Tips for a Stress Free December in the Classroom

While Santa is busy up at the North Pole making his list and checking it twice, you should be doing the same with your lesson plans. December brings changes in schedules, unexpected interruptions to your routine and a general feeling of excitement in the air which often translates into chaos in the classroom if you aren’t prepared for it.

Don’t panic! December does not need to be all about surviving until winter break. In fact, it is the perfect time to take all that energy and channel it into motivated learning. Below are three tips to make sure that when it comes to your classroom, “all is calm” and when it comes to your students, “all are bright.”

This is the perfect time to plan research activities for your class to work on throughout the month. Research projects are chock full of reading, writing, drawing, and artistic tasks that will automatically create a quieter learning environment just by the nature of the activity. They are also ideal because they are great space-fillers when you find yourself with a random 20 minutes between a holiday assembly and lunch. Best of all, as students become proficient in researching on their own you will find that independent research projects are a purposeful activity for early finishers throughout the remainder of the year as well as an opportunity for enrichment and choice in learning.

If you would like to offer something with a bit of holiday spirit to capitalize on their excitement, I suggest having them research different countries and their holiday traditions (this ties in perfectly with a Holidays Around the World Unit). You could also have them research and write about reindeer as a December project which will establish a strong foundation for future animal research projects.

Consistency is important when it comes to classroom management. However, there are times throughout the year when it is beneficial to mix things up a little. If you find your students aren’t responding as well as usual to your normal behavior management system, try mixing things up a little by implementing something new this month. 

  • Alter your usual attention-getting strategy by shaking jingle bells to signal the need for them to stop, look, and listen.

  • Some classroom teachers at all grade levels find it’s fun yo introduce a “Classroom Elf” to keep an eye on things. You certainly don’t need to go all “Elf on the Shelf,” but you could include a Kindness Elf or a stuffed snowman who watches the classroom and leaves positive notes for students who are caught being role models. 
  • Mix up your usual plan with new phrases or clipart. Check out this FREE Holiday Clip Chart as something new for the month.

Be mindful of everything you really need to do and vow to do only those things. A simple way to streamline your to do list is to draft it in columns. Write down the things that absolutely, positively must be done by you in the left column. These are things like writing report cards, lesson planning for the New Year, etc. In the middle column list things that need to get done, but COULD be done by someone else such as a classroom aide, parent volunteer or capable students and alumni. In the right column list the things that SHOULD be done by someone else. These are the things that are not a good use of your time and can easily be done by others (organizing the classroom library, taking down a bulletin board, wrapping students’ presents to their families). 

{Click to Download this FREE printable}
Finally, use the back of the page to list things that are dancing around like visions of sugarplums in your head, but do not really need to get done (elaborate holiday bulletin boards, hand-made gifts for coworkers, etc) and do your best to let those go if time doesn’t allow.

I encourage you to download my new FREEBIE…Sanity Savers for Teachers in December. It includes 20 Helpful Tips for a Stress-Free December, 10 Free Printables to Use, Editable Files, Holiday Book Lists and Resource Links. Please feel free to share it with other teachers. I hope you have a relaxed December in the classroom, a wonderful winter break and a happy and healthy New Year! 

{Click here to Access and Download the FREE Sanity Savers for Teaching in December}

Subscribe to My Newsletter for Frequent Freebies:
 Clutter-Free Classroom Newsletter

Visit My Blog: The Clutter-Free Classroom

See What I've Made @ My Store for Teachers

See What Goes on Behind the Scenes @ Instagram

Follow Me on Facebook and  Pinterest

Six Great Uses for Task Cards

If you are like me, you are constantly looking for ways to liven up your instruction to keep things from becoming stagnant and--wait for it...


That's right.  The dreaded "b" word.  Indeed, sometimes the practice that is necessary to truly cement skills into our minds can be perceived as boring or routine. way I like to keep things fresh is by using task cards.  Over the years, I have learned that there are SO many ways to use them, so I thought I'd share a few of my favorites!

1.  Brain Boosting Warm ups!

I think we often use task cards to supplement independent or station work--but good task cards are GREAT whole class warm ups!  If you have a document camera it makes it a snap, but if you don't-try enlarging it (or rewriting it on construction or chart paper) to display.  In addition to focusing the class and getting their brains ready to work, this is a great way to model how you want the REST of the cards in the collection to be used in centers or in a more independent way.  My students seemed to be struggling with more complex types of patterns, so for a few days I warmed up our math class with different pattern cards where we talked through them, compared solutions, and so on.  Students did the work in their math spiral and we were ready to roll!  Now I can use the rest of the set for reinforcement.

