Tuesday, February 25, 2014

No Prep Math Game

Here's a lovely little game I learned a few years ago that has worked on students from 1st-6th grade. They all love it and it takes zero prep and can last as short or as long as needed, and all you need is your whiteboard and two erasers.

So, if you have a few minutes of math time leftover and want a quick game, try this.

Materials Needed:

  • Whiteboard
  • 2 Whiteboard erasers


Step 1: Write 10 or so numbers on the board like so:

Step 2: Invite two students up to the board and give them each an eraser.

Step 3: Call out a math fact or problem with a corresponding answer on the board.

Step 4: Whoever erases the number first wins. The loser gives his eraser to the next student.

And that's it. It sounds just too simple, but I promise they'll love it. 6 year-olds and 12 year olds alike. It's been a great tool for me to use anytime I have a few minutes to fill.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Short Vowel Game

I meant to post this a few months ago, but got side-tracked with the 7 Habits posts. Now's as good a time as ever, though, I suppose.

So I mean, I guess when it comes down to it, it's time for another post about short vowels. Because as it turns out, that's pretty much all you teach first graders for the first month or so of school.

I recently posted a synonym and antonym game to help reinforce a new concept in a fun way, but unfortunately I can't use the game with all of my students. Some of them are barely sounding out CVC words and can't read the words in the game, so I came up with a matching game on their level.

In this short vowel game the students match the short vowels with the CVC picture. I tested it on the kids and fine-tuned it a bit, and this is how I would recommend introducing and playing the game. Playing one way can make it a mindless game where they don't really learn anything, and playing it this way will turn it into a game that reinforces phonemic awareness and helps them learn to identify and isolate sounds and replace middle sounds in words. You'll hit a couple of the common core standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.1.2c Isolate and pronounce initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in spoken single-syllable words.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.K.2e Add or substitute individual sounds (phonemes) in simple, one-syllable words to make new words.

1) Print & Cut Cards

Easy enough. But make sure you print the letters on one color of paper and the pictures on another color, or it will make for confusion later.

Free download here: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Free-Short-Vowel-Memory-Game-1072228

2) Set Up Memory Game

Lay cards flat in rows. Make sure to mix up the two colors.

3) Pick Picture Card First

 After the child had chosen a picture card (whichever color your picture cards are), Ask the child the following questions:

  • "What sound is in the middle?" 
  • "What letter makes that sound?"

4) Pick Letter Card

After a child has chosen a letter card ask them

  •  Is that the right sound? 
  • (if answer is no) What would the word be if it had this sound in the middle? (example: if they chose a picture of a cat and flipped over the letter "u" the new word would be "cut"

It's simple, but adding those questions will REALLY help with their phonological awareness. This also benefits kids who have an especially hard time remembering and differentiating vowel sounds. I've seen it help a lot with a few struggling students who innocently think they are just playing a game. But they should know by now that I'm always sneaking in some learning. The sneakier, the better.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Aren't Teaching Blogs Just the WORST?

I mean, does it get any worse?

But really, they can be unhealthy for me at times. I have a love/hate relationship with them. I love them because, hey, free stuff and creative ideas!

I hate them because . . .

Well, I think the best way to describe it is by this ecard I came across:

someecards.com - May your life be as perfect as you make it seem on Facebook.

Alls I need to do is tweak it a little bit and it becomes:

someecards.com - May your classroom be as perfect as you make it seem on your blog.

And therein lies my problem with teaching blogs. They are just too darn perfect. I start out happily clicking through pages excited to try new ideas and I end by crying and typing up my resignation letter.

I know the blogs aren't that accurate. I know those teachers' jobs aren't perfect and they have bad teaching days too. But I get fooled far too often. Look at all their creative lesson plans! And games! And look how cute their classroom is! And they made individual Easter baskets for each student! And, oh, they have a cooking blog too! And they just got a book published that they wrote in between changing the diapers of their newborn twins that I guess they somehow take care of!

Welcome to my classroom! The walls are made of gumdrops!

And what have I done? Oh, today I tried to teach that one math concept again that about three of the students understood. I was tired and got pretty frustrated with some of the students when I shouldn't have. My first thought this morning was, "Tomorrow's Friday!" 

That was my day. 

I don't think it's a bad thing to make an upbeat blog that focuses on the good parts of teaching. The problem is when the reader can't see that the blogs are only showing the good parts. These blogs are only showing a sliver of the whole picture. The good bits. The helpful bits.

Even my blog is mostly showing the good parts. Not because I'm trying to hide the bad parts, but because the internet is a very public and permanent place and isn't always an appropriate place for rants and complaining.

