December 11, 2013

Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

Guest blog post by Julia Cook

Our country has been plagued with several disasters in the last few years. There was the Joplin, Missouri tornado in May of 2011, we’ve had numerous catastrophic wildfires, Hurricane Sandy tore the east coast apart in October of 2012, and then there was that day…

I remember that horrible day…December 14th, 2012…The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.  My eyes filled with tears as I watched this horrific event unfold on television.  How could this happen?  How could we ever let anything like this happen?

Three days later, I found myself in front of 400 children doing an author visit at a different elementary school that was thousands of miles away.  When the kindergartners and first graders walked into the gym, sat down on the floor, and looked up at me, I lost it.  I couldn’t talk.  I couldn’t even breathe!  My heart felt like it had a hole in it…a big, empty hole.  Our world can be so cruel.  I made eye contact with one of the teachers.  Her eyes screamed “There’s a hole in my heart too!”

At that moment, I knew I had to find a way to reach out. Parents needed to know what to say to their kids and how to say it. Teachers needed to know what to do, what to say, and how to act.

When a disaster occurs, it affects everyone at different levels of intensity, much like the ripple effect when a rock is thrown into water. With natural disasters, most humans feel responsible for helping. We empathize and then focus our efforts on comforting and rebuilding. But we realize deep down that what happened could not have been prevented. Sandy Hook was different…disasters caused by man happen by choice.

The Ant Hill Disaster
In the months following, I wrote numerous articles and gave several media interviews surrounding the topic, “Helping Kids Cope with Disasters and Violence,” but the gnawing of hole in my heart continued.  I knew I needed to write a book, one that spoke to children about living through and living after a disaster. I decided to use ants as a metaphor.

Ants are masters at working together and rebuilding. Also, ant hills can be destroyed by humans as well as by storms, so the metaphor applies to both natural disasters and those caused by man. By writing this book, I could demonstrate empathetic understanding for children, as well as model positive parent and teaching strategies.

But this book would be very different from the others.  All of my other stories were proactive.  The Ant Hill Disaster is reactive…reactive to the hole inside my heart…inside all of our hearts.

After the Ant Hill School is destroyed, a little boy ant is afraid to go back to school.  His mom caringly explains to him that sometimes things happen in life that we have no control over, but we have to find a way to keep living and growing.

Helping Kids Cope with Disasters and Violence
The Ant Hill Disaster thoughtfully addresses fears associated with both natural and those caused by man. It models effective parenting and teaching responses. This book can help assure children that through love, empathetic understanding, preparation, and effective communication, they can stand strong, even in the midst of uncontrollable events.

When disasters, both natural and man-made occur, parents are faced with the challenge of discussing tragic events with their children. Although these might be difficult conversations, they are important and necessary. Always remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to talk to your child about traumatic events. At the end of the Ant Hill Disaster, I included tips for parents to help them talk about tragic events with their children. You can download a page of these tips on the right. Always remember: you are your child’s coping instructor!

I had the great honor of reading the Ant Hill Disaster over the phone to Michelle Gay who lost her 6-year old daughter in the Sandy Hook tragedy. She graciously agreed to write the forward of the book and I want to share her thoughts with you.

Foreword to The Ant Hill Disaster by Michele Gay

On the evening of December 14, 2012, my husband and I were faced with the unimaginable task of telling our older daughters of our family’s loss.  Our precious daughter and their little sister, Josephine, had perished in the tragedy at her school, Sandy Hook Elementary.  

Though a mother and former elementary school teacher,  I grasped for words that could explain the events of that morning... but there were no words. 

What I did manage to say was that I knew our Joey was in heaven and we would find a way to carry on together. That we loved them, and so did she, that we would never allow her sparkling personality and loving spirit to be lost in this tragedy.  

We came together with family, friends, neighbors, and our community to defy this tragedy with our love.  

In the weeks following, we sent our daughters back to school, confident in the love and support they would receive in our community. I volunteered to stay. I wanted to deliver a message: that we were meant to carry on together. And so we began our journey.

Julia Cook’s Ant Hill Disaster honors this journey out of loss and into hope. She lights the path for the youngest of readers with words, colors, and a familiar setting that young children understand and need. Her adorable characters model team work, empathy, and compassion in a child-friendly story that may translate to a tragic event in their own community or another, man-made or natural.   

Ant Hill Disaster is a message of hope and love that will touch and inspire young children and the adults who love them.

     Michele Gay
     Mother of Josephine Gay, A Sandy Hook Angel
     Co-Founder of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative

Words to Comfort Us from The Ant Hill Disaster

“We breathe in and breathe out, we hold onto each other.
We shed a lot of tears, and we love one another.
We’ve all come together as a strong team of ONE,
 We’ve rebuilt our lives, and we’re get things done!
They say that when change happens, it makes everyone grow.
Our pain is never forgotten, this we all know.
But together we somehow are learning to cope.
Because disasters will NEVER diminish our hope!”

