Working Fun into the Learning


One thing I’m hoping to change next year is my students’ attitudes toward school.  They, as a class, tend to view school as something to “get through” so you can spend lunch with your friends, or go home and do what they want.

my-goal-in-the-classroom-was-always-to-make-sure-they-were-having-so-much-fun-th-403x403-nk5yfzSince they have a number of years left for school, I need to get them excited about school and learning.  Toward that end, I’m planning some “fun” Friday activities.  Each Friday, we’ll do something out of the ordinary.  They’ll still be learning, but in a different manner.

have_fun_learning_english_quote_from_rodrigoWeek one will be an art lesson.  I’ve been working with a friend of mine who is an art teacher for some good solid art lessons that will benefit my students.  Activities like weaving, collages, wire sculpture and positive/negative space drawings will expand their thinking and help them see the world differently.  Also, since art is more freeing, they can feel success in the lessons.

Week two will be a mystery Skype.  If you haven’t heard of Mystery Skypes, they’re basically a chance for classrooms to connect to other classrooms around the world.  Each class asks yes or no questions of the other class to try to figure out where the other class is.  You can check it out here:  This fits nicely with our social studies curriculum of sixth grade geography, and allows students to participate in an activity they are excited about.

Week three will be a problem solving session.  I’ll be using the box and ideas from Breakout Edu – seen here: to give them a story to solve.  In order to open the box, they need to work together to solve riddles.  This will expand their thinking and encourage creativity.

Week four will be a Guest Speaker.  Each month, we’ll have a guest speaker come in (or Skype) and talk to my class about careers.  People like plumbers, stage managers, business owners will all be coming in to speak.  This gives my students a chance to start thinking about their future.  As they hear about various careers, we’ll be able to talk about what is needed to attain that career.  This gives a purpose to their education beyond a grade on a report card.

images-2Having a monthly plan like this makes life easier when you’re teaching.  This allows me to get the plans set in advance, so the details can be worked out before I’m too busy to think!

What do you do to get students excited to come to school?

I’m Back!

Oh my goodness, it’s been way too long!  Somehow, life got in the way of my blogging.  First, my in-laws were struggling and we had to take over the finances and medical stuff (read lots and lots of doctors appointments!).  Then, my father-in-law passed away and we had to deal with that, selling two houses (both filled to the rafters with stuff – major hoarders here!).  Then, I switched grades and subjects, so last year, while lots of fun, required huge amounts of time to be prepared to teach 5th graders math, science and social studies.  However, all of that is behind me now, and it’s summer vacation.  Yay!

My blog will be taking a bit of a turn this year, because my principal and I have started a grand experiment.  I will be teaching 20 at-risk sixth graders in a self-contained class.  My job is to help them achieve a year and a half growth in math and reading in a year.  Bit of a challenge, eh? I’m pretty excited, though, since I have been doing a lot of research getting ready for this.  I think it’s going to be my best year ever!

We’re calling our class Team Endeavor, because to endeavor means to try hard.  That seemed to fit us to a T.

How did we select these students?  I’m glad you asked!  We used teacher recommendations, as well as test scores and grades.  Each of these students scored well below average on a universal screener for math and reading.  In addition, they tend to have failing report card grades and low motivation.  Their work ethic varies, as does their behavior.  Some work very hard, some not at all.  Some have a few behavior issues, while others are model students in the classroom.  All are at-risk of not graduating high school (or passing 6th grade, for that matter).

To start the year off right, I began in June.  I held a class meeting with them and mailed a letter to their parents.  In the class meeting, I told them: You were all specially selected for this class. We’re going to reinvent 6th grade. We felt that you would be the best students for this experiment because of who you are, your strengths.

Then, I hit them where it counts.  I told them we are going to reinvent sixth grade.  For instance, there won’t be assigned homework.  That got their attention!  I also told them no seating charts.  The excitement on their faces let me know I’m on the right track.

Why no homework?  Because several of these students faithfully do the homework, incorrectly, night after night.  Is it helping them to practice incorrectly?  Several more don’t do the homework at all.  Is it helping them to assign work they won’t even start?  Several more get overwhelmed when dealing with homework.  Again, it’s not helping them.

