Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Creating a Classroom Community with Memory Makers

I'm always looking for ways to build a community within my classroom.  A couple of years ago, I began using memory makers.  My students love it!

It's very simple to create and keep going.  So, what is it?  Students write down events that have occurred in the classroom.  These events can be funny, sad, exciting, you name it.  For example, if a student masters being able to skip count by 3s, that can be very exciting for them and a memory worth keeping.  The student writes the memory down on a memory slip, and places it in the memory maker box.  Maybe YOU did something that the students thought was funny, that could be a memory to write down too!  Memories are endless!

What makes this really fun and the most exciting for the students is when you go back and read the memories.  They love to reminisce!  I typically share the memory slips about once a quarter.  We spend a bit of time reading the memory slips and do a little reminiscing at the same time.  I then give the students their memory slips to take home with them.

This is a very simple addition to the classroom that cultivates a community and something that the students are excited to participate in.

You can download the free printable HERE.  Now, go build some memories!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

10 Ways to Quickly Check for Understanding: Formative Assessment

With school starting back for many teachers, lesson plans is at the top of the to-do list, and planning creative and effective lesson plans is a high priority. One important component to any lesson is checking for students' understanding. A quick and simple formative assessment can be beneficial not only to the students, but to the teacher as well because this quick assessment can help the teacher know what the students understand and what they don't. Here are 10 of my favorite ways to quickly check for understanding that will work for almost any lesson.

Thumbs up/Thumbs down. Use this strategy by simply asking questions. If the students agree or think the answer is correct, they give a thumbs up. If they disagree or think the answer is incorrect, they give a thumbs down.

Individual White Boards. Students can write a simple answer on the white board and turn it around. This is a great way to quickly see who understands the concept and who does not. This is great for math or for any short answers that can be quickly seen by the teacher.

Quick Write- This is a timed writing response. Give students a prompt related to the lesson and a minute or two to write a response. The teacher can take up and read to quickly determine if further instruction is necessary.

5 Words- Students use 5 words to describe the topic of the lesson and explain and justify their word choices.

Top 10 List or Top 10 Takeaways. Students simply list their top 10 ideas that they feel were the most important key points to the lesson. This one is great for the end of of longer unit of study.

Opinion Chart- Have each student to draw a T chart on his/her paper. At the top on the left write Opinion. At the top on the right, write Evidence. Students complete the chart by writing an opinion about the topic they have just learned, then on the right, justify their answer with evidence from the lesson.

Yes/No cards. Simply use index cards and write (or have students to write) Yes on one side and No on the other side in large letters. Ask review questions about the lesson that require only a yes or no answer, and instruct students to hold up the correct answer. This is a quick and easy way to assess students understanding.

Physical Response. This can be a fun way to end a lesson, and students love this! Ask students to do something such as raise both hands or stand up if the answer is_______. For example, if you are studying parts of speech, call out a word and tell students to raise both hands if it is a noun or turn around if it is a verb. This could be done with True and False answers. Call out a question and instruct students to hop one time if the answer is true and turn around if it is false. There are many possibilities to this fun activity. 

Show Me the Card Activity. This is a fun activity similar to the Yes/No cards that can be found FREE in my store. If you are studying there, their, and they're, download this freebie. Call out a sentence (provided in the freebie) and instruct students to hold up the card with the correct spelling. Quickly assess who knows and understands the meanings and spellings of each of these words. This is another activity that students love. Just click the link in the pictures below to get your free set.
Pirate Homophones:  They're, There, and Their

Pirate Homophones:  They're, There, and Their

Exit Slips- Exit slips are a great way to quickly assess students' understanding of a concept. An exit slip is a wonderful tool to use in your classroom at the end of a lesson to help you quickly assess students' understanding of a concept and plan the next steps accordingly. This fun set of exit slips that are found in my store, can be used with almost any subject. Your students will love the variety of these eye-catching exit slips, and you will love the simplicity of having a closure activity for your lessons that will help you assess the progress of your students. To purchase, click the link in the picture below.
Exit Slips to Use with Almost Any Lesson or Subject

No matter which method you use for a quick check for understanding, adding these simple formative assessments to your lessons will help you know what your students are actually learning. 