To me, it is an absolute must to align the information contained in my books with the best research-based topic information available. This led me to contact the ALICE Training Institute. For more information on disaster preparedness visit the ALICE website:

Julia is nationally recognized as an award-winning children’s book author and parenting expert. She holds a Master's Degree in Elementary School Counseling, and while serving as a guidance counselor, she often used children’s books to enhance her classroom lessons. Julia has written dozens of books that teach students to become life-long problem solvers and enable them to deal with difficult situations in their lives. She enjoys visiting schools and talking with kids; in fact, she's done over 800 school visits! You can learn more at her website,

December 7, 2013

Bring Some Passion Into Your Classroom!

Guest blog post by Jen Runde

Have you heard of Genius Hour? If you are looking for a way to bring a little more motivation, excitement, and real learning into your classroom, Genius Hour is the answer.

Genius Hour allows your students to explore their passions.  For one hour a week, they read, research, plan and design their passion projects. Students can take on any topic they are passionate about, and create a project they can share with the class, the school … the world!

Genius Hour is based on inquiry. Students need to develop a question related to their passion that they can research.  Simple questions that they can find the answer to easily should be discouraged.  Inquiry questions should lend themselves to the creation of a project – a passion project – at the end.  Projects can be media based (movie, slideshow, etc.), or something physical they build, design, or create.  At the completion of your Genius Hour timeline, these projects need to be shared with an audience. Throughout the entire process, students will be engaged in research, reading nonfiction articles, planning through graphic organizers, writing, and reflecting – all integral areas of our Language Arts curriculum.

I introduced Genius Hour in my classroom two weeks ago, and my students haven’t stopped talking about it. I dedicated a bulletin board space to it (well, actually a blackboard space because I’m out of bulletin board space).  This is where we will post our handouts and weekly inspirations.

For our first Genius Hour, I asked my students to close their eyes and think about something they were really passionate about.  I then handed out sticky notes and had them write down their passions and post them on our board.  I then showed them the video from Kid President, “A Pep Talk from Kid President.”

I also showed them the video found on the Genius Hour site. That video is aimed at teachers so I wouldn’t show it in a class with younger students, but it was perfect for my grade 5/6 students and it gave them a great overview of the project.

I then handed out a second sticky note (in a different colour) to each student and asked them to think about how they could turn their passion into a project – something they had a question about and could build a passion project on. They then posted this second sticky note on the board.

I gave each student a folder and small notebook to keep during the duration of our project. The notebook is for all our notes – graphic organizers, written research, written plans, and a weekly reflection. The folder is to keep any sheets or printed work they have. Their excitement about this project was evident when they immediately began to decorate their folder covers.

For our second Genius Hour, the students were to come with 2 possible inquiry questions for their passion projects that they have discussed with their parents. During this second genius hour, I met with each student to approve one of their ideas. I did have to work with a few students to tweak their questions to make them a little deeper, but most were ready and it was a smooth process. By the end of the class, each student had a question, a direction to head in, and a solid idea for their passion project. In our next genius hour, all students will be able to start on their research.

Some of the inquiry questions my grade 5/6 students have come up with are:
  • How were medieval castle walls constructed?  (passion project idea:  constructing a model of a castle wall)
  • Can I create new dessert recipes?  (passion project idea:  making a cookbook)
  • How do you make doll clothes?  (passion project idea:  a sketchbook of doll clothes and two handmade outfits)
  • What was the inspiration behind the movie, Star Wars?  (passion project idea:  a media movie or slideshow showcasing pictures and information)
  • Can I design my ideal bedroom?  (passion project idea:  an interior design board complete with swatches and furniture ideas, where to find or make items, and pricing options)
I am allowing my students to work at home on their projects (if they wish) as I am not assessing the final physical projects, but rather their process and presentation. If they are working at home, they do need to have all needed materials at school each week for Genius Hour.

Genius Hour has become MY passion project.  And if I continue to show and model that passion to my students, it will continue to motivate them. If this is something you are interested in doing in your classroom, you can make it work.  Timelines are flexible (we are taking 12 weeks (12 in-class hours) for our first projects. If we do a second project this year (which I am planning on), we will have a slightly shorter timeline. Class structure is also flexible. We are doing this whole group every Friday in our language block for our 12 weeks, but it can be built into your literacy centres, or completed during your computer lab time (if this is something you have).

