July 29, 2014

Using Weekly Letter Writing In the Classroom

Guest blog post by Mary from Teaching With a Mountain View.

I vividly remember my first day student teaching... not the details of what I was teaching or the clothes I was wearing, but the way my cooperating teacher captivated her students. She handed them their first homework assignment— writing a letter in response to a letter she had written to them—and explained that it would be a weekly assignment. They groaned, but she didn’t miss a beat. “You’re going to grow to love this!” she told them. They trusted her, and she couldn’t have been more right.

Since that year, I have always written weekly letters to my students and required that they respond to me. It has become a part of our weekly homework routine, and it is the one thing I most look forward to grading every single week. It builds community among the class, my students (and their parents) get to know me, I get to know my students, it is an excellent way to review material from the week or let students get creative, and kids learn to love writing in a totally nonthreatening environment. 

How It Works 

Every Sunday evening, I curl up on the couch with my laptop and write a letter to my students. I do a quick recap of anything entertaining from my weekend (kids love to know you’re human, too!), and I may ask them to share something about their life with me. Then, I give them a prompt or two that they must answer in a letter back to me. 

For example, if we focused on a specific character trait the previous week, I would ask them to give me examples of how they embodied that trait this week. When we were studying regions of the United States, part of their letter back to me would require them to tell me where in the world they would go if they could go anywhere. 

Typically, I would give them each a copy of the letter on Monday morning, and they would turn in their responses (in letter format) by Thursday. At the beginning of the year, we spent time reviewing the format and conventions of a letter.



You Can Do It!

I know what you are thinking: This sounds like a huge amount of work. I promise, it’s not! It took me less than 10 minutes each week to write my letter. You could even assign a monthly letter if weekly sounds overwhelming, or if you have younger students.

When my teammates got on board with letter writing, we would take turns writing the assignment part of the letter and just add our own introduction. I would also jot down topics all week so that it wouldn’t take me long to write my letter when it came time. I tried to include different types of writing (persuasive, informative, descriptive, narrative) throughout the year. My two all-time favorite prompts were the one where students had to argue for or against a weekend of shopping and the one where they had to come up with 5 pieces of advice that started with “Never” and 5 pieces of advice that started with “Always.”

Here are some topic starters or themes to get you thinking:

• Current Events, Sports, Holidays

• Funny or Bizarre Holidays and Dates

• Current Classroom Topics of Study

• Follow Up or Reflecting on Read Alouds or other Books

• Reading Responses 

• Weekend Recaps



Believe it or not, students look forward to receiving their new letter every Monday. They equally look forward to the (very brief) notes I jot on their return letters. In addition to writing short notes (Wow! Awesome! Did you really do that? I totally agree!) on their letters, I used a half-page grading rubric to hold them accountable for their writing. 

Weekly Letter Writing Freebie
You can download the free grading rubric, example letters, an information sheet, and monthly topic ideas at my Teachers Pay Teacher store


Letter writing is a wonderful way to keep even the most reluctant writers writing and to hone those writing skills all year long! 

Mary teaches grades 3-5 in beautiful Colorado and has a passion for creating differentiated and engaging assignments. She creates teacher resources and blogs at Teaching With a Mountain View.

July 27, 2014

Team Formation Tips for Smooth Sailing into the New School Year!

Smooth Sailing Into a New School Year 

Note: The giveaway described in this post last week has ended. Congratulations to my two gift card winners, Shirley Nealswee  and Darleen Crosby. The grand prize winner was Kristi DeRoche. Congratulations to all of the winners!

I'm excited to be linking up with some of my favorite grade 3-6 bloggers who are sharing our best tips to help you sail into the the new school year. At the end of this post, you'll find 19 more blogs to visit and they all have terrific ideas to help you get off to a great start!

Team Formation Tips to Start the Year
If you use cooperative learning in your classroom, you might have questions about the most effective way to form teams and when you should begin to seat your students in teams. Here are some tips that worked well for me. You can find a more comprehensive explanation and answers to many more questions about team formation on my Team Formation Tips page on Teaching Resources.


  • Optimal Team Size - Teams of 4 are by far the best size because you can easily divide them into 2 sets of pairs for partner work. Also, in a team of three, one student tends to feel left out, and teams that have more than four students tend to get off task easily.  
  • Team Composition - As much as possible, I formed teams with students of mixed ability and from different ethnic backgrounds. I wanted my students to learn to appreciate others who were not like themselves, and to be exposed to different types of thinking and values. The best way to do that was to assign them to mixed teams rather than letting them choose their teams.  
  • Desk Arrangement - I loved using the desk arrangement shown in the illustration above. I called it the T-Table arrangement, with the two students at the top of the "T" facing the front of the room while the other two are facing each other. You can find other team seating arrangements on my Seating Options page. 
  • When to Start - I always started my students in teams right from the first day because I wanted them to learn that this is how we operate. Cooperative learning wasn't just for special activities, and they needed to learn now to get along right from the start. 
  • Mix 'Em Up the First Three Days - I created new teams every day for the first three days so that my kids would get to know everyone and so I could observe them as they worked together. Each morning after they were reseated, we started the day with a teambuilder like Team Talk or Team Interview. You'll find these strategies and more on my Caring Classrooms page on Teaching Resources. After the first three days, I was ready to create more permanent teams that lasted a month or more.
Be sure to visit all the blogs in the link up to discover more teaching tips to help you sail into the new school year!






