December 20, 2012

The Power of Audio Books

Most kids love to listen to audio books, but did you know that this practice is also extremely effective for improving reading comprehension and fluency? I discovered this well-kept secret a few years ago when I started using audio books with my struggling readers. I was using Classroom Book Clubs in my classroom on a regular basis, but I was experiencing a problem when it came to book selection. Many of my 5th graders were signing up to be in groups with difficult books that I knew they couldn't read on their own. What to do? Require them to choose an easier book that didn't interest them? Or let them choose a difficult book, knowing that they would probably drop out of the group later?

Fortunately, I discovered a simple solution to this problem: audio books. I located audio versions of some of my favorite student books like Hatchet and Shiloh, and I allowed students in those groups to listen while reading their books each day. To manage the problem of multiple users needing the same audio player, I figured out how to connect several students via headphone adapters connected together. I assigned one student in each group the role of “Audio Captain” who would start and stop the audio player as needed. All students were expected to have their own copy of the book open and follow along, tracking the text visually as they listened.

Reading Comprehension Improved 50%
My students were very excited about the program, and the audio materials were constantly in use during reading class. After just a few weeks, I noticed something amazing. I could tell that the students who were using these audio materials regularly were becoming better readers! They weren't just becoming better listeners – their reading comprehension and fluency skills were improving, too!

These results intrigued me and I wanted to know more. I was in graduate school at the time, so I conducted an action research study to gather data about what I was observing. I selected eight struggling readers for my study, and I provided audio materials for every book that they read over a two-month period. I compared their reading comprehension test scores before and after the study, and every single student made significant gains. The average score rose from 41% of their reading comprehension answers being correct in September to 60% correct in December, a 50% increase!

I know it was just a small, informal study, but the results convinced me that I needed to continue using audio books. I began to wonder how listening to audio books could translate to improved reading skills. I finally realized that audio books can introduce students to a world of reading they've never known. Fifth graders who can’t read well probably aren't motivated by a steady diet of picture books and easy chapter books. But hook them up to an audio version of Hatchet, and the words begin to work their magic. As students track the text with their eyes and listen with their ears, they see words they've heard before but were not able to recognize in print. They can apply the strategies that good readers use, from visualizing the events to making predictions. In the process, they discover the joys of a great book!

Time Saving Resources for You
Another reason you might want to obtain audio books for Literature Circles or Classroom Book Clubs is that you can listen to them to preview them or to keep up with what your students are reading. I always recommend that teachers read books first before using them with students, but it can be difficult to find time to do so. If you purchase the audio version, you can listen while driving or doing something else.

Where to Find Audio Books
You can find audio books in many places, including your public library and yard sales. However, the easiest way to find them is to go to and search for them there. I've created a collection of Literature Circle resource pages on my website that include book recommendations in many categories, including Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure, and Realistic Fiction. Each book includes a link to where you can find it on, and most of those books have audio versions that you can purchase. I recommend purchasing the CD versions because then you’ll always have one master copy, but you may want to transfer the audio file to a mobile device, computer, or Mp3 player.

How to Obtain Audio Materials
Does the idea of using audio books intrigue you? I’ll bet you can think of several students right now who would benefit from listening while reading. However, you may also be wondering how and where you can purchase these materials since they can be a bit costly. That was my concern, too, but I solved that problem by setting up an Audio Book Fund and asking for donations to our classroom audio book collection.Here's a copy of my letter to parents in Word format so you can adapt it and use it yourself. In the letter I explained about the importance of audio books and how my students would benefit. I was thrilled to receive over $100 in donations within a week! When the money started rolling in, I ordered audio materials to go with all of my favorite titles to use with Classroom Book Clubs.

If you haven't used audio books in your classroom, I hope you'll consider giving them a try. I think you'll find audio books to be powerful tools to improve comprehension and fluency. Best of all, listening to audio books will allow your struggling readers to discover the magic hidden inside every great book. Soon their reading skills will improve and they won't need audio books. When that happens, a whole new world will open up before them, the amazing world of literacy!

December 13, 2012

Tips for Using Math Games Effectively in the Classroom

Who doesn't love a game? In the math classroom, games offer an engaging alternative to worksheets, allowing students to work with others and have fun while learning. They’re perfect for practicing new skills or reviewing previously-learned content. Math games are extremely versatile and can be used in cooperative learning teams, in small group instruction, or in math centers.

One key to using math games effectively is to develop clear and specific management systems and procedures. Students need to know when they can play the games, where to go to play them, how to choose a partner, and a host of other procedures.

In this blog post, I'll share a few tips for using math games effectively. I've also compiled some of my best strategies in Tips for Teaching with Math Games, a freebie which you can download from my TpT store.

Using Math Games in Cooperative Learning Teams
Math games work well in cooperative learning teams during whole group instruction or while you are working with small guided math groups. After you introduce a skill, demonstrate it, and check for understanding, have students play a game to practice the skill. When you use games in cooperative learning teams, each team will need a copy of the game materials, and all teams will be engaged in playing the games while you serve as a facilitator. This gives you the opportunity to walk around and work with individual students who may need extra help.

