December 27, 2014

Awesome Upper Elementary Teacher Connection Facebook Group!

If you're an upper elementary teacher who loves what you do, I invite you to join the Upper Elementary Teacher Connection, a private Facebook group. It's a virtual meeting room where educators can connect and collaborate to share their passion for teaching. Our members discuss active engagement teaching strategies and innovative instructional approaches, and they collaborate on classroom projects like pen pals or postcard exchanges. Click here to find out how to join this group!

Learn how to join one of Laura Candler's Teacher Connection groups on Facebook, two private groups for elementary teachers who love what they do!

December 11, 2014

3 Strategies to Conquer Math Word Problems

Guest post by Kady Dupre

Here’s a word problem for you:
Miss Friday’s class does a daily word problem. Ten of her students are great at word problems involving addition, and only 7 seem to understand subtraction word problems. Five of her students are bored with the easy problems. Thirteen students are still struggling with basic math facts and 3 have trouble reading the word problems at all. How many of her students are engaged and learning?

Here’s a better question: “How do you grow confident and effective problem solvers?”

Why Students Struggle 
with Math Word Problems
Students struggle with math word problems for many reasons, but three of the biggest I’ve encountered include:

Issue #1: Student Confidence For many students, just looking at a word problem leads to anxiety. No one can think clearly with a sense of dread or fear of failure looming!
Issue #2: Flexible Thinking Many kids are taught to solve word problems methodically, with a prescriptive step-by-step plan using key words that don’t always work. Plans are great, but not when students use them as a crutch rather than a tool. Today’s standardized tests and real-world applications require creative thinking and flexibility with strategies.
Issue #3: Differentiation Teachers want students to excel quickly and often push too fast, too soon. In the case of word problems, you have to go slow to go fast. Just like in Guided Reading, you’ll want to give lots of practice with “just-right” problems and provide guided practice with problems just-above the students’ level. 

Conquer math word problems with engaging classroom strategies that counteract the above issues! 

1. Teach a Problem-Solving Routine  

Kids (and adults) are notoriously impulsive problem solvers. Many students see a word problem and want to immediately snatch out those numbers and “do something” with them. When I was in elementary school, this was actually a pretty reliable strategy! But today, kids are asked to solve much more complex problems, often with tricky wording or intentional distractors.

Grow flexible thinkers and build confidence by teaching a routine. A problem solving routine simply encourages students to slow down and think before and after solving. I’ve seen lots of effective routines but my favorites always include a “before, during, and after” mindset.

To make the problem solving routine meaningful and effective:
  • Use it often (daily if possible) 
  • Incorporate “Turn & Teach” (Students orally explain their thinking and process to a partner.) 
  • Allow for “Strategy Share” after solving (Selected students explain their method and thinking.)

2. Differentiate Word Problems  

No, this doesn’t mean to write a different word problem for every student! This can be as simple as adjusting the numbers in a problem or removing distractors for struggling students.

Scaffolding word problems will grow confidence and improve problem solving skills by gradually increasing the level difficulty as the child is ready. This is especially effective when you are trying to teach students different structures of word problems to go with a certain operation.

For example, comparison subtraction problems are very challenging for some students. By starting with a simple version, you allow students to focus on the problem itself, rather than becoming intimidated or frustrated.

I've had great success in using scaffolded problems with my guided math groups. After solving the easier problem, students realize that it’s not that tricky and are ready to take on the tougher ones!

3. Compare Problems Side-by-Side 

To develop flexible thinking, nothing is more powerful than analyzing and comparing word problems. Start by using problems that have similar stories and numbers, but different problem structures. Encourage conversation, use visual representations, and have students explain the difference in structure and operation. Here's an example showing student work on two similar problems about monkeys. Click here to download a blank copy of these problems. My freebie includes several variations to help you differentiate.

Use these three strategies to get kids thinking and talking about their problem solving strategies while building that “oh-so-important” confidence, and you CAN conquer math word problems!

