Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Walking Classroom




Even though the weather may be starting to change to fall-like temperatures here in the Northeast, fifth grade students at my school are very fortunate to be going outside while learning and walking at the same time - and they'll continue to do so as long as we're able to add layers!

Thanks to a generous donation from our PTO, combined with a grant from The Walking Classroom (TWC), we were outfitted with a class set of walk kits - MP3 players pre-loaded with 15-20 minute high interest podcasts covering a variety of learning topics and fitness tips. This amazing award-winning, evidence-based fitness and obesity intervention program is innovative and engaging for students. It's music to my ears as my students beg me every day to do a walk!

One of my students explained that the walks help her to "clear the webs" in her brain, allowing her to focus more when she's back in the classroom. Other students have enjoyed the opportunity to be leaders in the walking line. And, the recall of the content when we discuss it later in class has been impressive!

There's a large body of research that suggests  myriad emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits of daily exercise for children. Often times, families find it difficult to fit exercise in given their hectic schedules. With The Walking Classroom, students get much needed movement breaks during the day, and they learn about Common Core aligned topics such as narrator's point of view, famous explorers, or U.S. history. And all of this occurs while breathing in fresh air, walking briskly, and soaking up vitamin D! 

Founder Laura Fenn (a former fifth grade educator), left no stone unturned when she created TWC. I was extremely impressed when I excitedly opened up our package. I found all of the walk kits protected by high quality plastic storage containers. Each kit came with a set of ear buds (to be used by only one child for hygiene sake) and a AAA battery. In addition, there's a large binder filled with lesson plans and quick assessments for the 90 plus podcast topics. Each lesson plan is carefully laid out and very detailed. Laura even went so far as to create lessons on how to model caring for the equipment and a trial walk to get your students accustomed to the process.

Here are my walking scholars on a recent outing. One of the best suggestions offered by TWC is to assign two students to be "pace-cars" at the front to keep things moving as well as two "cabooses" to make sure no one lags behind. 


I feel very fortunate to work at a school that values educating the whole child, and even more fortunate to have the backing of a very supportive PTO. We're also very grateful to The Walking Classroom for making this a reality for our students. TWC's tagline says it all: walk.listen.learn - what more could a teacher ask for?

If you would like to donate, are interested in learning more about TWC, or considering bringing The Walking Classroom to your school, check out their website here. It's full of information about how it works, testimonials,  and samples of the podcasts for your listening pleasure.

As Laura Fenn often says, "Happy Trails!"





Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mindset... it's not a grey matter :)

If you are a fan of Carol Dweck's Mindset book, you will love this "kid-friendly" (but not syrupy)  text entitled Your Fantastic Elastic Brain (YFEB) by JoAnn Deak, PhD. If you have not read Mindset, get yourself to the library, bookstore, or Annie's Bookstop - and read it now! Not only will it benefit your children/students, you will be inspired to apply it to your own life, too!  Then, immediately find YFEB to share with the children in your life. Seriously, once you read it, you'll want to share it with every child you know!

 

                                                      

YFEB breaks down neuroscience into visually appealing, manageable chunks that children can readily understand. Research has shown that children who learn about their brains, how they function, and that they can grow over-time do increasingly better at improving effort, self-confidence, perseverance, and intelligence than their counterparts who believe in intelligence as a fixed commodity. 

Not only is YFEB visually appealing, it uses scientific language with developmentally appropriate explantations -- and offers interesting metaphors such as a child being a "neuro-sculptor" of his or her own brain. This combination of appealing illustration, combined with theory, engages children and provides them very important information about one of the most important organs in their bodies - the brain. This resource, paired with Goldie Hawn's "Mind-UP" curriculum, offers some of the most comprehensive brain study available for children. The author's website mentions that adolescent and adult versions of this book will be available soon. This text is a perfect match through upper elementary.

Whether you are a teacher looking to introduce brain based learning and stewardship to your students, or a parent trying to support your children, this book is suited well for home or classroom use. There's also an app that reads the book aloud and has brain-based learning games. It can be purchased on i-Tunes for $2.99:




Monday, August 19, 2013

"The Waterhorse" (book and movie)

Here's a delightful children's book set in 1930's Scotland that explores the world of "Kelpie" or "The Loch Ness Monster". This slim chapter book, written in 1990 by Dick King-Smith (of "Babe" fame)  is full of rich dialogue and interesting characters, one of whom is a beloved "monster". While the plot centers mainly around a family's attempts to keep the waterhorse, Crusoe, safe from his foes, it's simplistic plot is actually what makes it such an endearing story to share with children both young and old. 