You can get a copy of all the handouts I have given to my students HERE and HERE

I will also be posting a weekly update on my blog:  Runde’s Room (link:
  • Passion Projects in the Classroom – Week One 
  • Passion Projects – Week Two
You can click on any of the links in this post to get started on your own Genius Hour path.  It is hands-down the BEST addition to our classroom this year.  I hope I have inspired you to ignite that passion in your students.

Jennifer Runde is a teacher with twelve years of experience in the upper elementary grades.  She currently has a grade 5/6 class in Ontario, Canada.  She enjoys creating fun and interactive lessons that keep her students engaged in the learning process.  Follow her blog, Runde’s Room, to see what she has going on in her classroom, and find some fun ideas for math, literacy, and technology that you can implement in your own class.

November 10, 2013

Investigating Gummy Bears

Guest blog post by Amy Alvis

I was looking on Pinterest for a lab to use with my students to teach them the scientific method. The students will have science fair project to do at the end of the year and I wanted to take them step by step through the process so that they will know exactly what to do for their projects. 

I found a gummy bear science lab by Sue at Science for Kids: Adventures of an Elementary School Science Teacher. It is an awesome lab, but I wanted my students to have a more complex scientific method model to work with. Click the image below to download the lab worksheets I created for this activity.

I gave my students the question we were going to test: What solution will make the gummy bear increase its mass and length the most? Next, they came up with their hypothesis. Since we had not gotten to our physical science unit yet, I explained was a solution was. We then brainstormed ideas about what solutions they wanted to test. They decided to test sugar water, salt water, vinegar and water, lemon juice and water, food coloring and water, rubbing alcohol and water, and soda and water. 

We then discussed what materials we would need to conduct the lab (we added things as we did the lab and saw that additional things were needed). Next we discussed the control (plain water) and the variables. They listed the dependent variable (mass and length of gummy bear), the independent variable (the solute - what was added to the cup of water) and the constants (amount of water, amount of solute, and time the gummy bear will be in the solution)

We filled in the procedure as we did the lab. The students worked in group of 3 or 4. The first thing we did was find the mass and length of the gummy bears.

The students measured out 50 ml of water to put in each cup.

They then added the liquid/solid to create their solutions. We put in 1 T of each of the liquids and we added sugar and salt to the water until it was saturated. Make sure that the salt solution has reached its saturation point. The groups that didn't add enough salt didn't see the same results as the groups that did.

The students then added the gummy bears to the solutions and we let them sit overnight.

The next day, the students found the mass and length of the gummy bears after their overnight soak in the solutions.

They then recorded the information on their lab sheets.

 This was the first time I had done this lab and it surprised me that the gummy bears grew so much.

Once the data was collected on the lab sheets, we transferred the data to a chart that the students added to their science journals. Most groups found that the vinegar, lemons, and food coloring made the gummy bears gain the most mass.

They finished the lab by writing down their conclusions on the lab sheet. If you didn't download the lab sheets for this lesson, you can click this link to download them now. Thank you to Laura Candler for allowing me to do a guest post on her blog! 

Amy Alvis lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and teaches 5th and 6th grade math, science, and social studies. She is the creator of the blog Math, Science, and Social Studies .. Oh, My! You can find more free activities for these subject areas by visiting her blog.

October 25, 2013

200,000 Facebook Likes = 2 Giveaways!

Less than a month ago I hosted a giveaway when my Teaching Resources Facebook page hit 100,000 likes. Well, the crazy ride continues and it's soon going to hit 200,000 likes! What?? I am not even going to try to take credit, because I have no idea what's going on. One thing I do know is that the followers of my page are incredibly helpful and offer the best advice when teachers post questions. I'm inspired on a daily basis by the words of wisdom that are shared!

I think the fans of the page are pretty amazing, so I decided to do something to show my appreciation. I'm actually going to do two giveaways, and they'll both begin when the page hits 200,000 likes. Of course if the page hits that number during the night, you'll have to wait until the morning for the giveaways to start. :)

Update: The page hit 200,000 likes at 9 am on October 27th so the giveaways described below have ended.

Giveaway #1
Free October Mini Pack for ALL Fans!

I want everyone to win something, so when the page hits 200,000, I'll make my October Activities from Teaching Resources Mini Pack free for everyone to download for 24 hours! This mini pack is loaded with almost a dozen engaging activities to use in October. Most of the activities are for grades three through five, but if you teach a different grade, I hope you can adapt something. Each activity comes with directions and printables to make them quick and easy to use. When the magic number appears, come back to this page to download your free mini pack.  