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

3 Simple Steps to Help Students Build Good Character

We teach about slavery and discrimination in American history.  Sadly, intolerance still exists in today's society. Now it is more important than ever to teach students about building good character and getting along with others.  Learning good values will help children become better citizens and also help build a positive classroom community.  So what can you do to help students build good character?

There are three simple steps to use when helping students build good character.

1.  EDUCATE-  How do you educate children on good character?  Gather mentor texts related to character education.  Read the mentor texts and discuss the character trait(s) that are evident in each book.  Discuss these good character traits and their meanings.  Then brainstorm examples of how they are demonstrated in every day life.  Focus on one trait a week or month.  Click HERE for a free poster with character traits and their meanings.

2.  IDENTIFY- Identify good character traits in students.  If you focus on one character trait at a time, tell students you will be looking for that trait throughout the week or month.  You can have students identify that trait in each other as well.  As you build up good character traits throughout the year, you have two choices.  You can identify all the traits that were accumulated or simply concentrate on the good character trait(s) introduced in that particular story.

3.  ACKNOWLEDGE- It is important to acknowledge good character in students.  Tell students that you notice their efforts and that you are proud of their positive choices.  A little praise goes a long way.  Children will demonstrate more good character traits knowing that you are paying attention.  If you are looking for ways of acknowledging students, read this post called An Easy Way to Build Good Character in the Classroom.

I hope these three simple steps will help you get character education started in your classroom. You are a positive role model and teaching students how to build good character will help them now and in the future.  It will also help your classroom and community come together.  Thank you for being such a positive influence in your students' lives and changing the world!

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

10 Tips for Creating a Climate for Readers

back to school reading

Most of us are either back at school or thinking about it!  Today I thought I'd share 10 tips to help us really create a classroom culture that celebrates and nurtures our readers.  See what you think!

1.  Share YOUR love of reading.

Whether you are in a book club of your own or simply model your love with HOW you read, how MUCH you read, or your excitement about new books--make sure your students know that you value reading and you are excited to help THEM find the books that will captivate them.  I talk to my students about trying to get into the reading "zone" where you are so into your book that you lose track of time and the world around you.  When that happens IN our class, we totally celebrate it!

2.  Make sure students have access to books.

classroom library

Whether you have a complete classroom library or need to beg, borrow, or steal visit the library  (school or public), make sure you have plenty of books at a variety of levels with tons of different interest levels.  Discount stores, Scholastic, rummage sales, resale shops, and other places are great starting points for adding to your collection.  If you are a newer teacher or changing grades, consider asking students and other teachers what is "hot" in their room before you invest too much!  Think about organizing them in a simple, easy-to-use system to make everyone's life easier!  CLICK HERE for a post about how I organize my ridiculous collection!

3.  Teach them about what a "just right" book is

This is a key part of helping my students transition back to school. I want students to recognize all the things that go into finding that "just right" book--including interests, level, genre, length, and more.  We talk about abandoning books--and how it can be okay ONCE IN AWHILE, but if we become good book "pickers", we won't need to abandon many.  I make sure to model, model, model all the ways we can preview books to see if they are good fits.  At the beginning of the year, this is the number one thing I confer with students about.  I really want them to know that it is NO FUN to read a book that isn't a good fit.

4.  Expose them to different genres

Whether it be through full units to explicitly teach different genres, are mindful of our read aloud selections, or simply doing book talks or other "focus" lessons on different genres, we can really SELL students on different types of books.  We always have some students who are genre picky (think "I only read Harry Potter-like books), but with a little convincing, we can often open students up to amazing books they never would have picked on their own.  Depending on your curriculum, you may even want to have the students graph their reading and track their trends.  We even do a "historical fiction challenge" where I make a "code" on the wall (ex. red for books set during the Civil War, yellow for the Great Depression, and so on).  Every time students finish a book of that time "era", they make a paper link and add to our chain.  Last year we had 132 historical fiction books read in February!
teaching historical fiction

5.  Give them choices

Sometimes we need to give students choices.  Choices about WHAT they read.  Choices about WHERE they read.  Choices about whether they read alone or with a buddy.  Sometimes I'll even take a class vote on what our next read aloud will be!  We need to work to create a climate of readers where we are all celebrating books together.

