Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Perfect Plantzilla Pumpkin

Each year our students decorate a pumpkin as their favorite literary character, and the pumpkins adorn the front lobby of our school beside a picture of the book. This year in Science as part of our study on plants, we read the book, Plantzilla. It was an easy decision when it came time to pick a literary character because the kids were mesmerized by the story.

Our room moms got to work with a plan and our volunteers worked for days in the hallway with a handful of students at a time to prepare the best pumpkin ever! To read more about the experience, from our student bloggers, Lily, Julia, Connor, Jack, Cedric, Kellan, Caeden, Will, and Chase, please visit their post on our classroom blog.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flexible Thinking Young Mathematicians

I posted a math blog earlier this week on our Solar Power classroom blog which has elicited many positive parent comments. Parents, in schools with conceptually based math programs, recognize early on that the way they learned math is very different from the way their children are learning math. Many strive to understand why there is a shift from the traditional procedure based computation to the multiple strategies students now encounter. To help them better understand the shift with our work in 3rd grade subtraction, we published the following post...

Thinking flexibly about numbers is one of our goals for students in third grade. Throughout our MI Unit 3, Addition, Subtraction, and the Number System, we’ve been highlighting multiple strategies in Closing Session. We do this because subtraction is the distance between two numbers, and based on the problem, the most efficient strategy isn't always the same strategy.

In addition, we want students to be able to check their work using a different strategy than the one they used to originally solve the problem. Many times, if a student checks their work with the same strategy, it’s common for them to make the same computational error they did the first time. However, if they make an error in the first solution and then check their work with a second strategy, they are more likely to catch their error.

We are working toward students' ability to recognize, based on the situation, the most efficient strategy with the least likelihood of error, and with the idea that mental math can be one of the most effective ways to solve. For example, we don’t want students to use the traditional algorithm to solve 1000-989, because it would be easy for them to make a computational error when regrouping multiple times. Rather, we want students to recognize that the distance between these two numbers can easily be done by counting up, 989+1=990 and 990+10=1000, therefore the difference is 11. Of course, in other situations, it’s simply easier to solve using the traditional algorithm like 876-563. Flexible thinking based on the situation is key.

In order to develop number flexibility, we’ve been working on several strategies in class.

Sample Problem: 245 - 178 = m

Adding up
245 - 178 = mTurn the equation into a missing addend 178 + m = 67. Put the number 178 on a number line and count up to the next landmark number. (Landmark numbers have a 0 or 5 in the ones place.) 178 count up 2 to 180, count up 20 to 200, and then jump 45 from 200 to 245. Adding the jumps gives you the answer, m = 67.

245 - 178 = m

Decompose the number by place value. This is also known as expanded notation. Then, subtract each place value. In this problem, 200-100 = 100, 40-70 = -30, 5-8 = -3, therefore 100-30-3= 67. Sometimes, this strategy has you in negative numbers, but our students know that 0 is the middle of the number system and they can flexibly use negative numbers.

                                245 :   200 + 40 + 5
                               -178 : -100 + 70 + 8
                                          100 - 30 - 3 = 67

Counting backward
245 - 178 = m
Put 245 on the open number line and count backward by 178. You can make the jump of 178 any way you want. Most kids jump backward to landmark numbers. 245 jump back 45 is 100, and then jump back 30 is 70, then jump back 3 is 67.

Left to Right
Students think 200 – 100 = 100 and 40 – 70 = -30 and 5 – 8 = -3.
                                        245 :
                                       -178 : 
                                        100 – 30 – 3
                                             70 – 3 = 67

Remember, the purpose of exposing students to multiple strategies is two-fold. First, students need to be able to solve using two different strategies to check their work, and secondly students will be able to identify the strategy that is most efficient based on the problem. Students who successfully accomplish this have number sense and are able to work with numbers mentally and flexibly. Our students are busy every day becoming young mathematicians.

If you are a teacher blogger, feel free to steal this post for parents in its entirety.  Spread the word...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Few of Our Rituals, Routines, and Expectations

Classrooms with impeccable rituals and routines maximize student learning time, offer clean transitions between activities, and seem, at least from an observer's perspective, like they run themselves.  The operating guidelines happen with purpose, planning, and precision in implementation on the part of the teacher.  Some of the guidelines are seemingly small, but when collectively implemented, make all the difference. 