Why no seating chart?  First, because we usually use a seating chart to separate the problem students and put bright students with struggling ones.  Since I will have all problem and struggling students, a seating chart won’t help.  Second, because research is finding that giving students choice in where they work is beneficial.


Stay tuned – I’ll be updating regularly with my plans and, once school starts, with how things are going.  10304386123_210f58c113

Running as a Metaphor for Teaching

I was out for my run this morning, and I got thinking about how similar running and teaching are.  I have been running for about 10 years.  I wasn’t a runner as a kid.  I thought it sounded good, but the actual work of running wasn’t appealing, so I never got into it.  I’m a recent convert.  I like to tell people I run, since no one ever asks if I run fast.  I don’t.  I’m slower than a turtle going through peanut butter.

Anyway, I find that teaching has a lot in common with running.  For instance, you have good runs and bad runs.  There’s never a reason behind a run being good or bad.  Yesterday, I went out for my run and felt amazing.  It was cold, windy and early in the morning (none of which are good in my book!), but my running felt good.  I finished and felt so proud that I had accomplished a run.

Then, today.  It was awful.  I had to take a number of walking breaks.  I hated every minute of it.  I was in a  terrible mood when I got back (no runner’s high for me!)  It was just plain yucky.   Beautiful, sunny sky, warmer than yesterday, not as windy, later in the morning.  None of that mattered.

I have those kinds of days teaching, too.  Some days, everything just clicks.  No reason for it to be a good day, but there it is.  Friday was just such a day in my classroom.  Full moon, Friday, big unit test.  All things that should have caused the kids to be a problem.  Even a mix up with the unit test and I gave them the pre-test for the next unit instead of the test we had been prepping for.  None of it stopped them.  They worked hard, were happy to be in school and generally had a great day!

Then there are the days where you’ve planned everything out.  You’ve got an exciting lesson plan, full of fun activities that will lead to those light bulb moments.  Until everything falls apart.  You know how that goes – you expect it to be wonderful and it’s NOT.  Everyone frowns as they leave for the day.

Teaching is like training for a race.  You put in the hours, day in and day out, slogging through the tough workouts, until the day when it all pays off.  Friday, it paid off for me.  I have a student who has been failing my class all year (and everyone else’s).  I’ve been working with him every day to get his work for the week caught up.  Friday afternoon, he had everything done and got to hang out with his friends for the last half hour of the day, instead of catch up on work.  He was so excited!

What else is a metaphor for the hard work of teaching?  What do you compare it to?

Creating a Tour of Canada

Sorry it’s been a while – life got in the way.


Here’s what my classes have been up to:

Touring Canada

We read about Canada from the textbook and did the obligatory end of the section questions.  We also labelled maps and watched some Discovery Channel videos.  I think it’s important to use the textbook and teach them how to answer questions from the end of the section because otherwise, when they get into higher grades, they’re clueless about it.  So we practice looking for the information, putting our finger on it, deciding how to answer the question using a complete sentence.

Now that we’ve got some background knowledge, it’s time for a little fun!

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comMy students are planning a tour of Canada.  They can take their tour anywhere in the country they like.  We discussed possible themes for their tours: hunting, hiking, shopping, ghost towns, sports, etc.  Then they started their plans.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comPlanning Packet

I took them through this paper step by step.  As students filled in the blanks, we discussed possible answers they might like to put down.  I’ve found going through it together helps them complete the work more quickly.  Otherwise, many of them spend ridiculous amounts of time deciding how many days their trip will take, then never get to the rest of the packet.  :)

I used manilla folders to organize all of their work.  The folders stay in my room.  This way, they never are stuck not being able to work because they left their papers at home.  They also won’t lose their work (which is an ongoing issue with 6th graders!)

I simply have each table group gather their folders at the end of the hour, then bring me the stack.  Each group of folders goes in a hanging folder in a crate.  The next day, I give the stack back to the table and they’re ready to go.

I also put all of the worksheets they will need in their folders to start with.  That way, they have everything they need and we don’t have to waste time handing more out.

At the beginning of the hour, I have the class look through their folder, decide what they need to work on that day (I generally give them about 4 choices).  Then, I take a chart on a clipboard and go down the list alphabetically and ask each student what their plan for the day is.  This takes about 30 seconds and I just note the date at the top, and an initial for what they’re doing.  This helps keep them accountable and I can see at a glance if they’ve spent too long on any one thing.


