3 Topics for Meaningful Project-based Learning

For more an introduction on what project-based learning is, make sure to check out this article on Buck Institute for Education. If you’ve already been introduced to PBL, read on for four ideas for your classroom.

Several years back I started my first project-based learning (PBL) activity with a rough group of fifth graders. Since then I’ve learned a lot about the process. One of the most common questions I get about PBL is "How do I choose a topic to plan it around?" The best topics are the ones that come to you when talking with your students. My students have inspired every single one of my PBLs.

As you're teaching this week, stop to reflect on PBL topics when you're conversing with students. I've found that the following three categories are easy to find connections.

1. Community Projects

Look for problems or areas of excitement in your community. Work with your students to develop a driving question related to one of these community topics and use math, science, and language arts skills to answer this question. The student role is to come up with the question and your role is to connect the standards. One of the elements of PBL is “sustained inquiry”, which means you’ll be coming back to this project in different subject areas while teaching many standards within it.

2. Home Connections

The best projects are ones that students can relate to. Make a connection to the things they do (or see others doing) at home. Every year we do a Thanksgiving project-based learning activity where I bring in grocery store ads and they plan a Thanksgiving dinner. It encourages students to get more involved in the grocery shopping and meal preparation at home, and it shows them how important Math is in real life.

3. Fostering Entrepreneurship 

My favorite project-based learning projects include building a business from the ground up. We’ve built lemonade stands, candy stores, and restaurants. A lot of math is involved with creating a business; I have fourth graders that can explain to you profit and loss while creating a well-organized floor plan for your business.

If it’s real life, it will make a great project-based learning activity. I hope some of these ideas will help you create some fantastic PBL opportunities in your classroom!

Try out some of my seasonal PBLs this year!

Teaching Columbian Exchange and European Settlements with Zest!

Have you ever sat in a boring Social Studies class?   Thinking about the monotone voice of one of my Social Studies teachers makes me cringe even to this day!  Needless to say, it was not my favorite subject and I never did well.   When I became a teacher many moons ago, I was determined to make Social Studies interesting!  In this post, you will find how I teach the beginning of a Colonial Unit.  I like to mix it up with videos, projects, and food!

Columbian Exchange:

1.  Video:  A great 10 minute explanation that keeps your students focused!   1492 Columbian Exchange Part 5

2.  Informational Text:  I wrote my own informational text, but to keep this post without expense, I found some great websites for text information!  This site has information with a map, along with effects and impacts of the Columbian Exchange.  Columbian Exchange Website

3.  Group Research: Assign each group one of the following:  Plants, Animals, Diseases.  Have them research where they originated- Old World or New World.  They can make a T-chart on with their findings to share with the whole group.  Click Here for 3 Free T-Charts.

4.  Favorite Food Writing Project:  Think about your favorite food.  Write down the ingredients of your favorite food and then determine whether or not it originated from the Old World or New World.  More than likely some of the ingredients came from the Old World and some from the New World!  If you lived in the Old World but one of the ingredients in your favorite food was from the New World, would it taste the same?  Choose the Old World or the New World.  Write about your findings and tell how it would taste without the ingredients from the other world!

5.  Model the Columbian Exchange:  Have each student create a picture of an item from the Columbian Exchange.  To make sure they don't draw the same picture, I make a list of items and students pick them out of a cup.  Then create spaces in the classroom for The Old World and The New World.  Have students take their illustration to the the correct designated area.  Then have students move from that area to the other area to model the exchange.

European Settlements in North America

1.  Spain in the New World:  Informational Website:  Spanish in America

     Spain was the first European country to use Native Americans as slaves. Some of the slaves were forced to work for long, strenuous days on the plantations where they tended to crops.  Spain’s government traded the crops for economic growth.  The main cash crops were sugarcane, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and cotton.  Native Americans were also sent to mine for gold where they often encountered harsh working conditions.  Many natives died from these poor working conditions as well as hunger.
           ~section of text from Rockin Resources

Writing Activity:  Pretend you are a Native American.  Write a letter to the Spanish viceroy persuading him to free you from the missionary, plantation, or gold mine.

