Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Surprising Ways to Make 8

As we work on computation we are getting rolling with just breaking numbers apart. With the goal of keeping things open ended I started today's lesson with just the title here, Ways to Make 8. The students began in unsurprising ways, such as the actual number 8 and using our fingers (that's the odd looking thing right under the title in the picture). They suggested drawing 8 crayons, 8 rocks, 8 legos, 8 flowers, and 8 people. It took a while before we got to the idea of 4 and 4 and then on to other combinations. In the midst of all these ideas a few students suggested using materials, such as blocks, bears, and books. I couldn't understand exactly what they meant as it wasn't clear that they just wanted to get 8 of the item, so off they went to show me. I love what they created!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Butter Making

Every year during the week of Thanksgiving the first grade team does special rotations. Teachers team up to do a specific activity and classes rotate through. This year we all felt too overwhelmed and too spread out around the school for it.

My rotation since moving to first grade has been making butter. I decided on Monday that I couldn't just skip it, I wanted to have my kids make butter. I invited one other teacher and her class to join us and it was wonderful.

It was crowded with about 40 kids in the room but they were fascinated. We talked about where we get butter when we want it and how that is different from the past. Then I poured the heavy whipping cream into the bottle and asked about how it is different from butter. This led us to a discussion about cream being a liquid and butter being a solid (thus including a social studies standard of past/present and a science standard about states of matter in just a few minutes).

We passed the bottle around so that everyone got a chance to shake it. The whole group counted by 5s to 100 as each kid shook the bottle. Thereby including math in our lesson.

There is simply nothing better than the smiles on all these faces. We also worked together to write the instructions for making butter (writing instructions being a type of writing we do in first grade) and created a VoiceThread about our experience.

The kids all said, "Ewwww" when they saw the butter but loved it when they tasted it. They even said, "Ewww" after tasting it when they saw it. They never cease to amaze and amuse me.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Fun

We've tried to cram a bunch of Thanksgiving fun into the day and a half before the holiday. This in addition to attempting to continue some of our normal routines. (I may be completely insane or an idiot.)

On Tuesday we colored coffee filters for our turkeys. We colored them with markers, folded them up, dipped them in water, and let them dry. Then on Wednesday we used them to make fun turkeys.

We also made fall trees. (I couldn't come up with a way to make this work with turkeys no matter how hard I tried.) Each branch of the tree had ten leaves or none at all. Then some leaves could be added to the ground. Once the trees were dry we counted our groups of tens and ones to determine how many leaves we had. It wasn't perfect, but given that it was a new idea it was a good start. I'll improve on it next year I hope.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things We Are Thankful For

Many of my students come from another country and their family traditions are tied to that culture. Their understanding of Thanksgiving comes from the media and school. I decided we needed to take at least a bit of time today to focus on the 'thanks' part of Thanksgiving. I modeled my plans, as you can see in the first picture in this movie. The kids created their own with no guidance. I was thrilled with the results.

Next year I'll try to start a little sooner. Somehow the whole idea of thankfulness gets a bit lost when the teacher keeps yelling at kids to hurry up and follow the directions for saving the picture.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks From Around Our School

In spite of my issues with the historical accuracy of Thanksgiving as it is typically taught in schools, it may be one of my favorite times at school. I love seeing all the displays about the things students are thankful for. Not seeing "I am thankful for my XBox" or some such makes me smile. It's possible teachers didn't allow that, but knowing our students I'm betting these examples are all genuine. These happen to be from kindergarten classrooms that I pass on my way anywhere.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I asked to have this kid in my class this year because I've known his 3rd grade brother since he was in kindergarten and this one almost as long. How could anyone not love that smile?

I've held off writing about him because I know him so well I struggled to find a good name for him. After lots of thinking and reviewing favorite books I settled on Jamie from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Jamie is an awesome little guy in the book, totally on top of things and capable far beyond his age. Quite like my little friend here.

He's one of those kids that will take care of anything. If I ask him to remind me of something, make sure he brings something back to school the next day, or help someone out he will take care of it, guaranteed. Tell him something once and it is set. I know he can keep us going with our routines or make sure things are back where they belong.