Another way to use games in cooperative learning teams is for reviewing several different skills the day before a test. If you choose to use games this way, you’ll need a different game for each skill and rotate the games from team to team every 10 to 15 minutes. Sometimes you can use the same game but simply create different problem cards or task cards for each skill.

Using Math Games in Learning Centers
Using math game centers is a way to help students keep skills sharp throughout the year. You may want to set aside 15 to 20 minutes a day for students to work in math centers. Having them play the games first thing in the morning as other students arrive can keep them on task and energize them for the day. You can also encourage students to use these activities when they have completed other assignments or while you are working with a small group.

Using Games to Teach Social Skills
Some students have trouble playing games because they don't know how to be good sports. With these students, it doesn't whether they're winning or losing. When they're winning, they gloat about how well they are doing, and when they're losing, they blame other players or complain about their bad luck.

It might be tempting to give these students worksheets to do during math centers or other times when the rest of the class is playing math games, but that's not going to help them learn to be good sports.

One way to work on social skills is to teach a mini-lesson for the whole class on what “sportsmanship” means. The younger your students, the more help they will need with developing social skills for games. However, even older students can benefit from reviewing these skills.

Start the lesson by saying that math games can be fun, but only if the players demonstrate good sportsmanship. Display one of the two charts shown on the right which you can find in the Tips for Teaching with Math Games freebie, or create a chart of your own. Ask students to discuss what it means to be a “good sport” versus a “poor sport” when playing games. During the class brainstorming session, remind them not to name specific people or incidents that have happened in class. Just discuss behaviors such as bragging, taking turns, congratulating the winner, smiling, grabbing the materials, not following the rules, and pouting. Write each behavior on the class chart, and then finish the discussion by reviewing how to be a good sport.

Another helpful strategy is teach your students how to deal with common tasks such as deciding who goes first or who will shuffle the deck of task cards. Rather than arguing, they can flip a coin, play Rock-Paper-Scissors, or toss a die. After you address these issues with mini-lessons, you’ll find that your students enjoy playing games more and get along better with their peers.

Wrap up the mini-lesson by reminding your students that although they might not win every game, they are all winners because they are having fun while they learning.

Where to Find Fun and Effective Math Games
You can create your own math games, but they are time-consuming to make. If you don't have the time or the desire to create your own, check out the collection of games in my Math Games Growing Mega Bundle. I LOVE creating math games that are engaging, fun, and most importantly, effective learning tools.

All of the math games in this bundle are appropriate for upper elementary students, and many can be adapted for younger or older students by changing the task cards. Each game includes teacher directions, ready-to-use printable game materials, and answer keys. Some of the games also include QR code answers as well as traditional answer key.

My Math Games Mega Bundle includes 16 games right now, but that's likely to change. I refer to it as a "growing" bundle because when I create more math games, they will be added to this collection. Anyone who has already purchased it will be able to download the new games for free.

All of the games in this bundle can also be purchased separately. To preview any of these math games, just click on its cover image below. You'll be taken to a page in my TpT store with more information about the game, thumbnail images, and a link to preview every page in the game. If you like them all, you'll save 30% by purchasing the entire bundle.

Where to Grab Your Tips for Teaching with Math Games Freebie
If you enjoyed the tips I shared in this post, be sure to download my free PDF, Tips for Teaching with Math Games, which includes even more tips for teaching with math games.

How do you use math games in your classroom?  Do you have any tips of your own to share?

December 8, 2012

Celebrate 12-12-12 with Race to Write 12

Wednesday’s date is December 12th, 2012, otherwise known as 12-12-12. What a unique event, and certainly one worth celebrating! Okay, maybe not a big celebration, but how about taking a few minutes for a cooperative learning game based on the number 12?

The Race to Write 12 game is a fun, fast-paced team builder that you can use this Wednesday or any time of the year when you need an engaging activity that fosters creative thinking and collaboration. You can download it for free from my TeachersPayTeachers store or from the Caring Classroom page on Teaching Resources.

Race to Write 12 involves students working in teams to write a list of 12 items as described on a topic card selected by the teacher. Each group races against the other teams to be the first to complete this task. The team that lists 12 acceptable items first wins the round and collects the topic card. This freebie comes with 10 prepared topic cards, and I included a template you can use to create your own to modify the activity for your own students. You can also adapt the game to a specific subject area by creating cards with topics related to that subject. For example, in math, your topics could include, “Units of Measurement,” “Polygons,” or “Multiples of 12.” In science, your topics could include “Mammals,” “Landforms,” “Examples of Liquids.” The possibilities are endless!

Race to Write 12 is a simple game that your students will love. Taking time for special activities like this one will foster a sense of classroom community among your students. Visit the Caring Classroom page on Teaching Resources for more cooperative learning activities and classroom management strategies. Hope your class finds 12-12-12 to be a memorable and fun day!

