Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Timelines!

We are knee-deep in our 5th grade historical fiction unit right now. This is always a favorite each year. We've blogged about our various HF adventures HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

In 5th grade, kids have already completed a HF unit when they were with us in 4th grade. During that time, they all read the SAME book. This year, to take them a little deeper, the kids main focus is studying the ERA they selected. Due to this, kids are all reading DIFFERENT books that are within the same era as their book club members. Our students also had to select a different era this year from the one they studied last year in our space. Eras we focused on this year: Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Westward Expansion, Civil War, WW2, and Civil Rights. Our favorite part of this, is that kids of all levels are in book clubs together, really creating fantastic discourse tied to era understanding and how their book fit together.

A huge part of any historical fiction unit is nonfiction understanding of the era they are studying. We spent the first week+ immersing ourselves in nonfiction materials tied to our era. Kids shared ideas with each other and created a group timeline outlining important events from their era.
As we have been working through our books and discussions, they started to bring up and share where their books fit into these non-fiction timelines. Last year, we made "double timelines", which were fun, but only one book could fit in that framework.

This year, our amazing student teacher, Megan Leverence (she's looking for a job, people...anyone hiring?? :) found a great blog post. You can read it HERE. She took the idea and changed it up a little bit, and found a way to connect it to the timelines the kids created.

Rather than write up "reviews," like the blog suggested, she had the kids create "book timelines" of the books they had been reading. She had them find 5-10 important events in their books (no spoilers allowed), and create a timeline "flipbook."
Once the kids created their "flipbook timelines", they placed their books on the nonfiction timelines. This created a fantastic visual of where all of the books we were reading fit across history. We utilized a huge bulletin board in our hall to hang all the timelines and books on. It's been a great discussion and visual tool for all of our kiddos.
How have you taught HF units? How do you bring in nonfiction? We'd love to learn with you!

Happy Teaching,


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Why Personalize?

We get asked often: "Is it worth it?" "Would you ever go back to a traditional classroom?" Isn't it just so much work?" And, truly the answer is: This is the best work of our careers, and we would never go back to a traditional classroom. It is WORTH every minute, every drip of sweat, every ounce of stress. Why?? I'll answer with a story.

Meet one of our students. For the sake of anonymity, we'll call him "Jay." Meet Jay.
When we met "Jay" during our first week of 4th grade, we knew he was smart. He was a good student. He "played" school really well, and had every year prior to us.

We start every school year with a variety of team building activities. These are critical in the development of our culture and climate. These tell us so much more about the kids in front of us than any test score could. We use these as building blocks for our time together and how our classroom runs.

During a particularly challenging activity (Spaghetti and marshmallow towers), "Jay" completely shut down. His group was "failing," and so he stopped trying. He put his head down and refused to go any further. At one point during those first few weeks, he said "Can't you just give me a worksheet??" No, Jay, we can't, nor would we.

What will we do instead? We will personalize the learning you receive. We will push you to places that might make you uncomfortable. We will work on not only your academics, but also your soft skills. We will teach you that "failing forward" is a much better option than shutting down. We will instill confidence in you. We will believe in you. We will help you believe more in yourself. 

Flash-forward to almost two years later. "Jay" is teaching his peers in this picture. Jay has taken on the entire 8th grade curriculum in math--by his own choosing, and will be starting high school math as a 6th grader next year. Jay now seeks out challenges that frustrate him. Jay now has confidence to the point where failure does not frighten him. He has empathy for his peers. He holds his head up high. Jay is proud of who he is as a learner.

And we couldn't be more proud of him.

That is just one reason of a thousand of why we personalize. Why is your WHY? We would love to learn with you.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Create Your Own Colony...revised!

As a culminating activity for our exploration of the Early English Settlements, our students worked in collaborative groups to create their own colony. This was a project Angela and I had done a couple years ago. but we made changes to it based on the needs of our students. Initially, in 2015, Angela and I threw this project together over a lunch hour. We were looking for a way for our students to apply some of the concepts they had just learned during our research on Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth. I blogged about this adventure back in 2015, the last time we taught 5th grade. You can read that blog post HERE

The kids thoroughly enjoyed the project, and it went over well. While our students were tackling the inquiry project, they provided us with some great new ideas and we made changes for them on the spot. We knew when we introduced the Create Your Own Colony project this year, we'd want to revisit and make changes based on the feedback from our last cohort of kids. Their feedback is invaluable, and always makes the projects more engaging.