2.  Collaboration Cards!

Sometimes we forget that task cards can be used collaboratively as well and can really get discussion going.  Again, this might be a great way to scaffold the work on the cards to help students prepare to do more cards later on their own--or you might just value the discussion and collaboration a good task card can provide.  These cards are creative writing cards to help improve students' use of dialogue--and I saw SUCH creativity when they worked on them together!
Same here...these cards are all about discovering the meaning of different adages--and the discussions students had were stellar--they really worked like detectives to determine the meaning of the different sayings.

3.  Fast Finishers!

OK--we all have those students.  You know the ones--no matter how rigorous you think your lesson is, they finish it light years ahead of everyone else--and they did it flawlessly.  This is a GOOD thing!  That being said, teachers are always on the lookout for meaningful work for their fast finishers.  Using task cards that either supplement your curriculum or extend it are great ways for students to do meaningful work when they finish their requirements.  I love to work in cool facts and interesting topics that aren't a part of our regular curriculum but that keep students interested.  These are word problems of "Amazing Geography Facts" that fascinate my fast finishers!

4.  Differentiation Station!

Another dilemma facing teachers is how to meet the needs of different levels of students while running a math workshop or guided math system.  One thing that can be extremely helpful is to use task cards at various levels.  These cards can be differentiated in two ways--by having students use cards at different levels on one topic (for example, some students are working on addition with regrouping on two digit numbers while others are using 3, 4, and 5 digit numbers) OR by having students work on cards that are at a "just right level" but may be on different topics.  For example, I might have some of my students who are doing well with our current unit use some task cards that are quite rigorous...maybe challenging word problems...while students who need additional practice at a skill (last week, subtraction with regrouping) work with cards to reinforce this needed concept.  This way, you could have a station where they use task cards--but they are using the cards that are just right for them!

A few weeks ago we were working on algebra thinking--some students were using the very first set (I had done the first 6 cards as whole class warm ups as mentioned in #1!) while others started right at set 2 and started working their way through them.  No one has gotten to the green set yet--but next week I will pull a small group to talk about order of operations and then they will be all set!

5.  Center Solutions!

We all know that sometimes we need to meet with students in small groups to really tackle some in-depth learning.  It's wonderful when we can create a center where other students can work on meaningful tasks that serve as either challenges or review.  My students were really struggling with rounding to different places, so even after the unit was complete, I used a set of cards as a station during a day of math workshop where they tested their memory!  I had a basket of cards AND the answer key so students could check their work when they finished.  One thing that I really believe to be true about math workshop is that a climate for "honesty" be established.  We talk at length about why I would ever provide the answers...and students by this point in the year understand that the answers are a way for them to check their own understanding--and to determine if they need more coaching on a given topic.  This coaching could come from me or from another student...but they have learned that these centers are a great time for them to test themselves and decide whether or not they feel secure.  This is a pretty valuable life skill if you ask me!

6.  Intervention Attention!

This might be my favorite.   (OK...I honestly can't say that--but I DO know it has been a difference maker for me).  So often, students who need intervention in one area, need it in a million areas.  Noticed this?  I have taken to using task cards when I meet with some of my groups to do quick, down and dirty intervention sessions.  In 5 minutes, we may be able to do 2-3 cards, discuss, practice, and so on--and then can meet again the next day to do a few more.  My students LOVE it...they feel successful.  They feel their time is well spent.  They see progress.  I love it because I have a well organized set of tasks that are all ready to go...I can get a lot of "bang for my buck" students can focus for these short sessions...and once they are doing well, I can let them work more independently.  

The example below is for a group of students who are really struggling with context clues.  I used a few cards to introduce the concept to the class and then, based on my reading conferences, pulled 7 students who seem to not be able to do this independently.  I worked with some individually and some in pairs--the discussion with the pairs was awesome!  They came up with lots of possible meanings for the "purple words" and we were able to have great discussions about tricks and techniques for tackling unknown words in our reading.  Did all my students need these cards?  Nope!  But this group of 7 did--and I loved having 8 lesson's worth of content at my fingertips!

So...whether you gather up task cards from your favorite sellers or make your own, think about what a flexible tool task cards can be!  Get creative--you don't need to have fancy fonts and backgrounds to make a task card--even a stack of index cards will do!

If you are interested in any of the ones shown above, just click the image and it will take you to the product description.  Thanks so much for stopping by--and please have a safe and relaxing Thanksgiving.  I know all of us here at Upper Elementary Snapshots are thankful for YOU and your support over the years!