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July 20, 2014

5 Ways to Make Your Students Smile

Guest blog post by Molly Phillips of Classroom Confections


This post was inspired by a t-shirt. That’s right! While wearing a ‘smile’ t-shirt at the Vegas airport, a security guard came up to me and said, “Thank you for making me smile. I saw your t-shirt. It brought a smile to my face. Sometimes you just forget. It was a great reminder.”

WOW! I was so taken back by his comment. I couldn’t help but think about the power of a smile. Being a teacher, it was second nature for me to start thinking about the classroom and how important it is to incorporate smiles into the school day. There are many ways to accomplish that, but here are 2 easy tips you can begin implementing at the beginning of the year, and 3 more tips to keep your students smiling all year!


2 Ways to Start Your School Year with Smiles
  1. Send your students a ‘welcome’ postcard. Sending a postcard in the mail before school starts may seem old school, but it will help build community and a caring classroom before the year even begins. You won’t see their smile, but I can assure you that there will be one. It will make them feel appreciated. A feeling of appreciation makes anyone smile. Plus, your students will be more likely to walk in on day one of school wearing a smiling face.
  2. Give a special treat on “Meet Your Teacher” Day.  I love giving my new students a little something special when I first meet them in person.  It can be a pencil, a note, or a baggie of sweet treats with a special message. I have always felt my upper elementary kids like receiving a treat. For example, a peppermint with a message, “You were MINT to be in my class!” When kids feel special, they smile.
3 More Ways to Make Your Students Smile
  1. Talk to Kids at Recess. Yes, this is usually a time when teachers can grab a refresher too by getting in some adult conversation, but it’s also a time where kids love being kids. Get into the habit of giving up a few minutes of your teacher chit-chat time at recess to interact with the kids. Some of the most smiley faces come at recess when kids want to do their chants for you, sing you songs, play their recorder, or perform cheers with a group of girls. It’s so easy to tell the kids to go run and play, but this will only take a few short minutes, and with it comes lots of smiles. 
  2. Invite a small group to eat for lunch. Yes, I know. We all want our 25 minute lunch break with our co-workers, but you don’t have to give up your lunch break all the time. It’s nice though to invite a few kids to lunch every now and then, especially those that may need a smile. Kids tend to open up more, tell funny stories, and laugh when they are in smaller groups. You get to see a side of them you might not otherwise see. It’s a bonding time, which is a great way to work through behavior problems or emotional issues with kids.  If you know from the start of school that a student may need a smile, this is a great time to start inviting a small group to lunch. Plus, if you get into the habit of doing this at the beginning of a new school year, you are more likely to continue it. It will take some effort on your part, but the rewards of the smiles will be worth it. 
  3. Use humor in the classroom. I think humor is one of the best ways to build community in the classroom, and of course, with humor comes lots of smiles.  Look for opportunities to tell appropriate jokes, tell funny stories, to share your fun side. For example, on the first day of school last year when I was about to tell the kids they could bring a water bottle to drink, I introduced it with, “What do Ninjas drink at school?”  The answer being, “WAAA-TAAAH!” Throw a Ninja kick in there and the boys will love you from day one. I then went on to say that they could bring water and a healthy snack each day. That joke might be a little over used today, but when I told it, it was unexpected and the kids got a good smile out of it, even a laugh.
In the hustle and bustle of the classroom, it is sometimes easy to forget the important role of smiling. There are many ways to bring smiles to the classroom, but the most important thing to remember is that smiles help build community in your classroom. Community carries over to better behavior and a child’s desire to want to please. Smiling is a win-win for everyone.
When the gentleman at the airport told me that I brought a smile to his face, do you know what I did? You guessed it! I smiled. I was happy to know that I personally brought him a moment of happiness.  It was so unexpected to hear someone actually tell me that. I couldn’t help but think that there is not only importance to be found in making people smile but also in thanking others for the smile. Often times we see the actual smile we bring to someone and then we move on. There was something special about hearing him acknowledge the smile. Because of that, I thought it might be nice to start the year off with the attitude of not only bringing smiles but also thanking people for the smiles they bring.

To help with that, I made some very simple ‘smile tickets’ that teachers can give to students and even co-workers. Click here to visit my TpT store and download the this freebie. You can just sign your name or even write a few words. People will appreciate you thanking them for the smile they brought you. Try it! Here is to wishing you a year full of smiles!

Molly Phillips has been an educator for twenty years in metro Atlanta, Georgia.  She now creates fun interactive lessons for the classroom and sells them on TeachersPayTeachers.  She writes on her blog Classroom Confections

July 17, 2014

The Ancient Secret for Wise Decisions

Guest post by Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America

Note: This post is a part of the WBT's Classroom Transforming Rules series. To find all of the posts in the series, click here. To see Whole Brain Teaching in action, watch the videos on the WBT website.