I'm re-posting today, in case you want to check out our updated "Create Your Own Colony" project to use in your classroom! As mentioned above, we used this while learning about Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth, but it could easily be incorporated into a study of the 13 Colonies as well. We left it pretty wide open, giving the students the autonomy to design and share their colony in any way. Knowing that some classrooms may need more structure, we did include planning pages that students could use to organize their thinking, or tackle the project in a step by step sequence. That wasn't as important to us, we really just wanted to see the students collaborating and brainstorming ideas on their own, but you may have groups or individuals that need more structure. 

As always, if you have questions, concerns, or ways to make this project even better, please reach out! 

~ Kate

Friday, February 17, 2017

EdCamp Elmbrook

We are so exited to share that our school district is hosting our First Annual EdCamp! We hope you can join us!

What is an EdCamp? It is a movement of professional development created by teachers, for teachers. Check out this short video for a very quick overview:
Our EdCamp will be held on March 25th at Brookfield Central High School! We hope you can join us! We are excited to see what topics arise that day! Check out our website to learn more:

Links to registration can be found on the site. The best part of EdCamp (besides the amazing learning) is that it is FREE!

We can't wait to learn along side you on this amazing day! We want YOU! Come Join Us!


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Launching An Argument Unit

Photo Credit
I'm not going to lie...argument has never been one of my favorite units to teach. Maybe it is because I am not a "great debater?" Maybe it is because in 18 years, I could count on one hand the arguments I have won against my wonderful husband. Maybe it is because it seems weird to encourage kids to "argue." But, whatever my reason, I need to get over it, because It. Is Happening! And regardless of MY level of interest, the truth is...KIDS LOVE TO ARGUE! They love to debate and to question things!

This year, we have a new Teacher's College reading unit...Researching Debatable Issues. It does also tie well with their writing unit Writing an Argument Essay. Win-Win. The downside, is that the Teacher's College does not always provide the most open-ended opportunities for voice and choice in a personalized learning environment. I will say, that the new reading unit really has stepped it up. The online components of being a Teacher's College district were great for this unit! Lots of articles and resources to help you. Let's be honest, finding age-appropriate resources that connect to debatable issues isn't always easy. We are very fortunate to have these resources available to us in our district.

In our grade level PLC, as we began unpacking our units of study and working to develop a cross-curricular unit plan, we had some intense discussions about what topics would be appropriate for our kiddos. We are not in a place where we could just "take the lid off" and let kids tackle any debatable issue they wanted. There are many factors that play in to that, but the bottom line is that we have some unmovable "fence posts" in that area. However, we as a team are committed to personalizing the learning of our students as best as possible. The compromise we found was to provide our students a "limited menu" of options to choose from. While this isn't as personalized as we wish it could be, it was the best we could do with the strong fence posts we are functioning within this unit. The Teacher's College resources set the stage for a lot of it, but we also added a few PC topics of our own. Here is our "final" list:
So, to launch this unit, we read a wonderful book: I Wanna Iguana. It is a hilarious story told through letters between a boy and his mother about why he should get a pet iguana. Even as 5th graders, they loved it. Big kids still love picture books, and we try to incorporate them whenever we can!
Link to Amazon
Following the book, we discussed three essential questions when examining argument writing:
  1. What is the claim being made?
  2. What reasons are given to support that claim?
  3. What evidence is given to support those reasons?
We, then, examined the types of persuasion that is all around us. The conversations that came up surrounding these different types of products was fantastic!
"Wow! Look at that! Why are those words bigger? Where do they put sugary cereals on the store shelves? What commercials do they play in between cartoons? Why do you think they put those words there? What words are missing?"--and, of course, they got quite the hit out of "Everything tastes better in a bacon bowl!"

