Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Top Ten Favorite Classroom Tips & Tricks

It seems everyone and their mother is creating books about surviving their first year teaching.  I too, started one but realized I'd rather spend my free time reading novels for literature circles so my students would have more options.  Besides, who doesn't love the combination of a chair, a blanket, a book and a cup of tea?  (Or, during summer months...a margarita!)

Instead of writing chapters and chapters, I'd rather condense what I've learned in the classroom into a Letterman style top ten list.  Here are some of my top ten favorite classroom tips and tricks.

10: Read Alouds

In fifth grade, I read aloud every single day.  Some days it would be a picture book like Punctuation takes a Vacation to reinforce writing or John, Paul, George and Ben to introduce a history concept while others it would be from a grade level read aloud.

Last year, we read Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting and Lowry's Number the Stars aloud as a class.  

It took a few chapters for the students to become invested, but by the middle of the year, I could use reading a page or two as an incentive for the class.  Yes, I would bribe my students with an extra page or two if they could clean up quickly and cooperate with one another.  Did I feel about about bribing them with reading? No, absolutely not.

9. Subtle discipline

I am not one for yelling at a child in front of the class.  Instead, if I need to speak with a student, I do it quietly in the hallway in the super scary, low, "I'm disappointed in you" voice.  I discuss choices and how to fix the situation, always clarifying that I'm upset with the action, not the person.  As a result, I had one of the most well behaved group of fifth graders because I respected them and their privacy.  

These were a huge help as well:

I wouldn't have to yell, scream, glare or have a hallway chat.  These small reminders stopped most off task behavior immediately.  Even better was that the whole class wasn't drawn to that one student.  I could subtly slip one on a student's desk while monitoring the classroom and return a few moments later to not only collect the stop sign, but praise the student for turning his or her behavior around.

8. Sorts & Centers

I love open ended sorts where there isn't necessarily a right answer.  While this might seem counter-intuitive, these sorts encourage discussion among students and sometimes rather heated ones :)

I've used sorts in math, reading, science and writing with great success.   They can be done in a small group or as a whole class with each table completing the sort.  Afterwards, students do a gallery walk and observe the way other tables sorted the information.  They are not allowed to touch one another's work, but are encouraged to discuss whether they agree or disagree with each other's findings.  

If I am making multiple copies of the same sort (for table teams), I print them on different colors of cardstock for easy clean up.

Math ideas:
-strategies sort: which multiplication strategy
-right or wrong

Writing ideas:
-revising or editing
-which genre of writing would this be? (persuasive, informational or narrative)

Reading idea:
-syllable types
-true/false statements

-true/false statements
-types of landforms

*these sorts will be available on TpT soon :)

7. Interactive Notebooks

In fifth grade, it's an expectation that students keep notebooks for the subject areas.  Not only does it help them stay organized but it is good preparation for middle school (and beyond). 

I expect:
-page numbers
-writing on both sides of the page
-not skipping lines (unless it's writing a rough draft)
-a table of contents
-students to write for their neighbors if the neighbor is in the restroom or out of the classroom (speech, GATE, etc)

It takes a lot of modeling at the beginning of the year, but the students learn to use the notebooks as a tool to track their learning and a valuable resource.  Notebooking reinforces text features and allows for a formative assessment. 

I often have students do their homework in their notebooks, but more about that later.

We often glue copies of exemplar texts into our notebooks so we can take annotated notes for close reads.  We also glue in science diagrams that we label, guided notes (where students enter the main ideas but the key details are there, cutting down on copying time).

Granted, we go through a PLETHORA of glue sticks, but my students get to spend a majority of the time talking about the material rather than writing it down.

6. Small Group Literature Circles (with books they actually want to read)

Most elementary classrooms have some time block built in for small group reading.  Our grade level fought for an hour block, which means there is time for explicit phonics, fluency and meeting with several groups (hooray!).  I'm doubly lucky that I get to do small group reading twice (2 of us teach small group reading while the other two teach math).  This means I get to spend two hours each day next year talking about the adventures of all my favorite literary heroes and heroines.  

However, the excitement doesn't always carry over to students, especially if they haven't had the  most enthusiastic teachers or engaging book circles in the past.  (This is rarely an issue with my munchkins, so thanks fourth grade!)

