Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Using Weekly Letter Writing In the Classroom

Guest blog post by Mary from Teaching With a Mountain View.

I vividly remember my first day student teaching... not the details of what I was teaching or the clothes I was wearing, but the way my cooperating teacher captivated her students. She handed them their first homework assignment— writing a letter in response to a letter she had written to them—and explained that it would be a weekly assignment. They groaned, but she didn’t miss a beat. “You’re going to grow to love this!” she told them. They trusted her, and she couldn’t have been more right.

Since that year, I have always written weekly letters to my students and required that they respond to me. It has become a part of our weekly homework routine, and it is the one thing I most look forward to grading every single week. It builds community among the class, my students (and their parents) get to know me, I get to know my students, it is an excellent way to review material from the week or let students get creative, and kids learn to love writing in a totally nonthreatening environment. 

How It Works 

Every Sunday evening, I curl up on the couch with my laptop and write a letter to my students. I do a quick recap of anything entertaining from my weekend (kids love to know you’re human, too!), and I may ask them to share something about their life with me. Then, I give them a prompt or two that they must answer in a letter back to me. 

For example, if we focused on a specific character trait the previous week, I would ask them to give me examples of how they embodied that trait this week. When we were studying regions of the United States, part of their letter back to me would require them to tell me where in the world they would go if they could go anywhere. 

Typically, I would give them each a copy of the letter on Monday morning, and they would turn in their responses (in letter format) by Thursday. At the beginning of the year, we spent time reviewing the format and conventions of a letter.

You Can Do It!

I know what you are thinking: This sounds like a huge amount of work. I promise, it’s not! It took me less than 10 minutes each week to write my letter. You could even assign a monthly letter if weekly sounds overwhelming, or if you have younger students.

When my teammates got on board with letter writing, we would take turns writing the assignment part of the letter and just add our own introduction. I would also jot down topics all week so that it wouldn’t take me long to write my letter when it came time. I tried to include different types of writing (persuasive, informative, descriptive, narrative) throughout the year. My two all-time favorite prompts were the one where students had to argue for or against a weekend of shopping and the one where they had to come up with 5 pieces of advice that started with “Never” and 5 pieces of advice that started with “Always.”

Here are some topic starters or themes to get you thinking:

• Current Events, Sports, Holidays

• Funny or Bizarre Holidays and Dates

• Current Classroom Topics of Study

• Follow Up or Reflecting on Read Alouds or other Books

• Reading Responses 

• Weekend Recaps

Believe it or not, students look forward to receiving their new letter every Monday. They equally look forward to the (very brief) notes I jot on their return letters. In addition to writing short notes (Wow! Awesome! Did you really do that? I totally agree!) on their letters, I used a half-page grading rubric to hold them accountable for their writing. 

Weekly Letter Writing Freebie
You can download the free grading rubric, example letters, an information sheet, and monthly topic ideas at my Teachers Pay Teacher store

Letter writing is a wonderful way to keep even the most reluctant writers writing and to hone those writing skills all year long! 

Mary teaches grades 3-5 in beautiful Colorado and has a passion for creating differentiated and engaging assignments. She creates teacher resources and blogs at Teaching With a Mountain View.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Team Formation Tips for Smooth Sailing into the New School Year!

Smooth Sailing Into a New School Year Link Up and Giveaway!

I'm excited to be linking up with some of my favorite grade 3-6 bloggers who are sharing our best tips to help you sail into the the new school year. We're also each giving away $50 worth of gift cards with a total value of $1000!  In addition, we are each contributing one back-to-school product to a HUGE collection worth almost $300 that will be given to one lucky winner! Read on to discover the details and how you can win!

Team Formation Tips to Start the Year
If you use cooperative learning in your classroom, you might have questions about the most effective way to form teams and when you should begin to seat your students in teams. Here are some tips that worked well for me. You can find a more comprehensive explanation and answers to many more questions about team formation on my Team Formation Tips page on Teaching Resources.

