Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Do Spring Scales Work?

Did you know that the spring scale got its name because it uses actual springs to measure mass/weight?

Okay, I'm not the most mechanically inclined person. Uh um...actually even the thought of visiting the furniture aisles at IKEA makes me shudder. But, I am interested in learning how things work. Chances are you and your kids are, too. ;)

So, here's how the spring scale works:
The more weight that is placed on the scale, the more the spring stretches. Up inside the scale's casing, a needle is attached to the spring. So, when the spring S-T-R-E-T-C-H-E-S, the needle also moves, and points to a particular weight reading. Basic mechanics that have served classroom science activities--and the whole world--well for ages!

Teachers, in your next simple machines lesson, whip out your old spring scale and talk about how it works!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hands-On Problem Solving Skills

Without hands-on problem solving skills, kids will never be able to get what they want in life.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Everyday Science Inquiry: Ask HOW Things Work

We don't need to be Einsteins to teach science inquiry to our kids. And, it doesn't even take much time. We can teach children to think like scientists by simply building smart science questions into our everyday conversations.

While shopping for a kitchen appliance at Target Saturday (yeah, that's how exciting my weekends are), I overheard something wonderful. A mom was pointing to each blender, slow cooker and food processor and asking her son "...and how do you think this one works?"

Wow, such a simple thing to do once in a while, and this question yields big benefits! It gets kids to wonder, think in terms of HOW and WHY, and get curious enough to figure out things for themselves. Plus, this is no ordinary thinking. It's the holy grail of thinking--that higher-order, critical thinking that all educators and parents dream they can inspire!

Even very young children are capable of beginning to think critically. (They can definitely manipulate stuff strategically to see how it works, too). The boy answering his mom's questions at Target was probably only 4-years old.

The same is true for my family. Like most toddlers, my 20-month old loves to take everything apart and try to put it back together. (This is why you should never visit my house unless you call ahead. We need time to shovel a path for you through the building blocks, bricks, Tupperware containers and unidentified objects.) And, believe it or not, my grandmother told us that when my dad was only 2-years old, he found a screwdriver and took off EVERY door knob in the house! (Hmm, insert family jokes here about screws being loose.)

Seriously though, kids of all ages are typically capable of more than you think they are. Keep your expectations lofty. Teach them to constantly ask themselves HOW and WHY. Then, their curiosity will take over, and they'll be begging to do some hands-on learning!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mrs. P's "Be-a-Famous-Writer" Contest

As school gets back in session, encourage children to brush up on their creative writing skills. Mrs. P is offering a great opportunity to motivate kids to write and maybe even make a name for themselves while doing just that! is holding a story-writing contest for ages 4 to 13. The grand prize winners will have their stories ready by Mrs. P on her site, and original illustrations will even be created to bring the child's book to life! Visit: for more details and the official rules. Entry dates are September 1 through October 15, so don't miss it.

Check out Mrs. P's site while you're there! It offers read-alongs, interactive books, games, and more:

What Teachers Wish They Could Buy in Their Local Teacher Stores

I recently asked my Twitter followers what kinds of products they wished they had seen more of in their neighborhood teacher stores this back-to-school season. Their answers were right on the money! Here are a few:

  • materials that make students truly think--which helps them understand, not just memorize.
  • no more "stuff" for the sake of providing kids with stuff--materials that really help kids build and use their imaginations.
  • no more rote flash cards and worksheets! Step. It. Up.
  • real professional development books, fewer "old school" fill-in-the-blank workbooks
  • tools that are compatible with interactive white boards
(About my Twitter followers: I have about 1075 followers--mostly classroom teachers and education-minded parents, but some are school administrators or technology specialists, employees of education organizations/non-profits, homeschoolers, and toy/education business owners.)

Wanna follow me on Twitter, too?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Break All the Rules Sometimes...Let Students Take Risks!

Think about how you feel when you're watching this video and take a professional development lesson from it:

Go ahead! Throw out some boring traditional instruction in favor of creating learning environments and lessons that truly inspire and innovate. Encourage kids to let their hair down once in a while. They'll actually learn and enjoy themselves while doing it.

Don't let kids get obsessed with just getting the "correct answer". Learning happens when kids feel comfortable enough to take risks!

Friday, July 17, 2009

5 Funnest Things I Did with My Daughter Today

  1. Tickled a toad with a stick to make him hop.
  2. Quietly watched a butterfly for 20 seconds when it landed on my knee.
  3. Picked cookie dough out of ice cream so she could have plain vanilla.
  4. Took the new Cozy Coupe toy car for a spin in the driveway.
  5. Clapped at dinner when the ketchup made its appearance.
18-month olds are so much fun!

Friday, July 3, 2009

10 Tips for Building Your Classroom Library

1. Don't Only Include Books
Research says that it doesn't matter what kids read--they just need to read a lot and on the right level. Books are great, but so are magazines, comic books, online text, postcards, catalogs, text on cereal boxes--whatever!

2. Select Books at Correct Reading Level
Cater to students' diverse reading levels. For independent reading, each child should read books right on, or a little below, her reading level. Plus, you'll want books at a slightly higher level for guided reading groups. Aim even higher and also make sure to have books on hand that advanced peers (or you) will read to other students. Kids may progress rapidly, so ensure your collection is large enough to "grow" with your class.

3. Find Books on All Kinds of Topics
Book topics can make or break a child's love of reading. You may be able to anticipate some topic preferences based on age, but better yet, survey kids at the beginning of the year to find out what they like!

4. Explore the World of Non-fiction
Many children gravitate toward factual books, especially ones with beautiful, real-life photography rather than illustrations. Animal fact books are almost always a sure bet. Don't forget books that are functional and hands-on (cookbooks, how-to crafting books, and more).

5. Consult Online Booksellers' "Favorites"
Internet bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble provide favorites lists created by customers--many of whom are experienced parents and teachers. Search these sites to find lists of books recommended for children who are the same age as your students.

6. Let 'em Make Their Own Books
Students love to read books that they, or peers, make! Kids can write stories and then draw pictures for each page. They can even personalize their homemade books with family photos. Collate the books using construction paper, a hole-punch, and yarn. Or, reduce required prep time by purchasing sets of Make a Story Journals. Hey, you join in and make a book for your classroom too! Your lil' admirers will clamor to read it. :)

7. Ask for Recommendations
Tap into friends and colleagues for suggestions. Ask other teachers, your librarian, parents, neighbors, and anyone else willing to give their 2 cents.

8. Think Big!
Add giant-size books to your collection. Big books are just a little more fun, and children are captivated by their jumbo nature. Of course, these "giants" make it easier for children to see pages during shared reading, but please let kids read them during independent reading time as well!

9. Cater to Special Needs
Simply put, all kids have special needs. Anticipate common issues like attention difficulties. Select some books that have very simple page backgrounds, a lot of empty (and preferably white) space around the words, and words that are printed in the same, predictable location on every page.

10. Give Easy Access
Squat down at your students' height and make sure you can reach books safely and easily. Many teachers store books (grouped by reading level) in milk crates or on low bookshelves. I'm a big fan of sling bookshelves for really young children. These shelves display books with the covers, rather than spines, facing out. It's almost as if the covers scream, "Read me!"

How to Keep Kids' Minds Sharp This Summer

6 Simple, inexpensive solutions to prevent kids from losing academic ground over the summer:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Video of Fun Room FILLED with Hands-On Learning Tools!