The movie, released in 2007, is vastly different in plot, offering much more action and suspense, which works equally well. It's one of the rare instances where I've enjoyed a movie as much as the book. It can be streamed on Amazon for $2.99 (at the time of this post) or purchased on DVD for $8.99.

This story would work well in an elementary classroom as a literature circle selection, or as a read aloud. The book includes some of Crusoe's perspective, which would be a perfect springboard for a discussion on point of view.

The audio book, narrated by Nathaniel Parker (narrator of the Artemis Fowl series), is a wonderful companion to the printed book and would be a nice addition to a "listen to reading" station in readers' workshop.





"The Water Horse's" guided reading level, for those who need to pay attention to such things, comes in at a Fountas and Pinnell level Q or Lexile of 910. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Twerp! Recommending a book BEFORE I finish it...

UPDATE: After finishing this book, I still feel it's a great read, but can get a bit edgy at points - think Judy Blume. For that reason, I highly recommend that you preview it so that you can plan how, or if, you may change some of the wording at some points.
Also, I've seen how some reviews have panned the book for the fact that it treats the bullying incident lightly and that bothers some. I think it opens up a great dialogue for discussion and offers a teachable moment for sure.

HERE'S MY ORIGINAL REVIEW:

 I started reading this book aloud to my class yesterday after finishing the ever-popular book Wonder. We're 20 pages in, and Twerp is already a hit. I have no doubt that its appeal will continue throughout its 280 plus pages.

Surprisingly this is Mark Goldblatt's first book for young readers. It reads more like the effort of a more experienced middle grade author.


So, here's one reason why I'm recommending it before I've even finished... There's a scene at the beginning where the main character Julian is with his friend Lonnie and they've made the unfortunate decision to throw a rock at pigeons in a vacant lot "just to see what happens". My students were riveted. Some were hiding their heads in their hands not wanting, but really wanting, to hear more.  They were scolding the character, shouting out at him. Yeah, this stuff was real people. I won't tell you what happened to the pigeons because, well, you're going to read it, right? 

Twerp is a "journal" written in first person voice of the main character Julian. It's an assignment in response to a teacher's directive after Julian returns from being suspended from school. Goldblatt keeps the reader in suspense as to why Julian was suspended, but the stories he tells keep us so entertained we don't really mind waiting. 

This book not only appeals to its intended audience, as Twerp's 1969 time period is a perfect trip down memory lane for its adult reader. That's assuming your a child of the 60's and 70's like I am :) Even if you're not a middle-aged reader, you will find a sense of familiarity and abandon as the boys are able to navigate their neighborhood unfettered by the chains that bind current young adults. 

On the surface Twerp may appear to be a "boys' only" coming of age story but to  relegate it to that status is really short-changing this wonderful middle-grade literature that crosses gender lines and is sure to please.

Twerp was recently published and is available to purchase or check out from your local library.

I received a complimentary review copy from net galley.com in exchange for an honest review.




Monday, June 3, 2013

Teaching Channel - Amazing stuff for, you guessed it, TEACHERS!

Okay teachers (parents too, if you'd like to look at the latest best practices on curriculum and pedagogy) you must visit this site and sign up for their newsletter:

Click here for Teaching Channel website


I have been watching videos on this site for months now. If you are just launching Common Core, visit now! If you are looking to brush up on your skills, visit now! If you would like to watch hour long, high quality programs on teaching using STEM, how to implement math and the core, or reading fundamentals, visit now!

The best part is that the videos are K-12, and there's something for everyone.

I have begun to reflect on my practice so much from watching these videos and the programming on this site. It's very well produced, and the teachers who are showcased are amazing at what they do.

This is one of the best resources that I've found to help teachers perfect their craft.

I hope to offer a drop-in study group in the fall where like-minded colleagues in my building can stop by my room once a month to watch these videos and collaborate.

If you've got a favorite online or print resource that helps you and inspires, leave me a comment and let us know about it!