2.  France in the New World:  Informational Website:  French in America

    France was sending explorers over to the New World to claim land and establish fur trade.  Robert LaSalle was a famous explorer who established fur trade routes up and down the Mississippi.  At first, the King wasn’t pleased with LaSalle’s findings, but quickly changed his mind when he realized LaSalle had the only fur trading waters that weren’t freezing over!  LaSalle paved the way for France to send other explorers and settlers to the area.  They were settling in the middle of U.S. which became the Louisiana Territory.  France attempted to develop plantations in these territories.  Sadly, the land was not fertile enough to keep an abundance of crops growing.  Fur trade continued to be their ticket to wealth in the New World!            ~section of text from Rockin Resources
Cause and Effect:  Create cause and effect questions to go along with the text.

3.  England in the New World:    Informational Website:  British in America

     England’s political and religious rights were different than the other countries settling in the Americas.  They were allowed to set up their own governments and laws.  They would hold meetings, elect representatives, and tax themselves.  England allowed this self-government as long as they didn’t take up arms against the Crown.  They were also permitted to practice their own religion.  They did not have to abide by the Church of England.             ~section of text from Rockin Resources

Foldable:  Divide paper into 4 sections.  Write the following in each square:  Resources, Religion, Government, Native Americans.  Have students take notes in each square.  Draw an illustration in each.

Cookies:  Students will never complain having food with their study!

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup shortening (margarine)
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

For HOBNOB COOKIES, add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1/2 tsp cup raisins.
For APPLEJACKS, add 1 cup chopped unpeeled apples.

Cream together sugar and shortening.
Add egg (and vanilla if you are making Hobnobs). Beat well.
Mix dry ingredients together in another bowl.
Add slowly to sugar mixture, beating well after each addition.
Stir in raisins or apples.
Grease cookie sheet.
Form into small balls, or drop in the shape of balls on the greased sheet, 3 inches apart.
Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Taken from www.kidactivities.net   

4.  Map Activity:  Get a map of North America.  Have students color in the 3 territories (Spain, France, England) and provide a map key.

5.  Triple Venn Diagram:  Have students create a Venn Diagram like the one below!  Then have students answer the following question:  If you had a choice, which country's settlement would you prefer to live in?

6.  Timeline Project:  Choose three dates from each of the European Settlements (9 total) and write a description for each one.  I require my students to include a picture for each date.  They do this by saving a picture for each date onto their computers.  I like them to create a timeline using TIMETOAST.  It is an awesome site where they can put their timeline information together!

You can find these activities and more in the product below.  It also includes 13 Colonies and Triangular Trade Routes.  Colonial crafts, games and other activities are included.  If interested, click here!

Thank you for visiting our blog!!!  Do you have a favorite activity for Columbian Exchange or European Settlements?  I would love for you to share below!

Connect With Me!

RACE to Respond to Reading

As upper grade teachers, one of our biggest challenges is getting students to write thorough and meaningful responses when answering questions about a text. Comprehension questions are meant to encourage students to think about and understand what they have read. We have all seen those responses from students that are answered in one (possibly incomplete) sentence, comprised of maybe five words or so. These lead us to wonder how much students are understanding and thinking about what they read. A couple years ago I stumbled across the RACE strategy, which completely changed how I teach students to respond to text.

In recent years, there has been much emphasis on "text dependent" questions and responses. The RACE strategy is a great way to teach students how to write constructed responses. It can be used with literature, non-fiction texts, and in social studies and science. This strategy helps students to breakdown their responses into 4 parts....

This first step asks students to restate the question in statement form. Often, students can remove the "question" word (who, what, where, why, how) and rewrite the question as a sentence. This first sentence serves as a "topic sentence" for their response. 

Next, students answer the question. If a question has more than one part, students should be sure to answer all parts. Students should make sure they understand exactly what is being asked, and provide a clear answer to each question.

Students then need to find evidence from the text that helps support their answers. It helps to go through the text with a highlighter, to specifically look for "proof" that supports how they answered the question. Providing Sentence Starters for students, helps them to transition easily from their answer to the evidence they provide. Some examples include "The text says..." or "The author states..."