Kady Dupre has worked as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and intervention teacher in elementary grades. She loves creating learning resources for students and teachers. She authors Teacher Trap, a blog aimed at sharing her challenges, successes, and insights as a teacher.

December 10, 2014

30 Free or Inexpensive Gift Ideas for Students

Advice from Real Teachers

Giving gifts is one of the joys of December, but if you have a large class and a small budget, it can be challenging to give gifts to all of your students. Read on for some terrific ideas!

Today's Question
Normally I share a question from a fan of the Teaching Resources Facebook page, but today's question was my own. I posed the following challenge to Facebook fans: "Do you give your students any sort of gift before the holidays? Let's brainstorm some easy options, especially gifts that are inexpensive (or free)." Over 250 educators responded with great suggestions! I compiled the answers and removed duplicate responses to come up with the list below.

30 Student Gift Ideas
Here are my picks for the top 30 gift ideas in no particular order. Most of them do involve a small cost, but some are free. If you want to read all 250+ tips, you'll find that question here on the Teaching Resources Facebook page.
  1. Amanda Flickinger - Here is my favorite: go to the dollar store and buy the elf/Santa hats. Use glitter puff paints to write their names. The kids freak out. They love them so much and don't want to take them off!
  2. Amanda Duseberg - I give a small box of crayons with a poem that talks about how we are like crayons, all different colors but together we make a complete picture.
  3. Kathy Wylie - Have the class write down each student's name and at least one thing they admire/like about the student.  Then you make Wordle collage with the words and print it out in color for each student.   If you want to get fancy you could mount on construction paper.
  4. Karen Esdale-Brown - I melt down the broken classroom crayons into Christmas cookie cutter shapes.
  5. Kerri Grooby - Reindeer food, cut circles of material about dinner plate size place a hand full of bird seed mixed with a little glitter, scrunch the material up so it looks like I little pouch and tie with string, attach some Christmas ribbon and a label to tell the children to sprinkle on the grass on Christmas Eve to ensure the reindeers stop by x
  6. Kimberly Price - I buy a shower board from Home Depot. They cut it for teachers at no cost. I have it cut into squares for personal whiteboards.  I use puff paint to write their names on them and give them a dry erase marker.  (I also give them a book from Scholastic)
  7. Anne Williams - I give a coupon usually for 5 or 10 extra points on any assignment or test. Free & the kids love it! I teach middle schoolers.
  8. Heather Rea - I order dice in bulk and little jewelry pouches. I put 6 dice in each. I print out and laminate Farkle instructions and a score card. This would work with any dice game.  Reinforces math skills and it's fun!
  9. Karen Richau - I give them a sheet that has a gift for January through May: January, cozy day dress down, February, half day of reading, March, afternoon of playing board games, April, homework pass, May, half hour of recess. I run this by my principal and she generally approves it. I roll it up and attach a candy cane and Christmas pencil. They love it.
  10. Tracy Wood -  My class always gets snowman soup. If you Google the idea a template will come up to print. You fill a small baggie with hot chocolate, marshmallows and broken candy cane pieces. The kids take it home put it into a cup and pour hot water over. All the little pieces float to the top. It's not too expensive and they LOVE it!
  11. Carol Ann Henthorne - Last year, for my 5th graders, I had each student write something nice about each other student. I typed them out, cut them into strips, curled with scissors, and inserted them into glass ornaments.  They loved reading all the comments from their classmates! This year I am adding a vinyl cutout from my silhouette to put on the ornament.
  12. Erin Duarte - I buy simple ball ornaments (I use the glass ones, but for younger kids you could use plastic) and with a silver or gold Sharpie write their name with the year then write "Love, Mrs. Duarte" and tie a ribbon on  it. They are so simple, but I have kids come back and tell me they still have their ornament 13 years later. I usually put it in a cellophane bag with a holiday pencil, a homework pass, and a candy cane.
  13. Victoria Schoenly - I'm a specialist now serving 750 students, so no longer give presents, but back when I had my own classroom, I would make grid logic puzzles using my students' names in the clues/puzzle--usually 5 or 6 puzzles would be enough to include everyone.  Then I'd make a cute cover and photocopy the booklets front and back on colored paper.  They always seemed to love the booklets and would look eagerly through all the puzzles for their names.  They also got a homework pass if they brought it back completed after the holidays. Aside from my time, my only expense was some colored photocopy paper.
  14. Alona Chastain - $1 books through Scholastics with a candy cane