WBT’s Rules 4: Make Smart Choices

Let’s review the first three Whole Brain Teaching classroom rules. Each will help solve one teaching problem. Implementing Rule 1, “Follow directions quickly,” will speed classroom transitions. Implementing Rule 2, “Raise your hand for permission to speak,” will produce orderly discussions. Implementing Rule 3, “Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat” will keep your classroom from turning into a playground.

Rule 4 “Make smart choices” is a much larger, even grander, guiding principle. Make smart choices is perhaps the fundamental rule for all human activities, in or out of the classroom. As I can testify after teaching philosophy for four decades, philosophers from Socrates in 5th century B.C. Athens to Jean Paul Sartre in 20th century Paris disagreed on almost everything, except one guiding idea: Humans should use their reason carefully… they should make smart choices.


Socrates believed smart choices involved self-knowledge; Plato argued that the smartest choice was to study mathematics in order to learn to think abstractly; Sartre held that the smartest choice was living authentically, never blaming others for your life situation. Despite their disagreements, philosophers have believed the good life was found through exercising our reason in wise decision making.

Whole Brain Teachers have discovered that Rule 4 is wonderfully powerful. The rule covers every area of a student’s life at school, at home, out with friends, on the Internet, engaged in a sport or hobby, dating, Everything. From childhood to adulthood, we need to make smart choices. Teachers have found that Rule 4 is especially powerful in covering every kind of disruptive student behavior, in class and out.

After reviewing the first three rules with your students, introduce Rule 4, “Make smart choices,” and the gesture, tapping the right temple with a forefinger three times. You can choose from a host of opportunities to share how it works. Discuss the smart and foolish choices made by characters in a story, famous historical individuals, kids in the lunchroom. Before beginning a science experiment or art activity, ask kids to talk about the wisest and goofiest decisions that can be made.

To clarify Rule 4, and introduce excellent, wide ranging, critical thinking discussions, create a list of sentence frames. Here are three samples:

  • When writing your essay, smart choices would be _________.  Foolish choices would be ________.
  • Some smart choices characters make in "James and the Giant Peach,"  are _______.  Some foolish choices are _______.
  • When we are in the library, a smart choice would be  ________  because _________.  A foolish choice would be _______ because ________.

Note that by including "because" in your sentence frames, students have the opportunity to add evidence to back up their answer. Selecting appropriate evidence is, in itself, a smart choice!

Here’s a key point.  If a child claims, incorrectly in your view, that one of her choices was smart, you respond, “Okay. But what would be a smarter choice??” Teach your kids that smarter choices are always available.

Using Rule 4 to Help Students Make Smart Choices
As I write this, I realize I’ve never talked about how to improve student behavior on the playground. Shame!

Try saying something like this to your class (with WBT techniques, of course):

“We’re going to talk about Rule 4, making smart choices, on the playground. To make this entertaining and clear, we’ll use two finger action figures. Using two fingers on each hand, walk your action figures around on your desk."  (They do so.)

"Good! Now, imagine your desk is the playground. Pretend as if your two finger action figures are making foolish choices while playing tetherball. Show your neighbor what that would look like and what each action figure would say." (They do so.)

"Good! Now, show your neighbor, using intelligent two finger action figures, what smart choices playing tether ball would look and sound like.”

Virtually every wacky behavior that goes on during recess can be acted out, and corrected, with foolish and intelligent two-finger action figures … and nothing gets scraped except imaginary knees.

Another idea strikes me just now … oh, I’m rolling!  Junie comes up to you during recess, very upset about what happened to her on the slide. To lower Junie’s emotional temperature, ask her to show you, using two finger action figures, Martin’s foolish choices and how she reacted. Then, using your action figures, show Junie the smartest choices available to her, should a similar situation arise. Finally, if necessary, take yourself over to Martin to see if your action figures can teach his action figures to follow Rule 4.

To download the free classroom rule posters described in this article, click here or on the Rule 4 poster image above.

For more information on Rule 4 and WBT’s other classroom rules, look at Chapter 7 in “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids” on Amazon.com.

Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America
Website: WholeBrainTeaching.com
Facebook | Twitter | Youtube | WBT Bookclub | Webcast Archive

Chris Biffle, a college philosophy professor for 40 years, is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last 15 years, Chris has been lead presenter at over 100 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 20,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free ebooks available at WholeBrainTeaching.com.

July 16, 2014

Active Engagement Strategies for Success Webinar

Join Me for a Free Webinar!

Next Active Engagement Webinar is
August 20th at 
8 pm EDT

How would you like to participate in a FREE professional development session in the comfort of your own home ... wearing whatever you want? Just call it PD in your PJ's! Read on to find out how to receive an attendance certificate for attending Active Engagement Strategies for Success, Part Two.

My first webinar on this topic took place several weeks ago, and if you missed it, you can watch the Part One recording from my Active Engagement page.

