Making Task Cards More Interactive

Many of us find task cards to be a valuable tool in our classrooms...and you can find dozens of posts with great suggestions on the many ways to use them!

Today's "Teacher Tip" involves laminating--and I know many of you probably DO laminate your cards to keep them safe and sound for repeated use.  Do you also laminate them so that students can INTERACT with them?  I do!

This is especially powerful when you are working with students on math concepts.  Sure, they can recopy the problems into their math notebooks--but how about using the cards to show their work?  The photo below was taken during an intervention group I was doing with a few students who were really struggling with basic equations and the concept of "equal".  By having them write directly on the card as they talked through their thinking, I could correct misconceptions and see what they were doing incorrectly so I could coach.

Not using them for interventions?   Have students write on their cards and switch with a partner to check.  Want to REALLY get them thinking?  Ask students to do several cards--and to make one mistake for their partner to find!
math task cards
Another example of how powerful it can be to have students write directly on their task cards is when you are doing anything spatial like geometry, measurement, or patterning.  This past week we wrapped up our area and perimeter unit and I wanted the students to work in pairs to do some practice work--and these task cards were perfectly suited for interactive work!  Students carved out rectangles out of the irregular shapes, labeled sides, and found solutions together.  It was fascinating to hear the great math talk as they made their decisions about how to divide their shapes.
area and perimeter lessons
 As they worked, I walked around and coached--and was able to give some instructional hints like, "Do you think it would help to label the sides first?"  Mistakes were easily wiped away!
area and perimeter activities
So whether you use task cards in stations, as review tools, for enrichment, or as warm ups--consider whether having students write directly on the cards might be a great way to see their thinking and help clear up any misconceptions.

Another great advantage to this technique is that you can easily slip a task card under a document camera to share student thinking or solutions!  Students can point to the screen and share what they did--and why they did it!  Teachers can ALSO write on task cards under the document camera to show strategies, remind students about labels, highlight directions, share hints, and so on.  In fact, I'll often save a card that shows a solution to refer to later--I can remember a card that showed a great solution to a patterning problem that I knew would help us with a later lesson.  I saved the card and showed it a few days later to help hammer home the minilesson.

Task cards are great for so many reasons--just a little reminder that we can really make them a tool to deliver instruction and for students to represent their learning.  If you are interested in any of the resources pictured, just click the image to see more!

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Improving Student Writing Using Masterpiece Sentences

As a teacher, there are many perks to being married to another teacher, particularly one who teaches the same grade level!! I definitely love the convenience of having all of the same days off!! I love that my husband understands the challenges that come with the job!!  But what I truly love about being married to a teacher, is that I always have a partner to share and discuss new ideas!!

A few weeks ago my husband came home PUMPED after an ELA professional development training. He could hardly wait to share everything he learned about MASTERPIECE SENTENCES!! Of course by the end of our conversation, we were both ready to go to work the next day to implement this sentence-writing strategy in our own classrooms. 

I decided to create a Flip Book that I could use to teach this strategy to my students, and which they could keep and refer back to as needed:

There are 6 steps, or "stages" that students go through in order to write a Masterpiece Sentence...

Stage 1: Prepare Your Canvas
In this first step, students start off with a very simple sentence. All it really needs is a simple subject and a simple predicate...

Stage 2: Paint Your Predicate
This is where the magic begins and students begin to create their masterpiece. For stage 2, students add more details to their predicate by answering: How? Where? When?

When my students are writing their sentences I reassure them that it's okay to leave one of these out if they don't think these details fit well in their sentences.

Stage 3: Move Your Predicate Painters
Things get a bit more complicated in this stage, when students are asked to move parts of the sentence around so that it makes more sense, or to improve the style of the sentence...

Stage 4: Paint Your Subject
In this next stage students add more details to their simple subject by answering: Which? What Kind? How Many?

Again, students have some flexibility with this. For instance, if adding "how many" isn't going to improve the quality of their sentences, then I encourage them to skip that particular part.

Stage 5: Paint Your Words
This next stage focuses on WORD CHOICE. This is where students will add or replace nouns, adjectives, or verbs with words that are more precise and descriptive.