A few of Miss Russell and Mrs. Shall's Rituals, Routines, and Expectations...

Daily Schedule
We have 180 days of learning possibilities; Each day and each moment must be maximized.  In our classrooms, we avoid transition and down time with a very structured daily schedule, and we stick to teaching times to give each subject adequate time.  Oftentimes, when you enter our room, you will see a clock under the document camera showing how much time is left for the task. Originally, the tool was set up for us, but we quickly realized that the students enjoyed knowing the time of the activity, too. Our daily schedule is the most essential component in running our classroom. Without it, the students would lose precious learning time.

Our Entry Routine
When students enter our room, the daily expectations are evident via a word document that is projected on our whiteboard. The students follow the detailed directions and begin quietly working on the day's entry tasks. Relaxing music plays in the background and it makes for a calm start for our classes.  The routine usually takes about 10 minutes.

Sample Message
Good Morning SOLAR Stars! We hope you have a magnificent day.
1)   Take out your planner and red homework folder, and put your book bag in your cubby.
2)   Leave your yellow math homework sheet on your desk to be stamped.
3)   Write today's message in your planner. (It is handwritten on the board each day.)
4)   Get your clicker and put it on your name tag.
5)   Complete your D.O.S.S. (Daily Oral Social Studies)
6)   Complete your yellow math Exit Ticket and put it in your classroom bin.
7)   Read a plant book from the Life Science bin.

Valuable Patrol Duties
There are daily teacher managerial tasks like putting down chairs and putting seat pockets on chairs, stamping the nightly completed math homework, flipping the daily schedule, putting out trash cans, replentishing student supplies including pencils, and monitoring students, that can easily be done by a willing patrol. However, until patrols get into a routine, they could need a reminder.  Inside one of our cabinets is a morning and afternoon patrol duty list which lists tasks in priority order. This easy to read reminder values the patrols time and gives us some much needed daily assistance.

Student Desks and Materials
We have 36 desks, and due to our departmentalized situation, 72 students. Each desk is shared by two students, one that has the work station in the morning and one in the afternoon. All
morning students have their name tags taped down on the left hand side of the desk and the afternoon students' names are on the right side of the desk. On their name plate is a number line and 200's chart, too.

Inside the desk, there is a shared Social Studies and Science book, and one pencil box. There is also a shared plastic folder that contains extra notebook paper. Then, the morning and afternoon students have their own plastic folders which contain their math work  and science work along with a journal from each subject. Every thing per subject is color-coded from the student's folders to the color paper we print their tasks on. Math is yellow, Science is green, and Social Studies is blue. The red folders are homework folders. This visual clue allows students to put their materials and work in the correct folders.

The shared pencil box contains two sharpened pencils, a hand held pencil sharpener, an eraser, a pair of scissors, a glue stick, a red pen, a box of crayons, an EXPO marker, and a sock eraser. The students are taught to be good desk citizens and to be respectful of the shared items. Desk partners often leave their partners notes thanking them for being a good desk citizen, and write an "I" message if something isn't going according to plan.  For example I stumbled upon two sticky notes this week. One said, "Chase, thank you so much for cleaning out our pencil
box. It was getting too full with pencils and extra glue sticks. Thanks, Lily."  Another one said, "Joe, I've noticed that our desk is messy. I don't like it like this. Can we work to together to make sure all our stuff is on our side of the desk?"  This type of communication came after we had a class meeting to discuss how to address the situations that may arise.

We trust students to independently keep the materials stocked in their desk. If a pencil lead breaks, they can either sharpen it at their seat or simply go to the green drawers next to the sink to retrieve another. They pull out the top drawer, place the dull pencil in the back basket, and take a new sharpened pencil from the front basket. If their glue stick runs out, they throw it away and get a new glue stick from the green drawer. As supplies run low in the green drawers, the
partrol restocks from the labeled materials in the teacher cabinets. The system is self-directed and prevents unneeded distruptions to the teacher during class time. 

In addition, there is a chair pocket on the back of each chair. There is a shared whiteboard used for daily Math Skills Block, each students' account book, and a chapter book.

