December 25, 2016

New Year's Resolutions That Will Keep the Joy in Teaching

Are you making any New Year's Resolutions? If you're like most people, you've identified at least a few goals to accomplish this year, and I'm guessing that improving your physical fitness and health is one of them.

But achieving that goal is going to take more than determination. It will take TIME, and that's something most teachers don't have! 

That's why I'm excited to share about an amazing program called the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club! Angela Watson developed this course to help teachers achieve work/life balance, which will free up TIME to achieve ALL of the important goals in your life!

I'll tell you more about the program later in this post, but first I want you to understand why it's so important to learn strategies that will drastically reduce the amount of time you spend working.

Let's get back to that goal of improving your physical fitness and health. When it comes right down to it, taking better care of yourself means taking time to do the things that will improve your overall health such as:
  • exercising every day 
  • shopping for and preparing healthy foods
  • getting more sleep
  • relaxing and doing something for ourselves each day 
However, most teachers are up at the crack of dawn and they're in their classrooms before most people roll out of bed! And a teacher's day doesn't end at 3 pm when the kids leave because there are meetings to attend, lessons to write, papers to grade, materials to prepare for the next day... need I say more? Then it's off to run errands, cook (or buy) dinner for the family, help their own children with homework, grade more papers, plan more lessons... only to fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day! Even weekends don't necessarily mean time off, because teachers often spend time on Saturday and/or Sunday planning lessons, grading papers, and reading professional books.

No wonder teachers find it almost impossible to take of themselves! They spend 95% of their day taking care of everyone else! When you add up the hours teachers spend at school or on schoolwork, the time can easily add up to 60, 70, or 80 hours a WEEK!

Remember that New Year's Resolution to get physically fit and healthy?

It's not gonna happen unless you deal with the REAL problem which is that your life is completely out of balance! You're spending too much time on schoolwork and not enough time on YOU!

Face it. There's no way you're going to find time to take care of yourself until you get a handle on your workload and learn to achieve work/balance.  

But wait... is that even possible? I didn't use to think so. I was convinced that I had to work 70 or 80 hours a week to get the job done, and I couldn't see any other option without sacrificing the quality of my work or shortchanging my students.

But I was wrong. It IS possible for teachers to achieve work/life balance!

December 8, 2016

Winter Holiday Learning Fun!

Seasonal activities are perfect for the weeks leading up to the winter holidays. Those days can be kinda crazy, but kids are more likely to stay on task when they are engaged in activities that are fun yet don't skimp on academic content. Here are a few of my favorite activities for this time of year. I hope they add a little fun to your December lesson plans!

Sugar Cone Christmas Trees 
One of my favorite holiday activities was to have my students follow a recipe to make Sugar Cone Christmas Trees. Reading and following a recipe might seem like an activity that's only appropriate for younger children, and it's not normally something you'd find in the 5th grade curriculum.

So, I decided to kick it up a notch by creating a set of comprehension questions to go with the recipe. I formatted the questions to make them similar to the ones on state tests, so the activity serves as a test prep lesson as well. After my students created their sugar cone Christmas Trees, I allowed them to eat their treats while answering the questions. Of course, many students did not want to eat their creations right away so I always provided gallon zip top bags for them to take home their treats.

You can find the Sugar Cone Christmas Tree recipe and comprehension questions in my December Activities Mini Pack along with a materials-request letter to send home to parents.

December Activity Mini Pack
This Sugar Cone Christmas Tree activity is just one of the many activities in my December Activities pack for upper elementary students. It's available from from my TpT store, and as always, you can preview the entire packet online to see if it meets your needs. You'll find loads of activities to use this month along with directions and answer keys. Here's a complete list:
  • Holiday Mug Exchange Directions
  • Holidays Around the World Research Project
  • Christmas Daily Math Puzzlers
  • Dreidel Game Rules and Pattern
  • Dreidel Math Explorations
  • Christmas Word Challenge
  • Silly Winter Stories Cooperative Learning Activity and Writing Prompts
  • Sugar Cone Christmas Tree Recipe and Reading Comprehension Questions
  • Happy Holidays Homework Pass
  • Happy Holidays Book Coupon

Holiday-themed Freebies
I love to share freebies with my followers, so this blog post would not be complete without me sharing a holiday freebie or two. The Christmas Math Puzzler pages shown here are samples from my December Activities Mini Pack that you can download for free from the Seasonal page on Teaching Resources during December. These are two pages of math word problems on different levels, and they can be used for cooperative learning activities or independent assignments.

Also on the Seasonal page, you can  find several other freebies for December, including my Christmas Paper Chain Connections literacy activity, holiday gratitude cards, and more!

I hope these activities will help you enjoy those hectic days before your winter break. Happy holidays to you!

November 8, 2016

Math Mindsets Matter: How Can Teachers Foster a Growth Mindset in Math?

Oh no! I've tumbled down into the rabbit hole of growth mindset research, never to be seen again! All kidding aside, the more I learn about growth mindset, the more fascinated I am with this topic, and the more I realize I have yet to learn.

But as fascinated as I am with growth mindset, I'm even more intrigued by the challenge of putting these research findings into practice. In other words...

How can we use the most current brain research to foster a growth mindset in our students... and in ourselves?