  • Optimal Team Size - Teams of 4 are by far the best size because you can easily divide them into 2 sets of pairs for partner work. Also, in a team of three, one student tends to feel left out, and teams that have more than four students tend to get off task easily.  
  • Team Composition - As much as possible, I formed teams with students of mixed ability and from different ethnic backgrounds. I wanted my students to learn to appreciate others who were not like themselves, and to be exposed to different types of thinking and values. The best way to do that was to assign them to mixed teams rather than letting them choose their teams.  
  • Desk Arrangement - I loved using the desk arrangement shown in the illustration above. I called it the T-Table arrangement, with the two students at the top of the "T" facing the front of the room while the other two are facing each other. You can find other team seating arrangements on my Seating Options page. 
  • When to Start - I always started my students in teams right from the first day because I wanted them to learn that this is how we operate. Cooperative learning wasn't just for special activities, and they needed to learn now to get along right from the start. 
  • Mix 'Em Up the First Three Days - I created new teams every day for the first three days so that my kids would get to know everyone and so I could observe them as they worked together. Each morning after they were reseated, we started the day with a teambuilder like Team Talk or Team Interview. You'll find these strategies and more on my Caring Classrooms page on Teaching Resources. After the first three days, I was ready to create more permanent teams that lasted a month or more.
My Giveaway - Two $25 Gift Cards to TpT
Getting your classroom ready at the beginning of the school year can be time-consuming and costly. That's why I'm giving away TWO $25 gift cards to TeachersPayTeachers! If you win one of them, you don't have to use it in my TpT store, although I wouldn't mind if you did! :-) To enter, complete the Rafflecopter form at the bottom of this page. Be sure to read the Terms and Conditions before you enter.

Grand Prize Giveaway
All of the bloggers in the link up below contributed one back-to-school item to the grand prize package shown in the image at the bottom of this post. The total value is almost $300!

I contributed my Back to School Super Start Combo pack to the giveaway because I know it will be really helpful for those who want to start the year off with a bang, especially those who enjoy using cooperative learning strategies. You'll find lots of printables, tips, and ideas for classroom management, teambuilding, and classbuilding. The combo includes the Back to School Super Start Pack shown here as well as the Go for Green Classroom Management system.

How can you enter to win the Grand Prize? Just complete the Rafflecopter below and you will automatically be entered into the drawing for the two gift cards AND the Grand Prize drawing!

Smooth Sailing Into a New School Year Link Up
Each of the blogs in the link up below are hosting a different giveaway for $50 worth of gift cards, and those prizes include gift cards for Amazon.com, Erin Condren, and Really Good Stuff. All giveaways end on Saturday, August 2nd, and the winners will be announced on Sunday, August 3rd.

Be sure to visit all the blogs in the link up and enter ALL the contests, because each time you enter, you are also increasing your chances of winning the grand prize! You'll also pick up lots of great tips to help sail smoothly into the new school year!

Here are ALL the prizes in the Grand Prize Drawing, and they have a combined value of almost $300! Click on the cover images to view each item, but be sure to return here to enter the giveaway. When you enter the Rafflectopter with the TpT apple image below, you'll also be entered into this drawing. Good luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, July 20, 2014

5 Ways to Make Your Students Smile

Guest blog post by Molly Phillips of Classroom Confections

This post was inspired by a t-shirt. That’s right! While wearing a ‘smile’ t-shirt at the Vegas airport, a security guard came up to me and said, “Thank you for making me smile. I saw your t-shirt. It brought a smile to my face. Sometimes you just forget. It was a great reminder.”

WOW! I was so taken back by his comment. I couldn’t help but think about the power of a smile. Being a teacher, it was second nature for me to start thinking about the classroom and how important it is to incorporate smiles into the school day. There are many ways to accomplish that, but here are 2 easy tips you can begin implementing at the beginning of the year, and 3 more tips to keep your students smiling all year!