Plus, he's a blast to have around. He loves to tell jokes, reads great books, and gets excited about learning, books, and friends. He doesn't like to mess up and takes it seriously when he does something wrong. It happens rarely, fortunately. I'm so glad to get to see him each day.

Use of Our Interactive White Board

I have an interactive white board in my classroom. Sometimes I do a better job of using it than others. I would not describe the current time as a great one. However, we've done a couple of things lately that I like.

I write our morning message on our interactive white board every day. For one thing, it saves a lot of paper (at least in some ways). The kids sign in on it every morning, answering a simple question. One students, our meeting manager, leads the kids in reading the message and then calls students up to circle something (word, letter, upper case letter, hanging letter [like y or g]). Every two weeks I print out our morning messages and send them home with kids to read and share with their parents. We also keep a copy in our classroom library for them to read. The morning messages are something we've read together and most of the kids can read independently.

The other thing we've been doing lately is using Animationish. We've used it to animate high frequency words as a fun way to practice writing them. The idea of change is important in our study of past, present, and future. Yesterday we talked about pictures of a tree near our playground. I took one picture at the start of the year and one last week so that we could talk about how it has changed. We brainstormed other things that change and then we animated a couple of changes. I did the one of the tree as a model. The kids worked together to do the one of the frog. It starts as an egg, then becomes a tadpole, then grows legs, and then becomes a frog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why We Learn

My 3rd grade daughter was working on her homework tonight. I have to admit that before this year we have not been good about making sure her homework got done. This year we're trying to be better about assisting with this.

She did not get her word study homework done last week (her teacher requires three word study assignments each week from a list of many options). She was working on this tonight while I did dishes. She was illustrating her words and was stuck on one. She asked me for help and I had trouble understanding the word. I told her to spell it for me. She looked down at her paper and I said, "No, YOU spell it for me." She said, "But I already took this test!"

I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. How is it that in third grade she is learning something solely for the test? What happened to the joy in learning for the sake of learning? I know she still does plenty of that, at least outside of school. Is it simply (as my husband suggested) that she doesn't understand why learning these words might be important or useful?

Once I finished the dishes we got started on her fractions homework. She had to take mixed numbers and make them improper fractions. For the first few we drew a picture and she could figure it out. That became a bit cumbersome by about the third mixed number because the numbers got too big. She wanted to just use the strategy she learned at school: multiply the whole number by the denominator and add the numerator. I wanted her to be able to figure these out because she understood what she was doing, not because she had memorized an algorithm.

I pushed on this and, I think, by the end she did understand what she was doing and, therefore, how to do it. But, again, I was astounded by how little interest she had in understanding what she was doing. She was working these out to jump through the hoop of homework. She wants to please her teacher, who is an amazingly wonderful, fabulous teacher. That's not a bad thing but I want her to want to understand.

We'll keep doing all the things we do outside of school to learn and grow but I want those things to work hand in hand with school. In previous years I felt like that was happening.

When I taught fourth graders I was often pained to hear the question, "Is this for a grade?" When I moved from the upper grades down to first grade I was thrilled to never hear that question. First graders love learning and doing new things. I wondered where it was that we managed to beat that out of kids. For my daughter at least it appears to be by third grade.

I don't blame her teachers. She has had fantastic teachers. I think this is a much bigger societal issue and goes far beyond our school. The conversations with my daughter tonight simply pushed me down this path.


Fern is such a sweetheart. She's quiet and thoughtful. I know I can rely on her to help someone else and to do so quite happily.

Thinking about her makes me think that Fern in Charlotte's Web doesn't get enough credit. Nothing else in that book can happen without her. I can see that in this little one's future. She will make big things happen.