6.  Get them talking about books

Whether we put sentence starters up on the wall, do fishbowl activities where we watch groups have discussions, or even find example videos online to "study", teaching students how to talk about books is so important--so they can participate in whole class discussions AND small group book clubs. Want to read a post more about getting students talking in their book clubs?  Check this one out!

7.  Give them TIME to read self-selected books

Do I need to say more?  Not time to read "assigned" reading.  Time. To. Read.  Teach students how to develop their stamina and minimize distractions and work toward reading for extending periods of time.  Let them get in that "reading zone"!  After all, the way we get better at reading is TO READ!  Have them keep lists of books they want to read and consider doing some self-assessments to monitor their own reading.
student self assessment reading

8.  Help them understand that reading is more than saying the words

One thing that I have noticed about students who come into my room from other schools is that they often have a different view of what a "reader" is.  They talk about reading "fast" and "thick books".  We work hard to help students see that reading is complicated!  It's about deep understanding.  It's about talking about ideas about books.  It's about seeing "movies" in our minds.  It's about rereading when things don't make sense.  Early in the year, I work with my students to understand how complicated reading is--and that we can set goals in all of these different areas to get better at reading.

setting reading goals

9.  Select interesting read alouds with a purpose

I think it's so important to read aloud a variety of things to our students...articles...poems...picture books...novels.  The beauty of the read aloud is that we can decide WHY we want to read it.  Is it to teach them something?   Purely for enjoyment?  To introduce or reinforce a skill such as theme or setting?  To study a character and how they change?  The sky is the limit--but we should always KNOW our purpose.  For example, I start the year by reading a ton of picture books to model my thinking and other strategies and I read "Fish in a Tree" as a novel to really talk about characters, the setting of "school", and how students treat each other.  We have a lot of power and there are SO many amazing books. Choosing is so hard!  The beauty of the read aloud is that we can expose students to texts that they may not have access to without us; we can "teach" more rigorous reading through our read alouds.

10. Remember to slow down and enjoy!

In our current climate of pushing standards and assessments and units and more, sometimes we need to just stop and savor what we are doing with our students.  When my students are independently reading, and I am moving quietly among them conferring, sometimes I just stop and look around and the 25 little bodies who are in the process of becoming life-long readers.  Pretty powerful!

Interested in some of the forms and lesson ideas I use at the beginning of the year?  Check this out!

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Classroom Must Haves: Tools, Books and Resources We Can't Picture Ourselves Teaching Without

You know that question that asks, "If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island and could only take three things with you...?" 

Well this is sort of like that.

Except it is the teacher version. 

The bloggers here at Upper Elementary Snapshots have teamed up to bring you some new ideas, book suggestions, resources and other "must haves" for your classrooms. Each of us is sharing a FREE RESOURCE we have created and have found to be useful in our own teaching. We are also spotlighting three of the things we can't picture ourselves teaching without.

Visit each of our blogs to grab a total of 13 FREE resources and learn about all our favorite classroom tools, books to read aloud to students and printable resources.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Classroom Management Made Easy - 6 Tips to Get You Started

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Classroom management is essential throughout the school day, but it is especially important during math workshop. With planning and consistency, your classroom will “run itself “ and your students will be focused and on task even when you are working with a small group across the room.

Here’s how to get there:

1- Determine the procedures and routines that will be effective for your classroom.

The key to classroom management is establishing clear procedures and routines within an organized and structured environment. This is especially true for Math Workshop. 
This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Before the students arrive you’ll need to think about your classroom layout and your vision for how your workshop will run. I recommend putting your procedures into writing. This will help you be consistent, allow you to tweak your routines, and provide clear expectations to substitute teachers and parent volunteers. 

Offer lots of verbal praise and recognition as students begin to show mastery of the routines. Look for model students and have them help those who are struggling with the procedures. Don’t be afraid to make changes if something is not working well.

2- Establish a signal for alerting students that Math Workshop is about to begin and that they need to transition to the whole group area for your mini-lesson. I use wind chimes in my classroom. They are loud enough that they are heard and the lingering sounds ensure that all students will hear them. Also, they are not intrusive which makes for a calmer transition. Whenever my students hear the wind chimes they know that signal means to come to the rug.

