 3rd - 5th) I've created specifically to let my kids practice the art of comparing and contrasting. It's full of paired passages, (10 of them) and some helpful graphic organizers, so you can print and go!
 I'd love to hear if you've used any of these tips successfully or if you've done other things to compare and contrast too.



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