In this webinar, I'll share strategies for academic success that will make EVERY lesson more engaging and will also boost achievement. It's like having a collection of teacher tools in your toolbox - when you know what tool to use for each situation, you'll be able to build success into every lesson.

I'll be sharing cooperative learning methods, team formation tips, how to use dry erase boards effectively, classroom management ideas, and more. You are also invited to share your own strategies via the online chat during the webinar. I learn so much when everyone participates!



As I was working on the webinar presentation, I realized that there was too much content for one hour, so I decided to split it into two parts. Part One was recorded back in July, and Part Two will take place on August 20th. You can watch the recording for Part One and sign up for Part Two on my Active Engagement page. In Part One, I focused on engagement strategies for whole group lessons and partner activities. The second session will focus on working with cooperative learning teams. Register for Part Two here.

Attendance Certificate
Those who attend the live session will receive a certificate of attendance that they MIGHT be able to use for professional development credit if their school systems accept it. If this is important to you, you may want to check with your administrator before the session to find out. Why not invite a few colleagues to attend, too?


Register Now
The session is free, but you do need to register which will ensure that you receive a reminder with the online classroom link. If you can't attend the live session, register to receive the link to the recording. It won't be quite as much fun as being in the live session, but the information will still be helpful. Click here to register now. I hope you'll be able to join me for this special event!



July 15, 2014

Creating the Tallest Cup Tower: A STEM Challenge

Guest post by Tracey Graham 
of Growing a STEM Classroom

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is one of the current "buzz words" in the world of education today even though the STEM philosophy of teaching has been around for a very long time. STEM is all about students learning in a student-centered, question-based, subject-integrated classroom. Hence, what I consider to be good teaching. Remember teaching with cross-curricular themes? STEM is like thematic teaching gone wild!

As a teacher in a STEM school, I utilize STEM challenges regularly in order to initiate student creativity and critical thinking. I am constantly impressed with the way my students solve problems and work collaboratively. Students who are reluctant to participate in the standard curriculum are consistently engaged, and many times emerge as a leader, during a STEM challenge. STEM challenges give every child the opportunity to be a successful contributor in the problem-solving process. These STEM problems can come from the teacher, the students, and the world we live in. The possibilities with STEM are truly endless.


My class always begins the year with the seemingly simple challenge of stacking small cups to the tallest possible height. Student groups must work together to create the tallest stack of cups in a time period of 30 minutes. Although it sounds easy, trust me, it isn't! I am continually surprised at the different ideas students generate to solve this problem. Students, by nature, are creative thinkers and the STEM challenges tap into this creative vein. This allows amazing things to happen!


Some of the best teamwork and "aha" moments come when the stack of cups crashes to the table. At first, students feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, but they are able to quickly figure things out with the support of their classmates. STEM is such an empowering way of teaching for the students! The key is for the teacher to allow students to explore possibilities and become problem solvers. It can be intimidating for educators to give up some of that "control," but it is definitely beneficial to the students.


All you need to complete this challenge are tiny plastic cups from the dollar store! We used two packs of 24 cups per table. Students were also required to present their idea(s), data, and final solution to the problem in their own way.

Feel free to click over to my TpT store and download your own free set of STEM Challenge Student Role Sheets to get you started using STEM Challenges in your classroom!


Tracey Graham is a 5th grade teacher at a STEM school in a large, urban district. Visit her blog, Growing a STEM Classroom, for more STEM ideas to use in your classroom! 

July 12, 2014

How to Get Kids to Slow Down with Their Work

Advice from Real Teachers

When it comes to encouraging kids to produce quality work, one of the biggest problems we face is getting kids to slow down and take their time. For some reason, students seem to feel there's some sort of prize for the one who finishes first, or maybe it's just that they want to rush through some assignments to get to other activities they think will be more fun. If this is something that you struggle with in your classroom, read on to learn 25 terrific tips from real teachers who have solved this problem.  

Today's Question
Every week on my Facebook page, I post the Question Connection where I invite teachers to ask questions, and I later share those questions with the fans. When I see that a question receives a lot of responses, I compile the best of them into a blog post.

Today's teacher question comes from Cassandra who asks, "Can anyone share strategies for getting kids to slow down in their work? I feel like a lot my kids wanted to get things done as fast as possible and I struggled to motivate them to have pride in their work and take their time."

