September 22, 2015

Spelling Stories - Creativity Unleashed!

Tips for assigning spelling stories ... great way to unleash your students' creativity!
Have you ever asked your students to write a story with their spelling words? It may not seem like the most original assignment, but the resulting stories are always tremendously creative!

This assignment may not sound exciting, but it's an extremely effective way of assessing how well your students understand their spelling words... and the stories are fun to read! If you don't believe me, just read the spelling story below that was written by Derrick, one of my former students!

Here are some practical tips to help you unleash your students' creative talents with spelling stories.

Tips for Assigning Spelling Stories
For several weeks before you ask your students to write stories with their spelling words, have them write spelling sentences. For that assignment, I allowed them to choose 10 of their spelling words and to write a complete sentence that showed the meaning of each word. It was only after they mastered that assignment that moved on to spelling story assignments. Here are the basic directions I gave my students; feel free to modify them according to your students's needs. I allowed them to change the form of the word slightly, such as making it plural, changing the verb tense, and so on.
Use at least 10 of your spelling words in a short creative story. The story can be silly, but it must make sense and must be more than a collection of unrelated sentences. Underline all spelling words used in the story. You may use other forms your spelling words, but be sure to spell them and use them correctly.    
Creativity Unleashed
Sample spelling story in blog post by Laura Candler with tips about assigning and scoring spelling stories.Most spelling lists include unrelated words, so students must be very creative in order to include at least 10 of them. I don't mind if the stories are short as long as they meet the requirements. Sometimes the funniest and most creative stories are the shortest ones! I'll bet you have at least one student who likes to take shortcuts on assignments. If your students are like mine, they will write the most hilarious stories just to get the assignment done with the fewest words possible! Click the story on the right to read Derrick's story, a perfect example of creativity unleashed! He used 14 words in a story that wasn't even a full page long.

Tips for Grading Spelling Stories
Spelling stories can be tricky to grade, but if you're going to grade them, it's important for your students to understand your grading policy. Rubrics are perfect for grading these types of assignments because they keep you from being too subjective. You can download and use my Spelling Story Rubric from the Spelling page on Teaching Resources if you like it, or modify it if needed.ips for assigning spelling stories ... great way to unleash your students' creativity!
Each of the 5 criteria on the rubric can receive up to 5 points. After you assign the points and total them, you can use the scale at the bottom to convert that total to a letter grade. I suggest sharing the rubric with your students and their parents before they write their very first story. You might even want to write a sample story that contains errors and show your students how that story would be graded. Then display Derrick's story example shown above and have your students help you score it with the rubric.

Free Spelling Story Rubric included in post with tips for having students write spelling stories.

Tips for Sharing Stories
At some point during the writing process, be sure to provide an opportunity for students to share their stories with their classmates. If you have a class blog or website, post the stories online for everyone to read there. Morning meetings and author sharing times are great opportunities for sharing, too. Our favorite time to listen to spelling stories was Friday afternoon when everyone was packed up and we were waiting for the final bell to ring. I would call on volunteers, one at a time, to sit on my teacher stool and share their spelling stories. It was a fun way to wrap up the week and always left us laughing as we walked out the door!

September 18, 2015

6 Reasons to Teach Calculator Skills

6 reasons to teach calculator skills to upper elementary students, including how calculators foster mathematical thinking. Free calculator quiz in the post!
When North Carolina first began to allow calculators on state tests, many elementary teachers (including me) were shocked! What? Kids need to develop basic computation skills before they are allowed to use calculators!

Then we got a look at the new state math test. Holy moly! The test was divided into two parts, a calculator-inactive section, and much longer calculator-active part that was made up entirely of word problems! I realized that if my 5th graders had to work out every answer by hand, they would never finish the test! I also realized that it wouldn't be fair to hand out calculators for the first time on test day. In short, I needed a new game plan.... one that involved calculators.