December 6, 2012

Gifts for Santa's Scientists

What would YOU give an ornithologist for Christmas? What about an ichthyologist or a paleontologist?

Santa has a bag of gifts for a dozen scientists, and he needs YOUR students to help him figure out which gift goes to which scientist. But first, they’ll need to do a little research and work with their teams to learn about a dozen different types of scientists. Curious? Let me share a little bit about this activity with you.

Gifts for Santa’s Scientists is an engaging research lesson that I developed for my students a few years ago, and it worked like a charm for keeping them on task during the busy week right before the holidays. Before you read on to learn more, you might want to click this preview link and scroll through the document to see what's included in the lesson. I've created a complete packet of printables, directions, and an answer key to make it really easy to implement.

Gifts for Santa's Scientists
To begin the activity, tell your students that Santa has gifts for a dozen scientists in his sack, but the gifts aren't labeled with names. Santa needs their help to figure out which gift to give to each scientist. This activity does not involve an actual gift exchange; students will simply be discussing the gifts named in Santa's bag, like a telescope, a magnet, or a flower pot.

Working in teams of four, each student will research three scientists and complete an activity page like the one shown on the right. They write a sentence or two to describe each scientist's area of study and draw a simple illustration of something those scientists might study. After students finish with their research, they return to their teams to share and record what they've learned.

After they complete this step, the fun begins! They work together as a team to match each gift in Santa’s bag with the scientist names on the packages. To make the activity even more challenging, you can ask students to put away all of their study materials and try to match the gifts and scientists based on what they remember.

My students really enjoyed this activity, and I loved that fact that they had to conduct research, work with a team, and do some critical thinking in order to figure out which scientists received which gifts.

You can find Gifts for Santa's Scientists in my TpT store. One thing I love about TpT is reading the comments and feedback from teachers who've used my materials. This comment from Selina Smith about Gifts for Santa's Scientists made my day!
"I can't say enough wonderful things about this product. It is SO well thought out. It is perfect for students who need help with research. It is perfect for incorporating technology. The directions are so clear you could easily pick it up 3 minutes before class and be ready to teach the lesson. I love how she has written Day 1 number 1, 2, 3, etc. Thank you for making such a great product! I want MORE :)"
Holidays Around the World
The week before Christmas vacation is often a crazy time, and the excitement of the upcoming holidays makes it tough to keep students on task. Textbook lessons won’t hold their attention, so cooperative learning lessons like Gifts for Santa’s Scientists offer a welcome change from regular daily instruction. If you prefer an lesson that involves a variety of winter holidays, you will find a similar cooperative research activity in my December Mini Pack called "Holidays Around the World."

By the way, the ornithologist received a bird feeder, the ichthyologist received scuba gear, and the paleontologist received fossils. I’m not sure about you, but I think Santa could have saved himself the trouble and just given them all iPads! What do you want for Christmas?

November 1, 2012

Thankful Writing Craftivity

Thankful Writing is a freebie from Laura Candler that's a step-by-step writing lesson and a craftivity all in one.The final project is sent home with students to be shared with their families on Thanksgiving day, and it's sure to be a memorable keepsake!
Free Thanksgiving Writing Lesson and Craftivity!

November is finally here, and what better time to think of all of the things we are thankful for? This topic might seem may seem trite and overdone for a writing assignment, but we can never overdo the message of learning to show appreciation for the people and things that make our lives rich and fulfilling.

Fortunately, this topic also makes a great first expository essay for upper elementary students because it's so easy to organize and write. Yes, it does involve "formula" writing, but I believe in starting out with one formulaic essay to teach students an easy way to organize their thoughts into a coherent paper. I loved having my students write about the people and things they were thankful for because it helped them focus on the positives in their lives, and their final essays made a nice gift to their families on Thanksgiving Day.

Thankful Writing is a freebie from Laura Candler that's a step-by-step writing lesson and a craftivity all in one.The final project is sent home with students to be shared with their families on Thanksgiving day, and it's sure to be a memorable keepsake!The final step of the activity is what makes this project really special. After student write the final drafts of their papers, they staple them into a folder made from a large sheet of colored construction paper. Each student decorates a cover and glues it on to the front of his or her folder to create a special keepsake. If you really want to turn this activity into a full fledged "craftivity," provide plenty of time and lots of creative materials for students to use when decorating their Thanksgiving folders to take home.  Having students add a small photo and the date is a nice touch because many families will treasure this special gift and keep it for many years.

Thankful Writing Craftivity Freebie

My "Thankful Writing" activity became a yearly tradition because it was such a terrific writing activity, and it was so appreciated by my students' families. Because it worked so well for me, I wrote up the complete directions to share with others as a freebie. It's my little gift and my way of showing my appreciation for the many educators who have shared so much with me through the years. The packet includes complete directions, a graphic organizer for brainstorming, and directions for introducing students to expository writing. You can download it from my Seasonal Page on Teaching Resources during November, and my newsletter subscribers can find it on Laura's Best Freebies page any time of the year.

