MEAP pep assembly

marching band

In preparation for our state standardized testing, we held a number of activities.  Our students built floats (on wagons or carts), created banners and attended a pep assembly for the M.E.A.P.

Each class was responsible for creating a float or banner to display at the assembly, similar to Homecoming.  Floats and banners were paraded to the cafeteria to be judged.  A winner was decided for each grade.

Then the fun began:

The student body was dismissed to the gym, where the float parade would take place.  First, the MEAP King was crowned: a teacher had been selected to act as MEAP King.  Each float or banner was then paraded past the bleachers, with an announcer calling out their teacher’s name, grade, students who were escorting the float and the name of the float.  After the floats and banners were all in the gym, the big surprise: the high school marching band marched in and played several songs.  They even played “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in honor of our MEAP King.

After they marched out, the principal spoke about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep and trying your best on each day of testing.  Then, the MEAP King announced the float winners.  Each winning class would enjoy root beer floats (get it?  Float winners – root beer floats?  We’re too funny!) the next week during class.

The great thing about this activity, besides giving the kids a bit of fun during school, is that they were talking at home about the MEAP.  If you ask middle school students to go home and tell their parents that they have a big test coming up and they need to get to bed early, don’t miss school, etc, it won’t happen.  However, as they went home and asked parents to bring a wagon to school, or proudly talked about their class’s ideas for the float, the message got out that we have a big test coming up and students need to be in school.

What does your school do to prepare for those standardized tests?  I’m always happy to steal other’s ideas!

Fundraisers for Field Trips

How we raise funds for field trips

How we raise funds for field trips

Ah, field trips.  I do love taking my students out of the classroom!  The adventure, the break from routine, the hands-on activities, the bus ride.  It’s all good!  The downside is the cost.  Our 6th grade team has found some ways to make it easier to take our students on field trips.

We take about 6 field trips each year.  Some are free.  For instance, there is an ecology festival for Earth Day in downtown Lansing that is free.  The only cost for us is the bus to get there.  We also go downtown for a scavenger hunt – the students invade the businesses with a question they need answered (we okay it with the business owners in advance!).  I have attached the worksheet that students use so you can see what I mean.

Scavenger hunt

We also take the students to a nature preserve that our district owns, since that is a free trip, too.  At the end of the year, we have a picnic at the beach which has a minimal cost.

Our other trips are a bit more costly: the science center, the Imax movie theater, scuba diving.  However, all of our students are able to participate because we hold several fundraisers for our trips.

At the beginning of the year, we decide which trips we are going to take and add up the cost of all of them, adding a few dollars so we can cover students who can’t afford to pay for the trip.  Then, we let parents know what the total cost will be and that we will be fundraising.  Parents who prefer, can simply write a check to cover all of the field trips up front, or they can pay as we get ready to take each trip.  Other parents can use the fundraiser to help cover the cost.

What fundraisers do we use?  Not the usual candy bars and candles.  I have attached the note we give to parents about our field trip plans.

6th Grade Field Trips 2012

Instead, we hold a read-a-thon the day before Thanksgiving.  In honor of Children’s Book Week, we give students the opportunity to collect pledges for their reading time. I always counsel my students to ask their grandparents first.  Grandparents tend to pledge high, which sets the tone for other donors.  🙂  When the day comes, students can bring in blankets, pillows and snacks.  We have a few guest readers, but the day is mostly for finding a comfy spot to read.  Whether students have collected pledges or not, they are still expected to read.

In the spring, we hold a second fundraiser – a walk-a-thon.  Again, students can collect pledges for walking laps at the high school track.  We go up there the afternoon before Spring Break and walk laps.  We have a playlist of music for the loudspeaker and add in some fun themes like a Spartan lap (Spartan fans, only) and a Wolverine lap (Wolverine fans, only), along with a train lap – make a train with your friends and a dance lap – dance while you walk the track.  We also do a girls’ lap, during which time the boys gather in the end zone for a granola bar and bottle of water, then a boys’ lap, so the girls get their snack.  While we do these theme laps, we use music paired specially for it – Boys of Summer for the boys’ lap, Girls Just Want to Have Fun for the girls’ lap, you get the idea.

The kids enjoy participating in both fundraisers, and parents enjoy the chance to have their child earn the money for their field trips.  This allows us to offer field trips to our students, while also keeping the cost in line with the current economy.  Plus, we enjoy participating in the fundraisers, too!

Genius Hour 2

geniusWe tried Genius Hour again before the end of the year.  The change we made this time was to give the students 45 minutes daily rather than one whole day to work on their project.

On the plus side, if a student needed more time to allow a project to dry or harden, etc, this allowed them that opportunity.  It also gave them a chance to change their project more easily than the one full day kind of plan, as well as giving them more chances to bring in materials they discover they need as they work on the project.