Mathematics is arguably the subject where mindset matters the most, especially when you consider how many adults have experienced math anxiety in the past. Take me, for instance. I always excelled in math, but I'll never forget the horrible experience I had with college calculus. I'll save that story for another time, but let me just say that it totally shredded my confidence about my ability to learn math!

Despite that experience (or maybe because of it), when I started teaching, I discovered that I have an aptitude for teaching math. I love breaking down complex math skills to make them easier for kids to understand, and I love using creative teaching methods to help all students succeed in math. Now that I'm no longer in the classroom, I enjoy presenting webinars where I can share these strategies with other educators.

Mind-blowing Brain Research About Mistakes and Mindsets 
During one of my recent math webinars, a teacher suggested that I read Jo Boaler's book, Mathematical Mindsets. I had already been planning to develop a webinar about how to foster a growth mindset in math, so I ordered a copy right away. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to read it when it arrived so the book ended up buried on my desk until I noticed it yesterday.

Oh my goodness! Have you ever read a professional development book that was so compelling you wanted to talk about it with anyone who would listen? That's how I felt when I started reading Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages, and Innovative Teaching. I was hooked from the first page!

All I can say is the book is definitely living up to the premise of that very long title. I thought I had a good grasp on growth mindset research, but after reading just a few pages, I realized that I've barely scratched the surface of this topic.

For example, I knew that mistakes should be considered to be a sign of learning rather than as a sign of failure.

But I didn't know that when we make a mistake, our brain responds physically with increased electrical activity and actually grows a synapse! Neuroscientists discovered this by measuring this electrical brain activity in test subjects they observed while working. This brain response happens even when the person making the mistake doesn't consciously realize a mistake was made!

November 1, 2016

Investigating Condensation and the Water Cycle

Step-by-step Lesson and Free Printables 

Most kids are familiar with the terms precipitation, condensation, and evaporation, but very few of them really understand what those words mean. Just ask your students to name three examples of condensation in everyday life and watch their eyes glaze over. Huh??

Most kids understand that precipitation is a fancy word for different forms of water falling from the sky, like rain, snow, and sleet. Most kids also understand that evaporation is what happens when water "disappears" on a warm day, such as a puddle drying up. They know that evaporation means liquid water has become water vapor.

Condensation is a little harder to grasp. If you've taught your students that clouds form as a result of condensation, they may think that condensation only happens in the sky. Do they know that condensation happens all around us, every day? If they understand that water droplets on a cold glass are the result of condensation, where do they think the water comes from? Inside the glass?

Condensation Investigation

Here's a simple investigation that will help your students understand what condensation is, where it comes from, and where it happens in everyday life. The activity works well as an introduction to the water cycle or as a part of a lesson on states of matter. Because this is an exploratory activity, it's best not to provide too much background information before you begin.

October 29, 2016

5 Engaging Ways to Introduce New Content

Guest Blog Post by Rachael Parlett

Imagine that you are sitting in the movie theater waiting for the latest popular movie to begin. With the popcorn bucket on your lap and drink in hand, you are ready.

The lights dim, and the movie commences.  You begin to watch the opening scene and here’s what you hear: “Welcome to this movie. In this movie, you’ll meet a boy and girl. They are going to fall in love and live happily ever after.”

Um…what?  Talk about boring (not to mention a spoiler-alert)! Your interest as the viewer has flown right out the window and you’re beginning to wonder if it’s worth staying till the end. Chances are, it’s not.

Luckily, movies DON’T start that way. In fact, there’s usually a pretty epic scene to start out the movie in order to grab the viewer’s attention. Movie makers know that the first few minutes can make or break the movie. If they fail to peak the viewer’s interest in their opener, the viewer checks out.

Consider this: Your introduction to new content is like the start of an epic movie. And how you choose to introduce that new information can make it or break it.

Our students can be some of the toughest viewers and critics. If we present new information to our students like the above scenario, stating “today we are going to learn about…”, their attention vanishes and their minds begin to wonder if we are worth listening to.

While teachers aren’t trained movie producers, we can still use some tricks and strategies to grab our students’ attention and get them excited about the new information they are about to learn. Here are just a few of the ways that you can hook your learners right from the start.

1. Introduce with Audio or Video

In a heavily audio and video-based world, our students are used to flashy things to get their attention. Here’s how we can use it to our advantage:

Starting a new novel unit? Try letting your students listen to the first chapter or first few pages without looking at the text. This strategy works similar to that of a movie trailer. Stop the recording just before something big or exciting happens in the plot to create a bit of a cliff-hanger for your students. Audio books are easily found at local libraries, or better yet, make your own custom audio recording (it’s easier than it sounds!). By doing this, you can hook readers with the use of great reading expression, different voices for different characters, and even background sound effects.

Audio also works great when introducing lessons in the content areas. For example, if you are teaching a specific time period in history, consider having students listen to a musical song or instrumental piece that is representative of that era. Think marching drum and fifes sounds of the Civil War, or perhaps the banjo and guitar sounds associated with the western expansion movement. Have students discuss the feelings and mood that the music provokes. Likewise, when beginning a science unit on animals, have students to listen to the sounds of different animals and have them guess which animal is making the sound.