Top 25 Tips for Getting Kids to Slow Down with Their Work
Apparently many teachers have a similar problem, and lots of terrific strategies were shared. I eliminated duplicates and narrowed the list to what I felt were the top 25 responses. This question was posted two different times, and if you would like to read the complete responses, you can click here and here.
  1. Gidget Greenlee - I always tell my students, "I would rather be the last A than the first F".
  2. Casey McDaniel - 1) Explain how long you think the activity or assignment should take and why.  Emphasize quality of work and expectations. 2)  Have a turn-in tub "timer."  Don't "open" the tub until you think the appropriate amount of time has passed. 3)  Circulate around your classroom and keep an eye out for early finishers. Provide feedback and ask questions to help student dig deeper and put forth more effort. 4)  Do speed conferences. Review early finishers' work quickly and provide quick feedback verbally or on sticky notes to help students improve their work. 5)  Always have follow-up tasks to assign to early finishers so they are never "done."  This should eliminate some of the rush to complete assignments and place value on quality.
  3. Cathy Vogler - I write them a "speeding ticket" and then put it in their planner for their parents to sign also. The student then has to do the work again during their free time at home and recess. I found the speeding tickets on TeachersPayTeachers.
  4. Emma Farrell - Sometimes if they know there is a fun activity at the end, they tend to rush. I like to use a star system that encourages students to work towards five star rated work. Come together as a class to decide on what that will be. Each criteria will be different for each lesson. Add things like, spelling, neatness, structure (for genre writing), tense etc.
  5. Lydia Wood - Have them write the time they start and time they finish on their paper. Give an example of how long a good paper should take. If they get a bad grade, you have proof of how long it took them
  6. Julie Lawson - I tell me first graders "it's NOT a race ....(and they finish my sentence in unison ).. It's a JOURNEY".  Then I finish with "enjoy your journey."
  7. Paula Cull -You can set a timer and explain all you want, but they're still going to rush through it.  If I see one of my middle schoolers rushing through something, I collect their assignment when it's finished and then give them another copy of the assignment and tell them that they will keep doing it until they do it correctly.  It sounds harsh, but they need to realize that they need to do their assignments correctly. 
  8. Trinity Tracy - Set a timer and project it.  This shows them they still have plenty of time left.  It also has the added bonus of getting stragglers to speed up!
  9. Judy Harrison I have an under 70 % redo policy.  That slows the speeders down, they hate having to redo work.
  10. Melanie Dorrian - "I want your best work, not your fastest work."  Say it like you mean it.
  11. Melanie Ketcham - Show them what an acceptable paper looks like and then show them what is not acceptable. Then stick to those standards and have rewards for those who follow your directions. (rewards could be to color, read, or play an academic game on the computer) The other students will soon follow your lead. They always want to please.
  12. Anita Ernest - I tell my kids that I will not accept any "slop hoppin chop suey." I make them redo anything that is not their best work. They have to make it up during their free time (recess, specials, lunch)
  13. Alex Javoian - Post exemplar model pieces and a general rubric so they can "grade" their own work before turning it in.
  14. Virginia Nolland - I tell my kids to complete a section of work at a time then they must show me. If it's not up to expectation, they have to complete that part again. As their work improves I stretch out the time they have to show me.
  15. Carie Rosa - This is a method used to help students do a good job on their work with a picture analogy. What you can do is take some pictures of you baking a cupcake in steps. The steps represent work turned in complete and not so complete just as you are baking a cupcake. You can take a picture of a perfectly finished cupcake and then make a sloppy one to take a pic of. Just show the difference and reference that to nice neat work. This year I will take four pictures and reference them to neat work. For example a plain non frosted cupcake, a perfectly frosted cupcake, a sloppy one and a burnt one.
  16. Natalie Wheeler - I send best work to the principal for praise.  
  17. Tiffani Reed - We talk about and model quality work. What is quality work? How do you know? Show examples. Have the kids tell you what makes it quality work. Then only accept quality work from your students.
  18. CM Goodrich - Post a "Star" work poster displaying samples of great work, call it a club, and daily add new names as work improves.  Also might try no cost rewards for good work product like entering name in jar to draw for biweekly eating lunch in room with teacher, etc.
  19. Joli Isip Scollo - Conference and give positive feedback and next steps (how to improve). Send them back to their seats to work on those next steps.
  20. Shelley Rolston - As crazy as this sounds, the best strategy I had this year after sharing and promoting others work was a happy face in their agenda ( next year it will be Class Dojo) for effort and neat work. I spoke to the parents ahead of time and they worked out an incentive at home for the child's goal. (Ex 4/5 happy faces) It worked  MIRACLES for the five or so 2nd graders I had. I suspect it could be adapted for older kids. They have to want to care. For the rest of the class, sharing their work aloud and peer editing is very effective. In both cases you'll notice it is almost solely out of the teacher's hands which is where it needs to be.
  21. Daniel Osborne - At the beginning of the year I make a big deal of being proud of your work. I show different examples of my own work from college or grad school and ask them to describe what they see. I also show them examples of work from some of previous students that are not acceptable. They go through them and give me reasons why they were not acceptable. I also say on a near daily basis, "Be proud of your work. Do not turn in slop."  If I do get slop I make them redo it. Once they see I am serious I rarely have students redo work.  
  22. Georgia Boethin - I don't let students get up to turn their work in when they are finished.  They are to keep working or read if they get finished until I give them a signal that they have about a minute or two left to complete work.  I then ask them to pass their work to the east or west and then north or south to a designated person. I teach them to place their paper face up with the top aligned as it should be on the next student's desk.  That student passes both of them on to the next and so on.  All the papers are turned in at one time, and all of them are ready to just pick up and correct.  It keeps the classroom orderly, and it avoids that rush to be done when someone gets up to turn in a paper.  It's very efficient.  I teach fifth grade, so I don't know if it would work with younger students, but I would think that it would.
  23. Angela Boykin-Schoppe - I make a LOT of comments praising quality work. What worked great with one of my boys (2nd grade) was letting him choose one assignment each day and do his very best.  It was so beautiful that even his classmates noticed and complimented it on it. Before long--and it only took a week--the quality work was the norm. This probably wouldn't work as well on older kids though.
  24. Laurel  Quinn - I make a big deal out of quality student examples and what parts are to be celebrated. They go up on a star board. Rubrics are needed, too. I try not to accept rushed work. Keep making them redo, giving them pieces to focus on,  and eventually after hundreds of eyeball rolls, they will hopefully try the first time.
  25. Sheila Quintana - I teach high school ELL. When my students tell me they're finished, I just point to the "I'm finished" folder stapled to the wall. They can choose to check their work or grab an assignment out of the folder. 9 times out of 10 they choose to make their work better. Those that choose an extra assignment can have that assign
Thanks to everyone who offered such terrific tips! If you would like to submit a teacher question, be sure to watch for the announcement on Wednesday evenings at 8 pm EDT on the Teaching Resources Facebook page. Great Questions + Advice from Real Teachers = The Question Connection! Enjoy!