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Holy Comics, Batman! Pixton for Fun and Pixton for Schools

My students have been busily working over the past month to research energy sources and write persuasive essays explaining whether or not the continued use of the sources is beneficial or detremential to our environment. After having worked so hard, I thought they deserved a treat.  I decided to have them create comics as their summative project, and we began this week using the online comic generator Pixton. Watch this quick information video to get a sense of the power of Pixton.





We started off by using a template of a comic on paper so that students could map out their panels ahead of time. I checked in with them to be sure that they had the right content (quality and quantity) delivered in a way that made sense for a comic. After a few revisions, the students were ready to create in Pixton. 

Many of my students are reluctant drawers, or do not see themselves as artistic. Their faces lit up when I explained that the paper copy was a "rough draft" of sorts, and that they needed to only write the words "polar bear" as a place marker - Pixton would supply the image. Suddenly, the mood in the room changed and the fun began!

Pixton offers a one-month trial to all teachers, for up to 50 students. I contacted them and asked for an extension in time (by a week) and the ability to have trial accounts for 51 students. They replied very quickly and agreed to allow me the exceptions.

I was able to set up my student accounts with their usernames and passwords using an excel spreadsheet. The process went very quickly. You can also have your students use an activation code, which allows them to select their own user information. I like to keep control over these details to ensure privacy and safety, but that may not be necessary with older students. I also like the fact that Pixton for Schools is self-contained and private and need not be shared out with the public. You can determine whether or not you want students to be able to comment on each other's work, and there are other settings that you can set - for example, whether or not images from the internet can be imported.

On to the fun stuff!

The website, found here: Pixton for Schools has many videos that show you how to use the comic generator. It also has an exhaustive help section that can be accessed with one click. And, it's searchable. I found it very helpful to use, and so did many of my students.

Pixton has many stock characters, backgrounds and props (images that can be placed seamlessly in the comic). Students can click on a panel and gain quick access to all of these features. I found the ease with which all students used this product to be impressive.

Character clothing color and style can easily be changed with a click. The panel size and shape as well as border are also easily edited with a few clicks. Don't like a character's size, stance or even position of arms and legs? No worries - click, drag, click... you've made a whole new pose.

Want to change the color of a prop? Click and select on a palette of colors. The possibilities of what you can customize and edit are seemingly endless.

I overheard many students commenting to each other on how much fun this was, and they were all engaged working hard to create amazing work. What they didn't know was that they were not only having fun - they were honing their story grammar skills, exercising their abilities to create meaningful dialogue (even if without quotation marks), planning settings, and working on perspective and visual spatial reasoning while they placed the props and characters. The amount of embedded taught skills are enough to please any teacher!

Here's an example of one of the comics created by a student in my homeroom:



You can sign up for a free, for fun account that allows individual access to many of the characters and backgrounds. If you are a teacher, you can also obtain a one month, free trial, for up to 50 students. Subscription prices for the school year are very reasonably priced. Students can print their comics on completion, share them on the internet, or embed them into a blog, like I've done above. 

Pixton, the web 2.0 comic generator. Give it a try! You'll be happy you did.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ralph Masiello - Illustrator

Ralph Masiello recently visited the elementary school where I teach and met with all of the students. I really enjoyed his presentation, especially the way that he connected with the kids. Not only is he an amazing illustrator, he's a great storyteller. I was fixated on his every word and so were my students.

The real treat came when he started illustrating for us: owls, dolphins, dragons, Sphinxes, and more. Bam, one done! KaPOW another! He made it look so easy. Each of the classrooms got to keep one of his signed drawings that he created for us. Our class received a dolphin leaping out of the water.

My students were so impressed and really raved about the time they spent with Ralph. He left autographed bookmarks with owls on them for each of the students. I smile as I pass my students' desks and see them peeking out of their books.

If you have never experienced Mr. Masiello's work, you are in for a treat. He recently collaborated with his wife to create the start of what I believe will be a series of books, The Mystic Phyles. This book would appeal to mid-late elementary readers who are interested in mythology, cryptology, etc. and who like graphic novels or those which are heavy on illustration.  