2 Ways to Start Your School Year with Smiles
  1. Send your students a ‘welcome’ postcard. Sending a postcard in the mail before school starts may seem old school, but it will help build community and a caring classroom before the year even begins. You won’t see their smile, but I can assure you that there will be one. It will make them feel appreciated. A feeling of appreciation makes anyone smile. Plus, your students will be more likely to walk in on day one of school wearing a smiling face.
  2. Give a special treat on “Meet Your Teacher” Day.  I love giving my new students a little something special when I first meet them in person.  It can be a pencil, a note, or a baggie of sweet treats with a special message. I have always felt my upper elementary kids like receiving a treat. For example, a peppermint with a message, “You were MINT to be in my class!” When kids feel special, they smile.
3 More Ways to Make Your Students Smile
  1. Talk to Kids at Recess. Yes, this is usually a time when teachers can grab a refresher too by getting in some adult conversation, but it’s also a time where kids love being kids. Get into the habit of giving up a few minutes of your teacher chit-chat time at recess to interact with the kids. Some of the most smiley faces come at recess when kids want to do their chants for you, sing you songs, play their recorder, or perform cheers with a group of girls. It’s so easy to tell the kids to go run and play, but this will only take a few short minutes, and with it comes lots of smiles. 
  2. Invite a small group to eat for lunch. Yes, I know. We all want our 25 minute lunch break with our co-workers, but you don’t have to give up your lunch break all the time. It’s nice though to invite a few kids to lunch every now and then, especially those that may need a smile. Kids tend to open up more, tell funny stories, and laugh when they are in smaller groups. You get to see a side of them you might not otherwise see. It’s a bonding time, which is a great way to work through behavior problems or emotional issues with kids.  If you know from the start of school that a student may need a smile, this is a great time to start inviting a small group to lunch. Plus, if you get into the habit of doing this at the beginning of a new school year, you are more likely to continue it. It will take some effort on your part, but the rewards of the smiles will be worth it. 
  3. Use humor in the classroom. I think humor is one of the best ways to build community in the classroom, and of course, with humor comes lots of smiles.  Look for opportunities to tell appropriate jokes, tell funny stories, to share your fun side. For example, on the first day of school last year when I was about to tell the kids they could bring a water bottle to drink, I introduced it with, “What do Ninjas drink at school?”  The answer being, “WAAA-TAAAH!” Throw a Ninja kick in there and the boys will love you from day one. I then went on to say that they could bring water and a healthy snack each day. That joke might be a little over used today, but when I told it, it was unexpected and the kids got a good smile out of it, even a laugh.
In the hustle and bustle of the classroom, it is sometimes easy to forget the important role of smiling. There are many ways to bring smiles to the classroom, but the most important thing to remember is that smiles help build community in your classroom. Community carries over to better behavior and a child’s desire to want to please. Smiling is a win-win for everyone.
When the gentleman at the airport told me that I brought a smile to his face, do you know what I did? You guessed it! I smiled. I was happy to know that I personally brought him a moment of happiness.  It was so unexpected to hear someone actually tell me that. I couldn’t help but think that there is not only importance to be found in making people smile but also in thanking others for the smile. Often times we see the actual smile we bring to someone and then we move on. There was something special about hearing him acknowledge the smile. Because of that, I thought it might be nice to start the year off with the attitude of not only bringing smiles but also thanking people for the smiles they bring.

To help with that, I made some very simple ‘smile tickets’ that teachers can give to students and even co-workers. Click here to visit my TpT store and download the this freebie. You can just sign your name or even write a few words. People will appreciate you thanking them for the smile they brought you. Try it! Here is to wishing you a year full of smiles!

Molly Phillips has been an educator for twenty years in metro Atlanta, Georgia.  She now creates fun interactive lessons for the classroom and sells them on TeachersPayTeachers.  She writes on her blog Classroom Confections

Friday, July 18, 2014

We Appreciate Bloggers for Caring Classrooms!

If you've been following my blog and Facebook page, you'll know that I'm a fan of DonorsChoose.org and that I'm one of two administrators of the Caring Classrooms giving page. About a year ago Francie Kugelman taught me about DC giving pages and we started the Caring Classrooms Community together. To date, our community has raised over $72,000 to help complete the funding on more than 390 teacher projects! To learn more about giving pages and how they work, read last year's post on this topic.

Each week the Caring Classrooms Community hosts "Fund-day Sunday," a day when teachers can submit their project links for us to review. From these submissions we select new projects for our page. When we add a project to our page, we donate at least $20 to it to kick off our funding efforts. Teachers love to have their projects on our page because we guarantee that after those projects are added, they will be completely funded before the time limit runs out!

Where do we get the funds to support our page? Some of it comes from the two of us, but most of it comes from the generous teachers who are members of our community. In order to submit a project each week, members have to donate at least $1 to any project on our page. Those $1 donations really add up over time! We also accept donations to our giving page that we keep in reserve to help fund projects, including donations from educational organizations.  

Thanks to the Bloggers for Caring Classrooms! 
Unfortunately, our source of funds is diminishing and we need to replenish our funds before the new school year. I reached out to my blogger friends to see if anyone would like to support the Caring Classrooms giving page with a donation of $50, and the bloggers shown below have made generous contributions to our giving page!

If anyone else would like to make a contribution, go to DonorsChoose.org and send your tax-deductible donation to caringclassrooms@lauracandler.com. All donations are welcome, even if you aren't a blogger! If you are a blogger and you donate at least $50 to Caring Classrooms, I'll add your blog to the link up below. In addition, I'll be happy to share one of your posts with my Facebook fans as a thank you for your $50 donation. Click here to learn more.

