July 12, 2013

Creating a Caring Classroom Family

Guest blog post by Barbara Gruener

Now that it's time for a new school year to begin, life finds me increasingly eager for the first day to arrive. My students and I will be blessed with approximately nine months together; how do we want to spend that dash between August of this year and May of next year? Since we'll be spending so much time together, I believe it's important to take time to create a caring classroom community that works together like a family. Taking a look at the word "family" gives us insight into what's needed to create that kind of caring and supportive environment.

F is for Feelings 
Children need to be allowed to feel. They need to feel safe. They need to feel connected. They need to feel heard and understood. And they need permission to express those feelings. Let students know that feelings choose us and are neither right nor wrong. Our job is to learn to process feelings appropriately. Encourage students to keep a feelings journal. Chart their feelings whenever you can. Talk about feelings in morning meetings. Connect them to characters in literature and heroes in history. Practice “I statements” with your students for healthy feelings expression:  I feel _____ when you _____. I need _____.

A is for Appreciation
Gratitude and thankfulness aren’t inherited, they are learned. Author Ann Voskamp says our lives are richer when we’re thankful in all things and that “gratitude always precedes the miracle.” Keep blank thank-you note cards available in a writing center to encourage students to share their appreciations. How do you teach students to not only accept, but appreciate differences in each other? Use books like Unique Monique by Maria Rousaki to celebrate differences. Then discuss appreciation ritually. A morning meeting discussion might start like this, "I appreciate Laura for her willingness to share her resources and help people." Encourage your students to be on the look out for daily opportunities to appreciate classroom family members. Ms. Voskamp also suggests we make sure students write their appreciations down since naming something tends to authenticate it.

M is for Music 
Music is a unifying activity. We can’t all talk at the same time, but we can all sing at the same time. Music also tends to seal the deal because rhythms and lyrics stick with students. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience (Jan. 2013) from student research out of Concordia Universite in Canada suggests that early musical training has a significant effect on brain development, in particular creating stronger connections with gross and fine motor movement. According to John Ratey, author of the bestseller Spark, exercise is “miracle gro for the brain,” so combine meaningful movement with music and give students frequent brain breaks to grow their grey matter. Pick a theme song with uplifting lyrics for the year {Home by Phillip Phillips} then get up and dance. You know what they say; the family that plays together stays together!

I is for Integrity 
Integrity is all about being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. But when students come to our school families with all different backgrounds, how will they know what the “right thing” is? It’s crucial to your caring classroom climate that you and your students work together to create a class family promise, or social contract, delineating the values that you all promise to practice. Connect specific behaviors to these abstract virtues so that students can better understand how the values you’ve agreed upon look, sound, and feel. Seize teachable moments, like when there’s a conflict, to have sensitivity circle time and talk through how they want to treat one another and what might need to happen before moving forward. Your family classroom will be an excellent training ground for lifelong social skills that your students will use for years and years to come. Make sure that the values aren’t simply posted on a cute contract that everyone has signed, but that they serve as the classroom code that you refer to over and over again as you travel through the days, months, and year.

L is for Love 
This one might seem way too obvious, but to use the words from an old Beatles ballad:  All We Need Is Love. When children feel loved, when they truly belong, when what matters to them is important to you, the world is their oyster. And as you read, that may sound cliché and way too simplistic, but it is, indeed, oh so true. Here’s the glitch; there are always going to be students that are {gasp!} hard to love. You know it’s true. So the challenge is to find a way to make each one of them your favorite. We know that what we focus on, we get more of, so we must love them where they are for who they can become.

 Y is for Yearning
One of your biggest tasks is to create life-long learners who hunger for knowledge and thirst for wisdom. How will you inspire passion in your little sponges? One way to do that is by giving them voice and choice, every day. When we give children choice in their learning, we step out of lecture mode and into the role of a coach. And guess what happens? Choices trigger the release of endorphins, the brain's optimal thinking chemical. Once ignited, these chemicals fire up motivation, create feelings of positivity, and foster an optimistic attitude. (Ornstein, 1991) Optimism might very well be our greatest renewable natural resource; who wouldn’t want that level of confidence and well-being in our future leaders?