Like audio, video can also be a great “hook.”  There’s no denying that video is an important influencer in students today.  Try one of these ideas for using video:
  1. Introduce a new novel study by watching a video interview with the author.  This helps students to see the author as a real person, helping them to connect to that author. Reading Rockets has a very nice selection of author interviews. 
  2. Use resources like YouTube, BrainPOP, BrainPOP Jr. (both free and paid versions available) and Scholastic Study Jams (great for math and science and completely free!) to find quick video intros for presenting new content.
  3. Watch reenactment videos when learning about historical war battles.  Again, YouTube is a fabulous resource for these types of videos.
  4. Use content-specific music videos and have students sing along by providing them with the lyrics. I love this video from 6th grade teacher Mr. Parr for teaching about the phases of the moon. Click on "Show More" under the video on YouTube to see all the lyrics. 

2. Introduce with Pictures, Illustrations, and Artifacts

A great way to engage students in new content is to give them a visual, such as an illustration, photograph, or artifact to get their minds ready for what they are about to learn. This can be especially powerful in science and social studies.

One of my favorite ways to use these visuals as an introductory method is to have students participate in a Gallery Walk. A Gallery Walk is when students walk freely around the room to different stations observing photos, posters, artifacts, and/or illustrations. These visual can be hung up on the walls, or even displayed on tables throughout the room. Near each visual, I like to keep a piece of blank poster paper for students to jot down things they notice about the visuals or to write comments and thoughts that they have related to the visual. These photos are from a Gallery Walk I created about animal groups.

An alternative to a gallery walk might be a slideshow of visuals using a PowerPoint or Smartboard/whiteboard presentation. This activity leads into a great opening discussion about the new topic.

3. Introduce with Poetry

Introducing new content through poetry is a unique way to integrate literacy into any content area. There are poems written about almost anything, and if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, try your own hand at poetry and create your own, customized for your needs.

I love how poems provide imagery for students as they learn about a new topic. Take this excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride:” 

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

What a fun way to introduce a lesson on the American Revolution, don’t you think? Ask questions like “What do you think ‘up and to arm’ means?” or “What is the mood of these lines?” or “Is the narrator a patriot or a loyalist?” to help students to understand the excerpt. Since some of the language of the poem is old English, you might need to break the poem up, line by line, and help students to really dive deep into its meaning. Try reading it to the students first, using a suspenseful tone to help convey the meaning, and then engage students in a discussion. You can even have students create illustrations to go with the lines of the poem to help them visualize and understand.

When using poems, take it a step further and pair or group students, giving each group a different poem on the same topic. This is relatively easy to do when you find a book of poems on the same topic by a specific author. Then, compare information from each poem. It’s also an easy way to sneak in some extra fluency practice.

4. Introduce with Reader’s Theater

Need an exciting, more engaging alternative to your textbook when starting a new unit or topic?  Reader’s theater just might be the ticket! I’ve always enjoyed creating reader’s theater scripts for my students to introduce something new - and my students eat it up! Simply take a topic and turn it into a story for your students to act out. I did just that when I wanted to introduce the pollination process to my students. I turned pollinating bees into humorous story characters and instantly had my students’ attention! Using these scripts in place of the textbook allows students to take a more interactive role in their learning and make stronger, more lasting connections. If you like this idea, you can get started with the free reader’s theater script featured below!

5. Introduce with a Challenge

Before you TELL the students how to do something, let them first try it themselves. This gets those creative juices flowing and encourages them to think critically. For instance, when I began my lesson on animal classification, I divided students into small groups. I provided each group with a set of animal picture cards and, without much instruction, challenged them to group the animals in ways that they thought made sense, based on similarities. The students came up with some pretty interesting ways to group their animal cards and led to an interesting discussion on the concept of classifying.

Other challenges might include:
  1. Solving a math riddle
  2. Giving students a list of content-related words or pictures and having them guess what your lesson is going to be about
  3. Presenting an unfamiliar object or artifact related to your topic and have students guess its purpose or function
  4. Completing a word sort where students are given a list of new words and several categories to try to guess which words belong in which category. As an extension, at the end of your lesson, give students those same words and categories and make any corrections from their previous organization.

Don’t let your students zone out within minutes of the beginning of your lesson! Keep them engaged and help them make meaningful connections to the new content. Test out one of these strategies and hook your students from the start!

Rachael Parlett is an educator, curriculum developer, and the blog author of The Classroom Nook. She specializes in designing curriculum that incorporates the use of technology, student-centered activities, and user-friendly teacher guides to make implementation easy! Making learning fun, meaningful, and engaging is the motivation behind each resource you find at The Classroom Nook.

October 19, 2016

Halloween Word Play - Seek & Spell Fun!

How much time do you spend each week on spelling instruction? If you’re an upper elementary teacher, the answer is probably “not enough.” While you might recognize the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics lessons, there’s just not enough time for true spelling instruction in the upper grades. This is unfortunate because upper elementary students still need lots of practice with spelling word patterns and the basic building blocks of large words, like roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Fortunately, there’s a fun activity for building spelling skills that your kids will love so much they won’t even realize it's a spelling assignment! In fact, they will BEG to play it!

Remember the word game where players try to make small words from the letters of a long word? It’s really simple, and most people can easily find a handful of words with very little effort. But in order to find a lot of words, you have to dig deeper and look for word patterns, word families, root words, verb forms, prefixes, suffixes, and so on. The more you play the game, the better you become at identifying these basic building blocks of language.