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop
3- Use hand signals in your classroom. I have my students use hand signals when they raise their hand in the group. A pinky signals, “I have a question.” A closed fist means, “I have an answer.” Fingers curled into the shape of the letter C means, “I have a comment.” 

I also have the students use hand signals throughout the day using a number system. For example, one finger means “May I use the bathroom” while three means, “I need my pencil sharpened.” These hand signals are crucial to the workshop because they eliminate the need for students to disrupt my teaching. I can simply nod to acknowledge their request.

4- Assign seats for the whole group meeting area. By creating a seating plan in the meeting area you will...

  • eliminate the rush to get to a choice seat
  • ensure students are sitting next to peers that are positive choices for them
  • place students who may need to leave the room for services in an easy exit location enable you to meet individual needs for attention, behavior, vision, hearing, etc. save precious minutes by not needing students to change seats
  • provide students who need trunk support or a defined space with a chair 
5 - Establish expectations for class discussions. Assign talking partners for “think, pair and share” in the group area when you pose questions. Ideally, this should be a neighboring classmate. Keep these partnerships in mind when assigning seats. 

6 - Teach your students what it means to be an “active listener.” Take some time to read about Whole Brain Teaching and how it can be used for mini lessons.

This post shares 6 Tips for Managing Math Workshop

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Top 5 Organizing Tips for New Teachers

Organization for new teachers can be very difficult. In this blog post we will identify the top 5 organizing tips for the school year if you are a new teacher. By no means are these the only five, but they will get you started on having a great year.

  1. Make a list...
    A teacher's best friend can be a list. Make sure to start making lists of items you need to buy to decorate your classroom and things you want to do once you are in your room. If you are a new teacher, you will want to make your classroom your own. This would involve making a list of the decorations that you will choose to use for the school year.  Your list should also have the supplies you will need to get your classroom up and running. Click here or on the picture below for a free checklist that you can use to get started in your classroom.

  2. Have a calendar/planner...
    If there is one thing that a teacher cannot live without, it is a planner. This is your lifeline to what is happening in your classroom and building. It houses meetings, conference dates, student birthdays, and most importantly, those days you don't have to report to school! There are many different forms of planners that teachers use. In this digital age, many colleagues use online calendars such as Microsoft Outlook, or Google Calendar. But, if you like having something that you can page through and carry with you, the old-fashioned planners work just as well. Some like weekly calendars, while others like daily. It is all up to you, but you must have one to keep all the different events easy to find.
  3. Make sure rosters are ready to go...
    You will be collecting a lot of paperwork the first few weeks of school. There are forms that parents have to fill out, and you may be having students complete easy activities as well. Having class rosters available so you can track who has and hasn't turned in assignments or forms is a huge time-saver. It allows you a quick glance as to who still needs to turn in the papers. It also helps you spot early patterns of students who have difficulty completing work on time. It is better to catch this early in the year, then to wait until mid-year to try and correct it.
  4. Establish a routine...
    This is more for you, then for your students. Teachers tend to be creatures of habit. Anything that changes in a teacher's daily routine can be unsettling. So, we tend to follow the same routine every morning before school, upon arrival at school, and getting home at a reasonable time. If you know that there may be a before, or after school meeting, adjust your routine appropriately to fit in what you normally do. Yes, that may mean waking up earlier, but it will provide sanity for you in being able to follow your daily routine.
  5. Join Scholastic Book Club...
    Being a new teacher your classroom library is probably tiny or non-existent. Scholastic Book Club is a great place to start to build your own library. It would be a great idea to talk to some veteran teachers in your building who are already using Scholastic. They may have a coupon that you could use to get started that could give you bonus points towards ordering books. Once your students start ordering, you will be able to obtain some free books and your bonus points total will start to grow. Then you can use these points towards ordering books. In no time at all, you will be adding quality literature to your classroom library!

If you liked this blog post,, you will want to check out The First Year Teacher eBook with 29 pages of helpful tips for beginning teachers. This is a comprehensive and easy-to-read resource that will help any beginning teacher have a successful school year.
First Year Teacher eBook

You will also want to check out our companion guide: The First Year Teacher Resources which contains 40 different resources (printables) you can use your first year of teaching!