Do I have a fun job or what? Get an inside look at Learning Resources headquarters!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Help Your Kids KNOW They are Capable of Greatness

Lift them up. Make them feel they can do anything. Video:

Oh, and please look past the fact that the video is from Budweiser, who also makes non-alcoholic beer, BTW. ;)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

10 Ways to Improve a Child's Handwriting

Many educators no longer consider handwriting a crucial skill because technology has changed our world. (When’s the last time you wrote a letter by hand? So, keep this skill in perspective.) Most of us, even kids, can communicate faster using a keyboard/keypad rather than with handwriting. (My cousin’s 12-year old scored 88 WPM on one of those just-for-fun typing quizzes on Facebook!)

Nonetheless, the skill of handwriting is still somewhat important. There’s evidence that children who write better and faster get better grades. However, remember that good handwriting is not an indicator of success. Look at your doctor’s handwriting!

Before trying to help a child who’s experiencing handwriting difficulties, determine if the issue’s physical or cognitive. If the child struggles with fine motor skills or forming letters, the problem is likely physical. If the child can’t remember how to form a letter of the alphabet or takes too long deciding what to write, there could be a cognitive issue.

Most handwriting problems are physical. Fine motor practice helps, but gross motor play is equally important. After all, many experts believe the increase in handwriting problems (1 in 3 kids struggle now) is tied to the decreased physical activity of today’s children. Handwriting involves body posture, and proper use of hands, arms, head, and eyes! If you suspect your child is having physical difficulties, try these activities:

1. Bilateral, outdoor play activities
Reduce time in front of the computer and video games in favor of outdoor play! Playing “human wheelbarrow”, crawling, and climbing help connect the motor-neural pathways needed for handwriting.

2. Game time & clap songs!
Engage kids in games that require hand-eye coordination such as Operation (tweezer games), Skeletons in the Closet, badminton, tennis, baseball, or go “old-school” with pick-up sticks, jacks, and marbles. Betcha your little ones know these fun clap songs too: Miss Mary Mack and Down, Down Baby (…down by the rollercoaster…)

3. Lil’ “Iron Chefs”
Cook with your kids. Let them knead dough, roll it out, cut it with cookie cutters, and pick up food with tongs. On days when you don’t want to deal with the mess, kids can use a pretend baking set.

4. Artsy fartsy
Creative activities that involve paper cutting, folding (origami), gluing, and drawing hardly feel like fine motor practice! Give them lots of opportunities to draw with various instruments—pencils, colored pencils, markers, gel pens, crayons, pastels, and calligraphy pens. Sculpting with play dough or clay is also good (kneading, pushing, pulling, and cutting).

5. Civilized diners
Make it a house rule to use silverware at every meal. Yes, the family will look very sophisticated on pizza or burger night. ;) Also try chopsticks some nights!

6. Dressing skills
Lacing, tying, buttoning and snapping are important life skills that can help strengthen some of the same muscles used for handwriting. Use clothes, shoes, or doll clothes for these activities, or entice kids with fun toys that teach the same skills.

7. Finger writing
Have kids practice writing with their fingers in, or on, different textures—shaving cream smeared on the table, play dough, clay, or sand. (For extra help, they can use letter molds as a starting point or trace their fingers over magnetic letters.)

8. The “write” environment
Make sure your child has a good chair and table at the right height for comfortable writing. Demonstrate how to sit with correct posture, rest your arms on the table, hold the writing instrument, and keep your torso in the right position.

9. “Uh, thank ya, thank ya very much.” (Elvis voice)
Get kids into a habit of writing handwritten thank you cards for gifts they receive.

10. Explicit handwriting practice
Help kids learn to write both legibly and quickly (handwriting fluency) with repeated practice using different kinds of pencils (different thicknesses and grips). Letter stamps and line-ruled paper, journals, or dry-erase boards can offer even more support.

If you try these techniques without success, consult a professional—your child’s teacher, school reading specialist, and/or an occupational therapist. Your child may need physical therapy or help overcoming a learning disability which is causing cognitive difficulties.

Just remember that not all cognitive issues indicate a learning disability. Sometimes kids simply have trouble remembering letter shapes, deciding what to write about, or taking too long to include too many details when they write. Your child’s teacher can give you some simple ways to tackle these cognitive issues.

Whatever your child’s struggles with handwriting, help her to not be self-conscious about it. People tend to think of handwriting as reflections of themselves. Help your child realize that she will get better with practice (and probably with age), and that it’s okay that her writing isn’t a masterpiece now!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

5 Recycled Multisensory Learning Games

1. Talk Box (ages 2-6)
Make It: Get crafty and glam up the outside of an old tissue box. Then, make picture cards by pasting magazine photos on index cards cut in half. Use a mix of photos--some objects and some activities (a family eating dinner, kids playing ball, girl brushing her teeth, etc.) Place one photo on each side of the cards. (Hint: make them double sided for even more game possibilities.)

Play It: Kids draw 2-3 pics from the box and must tell a story using them all. The idea is to get kids to develop oral language skills (talking and listening), but they could write their stories instead. Award points for originality and inclusion of all objects into the story. The highest-scoring storyteller wins! Younger children or low-profiency English language learners can practice vocabulary by identifying pictures or matching like objects. Students with special needs, such as autism, can use the cards for communication purposes. (You can lay out the pictures and allow a child to point to what he/she is trying to tell you rather than vocalizing it.)

2. Mystery Reading Treasure Chest (ages 3-10)
Make It: Secretly select a book you'd like to read with your children. Familiarize yourself with it and collect clues (objects) you feel represent the story well. For example, for Charlotte's Web, you might gather a plastic spider ring, plush pig and a picture of a farm cut out of a magazine. Place the objects in a shoe box with the lid shut tight until it's time to play! For added effect, decorate the "treasure chest" beforehand with paint, glitter and jewels.

Play It: Let children remove one clue from the treasure chest without peeking at the other contents. Discuss what everyone already knows about the object (prior experiences, etc.) Repeat this for all clues, one by one. Next, see if kids can predict which title they're about to read or what the story will be about. (If a child guesses the book's title, he/she can select the book to read next time and bring in some clues from home to put in the treasure chest.) Only one thing left to do now--reveal the mystery title and read it together! Variation: have kids write their own stories to be featured.

3. Shake the Can Math Game
(ages 5-12)
Make It: Using construction paper and markers, decorate an empty oatmeal container. Wipe out the inside and toss in some dominoes (or dice).

Play It: Kids shake the can, dump out some dominoes and do math problems with the numbers they toss. Advanced kids can multiply and divide, while younger kids can add, subtract or simply count! For added reinforcement and challenge, have children write their equations on paper or see how many equations they can create and solve in only 2 minutes (get out a kitchen timer). This is a great way to make otherwise boring math drills much more multisensory!

4. Tater Toss Word Game (ages 5-12)
Make It: Use a slightly damp and soapy cloth to gently clean the inside of an empty potato chip cannister (the cylindrical ones that hold evil tasty taters you should enjoy only in moderation). After you've wiped off the greasiness, run around the block 8 times to remove the grease from inside your arteries! Now back to the game...use craft paint and stickers to decorate the cannister. Throw in word tiles from a game you already have (Scrabble, Upwords) or even magnetic letters.

Play It: Kids take turns tossing the "taters" and making words with the letters they roll. Many ability-levels can play together since each individual child can build words at his/her own level. Pre-readers can simply say aloud the names of the letters or pronounce the sounds each letter makes instead. So you see, this spud game teaches the alphabet, phonics, word building and spelling all in one!

5. Touchy Feely Box (ages 3-8)
Make It: Decorate an empty tissue box any way you'd like. Go on an exploration and gather nature souveniers from your trip--leaves, rocks, pine cones, wild flowers, etc. Place all your souveniers in the box.