Follow me on...
Instagram @Fourthgradestudio
Twitter @FourthGrStudio

Extrinsic Or Intrinsic Rewards: Which is Best?

To reward or not reward students? That has been the question educators have pondered throughout the ages. This blog post will attempt to look at both sides (intrinsic and extrinsic motivation) and give you our perspective on what we feel is the best classroom management system for students.

First, let's get a clear definition of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are where students are working for their own satisfaction and goals, nothing is given to them in the form of a reward. Extrinsic rewards are where students are awarded something for either achievement or for the desired behavior.

Both Eric and I grew up in the public school system in Wisconsin. We now are taking some time to look back on what motivated us to learn. Yes, grades were probably our #1 motivation. We wanted to succeed in school. But what motivated us besides the grades? Well, here is a small list of things that stand out to us as a product of a public school system.

1. Awards/Certificates
Who doesn't remember getting a reading certificate for number of books read, or for passing a multiplication fact test? Our parents would put these certificates on the fridge or a bulletin board to show how proud they were. It wasn't until we were adults that we finally parted with them in the garbage. Those awards meant something to us.

2. Marble Jar
Yes, the marble jar! We can remember being so excited each time a marble was added to the jar. Then when that jar was full, we would have a class party. We can still remember watching "Where the Red Fern Grows" with our 6th grade classmates.

3.Extra Recess
Probably one of our favorites was extra recess. When the teacher said we had done such a good job in class that we earned extra recess, it was like a holiday break from school.

4. Stickers
Our folders were jam packed with stickers that we had received from our teachers. Some of our favorites were the scratch and sniff ones. We can remember getting those stickers on assignments and immediately peeling them off and adding to our collections. We wanted more stickers so we worked even harder for the teachers that gave stickers out.

5. Self-Motivation
Both Eric and I had an inherent desire to learn and succeed in school. We attribute this to the teachers that believed in us and went the extra mile to help us when we needed it. The praise and attention we received from our teachers helped us achieve our goals of attending college.

We both became public school teachers in the mid to late 1990's, so for the past 20 plus years we have had a chance to experiment with both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. When we both first started teaching we did not have a school-wide behavior piece in place so each classroom basically handled management their own way. We both tended to drift back with what we remembered from elementary school: rewards. We would either do tally marks on the board for good behavior, keep a class marble jar, or even write the word "PARTY" on the board, and would erase a letter if the class misbehaved. That strategy basically backfired and tempted our students to misbehave until that last letter was remaining.

When Responsive Classroom hit the mainstream our school district embraced the philosophy. According to the official Responsive Classroom website, Responsive Classroom's philosophy is a research-based approach to education that is associated with greater teacher effectiveness, higher student achievement, and improved school climate. Responsive Classroom does not focus on intrinsic rewards. Instead it focuses on teacher language. Teachers verbalize to the students the intended behavior. For example, instead of saying, "Timmy you earned a sticker for pushing in your chair," a teacher would say, "I noticed how Timmy pushed in his chair. He is being safe and is making it easier for his classmates to walk around the room." Our students responded well to this form of classroom management and liked that we recognized them verbally in front of the class. They seemed more motivated to learn.

Then Restitution came along. Restitution's focus is also on intrinsic motivation. According to the Restitution website, Restitution's philosophy is that teachers address discipline by focusing on how young people can correct their mistakes emphasizing positive solutions. When our district adopted this philosophy it was a major shift on how we manage our classrooms. Restitution teaches students to behave because inside they feel that it is the right thing to do, not because there is a reward or punishment waiting for them. For a majority of our students this approach worked well in the classroom.

Now, most teachers do a combination of both Responsive Classroom and Restitution in their classrooms in our school district. You will see Morning Meetings taking place in various classrooms, witness teachers using the language of Restitution, and will not see many rewards being given out for desired behaviors. You will also see teachers sometimes talking to students in the hallways about the desired behavior and asking students how they are going to fix their behaviors in the classroom.

After combining both Restitution and Responsive Classroom, we still have about 5% of our student population that do not respond to intrinsic motivation. For those students, behavior modification plans are put into place which look differently depending on the student. With our recent adoption of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) a few years ago, we now collect data on those students and can check their progress through a check in-check out process. For this specific group of students sometimes rewards are used if they meet their weekly or even daily goal depending on the student. It hasn't always fixed the behavior of the students, but it has held them more accountable to the teacher and to their parents.