Finally, students conclude their responses by explaining their thinking, and making connections between their answer and the evidence they found. Again, sentence starters can be a big help when transitioning into this final sentence: "This shows..." or "Now I understand..." are great ways for students to conclude their responses.
Here is an example of a teacher-guided lesson using this strategy. My students and I used this strategy to answer a question from a Close-Reading assignment that went along with an article from the most recent edition of Scholastic News...
Here's how we broke down the question, using the RACE strategy...
I like to provide my students with a list of sentence starters to help them with the "Cite" and "Explain" portions. There are bookmarks they can reference whenever they respond to text...

This FREEBIE includes a graphic organizer to use with students when teaching and guiding them through writing a constructed response.  It also includes a list of sentence starters to use to CITE and EXPLAIN!! Finally, double-sided bookmarks are provided for students to reference when writing constructed responses on their own. All printables are available in color and black & white.

I hope that you and your students will enjoy this strategy and tools as much my students and I do!! I would also love to hear what you do in your own classroom to encourage students to write meaningful reading responses!!
Come visit me at...

10 Math Games to Play with Dominoes

I love finding common items around the house and making games with them.  I recently came across a tin of dominoes and put those babies to work!  My students LOVE the idea of playing with dominoes even if they are sharpening their math skills while doing so!

These games can be played alone or with partners.  Partners tend to make them even more fun!

Ordering Products

  1. Students choose five dominoes, turn them over, and multiply each side together.  
  2. Order the products from least to greatest or greatest to least.
  3. Want to make it a game?  Partners order their dominos then find the difference between their greatest number and least number.  The partner with the greatest (or least) difference wins.

Multiplication War

  1. Students begin with dominoes face down.  
  2. Each student chooses a domino.
  3. On the count of three, students turn over their domino and multiply the dots on one side by the dots on the other side.  The student with the highest product wins the dominoes.

Even/Odd Sort

  1. Add, subtract, or multiply the dots on the dominoes then sort the answer by odd or even numbers.
  2. Want to make it a game?  Before the game begins state a rule.  The partner with the most even numbers or odd numbers wins the set.  

Prime/Composite Sort

  1. Add, subtract, or multiply the dots on the dominoes then sort the answer by prime or composite.
  2. Want to make it a game?  Before the game begins state a rule.  The partner with the most prime numbers or the most composite numbers wins.  

Coordinate pairs

  1. Provide students with a coordinate grid.  
  2. Students plot points using the dots on the dominoes.  One side is the x-coordinate; the other side is the y-coordinate.

Ordering Decimals

  1. Students choose five dominoes and turn them over.
  2. One side is the whole number; the other side is the decimal.
  3. Order the decimals from least to greatest or greatest to least.
  4. Want to make it a game?  Partners order their dominos then find the difference between their greatest decimal and least decimal.  The partner with the greatest (or least) difference wins.

Compare Decimals

  1. Students choose two dominoes and turn them over.
  2. One side is the whole number; the other side is the decimal.
  3. Compare both dominoes.
  4. Want to make it a game?  Each partner chooses one domino.  Then, they compare their decimal.  The partner with the greatest (or least) decimal wins. 

Add or Subtract Decimals 

  1. Students choose two dominoes and turn them over.
  2. One side is the whole number; the other side is the decimal.
  3. Add or subtract the decimals.
  4. Want to make it a game?  Partners compare their sum or difference.  The partner with the greatest (or least) sum or difference wins. 

Compare Fractions

  1. Students choose two dominoes and turn them over.
  2. One side is the numerator; the other side is the denominator
  3. Compare both fractions.
  4. Want to make it a game?  Each partner chooses one domino.  Then, they compare their fraction.  The partner with the greatest (or least) fraction wins. 

Ordering Fractions

  1. Students choose five dominoes and turn them over.
  2. One side is the numerator; the other side is the denominator
  3. Order the fractions from least to greatest or greatest to least.
  4. Want to make it a game?  Partners order their dominos then find the difference between their greatest fraction and least fraction.  The partner with the greatest (or least) difference wins.
For a printable version of these games, you can download it HERE.  This printable is perfect to laminate and attach to a loose leaf ring for easy access.