Calculators Are Not Magic - You Still Have to Think!
Most students are intimidated by word problems, so when I decided to introduce calculators, I felt that our problem-solving lessons would be a good place to begin. When I first handed out the calculators, my students were so excited! They seemed to think those calculators were going to magically solve the problems for them! It didn't take long before my students realized that calculators are not magic at all! Why?
  1. You still have to read the problem, choose a strategy, decide which operation to use, record the answer, and check the solution using a different strategy. In other words, you still had to THINK!
  2. Calculators aren't helpful with some types math problems, so you needed to know WHEN to use it and when it might be a waste of time.
  3. You have to know HOW to use the calculator in order to get the correct answer. The data from the problem must be entered in a specific way, and if you enter it incorrectly, you'll get the wrong answer every time. 
  4. You have to know how to interpret the number that appears in the display window when you finish entering the data, especially in problems involved time, measurement, and money.  
Why and How to Assess Calculator Skills
Do your students know how to use a calculator? You won't know for sure unless you assess those skills! Download this freebie to use in your classroom.
After they got over the disappointing realization that calculators are not magic, my students began to enjoy using them and looked forward to problem solving lessons.

However, I soon noticed that some students knew how to solve the math problems, but they were getting the answers wrong because they didn't know how to use their calculators properly. Time for some calculator lessons! I knew that some kids didn't need the extra help, so I created a simple 10-item Calculator Quiz to find out who did. You can download this free assessment from my Daily Math Puzzlers page. When I handed out the test, I told my students that they were not allowed to work out any problems on paper. They were required to use their calculators and they could only use their pencils to record their answers. Needless to say, they were shocked! "You mean we can't work out the problems on paper even if we WANT to?" "Nope. Sorry. Only the calculator."

After I scored the tests, I taught several guided math group lessons to the students who were having difficulties. The other students used the time to work on math center activities. Then I retested the kids who I had worked with to be sure they had mastered the basic calculator skills. These lessons were so successful that I included calculator instruction in each Daily Math Puzzler book.

6 Reasons to Teach Calculator Skills to Upper Elementary Students
So why should we teach upper elementary students how to use a calculator? Based on my own experiences and feedback from other teachers, I am convinced that calculators boost mathematical thinking and are motivating to students. Here are 6 reasons to teach calculator skills and to encourage your students to use them to solve math problems.
  1. Calculators help kids overcome computational limitations.
    Kids often have the conceptual understanding to solve problems that are much more difficult than their computational ability would allow. For example, a student might know they need to divide a 2-digit number by another 2-digit number, but if he or she hasn't mastered this skill, the answer will be out of reach without a calculator. Overcoming computational limitations is especially helpful for special needs students and actually removes barriers to more advanced levels of math instruction.   
  2. Calculators encourage the use of multiple strategies.
    Being able to use a calculator frees students to consider and test out a wide variety of problem solving strategies in a short time. They can solve a problem using one strategy (without or without a calculator), and check their answers using a different strategy. 
  3. Calculators help kids solve more problems in less time.
    Calculators allow students to work more quickly, which means they can solve more problems in a given time. So you can increase the number and complexity of the problems you introduce in each lesson without increasing the time devoted to problem solving lessons.  
  4. Calculators promote persistence in problem solving.As students begin to think more creatively and try different methods, they will experience success with some methods and failure with others. But it's HOW they feel about those "failures" that's important. I noticed my students were less discouraged when they couldn't solve problems quickly; they tried to figure out WHY their methods didn't work. Then they adjusted their thinking and tried a different strategy.     
  5. Calculators foster a growth mindset.Educators are starting to realize that praising students for correct answers is not nearly as important as recognizing their struggles along the way. When students are able to persist and try different strategies to solve challenging problems, they feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves for not giving up which leads to the next benefit.  
  6. Calculators promote a positive attitude towards problem solving. As the saying goes, "Success breeds success," and that's definitely true in math. Using a calculator drastically increases the chance that a student will get the correct answer, and the subsequent feeling of accomplishment promotes a more positive attitude toward the next problem.  
What If Your Students Are Not Allowed to Use Calculators on Standardized Tests?
Is there any benefit to using calculators during the school year if your students are not allowed to use them on standardized tests?  Yes! Your students will still benefit from using them early in the year to boost their mathematical thinking, as long as you devote sufficient time to teaching and reviewing computation. As the year progresses and your students' computation skills improve, you can gradually wean them off calculators completely.