July 10, 2014

Take Procedural Writing to the Next "Step"

Guest post by Michael Friermood at The Thinker Builder.



I almost returned it before even getting started. They don’t tell you on the box, and certainly not on the display, that there are 37 steps to assemble the shoe cabinet that you are about to buy.


Seriously. Thirty-seven. I was still trying to wrap my mind around the $129 we just spent, and then I see the “this-is-going-to-take-all-afternoon” manual. It was a deflating start. Wouldn’t it be better with, oh I don’t know, maybe... 3 steps?

Okay, only three steps might sound a bit extreme, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. By grouping all of these tiny, detailed steps into three main steps, I would:

  1. See a "big picture" view of the entire assembly process.
  2. Not want to hurt myself with the enclosed Allen wrench.

I even started thinking it through for the shoe cabinet—Step One: Put the frame together. Step Two: Put the drawers together. Step Three: Install the cabinet. All thirty-seven little steps are still in there, now just neatly organized.

And so began the idea for a lesson on how to teach procedural writing by grouping smaller steps into three main steps. What’s interesting is how many other literacy strategies are embedded. Be on the lookout for skills like determining importance, summarizing, finding main ideas and details, and of course, sequencing.

In “practice-what-you-preach” style, here are the three main steps to teach the lesson on three-step procedural writing:

Step One: Teacher models the process. 
I first modeled the process of narrowing a list of steps. I used the topic, “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.” Together, we brainstormed a laundry-list of all the steps needed to make the sandwich, even little ones like “unscrew the lid.” I was looking for about a dozen or so steps. I wrote them down sequentially on the left side of my paper.


On the right side, I showed students how to narrow down our list to just three steps. I began grouping similar steps together, making sure each task fit into one of the three groups. I then looked at each group, and decided on its main idea, which became the title of the step. It was important to explain that I didn’t need to give all the information in the main step’s title—I would still have space to add details to each main step when I wrote my final instructions in the mini-book.

Step Two: Students plan their instructions. 
Students then planned their own set of instructions. For my class, I was tying our writing into our science unit on plant growth, so my students had the topic, “How to Plant Our Seeds.” We had just completed the seed-planting process earlier in the week, so I felt like we would have a common understanding, and it was a good opportunity to use some of our new vocabulary.


As students were planning, I allowed them to brainstorm with their table groups their long list of steps for the left side of their planner. Then they worked with their science partner to narrow their list to the three main steps.

Step Three: Students create the foldable mini-book. 
The final phase was to take our procedural plans and use them to complete a cool little foldable mini-book, which just so happens to have spaces for three steps. As a whole class, I showed how to cut and assemble the mini-book, and as students were writing, I came around and stapled them—the books, not the children. (You could also attach the pages with a thin line of glue along the fold between the pages.)


In the mini-book, there are pages for all three main steps. On each of these pages, I required students to write their main step as the heading, add details and tips that fit the step, and draw a diagram of the most important part of the step.


You can pick up the materials for this lesson for free right HERE. And while you’re doing that, I’m going to take my shoes off and relax... after I put them away, of course.

Michael Friermood is a third grade teacher who encourages deep, bold thinking from his students. He has taught at the elementary level for ten years. You can find more fresh ideas for your classroom at his blog, The Thinker Builder.

July 8, 2014

Taming Blurters and Wanderers

Guest post by Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America

Note: This post is a part of the WBT's Classroom Transforming Rules series. To find all of the posts in the series, click here. To see Whole Brain Teaching in action, watch the videos on the WBT website.


WBT’s Rules 2 and 3: 
Raise Your Hand to Ask Permission ...

In the middle of your fraction lesson, a chatty student blurts out, “What time is lunch?!” You blurt back, “How many times do I have to tell you to raise your hand to speak! Grow up and act like a third grader!” You match your student’s emotional blurting with your own.