A few years ago I introduced this word game to my class as a fun holiday-themed activity. I created seasonal printables similar to the Halloween Seek & Spell freebie shown above, and each printable had the letters of a seasonal word or phrase printed in block letters along the bottom edge of the page. The directions required the students to cut out the letters and physically move them around to try to form new words. Students worked for about 10 minutes on their own, and then I asked them to pair up with a partner to check each other’s spelling and look for more words. Just for fun, I added a scoring system where students could earn points for correctly-spelled words. To prevent guessing, I also deducted points for words that were misspelled. Because I knew they would be able to find far more words than they could spell correctly, I encouraged them to use a spell-checker or dictionary look up any word they weren’t sure how to spell.

October 13, 2016

Making Connections with Pumpkin Seed Multiplication

When kids first learn about multiplication, it's an alien concept. The best way to help them understand what multiplication means is to use manipulatives, and to introduce multiplication as a shortcut for repeated addition.

Pumpkin Seed Multiplication is a fun, seasonal partner activity that uses unshelled pumpkin seeds to help kids make the connection between addition and multiplication. There are no Halloween images, so it's appropriate any time of the year, and especially during the fall.

You don't have to use actual pumpkin seeds for the activity; any small manipulatives will work, like dried beans, bingo chips, paper clips or base ten units. If you decide to use pumpkin seeds, you can purchase unshelled seeds at the grocery store or save the seeds from the pumpkin you carve for your Halloween jack-o-lantern. Wash them gently to remove the gooey strings and then dry them for a few days before using them in the activity.

Pumpkin Seed Multiplication includes directions for the teacher as well as student directions, the game board, and the number sentence cards. To introduce the game, pair each student with a partner and demonstrate how the activity works. Be sure to point out the connections between addition and multiplication as you demonstrate that the addition number sentences and the multiplication facts are two ways of representing the number of seeds on the pumpkins. After you model the activity with the whole class, you can use it in small groups or math centers.

You can download this Pumpkin Seed Multiplication freebie from my TpT store or from Seasonal page on Teaching Resources during October. For more free multiplication activities and resources, visit the Multiplication page in my math online file cabinet.

By the way, Pumpkin Seed Multiplication is a variation of the Fishbowl Multiplication lesson in my book Mastering Math Facts: Multiplication and Division. That activity is similar to this one, but it doesn't have a seasonal theme. Fishbowl Multiplication is just one of the many multiplication games and lessons in the book that will help your students develop a conceptual understanding of multiplication while also building speed and fluency with math facts. Fishbowl Multiplication is included in the free 43-page printable sampler of that book; visit the Mastering Math Facts page on Teaching Resources to download the entire packet!

October 7, 2016

The Great Chicago Fire: Free Upper Elementary Resources

"Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over,
she winked her eye and said,
'There'll be a HOT time
on the old town tonight.'

I remember having a wonderful time singing this song every summer in Girl Scout camp, and I never had a clue that it was anything more than a silly campfire song!

But last week when I was watching a video about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, I learned that this song was based on a local legend about how that fire started, and the story wasn't even true! Although the fire did start on the O'Leary property, there's no evidence that it was caused by a cow kicking over a lantern. In fact, the newspaperman who first wrote that story admitted that he made up the detail about the cow kicking over the lantern! Sadly, Mrs. O'Leary never got over the shame of having the great fire blamed on her family. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to sing that song with enthusiasm again!

The Great Chicago Fire Video
I shared that story because the legend about Mrs. O'Leary is just one of the fascinating facts I learned while watching the video, Lessons from History: The Great Chicago Fire.  I found the video on Sparky School House, a free site for educators hosted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that's chock full of resources for teaching kids about fire safety. The video is perfect for upper elementary students because it's just 7 minutes long and features an interview between Lauren Tarshis, the author of I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, and Casey Grant from the NFPA. Another bonus for teachers is that Sparky School House has a free Common Core aligned lesson plan to go along with the video. Teaching kids about the Great Chicago Fire is a terrific way to integrate fire safety and prevention into the social studies curriculum, too! The video is on the main page of Sparky School House, and the lesson plan is in the Digital Backpack section.

Historical Fiction and Informational Texts about the Great Chicago Fire 
I was so intrigued by the information that Lauren and Casey shared in the video about the fire that I immediately bought a copy of Lauren's book, I Survived the Great Chicago Fire. It's a terrific historical fiction novel for kids, and I really enjoyed reading it. I Survived the Great Chicago Fire is exciting, suspenseful, and full of details about the Chicago Fire. It would make a great read-aloud during Fire Prevention Month, and it would also be a terrific selection for literature circles. After I finished reading the book, I decided to look for an informational text to go along with this fiction selection. I was thrilled to find a Newbery Award title, The Great Fire, by Jim Murphy which will work well as a way for kids to verify the facts in the novel.

Great Chicago Fire Freebies for Upper Elementary Students
I have to tell you a little secret, and if you've been following my blog for a few years you won't be surprised at what I'm about to say. I LOVE creating free teaching resources to supplement children's books and videos! I especially love developing freebies for special events (like Fire Prevention Month) because I can have fun and let my creative juices flow! Watching Lessons from History: The Great Chicago Fire and reading I Survived the Great Chicago Fire was just the inspiration I needed to start creating some discussion cards, printables, and graphic organizers for upper elementary students.