Fern works hard and not everything comes easily to her. Watching her struggle and then succeed is pretty awesome. I think her chances for success in the future are actually better because of this. A child who has to struggle on occasion is more likely to be able and willing to do so in the future. I don't think she'll give up when the going gets tough. I hope she stays at our school so I can see what her (near) future holds.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Updates on Some Darlings

I always enjoy parent-teacher conferences (at least most of them) but one this year really made my day. Nate's mom came in and I thought she looked close to tears. In fact, she looked that way for most of the conference. I came to realize it stemmed from her fear that I was going to tell her how little progress Nate was making. That had been true in kindergarten (at least at first). Instead, I had nothing but wonderful things to say about this boy. Then she seemed close to tears of joy.

Nate's mom doesn't speak much English but I think she understood everything I said. We did have a translator though. She shared that Nate keeps telling her that she lives in America and she needs to learn to speak English. He has even gone so far as to put labels on things around the house in English to help her learn (including a 'moon' label on a window with an arrow). He calls her and reminds her of meetings (like our parent-teacher conference). She babysits a little girl overnight and Nate sends her videos about the books he's reading at home while she's gone. I love this boy.

Another little one, this time one who tends to drive me a bit nutty, is reminding me to keep an open mind. After we wrote our Knuffle Bunny book as a class she came in one morning having written Knuffle Bunny Nine: A Halloween Special. It started with "Not so long ago" and in the middle she included "Trixie realized something" - both phrases Mo Willems uses. It was brilliantly beautiful and completely independent.

She's also one of the few kids who can already really think and talk about what she is doing during our language arts block to help herself become a better reader and writer. And still I have to remind myself of these powerful examples of her learning and brilliance when she's driving me crazy. I've got to work on that open mind

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Internet Safety, Or Not

Our wonderful tech guy has been spending a lot of time teaching internet safety and introductions to the internet in every classroom in our school. A really great classroom teacher would have talked with him ahead of time to be ready to support and be a part of the lesson. I'm not that teacher. I signed up for my time and just looked forward to half an hour during which someone else would be teaching in my classroom.

I adore our tech guy and think he is a fabulous part of our staff. He has set up structures and supported all of us in endeavors that have changed the world for our students. Plus, he's a friend and I enjoy chatting with him. I say all this because it makes what happened during, or really before, this lesson that much worse.

He came in with his laptop, opened it up and set it on my keyboard. As the kids were getting settled I noticed it was open to Cog Dog Blog. Without thinking I said, "Hey, I had dinner with Cog Dog last weekend." (My husband and I had to be in Fredericksburg on a Saturday evening so we crashed a gathering at the Bava household where Alan, aka Cog Dog, was staying at the time.)

Our tech guy went on to teach a wonderful lesson which included the big idea that one should never meet an internet friend in real life. Oops. I just hope the kids weren't paying attention to our discussion at the start.

Too make the lesson go south in another way, our tech guy made a Venn diagram of online and real life friends. He used me as the example of a real life friend and said that he knows where I live but not where Cog Dog lives. He said that he has been to my house. A students piped up, "I've been to her house too." The other kids immediately jumped in to argue that it couldn't possibly be true. Fortunately our tech guy pulled them back in before I had to say that yes, he has been to my house because his big brother and my daughter are good friends.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Sweet is the word that comes to mind with this little girl. I can't imagine her being mean in any way.

The name Anna comes from Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Anna is the narrator and daughter in the story.

Both girls are quietly strong. They are good to the others around them, helpful, kind, and thoughtful.

Anna doesn't smile all the time but she does so frequently, and it is a wonderful smile. It's genuine and her eyes light up.

She's a hard worker, willing to put in serious effort in just about everything. Watching her write a book or play a math game is a delight. Anna is there, actually in the moment with whatever she is doing. Wonderful.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thank You Little Prince

A brilliant, thoughtful, wise colleague of mine has often said that one of the roles of a first grade teacher is to tame the children. The vision in my head of taming is one that makes me somewhat uncomfortable when I think of children. So I've turned to the definition of tame from The Little Prince: "It means to establish ties." - from chapter 21. That makes perfect sense to me as a teacher.