Non-Routine Problem Solving in Math

What is non-routine problem solving?
Also referred to as creative problem solving, non-routine problem solving requires some degree of creativity or originality.  Non-routine problems typically do not have an immediately apparent strategy for solving them.  Often times, these problems can be solved in multiple ways and with a variety of strategies.  Just like computational exercises (e.g long division), non-routine problem solving must be explicitly taught to students.  

Why non-routine problem solving will always be apart of my instruction:
  • It prepares students for real-life problem solving.  Real-life problems do not come with prescribed steps on how to solve them. People must think creatively and logically to solve them.
  • It allows students the gift of choice.  I use the word "gift," however, for many students this aspect is very overwhelming to them.  They are used to being told what to do and how to do it.  This literally cripples students when it comes time to solve a problem that doesn't follow a learned algorithm.   With non-routine problems, students must choose how they will tackle them.  Over time, they learn to trust themselves to determine appropriate strategies to use and solve these challenges with confidence.  
  • As mentioned above, it builds student confidence.  Students soon realize that they can independently choose an appropriate strategy (or strategies) and successfully apply it.
  • It presents students with a healthy dose of "struggle."  I am all for teaching within students' instructional levels.  However, I am a firm believer that students must also feel a little uncomfortable, even frustrated, at times.  Non-routine problem solving will frustrate some of your students, especially at first.  Don't give up!  Talk to your students about how they are feeling.  Provide the appropriate scaffolding needed to help them get through these problem.  In time, your students will amaze you with what they are able to do.  
  • It's fun!!! I am not just saying that because I am a math geek.  It really is fun and your students will love this variety it offers.  Even my students who do not get the correct answer enjoy the process.
  • It fosters student communication skills.  Students must document and explain the strategies they use.  
  • It's for EVERYONE.  I never reserved these activities for my "higher-achieving" students.  In fact, many students who struggled with computational concepts, THRIVED with non-routine problem solving.
Steps for non-routine problem solving:
There are four widely used steps that must be modeled for your students to give them a framework when working with these problems.
  1. Understand
  2. Plan
  3. Execute
  4. Review

For a detailed breakdown of these four steps and a free flip-book printable (pictured above), please check out this blog post: Steps for Non-Routine Problem Solving.

Instructional Applications:

You have a number of options on how you can present these problems to your students.
  • Whole Group: You can project a problem for the whole class to see using an LCD or overhead projector.  Students may work on whiteboards, or simply use paper and pencil to solve the problem.  The work can be done independently, or you can have students work together in pairs or small groups.  In the latter option, I would require all students to write down the work on their own whiteboard or paper.  This whole group option can follow with a few students presenting their plan for solving the problem; this is a nice opportunity for the class to see multiple strategies that can be used to solve the same problem.
  • Independent Work: Students can have their problem ready anytime they need to be working independently (i.e. fast-finishers, centers, morning work, etc.)
  • Cooperative Learning:  Pair up students to work on a problem together.  This is a valuable option, because it adds the instructional benefits of communication and collaboration to the process.
One last thing to consider: In addition to the above applications, think about how you would like your students to share or present their work.  This is an important component for a number of reasons:

  • It holds students accountable for their work.
  • It provides students with an important opportunity to explain their problem solving processes.
  • It allows other students to see a variety of ways to solve a problem.
  • It provides students with a “time to shine” as they present their work to others.
Students can present in a number of ways:
  • They can present their work to the whole class, basically conducting their own “think aloud” similar to what the teacher has done when he/she directly modeled the process to the class.
  • They can present their work to another student or small group of students.
  • They can present their work to a parent or an older sibling.
  • They can present their work on an online forum (i.e., Edmodo, etc.) hosted by the teacher.
Some examples (and solutions) that you can try today with your students:

The problems above are from my Brain Power Math Books.  If your kids are "hungry" for more, check them out!