Unfortunately, since it was the end of the year, we ran into a few glitches.  We had to find time to do a pilot standardized testing in the computer lab for a week.  Add that to no school on Memorial Day, our field day, and other assorted issues,and the Genius Hour time got squeezed in where we could fit it.  We also had a hard time signing up for the computer lab, since other teachers were trying to do end of the year projects there, as well as exams.

In addition, we needed time to do all of our end of the year assessing, which involved a large test in each of the disciplines.  That definitely cut into our time to work on the Genius Hour projects.

The students seemed to take it less seriously this time than they did the first time.  That could be due to the time of year, the fact that we were squeezing in time where we could or that the newness of the idea.

For this Genius Hour, we invited the 4th graders, which we really liked, since it gave them a chance to be in the building again (as fifth graders, they are in the middle school and there is always a bit of anxiety when moving to a new building).  Since they had come up for a tour and orientation earlier in the spring, this was one more opportunity to be in the building.

I would definitely expect that we will do Genius Hour again.  We’re kind of thinking once per trimester.  The students definitely enjoyed it and anything that will make them look forward to school is worth trying.

It will be interesting, going forward, to see which version works best: one full day, or a number of days with an hour or so.


Fluency With Poetry

poetryHow to help students develop fluency in reading – that has been a huge focus for me this year.  The text that I am using includes a short paragraph or two each day for students to practice reading out loud.  However, as I looked into fluency practice (6 Minute Solution, Readers’ Theater, etc) it seemed as if it was more important for students to read the same passage several days in a row to improve, not a new passage each time.

I also noticed my students weren’t truly practicing reading together with their group when we did the fluency practice.  They didn’t see a purpose to it, so they just pretended (or refused).

I tried to explain the purpose behind the practice.  They were unimpressed with the need to read faster.  The teacher pleasers nodded and smiled as I talked, but the others, the ones who don’t see a need to practice what the teacher says they should, just sat quietly.  I could tell I hadn’t reached them.

To combat these problems, I tried having them read poetry out loud.  Bingo! I typed up some fun poems (Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, Dr Seuss) and had each group practice a different verse.  At the end of the week, I had each group stand and read their verse in order.  Then, I awarded a prize to the group that I felt did the “best”.  I didn’t ever tell them what constituted the best, just picked a group that seemed to stand out to me.  Sometimes the group would read with lots of expression, sometimes it seemed as if they really read in unison, other times the group included movements to go with the verse.  I just picked whatever moved me that day.

This had an immediate and dramatic effect on the fluency practice.  The groups were suddenly rehearsing the verse over and over.  Desperate to be the “chosen group”, they worked hard to pronounce each of the words, add expression and read in unison.  They also told me they really enjoyed the fluency practice (something they never said earlier in the year!)

The only downside to this method is typing up the poems.  A new poem for each week is a lot of poems!  However, it is definitely worth the time.

How do you help your students gain fluency in their reading?

Inspiring your Students

Two things happened recently that got me thinking:

First, my daughter, who is finishing her sophomore year in college mentioned that things she learned in her high school statistics class really helped her in her political science class this semester.  I suggested she email her high school teacher to let him know and at first, and she said she didn’t think he’d remember her.  After pointing out that emails like this one are what keep teachers going through the hard days, she agreed to email him.

Second, I ran a couple of races Friday night with some of my students.  We’ve been training for them in our after school program and Friday night was the night.  They were SO proud!  After the race, one of the parents mentioned that my telling the class about my own running had inspired her daughter to try.

 All of this got me thinking about the effect we have on students.  Often, we have no idea that we’ve made a difference.  We spend hour upon hour struggling to teach our students, to give them the skills, tools and knowledge they need to be successful, but there’s no neon sign blinking over their heads to let us know if it’s working.

Running that race Friday night made a difference.  As I ran along with one student, we chatted about the possibility of joining the cross country team.  When I said we had run as far as the cross country runners do in their races, he was surprised.  He said he thought they run 6 miles at a time.  The big concern with joining the team seemed to be speed.  Neither student was terribly fast.  Which worked out well, since I’m not either!  Both were shocked when I told them that I haven’t ever won a race.  I explained that I don’t run the races to win, but just to have fun (and to get the commemorative shirt, along with the yummy food at the end!) After telling them that, they were open to the idea of joining the team.

My plan for next year is to work harder  to help my students understand the importance of being active.  Our school is part of the Fuel Up to Play 60 program and I hope we can continue to inspire our students to exercise.  I truly believe they will learn better if they are physically fit. As a teacher, it’s clear that I can be an inspiration to them by sharing my own experiences.  Maybe knowing that I keep entering races, knowing that I won’t win will convince one of my students to take a chance themselves.