Giveaway 2. Post It to Win It ($200 in Prizes)
10 Teachers Will Each Win $20 Worth of Teaching Resources

You've heard of "Pin It to Win It" contests, and I'm borrowing that idea with a twist. Instead of asking you to pin a product that would like to win, I'm asking you to post it on Facebook. Here's how to enter:
  1. Look through my TeachersPayTeachers store to decide which product you hope to win. Copy the URL of the page by right-clicking on it.
  2. Go to the Teaching Resources Facebook Page and find the Post It to Win It status update
  3. Write a comment on that status update telling me which item you would like to win and why you hope to win it. Then paste the URL into your comment so that it links to the product in my TpT store. If you can't post the link, maybe you haven't liked the page yet! :-)
  4. Remember that it has to be one of my products and not someone else's! If the item you win is worth less than $20, I'll let you choose additional items so that your total winnings add up to $20. 
  5. I'll let the giveaway run for a few hours and choose a winner. Be sure that your Facebook settings will allow me to message you because that's the only way I can contact you if you win.
How to Be Notified When the Giveaways Start

What if you miss the big announcement? It could happen because Facebook doesn't automatically send you all posts. To be sure you are seeing all of them, follow the steps shown on the right. Go to the Teaching Resources Facebook Page and like it if you haven't done so. Then hover over the Liked button and it will turn blue. Click the Settings link in the dropdown menu and then select All Updates.

Thanks for being a fan of Teaching Resources on Facebook. If you'd like to know more about the Facebook page and why I started it, please read last month's blog post where I introduced myself and wrote a little about what my Facebook page is ... and what it's not.

October 24, 2013

Exploring the Scientific Method with Toy Cars

Guest blog post by Ari Huddleston

Looking for some major student engagement? Teaching students about forces is a lot of fun because you can use toys! You can use playground equipment, pull-back cars, toy cars, marbles, balloon rockets, yo-yos, and spinning tops. During our study of force, my 5th grade classes completed a 2 day experiment using the scientific method to determine if mass affects the distance a toy car will travel down a ramp.  I wanted to focus specifically on science process skills with this activity.

My classes are still not ready to go through the scientific method independently, so we do parts together.  I will release them over time as they show they are ready for independence.  Students record everything in their science notebooks.

Day 1
  1. I gave students the question. 
  2. They wrote their own hypothesis in the format I prefer.  "If _______, then ________ because _______. 
  3. We shared hypotheses. 
  4. In groups, they discussed how the experiment should be set up.  I loved hearing many of my students insist on performing multiple trials. 
  5. We came back together to write the procedures. 
  6. They wrote the materials list by going through the procedures and seeing what is needed. 
  7. We discussed and identified the independent variable and dependent variable.  Some students are improving at this, but some still need help. 
  8. We discussed how data should be recorded. 
Day 2
  1. We reviewed students' lab team roles. {Download free lab team role cards here.}
  2. Students got to work conducting their experiment. There was 100% active engagement in all groups.
  3. Students worked on the bar graph of their data in groups.
  4. Students individually wrote their analysis of what they notice by looking at the data.  We always use a sentence stem of "I notice _______."
  5. Using a sentence stem, students wrote their conclusions.
  6. Students completed a reflection by drawing labeled diagrams of the experiment.

Was their data perfect? No. Did they get the same results? No. Were they scientists? Absolutely! This was a great opportunity for students to THINK and use their science process skills. Remember that science is not just about learning content, it's about experiencing the content!

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the procedures your students used?
  1. Set up a ramp.
  2. Tape a 1g gram cube to the back of the car.
  3. Roll it down the ramp and measure the distance from the bottom of the ramp to the back of the car.  Record your data.
  4. Repeat Step 3 two more times.
  5. Tape a 20g gram cube to the back of the car.
  6. Roll it down the ramp and measure the distance from the bottom of the ramp to the back of the car.  Record your data.
  7. Repeat Step 6 two more times.
What materials are needed for each group?
  • ramp, toy car (preferably a truck), measuring tape, tape, 1g cube, 20g cube
What results did your students get?
  • Well, they varied a bit. It was clear that the different masses affected the distance the toy car traveled. I had to work hard when I first started teaching to become comfortable with the idea that students will not always experience the exact thing we want them to experience, especially in science labs.  Make sure you have explanations for it and have tried the experiment yourself so you know what issues might arise. 
  • Any time an experiment does not go just the way it should is the perfect opportunity to discuss variables outside of their control, things students may have done to get inaccurate data, and how the experiment could be improved.
Thank you to Laura Candler for allowing my to do a guest post on her blog! I'm Ari from The Science Penguin.  I live in Austin, Texas and teach 3 classes of 5th grade science.

October 17, 2013

Teaching Children Not to Be Rude!

Guest Blog Post by Julia Cook

As a school counselor, I would often have kids come into my office and expect me to wave my magic counseling wand and solve their problems for them.  A good counselor, a good teacher, a good parent gives the wand to the child and teaches her how to wave it herself!