Play It: This one is real simple. Kids reach in and try to guess what the object is that they grab. They can describe what they feel first or ask you 20 questions and hope that the answers they get help them make a more educated guess! Sensory activities are beneficial and fun for all kids but especially for early learners and those who may have special needs.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

10 Ways to Boost Your Preschooler's Literacy

Did you know researchers have linked early literacy with high school graduation rates? Here are 10 simple ways to invest in your child's future by jump starting their literacy potential:

1. Think of pretend play as your young child's job! Role play fosters language development, a precursor to becoming a successful reader. Encourage kids to play house, school, store, dolls, cars, or doctor. Their imagination is the only limit!

2. Talk, talk, talk and listen. Silence is NOT golden! Help your kids develop key language skills by getting them to describe objects, their feelings, etc. Show them you're very interested in what they have to say, too. This not only builds their confidence but also models how to focus attention and be a good listener.

3. Give babytalk the boot. Don't "dumb down" things when you talk to your kids. They can handle tough vocabulary. Case in point: when talking with one another about dinosaurs, kids have no problem using terms such as tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus or triceratops!

4. Sing a ling and chime a rhyme together. Let your hair down and belt out your favorite songs, chant nursery rhymes, or make silly animal sounds. Create goofy lyrics, smooth jazz scats, or cool hip hop tunes. Add fun dance moves to boost the learning--seriously, research supports a connection between kinesthetic movement and cognition!

5. Let your child see you read on your own frequently. Notice I didn't say you need to read books. Read whatever you like--magazines, newspapers, online articles, or the TV Guide--it really doesn't matter!

6. Post words throughout your house! Hang posters in your child's bedroom, frame a poem for the foyer, put a funny note on the fridge, place a wooden cutout of the word family on the mantle--whatever. Exposing kids to lots of examples of print in their environment is beneficial.

7. Let 'em scribble. Pretend writing develops fine motor skills needed for handwriting but also helps kids understand a very basic concept--that they can convey messages with written marks. If scribbling on paper is a struggle, have kids use their index fingers to practice "writing" in sand or fingerpaint. Teach kids to recognize letter shapes by name, too. Show your child a page with only a few words on it, and ask her to point out a specific letter.

8. Teach every letter individually. Many parents think that learning the alphabet is mostly about the Alphabet Song. While that song's great, kids also need to begin learning the sound(s) each letter makes. Chant all the vowel sounds together or pick a letter of the day and go around the house pointing to objects whose names start with that letter. Help your child practice making each letter sound repeatedly.

9. Read to your child regularly, of course. But again, it doesn't have to always be books. You can even read aloud everyday non-fiction like postcards and catalogs that come in the mail, cereal boxes, etc.

10. Do some Q & A. Before reading aloud, peak through the book with your child and talk about the pictures. Can they predict what will happen? While reading, stop on some pages and ask your child questions about the story. At the end, ask what your child's favorite part was, why he liked it, and how he'd describe the book to a friend. Predicting and summarizing are critical thinking skills!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5 Make-Your-Own Outdoor Learning Games

1. Phonics Limbo

Make a limbo stick out of an old cardboard wrapping paper tube, 5 paper towel tubes taped together, or a broomstick. When limboing under the stick, each kid has to say a word that starts with a letter (or sound) announced by the last child who just finished limboing. For their answers to count, children must say them aloud while they're still bent backwards but before their bodies finish clearing the stick.

2. Word Families Ring Toss

Collect 5 cardboard paper towel tubes and 15 heavy-duty paper plates. Use scissors to cut an X in the center of 5 plates. Then, push a paper towel tube up through each X, making the plate the base of a ring toss stand. Write a common word family on the top part of the base of each stand (-at, -an, -it, -en, -op.) Cut out the centers of 10 paper plates to create rings, and write a consonant on each ring. Kids toss the rings on the stands and get a point for each real word they create. (For example, if the m consonant ring lands on the -at stand, they earn a point for building mat.) Tip: to get the stands to stay upright in grass, poke large sticks in the ground first and place the stands, through the paper towel tubes, over the sticks.

3. States & Capitals Tag

To be considered safe, a child must yell out the name of a state and its capital before getting tagged. Each state/capital can only be used once during a game. For even more of a challenge, the child who's It yells out the state, and the child in danger of being tagged must say the correct corresponding capital. Otherwise, tag, you're it!

4. Jump Rope Math

Challenge kids to jump rope and say aloud the right numbers while keeping with the rhythm. Cater this game to each child's level. Kids can simply count up or down as they jump, or yell out all the fact families for any equation (4 + 5 = 9, 5 + 4 = 9, 9 - 4 = 5, and 9 - 5 = 4). Ramp up the difficulty by having them say aloud their times tables or even 5-7 fractions (of their choice) in ascending or descending order--phew, a toughie!

5. Rhyming Chalk Talk

Draw 10 chalk pictures representing 5 rhyming pairs of words (such as man and fan or mop and top) on the sidewalk. Then, kids take turns saying aloud the rhyming pairs as they use a watering can to pour water on pictures (to identify the rhyming matches). Water makes it more fun, helps children see which pictures have been matched already (each picture can only be used once), and cleans the sidewalk! (On a hot day, use the hose instead! If water conservation is a concern in your area, save rainwater to use in the watering can.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quick Assessment Tip for Centers

As the busy end of the school year approaches, it's easy to get caught up in trying to fit in the most important lessons before you run out of time. (Yes, this time of year is enough to make you feel like you have a bobble head.) Just remember that you're also winding down the school year as a whole. (Whew!) It's even more important to take a big-picture view of the year's successes for each individual child.

When you're looking over each child's accomplishments, include in their portfolios some informal anectodal assessment notes from the very end of the year. That's when kids really shine and show all they've learned! One easy way to do informal assessment is to use your centers.

First, you can pull students aside during center time and do one-on-one assessments. Another option is to just observe students doing center activities. (The observation option is SUPER SIMPLE yet still tells a true story of what the child knows! So if you're out of energy this time of year, don't feel guilty about taking the observation route.) Take anecdotal notes on index cards, sticky notes or a notepad during observations or one-on-one meetings.

Many teachers prefer to use a notepad with line-ruled or grid pages. Then, you can just dedicate each page to a different student. On each line of the notepad, note the date and what the student knows. Sample entry: “5/21/09: While using magnetic letters, Megan knows letter names and initial sounds for a, n, p, b, r and t. She can also build a C-V-C word and track simple words with her finger as she tries to read them.” (Wow! Yes, you can observe all this and more during just one activity!)

For quick reference, keep these notes alphabetized by the child’s last name within the notepad. Then, specific notes will be easy to find when you're ready to place them into each child's portfolio in the next couple of weeks. (Easy, easy, easy--oh, yeah!)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

5 Hands-On Word Families Activities

Learning word families is so powerful. Once kids learn even one common rime (word ending), they're suddenly able to build many new words. They simply add a different consonant or blend onset (word beginning) and then swap it out with another and another--voila! How motivating for beginning readers!

Because they are highly motivating and rely on the use of consistent patterns, word families activities are also ideal for English language learners or kids with special needs. Increase the engagement and effectiveness even more by making the activities tactile and kinesthetic. Here are a few ways to do just that:
  1. Word Family Bug Swat--Cut large bugs out of construction paper. (Better yet, have your students do this as part of an insect-themed unit.) Then, print various words on the bugs or just the rimes. Have students use a Word Swatter to hit the words that belong in a word family that another student calls out. Or, you can tape a consonant on the opposite side of the swatter and have kids swat a rime that makes a word when combined with the letter on the swatter. Don't have a fancy Word Swatter? Just take a pair of scissors to any old (but very clean!) fly swatter.