Abigail Thaddeus lives with her grandparents in an old, spooky, ramshackle mansion. While her life is certainly unusual, Abigail finds it just plain boring. That is, until she receives an anonymous letter that sends her on a quest to research mythical creatures. With her best friend Charley's help, Abigail learns about beasts familiar (e.g. the unicorn) and unfamiliar (e.g. the bonnacon) and is shocked to discover that they may be more real than she had thought. When a threatening letter from the mysterious Board of Mystical Management arrives, Abigail has to decide whether to pursue knowledge at all costs or choose a safer path. Abigail's adventure is told through her journal entries, sketches, and beast research pages, using a scrapbook style. 




Not only is the book visually stunning, it's made of high quality page stock and the cover is solid too. It will withstand the many, many readings that it will endure as it is passed around a classroom or checked out from the library.


Masiello has also long been known for his work as one of the illustrators for Jerry Pallotta's alphabet books.








from the Icky Reptile book



Not only is Mr. Masiello an amazing illustrator for picture books, he's written a superb set of books to help children (and adults!) learn his tricks of the trade. I borrowed some of these from my local library, and my students and my own children are in the process of creating their own robots, dragons, and other creatures. The drawing lessons in these books may be bit challenging for younger children, but they are perfect for mid-upper elementary and middle school for sure. 




From the Robot Drawing Book



In an age of high-tech overload, it's refreshing to see children engaged in creating with paper, pencil, and marker or pastel. Visit your local library or bookstore and start with one of these wonderful books. Sit down with your children and draw, read and learn. You'll have more fun than you may imagine! If you have favorite "learn to draw" books or other illustrators whose work you admire, leave a comment and share the titles with us.

If you are interested in having Mr. Masiello visit your school or group, you can contact him through his website: www.ralphmasiello.com






Saturday, April 27, 2013

Think Fun! continued...

After I blogged about how wonderful the Think Fun! games are, I found even more reasons to celebrate. First off, did you know that they will replace lost or broken parts for FREE? Yes, FREE! They even pay shipping! And, the turnaround time is amazing. We lost a piece to the Chocolate Fix game this week. I sent an email to the company with their attached request form on Wednesday. I opened the mail today, Saturday, and voila! They had included an entire set of pieces, not just the one missing chocolate. 

They also included a few sample cards from their newest game - Word Around - along with a 20% off coupon to be used on their site. Word Around looks like a lot of fun. I was challenged with the few cards they sent, but not impossibly so. I think kids would really love this game.


Basically it's a word puzzle. You have to look at one of the bands of color (determined by the color of the card back that came previously in the stack) and find the word that is spelled around that band. The key is knowing which letter you need to start with, then it just flows. No need to unscramble. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast! You're competing with others to get the answer.

Some of the words are a bit tricky and may not be known by younger children (e.g. astonish, delicate, trauma) yet, others are readily identifiable: cinnamon, driven, before. This is an excellent game for children who need practice with visual discrimination, tuning out excess stimulus, and maintaining focus. 

It also provides a great opportunity to learn vocabulary without feeling hit over the head with it. Once you've solved a word it's only natural that kids will want to know what it means. 

It's also a great way for children to build problem solving stamina and strategies. Many players will quickly begin to understand that one needs to choose a start letter or look for a common letter pattern to try to form a word, and continuously move along using this strategy. Children who struggle with tasks like this tend to take in the detail or the whole picture, but are not able to chunk their thinking, or look for patterns.

It may seem like the game has limited play value given that there are only so many solutions, but the beauty of its design is that you will only use 1/3 of each card's possible answers in any given game. That, combined with the fact that there are over 300 words, and a game only takes about 10 minutes, means that you can play for quite some time before you've mastered all the words. 

The fun thing is that you'd also be able to easily replicate this game and make your own cards on card stock. That would be a great way for kids to learn new vocabulary and try to come up with words that will trick others.

What a wonderful company to work with. They make excellent products, provide amazing customer support, and know how to get you coming back for more!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Think Fun Games

I've always been a big fan of Think Fun games. I remember when my kids would sit for an hour (okay, 10 minutes... :) and play Zingo! years ago. They LOVED that game, and I did too! Our bookshelf is stocked with many of the Think Fun products, and I thought I'd share our favorites with you.

First off, Rush Hour has been getting lots of play at our house this week.  You can purchase a Jr. version, a deluxe version, or a regular version. They all look something like this:


The differences between them are basically the types of vehicles that you will receive in the package and the level of difficulty of the problem solving cards (although each set does have an easy-medium-difficult variant). We own the Jr. version, and I think we're almost ready to graduate to the regular version (rated 8 and above). And, when I say we're almost ready, I'm including myself! Some of these scenarios are challenging! 