When Should Calculators Be Introduced?
I introduced calculator skills early in the year because my students were 5th graders who had developed a fairly solid understanding of numbers and what they mean. I don't advocate giving them to young children who have not had time to develop number sense, because entering numbers into a calculator won't be meaningful to them. You are the best judge of when your students are ready to begin using calculators. However, if you observe your students randomly punching numbers in as if they are hoping to stumble on the answer, it might be time to put the calculators away for a while and focus on math problem solving strategies.

Learning to use a calculator had a tremendous positive impact on my students' mathematical thinking and their willingness to tackle tough problems. Furthermore, because I still taught computation skills, I didn't see any detrimental impact on their ability to solve computation problems without a calculator. If you think about it, calculators are just another math tool. No, they won't magically solve word problems. However, the way calculators help students become better problem solvers IS almost magical!

September 9, 2015

Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary!

Enter to Win a Schoolwide Flocabulary Subscription for a Full Year!

Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary! Learn how Flocabulary's 600+ hip-hop videos and lessons boost student achievement!
Have you ever noticed that kids can learn just about anything if you put it to music? And if you put that content to hip-hop music and make a video about it, your students will remember it for LIFE!

I know what you're thinking. Who has time to compose hip-hop music videos to go with the curriculum? But wouldn't it be awesome if someone ELSE could do that?

You're in luck, because that's exactly what Flocabulary is all about! Flocabulary has a team of artists and educators who create educational hip-hop videos, interactive lessons, and online assessments for students in grades K-12. They have over 600 music videos on their site that cover a wide variety of academic topics, and the collection keeps growing. Kids like Kimberly Harper's students shown here absolutely LOVE the program!

Read on to discover some of Flocabulary's key features and learn how to enter your school in a contest to win a free schoolwide subscription!

The Week in Rap
I discovered Flocabulary a few years ago when I was teaching 5th grade and stumbled across their Week in Rap music videos. I remember being amazed at they way they could compose a new hip-hop video EVERY WEEK that highlighted the most important news, and I was in awe of the creative lyrics and visuals. One evening I dragged my husband over to the computer to watch, and we were both mesmerized! All of those videos are still accessible on their site, and they keep creating more!
Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary! Learn how Flocabulary's 600+ hip-hop videos and lessons boost student achievement!
The only problem with the Week in Rap for elementary educators is that many news stories just aren't appropriate for young children. So I was thrilled to learn that Flocabulary has launched the Week in Rap, Junior series which is perfect for elementary students! These videos cover timely topics that are aligned with core subject areas, and Flocabulary has created teaching materials to accompany those videos, too. Click the image below to check out the August 14th Week in Rap Junior video. After you watch and listen for a few minutes, click the tabs above the video and the links on the right side of the page to review the interactive lyrics and other teacher resources that accompany the video.

Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary! Learn how Flocabulary's 600+ hip-hop videos and lessons boost student achievement!

A New Way to Learn Vocabulary
As you might have guessed, Flocabulary's original mission was to use music and visuals to teach vocabulary in a fun way. After you watch a few videos, you'll agree that they do this incredibly well! Third grade teacher Francie Kugelman explains it this way, "Vocabulary can be boring to learn. By integrating new words into a rap song that has great visuals too, and explaining what the word means in the song, Flocabulary makes it tremendously easy for students to learn new vocabulary. They are learning new vocabulary in context while listening to the beat of the song."
More than Vocabulary - Videos for Content Areas 
Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary! Sign up for a 45-day free trial of Flocabulary's 600+ videos and lessons!
Flocabulary's mission expanded over the years and they began to create new content for academic areas like math, science, language arts, and social studies. Students can now learn more than vocabulary... they can actually learn about concepts like the water cycle, basic geography, latitude and longitude, and money.

Every video also includes supplementary materials like interactive lyrics, printables, quizzes, and graphic organizers. In 2013, Flocabulary added a Common Core search feature to help teachers find music videos to match the CCSS standards.

Flocabulary has grown in popularity as research studies and feedback from educators have shown its effectiveness. It's clear that students who use the program make greater academic gains than those who don't. Word continues to spread, and now over 35,000 schools use Flocabulary to engage students and increase achievement across the curriculum.

Sign Up for a Free Trial and Enter to Win a School Subscription
I could go on and on about Flocabulary's amazing resources, but the best way to learn about the site is to explore it yourself. The Week in Rap Junior video gave you a small taste of what Flocabulary offers, but there's so much more to discover when you have full access to the site.