Then, it was time to "Take Our Own Stand"--literally! We had all the kids stand up. We put up choices on the board (example: soccer vs. football), and the kids had to move to either side of the room to take a stand. We did these with a few, then they had to find someone on the opposing side of the room and "convince" them that they were right! The buzz in our room was electric!
Once this fun and excitement was done, we put the kids into random groups of 5. Each group got a folder full of articles that took a stand on one side of a topic or another. There was at least one article for each of our list topics. With 50+ kiddos, organization is key in these types of situations. If we aren't organized, there will be articles EVERYWHERE in our space without any rhyme or reason. To help with this, we put each article set into a numbered manila folder. Each article in that folder shared the same number. Each random kid group was assigned a number and the responsibility of keeping track of their team's folder! It was beautiful! <My Type A Heart Is Singing> ;) was time to DIG IN! Kids devoured one article after the next! They couldn't help but discussing while they read. They voluntarily took notes on what they were reading. We just sat back and soaked in the amazing-ness all around us for a few minutes! Jumping into those initial small group conferences was energizing. It made ME enjoy argument! They were so engaged and excited!
In our space, we have the most amazing kids. Our room is full of so many diverse needs and backgrounds. We have multiple students identified as having disabilities. We also have even more students that receive ELL services. One of our students is even just starting to learn English for the very first time (He's now reading at a Level J...we're SOOO proud of his growth!). With the many needs, kids need different ways to access materials. We are fortunate to have Google Read & Write for all of our students in our district. This amazing tool allows for almost all websites and PDF's to be read out loud to kids! It also allows you to "simplify" texts from sites, creates pictures notes, and more amazing features...all connected to their Google Drives!

With the new updates to Google Classroom (it's about time, Google...), I am able to send websites and articles to individual students. This helps so much with the way that we personalize learning for our kiddos! Now, no matter what their ability or background, kids can access argument texts and have rich conversations with their peers! <I Heart Google!>
One of our students listening to an article using Google Read & Write!
Following an amazing immersive day, kids continued to become familiar with the topics within their folders. They debated (naturally) with each other, shared facts organically, and were truly fired up about what they were reading. Two days after this launch, we held a "grand conversation" about what we had learned so far. Kids led this, and they brought up the topics they learned about. What sides they were noticing. Some even were ready to declare their own claim about a topic. We took notes on all their great ideas. Then we provided them with a simple form to make a "final selection" on a debatable issue that they wanted to pursue further. 

Debate can be a tricky thing. There are so many topics in this world that may not be completely age appropriate for "littles", so we have to be a little protective. Heck, even we as adults are having some difficulty lately arguing and disagreeing respectfully. That being said, we still wanted to give our kids some freedom over their topic selection. Due to this, we added a selection in our form for "I have an idea I want to share with my teacher." We were floored with the amazing (age-appropriate) topics that they came up with. In addition to the list below, we now also have kids studying:
  • Whether or not kids should have caffeine
  • Reducing carbon emissions by increasing hybrid/electric car use
  • Why improving public education in America is important
  • Whether or not we should use nuclear power
  • And a few more that are digging into topics of interest to see if there is enough info out there to support a claim!

From here, we put the kids into "topic-alike" groups. Kids created shared documents to share digital resources (without being!). They took their own notes in graphic organizers. And, most importantly, are naturally forming opinions that they want to share with others.

So, what's next? We are going to allow the kiddos to learn more about their debatable issue. From there, we are going to conduct "flash debates" with others. We are going to talk about the importance of counter-claims. How understanding points that are different than yours can strengthen your own argument. Ultimately, they will write an argumentative essay aligning with the 5th grade writing standards.

I know I was a little unsure at first, but, as always, putting trust in the kids prevails. They have made me LOVE argument! Their energy, excitement, and passion are completely contagious. I can't wait to see where the rest of this unit goes!

What about you? How do you teach argument? Have you found any resources that have made a great impact on your units? We'd love to learn from you!

Happy Teaching!