Stage 6: Finishing Touches 
In this last stage, students put final touches on their masterpiece sentences, by making final edits and revisions. They may choose to add, delete, or move certain parts of the sentence. This is also the time to double-check punctuation and spelling.

I am loving this unique strategy for helping students improve their creative writing. I think it's a great strategy to practice several times, in order for students to get in the habit of revising their sentences to improve their writing! I hope that you and your students will enjoy this strategy as much as my students and I do!! Click HERE to download this Flip Book!! Happy Writing!!


Using Speech Bubbles in Reading

"Those speech bubbles are so cute."

I shudder.

Cute? Well, yes, I admit they are darn good-looking speech bubbles. (Credit Sarah Pecorino for the lovely clip art in the photos.) But look past the cuteness and you'll see a tool. A tool that can reap intense thinking from your students during your reading instruction.

Five ways to use speech bubbles as a tool in your reading instruction. Get students thinking harder that you'd expect.

Here are five ways to use speech bubbles when reading literature:

Try using speech bubbles as a vehicle for your students to interact with the characters in a text. To actually talk to a character.

Doing so can entrench a student into the story. Not only are they following the plot, now they are putting themselves in it. Have them offer advice to a character, connect to a difficult situation by telling a character about a similar experience, or give information that would help a character out of a sticky situation.

Sticky notes work perfectly to do this while reading. Students can pause, jot down a speech bubble, and stick it right in their book.

Pull two characters out of their story to create a conversation between them, similar to an exchange of texts to each other. Maybe tension exists between two characters and the author has yet to have them confront the situation. Or maybe the parameters of the story prevent two certain characters from coming into contact with each other. Force these interactions to occur with a character conversation.

(Click to grab a copy of the Character Conversation sheet.)
Having students make up the dialogue between two characters, dialogue that does not exist otherwise, puts the students in the shoes of the characters. Try the activity in partners, where each student takes on the role of one character. If there's no obvious topic for a conversation to revolve around, try giving a class-wide topic, even a random one. The key is to write the characters' dialogue to fit who the characters are. Sharing these conversations like a reader's theater makes for an engaging comparison!

As a compelling spinoff, take a main character out of two separate books to try a character conversation. *Note: Be sure to click the photo above to download the free form.

Give words to a character or animal who doesn't otherwise speak. For example, in Shiloh, recording in a speech bubble what the dog, Shiloh, would say if he could speak allows you to see if students are making important inferences.

(Click to grab a copy of the speech bubble.)
Try modeling this activity with a large, laminated speech bubble like in the photo. *Note: Click the photo to download your free copy.

Use one chapter of a book (or a whole picture book) to have students decide the most important quotation uttered by one of the characters. Have them copy the character's words inside a speech bubble and then comment on why they chose it. What makes these words so significant?

It reminds me of the "Say WHAT?!?" page from my Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature, where students choose a quote that might be important later in the story and answer questions about its importance.

The use of speech bubbles within comic strips is most likely familiar to your students. Try having students give a summary of a book through a comic strip instead of (or to accompany) a standard written paragraph.

Fold a piece of paper into fourths to create the boxes. Split off half the first box to allow for some set-the-scene narration, and then use the remaining spaces to complete the summary.

*   *   *

There's a lot you can do with what characters say in a story, and a speech bubble is the perfect vehicle to get into it.

Come visit my blog and read about the Speech Bubble's more reserved, contemplative cousin: the Thought Bubble, and the cute deep-thinking things you can do with one! Read it HERE.

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Top 10 Ways to Combat Test Stress

When our students hear the word "test" they cringe and you can see the fear on their face. When we start to talk about the standardized test, that fear turns to panic and sheer horror. Thoughts flood their minds, "I'm going to have to repeat 5th grade! My parents are going to ground me forever if I don't pass this test. Maybe I can pretend I'm sick and get out of the whole test. I wonder if I broke my writing arm if I would have to do it?"