  2. Carnival Toss--Same as #3 except use bean bags that kids toss into hula hoops that are placed on the floor. (A great way to recycle hula hoops--seriously, have you ever tried to cram one into a recycling bin? BOING...ouch!!!)

  3. Realia Sort--For practice of multiple word families, bring to class several objects whose names are in the same word family. For example, for the AT word family, bring in a plush cat, plastic mat, baseball bat, rubber rat, and an old hat. For AN, bring in a can of food, paper fan, saute pan, and an action figure man. (Hey, this is where you put to use those little garage sale purchases. Yeah, there really was a good reason why you dug through all those "anything for $.25" boxes of junk over the years!) Have kids work together to sort the objects by word family. Kids love trying to figure out the name of each item, and they really have to put their oral skills to use when listening for the rhymes. They can also practice writing the words to label the objects.

  4. Pocket Chart Word Sort--Kids love pretending to be the teacher! Once in a while, let them use the tools, like pocket charts, that YOU usually use at the front of the class for demonstration purposes. Have them sort (by rime) words written on pocket chart cards. Consider color coding the words at first for any kid who's really struggling. Use any pocket chart you already have on hand, or go all out and get this really cool one already filled with all the right word and picture cards: Word Families & Rhyming Center Pocket Chart.

  5. Spinner and/or Consonant Dice Games--Print onsets on a blank spinner. Kids can spin it and combine the onset they spun, with the word family rime they're studying, to build a word. For the more advanced, print multiple rimes on the spinner. Have one student spin while the other rolls a consonant die. Together, they can see how many words they can build.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Making Science Cross Curricular--10 Tips

When I was a young teacher (so, not too long ago!), I had a "Eureka" moment (vroom, vroom). I realized that in life, we don't use each subject area skill in a VACUUM. For example, if I have a problem with my bank statement, I gather some information (science), crunch some numbers (math) , and prepare an arguement (language arts) to present to the bank. Real-world issues require you to think and work in cross-curricular ways.

So, if school is really about preparing kids for life, why do we often teach each subject independent of the others?

Cross-curricular instruction is an efficient way to cover all that you need to teach. (Sign me up for anything that makes my life as a teacher easier!) Plus, it helps students build some synapses between topics--critical thinking that improves comprehension and retention of information taught. (Ooh, when my students actually LEARN a lot too, that's a win-win for both the "teach" and the kid!)

A couple of years ago for a popular teacher publication, we created this list of tips on how to make science cross-curricular. I thought there might be a nugget or two here that you could find helpful...

1. Science is the perfect vehicle to teach writing.
Keeping a science journal can help students build daily practice and encourage descriptive as well as expository skills, like compare and contrast, process, and cause and effect.

2. Use graphic organizers every day.
For example, you can do a lot with a simple Venn diagram--compare math formulas, events or people in history, story elements or scientific observations. Children build key critical thinking skills when they find and explore relationships in any subject. Use graphic organizers in a variety of formats including books and pocket charts.

3. Get students in the habit of reading informational text.
But, don't assume that kids come with built-in strategies in their brains for understanding this kind of text. Explicitly teach them the structure of expository text and how to pick out main ideas and details.

4. Embed math in science inquiry/experiments.
When math solves a real-world problem, children apply what they know and gain deeper understanding. Operations, data and measurement are three topics that are usually easy to mix into science inquiry activities.

5. Make science come to life with biographies.
Have students read true stories about great scientists and their discoveries. Then, read some science fiction on a similar topic. Compare how the real stands up to the imaginary.

6. Turn kids into social scientists.
Once students are comfortable collecting data, encourage civic responsibility by studying an environmental issue in your neighborhood. Have them write to local governments and businesses and see if they can make a positive change in their community.

7. Teach science inquiry from a creative perspective.
The digestive system is more fun when students travel through it from the perspective of a piece of food. (Kids are always soooo grossed out by the way that lesson ENDS!) Or, when students have to persuade you to live on one planet over another, you’ll see how much they really know about the solar system.

8. Reinforce science themes early with theme-based counters.
Bright and engaging, they encourage sorting, classifying, patterning and counting skills that can transfer to math, social studies and language arts.

9. Play a pocket chart game with artifacts.
Hide artifacts inside pocket charts. Leave written clues in the outside pockets and play 20 questions until students guess the identity of the artifacts. It’s never too early to teach inference and investigation skills with clue words like who, what or how.

10. Let students invent their own games!
Some kids think scientific thinkers are so stiff and serious. Prove them wrong! Mix up the pieces of any science game to make them laugh and show them it’s okay to throw out the rules once in a while. Have them write new game rules that can be placed in a center with the game compoments so their classmates can enjoy their new creation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Helpful Test-taking Tips

Guess what time of year it is for many schools? Time to take those high-stakes tests! Of course, you want your students to get a good night sleep and eat a balanced breakfast before testing day. But here are a few tips that can help students do their best once they're staring that test directly in the face:
  • First, complete those questions for which you already know the answers.
  • Make sure you truly understand each question before you try to answer it. For clarification, try rereading the question, finding the key words, or turning the question into a statement.
  • Read all answer choices before making a selection.
  • Decide where you will look for the answer. Use information from the text--find key words in the text that match key words in the question. Don't forget to also use information from the graphics.
  • Eliminate incorrect answer choices.
  • If you're allowed to do so, utilize other tools (pencil and paper, calculator) for assistance.
  • Choose the best answer.
  • If you're spending too much time on a single question, skip it and return to it later if time permits.

Good luck!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

8 Teacher Tips for Student Behavior

Over the years, we’ve gathered comments and recommendations from the experts—you! You’ve shared all kinds of useful tips with us. I just thought I’d pass some back to you. Here are 8 of your best tips for helping to ensure there ain’t no misbehavin!

1. SLANT Acronym Gets Them to Pay Attention
If you teach your kids this acronym, you can get them back in order quickly and quietly, especially when a guest enters the room:

S—Sit up
L—Lean forward
A—Ask questions
N—Nod your head
T—Talk to the teacher

Once students have learned the acronym, just chant the secret word "SLANT" to get them to put it into action. They’ll sit up and pay attention immediately—impressive!

2. Memory Reinforcement Timeline
Post a simple timeline at the front of the room with important dates for each grading period. This at-a-glance resource reminds kids of project due dates, field trips, etc. and helps prevent the most annoying kid excuse in the book--"I forgot!" Dress up the timeline with a purchased border in your school colors. Use a bold marker to write in events, or type them up and print them off on your printer.

3. Let the Games Begin Before Spring Break!
Before any holiday break, children’s attention spans are shorter than your gnawed fingernails that time of year. Why not use learning games to hold their attention while also teaching valuable skills?

4. Smoothly Spring Back into Action After Break
To transition students back into their regular routine, try a seasonal activity such as a spring nature walk. You can observe insects, plant a flower, and get some exercise. Relax and laugh together. Your students will thank you with fewer classroom disruptions! To tie what you do back to your lessons afterwards, write about the experience or read books on related topics.

5. Clear Feedback & Consequences
Teach children that there are two choices—good and bad—and that each choice comes with a corresponding positive or negative consequence. When correcting or praising, make statements that are specific and fact-based. For example, “Ben, I can see you are out of your chair. Please sit down.” Or “Ling, I like that you are being quiet while waiting in line.”

6. Inside Voices…for Teachers!
Always use a calm, soft tone when talking to a student, especially if you’re upset. Children's emotions escalate if we use a voice that is too loud or negative. If you need to, use a quick relaxation technique before speaking--take a deep breath and pause to imagine yourself playing with a puppy, sunning on a beach, or swinging on a swing set.