Thankful Writing is a freebie from Laura Candler that's a step-by-step writing lesson and a craftivity all in one.The final project is sent home with students to be shared with their families on Thanksgiving day, and it's sure to be a memorable keepsake!

Tips for Success

Here are a few things to keep in mind that will help make this activity a success.
  • Timing - If possible, start on this activity several weeks before Thanksgiving, especially if your students have not written an essay before. You'll be surprised at how much time it takes to brainstorm ideas, teach them the format, write the first draft, revise and edit it, and create the final draft. You should also allow plenty of time for students to decorate their covers. 
  • Grading - If you are spend spend several weeks on this activity, you'll probably need to assign some sort of grade to it. You could do a participation grade based on overall effort and quality of work. If you need to write comments on their work to justify your grade, you won't want to write in the copy that students are going to give to their parents. What I did was to make a copy of the essay for myself so that I could write comments on it. I felt that since this was their first expository essay, it was more of a learning activity than an assessment so I tended to grade it very leniently. Most of my comments and feedback took place during the writing conference so my final grade ended up being more of a participation grade than anything else.
  • More Cover Options - I recently revised and updated this freebie, and it now includes a coloring page that you can print for students who might obsess over decorating their covers. However, I think most parents would rather see original artwork on the cover. One option might be to have the create the traditional hand-tracing turkey as the cover art. Check out this version that I found on Enchanted Learning for a slightly different approach. 
The day before Thanksgiving, provide time for students to share their final writing projects with their classmates before they bring them home to present to their families. You'll find this to be a nice way to end the day before you send them off for the holidays!

October 30, 2012

Spontaneity Brings Math to Life!

By Nyla Phillips-Martin, Guest Blogger

Last week, while in the midst of teaching a lesson on cuboids, I quickly realised that I had to do something drastic to get the attention of my most easily distracted student. I mean, there I was feeling all proud of myself for having everything I needed, I had my examples and non-examples for the students to handle, observe and compare attributes. My classroom was buzzing with excitement; hands were fervently flying up during Q & A time as I selected students to answer questions.

But the hand that I was looking for at the front corner of the class never went up. Justin (let’s call him Justin) just sat there looking away from me, tapping his ruler on the desk. Then he poked another student with his pencil. Now, it is not uncommon for him to be like this because he sometimes gets into trouble in order to avoid class work. What I needed to do was to get his attention without halting the momentum that the other students were having. At that moment, an idea popped into my head.

I walked out of the room, spun around and returned with a silly grin and a cuboid net in my hand. I didn't say a word. I just slowly folded the net into a talking cuboid (like a puppet). Think of a box with the top lid open – that flap became the puppet’s mouth. Anyway, I used the silliest voice I could muster and made the puppet talk.

He introduced himself as Corey the Cuboid and went on to talk about his other siblings and the fact that he feels like the odd one out because he cannot roll like the cylinder or sphere and he’s not as cute as his brother the cube. My fourth grade students were wide eyed and everybody was paying attention – not to me the teacher, but to the cuboid on show.

They all wanted to have their turn with handling Corey the Cuboid and making him talk (including Justin). In fact, they had so much fun making him talk that I videotaped one of my students as she brought Corey to life!

I really enjoyed that cuboid net lesson and it taught me that even with a lot of planning, a touch of spontaneity keeps things interesting. The lesson gave me an idea for their math project – to have them put on their own puppet show featuring different talking 3D Shapes.

If you like the idea of having students create puppets from 3D shapes, feel free to use the patterns from this free assortment of 3D shape nets that I created to save yourself some time! And don’t forget to flip out and be just a tad spontaneous!

Nyla Phillips-Martin, is a young wife, mother, and teacher in the Caribbean. She has a B. Ed Degree in Primary Education and is in her seventh year of teaching. She hopes to show other teachers in her country the power of using technology for use in records, planning and especially in the classroom. To her, education is all about fostering creativity and facilitating hands-on learning. Visit Nyla's blog, Nyla's Crafty Teaching, for more engaging lesson ideas!

October 24, 2012

Winning a Million - Math Lessons and More!

What would you do if you won a million dollars? The NC Education Lottery offers winners a choice between the entire amount paid over 20 years, or a lump sum payout of a smaller amount. What are the implications of each choice?

Today I saw a news article about a local man, James Anderson, who won $1 million in the Holiday Millions lottery game. One part of the story in particular really captured my interest:
"Top prize winners in the Holiday Millions game have the option of claiming their prize as a 20-year annuity or a lump sum. Anderson chose the $600,000 lump sum, which left him with $408,006 after taxes."
When I read this part of the article, my teacher brain went into overdrive! Do you realize that by accepting $600,000, Mr. Anderson gave up $400,000 of his payout just so he could get the money now instead of spreading it over 20 years? Furthermore, the government took such a big chunk that he now has less than half of that million dollars.