The solution is simple: pick rigorous books that they want to read.
Don't pick books that you read twenty years ago in elementary school. Don't pick a book because that's what you read last year...and the year before that...and the year before that.  Pick timely, relevant, high interest novels that kids actually want to read.  Let them read the books.  Have thoughtful, meaningful discussions about the books. Compare and contrast the characters.  Analyze the author's word choice, examine setting development over time, track character changes, the works!  Just practice these skills with books they want to read.

If you need copies of books, try your local library or my absolute FAVORITE resource:  Through the generosity of friends and strangers, I have been able to bring
new novels to my fifth graders over the years.  Visit my projects here.  (All donations are tax-deductible and you might just get a hand written thank you from my win all around.)

5. Technology

As engaging as I am as a teacher, I acknowledge that I must use some technology with my students. I completed my technology endorsement at Nevada State College and here are some of my favorite (FREE) tools to use in the classroom.
  • Jing: image capturing software that appears as a happy yellow sun in the top corner of your computer.  Great for cropping images, creating screen casts of Google Earth, etc.  Unlike the print screen function, you can capture exactly what you want on the screen and paste it into word or save it as an image file.

  • Prezi: powerpoint + a roller coaster = prezi.  Sign up for a free teacher account and have your students make prezis instead of powerpoints for a fun extension activity.  You can also email out the link so that families can see their students' work.

  • Edmodo: facebook for teachers.  You generate a class code, give it to students and create a safe social networking site.  You have control over what is posted, students use their first names only and it's a great way to connect with them.  I've used it to remind students of homework or school events, keep parents informed, and as a way to extend small group discussions.

  • Voice Thread: You pose a question and students can respond by typing or recording their responses.  For security, I used images of book characters for their faces and used their first names only.  You'll need to create a user name and password to keep your voice threads secure.  There is also an iPad app for this :)

  • Video Streaming: Our school is lucky enough to have PBS video streaming and Discovery Education streaming, both of which I highly recommend.  You can create your own folder and save your favorite video clips.  However, teachertube is free for everyone and unblocked on most school district servers.  One of my favorite clips to introduce the American Revolution is found there. Preload the videos during prep so you don't have to deal with buffering :)

  • Glogster: Sign up for a free teacher account here :)  Glogster reminds me of a virtual poster: students can choose the fonts, images, words, etc that they choose to use to present on a piece of information.  They can imbed sounds and video clips.  Basically, anything you used to do on a piece of foam to present on a topic can be done on glogster.  I love that I set the links so my students can use Glogster for researching purposes.  I set them loose on the condition they only use sites from the Glogster.  They get to explore the internet on sites that I've approved.
  • Blogs: Clearly, I'm a fan of blogs.  You can use them in the classroom to get students to practice typing and to publish their work.  You can create a classroom newspaper, create final drafts, etc.
  • Wordle: You type in words to create word art.  The more often you use a word, the larger it appears.  Use a ~ between words if you have multiple words (Harry~Potter not Harry Potter so the words appear next to each other).  Great for summarizing text, picking out the main idea, etc.  I have students write their top five feelings on the first day of school on post-its, then type their feelings into wordle. 

4. Table Team competition

Positive praise for tables goes a long way in classroom management.  Easy rewards like being the first ones to line up for lunch go a long way to encourage teamwork.  Just be sure to switch up groups every 6-8 weeks so students can learn to work with everyone in the classroom.

3. Class Competitions

Fifth graders are competitive.  We use this to our advantage with friendly competitions.  I frequently tell the other teachers that my students will be the best behaved in line, at the assembly, etc.  Of course, this encourages the other classes to behave as well.

2. Meaningful homework

I am anti-worksheets.  I don't believe in just giving homework for the fun of it.  However, my students have nightly homework that is meaningful and engaging.

My students have 2-4 problems that they must fully work out and explain their thinking.  They can interview family members to make graphs, find the mistakes in others' work (usually mine with mistakes that I see them make) or other options.  They do their homework in their notebooks so they can flip back to see how they did the problems in class.

Besides filling out a reading log, they respond to literature questions.  This can be differentiated  to include pictures or full paragraphs depending on the student's abilities.

1. Relinquish some control

You will make amazing lesson plans and nothing will go right.  There will be a fire drill, a surprise assembly, students creating biohazards, etc.  Let it go.

You will organize your classroom beautifully, meticulously label and organize centers.  They will get messed up.

You will create collaborative table teams that fit with your classroom theme.  Let the students create the table team name.  Let them decorate a team flag.  Let them feel ownership because at the end of the day, it's their classroom too.  Make them want to be there.

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