Now the fun part:

Each class will submit their tours at the end of this project.  I’ll choose the top 5.  Those tours will earn a Klondike bar (get it? for the Klondike Gold Rush?).  Then, the principal and counselor will choose the top tour from each class (from the top 5).  Those students earn a $5 McDonald’s gift card.  I posted a picture on the board of a Klondike bar and the McDonald’s logo to keep the prize in view.

klondike bar McDonald's

Here are the papers I used.  They have instructions, as well as point values, etc.

Canada Tour Packet 

United States Social Studies Projects

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comAs we study the United States in my class, we’ve been using projects to demonstrate learning.  This has actually been quite a challenge for my students, who are used to worksheets with fill in the blank or multiple choice questions.

We generally have spent about 2 weeks studying a region of the United States.  We started in the Northeast.  When we finished watching some Discovery Education videos and reading from the textbook, we then spent time researching basic facts about each state.  This was a great chance for students to practice researching online.  They had to find the origin of the state’s name, the year it became a state, it’s state motto, song, tree, bird, etc.  Interestingly, that was the first they had experienced the idea that states have mottos, songs, etc.

We then moved on to the South.  As they studied the South, we watched a video about the Appalachian Trail.  This fascinated my  The idea of hiking for months at a time was a new idea for them.  Their project this time was creating a brochure about a shelter on the Trail.  This required research online to get information about the shelter.

The Appalachian Trail Brochure Rubric

The biggest challenge was when we studied the Midwest.  Their project was to create a Midwest Amusement Park.  www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comThey were given certain pieces of information they had to include, and a 12/18 sheet of white construction paper.  Again, research was needed to get the information for the rides, restaurants, etc.

Create a Midwest Amusement Park

Finally, for the Western states, we made videos.  www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comUsing the iPod touches that I have available, each small group made a video showing information about the region.  We then mirrored the videos on the smartboard.  Since I have a class that needs more structure than that, they created scenes on paper, which we then videotaped as they were moved into view.  This allowed the students to still participate in making a video, but with more structure to the process.

Each of these projects were seen as “fun” for the students, but also provided a challenge for all levels of learners.  We’re moving on to Canada next – I’ll have to think about what to do with the Provinces!

United States Social Studies Ideas

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comFor the first time in a lot of years, I’m teaching social studies.  It’s actually been kind of fun.  After 2 years of teaching a highly scripted curriculum, the idea that I can plan my own lessons is quite liberating!

We’ve been working on the United States, with a lot of success.  Our book divides it into 4 regions, so we’ve worked on a region at a time.  Before we began, I gave the students a map of the United States and asked them to write down all the states and capitals they could.  Obviously, they weren’t able to do many.

Then, we started with the Northeast United States.  The formula I’ve found for studying each region is:

Day 1 – we watch a video from Discovery Education about the region. These are great because they have discussion questions embedded in the video.

Day 2 & 3 – we read the section from the book and discuss what we’re reading.  While I would like to think they can understand what they read as they go, trust me, they need a LOT of help!

Day 4 – start a project to use what they have learned.

At the end of the second week, we have a quiz over the states and capitals of that region.

After the first quiz, I started giving them the previous quiz(zes) along with the current one.  Research shows the best way to learn information to be tested over it.  So, while they don’t get a grade on the old quiz, it’s a good way for them to pull that information back out of their brains.  Most of them take it very seriously and do their best on the review quizzes, even though it’s not for a grade.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comI also started the first quiz handback giving students who got 100% a Starburst (because they are stars).  While it won’t necessarily motivate someone who refuses to study, it’s a nice little reward to those who do.  They LOVE it (I know, what they won’t do for a little piece of candy!)

In my next post, I’ll share the projects we’ve been doing.  It’s been fun to see the creative ways their minds think!

Great site with Reading Street Games

The other day, I was traveling around the internet and I discovered a wonderful website:


This site has online games for each week of Reading Street.  Interestingly, some of the reading selections are different from my textbook (which I’ve noticed in other websites, as well).  This leads me to believe there may be different versions of Reading Street out there.

Regardless, this has some great resources for people who use Reading Street!