Unfortunately, I have so many ideas to go with these resources that there's no way I can finish the whole freebie in time for Fire Prevention Week which is just a few days away. So I've decided to create a few printables at a time, and I'll add each resource to this post as I create it. After they're all finished, I'll bundle them together in one packet.

Great Chicago Fire Video Freebies
I decided to start with the free printables I planned to create for the video on Sparky School House  because you can use these activities right away without having to purchase a book. Click here to download these freebies. The packet doesn't have directions, so I decided to share a few ways to use them right here on my blog.

  1. Fact or Fiction, is a "hook" to create interest in the topic. It has two title cards and 10 statements about the Great Chicago Fire. Five of the statements are true and five are false, but they are not in any particular order on the printable. Before you show the video, give each team one copy of the printable and have them cut apart the cards. They should clear space in the middle of the team and place the Fact and Fiction title cards at the top of the work area. Next, ask them to take turns around the team sorting the statements. IN turn, each person reads one card aloud and the team discusses whether they think it's true (fact) or false (fiction) and the card is placed under the appropriate title card. After you show the video, you can check the answers as a class to see how many statements each team was able to place correctly.
  2. The Cause and Effect Graphic Organizer is perfect for digging deeper into why the Great Chicago Fire spread so quickly and was so devastating, as well as the short- and long-term effects of the fire. You can introduce the graphic organizer after students watch the video, and they can continue to add details after reading additional books or information on this topic. I created a version with lines for writing as well as an open, unlined graphic organizer. Through the process of completing this graphic organizer, your students will realize that in addition to the obvious negative effects of the fire, there were some positive outcomes as well. For example, we now built cities differently and many fire safety laws have been passed.
  3. The Great Chicago Fire Discussion Questions are a set of 6 task cards that can be used in a whole group setting, in small guided discussion groups, or in cooperative learning teams. They would work well with the Talking Sticks Discussion Strategy or with the strategies I shared in the post, Teaching Kids How to Have REAL Discussions

Up Next - Freebies for I Survived the Great Chicago Fire
Since next week is Fire Prevention Week, I wanted to make these printables available to you now even though I haven't finished the whole packet. Be sure to check back in a few days to see if I've added anything new. Next, I'll be adding printables to go with the historical fiction novel, I Survived the Great Chicago Fire. If you've used that book with your students or you've ordered it and plan to use it with them I'd love to have your help with ideas for those printables. I've been discussing this topic with the teachers in the Upper Elementary Teacher Connection Facebook group, and if you're an upper elementary teacher and you're interested in this topic, I invite you to join us!

P. S. More Fire Prevention Week Resources! If you missed my article two days about about Sparky School House and all the free fire prevention lessons and resources you'll find there, you need to check it out!

October 5, 2016

Teaching Fire Safety: Free Resources to Spark Learning

This post is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association and

October is National Fire Prevention Month, and Fire Prevention Week starts on October 9th which is right around the corner. What lessons and activities do you have planned for this very important week?

If you’re a K-2 teacher, you probably won't have any trouble answering that question. You might even have your week completely mapped out, with fire safety activities scheduled every day.

But if you teach older kids, you might be thinking, “Fire safety? That’s not in my curriculum. Fire prevention is taught in the early grades. Where would I even get fire safety resources for my grade level?"

As a former 5th grade teacher, I understand where you’re coming from. Upper elementary teachers are expected to cover an incredible amount of academic content, and there's not much time left over for anything else.

However, teaching older kids about fire safety and prevention is important, too. Kids are fascinated with fire, and older kids are more likely to take risks, test the limits, and try things they know they probably shouldn't do. All kids need to be reminded of the dire consequences of playing with fire, and the fact that even a small fire can easily get out of control.

The problem is that older kids need different types of resources than their younger peers, and games and activities that are fun for Kindergarten students just don't appeal to older kids. It's definitely a challenge to find lessons and activities that will capture the interest of older kids. Fortunately, I know where you can find an awesome collection of resources that are sure to "spark" learning!

Free Sparky Fire Safety Resources 
Have you visited or Sparky the Fire Dog® is the official mascot of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and these two Sparky websites are part of their ongoing public education campaign. is the website for kids with fun games, activities, and interactive resources about fire safety. Sparky School House is the companion site for educators where you can find links dozens of free fire-prevention resources like videos, ebooks, apps, and lesson plans.

The NFPA was founded back in 1896, fifteen years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and for 120 years this non-profit organization has been on a mission to eliminate fire-related deaths, injury, and damage to property. One of their public education campaigns is Fire Prevention Week, and this year's theme is “Don’t Wait – Check the Date! Replace Smoke Alarms Every 10 Years.” Right now is the perfect time to check out the wealth of resources on these two sites!

If you’re a K-2 teacher, you probably already know about and Sparky School House, and you've found them to be great resources for teaching fire safety. Your students have probably already played the games on, and maybe you’ve downloaded all of the free apps for kids onto your classroom mobile devices. If you're really on top of your game, you've downloaded the brand new Sparky's Firehouse app, too!

But if you're an upper elementary teacher like me, you might have done what I did when I first discovered the Sparky resources. 