For those who may not be familiar, the game is a "gridlock puzzle" which requires the player to make repeated strategic moves to free one particular vehicle up to move off the 6 x 6 playing board. In the case of the Jr. version, that vehicle happens to be an ice-cream truck. How fun!

Each of the 40 scenarios presented has a solution on the back. The nice thing about the solution set is that it's a bit cryptic, which prevents impulsive cheating. 

While this game is a fun challenge for all, I'd also like to point out the benefits for those who may be parenting children with special needs. I see so much potential for practice for children who:

  • have difficulty persevering with tasks
  • present with executive functioning challenges (i.e. planning and coordinating thinking)
  • struggle with visual spatial awareness (having to line up the cars initially is a great way to practice reading positions on a grid, then having to coordinate moves to free the cars requires lots of thinking about which portions of the grid need to be freed up)



If you purchase the standard/adult version, there are reasonably priced ($6-9) expansion packs of cards you can purchase that also come with bonus vehicles.
I read reviews on Amazon that suggested the Deluxe version wasn't really "deluxe" so you may want to read some of the feedback before you purchase.

I highly recommend this puzzle / game if you have a child who presents with the challenges I mentioned, and I also endorse it for those who just want to see their kids/students working hard to problem solve something that's not a video game.

The next Think Fun game that may be of interest is Distraction (rated 8 to adult). And, it lives up to its name for sure. You can strengthen your memory by taking turns drawing number cards and remembering an increasing sequence of digits. Draw a distraction card and you must answer a quirky question before reciting the numbers in order. If you repeat the sequence incorrectly, and get caught, you collect all of the cards. The first player to run out of cards wins.  


This game initially caused some frustration for a few members in our family. If your child has a weak digit span (i.e. ability to remember a sequence of numbers and a common measure of short term memory in neuro-physcological testing), or is diagnosed with ADHD  or dyslexia he or she is likely to be very challenged by this game. That said, you shouldn't shy away from introducing it. You should encourage its use in a non-threatening way. You can modify it to make it inclusive by allowing pencil and paper recording of the numbers for a few rounds until your child learns the rules and becomes accustomed to the game play. Then you can remove and fade the supports. You could also play in teams and pair your child with a "stronger" opponent. You could also bend the rules a bit, and program in the distraction cards at intervals that match with your child's digit span in order to build success. This game is a great tool in developing digit span, and it happens to be fun too!

Next up, Chocolate Fix (also rated 8 and up), the sweet logic game. It's like Sodoku without numbers. Like Rush Hour, it has 40 scenario cards that come with the game.

This is a game of logic and deductive reasoning, and a very inviting way to begin to explore the logic used in Sodoku puzzles without laying math on top. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have any extension packs, but the 40 challenges in the game box make it worth the $15 price tag.

If you don't already own Think Fun! games, consider checking them out. If you do own some of them, comment with your favorites. All of these games are on our shelf and have been well-loved and enjoyed. Let me know if you enjoy them too!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Remembering all that is good about Boston

I'm shocked and saddened that the city I love, Boston, and so many of her citizens and visitors, were victims of such a tragic event yesterday. Let's try to remember all that is good about Boston. It's all we have right now. May the days ahead bring answers and healing for those who are suffering. May the spirit of Boston rise up and conquer, as it has done so many times in the past.







Monday, April 15, 2013

101qs

I used 101qs with my students as a warm-up activity this week. 101qs is the brain-child of Dan Meyer. It's basically a website where people upload videos and images which others view to determine whether or not they are complex or perplexing. By asking questions and submitting them, people help the individual images/videos gain popularity, or not. If you don't like an image, just click on the "I'm bored" button and go to the next. If you have a question, submit it and see what others asked about the same image or video.

Here's a sample of what popped up today:


My first question is, "When is 150 years from now?" followed up by, "How much money would one need to retire 150 years from now?" and lastly, "Is this a true statistic?" Some of these are "solvable" and others are what I would call "wonder-able" or "guess-able". What questions does this image create for you?