Welcome to Teaching Purgatory. Too often, teachers treat kids like they don’t want to be treated. Chained together for a year, instructors mirror the emotional outbursts of their students with their own. We try to put out a kid’s little flame, with our big fire.

Why do children blurt?  For the same reason teachers do. In scientific terms, there are more connections from the brain’s limbic system to the pre-frontal cortex than vice versa. Translation: emotions control reason more easily than reason controls emotions. Another scientific point. Our brain’s mirror neurons condition us to imitate behavior we observe. You blurt me. I blurt you. And so on and so on. Hear those people yelling at each other over there? It’s Teaching Purgatory’s merry-go-round.

Scolding doesn't change behavior. If chastising a child transformed them into a model student, I’d write best sellers, “Scold Like a Pro!,”  “The Five Secrets of Power Chastisement,” “If They’re Not Crying, They Didn't Get It:  Confessions of a Former Sweetie Pie.”

If scolding doesn't change behavior, what does? Rehearsal. Repetition. Practice.


Teaching Rule #2: Raise Your Hand for Permission to Speak
Here’s Whole Brain Teaching’s two step procedure, used by thousands of educators across the U.S., for transforming Blurters into Hand Raisers.

Step One
Review classroom rules five times a day. For Whole Brain Teaching’s Rule 2, you hold up two fingers and say, “Rule 2!”  Your kids respond, “Raise your hand for permission to speak.” They shoot one hand into the air and then quickly bring it down beside their mouth, making talking motions with their fingers. Make this rehearsal fun. Use a variety of intonations, deliveries. Fun imitates fun. Keep everyone’s mirror neurons happy.

Step Two
Your kids have Rule 2 down pat. Rule rehearsals are crisp, speedy. Then, say, “You’re doing pretty good with Rule 2, but now let’s see how you are at helping your classroom friends follow the rule. I’m going to pretend as if I’m talking. Jack, you interrupt me without raising your hand and say, ‘I have a new puppy.”

Say a few words about any subject and nod at Jack. He interrupts you, “I have a new puppy!”

Congratulate him! Great blurting!

Then say, “Class, let’s do that again. But this time when Jack interrupts me, I’ll say Rule 2 and you exclaim, making the hand motion, ‘Raise your hand for permission to speak!”

You talk. Jack starts to blurt. Immediately interrupt him and call for Rule 2. The kids respond in a flash, “Raise your hand for permission to speak!” You see their limbic systems delight in shutting down a classmate’s limbic system.

We call this approach Wrong Way-Right Way. Practice the Wrong Way. Then, practice the Right Way. Over and over.  You’re building reason’s strength to rein in frisky emotions.


Teaching Rule #3:Raise Your Hand for Permission to Leave Your Seat
Use the same approach for Whole Brain Teaching’s Rule 3, “Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.”  Rehearse the rule with the hand gesture (students raise their hands, then walk their fingers through the air).  Then, use Wrong Way-Right Way.

Jack, on your cue, leaves his seat without permission. Great job of breaking the rule. Jack leaves his seat again, you call out Rule 3, and the kids exclaim, “Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat!’

If you practice the wrong way and the right way, five times a day, pretty soon you’ll see lots more right way behavior.  No kid ever wants to feel like they are doing something wrong … that’s why they deny they’re engaged in incorrect behavior.

“Maggie, stop doing that!”

“I wasn't doing anything!”

This is the wonder. With the procedures described above, you take a classroom disruption, blurting or wandering, and transform it into a classroom unifier. Whenever a rule is broken, a rule is strengthened.
That’s the way it is, my friends, in Teaching Heaven.

To download the free classroom rule posters described in this article, click here or on the images above.

You’ll find more details about our classroom management strategies in our manual, “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids” on Amazon.com.

Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America
Website: WholeBrainTeaching.com
Facebook | Twitter | Youtube | WBT Bookclub | Webcast Archive

Chris Biffle, a college philosophy professor for 40 years, is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last 15 years, Chris has been lead presenter at over 100 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 20,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free ebooks available at WholeBrainTeaching.com.

July 6, 2014

Poetry Paintings

Guest post by Chelsea Allen from Flip Floppin' through 3rd Grade

In our school, we use the common core standards to guide our instruction. So, for the month of April I wanted to complete some kind of poetry unit, but also make sure my lessons were derived from the CCSS. That is where I started when I created my poetry lessons, but I also wanted to make sure that I was presenting my students with rigorous poetry to match the expectations. So I used the ELA Appendix of the CCSS to find text exemplars to use with my students. I chose four different poems for us to read and discuss. Those poems are “Who Has Seen the Wind” by Christina Rossetti, “Your World” by Georgia Douglas Johnson, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, and “Afternoon on a Hill” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Before we read the poems, we created an anchor chart to record the information we were going to keep referring to and placed it in a prominent location in the classroom. Once I felt that the students understood the structure, language, theme, and mood, I created a graphic organizer to model for the students how I wanted them to analyze the poems.