First Year Teacher: Resource Guide

Thanks and here is to a successful year of teaching!

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Importance of Student Self-Assessment

We know that "assessment" is a buzz word that we can't get away from...we talk about standardized testing.  About rubrics.  About standards-based assessment tasks.  About--YOU fill in the blank.

One of the often under-used assessment strategies is SELF-assessment.  This can be something as simple as a "thumbs up" if a student understands but can be far more involved and useful.  Interested in some of the brain research on this?  Check out this GREAT article by Jo Boaler!  Today I want to talk about some of the issues related to self-assessment--and to give you some suggestions on how to create a culture where students will be able to make the most of the opportunities you provide them.

Culture for honesty and risk taking

One thing I have definitely discovered is that if students don't feel "safe" in our classroom environments, there is no way for them to open and honestly assess themselves.  It's hard to admit that you don't understand when the culture stresses speed, accuracy, and competition.  The more we can strive to develop a "team" feeling of collaboration where we, as teachers, can model risk taking, how we handle mistakes, how we assess ourselves, and so on--the easier it will be for students to be honest about their own struggles.  We should CELEBRATE mistakes in our classrooms!  The research supports this.
Making mistakes can actually grow the neural connections in our brains.  ADDRESSING the mistakes makes them even stronger.  Teach your children this!  Make it not only safe, but DESIRABLE.  Consider doing activities where mistakes are inevitable.  Ask students to share which problems were most challenging and how they tackled them.  Ask students to share errors they found and how they went back to find the mistakes.  All of this can contribute to this culture of collaboration and learning.  I recently wrote a blog post that goes into more detail if you are interesting.  Just click the image below.

Give them the language

If we DO want students to participate in a classroom culture such as this, we need to give them the language to do it.  Providing sentence stems and other anchor charts that give them phrases to use to help them communicate their level of understanding can go a long way.  This can be more "general" information for them like a list of accountable talk stems like..."I'm not sure I understand" or "Could you explain that again?".  Sometimes we might want to be more specific to the content we are studying.

If we truly want students to be able to honestly assess themselves, they need to know what it is that they are trying to accomplish!  It needs to be more specific than "I can multiply big numbers." or "I can comprehend what I read." What does that look like?  In what contexts?  We need to get better at breaking down these huge ideas for students so they can do a better job of monitoring their own progress.

One area where this is particularly challenging is in those more "behavioral" elements of our classroom life....reading habits, partnering skills, and so on.  In math, there is a whole set of standards geared toward getting teachers to more explicitly teach these "math behaviors" to help students be successful.  That being said, it's sometimes easy to attach ourselves to the easy words in these standards--words like "accuracy" and "precision" and "perseverance".  If you do a deep dive into these standards, you will see there is much more to them than that!  I've spent a lot of time breaking down reading and math into these small, measurable goals for students that make it easier for them to talk about and measure their own progress.  Early in the school year, I focus more on overall behaviors.  We brainstorm what they are, we talk about them, we share examples of them, and then we practice self-assessing them.  We use these checklists multiple times and really try to make the language in them a part of our daily conversation.

student self-assessment
As the year goes on and I start to dig into the other more complex standards, we do the same thing.  Rather than tell students that they need to "Use Appropriate Tools Strategically", I think it's important to break that down with them so they really know what that means.  Since taking the time to do this, I have seen a DRAMATIC improvement in students' reflectiveness AND skill level!  It is worth the time investment!  
math practice standards anchor charts
I hang these "focus charts" up when we are really digging into one of the standards but then students keep a copy of the self-assessment checklist so they always have access to it.  We can pull those out to review at any point.

Goal of improvement

I think what taking the time to really dig into these standards--whether they be content standards or "practices" standards--allows students to start to set some realistic, attainable goals.  When a child is reading below grade level and we set their goal to be reading AT grade level, that is pretty daunting!  But if we can set their goals to be more attainable...perhaps it starts with something like:
Similarly, by always including a part of the assessment where students can express what they did WELL as well as set a growth goal, it forces them to acknowledge where they are strong in addition to identifying areas where growth is needed.

Interested in the checklists shown above?  Just click the image below.  My reading goal resource can be found by clicking HERE.
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