You may be tempted to see these as merely mathematical problems (which they absolutely are), but they really lend themselves to perspective taking, inferencing, context clues, language development, critical thinking (e.g. what may be missing to actually be able to solve a problem), and how to formulate questions. It's a great opportunity for teachers (and parents) to introduce the idea of "thick vs. thin" questions (i.e. those that garner a yes or no answer, versus those that actually require a thoughtful response). The list of applications is really infinite.

The site is fully searchable, by grade level or keyword, and some of the images and videos even have common core lessons attached to them.

You need not be a teacher to use this site, and in fact, I encourage parents to do so. You may be amazed at the discussions that it can generate between you and your child or teen. I was blown away by some of the questions that my students asked this week about this image:


Can you imagine what some of them may have been?

Visit 101qs today. It isn't just for kids! Also, don't forget about Wonderopolis, a site I first mentioned a few weeks ago. Combine the two, and you'll have an interesting way to spend time chatting about things you never imagined!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Look Up: Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard"

In the Northeast US, signs of spring are finally starting to surface, albeit slowly! I love the sprouting flowers, longer days with sun shining, and the smell of freshly thawed soil. Corny, I know, but true! I especially enjoy the return of the birds. 

Just yesterday I watched a busy robin plucking out tasty worms from the wet grass in our backyard while an industrious chipmunk was by her side washing his cute little face. It got me thinking about birdwatching. I've done a bit here and there; my friends and family will remember my fascination -bordering on obsession - with the hummingbirds at my feeder last year. I've never really been a birdwatcher per se (assuming Angry Birds doesn't count).

I did a quick search at the library today, and online, and came up with an impressive selection of books, journals and games that you can use with your families (or your students) if you want to venture out to look for and listen to birds this spring. I'm not a pro, but I'd imagine you'll need some binoculars and a birding hat, just to make it official!

This picture book, by Annette LeBlanc Cate is wonderfully written, and creatively illustrated. I knew I'd enjoy it when I saw the funny text bubbles on each page. It appears that even birds ask their moms to remove the crusts from their bread! But don't be fooled, this isn't just a lighthearted look at birds. Cate consulted with Jim Barton, a veteran birder associated with the Boston office of the Audubon Society. The result is a kid-friendly look at bird identification/classification, migration, shapes, colors, feathers, habitats and more. 

Although "An Egg is Quiet" also contains illustrations of insect eggs as well as birds, it's definitely worth reviewing as part of your birding adventure. We have this book on our shelf at home. If you aren't familiar with Dianna Hutts Aston / Syliva Long's collaborations, you need to be. These books are lyrically written and provide some of the most detailed nature drawings I've seen in children's picture books. 


It can also be fun to identify the nests, as well as the birds and the eggs. This "Take-along-guide" is a perfect resource for just that!



Let us not forget the "fathers" of birdwatching! As many of you know, we have Audubon and Peterson to thank for their efforts in drawing and cataloging birds. These two picture books provide excellent, child-friendly introductions to their work and legacies.

Once you're out on the hunt for birds, you'll want to record your findings, and these two journals would  be perfect for children to keep track of the variety of birds they see.





Bingo anyone? This game looks like fun! I've not actually seen it, so I cannot comment on its quality. It did receive high reviews on Amazon.



And, last but not least... One of the things that I think would make birdwatching especially fun would be having an app that can identify birdsongs - like having a birdcall version of Shazam! (the song ID app). It appears that this technology isn't too far off, but not yet available this spring. Here's a link to an article that I found on the topic:


If you decide to birdwatch, leave a comment and let me know what types of birds are common in your area. If you're an avid birdwatcher, suggest additional resources that may be of interest.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Wordless picture books... not just for little ones!

One of my favorite things to do is read picture books. I love browsing the children's section of our library to find what's new and interesting.

Wordless picture books, in particular, provide many opportunities for parents and teachers to connect with children and young adults in varied ways. 

Even though you may think that true reading only occurs when there are actual words on a page, wordless books actually require their "readers" to comprehend and pay very close attention to visual clues and cues, a skill that many children struggle with and could certainly use additional practice in order to master.

They also level the playing field for struggling readers, or those who may be English Language Learners. What a wonderful opportunity for students to share with younger buddies as well!

Wordless books also place a greater emphasis on a child's ability to follow story grammar (i.e. the beginning, middle, end, problem-solution, setting, and characters). And, the absence of words actually develops vocabulary and language usage at even higher levels than that of printed text - a wordless book reader needs to be able to generate vocabulary independently in order to be able to articulate the story internally or for others.