I decided to begin with “Who Has Seen the Wind”. First we just read the poem out loud. Then we reread the poem and discussed vocabulary words. Finally we analyzed the poem as a whole group and recorded the information on the graphic organizer. Next, we chose the poem “Afternoon on a Hill”. This time we read the poem together and discussed the vocabulary. I then allowed the students to work with a partner to record their findings on the graphic organizer.

We then reviewed the information they found together as a whole group. For the last two poems, I asked the students to work with a partner to complete the reading, discussion, and analyzing of each poem. At first I thought “Wow – I’m not sure how well my 3rd graders will understand such classic poetry.” But they AMAZED me!


 

Once we had analyzed all four poems, I allowed the students to choose their favorite poem so that we could also work on visualizing what we read. Each student was asked to create a watercolor painting of the image they visualized in their mind while reading their favorite poem. The students enjoyed this part of the project tremendously.

  

 

Students were also required to write a reflection piece to explain why they chose to create the image and how it portrayed their poem.

I think the end results were amazing! We learned new poetry concepts, analyzed classic poems, visualized, painted, and reflected on our artwork and how it related to poetry. All of this with 3rd graders enjoying what they were learning!



I hope this is a project you can adapt and use in your classroom. It really helped my students understand how to read and analyze poetry.


Chelsea Allen is currently a 3rd grade teacher, but also has experience teaching 4th grade, 6th grade, and has worked as a K-6th grade librarian. grade librarian. She has found her true career passion working in the classroom. She lives and works in Kentucky, but did teach for a small time in Florida. She is also the Teacher Blogger for www.flipfloppinthrough.blogspot.com.

July 1, 2014

The Secret to Lightning Fast Classroom Transitions

Guest post by Chris Biffle 
Director, Whole Brain Teaching


WBT Rule 1: Follow Directions Quickly

Please don’t read this, unless you have medical clearance. Make sure your doctor guarantees that your ticker can take the thrill of watching your class zip, with lightning speed, from one activity to another.

When my teaching colleagues and I, 20 years ago, were designing the fundamentals of Whole Brain Teaching, we had no problem agreeing that Rule 1, for classroom management, should be “Follow directions quickly!” Slow transitions from reading to writing to math to lining up, not only wasted time, but also were breeding grounds for disruptive activity. If, for some nightmarish reason, you wanted an out of control classroom, encourage slow, lazy transitions and bingo … your kids will be bouncing off the walls.

Ponder these truths. Kids open their books slowly because we never take time to teach them to open their books quickly. Kids take forever to get out a piece of paper and write their names in the corner because we have never taught them to do this rapidly. Kids, day after day, week after week, line up in wacky fashion because the only time we teach them how to line up is when they are actually lining up … which is precisely when we have no time to teach anything!


Teaching Kids to Follow Directions Quickly
Here is a simple, two step procedure, classroom tested by tens of thousands of teachers, for helping your kids to follow directions quickly. If you would like a visual to display in your classroom, you can download the poster shown above from TpT as a part of a free set of posters created for this blog post series.

Step One: Vigorously rehearse Rule 1, five times a day. You say, “Rule 1” and hold up one finger. Your kids say, “Follow directions quickly!” and rapidly swim one hand through the air, like a trout darting upstream. Do not go to Step Two until your kids instantly respond, merrily respond!, to your Rule 1 cue. The more entertaining you make this rehearsal, the more engaged your students will be in following the rule. One of our mottos at WBT: students learn the most when they are having the most fun learning.

Step Two: Teach your kids the Three-Peat. You say, “Math book 14!” They say, “Math book 14, Math book 14, Math book 14!” as they open their math books to page 14. When the book is open to the correct page, your children should shoot both hands upward, waggle their fingers, and happily murmur, “Yea!” They continue their celebration, until you sweep your hand dramatically through the air. Use the celebration time to help students who are a bit slow.

Using the Three-Peat, if you say, “Names on paper!,” your kids exclaim, “Names on paper, names on paper, names on paper!” After they have written their name, they celebrate until you signal it is time for silence. Listen to me my dear colleague! Don’t try to teach lining up right before the bell rings. You don’t have time. Rehearse lining up five times a day, when you are not fighting the clock. You say, “Lines!” Your kids exclaim, “Lines! Lines, Lines!” and line up according to the pattern you have established. You say “Seats!” and they exclaim, “Seats! Seats! Seats!,” celebrating when they are sitting down. For extra motivation, time these activities with a stopwatch. Then, as you gasp in delight, watch as your kids race to set new, transition records.

Doesn’t this make sense? The more you rehearse any procedure, and the more entertaining you make the rehearsal, the quicker your kids will perform a classroom transition.

Please calm down. A rapidly beating heart is a sure sign you are approaching Teacher Heaven.

For a complete description of Whole Brain Teaching's rules, see chapter 7 in "Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids" available on Amazon.com.

Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America
Website: WholeBrainTeaching.com
Facebook | Twitter | Youtube | WBT Bookclub | Webcast Archive


Chris Biffle, a college philosophy professor for 40 years, is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last 15 years, Chris has been lead presenter at over 100 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 20,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free ebooks available at WholeBrainTeaching.com.