Rudeness is a learned behavior. Infants are born adorable, innocent, and teachable, but they are also selfish since all they know is their own tiny world. Without adults guiding them, they will never grow out of this self-centered perspective and will grow into rude children. It takes a village to help a child realize that the world is full of other people, and other people have feelings.  Having good social skills is necessary for school success. Good social skills affect how the child will do on the playground, in the classroom, in the future work place, and in life in general.

What causes people to be rude?
Before we can help students overcome rudeness and learn to be more caring, it’s helpful to understand why people are rude. According to The Civility Solution – What to Do When People are Rude, by P.M. Farni,  there are 11 causes of rudeness:
  • Individualism and a lack of restraint – I’ll do it my way and I don’t care about what you think!
  • Inflated self-worth – People who are self-absorbed don’t value others except as a means to fill needs and desires.
  • Low self-worth – Being hostile and defensive is often a sign of insecurity
  • Materialism – The quest for money and possessions is more important than showing kindness
  • Injustice –An injustice may create feelings of envy, demoralization, depression, or outrage.
  • Stress – People who are overworked or overwhelmed may be indifferent to those around them.
  • Anonymity – If I don’t know you, it doesn’t matter how I treat you.
  • Not needing others – We are becoming content with electronic isolation
  • Mental health problems
  • Anger
  • Fear
How do we teach children not to be rude?
We fail to guide and protect our children when we don’t teach them manners and respect for other people. One of the most valuable tools that we can give kids is the ability to connect with and relate to others. Rudeness damages others by creating stress, eroding self-worth, creating relationship problems, and making life difficult.  When we are treated rudely by others, we often become vulnerable and self-doubting.  Teaching children to be polite is not an all or none, but a continuum. Teaching a child just one single strategy toward politeness will better that child!
  • Start by setting a zero tolerance for rudeness in your classroom. Explain to your students that it is your job to help them grow to become the best that they can be. Let students know that rudeness is a damaging learned behavior, and you can and will teach them to unlearn it!
  • When you see a child acting rudely, go back to the list above and try to figure out why they are choosing to act that way. If you can figure out the cause, it is much easier to develop the most effective solution. Use incidences of rudeness as teaching opportunities to better your students.
  • Model politeness in every way possible – you are their coping instructor! If you are ever rude, recognize your behavior publically to your class and apologize.
  • Show and feel empathy – based on the cards that child was dealt in life, he may be playing the best hand that he can to win the game of life. Teach children from where they are in the world, not from where you expect them to be.
  • Read stories to your class that model positive behavior that counteracts rudeness. Have students point out how the characters acted rudely and discuss why they may have chosen to act that way, if they knew they were being rude, and what they did to overcome their rudeness.) Often times, if a child in a story book has a problem and learns to solve the problem, the reader can identify with the strategies used in the book and apply them in real life.

Your Thoughts are Private, but Behavior is Public
I often tell kids that “Your thoughts are private, but behavior is public.”  You can think whatever you want to think, but the minute you let your thoughts out of your head through your words or your actions, they become public information. A great visual to explain this is the Toothpaste Squirt.

Toothpaste Squirt Lesson

Materials Needed:
  • Small tube of toothpaste
  • Small plate
  1. Choose one student to come forward and squirt all of the toothpaste onto the plate.
  2. Ask the student if he/she can then put all of the toothpaste back into the tube.
  3. Explain that once the toothpaste comes out of the tube, you cannot get it all back in.  This is much like a put-down or rude comment.  Once a put-down comes out of my mouth and goes into your ears, I cannot take it back.
  4. Go onto explain that for each put-down a human hears, they must hear 10 pull-ups (or sincere compliments) to get back to where they were emotionally prior to the put down.  (i.e. if a child gets 3 put downs in one day, he must get 30 compliments to get back to where he was…30!)
  5. Reiterate that thoughts are private, but behavior is public and the next time you think about giving a put down, think again and screw your lid to your toothpaste tube on tight!
The most important skill that we can teach children to help them succeed in life is the ability to get along with others in society. To do that, it takes a village. If we fail, the rest of the world will let us know, and our kids will be subjected to a life of ridicule, isolation, and despair. As a teacher…you are your students’ coping instructor! Model politeness, say NO to rudeness and keep making a positive difference!

Julia is nationally recognized as an award-winning children’s book author and parenting expert. She holds a Master's Degree in Elementary School Counseling, and while serving as a guidance counselor, she often used children’s books to enhance her classroom lessons. Julia has written dozens of books that teach students to become life-long problem solvers. Many of her books can be used to teach kids not to be rude, including Cell Phoney, My Mouth is a Volcano, Teamwork Isn’t My Thing and I Don’t Like to Share, and I Want to Do it My Way! She enjoys visiting schools and talking with kids; in fact, she's done over 800 school visits! You can learn more at her website, Julia will also be presenting two sessions at the Elementary School Conference next week. 