Someone should tell the people of Youtube.

I don't write blog posts saying, "Well, today I taught short vowels for the 57th time and it was pretty boring. I was tired, so I left out the fun part and we mostly did rote memorization. I daydreamed about going home for most of math."

I don't write that, but I could. Not most days, but many days. Lots of identical posts. But it would be so boring and unhelpful that even I wouldn't read it. Why prolong my monotonous ineffective day by writing about it? I'd rather write about my meaningful days, and the same goes for other teachers.

When I get overwhelmed by how amazing all these teachers are, I try to remember a few things I've learned over the years.

1. Every Teacher Has a Weakness

It's true, you know. Not that you should go pointing out teachers' weaknesses once you find them, but it can be helpful to remember. Sometimes I'll see a teacher that I am convinced is PERFECT. They've got everything down! But if you watch any teacher, or anyone, long enough you start to notice something missing. There are gaps in what seems like a perfect exterior. Sometimes the gaps are huge. Maybe a teacher has incredible, fun, and creative lessons planned every day, but they have huge behavior issues in the classroom that render the lessons completely pointless.  I know that has happened to me.

Often when I see a teacher who I think is perfect and there's no way I could be as good as them, what I'm really doing is comparing my weaknesses as a teacher to their strengths as a teacher. It's not a fair comparison.

Maybe if you just give it your all!

2. Teaching Isn't EVERYTHING

What? Yes it is! What about how all during my teaching program I kept hearing about how I'm going to change every child's life I meet? What about all those stories about inspiring people who credit their greatness to an elementary teacher? I'm CHANGING THE WORLD!

Calm down, I didn't say teaching wasn't important. I'm just saying it's not the only important thing. There are other important things in life too. 

All those things they tell you about teachers changing the world are encouraging during your teaching program, but they become nightmarish when you realize you aren't a perfect teacher each day. If you're not inspiring every child every day, well then logic says the only alternative is you're ruining them for life.

But you're not. Teaching is very important. And teaching is also not the only factor in a child's success in life. If you didn't teach a child fractions in the best way possible, they probably won't end up in jail later.

Except this guy.

3. If You Give 100% to Teaching, Something Else Will Suffer

Like I said, teaching isn't everything. We have other areas of our lives. If you devote 100% of your time and energy to becoming a great teacher, some area in your life will suffer. You can't live at the school 12 hours a day and come home and grade papers and design lessons for a couple more hours without some area of your life being affected. If you do this, the outcome probably won't be that you're the best teacher ever. The outcome will probably be that your health will decline, your relationships will suffer, and you will burn out and quit teaching in a couple of years, which isn't helpful to your future students at all.

Even if you do decide to devote 100% of your time to teaching, you will still find you can't give 100% to every area. You have to divide your time and energy between preparing lessons, communication with parents, collaborating with colleagues, and participating in various teacher teams. I don't know what the right balance is, but it's probably different for everyone. So when you see teacher X giving 100% to area 4, remember, some other area is suffering. Don't feel like you're a failure for not doing something that's impossible.

Well. Well, if I didn't just give a motivational speech, eh? Well I'll be. But I do hope it can help some struggling teacher at some point. 

Gooooooooooood luck. Teaching isn't so bad!

P.S. You probably will change some lives, even if you feel ineffective. They weren't completely lying to you in your program.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Synonym Game

I suppose it's time for a synonym lesson plan. Synonyms are totally in right now.

Here's a quick lesson plan and synonym game I use to introduce the concept with a little fun. This synonym lesson plan and game would be suitable for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. You could use it to introduce the concept to older grades, but you would likely need higher-level words for the game.

Anticipatory Set:

Tell them this story, "I went outside and the trees were pretty. The grass was pretty. The sky was pretty. The lake was pretty. Everything was pretty. The end."

Ask if they liked the story and if not, ask them why. Explain that if you use a word over and over it can get kind of boring and doesn't make for a very good story. Change the story to this, "I went outside and the trees were pretty. The grass was beautiful. The sky was stunning. The lake was lovely. Everything was gorgeous."

While this isn't exactly the best story, it still shows what synonyms are and why they are useful. 

Some problems you might run into: 
  • You'll need to establish that synonyms are not and never will be cinnamon. Good luck. Once you get them actually saying synonym, half your battle is over.


Explain that synonyms are words that mean about the same thing. We use them because it makes our stories and our conversations more interesting. Cut out these cards (or write them on index cards) and present the cards one at a time. Model naming a synonym of the presented word, then have the students guess for the remaining words.