Francie and I really appreciate the support of the blogging community! We are excited about the upcoming year and the possibility to help even more classroom teachers get their projects funded. We are planning a special celebration contest on our one year anniversary which will be August 8th. If you want to join us, visit the Caring Classrooms Facebook page to learn how to become a member of our community!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Ancient Secret for Wise Decisions

Guest post by Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America

Note: This post is a part of the WBT's Classroom Transforming Rules series. To find all of the posts in the series, click here. To see Whole Brain Teaching in action, watch the videos on the WBT website.

WBT’s Rules 4: Make Smart Choices

Let’s review the first three Whole Brain Teaching classroom rules. Each will help solve one teaching problem. Implementing Rule 1, “Follow directions quickly,” will speed classroom transitions. Implementing Rule 2, “Raise your hand for permission to speak,” will produce orderly discussions. Implementing Rule 3, “Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat” will keep your classroom from turning into a playground.

Rule 4 “Make smart choices” is a much larger, even grander, guiding principle. Make smart choices is perhaps the fundamental rule for all human activities, in or out of the classroom. As I can testify after teaching philosophy for four decades, philosophers from Socrates in 5th century B.C. Athens to Jean Paul Sartre in 20th century Paris disagreed on almost everything, except one guiding idea: Humans should use their reason carefully… they should make smart choices.

Socrates believed smart choices involved self-knowledge; Plato argued that the smartest choice was to study mathematics in order to learn to think abstractly; Sartre held that the smartest choice was living authentically, never blaming others for your life situation. Despite their disagreements, philosophers have believed the good life was found through exercising our reason in wise decision making.

Whole Brain Teachers have discovered that Rule 4 is wonderfully powerful. The rule covers every area of a student’s life at school, at home, out with friends, on the Internet, engaged in a sport or hobby, dating, Everything. From childhood to adulthood, we need to make smart choices. Teachers have found that Rule 4 is especially powerful in covering every kind of disruptive student behavior, in class and out.

After reviewing the first three rules with your students, introduce Rule 4, “Make smart choices,” and the gesture, tapping the right temple with a forefinger three times. You can choose from a host of opportunities to share how it works. Discuss the smart and foolish choices made by characters in a story, famous historical individuals, kids in the lunchroom. Before beginning a science experiment or art activity, ask kids to talk about the wisest and goofiest decisions that can be made.

To clarify Rule 4, and introduce excellent, wide ranging, critical thinking discussions, create a list of sentence frames. Here are three samples:

  • When writing your essay, smart choices would be _________.  Foolish choices would be ________.
  • Some smart choices characters make in "James and the Giant Peach,"  are _______.  Some foolish choices are _______.
  • When we are in the library, a smart choice would be  ________  because _________.  A foolish choice would be _______ because ________.

Note that by including "because" in your sentence frames, students have the opportunity to add evidence to back up their answer. Selecting appropriate evidence is, in itself, a smart choice!

Here’s a key point.  If a child claims, incorrectly in your view, that one of her choices was smart, you respond, “Okay. But what would be a smarter choice??” Teach your kids that smarter choices are always available.

Using Rule 4 to Help Students Make Smart Choices
As I write this, I realize I’ve never talked about how to improve student behavior on the playground. Shame!

Try saying something like this to your class (with WBT techniques, of course):

“We’re going to talk about Rule 4, making smart choices, on the playground. To make this entertaining and clear, we’ll use two finger action figures. Using two fingers on each hand, walk your action figures around on your desk."  (They do so.)

"Good! Now, imagine your desk is the playground. Pretend as if your two finger action figures are making foolish choices while playing tetherball. Show your neighbor what that would look like and what each action figure would say." (They do so.)

"Good! Now, show your neighbor, using intelligent two finger action figures, what smart choices playing tether ball would look and sound like.”

Virtually every wacky behavior that goes on during recess can be acted out, and corrected, with foolish and intelligent two-finger action figures … and nothing gets scraped except imaginary knees.

Another idea strikes me just now … oh, I’m rolling!  Junie comes up to you during recess, very upset about what happened to her on the slide. To lower Junie’s emotional temperature, ask her to show you, using two finger action figures, Martin’s foolish choices and how she reacted. Then, using your action figures, show Junie the smartest choices available to her, should a similar situation arise. Finally, if necessary, take yourself over to Martin to see if your action figures can teach his action figures to follow Rule 4.

To download the free classroom rule posters described in this article, click here or on the Rule 4 poster image above.

For more information on Rule 4 and WBT’s other classroom rules, look at Chapter 7 in “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids” on Amazon.com.

Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America
Website: WholeBrainTeaching.com
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Chris Biffle, a college philosophy professor for 40 years, is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last 15 years, Chris has been lead presenter at over 100 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 20,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free ebooks available at WholeBrainTeaching.com.
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