7. Custom Rewards
Catch children in the act of making good choices and reward them with a long recess, sticker, or praise. Remember that students are individuals, so individually tailored consequences are appropriate. One kid may enjoy a reward of extra computer time. Another might prefer to be the teacher’s helper. Get to know your students and what motivates them.

8. Playing Nice Before Math or Reading Night
Schools everywhere invite families to attend Math or Reading Nights. Many of the event activities are game-based, which can be fun for all. But to avoid potential behavior problems that evening, give students a game etiquette refresher course ahead of time. Review how to take turns, respect others, be good losers, and take good care of the game.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

St. Patrick's Day Activities

One of my newest teacher friends is an early childhood educator. She was looking for some St. Patrick’s Day activities, and I threw together a few for her. Although these were written for very young kiddos, some of the activities could easily be adapted for a variety of ages. So, I thought I’d share them with all my blog buddies, too!

Beginning Probability—Put a bunch of paper three-leaf clovers in a bag with only one 4-leaf one. Talk about the probability of pulling out the four-leaf clover. How lucky they’d be if they pulled it out! Try to use the terms “likely” and “unlikely”, though, which is good math language.

Character Education/Arts & Crafts
Lucky Friends Shamrock—Take digital photos of all the kids and print them on regular printer paper. Have kids decorate large paper shamrocks with their classmates’ photos, glitter, potato stamping, etc. Talk about why friends are “worth their weight in gold” and what this expression means.

Arts & Crafts/Math/Social Studies
Tater Stampin’—Cut potatoes into thick slices and then into clover (or any) shapes. Blot to dry. Kids can dip them in paint and stamp with them. They can do math counting activities with the clovers they stamp. Make sure to tell the children about the Potato Famine in Ireland’s history, so your students understand the significance of using a tater.

Leprechaun Stories—Tell some good stories about practical-joke playing leprechauns. These can be books you read to the kids or stories you make up yourself and tell orally. Ask kids a lot of prediction questions while telling the story and see if they can retell it to you at the end—great pre-reading skills!

Fun Tricks
Green Scene—Turn lots of things green unexpectedly. For example, put green food coloring in their mashed potatoes served at lunch or replace all the finger paints with green paint only.

Shameless Shenanigans—Leprechauns play harmless tricks, and kids absolutely LOVE it when they do!!! Here’s how to add to the anticipation…

On St. Patrick’s Eve (next Monday), some Irish families anticipate a visit from the leprechauns. So, you could do the same! The kids put out plates of mushrooms (what small leprechauns would eat if they lived in the forest, of course).

The leprechauns can pay a visit overnight, leave some small treasures (chocolate coins in gold foil, etc.), and play tricks like turning furniture upside down, hiding confetti inside containers that hold everyday supplies (crayons), leaving funny leprechaun photos in unexpected places (underneath chairs and tables), and more.

Hope your whole class has a lot of fun—and maybe even finds that elusive gold loot at the end of the rainbow!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Free Stimulus Funds Webinar on Tuesday

Just wanted to let you know that Education Week is offering a FREE webinar about the stimulus funds this Tuesday at 1pm Eastern time!

Here's their description of the event:

"Economic Stimulus & Powering through the Recession

When: Tuesday, 1pm Eastern

What will President Obama's stimulus package mean for K-12 budgets? How can you make best use of federal dollars to protect instruction and extend achievement amid cutbacks at the state and local levels? Join our expert panel of practitioners and policy analysts on March 10 at 1 p.m., Eastern time, for this free live webinar on what’s coming down the pike and how to power your way through the recession."

If you've never attended a webinar, don't worry! It's very simple. You sign up, and they send you simple instructions. You use your phone to listen to the presenters, and use your computer to view the slides they provide you--that's all it is. To sign up, visit:

You can also submit questions ahead of time (using the same link above) that the presenters will hopefully answer. I submitted a question about the timing of the funds. I'm hoping they'll address how quickly the funds will actually make it into the hands of decision-makers because as we all know, it usually takes the government forever to pass down the dough! Supposedly the money has already been released, but we know to never trust that!!!

On another note, if even some of the funds are still being awarded to the states rather than directly to the schools, that can make things even more complicated. Every state could have a different timeline for passing down the money and different requirements/priorities in terms of how it can be spent.

The bulk of the money is for Title I and IDEA (special needs), and I believe the majority of these funds are usually awarded directly to the schools rather than to the states anyway. However, who knows how things will happen with these new special funds, so hopefully the webinar will address this question.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Buzzword Wars: Innovation vs. SBR

In the last several years, the education buzzwords have gone from standards-based to scientifically-based research. Now, every time I turn around, the term innovation is peaking over my shoulder kind of like that little stack of money with googly eyes in those Geico commercials. (Insert jingle: I always feel like, somebody’s watching me…”).

I love what innovation stands for. Out with the old, and in with the new! Change has come to America. The education world is about to experience this ideological revolution, too. Wow, innovation is a leap from the flawed scientific research concept!

Like others, I struggled with the research thing. Let’s call it SBR Catch 22. NCLB said instructional methods must align with “gold and silver” research, but then few education studies ever met the rigorous qualifications! HUH? Note to policy makers: don’t write legislation while visiting Margaritaville!

Even IF there were tons of good research available to reference, the studies would need to address struggling learners in order to be relevant. After all, aren’t they the ones falling behind? Many educators on the frantic research quest were so busy focusing on the rigorous quality of studies that they made a crucial mistake. They failed to ensure that the student subjects were similar enough to their own student populations; they compared apples to kumquats.

So, if a teacher of struggling kids decided to use traditional hands-off methods because she read a study about “proven” methods effective for “typical” children who already had average or high achievement, her kids would have continued to struggle. (In fact, aren’t kids usually labeled struggling WHEN: they don’t get it after being taught with “tried-and-true” methods?)

Hey, maybe someone in Washington mistyped? Was the N supposed to be an S as in Struggling Children Left Behind?

As much as I love innovation, Negative Nancy here says it alone can’t work. We need balance. Whole language wasn’t great until paired with some phonics and grammar. Teaching math facts without teaching kids to think critically and solve problems is a waste. Balancing a bit of free discovery with structured, step-by-step science inquiry is key. You get the idea. Pair a healthy serving of innovation with a dash of “tried and true”, and voila!

In addition to HUGE overall increases for Title I and IDEA/special needs funds, the new Stimulus Plan promises funds specifically for innovation—innovative best practices, building modernization, and electronic technology. But, NO educator can put these innovative programs into action without the cash. Trickle down and come here, MONEY Honey! Oh, how we’ve all missed you! XOXO

Friday, February 20, 2009

All Kids Have Special Needs--A Poem

I've always loved this teacher poem. Sometimes I recite it when presenting professional development workshops. Whenever I do, several teachers in the audience ask me to email it to them afterwards. The poem's a great reminder that in reality, ALL students have special needs of one kind or another! One child's strength may be another child's weakness.

I Am Your Student

I am your student.
Today I come to school as every day, with no breakfast.
I will go home to an empty house.
My parents are too busy for me.
I am your student,
Care about me.
I am your student.
I live with my mother.
I don't know my dad.
I have been in four schools in two years.
I am your student,
Have patience with me.
I am your student.
My mother and father can't speak English.
They can't help me.
I want to do well,
I am your student,
Help me to fit in.
I am your student.
I don't like school
I want to learn about life,
I want to do things with my hands
I shake and get nervous when I have to write an exam
I am your student,
Help me to stay in school.
I am your student.
My family has a lot of money
I have everything I could want
I wear the latest clothes and I put others down who are not like me
I am your student,
Help me to be tolerant of others.
I am your student.
I am very quiet and shy
I cannot work in a noisy classroom
I find it hard to make friends
I am your student,
Help me to cope with daily life.
I am your student.
I am hearing impaired,
Please don't ignore me because I can't communicate well
I need you to accept me and believe in me
I am your student,
I need you to reach my potential.
I am your student,
Adults in my life are very abusive
I get into trouble
I fight with others
I am your student,
Help me learn to be peaceful.
I am your student.
I have a learning disability
Do not look upon me as a burden
I am your student,
Teach me the skills I need.
I am your student,
I miss a lot of school
I use drugs and alcohol
My marks are poor
I am your student,
Help me to accept myself.
I am your student,
Care for me,
Teach me
Help me to be a good person.
I will remember you forever.