Visit here for the download of the synonym and antonym matching game: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Synonym-and-Antonym-Memory-Game-927175

Some problems you might run into: 

  • A student might answer "hopping" for "hop" or they may just say a word they associate with hop, like, "bunny." A sentence prompt would help here. Give an example sentence saying, "I could say, 'he can hop so high.' or I could say, 'He can ____ so high. What would fit in the blank?" Try putting their guess in the blank and they will see why it doesn't work.

  • Other  students might say, "pop" for the word, "hop".  Explain that you're not working on rhyming words, you're working on words that mean the same thing. I've seen this several times. They mix up "sounds the same" with "mean the same." 

Reinforcement Activity:

Time for some fun! Now use the cards to play a memory game with the students. I split the sets into 12 cards (make sure each set has 6 pairs), because 24 seems to be too much for my students. I also make several sets and put the children into groups of 3-4 to play the game. 

Demonstrate how to play the game by flipping over a card and looking for a match. Remind them you aren't looking for exact matches, you are looking for synonyms.

Some problems you might run into:

  • The first time I tried a game like this with my first graders it ended with several kids crying, lots of angry outbursts, and one kids proclaiming that it isn't fair if everyone doesn't win! We have to keep going until everyone wins! Oh, but how didn't I see this coming? First graders are not accustomed to losing and they are definitely aren't good at controlling emotions. But that doesn't mean you have to skip the game all together. It's a good idea to go for cooperative games often, but it's also good for them to learn how to lose once in a while. This is what I did before playing the synonym game this year, and we didn't have any problems:
  1. Explain that someone is going to lose. Most people will lose, in fact. Start by saying, "We are going to play a game. Do you think everyone will win the game? No. One person will win, and the others will lose. We're going to work on being good sports whether we win or lose."
  2. Brainstorm how to be a good sport if you lose and if you win. Suggest saying, "Good game." and not flaunting if you win.
  3. Acknowledge that the kids might feel angry if they lose, but help them understand that they don't have to act on those feelings. I talk about this a lot with my students and it generally goes well. They might not be able to control how they feel, but they can control how they act.
  4. Let them know that this is a trial run, and if they show they can be good sports you'll let them play games in the future. If they are poor sports, tell them you'll stop the game immediately and won't introduce games again until you feel they are more ready.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Is it Going to Be Like This Forever?

Every school year I find myself thinking something like, "I CAN'T DO THIS! THERE IS WAY TOO MUCH EXPECTED OF ME AND NO POSSIBLE WAY TO ACCOMPLISH IT ALL!"

By the end of the year my thoughts are more like, "Wow. Things are running smoothly. My students could probably run the class themselves if I weren't here."

And even though experience has proven time and again that things will, in fact, settle into a manageable routine, I still completely panic at the beginning of the new school year. This is true for a lot of areas of my life. Every single new semester in college when I would see the syllabus I would think, "Nope. Can't do it. No way to do it. I'm going to quit. Quitting right now." But then it would all work out and was never nearly as impossible as I thought it would be.

Me every semester. I don't know how I graduated.

Here's the problem. I look at what I am expected to accomplish in a large amount of time (A semester, or a school year, etc) and my brain thinks I need to do it all now. It's all like . . .

I'd talk back, but it's too darn cute.

But this year is different.  Here are a few tricks I've learned to deal with the stress of the new school year starting.

1) Don't Feed Your Feelings of Panic

Your feelings of panic probably aren't doing reality justice. It's not going to be as bad as it seems. Things will become routine and you'll be able to accomplish a lot more than you thought. If a future you from the end of the school year could come they would probably say, "Calm down. You're making it worse by freaking out." Maybe they'd slap you or something. Whatever would be most effective.

The more you dwell on how panicked you are, the more panicked you will become. I'm finally learning how to use logic instead of emotion when looking at what is expected of me.  It turns out my emotions really aren't very good at accurately portraying reality when I'm particularly stressed. Neither are yours.

I don't know! That seems like pretty sound logic to me!

The best way to crush your feelings of panic is to not try to crush them at all. Just let them come and pass and don't overreact to them. Recognize them for what they are, feelings. Not reality.

It'll still come back, but won't stay as long if you don't focus on it.

2) Add Things Slowly

I'm a far more effective teacher by May than I ever am in August, but that's okay. There are plenty of routines and extras I want to work into my lessons, but I've found it's best to begin the year establishing the bare basics and then slowly add things as I'm ready and as my students are ready. I've tried to start EVERYTHING the first day before and it doesn't work. Then I panic and think I'm a horrible teacher because I'm not meeting every single requirement on day one, or week one, or month one. But years of teaching have shown that I'll be able to start adding on little routines and extra things to enhance my teaching and lessons, all in good time.