Student Numbers
This system of numbering students works beautifully whether you have one class of 18 kids or four of 72 kids! Simply alphabitize your students and then assign them a number. The kids in my homeroom have a number S-1 through S-19. The kids in Miss Russell's homeroom are numbered R-1 to R-18. They write their number beside their name on assignments, then when they pass in their work, we have the "teacher assistant" (a student), put the papers in order by number. When we grade, it makes it easier to put the grades in the computer, because all the papers are in order.

We also use student numbers for lining up. Students always line up in number order and have a designated landmark spot in the room. There isn't any running or shoving to line up because of the designated spots. This handy little tactic works like magic for fire drills and for students lining up for recess. It's easy for missing students to be identified by the other students because of the line order. It sounds simple and can be overlooked as one of the most valuable organizational strategies, but you really should give it a try. I think, you'll love it as much as we do.

Passing Out Materials / Group Work Numbers
Passing out materials for 36 students could consume valuable learning time but a few cheap trays from Dollar Tree and an organized system makes the distribution of materials easy.  

Over each table group, we have a star hanging with the table number. In most circumstances, there are four students that make up a table group. Each student has a colored dot on their name tag which represents their job in the group. The jobs include materials gatherer, materials returner, table leader, and procedure expert. The materials gatherer immediately goes to retreive the tray which has been set up with materials by the teacher, patrol, or teacher's assistant in the morning.  If we are playing a math game during the day, the playing cards, discard sheet, and game directions are set up on the trays in the morning. if we are doing a science lab, then those materials are set up in the morning. The materials are just as easily returned.  Also, hand lenses are always availble on the trays. The system really runs smoothly. I'll bet if you give it a try, you will love it as much as we do.

Table Trash Bins
How many times have you walked around the room collecting trash as students cut out and assemble something?  In 3rd Math Investigations, for instance, students have to assemble 1,000 charts by cutting out 10 one hundred charts; They have to create array card sets; They cut out brownie pieces. We  place a small baset on the table group trays so as kids cut out their items, they can easily throw away their trash as they go. When the individual trash bins begin to fill, the teacher or teacher assistant can make one sweep and dump the individual trash cans. It works like a charm.

Board Configuration
The daily learning tasks in our classroom are always visible. On the right hand side of our board, we used colored masking tape to tape off the board in sections. The board has a place for us to record the date, planner message, and Math, Science, and Social Studies Essential Questions. In addition, we have a section to record the unit number and title of the day's math lesson. We have the page number listed of the task, the must do problem, and what to do when you finish the math task. In addition, we list our small group names, and have a section taped off for listing Closing session students who will share.

This simple system gives clarity to our daily agenda and is a valuable reference tool for students. The must do task may be a Student Sheet page number or simple a problem from that page. The must do is the part of the math lesson that all students must complete because it will be the topic/problem of the day's Closing session. Then, the students can move beyond the must do to the other page numbers/problems that are listed. Some students work more quickly than others. They don't need to ask the teacher what to do next, they simple look at the board configuration to move to the Extention task.

During Work Session, the teacher selects students who will share in Closing. The student writes their name under the Closing Session in the location (1, 2, or 3) where the teacher directs them. Students never have to wonder whether to bring their work to Closing, because the names of those selected to share are listed on the board.

Math Journals and Exit Tickets
As part of Math Investigations, we receive the paperback student workbooks. The pages are
excellent, but often students don't have enough room to write an equation, make an estimate, solve, and check their work by solving with a second strategy. Therefore, we set up math journals in composition notebooks for extra room for student work. The first ten pages are set aside for the student's table of contents and the rest of the comp book pages are numbered so students can always find their work quickly. Many times, we have students complete their work in the math journal.

Additionally, we use the Exit Tickets regularly. Many times each week, we give an Exit Ticket problem on a half or quarter sheet of yellow paper. The student completes the task, turns it in to their homeroom bin, and the teachers can quickly assess the students level of understanding on a given problem. The teachers then use the information to prescribe small group and individual instruction based off the Exit Ticket results. Exit tickets are then glued in the students math journal and added to their Table of Contents for later access.