Million Dollar Lottery Lessons
As I read this, I immediately saw all kinds of possibilities for lessons about winning a million dollars. There are loads of obvious math lesson ideas, but I can also think of many literacy lessons as well. Here are a few quick thoughts about where you could go with this topic. Please share your ideas, too!

  • Read informational text.  Begin by having students read the article. You can find the article online here on the Fayetteville Observer website.  Then ask them to complete a "What's the Scoop?" graphic organizer to uncover the important facts and details in the news story. You could also use the Current Event Report form in my Social Studies file cabinet to have students write a summary of the important information. 
  • Analyze the math involved in Mr. Anderson's decision. What exactly did it mean in financial terms to take $600,000 now instead of a million paid over 20 years? I called the lottery hotline to make sure I understood how the 20-year annuity worked, and it's basically an option for taking out 1/20th of the money each year for 20 years. So how much money did Mr. Anderson give up? If you received a million dollars in annual payments over 20 years, how much would you get each year? What would that be on a monthly basis? What is the average salary in America? Would you be rich, living comfortably, or just getting by?  
  • Debate the pros and cons of the two payout options. Even though he gave up $400,000 to take out the immediate lump sum of $600,000, it might actually not be such a bad deal if he invests the money wisely. Disregard taxes because taxes will have to be paid on the money either way, and consider what would happen if he invested the full $600,000. What interest rate would be needed to make that money grow to $1 million in 20 years? As a side note, the person I spoke with on the lottery hotline said that the last 5 jackpot winners all took the lump sum payout. I'm assuming they contacted a financial adviser before making that decision, so it may be that taking the lump sum is a better option. But what if you took the money and just spent it? Would you be able to invest it?
  • Explore probability - Discuss the probability of winning money in the Holiday Millions game. You can read more about this particular game on the Holiday Millions page of the NC Education Lottery website. Players can win different amounts; what is the probability of winning each amount? (Click here to download a chart showing the approximate odds of winning.)

    A lottery ticket costs $20. Look at the odds of winning a million dollars. What if you bought a ticket every day for a year? How much would you spend? How much would you improve your chances of winning?  
  • Research possible purchases. What can you buy with $408,000 (the amount after taxes)? Research the cost of a home in your area, the cost of a new car, a dream vacation, etc. 
  • Discuss the concept of a million. Read the book How Much is a Million or If You Made a Million written by David Schwartz and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Use the ideas in these books as a springboard for discussing just how big a million really is. 
  • Discuss impact of winning a $1 million. How would your life change? Are people with more money happier? What problems might be caused by winning a lot of money? Would people treat you differently? (I've heard that many people who win large sums of money end up broke and unhappy in a few years. It would be interesting to research the facts on this and discuss your findings with your students.)
  • Write an expository paragraph or paper - What would you do if you won a $1 million and had a choice between taking a lump sum of $600,000 or the whole amount over 20 years? How might your life change based on your decision?
These are just a few lesson ideas that came to mind as I thought about the implications of winning $1 million dollars. How would you teach a million dollar lottery lesson? I think we can agree that this topic is a goldmine of rich learning opportunities, no pun intended!

October 10, 2012

Weathering, Erosion, or Deposition? Sorting Out the Processes

Science is one of my favorite subjects, and I've always been interested in geology and landforms. I remember hiking through the White Mountains of New Hampshire as a child, listening to my father explain the geology of the area. He showed me evidence of glaciers that once covered the area, interesting caves and rock formations, and fossils of sea animals that somehow ended up high in the mountains! I still enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities, and I often wonder how certain features of the earth were formed.

I guess those early experiences are why I enjoy teaching students about landforms of the Earth. Hands-on activities and opportunities to explore nature are especially important in this area of study. One of my favorite projects is to have students work in teams to create islands from salt dough, and each island has to include specific landforms. When students share about their islands with the class, they have to explain how those landforms might have been formed. We read books about weathering, erosion, and deposition, and even take walks outside to observe evidence of these three processes in nature. I show photos of pictures I have taken myself and other pictures I've found on the internet to explain how weathering, erosion, and deposition shaped Earth's surface.

Sorting Out the Processes (and a Freebie!)
Yet even with all of those activities, my students still had trouble remembering the difference between weathering, erosion, and deposition. These concepts are very confusing. To help them practice, I created a sorting activity with examples that students could read and classify into one of the three categories.

They worked in teams because having time to discuss and debate the placement of the cards was really helpful as they grappled with the concepts. When they discussed a card, they had to talk over the action taking place and decide if it was most likely weathering, erosion, or deposition. They took turns so all students had the opportunity to participate equally.

If you'd like to use this sorting activity with your students, you can download it for free from my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Illustrated Task Cards and Self-Grading Google Quizzes
If you believe that a picture is worth 1000 words, you'll love my resource for teaching this topic. Weathering, Erosion, and Deposition Task Cards and Google Quizzes includes 24 printable task cards in both black & white and color, as well as 24 task card images that can be used with the free Plickers program or with Google Classroom. You can even use the images to create digital decks of task cards for cooperative learning activities like Showdown! Weathering, Erosion, and Deposition also includes two self-grading Google quizzes that can be assigned with Google Classroom or administered as online formative assessments. 