I've got a little friend this year who is making me question this. He was born in the U.S. and lived here until just over a year ago, just before he turned six. For reasons I don't fully understand he (and his brothers) were sent to eastern Africa to live with their grandparents. Their mother relocated to our area and my little one returned to the U.S. Technically, by age, he should be in second grade but he just barely makes the cutoff and he is now in first grade (a more appropriate place for him). This is his first experience with school. He's been in day care before but never in school.

Academically he's actually doing pretty well. He's not yet at grade level in reading and writing but he is making quick progress in both. In math he's really capable. Honestly I'm quite impressed by him academically.

The taming issue comes in because he does not know how (or is unable) to behave the way one is expected to do in school. I don't think I'm overly strict about this but I do expect that he have some control of his body and his voice. I do feel as though I am trying to tame this child.

The struggle I'm facing is how to 'tame' this child without squelching him. He's got so much potential and I don't want to turn him into a compliant dullard (not that I think that's actually possible). Am I worrying over nothing? Am I right to be concerned? If so, how do I help this student without losing my mind?

A Surprising Moment

These two boys are as different as one can imagine. On this day, during our math workshop, they were working together to fill in one of our big 100 charts and finished it pretty quickly. When kids finish their work stations during math workshop they can go to our math library (just a tub full of math related books) to find something to read. These two boys picked a book together and sat down together. I would never have expected it. It was absolutely wonderful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The look on this little one's face is so perfect. This picture was taken on the second day of school. I had no idea then that it so perfectly captured her personality. She's a great kid.

Ramona loves her friends and being at school. Her attention span and stamina don't last that long, but she's excited to get started on everything.

At only six it's hard to say what her future holds but I fully expect her to be a bit of a prankster. She just has that twinkle in her eye all the time. Not dangerous or cruel pranks, but fun. She's the kind of kid all of the other kids like.

Ramona has actually been absent quite a bit and I'm sad each day she doesn't show up, eager to be with the other kids and excited to start learning.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Animated Words

Practicing writing high frequency words is an important job in first grade. It also tends to be a pretty boring job. We write them in rainbows using colored pencils, using doodle pros, with dry erase markers on plastic display stands and with light on a glow station.

That's great for a few weeks but it gets dull pretty quick. So, to mix things up and keep them interesting we've added animating words. Using FableVision's Animationish kids take turns during language arts workshop animating the words we are studying that week. It requires writing the word at least two times, most write it three times. Then they watch the animation as well.

I love playing around in Animationish and I know we'll be using it in a lot of other ways throughout the year.

It's Not All About the Tools, but Tools Can Be Fun

Teachinghistory.org has a wide range of resources for teachers (mostly history teachers, of course but some of these resources are handy across curricular areas).

One piece includes reviews of websites and technology tools. I try not to get caught up in the tools, but I find it handy to have reviews of them to help me determine what would work best for a specific lesson or need. I can't try out every tool and really explore it the way I would like, so this is a pretty nice substitute. In that vein, I recently wrote a review of Primary Wall for this section of teachinghistory.org. It's basically an online wall on which folks can stick post-it notes. My first graders enjoy using it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


This little darling arrived in the U.S. at the age of 3 1/2. She started kindergarten at our school last year and it was the first time she'd really been away from her mom. I'm sure that was hard for both of them.

She was very quiet last year as she was learning English. She's still a pretty quiet child. But she participates and engages in conversations.

Laura listens to everything around her. She doesn't miss a thing. She's like a sponge, just soaking everything in.

She's very responsible and mature. I know that she will take care of anything I ask: remembering to deal with something at a certain time, taking something home and returning it signed, helping another student with a task, etc. She does not seem six most of the time.

I did not know Laura last year but have had many conversations with her kindergarten teacher. I feel like I am getting the opportunity to watch a flower slowly blossom. Laura opens more each day. It is an amazing process to see.

It has been years since I read any of the Little House on the Prarie books so I do not feel truly confident in this name choice. It is based more on my memory and perception of Laura in the books than it likely is on reality.

Teaching Heroes on teachinghistory.org

If you teach early elementary grades you probably teach specific famous individuals in your social studies curriculum. Often those people are treated as heroes, or superhuman in some way. It can be a challenge to teach young children about famous people in a meaningful way.