  15. Lori Hanson - I greet them one morning during the week before the winter holiday with a donut and cup of hot cocoa.
  16. Amy Larson -  Coupon books for free time, sit by a friend, no homework, first in line, etc. 2nd graders love them.  I tie them on a fun Christmas themed pencil or candy cane.  
  17. Joyce Merchant - Gloves from dollar tree (request from students themselves)
  18. Maureen Chenard - For middle school and high school.  I do a raffle for all three of my blocks.  I have 84 kids this year.  I'll pick up Arizona teas, over-sized Hershey bars, extra-large boxes of skittles, Reese's pieces, Mike n Ike's, etc. I usually spend about $10 for each block on the candy n teas.  Then I buy 3 $5 Starbucks cards (1 to raffle off in each block).  I also have a large container of sour patch or jolly ranchers, and miscellaneous pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners, etc that I've collected or had donated over the years for any student who didn't get a raffle item. Often times the kids even bring in extra items to raffle off.  This is my fourth year in middle school, it's been a hit so far.
  19. Reuben Hks - I always buy each of my students a book from Scholastic. Each month, they have a book in the book club that is $!, so I buy one of those for each student. Then they each have at least one book to read during the break, and they are all reading the same book, so we can discuss it when we return from break.
  20. Christine Skaggs - In the past, I've bought large packages of the individual microwave popcorns throughout the year and put out a basket of mandarin oranges/clementines, as well as any other healthy food that I could buy cheap in large amounts.  They are able to take what they like.  My older students received a pass for homework or some project.  One year I bought scarves/ knit stretchy gloves from Walmart at the end of the season and gave them away the following year.
  21. Jane Smith - I order the 3 pack of pencils with their name engraved for $1 apiece. The students are amazed how I got their names on them. This also settles the “can't find my pencil” dilemma for about a month. (Order from
  22. Geneva Goodney - We give a page of coupons per subject area (LA, SS, Science, Math) with a free homework pass, one day late pass, 15 minutes of computer time, shoes off, add 5 points to a quiz grade/daily grade), use as a 3 point bonus on a test/major grade) and our students love it! We also have a book exchange with a new/gently used favorite book. We always have extra books for students who forget or cannot purchase a book. They wrap them and we read a story and they pass them around on cue. The book they have when the story ends is the one they open and keep - unless they find a friend and trade again :)
  23. Anna Harageones - After Christmas, I buy the mini stockings (originally 4 for $1) at Walmart when they are marked way down. I also try to stock up on their Christmas stocking stuffers (mini puzzles, pens, and yo-yos) when  they are on clearance. I keep these for the next year's class. I decorate the stockings with puffy paint and hang them on our class Christmas tree. The day before Christmas vacation, I fill their stockings with the goodies. They are always so excited and appreciate. Because I bought the year before on clearance, it doesn't cost very much.
  24. Vickie Schmidt - Snowman soup--- a little bag filled with a package of cocoa mix, mini marshmallows, a mini or regular sized candy cane. Put a little tag on it with "instructions" (they change every year -- personalize for class). Sometimes they are put in a little seasonal (plastic) mug from Oriental Trading.
  25. Stacey Reilly- Inexpensive earbuds. Kids keep them in their pencil cases and use them for the computer when they need to watch a video. I buy in bulk.
  26. Tami Terry - Because I do pullout and have over 100 students, it's impossible, so each year I buy a new game or two for the classroom, and add them to our collection.  This year, Quiddler Junior for the younger ones, and Karma for the older ones.  Last year, Fluxx :)
  27. Jennifer Matney - I've done decks of cards 4/$1 and make a little book of educational card games that I've pulled from several sources. I've done cheap educational games or activities from Oriental Trading such as mini Boggle, mini dominoes pkgs for about 50 cents (and I teach them how to play several games and ways to practice math facts).
  28. Jackie Hatcher - I use clip art for a Christmas picture and print off a homework pass. They love it more than the little gifts I always buy.
  29. Amy Marie - I make candy cane reindeer.
  30. Teresa Wilson - I make handmade ornaments for my students with their name and date and who it is from! Salt dough or cinnamon ornaments are so easy!
Question Connection - Advice from Real Teachers
Do you have an idea for a free or inexpensive gift for students? Please post it in a comment below. If you would like to submit a teacher question of your own, be sure to watch for the Question Connection announcement on Wednesday evenings at 8:30 pm ET on the Teaching Resources Facebook page. Even if you don't have a question, please follow me on Facebook and offer your advice when you see the questions come through!