The illustrations on these Weathering, Erosion, and Deposition task cards are what make them really unique. Most of drawings were created by my daughter Wendy Candler of Digital Classroom Clipart on TpT, and I love the simplicity of her artwork. Somehow Wendy was able to capture the essence of how weathering, erosion, or deposition contributed to each situation being depicted without adding unnecessary details.

I hope these activities and resources help your students develop a deeper understanding of the difference between weathering, erosion, and deposition.

October 8, 2012

Off the Wall Westward Expansion Lesson

Guest blog post by Joann Claspill

Every once in a while I love to shake things up in my classroom a bit to keep my students on their toes and engaged. The first time I teach “off the wall” is always an amazing experience for my students, and it turns out to be one for me too!

As many of you may be experiencing, time allowed for Social Studies instruction is often a disappearing act. Since that area is my passion, I purposely find ways to integrate it with my ELA standards on a daily basis. In my fifth grade class this past week, we were learning about the effects of the second Westward movement and the effects that all the new settlers were having on the land and the way of life of the Native Americans. I decided this was a perfect lesson to take “off the wall”.

Off the Wall Lesson Preparation
My students had background knowledge from fourth grade about the Plains Indians and their dependence on the buffalo, so I made this my focus today. I went online and found pictures to print of the new buffalo hunters, the mountain of buffalo skulls that were sold, the buffalo carcasses lying in snow after they were shot, and a painting of the newly built train line running buffalo over with shooters in the train cars. I looked at parts of our textbook that fit the lesson and transcribed them into my own document. I found some other information in a book I had called “Saving the Buffalo” and wrote up some paragraphs that matched the pictures I selected. Everything I wrote included something about cause and effect or making inferences - my two ELA focus areas for the lesson. Last preparatory step was to print everything and create nine pieces to hang on walls in the hall outside my classroom. Each piece had a picture with a paragraph or two underneath and a number 1-8. Total prep time was one planning period of 45 minutes.

Learning in the Art Gallery
After reviewing orally with my students the reasons why settlers moved West, as well as who already lived there, I explained the directions for our Art Gallery (and this is where the magic begins!!) Each student got a clipboard and paper. They needed to have room for 8 answers - some students folded their paper into 8 boxes, others just listed as they went. We reviewed rules for an Art Gallery - quiet, thinking, observant, focusing on the paintings, no touching. I explained that I wanted them to circulate among the paintings, do the reading and answer any questions on their notes. We got into “Art Gallery Mode’ with our clipboards in hand and you could have heard a pin drop! Students were moving around, reading, taking notes, silently nodding at one another, pointing at paintings while looking back at me - good stuff! As I moved around among the students, the inferences and observations I noticed them making were astounding!

Discussing Facts and Inferences about Westward Expansion
As a bonus, I brought a Beanie Baby buffalo and let him sit on the shoulder of students who were being especially observant! Students went through the gallery, self-paced, for about 20 minutes. At that time, we all came together to sit in the hall and talk about what we learned. I went through each painting and had students share out their inferences if facts were not stated, and since I had their undivided attention, I went ahead and told them if their inferences were correct. By the end of the 8 paintings, without me ever “teaching them” the direct effects the buffalo hunting had, or why settlers were hunting buffalo, every single one of my 42 students were able to articulate it through their gallery experience.

Teaching Off the Wall
Sometimes, just moving your classroom outside its 4 walls can create an automatic “hook” for your students. As with any strategy, I only use it sparingly or else it gets as old as just listening to me. I have used the art gallery approach when looking at characters in novels we read, comparing stories or genres, and of course with Social Studies lessons as appropriate. Try teaching off the wall and let me know how it goes!

Joann Claspill is a 5th grade teacher in South Carolina. She has won 2 state Social Studies teaching awards and has been published with a local publisher featuring her integrated ELA and SS work. Her blog is

October 1, 2012

New Webinar: 5 Amazing Web Tools

Note: The webinar described in this post took place on October 10th. 2012. However, you can watch a free recording of this webinar on Laura Candler's Whiteboards and Web Tools page.

Collaboration is the name of the game in education, and that's why I'm excited to host this upcoming live webinar! The internet has transformed the way we interact with others, and Web 2.0 tools provide amazing opportunities for students to collaborate with their classmates and even with other students around the world.

Recently I've been learning how many teachers are using web tools in creative ways, and I invited five outstanding educators to share their experiences in a webinar. I'm thrilled that the tech-savvy teachers below accepted my offer, and each of them will explain how to use a favorite web tool to foster classroom collaboration. 