Inferencing - combining background knowledge with textual clues - becomes an even higher level skill when one is challenged by wordless text. 

What types of activities can parents and teachers pair with wordless texts?


  • Encourage story telling. What a effective method to develop oral language!
  • Practice comprehension in a non-threatening way. Predict, infer, and question away without having to write or read.
  • Inspire creative writing - either by retelling the story or using it as a springboard for telling what may happen next.
  • Developing sequencing and cause/effect patterning and reasoning either through discussion or creating a graphic organizer to capture thinking.
  • Learning how to create and write dialogue 
  • Use the story to create a script or reader's theater and act it out.



Barnes and Noble has a complete selection of wordless books that appeal to the young (pre-k) through adolescent or even high school reader that you can browse HERE

This book would be a wonderful complement to a middle-grade study of slavery



And this looks like it would be a powerful companion for middle or high school students examining civilizations and empires:



My writing classes used the well-loved Chris VanAllsburg book, "Harris Burdick" this week to create their own stories based on the story starters presented in the text. I knew I had a hit on my hands when the students begged me to take their stories home to finish them!







I'd love to hear about favorite picture books from those of you who use them in your classrooms, or parents who share them with your children.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Math fact fluency - what teachers want you to know...

Spring brings birds, daffodils, warm weather, and standardized testing! Along with that comes stress. Parents and teachers want to be sure their children/students are performing at or above standards, and that they are making effective progress. Unfortunately, many students get nervous and wonder if they'll be promoted a grade if they don't do "well", and many teachers worry about the very real possibility that their evaluations will be tied to the results of these assessments (that's a post for another day). 

So, what does this have to do with math fact fluency? 

As I work with my students to prepare them throughout the year for the state mathematics assessment (and more importantly to think and perform like real world mathematicians) I continue to witness how many students' problem solving abilities are greatly impaired because they have not mastered basic facts across all operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  

Why is math fact mastery important?

We can only hold so much information in our "working memory" (the part of your brain that stores and manages information for a short amount of time). If a child's working memory is tied up trying to remember a math fact, while also trying to learn how to simplify fractions, or find a common denominator, he or she is likely to become frustrated and give up. In many cases, children start to see themselves as "not good at math" when that's simply not true. A bit of practice can make all the difference!

If we want to teach our children to eventually become competitive players in a global market, we need to give them the skills they need to succeed. In the United States and other countries, there's a recent push to introduce and expand STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). If we want our children to participate meaningfully in these learning experiences, they need to be mathematically literate. Mathematical literacy depends greatly on math fact fluency.

As parents, we get very concerned when our children cannot read - that is decode the text. Yet, somehow, we often do not seem to get as alarmed when our children haven't mastered the basic building blocks of higher level mathematical thinking. We need to be concerned, and we need to do something about it.


How does a child reach mastery? 

You know the answer to this, but I'll post it anyway because it's worth repeating: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! The good news is that our children are growing up in a very technologically advanced age. There are myriad ways for them to gain computational fluency without having to pull out the old-fashioned flash cards that many of us used as kids (although there's absolutely nothing wrong with them). 

It's our job as parents and teachers to ensure that children are taking the time daily - yes, daily - to actually practice the facts until they reach mastery.

Here are some of my favorite sites, some subscription and others free, that help children to practice. It's important that the practice have an element of urgency and timing to it. That's what helps students to gain automaticity with the facts:


IXL Math  Is a subscription site that has fact practice and lots of other leveled math problems. Although a very useful site, IXL does not time students in a way that creates a sense of urgency in their fact practice. The site allows students to solve 20 problems free each day without having an account. Yearly memberships average approximately $80.00

Reflex Math Has more of a game-based, timed focus on math fact practice. Home subscriptions can be purchased for approximately $35.00

First in Math  game-based site that focuses on lots of aspects of fact fluency and number sense and many of the games provide a sense of urgency to solve the problems quickly. This site can be accessed for a yearly fee of $30.00.

Xtra Math is a free web-based practice site that also builds fluency through timed practice. Reviews from my students suggest that it isn't as much fun as some of the subscription sites.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has created a free game site that parents, students, and teachers can access. It's called Calculation Nation.