After 40 years of combined teaching at grade levels where standardized tests are administered, we have developed a TOP 10 LIST that we think will help not only your students, but yourself cope with the "stress of the test."

#1: Treats!
What student, or teacher for that matter, doesn't love treats? About a week before the test begins we read a letter to our students about how their parents can bring in healthy snacks and healthy drinks on the days of the test. This gets the students excited. You can find the FREE letter by clicking here.
#2: Morning Meeting
It is important to start off testing days with a short morning meeting. For those of you that have never done this, don't worry. Students need to be acknowledged and appreciated, especially on testing day. First, it's a simple greeting in the morning to everyone. We have used a koosh ball to throw around the room, have the student give high 5s to each other,  and do a pinky shake to name a few. Next is a quick share. Some topics that we have done during testing are: raise your hand if you ate breakfast today, raise your hand if you got at least 7 hours of sleep and so on. The third activity is a cooperative game. This is a time to get up and do an activity together. The favorite activity of our classes is the beach ball toss. We bring a beach ball into the classroom and pick 3-4 students to be in a circle. Their goal is to see how long they can keep it in the air. Then we pick the next group until all students have been picked. The final part of the meeting is news and announcements. This is where we share what part of the test they will be doing that day, when snacks are, and any other events happening during the day. Students like to know the routine ahead of time.
#3: Stress Chain
Students always bring worries with them to the state test. To combat this, we created a stress chain activity that we do the day before the test. What the teacher needs are various colors of regular size construction paper. Take each piece of construction paper and cut into about 8 equal strips.  Hand out two different colors of construction paper per student. Tell them that you want them to write their worries about the test on the paper. Some examples are: "I might fail. I might not know an answer. I will get nervous and forget everything I know..." After they have finished, have the class help you make them into chains by looping them together and stapling. Take the completed chain and tell the students that you are going to hang all their worries outside the classroom door. So when they come in to class tomorrow they are to leave their worries at the door! You can find a printable version of the directions for FREE here.

#4: Test Taking First Aid Kit
Another fun idea is to create a test taking first aid kit for the students to "use" during testing. The kit includes items that students could use during the test. Check out the contents of the bags and the FREE activity here.
#5 Brain Breaks
One important thing that you need to do with your class is to take brain breaks when portions of the test are complete. This could be the time that  you have your snacks, or when you do some quick movement activities (jumping jacks, running in place, wiggling arms and legs..). Students need the time to get up and move around.
#6 Sharpened Pencils
Before testing begins, we make sure that EVERY student has at least two sharpened #2 pencils in their desks. We also make sure that we have a can of sharpened pencils available too. The last thing you want is for a student to panic when s/he breaks a pencil.

#7 Bubbles
It's not what you think! No, we do not allow bubbles in our classrooms, but that could be fun. Instead, we are talking about those fun bubbles that students need to fill in on the test booklets and/or answer sheets. If your students are grades 4 or higher they can probably do this on their own. If they are in a lower grade, we would ask for assistance from an aide in the school or someone that can help you do this ahead of time. If your students are doing this on their own, make sure to give clear directions. Something fun to do at the end, would be to give them a blank bubble sheet and have them make up designs. If your tests have move to computer-based assessments, bring in some bubble wrap for each student and let them pop away!
#8 Music
During our brain breaks we often turn on music to let the students unwind. Sometime it might be soothing classical music, or other times it is the music we downloaded on our ipods/devices that has more modern (appropriate) songs that the students would enjoy. They love it! Stations like Pandora have some great selections too!
#9 Basketball Trash Shooting with stress chain.
At the end of testing, we take apart our stress chain and hand back the pieces. Each student gets two shots at the garbage can after crumpling them into balls. They have a blast with this!
#10 Ice Cream Party 
What better way to celebrate the end of testing than with some ice cream. You become the students' waiter/waitress and serve them ice cream and various toppings. Check out the letter that we send home to ask parents for items for the party here

Those were 10 tips that we have used in our classrooms. We would love to hear what has been successful for you! 

Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more FREE test prep downloads! 