5 Amazing Educators Share Their Favorite Web Tools 
Let's take a peek at the web tools we'll explore and the educators who will share their expertise with us:
  1. Animoto - Erin Klein of the Kleinspiration blog will share how she uses Animoto with her 2nd graders. With Animoto, your students can collaborate to create exciting videos from their digital photos, video clips, and music.
  2. LiveBinders - LiveBinders is a free online tool that's like having a 3-ring binder on the web for organizing and storing resources. Lisa Dabbs, creator of the Teaching With Soul blog, will share how to use LiveBinders with students.
  3. Skype - You've probably heard of Skype, and more than likely, you've used Skype yourself. It's a free video calling service where you can talk to friends and family face to face via the Internet. But have you tried using Skype in the classroom? Fourth grade teacher Paula Naugle will share how she uses Skype to enable her students to connect with other students around the world. Paula's blog is appropriately titled, PLN - Not Just My Initials.
  4. Kidblog - Kidblog is a safe environment for students to blog, and over a million K-12 students have a voice there. Fourth grade teacher Joan Young will share how her students are using Kidblog in creative ways. You can find Joan's blog at
  5. ClassDoJo - ClassDoJo is a behavior management tool that teachers and students seem to love! Suzy Brooks of the Technically Invisible blog is a fan of this web tool, and she's going to share how she uses it for more than behavior management in her 3rd grade classroom.

Free Interactive Webinars
I thoroughly enjoy presenting webinars because they're interactive and fun! You'll have the opportunity to ask questions, collaborate with other teachers, and contribute your suggestions using the chat box in Blackboard Collaborate. I invite you to visit my Webinar page on Teaching Resources to learn about the webinar recordings that are available right now for you to watch. 

Have you used any of these web tools in your classroom? If so, please plan to attend and share your ideas with us. If you haven't used them, I know that participating in this webinar will inspire you to give one or more of them a try in your classroom this year!

September 15, 2012

Making the Social Studies and Literacy Connection

Making the Social Studies and Literacy Connection - Two great informational texts and two freebies to use on Constitution Day!
Free Resources for Constitution Day

September 17th is Constitution Day, and it’s a great time to integrate social studies into your literacy lessons. I discovered two outstanding informational text books to read and discuss with your students, and I couldn’t resist creating some freebies to go with them! Both books are perfect for upper elementary students, and if you only have one copy of each book, you can read it aloud and show the pages so your students can follow along. If you don’t have these books now, you can click the book covers below to order them from Then use the activities later in the year when you are studying the US government or the Constitution. You'll find these freebies in my Constitution Day freebie on TpT during September and on my Social Studies page on Teaching Resources all year round.

What's the Truth? (Sorting Activity)

Author: Christine Taylor-Butler

The Constitution of the United States is a part of the Scholastic "True Book" series, and it's an excellent informational text for upper elementary students. What's the Truth? is a hands-on sorting activity to stimulate thinking before you read the book to your students. Print one set of cards per team, and ask team members to cut the cards apart and stack them in the middle of the team.

Here's what to do:
  1. Before you read the book, ask students in teams to take turns picking up a card, reading it aloud, and discussing whether or not they think the statement is true or false. 
  2. As they decide if each statement is true or false, the card is placed into one of two piles accordingly. 
  3. Optional: Have team members write a T or an F on the back of each card for future reference. 
  4. As you read the book, stop from time to time and ask your students to discuss what you've read so far. If you mentioned a concept that was on one of the cards, they may check to see if they classified it correctly. 
  5. After you finish reading the book, review all the statements to be sure everyone has the correct answers. 

Constitution Discussion Questions

Title: If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution 
Author: Elizabeth Levy

If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution is a longer book and will take several days to read. I've created a set of Constitution Discussion Questions that you can use when you finish reading the book or where appropriate during the book. Because the questions are quite challenging, I suggest using the Talking Sticks discussion strategy in small guided reading groups or as a whole class.

The book is most appropriate for upper elementary students, but you may be able to use it with middle school students as well. You’ll need to preview the book to decide. The discussion questions are fairly generic and can be used with any in-depth discussion or study of the Constitution. After you’ve discussed all of them as a class, you may want to have your students choose one to write about in a journal entry.

Where to Find These Free Resources

These sorting cards and discussion cards are available for free in several places. During the month of September, you can download them from my TpT when you click over to my free Constitution Day Literacy Lessons. You can also find them on the Social Studies page on Teaching Resources. Additional activities on that page include a Branches of Government sorting activity, a cooperative learning lesson to learn the meaning of the Preamble, and a printable you can use to create your own Classroom Bill of Rights. 

With limited time in the elementary school day, it's important to be able to sneak in a little social studies with your literacy lessons. These activities can be used on Constitution Day or any time when your class is studying U.S. Government or the Constitution. What are some ways that you connect social studies and literature in your classroom?

September 5, 2012

Tips for Teaching Informational Text

About the only thing we can count on in education is that something is always changing! Our society changes, technology changes, our students are changing, and as a result, the curriculum is constantly evolving. Change can be exciting, but often it’s frustrating as well. This is especially true when it comes to the Common Core Reading Standards and the new emphasis on informational text. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to explore this aspect of the CCSS while writing Graphic Organizers for Reading: Teaching Tools Aligned with the Common Core. Now I’d like to share some of those tips and strategies for teaching informational text with you.