So my advice is to start with only the absolutely necessary parts of your lessons. Get the basics down and soon you'll find you have that time to add that extra bit before each lesson and before you know it you'll have added that part at the end. 

As an example, right now I want my students to write or a draw a quick summary of what they've learned after math in their journals. It's a good thing. Something that I'm supposed to be doing to help their learning. But we're not quite there yet. 

It's not good to add a more complex routine like that when they are still trying to get the routine of remembering what a pencil is and how to keep it from falling off their desk within the first 3 minutes of class.

Pencils are hard.

3) I Shouldn't Make Lists When There Are Only Two Points

Because then I feel like I have to make a third one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Teaching Short and Long Vowels

Did anyone else notice how school started again?

Anyway, here's some tips on how to teach short and long vowels to students. I teach first graders and many of them need a lot of phonics instruction. But don't tune out if you don't teach first graders because there are plenty of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders who need basic phonics help as well. Teachers tend to stop teaching phonics explicitly to students after 1st grade or so, but don't be one of them! Some students struggle for a very long time simply because they weren't taught phonics explicitly for long enough. The class moves on and teachers think they'll just pick up on phonetic rules, but some won't. Trust me. I've seen it in pretty much all of my students in special education who struggle with reading.

Granted, many students won't need it to help them read fluently. They've already got it so you might think you're wasting your time focusing on the few who do need it. But the time is not wasted! Teaching phonics will help their spelling improve incredibly. Just because they can read the words fluently does not mean they can spell them, and when they can consciously explain phonics rules, their spelling will show it.

This is a fun and effective way to teach what long and short vowels are, and how to decode CVC and CVCE words. And CVCCECVCE words, if those ever come up.

Here's what you'll need:

5 pencils
5 strips of different colored card stock

Step One: Make Vowel Cards 

Pretend there's some tape there too.

Fold the rectangle and tape onto the pencil. Write the long vowel on
one side and the short vowel on the other. Make one for each vowel.

Step Two: Practice Short and Long Vowels with Students

I start with the letter A. Teach them the short sound with the short vowel marking, and then teach them the long vowel with the long vowel marking. The fun part is reviewing it like this by rolling the pencil in your hand. When you stop, the students say either the short or long sound. As shown below:

Step Three: Demonstrate Short and Long Vowels in Words

To demonstrate short and long vowels in words, use CVC words that can become CVCE words. For instance hop and hope or mad and made. Practice as shown below:

I don't know why it does that little animation at the end. It was late when I edited it. I promise I didn't do it on purpose.

And here's a list of CVC words that can become CVCE words:

When your students are ready you can move onto CVC with blends that can become CVCE. Here a few that work: plan, strip, grip, trip, shin, grad . . . and that's all for now. I can't think of any more.

Also, don't feel confined by using real words. It's always good to throw in some nonsense words to make sure they understand the rule and haven't just memorized the words.

Monday, August 12, 2013

First Day Icebreaker

So, school is happening again.

With that comes the first day, which always makes me a bit nervous, mostly because the students are so nervous. It's contagious. They are all so quiet and well-behaved and so different from how they'll be in a week or two. I'm always shocked when I realize just how much personality is packed into those shy little kids I meet the first day. And while you'd think I'd enjoy the quiet (because in a few weeks I'll be strategizing how to get them to be quiet again), really I just want them to feel comfortable and at ease. It helps us both.

So here's a little first day of school icebreaker I do with my first graders that helps them ease up a little and helps me learn their names.

It's simple and doesn't require any planning and I guess isn't terrible creative, but it's fun!

When I switched to teaching younger kids, it took me a while to transition. The first day I had them stand up and introduce themselves. How very adult of me. It just made them nervous and really isn't a good idea for little kids, it turns out. I realized that about half way through the introductions, and switched to this.

The Name Game

I ask each of the students their names then I close my eyes and while they're closed the students all move around and switch places. When I say stop, they freeze in place and I point to each student and guess their name. If I get their name right, they sit down in their seat. If I get their name wrong, they stay standing. I close my eyes and the remaining students switch places and I try to guess again. It usually takes a few rounds before I can get them all and the students love it for a few reasons.

1) They get to run around while my eyes are closed!
2) They get to try to trick the teacher!
3) For some reason it's downright hilarious when a teacher can't remember their names!

I usually do this the first few days because one day just isn't enough for me to remember their names. You can also have a student close their eyes and try to guess everyone's names. If you do this, be sure to join in and have the student guess your name too. Kids always get it a kick out of having their teacher join in on little games like this, and it builds rapport and helps them feel comfortable in the classroom.

I'm always up for more ideas, so please share.