Friday, January 27, 2017

Reflecting on Our Math Workshop

Math Workshop has always been one of my favorite hours of the day...the energy and controlled chaos within the room is contagious, and we love that the kids take ownership over their choice time. This year our district adopted a new math curriculum...I'm not going to lie, that adoption made me a little apprehensive. After attending the training and reviewing the materials, it seemed to be greatly teacher-driven...something we are not totally in agreement with. I loved the components of Bridges, and knew the kids would enjoy the problem solving activities embedded throughout, but worried that I would be spending too much time in front of the students.

Angela and I promised each other we'd go into the year with an open mind and a positive attitude towards the program. We knew we liked Bridges in and of itself, so we had to remain optimistic. We discussed with our students some of the changes they may see in our workshop block, but promised them we'd familiarize ourselves with the curriculum and go from there. This was one of those moments when we felt bound by curriculum. It took us a good three units, and copious amounts of time co-planning, before we felt we had a grasp on Bridges and all it had to offer. Our students were extremely patient with us getting ahead of the learning curve.

Bridges has supported our students in many ways, and they have grown tremendously through this program. They have an amazing intervention binder that supports our struggling mathematicians (we also use that for our daily bullpens). Our students have also developed incredible mental math strategies. They approach complex problems in a variety of ways, and think about numbers flexibly. We've enjoyed the overlap of concepts, and love seeing how the different domains mesh together throughout units.

A few disadvantages, though, is feeling there is a repetitiveness of lessons at times. Sometimes lessons seem redundant and unnecessary. We also noticed a decrease in the students' daily choice time. Part of these struggles are due to system structures that we can not control, and part of that is feeling as if we needed to teach the program with fidelity in order to best understand all it has to offer. It is a juggling act when you're tackling a new curriculum. There are concepts the students already know, but then there are definite areas where they're missing information. BUT...with the first half of the year under our belts, we are thrilled that we FINALLY feel we can venture away from Bridges a bit and bring in some more project based learning. Please do not misunderstand, Bridges is still our primary resource, but based on pretest results and some of the skills our students have mastered, we know many of our students are ready to take on more independent choice and project based learning.

As I previewed our Unit 4 pretest results, I was extremely pleased with the skills our students already had in place. Students doing well on a pretest is sort of a double edged sword- you're excited and proud of them for showing they're applying skills previously taught and knowing they're ready to move ahead...BUT it can also be terrifying because you're faced with the dreaded "Now what do we do with them?" question.

We had a relatively large group of children (8-10ish) that scored 100% on the entire pretest. We have another 5-8 that will master the skills needed within a few mini lessons or bullpens. Knowing that, we knew we had to plan accordingly for these flyers. They'd be ready for something more. We did not want these students sitting through unnecessary mini lessons. Last year, based on their pretest results, we had students moving back and forth between multiple mini lessons on a daily basis. That was easier to do when we were writing all of our units and lessons. This year it's been more difficult to juggle because we are still getting to know the Bridges units.

Seeing our results for this unit, though, we knew it was time to venture outside of the walls of Bridges and jump back into our "normal." We wanted to give our students an opportunity to practice the skills and standards addressed within Unit 4, but also push them further ahead. We knew this would better serve them and give them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a real world situation. Angela and I spent time creating "Planning For Your Future- a Personal Budget Project"; an independent project that our students could work on throughout the unit. This project is required for students that mastered the learning targets on the pre-assessment, but is open to ALL kids in our class, as well.
Click the image above to see the full product.
Students tackling the budget project may participate in certain mini lessons, especially during problem solving days. We want their expertise in our discussion, and we want them to practice the skills and explain their thinking in a variety of ways. With that being said, they will spend a good portion of their unit working independently on the project. We have the luxury of having two full time teachers, and a student teacher in our space. This gives us a lot of flexibility to work with a variety of small groups throughout our workshop block.

We are excited because it's wonderful to see the enthusiasm back in  our classroom. The students are thrilled to be gaining back some choice time, and tackling long term projects. They understand, though, that there are days we will pull them back to our mini lesson for multiple reasons. Maybe we feel they need more practice, maybe we need their voice in our discussion, or maybe we think they'll just have fun tackling the day's lesson/activities. We are also hoping to see them take this sort of open-ended project, and spark new ideas of their own! They always come up with better projects than we do!