October 4, 2013

7 Reasons to Incorporate Movement, Songs, and Stories into Your Teaching

Guest blog post by Steve Reifman

Several years ago I started reading about the results of recent brain research and its implications for student learning. The more books I read, the more my interest in this topic grew. Before long I came across a wide variety of recommended teaching practices, and I eagerly incorporated them into my classroom instruction. Without fail, three types of effective, brain-friendly strategies consistently stood out as unusually engaging and powerful - those involving movement, songs, and stories.

Children simply reacted differently to lessons and activities that included elements of movement, songs, and stories. In fact, the entire classroom environment became transformed and the learning gains immediately evident. Because of my belief in the promise of movement, songs, and stories as learning catalysts, I began a quest to find, adapt, and create as many activities as possible that incorporated these elements. In this post I describe seven reasons why these types of activities have such a strong impact on both student learning and the classroom environment.

I want you to have access to the activities I describe below, so I'm offering a free sampler of my new book that includes these lessons mentioned below. You may want to download the Rock It! Transform Classroom Learning with Movement, Songs, and Stories Sampler and refer to it as you read about the strategies.

  1. Forges an Emotional Connection
    Educator Jeff Haebig explains that emotions drive attention and attention drives learning. Activities that include movement, songs, and stories resonate with children on an emotional level, engage them deeply, and enable them to make a personal connection with academic content. As a result, they pay closer attention and remember more. One of my favorite examples is “The Story of Peri Meter” because kids love hearing about this unique individual whose personality helps them understand the concept of perimeter.  
  2. Builds Self-Esteem
    Students who tend to experience difficulty with more traditional forms of learning usually find greater success with activities that incorporate movement, songs, and stories. For example, I have found that participating in “The Synonym-Antonym Sidestep” and “The Jumping Game” (see sampler) will do more to help children learn synonyms and antonyms than several days’ worth of paper-and-pencil instruction on the same topic. With this greater success comes greater confidence and improved self-esteem. We, as teachers, can capitalize on these moments of success to create a carryover effect to other parts of the school day.
  3. Improves Team Bonding
    Many kids are fortunate enough to experience the happiness and satisfaction that come from being a valued member of a successful team - playing Little League baseball, performing in a youth orchestra, or acting in a school play. Our classrooms can provide the same kind of bonding experience with the addition of activities that incorporate movement, songs, and stories. Students feel a greater sense of “connectedness” to the class and to one another. I have noticed this to be especially true when we sing “The Book Parts Song,” and our other learning tunes.
  4. Adds Novelty
    As adults, we appreciate a clever turn of phrase on a billboard or a unique combination of ingredients on a restaurant menu. The same holds true with children and their classroom learning. Activities that include movement, songs, and stories score high on novelty value, and kids love it when their teachers present information in a way that is a bit out of the ordinary or off the wall. For example, my student love it when I wear a Hawaiian shirt and play Hawaiian music as I describe the “Multiplication Hula” strategy for correctly placing the decimal point when doing multiplication problems involving money.
  5. Involves Multiple Learning Modalities
    Typical paper-and-pencil schoolwork addresses only two of the “intelligences” popularized by Howard Gardner, the linguistic and logical-mathematical. Movement, songs, and stories also address these intelligences and bring into play the bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and spatial, among others. The more modalities we reach, the more successful students will be. We hit the “Teaching Grand Slam” when children participate in activities, such as “Place Value Jumping Jacks,” in which they see, say, hear, and move through the content at the same time.
  6. Creates Memorable Experiences
    Educator Dave Burgess says, “Lessons are quickly forgotten; experiences are remembered forever.” Infusing classroom activities with movement, songs, and stories turns potentially dry academic lessons into engaging, multi-modal experiences that kids will remember and talk about with their family and friends. For example, my students’ ability to locate ordered pairs on a coordinate grid increased dramatically when I stopped providing mere explanations and started taking the class on a “virtual field trip” to the local farmer’s market where they could walk through an actual grid and select fruits and vegetables of their own.
  7. Increases Enthusiasm for Learning
    In addition to all the other academic and social-emotional benefits I have described, these activities are an absolute blast. Playing active games, singing songs, and sharing stories puts smiles on children’s faces, enriches their days with excitement and joy, and helps make school a happy place for them.   
Teaching is a difficult, demanding job, and we need to find pleasure in our work to be at our best in the classroom. Movement, songs, and stories can really help our students learn, and what’s even better, we can all have fun along the way. These activities create situations where children are completely focused and well-behaved, work with purpose, and learn enthusiastically. I’m not sure how we can beat that.