I looked around for about 2 minutes, and then I left. No joke. 

To tell you the truth, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of activities and resources that appeared to be on Sparky School House, and most of them seemed to be for little kids. Let’s be real. Fifth graders don’t want to listen to a person dressed up in a dog costume talking about fire safety, or a cartoon dog demonstrating how to stop, drop, and roll.

It's a shame that I didn’t spend more time on Sparky School House, because I would have discovered that this site DOES have fire safety resources for older kids! You just have to know where to find those resources and the lesson plans that accompany them.

Navigating Sparky School House
Now that I've explored the resources on Sparky School House, I want to teach you how to navigate so you can find everything, too. Click the image below and let me show you around!

After you land on the Sparky School House main page, start by clicking the red download button to access the brand new free 2016 Fire Prevention Week Teacher Guide where you'll find a lesson about the importance of smoke alarms. This guide also includes a take-home home letter for parents in both English and Spanish.

Use the links in the black navigation bar at the top to browse a huge collection of fire prevention videos, apps, ebooks, lesson plans, and resources. The Digital Backpack link is the quickest way to find the teacher lesson plans and printables that go with the resources for students. You can search for lesson plans by grade level or by the resource it accompanies. Each lesson is aligned with Common Core State Standards, too!

Be sure to check out the Learn Not to Burn resources, even if you teach older kids. They're designated as resources for Kindergarten and First Grade, but they have incredibly helpful information for upper elementary teachers, too. If your students lack basic fire safety and prevention knowledge, I recommend reading the Learn Not to Burn lesson plans to find relevant information and then adapt the lesson materials to your own grade level.

My Favorite Upper Elementary Resources
Don't make the mistake that I did of assuming that everything on the site is for little kids. You can adapt some of the lessons that were designed for younger students, and there are also several lessons that are perfect for upper elementary students just as they are. These three are my favorites!

1. Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (Video and Teacher Guide)
I loved this 7-minute, informative video! The subject of the video is an interview between Lauren Tarshis, author of I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, and Casey Grant from the National Fire Prevention Association. They discuss the causes and effects of this devastating fire, how the NFPA was founded, and why Fire Prevention Week always takes place in October. You can download a Common Core aligned lesson plan to go with the video that includes a printable vocabulary graphic organizer. Click the Music & Videos link to find the video, and look in the Lessons section for the related teacher resources.

2. Fire Fighting’s Weird History and Fascinating Future (Video and Lesson Plan)Your students will be delighted by some of the silly facts shared in this video, and they'll also be amazed to learn how much firefighting has changed in the last hundred years. Fire Fighting's Weird History and Fascinating Future uses a mix of cartoon-style drawings, photographs, and historical drawings to look at the past, present, and future of firefighting. You'll also find a Common Core aligned lesson plan to go with the video that includes a Know-Wonder-Learned graphic organizer. Click the Music & Videos link to find the video, and look in the Lessons section for the related teacher resources.  

3. Rescue Dogs, Firefighting Heroes, and Science Facts (Ebook and Curriculum Guide)
The third awesome resource I found for upper elementary is a 15-page ebook that includes four stories and a poem. It's available in several different formats, including a printable PDF, Amazon Kindle, Nook. I love the variety of texts in this resource and the way fire prevention information is integrated throughout the book. Each selection includes discussion questions and a writing prompt, too, which would make the book perfect for small guided reading groups. 

Jack the Superhero Alien Firefighter is a fictional story, The Black Pearl and Captain Ron is an informational text selection about a firefighter and his rescue dog, Three Ways Science Has Made the World a More Fire-Safe Place is an informational science article, and Learning from Tragedy is a historical fiction selection. The final text is a poem called Sparky the Fire Dog® Says “Stay Fire-Safe!”  To find this resource, click on the Read & Play link at the top of Sparky School House, and scroll all the way to the end of the page. You'll find all the links to the different book formats as well as a link to the Common Core aligned Curriculum Guide.

Fire Prevention Week Plans - Done!
Now that you know where to find awesome resources for teaching kids about Fire Prevention Week, your lesson plans for next week will be super easy to write! You can integrate fire safety into just about every subject area, and your lessons are sure to "spark" enthusiasm for learning about fire prevention!

But teaching kids about fire safety might actually have a far more important result. Who knows? You might even save a life!

Did you know that three out of five home fire deaths occurred in homes without a working smoke alarm? Sadly, when smoke alarms fail to operate, it's usually because batteries are missing, disconnected, or dead. Those grim statistics might be why the theme of Fire Prevention Week has been related to smoke alarm safety for the last three years.

Be sure to send home the parent letter that can be found in the 2016 Fire Prevention Week Guide, and follow up a few days later by asking your students what they learned about the condition of the smoke alarms in their homes. Don't forget to check the smoke alarms in your own home, too!

October 2, 2016

Ask One: An Easy Strategy to Instantly Elevate Your Group Work

Guest post by Jen from Beyond Traditional Math

I spent a ton of time avoiding group work in my early years of teaching. There were many reasons, but the main one was that I felt that students weren’t accountable. I’d be walking around and found them off task, disengaged, sitting back with their arms crossed, one or two would take over all of the talking…I felt that it was not a good use of my instructional time.

I began to work on those behaviors little by little by finding group work strategies. I knew the importance of student talk, so I was committed to the task. After trying different approaches, I developed a strategy that has become my most favorite by far.

