Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Detailed Sentences

One day I realized my students weren't good at writing detailed sentences and I also realized I had way too much of that infamous grayish-brown flimsy paper that I used as a child.

That's the one!

What to do?

From this conundrum came a fun lesson for teaching the young ones how to write more detailed sentences using said paper, scissors, and some crayons. Also tape.

Step One: Draw the Apple


Have the students draw an apple on the top of the paper. Not just any apple, mind you, a creative one. We don't want all the apples looking the same, or it ruins the lesson. Tell them to explore different sizes, shapes, and colors for their apples. Give students a chance to be creative and they surely will.

Step Two: Write A Description of Your Apple

They'll need help. They really need to describe their apples in detail, or again the lesson won't work. If they're stumped tell them to write the color, size, and shape of their apple. Emphasize complete sentences. With capitals and end marks too!*

Step Three: Cut In Half

Depending on the age of your students, you may want to do this step yourself. Each paper needs to be cut slightly different, like a puzzle piece, so it can only fit with its other half. I just had the students give them to me and quickly cut them each a little differently.

Step Four: Tape the Pictures on the Board

Step Five: Match the Descriptions

Read a description and have the students guess which apple it's describing. When a student thinks they know, have them match the description with the picture and see if it fits.

It's great fun. You'll have the students' attention the whole time with the drawing, cutting, and guessing. They'll be waiting to hear their description read, which also helps hold attention, and they'll be watching each time a student tries to match it to see if it fits.

The bonus is that they also will learn how to write detailed sentences and they'll see why it's important to do so. You can show that the more detailed the sentences are, the easier it is to match them. If someone wrote, "My apple is cool," no one would know which apple they were talking about.

So try it already!

*I'm a hypocrite.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Story Elements: Problem/Solution

One thing I go over again and again with students is how to find the basic elements of a story. It starts them on the road to analyzing and interpreting things they read, which is a vital skill to have in life. I start with the basics: characters, setting, problem, and solution.

But how to make it fun? That's a question I have to ask myself before each lesson. Not just fun for them, fun for me too. Teachers get bored too.

One way to get students interested is to focus on the why. Why exactly are we learning this? What's the point?

So before I teach them how to find the problem and solution, we focus on why stories typically have problems in the first place. Here's how it goes!

I pick a student and put them in a story. (Side note: put students in your stories and lessons whenever possible. They will listen to the part of the lesson that involves them center stage, even if it's just a quick math problem. They can't not listen to find out their fate in the story/problem/lesson.)

Back to the story. The story goes something like this, "John woke up and went to school. He had a great day and nothing went wrong. The end."

You'll notice the kids' eyes get wide and they perk up the second you start a story of any sort. It's a crazy phenomenon with kids (and adults) and one to take advantage of. But you'll also notice that as the story comes to an abrupt boring ending, they'll look disappointed. That's what you're going for.

Then I ask, "Did you like that story?"

Not really, no, they didn't. This is when I explain that sometimes stories are boring if there isn't some sort of conflict or problem. Then I give another example.

"John bought ten pieces of bubble gum at the store. He put one piece in and started chewing, then another, then another until ALL ten were in his mouth. He chewed and chewed and started to blow a big, big bubble. The bubble got bigger and bigger until it was bigger than his head. Just then Sarah walked in holding a sharp pin. She walked slowly over to John, who couldn't see her behind the big bubble and put the pin right in front of the bubble, then . . . she put the pin safely away and John's bubble slowly deflated. The end."

Don't worry, John. She doesn't do it. And she's
probably teasing you because she likes you.

Watching their disappointed faces is priceless. I then ask, "What did you want to happen in that story?"

They all agree that they wanted Sarah to pop John's bubble. This is why many stories have problems or conflicts, I explain, it makes it more interesting.  Then I ask for ideas of how they might have solved this problem had Sarah actually popped the bubble. They love getting creative and will be able to better find solutions in stories they read.

But once they've had this story, one example isn't enough. They want another! So here's a couple more.

"The class decided to make a big cake to surprise the teacher on her birthday. The cake was huge! It was chocolate with strawberry frosting and a candle on top. It was so heavy that Jenny and Ben had to carry it in together. They walked as carefully as they could, holding the three-tiered cake into the classroom. Just before they got to the table to set it down, Jacob accidentally dropped a bag of marbles right in front of their feet! Jenny lifted a foot up and almost stepped onto a marble . . . but noticed in time and avoided it. They safely put the cake down. The end."

Again, ask the students what they wish would have happened. They want the conflict, they want the drama, and they'll begin to understand why so many stories have conflict and problems.

And here's a third one. I typically teach lessons more than once to really drill it into their heads, so it's nice to have several stories so I don't repeat myself.

"Michael was walking to school in a brand-new outfit for picture day. His mom told him whatever he did, don't get it dirty. He walked to school with Jim and Katie. The day before, it had rained and there was a big puddle. Jim and Katie already got their pictures taken, so they decided to jump in the puddle. They splashed around and had a lot of fun. They told Michael he should jump in too. Michael edged toward the puddle and lifted his foot to put it in . . . then he decided he shouldn't get dirty and went to school. The end."

I'm trying to come up with some more, but can't think of any. Something bad has to happen, but something that isn't terrible, just comical. Any ideas?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Pet Peeve Turns into a Decent Lesson Plan

Nah, I guess it's not really a pet peeve anymore.