Whiteboard Rituals and Routines
Daily, students use individual whiteboards during our Everyday Calendar Math Skills Block. Students retrieve their whiteboard from their chair pocket, and Expo marker and sock eraser from their pencil box. They join us in the carpeted gathering area with their materials in hand ready for learning. The teacher asks a question and the students record the answer. The teacher then says, "Boards up in 5-4-3-2-and 1."  Students during the count down place their lids on their marker and turn the board, on #1,  to the teacher. The teacher gets to scan the boards for answers. It's easy for the teacher to pick a board from the crowd that has the correct answer to show as a model. The teacher can also easily see if a particular student doesn't understand the concept. The teacher then discusses the problem and says, "Erase." Students quickly erase and get ready for the next question. The process continues at a very fast pace.
In our co-teaching setting, it doesn't take both of us to lead this session. Therefore, while one leads, the other teacher pulls a small group to the table. The group listens to the questions from the lead teacher, but the small group teacher gets to pay particular attention to the small groups responses. She can ask probing questions if a student gets stuck or give more instruction to the group if they need additional assistance. This provides a great opportunity for individualized instruction.
When the 15 minute Skills Block is done, the teacher says, "Erase and please stand."  Students quickly get up return their items to their seat pocket and pencil box.

There are a thousand other small things that make our classroom tick from our daily differentiated instruction, to our Tuesday folders, to Clicker routines, to daily organized file hangers for handouts, to bins by science content.  However, if I ever want to get this blog post done, I have to publish it now.  As I capture other components, I'll make sure to post them. I'd love for you to leave a comment about your most essential Rituals, Routines, and Expectations. Together, we can all run more efficient classrooms.   

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

This Year's Journey

In a previous post, I shared with you my excitement about heading back to the classroom this year. And, though I am utterly exhausted during this second week of school, I am also calmly reflective and overwhelmingly renewed, reconfirming for me that I am exactly where I should be at this point in my learning journey, with the children.

It's been fascinating coming back into the classroom not only with my teacher's eyes, but from the perspective of a coach, too. Things have caught my attention that might otherwise quietly pass, because I am intrigued by the small details that make all the difference in the big scheme of things. I feel called to try and document my experiences this year, though I admit that classroom planning and sleep have won out over all else the past two weeks. I'm sure many of you reading this can certainly relate. However, just so you know, I am committed and there is a post in the works on the Rituals, Routines, and Expectations so student learning time throughout the year is maximized. If you are a system's thinker, you'll definitely want to stay tuned. 

Finally, I wanted to invite you to join me at http://www.solar3rd.blogspot.com/.  The blog is the combined effort of my SOLAR (Shall, O'Leary, Lipsky, and Russell) Power team this year as we guide and educate our young learners.   

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Last week, just days before the teachers returned to work, students received a postcard in the mail from Mrs. Phillips announcing their homeroom teacher. Children and their parents eager to meet the new teacher, joined us for an  Orientation on Friday before the new school year begins.

You know what they say, "You only have one time to make a good first impression."  So, teachers take great care in the way they set up their classrooms, dress for success, and display personal touches of love. What parents mostly want to know is if the teacher is nice and if their children will be loved during this 180 day learning journey.  

To prepare, Ashley and I set out Orientation packets and made Batman Cookie Medals for the kids.  We set up a back table for easy sign in, pulled out chairs, and had a established place for them to unpack the their child's school supplies. We made sure each student's desk was already labeled with their name so they would know exactly where to sit when they entered the room on the first day of school. We organized our thoughts on a themed PowerPoint to use after we welcomed parents to highlight some main points.  But, mostly what we did was make them feel welcomed, loved, and excited to return on Monday. We can't wait for the learning adventure to begin. Stay tuned...

Desks are set up and ready for Orientation.

Lovingly made themed cookie medals send the message to children that we care about them.

Sign in table, volunteer sign up, and wish list items on stars make it an easy one stop shop.

Creating a place for school supplies helps relieve stress and congestion, and makes for easier put away when Orientation wraps up. 

Our Third Grade Classroom

The preparations are well underway as an exhausting yet thrilling week of pre-planning comes to an end. Our superhero theme, Empowering the Future, made it easy to decorate for the student WOW factor, and no detail was overlooked as we strived for an organized classroom that would provide purpose and limit student transition time between activities. I feel like we were thoughtful and successful in setting up a learning community that will meet the needs of our students and ourselves. Take a sneak peek inside our classroom before the learning journey begins...