I call the strategy “Ask One,” and you'll see why after you read how it works. It is by far and away the easiest and the most effective way I’ve found to elevate group work.

What you do is quite simple. You set up all your group work routines and get to know your students. You make sure that your classroom culture is one of kindness so that group work feels safe. Once you are seeing patterns like disengagement or struggle with specific students, rearrange your class into groups where you can place one of these students in each group. 

Then choose an activity that is engaging and difficult. I like Reasoning Puzzles because they really require students to dig in. This is what I like to say to the students before we begin: “I’m going to come around and ask your group to explain your thinking. The thing is, only one of you will be allowed to do the explaining, and I’m going to choose that person. The rest of you won’t be able to say a word to me. You won’t know who it is until I come to your group. If that person is having trouble explaining the work of the group, I’ll let you all continue to work and come back and check.”

Then, you watch your groups as they begin the activity. You’ll see who is struggling or who might be disengaged. When you ask that student to explain, they may not be able to fully explain everything. That’s when you start asking questions. Don’t let the other group mates jump in to explain! Tell them you’ll come back and that you expect the other group mates to help them understand the problem. 

As you leave, you’ll see behaviors where the group mates just try to tell them what to say. You’ll get around that by asking more questions to see if they understand conceptually. And you keep coming back…and you keep coming back…

I’ve done this dozens of times, and every single time the student that I’ve chosen is able to come to an understanding with the help of the group. The group mates that may have easily gotten an answer have to explain in many ways, and because of this they understand the concept a bit deeper themselves! If noticed that the student I questioned was getting anxious, I would  pull back and ask others to do the explaining. If that happened, it also would tell me that I definitely need to do some deep reteaching.

If you’d like to try out this strategy, you can download my free Reasoning Puzzles Sampler Set from my TpT store. Now you can see why “Ask One” is one of my favorite strategies for increasing engagement in math. It will instantly elevate your group work and make it more effective!

Jen is a math instructional coach and interventionist with 10 years of experience teaching elementary students. Her passion is teaching math with a focus on conceptual knowledge through rigorous problem solving. You can find more teaching tips and resources (and hear about how much she has learned from her mistakes) at her blog: Beyond Traditional Math. You can also connect with her on Pinterest, TpT, Twitter, and Facebook.

September 28, 2016

6 Reasons to Teach Poetry in the Fall

6 Reasons to Teach Poetry in the Fall! Why wait for National Poetry Month in April when you can start teaching your kids to love poetry now!
Free Poetry Webinar Replay!
Register here!

April is National Poetry Month, so it comes as no surprise that many teachers wait until then to teach poetry. But if you ask me, September or October is a much better time to introduce kids to poetry. I love teaching poetry, and starting poetry now makes so much more sense than waiting until the end of the year.

I'll share my reasons at the end of this post, but first I want to acknowledge that not everyone feels the way I do about poetry. If you don't share my enthusiasm, April might seem like the perfect time to teach poetry because you won't have to think about it all until spring! But hang in here with me because I have some ideas that might make poetry easier and way more fun for you to teach.

If you’re not comfortable teaching poetry, your feelings could stem from your early experiences with it in school. Having to memorize poetry terms and analyzing confusing poems can suck the joy out of any poetry unit!

But when poetry is introduced in a more authentic manner as way of expressing feelings and painting pictures with words, the experience is quite different. I taught poetry year after year to my 4th and 5th graders, and those kids never failed to get excited about poetry. Furthermore, I was frequently blown away by the simple yet powerful poems they composed with very little guidance from me. After just a little instruction, it was as if my students were discovering their inner poets and the words began to flow almost effortlessly!

Take a look at Keyera’s poem about friendship. Keyera struggled in almost every subject area, but she found her voice in poetry. This was an area where all kids could shine!

How to Teach Kids to Love Poetry (Even If You Don't)
If poetry makes you uncomfortable, you might feel lost about how to foster a love of poetry within your students. Fortunately, help is on the way! Last April I created a webinar called How to Teach Kids to Love Poetry (Even If You Don’t) to share how I teach a complete poetry unit, step by step. After the webinar was over, I loved hearing from teachers who had never felt comfortable with poetry but who said they couldn't wait to get started!

Fall is a great time to introduce kids to poetry, so I decided to schedule a free presentation of How to Teach Kids to Love Poetry (Even If You Don’t). The live presentation is over, but you can use that link to sign up for the replay.

6 Reasons to Teach Poetry in the Fall

Why do I think fall is the perfect time to start teaching poetry? I brainstormed the 6 reasons below in just a few minutes, and I’m sure there are many more.