Steve Reifman is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher, author, and speaker with almost 20 years of classroom experience. He has a Master’s degree in education from UCLA, and has traveled to Japan as a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar. Steve has written several books, including an award-winning middle-grades mystery novel, Chase Against Time. His newest book for educators, Rock It! Transform Classroom Learning through Music, Songs, and Stories has just been published by Brigantine Media. Check out Steve's website at

September 25, 2013

Walls for Language Learners

Use of Space that Fosters Success
Guest blog post by Krista Carlson

For many of us teachers, it happens at the beginning of every school year. We walk into our classrooms for the first time after a summer away, feeling a bit overwhelmed by those four blank walls staring back at us. We have a variety of visions as to what we imagine our classroom looking like when the hustle and bustle of the year gets under way and all of those once empty walls have been long since covered time and again.

This being said, it is incredibly important throughout this process that we take a moment to step back and think about how those four walls (which seem to shrink each year) can be utilized to their utmost potential. The walls in our classroom should not simply be a place for enhancing the aesthetic feel of the room, but rather spaces strategically organized for students to use as resources throughout the year.

This idea of "walls for learning" is not new one, but a key one for teachers to remember. It is also an idea that is beyond essential in classrooms full of students who are language learners.

So let's start at the beginning... In all honesty, to start off the school year, your walls should be relatively bare. Yes, you should have a plan and quite possibly some titles on them sharing what will be going there, but everything else should be authentically created by and with your students as the year progresses. Here is a glimpse as to what this may then look like on the first day of school.

Still inviting right? But also, completely open for the world of possibilities the year will bring!

Now one may ask, what is it that I should be planning and beginning to pin on these classroom walls to start off on the right foot. Here are a few ideas that we consider to be "non-negotiables" in our Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms. Keep in mind many of these can and should be carried over to monolingual classrooms as well!

1. Content Walls

Walls in your room should be set aside for each of the content areas that are taught (math, science, reading, writing, etc.). These are places where vocabulary, anchor charts, etc. reflecting the content should be added as covered. Furthermore, pictures, photos, realia and any other examples of the concept should be placed right next to it on these walls as a another piece that students can utilize to connect meaning to text. Here is an example of a Science/Social studies content wall from a teacher in our district:
It is important to note that the items you place on the content wall should also be in the language of instruction for that particular subject area!

2. Word Study Walls

In all classrooms there should also be places dedicated to the study of words and their components. In Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms this space should be in tact for each language of instruction. However, these walls may look different depending on the grade level. In the lower primary grades, teachers may want to organize these walls alphabetically (more similar to the traditional word wall style). In the later primary/intermediate grades, teachers may want to look toward organizing these word walls more by concept covered (i.e. long vowel patterns, digraphs, contractions, etc.). Here is an example of an English wall organized by concept:

3. Cognate Wall

A Cognate Wall is a helpful space for any classroom with language learners. Cognates are words that sound similar and have a similar meaning in two different languages. For instance, "chocolate" while pronounced a bit differently, is spelled the same in both English and Spanish and means the same thing. Having a place where you can share words with these commonalities in your room will remind learners of a new language that they can utilize their knowledge of their primary language to assist them in understanding the second. It is always a good idea to try and separate your languages by using a different colored sentence strip, marker, etc. to highlight for students which is which on the wall.

4. Bridging Wall

Bridging Walls have a similar purpose to Cognate Walls, but take the idea of making connections between languages a bit further. After the completion of a unit of study in Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms the teacher may conduct a "bridge" lesson. This is a time in which the teacher works to connect the unit vocabulary, concepts, etc. from the language in which the unit was instructed to the other language. For instance, if I taught a unit in Mathematics on two-dimensional shapes in Spanish, at the conclusion of my unit, I may spend a day or more working with my students to introduce them to the vocabulary we have learned in English as well. No new content is being taught - just the vocabulary in the second language!

The "Bridge" is also a time is which a teacher could point out some explicit similarities and differences between the two languages found in your discussion of these content words. Thus, any anchor charts sharing these connections highlighted should be placed onto your Bridging Wall for students to reflect back on! Here is an example of one of these anchor charts that a teacher created with her students after a math unit in which she highlighted the vocabulary in both languages and then focused on suffixes and how they are similar in both English and Spanish.

It is important to note that Cognate and Bridging Walls are truly the only two places where the two languages are being used side-by-side. All other walls highlighted above should be done in the language of instruction for that particular subject area.