The Hallway of Our Learning Headquarters

Upon rounding the corner, the hallway comes alive with color thanks to the hard work of a parent volunteer who graciously gave up days of her summer to help us WOW our future students. The black clothespins fastened securely to red construction paper await the hanging of student work that soon will adorn this Hall of Fame. 

 We welcome all superheroes on this year's learning adventure!

At the bottom of our yellow promotion cards, filled out on every student at the end of each year, the teacher writes something good about the student. The incoming teacher uses that valuable piece of information to make sure that every student feels loved as they enter their classroom on the first day of school in the new year. This tradition titled, I know something good about you, has been a Chets Creek tradition since our doors opened in 1998. This year my co-teacher, Miss Russell, had the great idea of creating bookmarks to post the Something Good About You sayings so when the board comes down students can track their reading with their new bookmark.

The Math, Science, and Social Studies heroes are ready to go outside the Headquarter of Learning.

Our classroom plaques remind us of our Guiding Vision, Learner Outcomes, and Core Values. 

A sneak peek inside our classroom... You may notice the stars over each table which have been set up purposefully with table groups and numbers that will be used for rituals and routines around gathering materials and working in small groups.

The bare walls are departmentalized with an area designated for math, science, and social studies artifacts. Hot gluing plastic clips makes it easy to put up and remove necessary charts as student learning unfolds.

The cubbies are numbered with a metal shelf in between to make sure that student back packs are organized and are not a distraction to learning.

There is a corner designated for our Math EDC area. Calendar, clocks, two hundreds chart, measuring tools, place value charts, thermometer, counting tape, and math manipulatives are set up and ready to go.


Place Value Chart

Organized and Labeled Math Manipulatives

 Counting Tape--Set up in groups of five and ten will make it easy to record each day of the school year. Cards are waiting for numbers 1-180 and students will look for many patterns along the way.

Our classroom has a gathering area were students can come to the floor and be up close and personal for classroom lessons. To secure the carpets, double sided tape works like a charm.

The board set up with colored masking tape allows for ease in recording the day's events and essential questions. Notice that just below the whiteboard our number line is easily seen and reachable by all students. 

Above the board, we have math strategies posted.

Math and Science Portfolios and items used for Tuesday Folders.

The word wall, though blank, is set up and ready for learning. Velcro dots secured to laminated posterboard and attached to the classroom cabinets leave plenty of space to display words. The words are pre-made on Avery labels that have been attached to index cards and laminated. The front of the card has the word and the back of the card has the definition. After words are embedded in classroom instruciton, they can be easily found placed on the word wall from pencil pouches organized in a three ring binder by unit. The words can be taken down by a student if they need to look up a definition and placed easily back on the chart with the velcro.
Thank you to Melissa for such a great system that keeps on giving! We miss you!

We have five student computer stations in our classroom. In addition, Miss Russell and her former co-teacher, Mrs. Ross, were selected as technology magnets in our district, so we are blessed to have a laptop cart, too. We will certainly put them to good use this year!

Our PTA sponsors Sunshine Math, an additional math homework sheet, used to push student learning to new levels. We are prepared to record and reward students who are going above and beyond the call of duty.

In third grade, students will learn how to multiply and divide. We have two doors in our classroom designated to record student progress. As they master a set, they will get to "sign the door."

Student work bulletin board is ready for some SUPER work!

With part of our science textbook adoption, we received leveled science readers. We removed the books from their boxes, organized them by their science content and put them out in our Research Library.

Each day when students enter our classroom, they will receive two SOLAR dollars. They will log their money in their account books and keep their money in pencil pouches in the pouches on the back of their chairs. Students will have the opportunity to save their money and spend it on our store items when the store opens each week. We have items to buy, but more maybe more popular, items to rent. Offering items like Teacher Assistant, special desk, special chair, and extra computer time are great perks that don't need to be replenished by the teacher. Kids can also rent popular games and have time to play during Store Hours.
(Displayed beside the Store is our birthday wall and this year students will get to wear a birthday cape on their special day. Pictures to follow soon.)

Science can be messy business and time consuming, but with prearranged rituals and routines, it doesn't have to be. These cheap ($2) trays are labeled by table number and already contain student maginifying glasses. In the morning, science items for experiments and labs can be set up, and student handlers can easily transport their trays during classtime.

I hope you enjoyed the "sneak peek." Stay tuned as we begin this year's learning adventure...