1. Teaching poetry in the fall fosters an appreciation for precise and powerful language early in the school year.
Teaching kids about poetry begins with reading and sharing poems that are meaningful to them and noticing how poets use simple yet powerful language. When I introduce poetry in 4th and 5th grade, I start with free verse rather than rhyming poems because I want my students to notice how the poet paints a word picture using a variety of techniques. Sometimes it’s by using just the right word to create that image, and other times it’s through the use of poetic devices like similes, metaphors, and personification. These techniques are used by authors in short stories and novels, too, and after your students are able to find them in poetry, they'll start noticing them in prose as well. So why not teach your students about the beauty and power of the written and spoken word early in the year?  
2. Teaching kids to write poetry engages them in authentic writing experiences and begins to build their confidence as writers.
In order for kids to learn how to read and understand poetry written by others, they first need to write their own poetry. The sooner you teach kids how to write poetry, the more impact those experiences will have on their reading and writing skills later in the year. Kids love learning about “poetic license” and knowing that it’s okay to break the rules of grammar in order to craft a poem. I also love the fact that students like Keyera and Keenon (below) who typically struggle with writing assignments like creative stories and reports often shine when it comes to writing poetry. Free from worries about making grammatical errors, they can focus on capturing their feelings and painting word pictures on paper. Later, when they share their poems in class, their confidence soars as their classmates express genuine appreciation for what they’ve written.

3. Poetry is a great way to connect with your students and get to know them better.
When kids learn to write meaningful poetry “from the heart,” you’ll learn so much about them as young people and not just as your students. You’ll learn about their fears, anxieties, and passions, and you’ll learn to appreciate their uniqueness. You might have heard the saying that “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Reading and writing poetry together is a great way to show that you do care. Why wait until April to develop stronger relationships with your students?
4. Avoid test prep pressure by introducing poetry early in the school year.
You know what I mean. Test prep mania starts somewhere between January and April, depending on your state testing calendar. But no matter when it starts, sooner or later you’ll feel the pressure to cram as much instruction into every day as possible. And that kind of pressure doesn’t leave much time to savor the enjoyment of poetry. If you wait until the week before testing to teach poetry, you’ll be tempted to skip the poetry writing (no time for that!), and you’ll find yourself doing the very things that turn kids off about poetry. Don’t get me wrong. I do think kids should learn about poetic devices like similes, metaphors, and personification, and I do think they should learn to analyze poetry and look for deeper meanings. However, I think those skills should be developed through meaningful experiences with reading, writing, and discussing poetry and not in response to a standardized test that's looming on the horizon.
5. Introduce poetry now, and you'll be able to integrate it into other subjects later.
Teaching poetry early in the year gives your students a new voice with which to express themselves all year long. They might want to write a poem about the courage of early pioneers who traveled west in covered wagons, or as a journal response to a literature circle book. When your students discover something amazing in science, they might be inspired to write a poem about what they learned. If you've already introduced poetry early in the year, your students will be able to write easily on topics that interest them. 
6. Fall is a beautiful season, and the beauty of nature will inspire your students!
If you live in a place where temperatures drop and trees blaze with color in the fall, you'll know what I mean about the sights, smells, and sounds of autumn providing inspiration for young writers. Take advantage of these seasonal changes by incorporating them into your poetry unit. Sometimes kids have trouble thinking of topics to write about, and taking your students outside to write may be just what they need. Poetry often includes sensory language, and sensory experiences abound during autumn!  

Have I convinced you that fall is the perfect time to introduce your students to poetry? Why wait until April when you can start sharing the joys of reading and writing poetry now?

If poetry is a part of your curriculum, I invite you to watch the replay of How to Teach Kids to Love Poetry (Even If You Don't). Who knows? You might just discover your own inner poet!

September 24, 2016

DonorsChoose: A Jackpot of Classroom Funding!

Do you spend too much of your own money on classroom supplies and resources? Learn how to tap into the DonorsChoose jackpot of funding so you can get the materials you need without breaking the bank!
Free Webinar and Giveaway!

Date: September 25th, 7:30 pm EDT

Click here to register!

Do you know about It's an amazing organization that helps public school teachers in the U.S. get funding for their classroom projects. I received thousands of dollars from donors when I was teaching, and now I love telling others about this fantastic organization.

My friend, Francie Kugelman, has experienced amazing success on DonorsChoose, so I invited her to be my guest for a free live webinar. She quickly agreed because she loves to spread the word about DonorsChoose, too!

We're presenting DonorsChoose: A Jackpot of Classroom Funding on Sunday, September 25th, at 7:30 pm EST, and we hope you can join us.

If you're like most teachers, you spend far too much money on classroom supplies and resources, so you owe it to yourself to learn about DonorsChoose.

Francie is a true DonorsChoose expert because she reads and edits project proposals which means she knows exactly how to write them so they have the best chance of getting funded. She's been using DonorsChoose to obtain funding for her classroom, and when you look at her results, it's obvious that  her strategies work. Over the last 10 years Francie has had 185 projects funded with a total value of over $112,000! Francie knows every trick in the book when it comes to DonorsChoose, and she's going to reveal all her secrets in the webinar!

September 2, 2016

Five Ways to Fit Science In

Guest post by Tammy
from The Owl Teacher Blog

Every year when I sit down to plan out my class schedule around all my specials, it seems I just don't have a lot of time left to fit in science, and don't even get me started on social studies. My district requires so much time to be spent on language arts and math. It's understandable that these are important subject areas, but I always feel I'm short changing my students. By time I get done, I'm often left with 30 minutes (give or take) for science. That often leaves me wondering, just how am I going to give my students good quality instruction in science while meeting the required curriculum?

Most districts (though not all) have a required amount of minutes they would like to see teachers spend in certain subject areas. Since this is typically something we have no control over, I wanted to share with you some strategies that I have used over the years to help fit more science in when I'm limited with class time.