I wrote about these challenges and ways to address them in my latest teachinghistory.org post.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Stress Tests

My oldest daughter has hit that critical grade, 3rd. This is the year she is required to begin taking standardized tests. That will start next week with our district's practice standardized tests.

As I may have mentioned in the past, this darling daughter struggles with anxiety. She does not, however, struggle with academics. I really thought we had convinced her not to be concerned about these tests, but it seems I was wrong.

Tonight, in a flash of exhaustion and frustration unrelated to school, she said, "It's just my life is so hard."

I managed not to laugh and pulled her close to me and asked what was making things feel so hard. The first thing out of her mouth was about these practice tests next week. Ugh. Really? Sheesh.

My response to this was to tell her that she doesn't have to take these tests. If they are causing her stress and anxiety then I will write a letter saying that we refuse to have her participate. We did talk a bit about what these tests are, why they take them, and what to expect. (I don't really believe in all of the things I said, sadly, but I don't need to add that burden too.) My great hope here is that she will actually take these tests, but without any stress or anxiety, and finds that they are nothing to worry about. That said, if she is still worried and upset about them I will refuse to let her participate.


Meet Max, from Where the Wild Things Are. He's a natural leader (including leading many of the wild things in our classroom) who is not afraid of anything. Fortunately, he tends to lead in mostly positive ways.

Max walks in every morning full of energy, excited about the day. I can always rely on him to be focused on the task at hand (as long as I keep it interesting) and help others do the same.

That said, he is still six (turning seven this month). He loves to play with the Matchbox-like cars or Legos whenever he gets the chance. I often have to ask him to be a bit quieter as his exuberance carries him away. At recess he never stops moving, but is often the first to help out a friend who is hurt or upset.

Picturing him in ten or twenty years is an exciting venture. He's got serious possibilities ahead of him.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Knuffle Bunny Fore! A High Flying Adventure

We did it! We finally finished writing, illustrating, and reading our Knuffle Bunny book! Not surprisingly the pigeon even managed to sneak onto at least one page in here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


I'm not sure this name is a perfect fit, but Dennis the Menace comes to mind with this little guy. He can't sit still to save his life, he drives some adults crazy, and he is always smiling.

The look you see here is pretty constant, no matter what is going on. When he gets in trouble (see above issues with body control) he is never upset. He'll go off to take a short break or go sit somewhere away from certain friends or whatever the consequence is without any complaint, sulking, or the slightest sign of frustration. I find it really fascinating.

He is engaged in everything. Sometimes that means he is an excited, active participant in our class discussions or in small group explorations and sometimes that means he is an excited, active participant in side conversations or small group distractions. He is in the midst of it all.

There are a few adults who work with him in small groups regularly (reading groups and a special pull-out support) and he tends to drive them a little batty, the way Dennis does Mr. Wilson. However, in spite of that it is clear these women adore this guy.

I, somehow, don't work with him in a small group on any sort of regularly scheduled basis. So I can simply adore him. He makes me smile. Sometimes I have to try to hide that smile in order to not reinforce questionable behaviors, but he makes me smile.

I'm more than halfway through writing about the students in my class and this is taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. However, it has been and is a wonderful exercise for me in thinking about the positives of all my darling kiddos.

Lucky Happenstance

I've become a bit addicted to Groupon, Living Social, and such things. Occasionally I purchase one because it seems like such a great idea and later realize that I really have no idea what to do with it. (In my defense, I do often purchase them with specific, fabulous plans in mind.)

One recent purchase was for five posters. I don't recall what brilliant idea I had in mind when I hit Buy! but I found a great use for them.

My class happened to creat five rules this year through our hopes and dreams for first grade. They are written on a poster in our classroom which we have all signed. But it's not a great reminder for first graders.

So I took each rule and created a poster with pictures of students illustrating that rule. I'm hoping the visual reminders all around our room will keep us focused on what we think is important this year.

By the way, the order of the rules here is the order in which they created them. I love that "Have fun" was their number one rule.