- Pat Krushen

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Electronic Learning Game Misunderstanding

I've talked with teachers and hired a certain monkey to conduct the official surveys. Some teachers use electronic learning games in their classrooms, but we know others would rather kneel on wasabi peas for 72 hours for some reason. So of course, some teacher stores and catalog companies are reluctant to carry these instructional tools. (Hmm, I suddenly don't like where this post is headed.)

Okay, but I'm always on a need-to-know basis. Some might call me nib nose, information hog, hungry ear--whatever. (I was the annoying kids in school who always asked why? why? why?) I had to research why some teachers don't use electronic learning games.

Guess what my surveys revealed? It turns out that most of the reasons are simple misunderstandings! (Oh crappy dap--I just hate it when that happens!) Here, have a look...

Teachers' top objections to electronic games:

1. Electronic games are just toys.
HUH? Sure, some are just toys, but many electronic games cover a variety of key educational skills at multiple levels, giving them the learning power of a stack of board games! (Teachers love educational board games, right? No one argues that they're just toys!) I'm actually the person who manages the correlation of Learning Resources electronic games to the specific skills in the state standards, so I know how well they align!

2. High-tech gadgets such as electronic games are just a novelty/trend.
Ridiculous! In a recent national survey conducted by an ed organization, students reported that they feel they must "power down" at school--so unfortunate! They live their everyday lives in the technology age (laptops, cell phones, texting, PDAs, YouTube, Facebook, etc.), but when they go to school, it all comes to a grinding halt!

As teachers, we need to constantly try current methods and materials to best reach our students. I would even go as far as to say that most kids nowadays have an electronic learning style, and that integrating electronic games into our lesson plans is the least we teachers can do to meet them half way.

3. Electronic games encourage anti-social behavior.
I agree that anti-social isolation is bad and that students shouldn't stick their faces in front of computer screens all day every day. However, not all electronic games are computer-based. What about the tabletop and jumping mat versions that encourage multiple players to interact together? I think those versions are best. For example, take a look at this video of Alpha-Bug Step 'n' Spell® in action:
(BTW, there are some good quality computer learning games that encourage student interaction, too.)

4. I don't have a computer (or enough computers) in my classroom!
Again, not all electronic learning games require a computer. There are awesome electronic mats and small, portable games that target key educational skills. Give 'em a try, folks!

5. I don't have time or money to deal with technical difficulties and batteries!
Yes, sometimes life doesn't go as planned, but if we don't use something because we're afraid it will break, where does that get us? What does that teach our students about trying new things?
Just be sure to choose electronic games manufactured by a reputable company. Most will guarantee their products, and many offer replacement instruction guides and game parts.

If your supplies budget is too small to cover batteries, look for electronic games with optional AC adapters. I also know a teacher whose local big box store donated batteries to her classroom right before the beginning of the school year. It doesn't hurt to ask!

To check out Learning Resources electronic learning games, visit:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Toddler Fingers Are Made for Poking

My 13 month-old daughter is now known as the "Little Mommy" at day care. As one of the oldest in her class, she spends a lot of time with tiny babies. Whenever the babies cry, she tries to comfort them by giving them toys--so sweet!

Her favorite toys at home are her dolls (or our electronic gadgets). If we pretend to make crying sounds, she'll rush over to a doll, pick it up and insert her own finger in its mouth--adorable, but...YIKES!!!!!!!! Is my thumb-sucking little "Jack-y Horner" sticking her finger in babies' mouths at day care? GERM ALERT! GERM ALERT! (Hence, her constant snot.) And oh, does this make my daughter a certified hands-on intervention specialist?--he he!

The point is that she likes babies, at least the happy ones. So Friday when she pinched her finger in the oven mitt drawer (she has declared it hers and leaves pot holders all over the house), how did I comfort her? I ran it under cold water immediately, but when she kept crying and became impatient with the whole faucet scene, I got creative. I popped open the laptop--the one she's obsessed with minus the Control Key that she stole 3 weeks ago--and found giggling baby videos on YouTube®. She LOVED them!!! Definitely try this "cheer-'em-up" trick with your kiddos.

While playing around online, I found a cute video of a kid her age who could point to the various parts of his body after being asked where are your eyes? where are your ears?, etc. So I thought, hey, this would be a great activity for me to do with my daughter! She knows many of these vocabulary words already, and the activity is tactile/kinesthetic and a great vocabulary builder.

I thought I'd start with the nose--bad idea! I asked her where it was, and she found it all right. She kept...uh...picking a winner, digging for gems, poking her brain. Yes, no matter what I asked (Where are your ears? Where are your eyes? Where's your head?), she just kept jamming her finger up her nostril and laughing hysterically. Hmm, I wonder if my little jokester is sticking her finger in babies' NOSES at day care, too?

I guess hands-on isn't always a good thing...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

True Elementary Teacher Quiz

Anyone who is or has ever been a teacher has been there--had one of those weeks when you wonder if you're really cut out to be in your profession...

Monday, a parent leaves you a nasty voicemail. Tuesday, 3 kids puke all over your circle time rug. Wednesday, you witness a 15-minute shouting match between the fourth grade teachers. By Thursday, you're trying to remember what your password is.

During downer days, try to find some humor in your life as a teacher. Whip out this quiz and have a chuckle. I've used it a lot when doing workshops with teachers, and it always puts everyone at ease!


Are You A TRUE Elementary School Teacher? Let's Find Out:

1. Do you ask guests if they remembered their scarves and mittens as they leave your home?

2. Do you move your dinner partner's glass away from the edge of the table?

3. Do you ask if anyone needs to go to the bathroom as you enter a theater with a group of friends?

4. Do you hand a tissue to anyone who sneezes?

5. Do you refer to happy hour as "snack time"?

6. Do you shout "no cuts!" if a shopper squeezes ahead of you at the checkout?

7. Do you say "I like the way you did that" to the mechanic who successfully repairs your car?

8. Do you ask "Are you sure you did your best?" to the mechanic who fails to repair your car to your satisfaction?

9. Do you sing the "Alphabet Song" to yourself as you look up a number in the phone book?

10. Do you say everything twice? I mean, do you repeat everything?

11. Do you fold your spouse's fingers over the coins as you hand him/her the money at a tollbooth?

12. Do you ask a quiet person at a party if he has something to share with the group?

* If you answered yes to 4 or more, it's in your soul--you are hooked on teaching.
* If you answered yes to 8 or more, well, maybe you should begin thinking about retirement.
* If you answered yes to all 12, forget it--you'll always be a teacher, retired or not!


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nonpoisonous Elapsed Time Lesson

There's this math topic that most grades 3-5 teachers (at least) simply hate to teach. And, their students usually describe it much like they'd describe the Grinch: "a three-decker saurkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce"--NASTY POISON! It's yucky old elapsed time!

Elapsed time is one of those topics that is just hard to "get". It's one of the skills most likely to stump students on standardized math tests (along with number & operations fact fluency, measurement, estimation, and fractions). And while there's no way we can make elapsed time as easy as basic addition, there are steps we teachers can take to make it easier to understand.