Sometimes people pair the word literally with idioms to emphasize their point, and though I suppose it used to bother me, now it's just fun to picture that they're serious about the literal part. I've accepted that it's okay for words to evolve, and I'm certainly guilty of butchering the English language at times. I often accidentally combine idioms and when it comes to those "she gave him her number" type sentences, there's little to no chance I'll get all of the pronouns right on my first shot.

So, I've given up my annoying grammar Nazi ways. Besides there are much more important things to be angry about these days than grammar, like how come Apple Jacks don't taste like apples? And what's the deal with airline food?

BUT! Before I accepted this I came up with a pretty fun lesson to teach my students about idioms and the meaning of literally. I don't want to toot my own hat, but this lesson is the cream of the cake!

I begin the lesson by explaining what idioms are, then give an example idiom. They make a guess of what it means, and I show the picture illustrating its figurative meaning. Then I show them a picture of what it would mean if we meant it literally. 

For example: I laughed my head off.

I literally laughed my head off.

It's raining cats and dogs!

It's literally raining cats and dogs.

After we've gone through several, the students choose an idiom and illustrate the figurative and literal meaning on this idiom worksheet. It's literally a blast.

Here's the PowerPoint slideshow I use for the idiom lesson, though it's sped up a bit. It's great fun. And yes there is a goofy sound clip at the beginning, which I normally think is weird for PowerPoint presentations. But kids, they like those goofy sound clips.


I even have a version with cutesy sounds for every slide, but I've spared you. You're welcome.

Here's the link for the Idiom PowerPoint download. It's good for 2nd grade - 5th grade, I'd say.

Also, if you can think of any other idioms that could be represented by a drawing fairly easily (both figuratively and literally), let me know! I'd like to add more.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Be Good" and Other Ineffective Rules.

Rules! There's got to be rules! But there don't have to be so many. And the ones you have could be much more effective if you follow a few. . . rules. Which leads me to a great subheading.

Rules for Rules

Now that we've got that pun out of the way, let me give a little preface. You simply can't have a classroom without rules and positive and negative consequences. I've seen people try, and it does not go well. 

This is kind of like saying . . . 

Being a good teacher/boss does go a long way, and it does help motivate them intrinsically, but it's not always enough. If there were no rules or guidelines to help me know what I was supposed to be doing at work, and I didn't know whether or not I was meeting those expectations, I'd be stressed and not terribly motivated.  

But simply having rules and consequences isn't going to cut it either. I've seen a few pitfalls that come up time and again as teachers try to make rules in their classroom. So here are some things to do, and some things to avoid.

1. Keep Them Short (3-5 rules)

How can you have so few rules, you ask, why I need 10 rules just to get them to line up properly! It's impossible, you say! No it's not. The rules I'm talking about now are the basic ones that govern the way your classroom runs, not the smaller guidelines and directions that show up during various activities.

Your rules should be short and all of your students should know them by heart. If you go beyond 5 basic rules, you'll lose your students. There will be too much to remember, and they can't and won't remember them.  I remember once seeing a classroom where the teacher had dozens of rules posted on the wall, so much so that she ran out of room on the wall and they wrapped around to the next. Too much. If you can't fit it on one wall, you've got too much.

                         Good Example:                                                                 Bad Example:
"Honestly Jimmy, sometimes I wonder if you've even
read the newly revised edition of the rule handbook."


2.  Use Concrete Language

"Be good" is not concrete language. Be good can mean a variety of things to a variety of people. It's true that you can't outline absolutely everything the students need to do and your rules will need to have some interpretation. But avoid overly broad rules that make it unclear whether the student is or is not following the rule.

                                  Good Example                                                                 Bad Example

3. . . . But Don't Get Too Specific

This is another problem teachers run into. They end up with rules like, "Don't smack your gum." and "Don't unzip someone's backpack while you're waiting in line to go home, because stuff might fall out of it and that's super annoying.

You can address these issues as they come up, but don't create major rules around minor instances. If the students aren't returning their books to the proper place, remind them to do it. You could post a reminder next to the book shelves. But don't make a new rule. Rules should be concrete, but broad enough that they apply to multiple situations, not just one specific time.

4. Don't let your Students Brainstorm Classroom Rules

Oh, it just doesn't work! I've seen this many times. I see why teachers want to do it. They gave good reasoning. They want the students to feel more accountable and create a sort of democracy within the classroom. But ultimately what happens is this:

All the students want to come up with a rule and they don't want to stop coming up with rules. "Jenny just suggested we don't say the word stupid? I'll suggest we don't say the word dumb!" And on, and on.

And their rules will break all of the rules I've just mentioned. You'll end up with a hundred rules that are oddly specific, or far too vague. No one will remember all of the rules and you won't have the heart to tell them that their idea for a rule wasn't a good one.

"Um . . . thanks, Suzy. So I guess I'll just put that on the rule chart, then."

5. Try to Use Positive Language

I've had this one beaten into my head many times too. The idea is to come with rules that tell them what they should do instead of what they shouldn't do. For instance, "Use materials correctly" instead of "Don't play with your materials."

But really, sometimes I think it's okay to use a "don't" every now and then, as seen in rules 3 and 4. Just make sure your rules aren't dominated by don'ts. 

So there are the rules for rules that work for me, and probably will for you too.