The "Cake Pop" problem below is a perfect example of a problem-solving day that was beneficial for ALL learners. Only a handful of our students have background knowledge on multiplying decimals, but EVERY kid in our class could solve this problem using a variety of strategies we've learned in class. Some used ratio tables, some used the double-half strategy, some tore apart the dollar amounts and made the questions easier to solve, and some used the traditional algorithm for multiplying decimals (teaching them the traditional method will come within this unit, but we loved that the students pulled other strategies to solve instead of just saying, "I can't do this...". Our hearts were even happier when partners chose to solve the questions in multiple ways.
Katie & Evy solving their cake pop questions using the traditional algorithm. Another group setting up a ratio table to solve.

We are super excited to see our students jump into the "Planning For Your Future- a Personal Budget Project". This enrichment project has them exploring their future careers, as well as budgeting for life's everyday expenses. Students will find an apartment to rent and furnish the apartment, determine cost of additional living expenses each month, along with making a plan and shopping for healthy meals.  It's going to be an eye-opening experience for them. To check out the project, and try it in your classroom, visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store. As always, if you have questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out! We love hearing from you!

 ~ Kate

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Sphero Golf!

Swanson Straits logo modified from Whistling Straits Golf Course.
If you have not explored Sphero Balls, today is the day to check them out! Sphero is a robotic ball that pairs with your iPad or Smartphone. Using a variety of apps, you can manipulate the ball's movement through coding, programming, or a simple finger swipe. I love Spheros because they are easy to use and content integration is totally accessible by teachers at all levels. Spheros emphasize the power of play in our classroom, something we're always looking for more of in our world!

We brought the joy of Sphero into our classroom today with another engaging collaboration day with Mike Mohammad and his BCHS students. Y'all may be tired of hearing about our days together, but we are definitely not tired of having fun together! Because of the size of our group (50 students) we decided to divide up the time together into two rotations.

Being a golf lover myself, this morning is definitely ranking up there as one of my favorites of the year!  Mike's students came to "Swanson Straits" a little early to turn our Library Media Center into a 10 hole mini golf course. Our 5th graders were divided into teams and spent the morning playing all 10 holes of golf with the Sphero balls. Even a few grown ups enjoyed "teeing off" and giving it a try. It is waaaay harder than it looks. The Sphero Golf app is fun because it allows you to choose your club, determine the distance needed, and then tee off. The kids didn't tell me that when I started playing, so I was using my putter for most of my hole....urrrghhh! I made up for it in future holes, don't worry! 

In addition to the mini golf, our students also explored the Lightning Lab app. This app allowed our 5th graders to program the Sphero ball to navigate around a series of polygons taped onto the floor of our Makerspace. As the students approached each shape, they had to use the app to program the Sphero to trace the edges of each polygon. Students quickly realized they had to adjust their team's programming, through trial and error, in order to correctly navigate the polygon path. They had to create roll combinations, including the direction, speed, and the number of seconds they wanted it to move. They had to repeat this for each edge of the polygon. This rotation was much more challenging for our students, but they practiced their perseverance and grit to work through the different polygons. 

Although we only dabbled with a few of the Sphero Apps this morning, there are ton of options out there for students. I know there are many more out there, but these looked fun to me. Feel free to comment below with other apps you've used in your classroom!Below is a list of apps your students may find enjoyable: 
  • Sphero
  • Sphero Lab
  • Sphero Golf
  • Lightning Lab
  • Sphero Draw N' Drive
  • Sphero Exile

What an incredibly fun morning! We can not tell you how much we value our collaboration days together. A HUGE THANK YOU to Mike and his students! No matter how much we rant and rave, they'll never realize how much we value this time together. Not only do we laugh and play and have ridiculous amounts of fun, these days spark an interest and curiosity in the minds of our 5th graders. Collaboration days introduce our students to passions they may not even realize they have. The enthusiasm in our space this morning was infectious, and none of us wanted the morning to end! We can't wait to bring our Sphero balls back out in our upcoming Geometry unit.

Until next time...

~ Kate