There are many iPhone, iPad, and Android apps that also focus on fluency. I'm not going to post those here as you can easily find them by searching for those on your device. 

Once students have begun to master facts, there are many board and puzzle games that can be used to practice and apply the facts in fun ways. All of these are available on Amazon.

CheckMath!, which plays like checkers, was developed by a math teacher to help students with factors and multiples.



For younger students, Sum Swamp, is a fun way to practice addition and subtraction:



The "24" game was developed many years ago by the creators of the First In Math site mentioned above. This problem solving game requires players to strategically combine multiple operations to arrive at an answer of "24".



A favorite in our house is "Shut the Box". A dice rolling game where low score wins:


No matter which method children use to practice, the most important thing is that  they actually make sure there's  commitment to doing it daily. Your child's teacher (and eventually your child) will thank you!









Monday, April 8, 2013

Teaching Tolerance

Do you know about this incredible organization? I first learned about them a few years ago and have been reading their magazine and newsletter ever since. I recently ordered some of their free (yes, FREE!) film kit resources. The materials are most relevant to those residing in the US and Canada. TT is a project of the Southern Law Poverty Center, and as so aptly stated on their website they are: "A place for educators to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools." 

What does that mean for educators? One stop "shopping" for amazing resources to teach students K-12. I just received two wonderfully packaged DVD sets from them today. I'm excited to preview them, and hopefully show them to my students.  


One of the DVD's titled "A Time for Justice" is suggested for use with grades 6-8






 It ties nicely with our recent Civil Rights literature circles in which we broke into small leveled groups and read the books "Glory Be", "One Crazy Summer", and "The Watsons Go to Birmingham". 

The other video titled "One Survivor Remembers" explores Gerda Weissman Klein's survival story and ties in with our recent reading of "Number the Stars".




Given the grades 6-8 ratings, I may have to select excerpts of these videos to ensure that the content is developmentally appropriate. Within the DVD sleeves, each kit also contains CD's with lesson plans and prints of primary sources that relate to the issue and period in history.


Teaching Tolerance's educational kits and subscriptions to its magazine are FREE to classroom teachers, librarians, school counselors, school administrators, professors of education, youth directors at houses of worship and employees of youth-serving nonprofit organizations.


I highly recommend subscribing to the magazine (in print or digital format) as they are extremely well written and contain a variety of articles on themes both contemporary and historical.


If you are an educator looking for high quality resources to supplement your reading, social studies, or history curriculum you should check out the Teaching Tolerance Website





Saturday, April 6, 2013

"One Step Too Far" - adult fiction/mystery

I'm finding that I'm really enjoying UK imports these days, from BBC America television to new novel releases. I just finished reading an advance copy of "One Step Too Far", the page-turning debut novel from UK writer, Tina Seskis.  

Excerpted from the author's GoodReads page: Tina never intended writing a novel. She wrote One Step Too Far over a two month period in summer 2010 and then gave up writing entirely for well over a year, before writing her second novel A Serpentine Affair in autumn 2011. Her third book (working title Collision) is due for completion in 2013, and is the coming together of a key character from each of the first two novels, if Tina can make the plot work. 

You can buy it when it's released, this Monday, April 15th (after you file your taxes, of course!).



This book will likely be the talk of summer beach read circles (although it's writing surpasses what we typically expect from that genre) as it has all of the right ingredients that appeal to its target audience: suspense, drama, and plot twists extraordinaire. 

As the story opens, we meet Cat, a young mother who's in the process of running away from her family. The novel unfolds with a carefully restrained plot that allows us slowly into her secrets and motivations. Seskis deftly weaves characters and their perspectives throughout, allowing us bits and pieces of important clues as the story unfolds.


I enjoyed reading "One Step Too Far", although I did find the conclusion a bit too satisfying. In Seskis' defense, authors can't win in this regard as reviewers either praise them for a solid ending or pan them for leaving us hanging. That said, I thought many times that I'd figured out the twists, but I continued to be proven wrong. That alone made it a fun book to read. 


"One Step Too Far" is definitely worth  reading. You don't need to wait until summer, either! You won't be disappointed and will likely find yourself unable to put it down as you try to find out what could possibly motivate Em/Cat to leave her family.

I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher. My opinions are not influenced in any way by having received the complimentary copy.