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

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:

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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.

800px-The_Burlington_Teen_Tour_Band_Represented_Canada_at_the_St._Patrick_Day_celebrations_in_Dublin_(2013)_(8566221972)

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.

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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 classes.www.mrsfenger.wordpress.com  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!

Four Strategies to Get Students to Participate

Getting Students to ParticipateI think every teacher, at some time, has had trouble getting a class to talk, raise their hands, pretend to listen…

When that happens, I often feel like the teachers you see on the movies – standing there, asking a question, waiting, answering it myself, asking a simpler question, waiting, answering it myself………

How many of you have felt that way?  Come on, raise your hand – you know that’s happened!

My class this year is like that.  I have about 3 students who always have their hand raised, begging to be called on.  Then there are the other 28 who sit back, either completely zoned out or hoping I won’t notice them.

Here are some strategies that I have found to be successful *disclaimer – not all strategies work all the time and some strategies don’t work with certain students and using these strategies will not make you rich…

Getting Students to Participate

Getting Students to Participate

First, if it’s a piece of information they’re going to need, like what is a setting, or what is the predicate of a sentence, I have them repeat the definition with me as a class several times.  Then, I ask what it is, and remind them they should all have their hands up.  Then, I call on someone, get the correct answer (I usually stack the deck and call on someone I can be sure will have the right answer), give praise for getting it right, ask it again, call on someone, get the right answer, praise them, ask it again…you get the idea.  Then, throughout the year, I bring that back up and ask the question.  The kids like this method because it lets them feel like they know an answer and because I try to make it fun and silly.  Sometimes I’ll act surprised that they know it (that usually gets a laugh, since they have been drilled on it so many times).

Second, I’ll give them about 30 seconds to check their answer with their group.  I find this is effective because if they don’t know the answer, they hear it from a group member, and if they do know it, they can check to make sure they’re right before saying it in front of the class.

Third, I use sticks to randomly call on students, AFTER having them check their answer with their group.  Then, I don’t let them say I don’t know.  Occasionally I’ll give them a hint, or let them off the hook after some uncomfortable silence.  In those cases, I ask the group if they helped out that student.  If so, it’s a good lesson for them to listen when the group is talking.  *Note – I warn them before talking to their group that they will be called on randomly and I won’t take I don’t know.  Otherwise, it feels like a “gotcha” situation.

Fourth, I have a poster on my wall with things to say other than “I don’t know”.

  •  Can I please have more information?
  •  Can you please repeat the question?
  •  Can I please have more time?

By reminding them that they have other options, they are more likely to try to answer.  Occasionally they’ll use one of those questions and I always praise them for doing that.  We’ve all zoned out during a presentation before, so I try to be understanding about that (but they’re not allowed to zone out every time!)

  1. Finally, I have been known to threaten that if they don’t talk to their groups and participate with the discussion (and pretend to listen to me) they’ll have to write their answers instead.  I know we’re not supposed to use writing as a punishment, but I say “I need to know you’re understanding this and if you won’t talk to your group or me about it, I have to ask you to write your answers down.”  That usually motivates them to be part of the discussion.

One bonus strategy: (and this one takes a while to set up) I also spend a lot of the year building up their confidence and telling them how smart they are.  Often, I find these kids are convinced they don’t know the right answer.  By demonstrating, out loud, that I believe in them and believe they can do this, I find later in the year they’re more likely to try to answer questions.  I also point out times when I don’t know something or when I got it wrong.  I tend to laugh at myself a lot, making them feel like they can be wrong, too.


Pick me!

Pick me!

Social Studies Vocabulary Fun

I’m back to teaching social studies for the first time in about 8 years.  Given the focus on math and reading currently, social studies has kind of gotten left in the dust.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  With so little attention being paid to the social studies curriculum at my school, I have a lot more freedom than I do in my language arts class.

I decided to make it very hands-on, but also focus on the basic foundations that they need.  Since social studies is such a broad set of content, I want to give my students the ability to think about geography, history, economics, etc.

My first project was brief: I gave each student a half sheet of paper that said “Social Studies is…” and tasked them with finishing the statement and illustrating it.  I hung these on the walls of my classroom.  Students got pretty excited about it, since they could write anything from “awesome” to “boring” to “the study of history”.

Next up was getting them a social studies book.  Ours are pretty out of date. so instead of using them, my students are making their own.  I gave them a set of directions Social Studies Vocabulary Book

then gave them 9 sheets of paper and a piece of cardstock.  They folded this in half (a hamburger fold, not a hot dog fold) and I used a book stapler to bind them (which the kids LOVED!)

The students then started working on each page of their book.  Each page holds a vocabulary term, the meaning and a picture.  I had to help with some – absolute and relative location, cardinal directions, physical and political maps.  However, there were others that were no problem: mountain, ocean, valley, etc.  They also used dictionaries for terms like urban and rural.

This is a reference they will use all year.  We left a few pages at the end to add pages, as needed.  It’s been great to give students the chance to learn these terms in their own way.  The creativity, as they illustrate each term is so fun!  I allowed them to do the pages in any order they choose, which also seemed to make them happy (and allowed for mistakes when they accidentally skipped a word).

Do you teach social studies?  What are your favorite ways to make it interesting?

5 Ways to Brand Your Middle School Classroom

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comEach year, our team of two to three teachers selects a team name.  In the past, we’ve been the Scooby Doo team, the Mustangs, the Titanic, and many others.  This year, we’re going in a different direction.  In an effort to help our students see themselves as competent, smart, amazing students, we are Team Awesome.

We’ve made posters to put on the walls, a sign for our showcase and postcards to mail home to the students.

IMG_0221 www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comDid you know you can make posters at Office Max for just over a dollar?  My daughter does this for her job, often, so she suggested I check it out.  I made 9 posters – 11X17.  They cost $1.18 each!  They look awesome, too!

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The postcards will be mailed home to each student to get them excited about going to school.  We don’t have much time to motivate them, so  I like to start as early as possible.  They say

Welcome to Team Awesome!

Congratulations on being selected! You are a valuable member of the team and we are thrilled to have you.

It also explains about our Back to School BBQ and the first day.  But it ends with

Hope you’re excited, because we are!

See you then,

Your Teachers

Ordinarily, we would sign our names, but we’re in the process of hiring our third teacher, so we couldn’t do that.

IMG_0226 www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comI also put letters above the door to my classroom – going in they say “Make Today Awesome”.  Leaving, they say “Be Awesome Today”.  I also used window markers on my window – I wrote “Make Today Awesome” and “If it is to be, it is up to me”.  The window is right next to the smartboard, so they will see it every day while they are in my classroom. (And, of course, who doesn’t spend time looking out the window while you’re in class, right?)

We are hoping to find sponsors to purchase t-shirts for the students, too.  With these t-shirts, we’ll be able to build that identity in our students.  Which leads us back to the title: Branding Your Classroom.  The longer I teach, the more convinced I am that students are searching for an identity.  We can give them a positive one, or they can find one of their own.  The problem is, some of the identities they search out are not positive for them.  By making them a member of Team Awesome, we’re giving them that positive identity.

What do you do to help your students feel like a part of a team?