Genius Day Part 3 The Day has Arrived

Working HardGenius Day was a HUGE success!  As we started the day, students streamed down the hall carrying posterboard, large trifolds, books, clay, marbles and all sorts of assorted materials.  You could feel the excitement in the air.

After our interventions (we never mess with the reading/math interventions or related arts!), the students moved to the areas they had signed up to use.  I expected to do a bit of redirecting, motivating, pushing, etc to get things going, but there was no need.  I quickly found myself just staying out of the way while students got busy.

We offered the following locations for students to use: an art supply room (a series of three rooms with the walls folded back to give plenty of space), a computer lab, a science lab, a food lab and two classrooms.  A couple days prior, we had students sign up for the different locations they thought they would need in half hour blocks.  We also had them use their planner as their schedule and write down where they were supposed to be at each time segment.

As the half hour marks approached, I gave a 5 minute warning, in case students were moving to another location.  Some students used the same room for multiple time slots, others moved around, it all depended on what they were working on.

We did find, as the day went on, students found they needed to change their locations, based on what they accomplished.  For instance, some students finished their computer research more quickly than expected and needed to work in the art rooms sooner.  Luckily, we had planned for this and reserved some extra spots in each location.

By the afternoon, things were taking shape.  Almost every student was fully engaged throughout the day.  We did have a few students (they are sixth graders, after all!) who got confused about where they had signed up and were in the wrong spots, requiring us to do some tracking down.  However, once they were found, they were working, just in the wrong location.

The quote of the day was when I told three boys who were standing together chatting that they needed to get going on their project.  One young man, who usually never says a word, turned and said “We’re bouncing ideas off each other.”  That MADE MY DAY!  The fact that he was able to articulate what they were doing was the best example of why this was a good idea!

During the final half hour, the fifth graders were invited to come and see the projects.  It was very interesting to see the students proudly standing with their displays.  I walked around making notes so I could grade their participation and each student eagerly explained what they had learned that day.

Projects included:

how chemicals react to each other

what is the Higgs Boson?

Can you power a lightbulb with produce?

solar system models

rocks and minerals

a model of the Sears Tower

mixing perfume

building an app

what jobs are available with video games

All day long, students asked me if it was going well enough to be able to do it again.  This was an easy question to answer: YES!

If you haven’t tried a Genius Hour/Day, I encourage you to do so.  The students loved it!

What Do You Do That Makes Your Students Happy To Be In Your Class?

What do you do that makes your students happy to be in your class?  This question, in one form or another, has been cropping up a lot lately.  At first, I smugly thought of the jokes I make when I teach, the excitement I try to put into my voice, the happy smile I greet my students with in the morning and felt like I do a great job.

However, while I was out running, I did more thinking about this.  Running can be a very humbling experience.  You’re out there with nothing but your thoughts for mile after mile.  It’s hard not to be faced with uncomfortable truths out there on the lonely road.  So, anyway, as I was trudging along, it occurred to me that even though I try to be entertaining, my students probably don’t look forward to my class.  They probably don’t wake up in the morning, excited at the thought of another day learning how to find the main idea in a passage, or identify the transitive verbs in a sentence, or bubble in multiple choice answers related to vocabulary they are forced to learn.

Next, of course, I tried to convince myself that it’s “not my fault”.  It’s the curriculum I’m forced to teach.  We are currently following a very scripted curriculum, which involves a lot of repetition.  However, that seems like kind of a cop out.  That’s the easy road to take – blame factors outside your control.

It’s a sad day when you realize your students dread sitting in your classroom.  So, as my feet continued to pound the pavement, I considered the question as honestly as I could.  Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with the perfect solution.  However, I did  decide to address what I could control.  So, here are the ideas I’ve come up with, which I plan to implement immediately:

1) I will encourage more talking to each other.  While I do some of this, a lot of the textbook is me, standing up lecturing.  I am going to make a point of having the kids talk to each other, then share their ideas.

2) I will have great ideas written on the board.  Often, a student comes up with something really wonderful.  In the past, I would comment on what a great thought that was, then move on.  Now, my plan is to have the student write that thought on the board (or on the window – that seems like a fun thing!)  I will share this plan with my class, so they can help me spot the “great ideas”.

3) As the weather warms, I’ll look for times we can hold class outside.  Even if it’s just for the last half hour as they work on grammar and writing, getting outside is always enjoyable.

4) I will ask my students for ideas.  This is the best idea yet.  My students ALWAYS have better ideas than I do.  So, I’ll go to the experts.  I’m sure they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how they wish class would go.  Maybe they will share some of those thoughts with me.

So, now I put this question to you (be hones!): What do you do that makes your students happy to be in your class?