Now, we might not be the norm in the nation, but we still throw in some of those "old school" rewards every once in a while too. Who doesn't love extra recess or a movie day? Now, we just don't announce it ahead of time, and instead spring it on our students and tie it into a desired behavior. For example, we might say, "Because all of you have worked so hard on this very difficult math unit and no one gave up or didn't try, we are going to have 15 extra minutes of recess today!" The outcome is still the same: students are excited and will remember that putting forth effort results in tangible incentives. If you're not sure about extrinsic awards, then look no further then your paycheck. Many of us would not be doing the job we are doing today if there was not a tangible reward waiting for us in our bank accounts.  :-)

We would love to hear your comments on what your beliefs are in regard to extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. We are always learning and changing to best meet our students' needs!

4 Easy Ways to Keep Your Students Engaged During the Holidays

Every year it seems like the holiday excitement (or craziness) begins earlier and earlier. Us teachers have to be on our toes constantly to get our students to pay attention in class when all they can think about is their upcoming school break and all of the fun things they're going to do during it. Whether you're a new or an experienced teacher, these four activities can help your students stay engaged during the holiday season!

Talk Traditions

Incorporate their holiday transitions into your lessons as much as possible. Talk to your students and find out what they do during this time of the year. This is valuable information you can use to plan your December lessons. You can incorporate something small into each lesson, even if it's just a some fun clipart of a Christmas tree or a dreidel on an assignment. It's all about novelty!

I love to read books about different holiday traditions. Even though I have upper grade students, I can fit these in during mini-lessons on writer's craft or any of my literature standards. It shows students that kids all over the world celebrate differently, and that's ok! Students enjoy learning about new traditions and getting a chance to talk about their own.

We also begin our Holiday Cookie Exchange in Math. During this unit students use some of the math skills we've learned this year (fractions and decimals) and their critical thinking skills to choose a cookie recipe and calculate the ingredients based on the number of people attending the exchange. We end the project that last day before winter break with cookies and hot cocoa!

Get Crafty

Go on Pinterest and search "holiday kid craft" and you'll get millions of results! Refine your search by searching specifically for a craft to go with the standard. You can find a lot of great activities for math and even some holiday science experiments.

Every December I do a descriptive writing unit where each student designs a tree. I send them home with a large piece of green card stock and let them be creative! I've gotten many Christmas trees, a few cactus, and even a 3D Minecraft tree. When they bring it back we use it for all sorts of writing activities. They choose a tree to describe one day and another day they write a How-to speech on how they created their tree.

Play Games

During December I take all of my games (mostly centers, but some whole groups!) and modify the theme. I make their spelling lists a mixture of holiday words and some general words they're struggling with during writing, and I create word searches from those words using a free word search creator. Add some snowflakes or elf clipart and you've got them interested! Any dice games you use during math can be changed to a holiday theme by changing the name of the game and changing the dice to green and red ones. It might seem like small changes to you, but everyone needs things shaken up a bit!

Get Your Groove On

Play holiday music to get students moving when finding partners or doing think-pair-share. Play it low while they're writing to add some holiday spirit! I prefer instrumental music during writing time, but sometimes we just need some fun holiday music. Check out this list of holiday stations and play a different station each day! There's a lot of different types of Christmas music and one for Hanukkah.

And lastly... enjoy yourself! I know it gets stressful around the holidays, but appreciate the fun activities you get to do with your students during this time. After New Years, there's only a few small holidays left to celebrate in this school year!

Mentor Texts with Strong Leads

Have you ever been reading a book, and made a mental note like I need to remember to refer to this book the next time I am teaching how to write a strong lead? And, if you're like me, you promptly forgot about it before taking the time to write yourself a note and place it in the correct file. This has happened to me more times than I care to count! As teachers, we are constantly noticing things we can use in our classrooms.

Recently, I was reading Three Times Lucky (a book recommended to me by my own fifth grader at home), and I was struck by the incredible lead used by the author, Sheila Turnage! Once again, I had that I have to remember this! moment. Instead of forgetting about it, though, this time my idea grew as I decided to take the time to find some strong lead examples, and share them with fellow teachers in a blog post.
Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books!

I searched for a variety of leads, and these are some favorites that I ran across:

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books!

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books!

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

Teach your students to create strong leads in writing by studying mentor texts with strong leads! This blog post contains 10 great examples of strong leads taken from young adult books! 

I included my other favorites (including the lead I mentioned above from Three Times Lucky) in my new Writing Leads PowerPoint. If this is something you might be able to use in your classroom, it is available in my TpT store- feel free to check it out!

Finally, would you like a chance to WIN a set of the TEN books shown above?  Hop to my blog, Crafting Connections, and enter my giveaway! (Enter through November 21.)