While this list is by no means exhaustive, let it serve as a good starting block as you dash into another year and work at creating that all-important, family-like atmosphere where children feel safe, appreciated, respected, and loved. Here’s to a terrific time connecting in your character building.
Though she started her education career as a high school English and Spanish teacher almost 30 years ago, Barbara Gruener now serves a counselor and character coach at a PreK-3rd grade National School of Character in Friendswood, Texas. When she's not blogging at The Corner On Character, she enjoys public speaking opportunities, reading, journaling, knitting, and baking. 

July 6, 2013

Solving Unknown Perimeter Mysteries

Mystery Perimeters Freebie Lesson

Perimeter is a pretty simple concept to grasp, but finding unknown sides of irregular polygons can be challenging for kids. Solving these types of problems requires the ability to think logically and somewhat abstractly. Fortunately, we can help students make the transition from concrete to abstract with a hands-on lesson that allows them to make those connections.

Earlier this week I finished writing Exploring Perimeter, a CCSS aligned, comprehensive resource for teaching perimeter. When I finish a new book, I like to offer a free sample lesson, and I selected Mystery Perimeters to share as a freebie. This lesson presents the unknown side problems as “perimeter mysteries,” a fun twist on a traditional assignment. You can download the lesson from my TeachersPayTeachers store, but be sure to return to this blog post to pick up some valuable tips for using this activity. The free version of Mystery Perimeters uses inches, but the one you’ll find in Exploring Perimeter also includes a variation that uses centimeters.

Tips for Teaching Mystery Perimeters
When I was almost finished with Exploring Perimeter, I recruited some field testers and reviewers to ensure that the book was rock solid. Joy Darden, an upper elementary teacher in NC, shared some really useful tips for teaching the Mystery Perimeters lesson, and I want to pass them along to you.

When Joy introduces this lesson, she shows her students how to identify the pairs of opposite parallel sides by coloring them the same color. All horizontal sides are colored one color and vertical sides are colored a different color. In the illustration on the right, all vertical lines are outlined in green and the horizontal lines are in blue. If you project the demo page onto an interactive whiteboard, you can use your colored drawing tools to demonstrate. You can also give students their own copies of this page and colored pencils to follow along and practice with you.

Next, Joy shows her students how they can use addition and subtraction to find the missing sides. Having the lines color coded helps them to decide which ones are needed to determine the lengths of each missing side. For example, in the top polygon, you can find the length of the missing horizontal line by subtracting 3 inches from the total length of the opposite side, which is 5 inches, to arrive at a length of 2 inches. In the bottom polygon, you can add the lengths of the known vertical sides on the left, 2 inches plus 1 inch, to arrive at a length of 3 inches for the missing side. After students figure out the missing sides, they add to find the total perimeter as usual.

Another way to solve missing side perimeter problems is to divide the polygon into rectangles as shown on the Mystery Perimeters Demo Hints page shown on the right. By dividing the polygon into rectangles, you can infer the lengths of the missing sides. You can also combine the color-coding strategy with this method.

Another reviewer, Ann Sullivan, pointed out that with some of the more complex shapes, you may have to divide the shape into more than three rectangles. Yet the basic concept is still the same.

If this kind of reasoning is too difficult for your students, you can display the demo page that shows the figures on a 1-inch grid. Because the polygons are drawn to scale, you can also have your students measure the sides with a ruler to find the missing lengths. (Note: When you print the pages, make sure the printer settings are set to "Actual" and not "Fit to Page." If your printer shrinks the pages, the polygons will not be accurately drawn to scale.)

Remember that you can download this Mystery Perimeters lesson, absolutely free, from my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Exploring Perimeters – Step by Step
If you like Mystery Perimeters, why not preview Exploring Perimeter to see what the entire book has to offer? All thirteen lessons include a teacher direction page with Common Core Standards, printables, and answers.

Exploring Perimeter is organized in sequential order according to skill level to make it easy to teach perimeter for deep understanding. When you develop these concepts in a step-by-step manner, students are far more likely to grasp those concepts and retain them. As one student who tested the materials said, "Last year I got every one wrong when you had to find the missing number. This is much easier to figure out because it goes one part at a time."  Now that’s high praise indeed!