Go with the Flo - Kids Succeed with Flocabulary! Sign up for a 45-day free trial of Flocabulary's 600+ videos and lessons!The good news is that with just a few clicks, you can get that access with a 45-day free trial. You won't be asked to enter a credit card number, and your email address will not be shared with other organizations. Most free trials are approved automatically, but in some cases you may have to wait a day or two. If you have questions, please email for assistance.

Click over to the Free Trial Sign Up page and fill out the form now. After you sign up, return to this page and enter the contest forFlocabulary Schoolwide Site License good for one year! Find the Rafflecopter at the end of this post and confirm that you have signed up for the free trial. That's the only action your're required to complete, but taking this step will unlock three more optional ways to enter. The more actions you take, the more chances you have to win! Be sure to read the Terms and Conditions before you submit your entry.

The contest ends on Thursday, September 17th at midnight EST, and the winner will be chosen and notified the following day.

Spread the Word!
Once you sign up for a school-wide Flocabulary free trial, you'll receive instructions on how to share it with all colleagues at your school. Make sure to send sign up information to your entire staff list. Even though everyone at your school can sign up to be entered in the subscription giveaway, only one trial can be created per school, so make sure everyone has the chance to participate while you have free access!

Your school's' chances of winning will increase if more teachers enter, and there's another benefit even if your school doesn't win. Your chances of getting your school to pay for a subscription will most likely be greater if more teachers are using it and more kids are experiencing success! :-)

By the way, members of the Caring Classrooms Community on DonorsChoose have one more reason to love this organization. Flocabulary became a Platinum Sponsor of Caring Classrooms in August with a generous donation of $1,000 to help teachers in this community get their DC projects funded! If you aren't a member, head over to the Caring Classrooms Facebook page to learn how to join this amazing group of teachers. Thank you, Flocabulary, for making a difference in classrooms in so many ways!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

September 7, 2015

How to Track Oral Reading Fluency

How to graph and track oral reading fluency. Blog post includes a free packet of materials including a fluency chart and a line graph for tracking fluency data.
Fluent readers not only sound more expressive when they read aloud, but they also comprehend the text far better than those who are not as fluent. That makes perfect sense when you consider how much energy a reader wastes when he or she has to slowly decode every word in a passage.

To help my 5th graders track their progress in reading fluency, I developed a partner activity that can also be used as an informal oral fluency assessment. It worked so well that I wanted to share it with you as a freebie. You can find Graphing Oral Fluency on my Balanced Literacy page on Teaching Resources. The packet includes student directions, the Oral Fluency Chart, and the Fluency Rate Line Graph. You're welcome to use it with your own students, but please remember that it's an informal tool for tracking fluency and it's not a research-based assessment tool.

Freebie for Graphing and Tracking Oral Fluency
When I introduced the activity to my class, I explained why reading fluency is important and modeled how a fluent reader might sound as compared to a reader who is not as fluent. Then I showed them how to time each other for one minute as they read aloud, and how to help each other calculate the average number of words they read per minute.

Freebie for graphing and tracking oral reading fluency
We also discussed the fact that being fluent doesn't mean speeding through the text with no errors; good readers also read with expression and enthusiasm, adjusting their reading rate and volume according to the meaning of the text. To help them become more aware of this aspect of fluency, I explained how to use the "Expressive Fluency" self-assessment rubric located under the Oral Fluency Chart.

Finally, I showed my students how to plot their oral fluency rate on a line graph and record their expressive fluency rate at the bottom of the page. My students completed this activity every few weeks and plotted their improvements over time.

Because my students were 5th graders, they could handle this activity as a partner assignment in a literacy center. Younger students would probably need a teacher assistant or parent volunteer to administer this assessment one-on-one.

Classroom Goal Setting and Data Tracking
The Oral Fluency Chart and the Fluency Rate Line Graph make great additions to student portfolios and "data binders." If your school is implementing a classroom goal setting program, you'll find oral fluency to be another area where students can set goals, create action plans, and track their progress. If you haven't seen the resources in my Goal Setting and Data Tracking Journal Combo, click the image below to check them out.

Remember that you can download the Graphing Oral Fluency freebie from the Balanced Literacy page on  I hope these resources help your school year get off to a great start!
Laura Candler