First, we need to be proactive and attack the topic of elapsed time head on. We already know from experience that this topic will trip up kids. So, let's keep it on our teacher minds all the time. This means not only planning big lessons on it, but integrating small elapsed time learning opportunities (mini & "tiny" lessons) into our plans.

One of the strategies I've always found effective is to first relate elapsed time to a child's everyday life. Kids sometimes need to see it from the practical point of view in order to comprehend this abstract concept. This full lesson that I've used in the past incorporates literature, writing, art, and math word problems. It can be taught in its entirety or broken up into mini lessons as you see fit.

Capture the kids' attention by using literature to introduce elapsed time. I like Telling Time with Big Mama Cat by Dan Harper for this purpose. This book written for ages 5-8 has a much lower reading level than for most third through fifth graders. But, I've used it anyway because the simple text makes the content easier to swallow (gulp) for kids at many levels and makes them more comfortable with the intimidating topic of elapsed time.

The book follows a day in a cat's life hour by hour (lots of naps, no doubt). After reading the story, explain that elapsed time is the time it takes Mama Cat to do something. For example, if she eats between 9 and 10 a.m., the elapsed time is one hour. (BTW, that's a S-L-O-W kitty. My dogs never lollygag like this when it comes to eating!)

Next, students can do a personalized activity that integrates math and writing to develop higher- order thinking skills. Have each child write the story of his or her day. Ask students to include start and end times when writing about different events and illustrate the times on the clock. Each page can cover a different task such as “I ate lunch from 12 to 1 p.m. We had pizza, my favorite.” Then, the student can draw himself eating pizza in the cafeteria and include a clock in the illustration with a (hopefully) correct time drawn on it.

The next day, students can revisit their books, write the elapsed time for each section, and check their work in pairs. Later, have groups of students work on elapsed time word problems. Once they can successfully solve these problems, they can write their own, and trade with a partner to solve them.

For reinforcement, I also periodically rotated hands-on activities/materials through my math centers:

  • Elapsed time board games--the Race Around the Clock™ skateboarding one is WAY cool!

  • Dice--for quick calculation quizzes, students can use Time Dice to roll a start and end time and then calculate the elapsed time.

  • Timelines--provide students with a horizontal visual representation that allows them to easily manipulate start and end times and count elapsed time forwards and backwards.

  • Clocks (duh)--but not your plain old versions. Mix it up with more unique clock formats.
  • Time Tracker™ Timers--some specialized timers help kids develop a good sense of what a specific length of time feels like.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Comprehension, a Multisensory Experience?

When you get right down to it, comprehension is THE most important skill in the curriculum. Uhh...why study anything in school if you don't ever understand what the heck you're supposedly learning, right? This is especially the case in literacy. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction.

So, knowing that most kids are kinesthetic/tactile learners, we shouldn't be surprised if a child has a problem understanding what he/she reads after only using a book as a learning tool. I know, I know. You're thinking, "How can SHE, a TEACHER, be anti-book?" The truth it, I'm the biggest book nut of all. I have at least 10K books in my house. (This is probably what put a crack in the foundation in my basement!) I once worked at a university library for 5 years. I live and breathe and keep on living in order to READ.

But, I also know that kids having a hard time comprehending what they read won't just eventually "get it" if their teachers continue to use only the same methods and print materials over and over again. You have to try something more engaging, more innovative and more hands-on to reach struggling readers. Tap into their senses. Make reading more active in every sense of the word. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Whip out the paddles! (Corporal punishment is NOT involved!) Reading Comprehension Boards give kids a place to record answers to key comprehension questions/strategies. Then, students hold up the board by the handles, allowing you to quickly assess which kids do & don't understand. (Hint: You can also make your own with paper plates and craft sticks.)

  • Cube-o-questions--Type a list of those key comprehension questions to ask students before, during, and after reading. Print & tape the questions to the sides of a large cube or a small cardboard box. Presto! You've got yourself a comprehension manipulative. If you're looking for more durable versions, try these: Reading Comprehension Cubes, Question Word Cubes, Retell a Story Cubes.

  • Picture this--Use a photocopier to enlarge a photo or copy an interesting magazine picture. Glue the image to cardstock (notepad backing) and then cut it into puzzle pieces. In a small group, have one child ask 3 other students comprehension questions about a book they've all read. A right answer is rewarded with a piece of the puzzle. Students collaborate to put together the pieces and try to figure out what's going on in the image. Like this game concept? Check out Get the Picture™ Main Idea Game.

  • Graphic organizers--These visual conceptual representations are very powerful. They are some of the best comprehension tools because they also cover Bloom's taxonomy. For example, when students fill out a fishbone map to identify causal relationships, they're ANALYZING. When students use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast, they are EVALUATING. Hefty higher-order thinking skills! Here's a book and a chart filled with nothing but graphic organizers: Encyclopedia of Language Arts Blackline Masters and Graphic Organizer Flip Chart.

  • Lights, camera, action!--Encourage kids to put storylines into action and make a video. They can reinact the story in their own words (summarize), guess the ending and act it out (predict, infer), or recite word for word (practice fluency). Consider posting the videos on Teacher Tube® so other teachers can use them in their lessons! (When posting student content online, never disclose students' identity and always have parents sign permission slips.) No access to a video camera? No problem--Readers' Theatre Pocket Chart.

  • Slap happy! Word Swatters™ (fancy fly swatters) get kids using their gross motor skills to identify any important text on a big book page (parts of a book, unfamiliar words), projection screen, or white board.

  • Get a clue--Little word sleuths love to use magnifying glasses to hunt for context clues. Encourage them to look over the page to hunt for hints (in text or pictures) that will help kids infer meaning.

If you're looking for even more ways to make comprehension multisensory, try tying the text to another subject. Sometimes it's easier to come up with hands-on activities if you build in math, science, social studies, art, or music content. Plus, cross-curricular lessons help students build an even stronger understanding while also helping YOU fit all the skills into your lesson plans.

Lastly, if your students are intimidated by reading an entire story or chapter, try giving them smaller bits of text to tackle. Magazine articles, a paragraph from a fun children's website, or passages on reading cards are good bets. I prefer non-fiction, photo-illustrated cards with fun animal facts such as Animal Classifying Cards, but leveled Reading Comprehension Cards with readings covering a variety of topics are more versatile.

I can dream and wish that teachers across the country could afford to pick up all the cool comprehension manipulatives and materials mentioned above. Yes, it's usually faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly in the end to buy durable commercial versions of these tools. But hey, you can make your own if need be. We teachers are kinda creative like that. ;)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Basic Tips on Using Manipulatives

We know kids learn by doing. That's why manipulatives are truly awesome teaching tools. But, they must be used correctly to be the most effective. Here are some quick tips for making the most of manipulatives:

  1. Let them explore first--Give students a little time to explore a new manipulative on their own before you want them to learn with it. Your kids may want to "play" with the manipulative. They need to get this out of their system! When I was a new teacher, I skipped this step and paid the price. Not only did the kids goof off, but my principal observed my class that day! Of course, she commented that the kids were just "PLAYING with manipulatives". She was right, but it was the fault of the teacher, not the manipulatives.
  2. Model the activity--crucial for helping students understand how to properly use the manipulative.
  3. Allow ample time for hands-on, small group activities--Remember that there's a trial-and-error process that students must go through when working with manipulatives. Sometimes kids need a little extra time to build these valuable reasoning and problem-solvings skills. Children gain the most benefits from manipulatives while working in small groups with other kiddos, which promotes social and communication skills.