Problem Solving Made Simpler

I know many of my fellow educators fully agree with the following statement: Teaching problem solving is tough!  Math problem solving is one of the most challenging activities for elementary students. 

Over the years, I've noticed that students:
  •  struggle with interpreting what the problems are really asking them to do 
  •  struggle with figuring out the necessary steps to solve the problem
  •  do not have an entry point to the problem
When reflecting on the different barriers, I began to think of a set procedure that could be easily implemented in the classroom to support students. Let me share a strategy that has been helpful to me.

First - Think About What the Problem is Asking?

For some students understanding the word problem can be challenging.  From my experience, much of the confusion is due to (1) students not comprehending the context of the problem and (2) students not understanding numerical expressions. Can you see how the combination of both can be an huge obstacle for our kids?

To help with this, I have students first read the problem without the numbers. Interesting, right?  This way students get an understanding of what the problem is asking versus scanning the problem for numbers and applying any operation that comes to mind. 

Let's use the following as an example problem:

Ms. Jackson wants her students to make clay models for an art project.  She purchased three and five-sixths cups of yellow clay and two and two-sixths cups of white clay.  How many cups of clay did Ms. Jackson purchase for the project?

Read the Problem without the Numbers 

Ms. Jackson wants her students to make models for an art project.  She purchased some cups of yellow clay and some cups of white clay.  How many cups of clay did Ms. Jackson purchase for the project?

Give your kids an opportunity to read the newly modified problem and ask, "Can you describe what is happening in your own words?"  After students discuss, allow time to record their thinking using the problem solving template. If students are still struggling with comprehension, have them act it out.

After they are finished recording their response, give them an opportunity re-read the problem with the numbers and ask "What information do you know?" and "What information will you need to solve the problem?"

Second - Make a Plan

Now that your students know what the problem is asking, they can begin to figure out a plan to solve it.  Provide ample time for students to work independently, with a partner or small group to develop a plan.

Your kids should be asking themselves questions like the ones below when devising a plan.
  • What types of manipulatives should we use to solve?
  • Are we adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing?
  • Will I draw a model?
  • Am I comparing numbers?
Teacher Tip - Model with a think-aloud to show how you would make a plan using the questions above.

For example based on the problem above, a student should add the mixed numbers to find the sum.

Next - Show Work

At this point, students have a plan to attack the problem.  This is great because they can begin to solve the problem using manipulatives, drawing a model and/or using equations.  The most important part of this process is for the kids to SHOW THEIR WORK!

You may notice that students will want to erase the steps that show how they got to their final answer.

Teacher Tip - Use these two explanations when letting kids know why it is important to show their work.
  • Showing your work is important because it shows me how you are thinking. It also tells me how I can help you in the future.
  • Sometimes there are many different ways to answer a problem.  Showing your work allows us to see the different strategies your friends used to het a solution and it helps us learn from each other.

Now - Explain Work

Give students time to share either verbally or in writing.  You may notice that your kids will be more reluctant to share through writing. In fact,  this can be very difficult for some students.

Teacher Tip - Use simple sentence frames to get students to record their thinking process such as:
  • To solve this problem I............
  • I believe this is the solution because ......................
  • There are many ways to solve this, but I decided to .......................  because ....................

Lastly - Rate Understanding

Now that students have been taken through the process of problem solving, it is important for them to rate their level of understanding. Daily student reflection is a critical part to any assignment especially when solving word problems.

To foster student reflection, at the end of a problem solving activity I ask students to rate whether they:
  • really understood the work
  • understand the work a little 
  • did not understand the work
This section of the template has been extremely valuable because it will provide insight to how your students perceived the problem vs. what they did to solve the problem.

I have seen this problem solving approach worked miracles with many students.   You can also see how I used this problem solving process in a classroom.

As with any strategy or routine, remember to be consistent and use it at least several times with your students.  I strongly advise modeling the entire problem solving process first with your students. Next, give them an opportunity to work with a partner/small group and lastly provide the students an opportunity to do it independently! You may even have to model it several different times.

Click on the image below to download a free copy of the problem solving templates I created.

To discover MORE math tips and strategies, check out Mr Elementary Math here.