Great Questions + Advice from Real Teachers = The Question Connection! Enjoy!

December 7, 2014

Easy Differentiation with Colored Folders

Guest post by Kelly Witt

Differentiation is the buzzword that just keeps on buzzing! Teachers, administrators, and evaluation
systems are placing more and more emphasis on differentiation in the classroom. Sometimes, the thought of organizing lessons to meet the individual needs of all of your students can feel like an overwhelming challenge. One of the best and simplest ways I have found to do this is with colored pocket folders.

Most teachers have folders everywhere, so the set up is pretty easy. I use center boxes in my room to free up space & assist in clean up. Each center box is labeled with a number and has 4 colored folders inside – one for each learning group in my classroom. You could use center buckets, baskets, tubs, or anything that makes it easy for you!

Students simply go to their centers and retrieve the colored folders that represent their learning groups, i.e. the “red group” or the “blue group”. In each folder, students will find the specific assignment for that particular center.

Three Ways to Differentiate Instruction
Differentiation can be accomplished in three ways: through product, content or process. Differentiating product is probably the simplest method, especially in the primary grades. For example, students in all groups can listen to or read the same text; however, you may require each group to recall a varying number of facts from the text.

For example, all of these students were reading or listening to our latest Weekly Reader. I asked each group to identify facts learned about turkeys, but the expectation varied depending on the level of the group.

To differentiate the process for each group, you may have one listening to the text, one partner reading, and one group reading independently. The text or the content may remain the same, but each group is assigned a different process for learning the information. You can easily do this with colored folders by putting direction sheets inside folders, or by placing the needed materials (iPods, tablets, books, etc...) inside each folder.

Differentiating content is another way to address the varying needs within your classroom. In my room, I have different spelling lists for my students. The lists are posted using their group colors, and can be found in their colored folders at the Word Work center.

By differentiating the spelling words or content, I then have a choice of whether to assign every student the same work, or provide each group with a different opportunity for working with their spelling words.

All teachers manage centers in different ways, and what works for you might not work for your neighbor and vice versa. However, no matter how centers are set up in your classroom, using colored folders is a breeze to implement! The best part about this system is its simplicity and manageability. Students simply grab their colored center folder and begin working on their group’s specific assignment.

My students are grouped in various ways throughout the day. Sometimes, a student might be working at a center with other kids at the same level. Other times, that student might be at a station with someone that is working much higher or much lower than he.

All students turn their work into an envelope that is included in each center box. They just put their work inside the envelope and cross off their name. At the end of the week, I grab all the envelopes and paper clip the check-off sheet to the front of each stack for easy grading.

Differentiation can be a challenge, but often it sounds a lot scarier than it is. Start slow. Try differentiating in just one area or in just one way (content, product, or process) before diving in head first. Believe me, it’s worth it!

Kelly is a first grade teacher and blogger at First Grade Fairytales. She loves sharing ideas with other teachers and providing resources that help make learning fun and engaging.