Comparing and Contrasting Text Types
One of the best ways to get started is to have your students compare informational text with literature. Sounds like the perfect time for a Venn diagram, doesn’t it?  Show your students several examples of both types of books, and ask them to help you brainstorm how those text types are alike and different. Record their ideas on a class Venn diagram. If you have a document camera, use it to display the pages of the book so that everyone can see all of the features on each page clearly. If you don’t have a document camera, ask the students at the back of the room to move closer and have a seat on the floor near you.

Choosing the Right Informational Text
Most students are very familiar with fiction, but they may not be nearly as familiar with nonfiction. That’s why it’s important to select just the right informational text to use for this lesson, something that includes a variety of nonfiction text features. Last year I discovered the perfect book for this activity. Did you know that Rachel Lynette of the Minds in Bloom blog is the author of over 70 nonfiction books for kids? In fact, she has a nice Informational Text Structures freebie that you'll want to check out. Rachel sent me a copy of Gravity: Forces and Motion, and it turned out to be just what I needed as an anchor text for my Informational Text Features Search lesson. If force and motion are not a part of your curriculum, take a look at Rachel Lynette's other nonfiction books on I'm sure you'll find something that fits in with what you are teaching now or will be teaching later in the year.

When you display a nonfiction book like Gravity: Forces and Motion, your students will see at a glance that informational texts look quite different from literary ones. Within a few minutes, they will identify many details to add to your class Venn diagram. As you can see from this snapshot of Rachel’s book, informational text elements often include numbered steps, headings and subheadings, illustrations with captions, and so on. Explain to your students that these items are referred to as “text features,” and the author includes them to help make the text easier to understand. As you discuss each feature, ask your students how it helps them to comprehend, or understand, the text.

Informational Text Features Search Freebie
After your students become aware that informational texts are different from literary ones, they can apply their knowledge to text of their own choosing. Because I included this lesson in Graphic Organizers for Reading, the easiest way for me to share it with you is to give you the directions and graphic organizer as a freebie. Click the image or this link to download your copy. Before teaching the lesson, gather a collection of books on a variety of topics that include many different informational text features. If you don’t have enough of these types of texts in the classroom, it’s worth a visit to the school library to hand pick books on a variety of topics and reading levels. Or you can schedule a class visit to the library and ask your students to find informational books on topics that interest them.

Combo Book Giveaway
Last year when Rachel sent me her book, Gravity: Forces and Motion, she also sent me a second autographed copy to pass along to one of my followers in a giveaway. Since she generously donated one of her books, I’ve decided to donate one of mine, too. These two books are a natural combination because Gravity is actually one of the recommended texts in Graphic Organizers for Reading: Teaching Tools Aligned with the Common Core. Even if you don’t teach science, you can use Rachel’s book in conjunction with the lessons in my book to help your students become more comfortable with reading informational text. Before you know it, your students will discover that nonfiction books can open doors to worlds they never knew existed!

Note: The giveaway end at 9 p.m. EST on September 10th. I'll be selecting and notifying the winner soon. 

August 24, 2012

Fun Countdown Timers for the Classroom

Time management was one of the most difficult aspects of classroom management for me. I loved having my students actively engaged in a hands-on lesson, but those types of lessons are very time-consuming. A quick 30-minute activity would often evolve into an hour-long lesson! A big part of the problem was my lack of time management skills. I would give my students a simple task, intending to allow 5 minutes before moving on to the next step, and the next thing I knew, 20 minutes had passed.

Luckily, my time management skills improved after I had an interactive whiteboard installed in my classroom. I discovered that the built-in Smartboard timer app was a great help, and before long I also discovered a wonderful FREE website with a variety of creative and fun timers. Online Stopwatch has over a dozen timers for counting up and counting down, including the countdown timers shown here. I would assign a task, set the timer to count down, and turn my attention back to my students. Even if I was caught up in an activity and didn't notice the time passing, the online timer would let us know when time was up.

I love these timers because they're fun as well as effective for classroom management, no matter the age of your students. After you set the total time and click the start button, an action occurs on each timer to show the passing time. For example, in the clock timer at the top, the hand on the clock moves and the clock changes from yellow to black. In the bomb timer, the fuse becomes shorter and shorter as it slowly burns towards the bomb. The candle slowly melts as the wick burns, the fuse burns to the bottle rocket, and the sand trickles down through the egg timer. In each case, when the time's up, the timer sounds off dramatically. The only problem with these timers is that they are so exciting that they might actually be distracting! Fortunately, Online Stopwatch does have a few plain timers, too. You can even create your own custom countdown timer by choosing a timer, the ending sound, and other features. I suggest visiting the Classroom Timers page on their site to see the full selection of timers. If you're interested in more classroom and time management strategies, visit the Classroom Management page on Teaching Resources.

Which online timer is your favorite? How do you use timers in your classroom?
Laura Candler