Tips for Teaching Paired Passages

        If you're new to teaching paired text, or if you just want a few new ideas to add to your paired reading lessons, this post is for you! I'll explain how I use paired text in my upper elementary classroom step by step, to make it a really successful reading tool.

1. Get Kids Ready for Paired Text
        Before I ask my students to jump right into a paired text, I make sure they have the tools they need to be successful. One of the things I like to do is to focus on the skill of compare and contrast (click here for more ideas on compare and contrast on this blog). Reading similar mentor texts (picture books) is an easy and quick way to review. We might read two versions of Little Red Riding Hood or read two biographies - one on Jane Goodall and the other on Dian Fossey, to help us note the similarities and the differences between the characters, and the stories. As we read these mentor texts and compare them, I make sure to use the term, paired passages, so students start to understand what that means. I do make sure to use enough examples that they know paired passages can be with fiction to fiction, nonfiction (informational) to nonfiction, or fiction to nonfiction.

2. Read the First Passage
        As with lots of teaching in the classroom, scaffolding is a great way to help students learn paired passage skills, first as a whole group, with lots of teacher guidance, and then with a gradual release of responsibility to work in pairs and finally to work independently, when students are ready. So, for the first few sessions, we do everything as a whole class, with lots of modeling and direction.
        To start the process, we read the first passage together (the one shown above is a nonfiction account of how spies sent messages in the Revolutionary War). Then we discuss it as a large group. Kids may complete the comprehension questions in pairs and then we meet again as a group to discuss answers and observations. When the first passage is done, we save it in a special Paired Passage Folder, since we'll need to refer to it again when we use it to compare and contrast with the second passage.

3. Read the Second Passage
        Now we read the second passage, just like the first in a large group and discuss it together and then complete comprehension questions about it, and put it in our Paired Passage Folder. The picture above shows the paired text for the Revolutionary Spy nonfiction passage, and this one is a fictional story about a school teacher during Revolutionary times, who worked on the side as a spy. The reason I am mentioning this is that it is really important to choose paired texts which are interesting and which engage students. The more fun we can make reading (or anything in the classroom), the more buy-in we'll get from students, which leads to increased learning!

4. Compare and Contrast Texts
        Once students have read, discussed, and answered comprehension questions for both of the two texts, then it's time to get serious! Now we take some time together as a whole class (later in pairs and even later alone) to analyze connections between the two.
Here are some things we discuss:

  • How are the passages the same and how are they different? Look at the theme, genre, topics/ideas, characters/people, story events/plot, tone, point of view...
  • Which passage helped you understand the topic better or was more informative?
  • Which passage did you enjoy more and why?
Once we've discussed these, students are ready to complete handouts which ask specific details about how the texts are alike and different. We may do these as a whole class, in pairs, or independently, as students are ready. I do like to have kids correct their own work (unless it is for a grade/assessment), so they know if they're on the right track or sometimes how to even find the right track!

5. Reinforce Vocabulary
        Some teachers like to front-load vocabulary, but personally, I like kids to practice using context clues during the process of reading to gain new vocabulary. To me, using vocabulary after reading is a good way to reinforce and to build upon a student's understanding of vocabulary.
        I do like to use vocabulary handouts with paired passages in a number of ways. They're great for morning work, homework, for reading centers, or for a quick warm up before reading time. The vocabulary sheet shown has vocabulary from both the fiction and the nonfiction spy passages.

6. Add Some Writing
        Once we have finished all of the paired passages components, I like to have students do some sort of writing to go with what we have just read. That writing may be narrative, expository, or even persuasive. Generally, I choose one per set of paired passages, depending upon what we're working on in writing or what we need to review, but of course you can choose however many you like.

Once we've completed this process a number of times, most students feel comfortable with the concept and are ready to tackle paired passages on their own! 

If you're looking for some ready to use, print and go paired text units, I have several that I have created. Each set comes with a number of paired passages, all of the comprehension question handouts, vocabulary, and writing activities for each paired text.

Here's one with fiction to nonfiction, with a winter theme:

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