  4. Assess students--Observe your students working with manipulatives when possible and always have them report back on their processes and conclusions.
  5. Help students transition from pencil & paper--This is another step that's often skipped. We never want manipulatives to become a crutch for students. Explicitly teach students strategies for transitioning from using manipulatives to working only on pencil and paper. These strategies help ensure that students succeed on standardized tests and in real life. Hey folks, your kids can't whip out those Reading Rods® and pattern blocks during the test!
  6. Use more than one kind of manipulative for activities on the same topic. Otherwise, learners may begin to associate a task with the specific manipulative used. Different textures, colors and shapes of manipulatives also cater to various learning styles. Manipulatives aren't just for math, either! Make sure to build hands-on materials into language arts, science, and social studies lessons, too.

  7. Make storate easy--Conveniently store your manipulatives in clear buckets or totes. (Many Learning Resources manipulatives come already packaged in them.) Small, zip-top plastic bags are also great for storing small, presorted sets for use in centers, small groups, or take-home ("and-wish-they-come-back") lessons.

Hey, frankly, we teachers are all strapped for time and sometimes forget to build one of these steps into our lesson plans. On some days, it's just easier to have a grab-and-go guide that lays it all out for us when it comes to using manipulatives. That's exactly what the Hands-On Standards series of handbooks does for math and science.

My favorite thing about Hands-On Standards is that it has an "at-a-glance" format with photos. All the steps are actual photographs of what the children should be doing with the manipulative! Plus, all of the standards covered are printed on each page. (Boy, my principal would have loved to have seen that!) For more information, or to download free sample lessons for your grade (PreK-K, 1-2, 3-4 or 5-6), take a look:

Oh, and there's also a new a science version, Hands-On Standards Science:

How to Help Schools Through Tough Times

It's no secret that most businesses are seriously hurting right now, but so are our schools!

You've probably heard that there's pending legislation that could give more federal assistance to schools later this year. Even if it the Senate passes it, and it's signed into law, those bucks will take their own sweet time trickling down to the states and schools.

What can we do in the meantime? Families are watching their pennies too. But, helping schools doesn't have to cost a dime. Just do one of these things. ONE is doable, right?

Oh, and you teachers reading this list, why not reprint it in parent or community newsletters?
  • Volunteer your PROFESSIONAL SKILLS--Whatever your profession, volunteer to do it for a school. If you're a beautician, provide the secretary with "free cut" coupons to give to their staff or neediest families--good marketing idea, too! If you're an accountant, see if they need help with their books. If you're a plumber, run the other direction! Kids manually wedge all kinds of interesting things in that long row of toilets and urinals in the little boys room. :)

  • Volunteer your TALENT/HOBBY--I don't have talent but wish I was able to enjoy my hobbies once in a GREAT while. The problem is, I can't make myself set aside time for them. When you partner with a school to share your talents/hobbies, you give yourself an excuse to spend time doing them. Now, all you amateur gardeners in Southern CA can revive the flowers around the flagpoles at your community schools. When you're done, swing by my house and, uh, straighten up all the abandoned, piecemeal landscape lights scattered underneath snow drifts and fallen icicles. (Email me for the Chicago address.)

  • Become a Teacher's Helper for the Day--Volunteer your time in a classroom. Don't worry, you don't have to have a teaching background. You may get to read to a child, play a board game with kids, or just help reorganize the room.

  • Donate SNACKS--I know first hand that the one thing teachers love almost as much as seeing kids succeed is FREE FOOD! Drop off extra packaged goodies with a nice note anytime. (I always have too many bags of chips left at my house after family get-togethers.) Better yet, call head to see when their next staff meeting is. Boy, brownies, and crackers sure make those meetings go down SOOO much easier. :)

  • Donate HOUSEHOLD stuff--We all have crapola around the house that we don't use. As you do your routine junk purges, consider whether a school could use it. Most schools accept kids' hats, gloves, scarves, office supplies, arts & crafts stuff, paper goods, cleaning wipes, etc. That reminds me...I have a price-club size bag of plastic cups that have been hogging my pantry space for 4 years. I'll send it to school next week! (Be sure to double-check with the school first to make sure they can use the items you have to give.)

  • Donate CORPORATE stuff--Betcha your place of work has stuff it needs to get rid of, too. You can either coordinate the donation yourself, or contact a place like to coordinate it for you. (We've never worked with this company before, but their website is interesting--also looks like a great place for teachers to create lists of stuff they'd like to have donated!)

Speaking of donating corporate stuff, we have to free up space in our warehouse every few years. Last November, we contacted a bunch of local schools in order to donate hands-on learning materials and toys--54 schools came and loaded up trucks! The biggest surprise was that our staff benefited just as much.

We loved reading through all the letters on our wall of thank yous from the students (see photo)! Some were hilarious--one little boy said that the person from Learning Resources who coordinated the donation should get a raise. Another kid said he felt bad that our donation coordinator had to use all of her own money to buy the donated stuff--cute! Some notes were a bit sad but very inspiring--a little girl thanked us most of all for the ruler because she had never had her own!

My favorite letter (see above) was from a child who ended her note by saying simply, "Make us smart!" This is exactly what we're all doing when we give back to schools. So go ahead, invest in children!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Get It! Making Connections with Manipulatives

Three moms are trying to get their 3-year olds to hang up their coats...

Mom #1 tells her child, "Please go hang your coat on the peg." Mom #2 points at another child hanging up his coat and says to her kid, "See how he's hanging up his coat? Please do that." Mom #3 takes her kid by the hand, walks him over to the coat, and guides him in picking it up and hanging it on the peg--all with a strong explanation and praise. Which mom do you think will succeed?

The first mom only used auditory methods. The second mom used auditory and visual ones. Mom #3 emphasized kinesthetic/hands-on but also talked to the child (auditory) and demonstrated (visual). Good teachers and smart moms and dads cater to many learning styles when they teach!

The National Association of Elementary Principals says that most kiddos under age 9 are primarily kinesthetic learners. They learn by doing. They need to touch and move (MANIPULATE!!!) things. But, we all have combo learning styles to some degree. (I'm tactile and kinesthetic with a lot of auditory and a little visual thrown in. You get the idea.)

Hmm, seems like manipulatives must be perfect for teaching children, then! These tools are mostly kinesthetic and tactile, yet also give strong visual cues and encourage communication (auditory).

Manipulatives are visual because kids can “see” what’s going on as they work through a problem with their hands. Manipulatives help unlock abstract concepts and put them right smack dab in the palm of little concrete hands. Color-coding systems are even utilized by some kinds of manipulatives (see examples below) —a double dose of visuals!

Rainbow Fraction (R)

Reading Rods (R)

As far as the auditory part goes, hands-on instruction with manipulatives is cooperative. It gets kids talking about what they did and how they did it, while getting them to practice using key vocabulary.

If you follow this blog already, I probably don't have to convince you that the hands-on way is best for kids. But, there are folks out there who need to be reminded that hands-on instruction isn't just fun and games, that multiple learning styles aren't mumbo jumbo, and that manipulatives aren't toys.

Manipulative-based instruction is engaging, but that doesn’t mean it’s goofing off! That being said, it's not magic either. Manipulatives are “part of a complete breakfast”. When used correctly with good teaching, they’re a research-based best practice and cover skills aligned with the standards.

This isn’t just my opinion. The Put Reading First research recommends that kids learn phonics through "manipulating" word parts. Use of manipulatives has been recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in every decade since the 40's. According to the National Center for Accessing the General Curriculum, manipulatives positively affect student achievement when compared with traditional instruction. In a national survey, 85% of elementary teachers rated manipulatives as "highly effective". Need I go on? :)