5. Other Walls

There are a variety of other wall spaces that you may also want to create and fill based on your students particular needs. In the past, I have had an "Accent Wall" highlighting words with accents and where they are placed in Spanish. I have also had an "Articles Wall" denoting the different uses of the "el" and "la" articles in the Spanish language. I have seen other teachers create an Antonym and Synonym Wall, a Homophone Wall, a Dialect Wall, you name it! The possibilities are truly endless, as long as the focus remains the same- that they are "walls for learning".

Your classroom walls should truly be places that you and your students visit daily as resources. They should be interactive and spaces in which your students feel comfortable using. The list I have shared above are merely suggestions as to how one may do this in his/her classroom- you must figure out what works for your students, you, and your district!

Now that you have your classroom up and running this school year, I encourage you to think deeply about how you have set up your space...and ask yourself...Does each space have a place in the successful development of my students learning this school year?
Krista Carlson is the author of The Second Grade Superkids blog where she works to highlight best practices, lesson ideas, and products for Dual Language and Bilingual teachers. She was a dual language elementary educator for the past five years, two years at the 1st grade level and three years at 2nd grade. She is currently the Dual Language/ELL Coach for her building.

Thanks to the folks at WiseDecor for helping me connect with Krista and making it possible to share her terrific ideas here. WiseDecor believes in the power of words for education and encouragement. They shared with me that they're glad to have played a role in bringing the valuable insights in this article to teachers who are key leaders in life's ongoing task of learning.

September 5, 2013

Make Your Mark on International Dot Day!

Have you heard about International Dot Day? It's celebrated on September 15th, and it's all about encouraging kids to discover how they can make a difference. Why is it called "Dot Day"? To find out, read the book that inspired this special day!

The Dot, written by Peter Reynolds, is a short picture book suitable for all ages. It's the story Vashti, who became upset in art class because she didn't think she could draw. Her teacher challenged her to "Just make a mark and see where it takes you." So Vashti defiantly jabbed the paper and made a dot, and what happened after that shows how one simple act can snowball into something big.

If you haven't read the book, you can listen to a quick YouTube video of it before you read this post. If you like it, order a copy of The Dot now so you'll have it in time for Dot Day!

The Dot is a simple book, but it's definitely one with a message to share. Actually, it has several important messages. Children will be able to relate to the central theme about "making a mark" and making a difference. As a teacher, I was also reminded about how important it is for us to support our students and believe in them. Vashti's teacher honored her simple dot by framing the signed picture, and this small bit of encouragement was enough to help Vashti discover a hidden talent.

International Dot Day Resources
I had heard from several friends about International Dot Day, so after I read The Dot, I began looking for resources online to support this event. Boy, did I find them! Peter Reynolds is the founder of Fablevision Learning, and they've created a website full of resources for teachers to use when reading the book to students and celebrating Dot Day. The best place to begin is the "Getting Started" page, and from there you can follow a link to a page where you can download this amazing free Educator's Handbook. It's 16 pages long and includes a letter of introduction from Peter Reynolds and a great collection of ideas for celebrating International Dot Day. Here are some other ideas to get you started.

Ideas for Celebrating Dot Day or Dot Week:
  • Read The Dot and discuss the themes in the book with your students. To help foster this discussion, I created a set of eight free prompts on task cards that you can to use as a jumping off point for discussion. Don't feel you need to use them all; look through the set to find the ones that are appropriate for your students. You may want discuss them in a whole group setting first, and you can use them as writing prompts later or have students use them in small groups with the Talking Sticks discussion strategy. Click the image below or this link to download these free discussion cards.
  • Use some of the suggestions in the Educator's Handbook to have students create dot artwork individually or with a group. Since I'm a big fan of cooperative learning, I especially liked the Buddy Dot idea on page 9. What a unique idea!
  • Participate in Skype in the Classroom activities for Dot Day. See page 13 in the Educator's Handbook for details.
  • Use Technology to Animate Dot Drawings - If you have an iPad with a camera, students can use technology to bring their colored dot drawings to life. Read this blog post about the free ColAR app that can transform 2D coloring pages into 3D animations. It's absolutely amazing, and I know that students will love seeing their own artwork transformed this way! Be sure to watch the short video demonstration to see how it works. The app is free and the Dot Day coloring page is free, too. 

More Dot Day Ideas from Suzy Brooks
Third grade teacher Suzy Brooks has been celebrating International Dot Day for several years. She's now an ambassador for Fablevision Learning because she enjoys spreading the word about their inspirational resources. Visit her blog, Third Graders Dreaming Big, to read about her celebrations in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and see her terrific classroom photos. She promises to write about her celebration this year after it takes place because she wants to be able to include photos the activities in her post. If you have celebrated this event in the past or have special plans for celebrating it this year, please share your tips and strategies with us. It's one small way you can make your mark!