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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Engineering Challenge- and a Place Value Freebie!

Okay, we did this as part of our BFG Day, but this is an activity I love. It's perfect for a day right before a big school break, when your kids are crazy active anyway and you don't really have any specific content you have to cover but you still want to do something educational.

I gave my kids an engineering challenge. First, we talk about what an engineer does.

Then, the challenge: They are to make a chair that Mr. Potato Head can sit in. (My college program used a teddy bear, so any kind of little classroom mascot will work!) Their first goal is for their chair to hold him, so I let each person feel the size and weight of him in their hands.

If they create a chair that holds him, and so do other groups, the winning chair will be the one that holds him the highest off of the ground. (I measure to the very bottom of his feet.)

The trick is... they only get to use paper and tape.

My kids immediately start balking. "Not even SCISSORS?!"

Nope. Just paper, and tape. They're welcome to tear the paper, if they'd like, but each group gets only a stack of computer paper and a roll of tape.

Some groups made lots of plans.

Most groups started together on one central idea, but one group let each kid make their own design and then picked the best one to work on together towards the end. One group started out with something resembling a chair...

That ended up looking nothing like a chair.

Some groups got started immediately-




And... whatever this is?

Some groups worked really well together.

And of course, some groups got to learn a lot of group work skills. (I let them work it out on their own as much as possible- very interesting to watch the dynamics!)

For my ESL kids, I heard so much authentic language practice- and they were having a blast.

For my autistic child, having to consider the ideas of others in the group and compromise was a challenge- but by the end, that child was working right alongside the group.

I loved how different they all turned out. Two looked so organized, like they had a clear plan.

Two looked... well, not.

But will they hold Mr. Potato Head?

They ALL did!

Yes, we measured to find the top winner, but really, all of my students had a great time and I could tell they were all pretty proud of the chairs they completed.

One group wasn't the highest, but tested how much weight theirs could hold. Check it out:
 A lot of fun, for sure.

Tweak it for your classroom!
  • Look at pictures of famous architecture for ideas.
  • Have each student or group draw out and label their plan beforehand.
  • Give students a limit of how many sheets of paper to use.
  • Give students a strict time limit.
  • Award winners for different categories- Holds Most Weight, Tallest Chair, Most Comfortable Chair, etc.
  • Change the challenge to fit a specific holiday! Maybe it's a chair for your Elf on the Shelf, or maybe it's a leprechaun chair. You could also use it as a way to recycle paper on the last day of school!
  • Ask students to write about what they did and learned. You could even have them try a second time to see if they change their tactics.
One more thing before I go!

I meant to share this forever ago, but here is a Place Value Scoot game that I used to assess where my 3rd graders were with 2nd grade place value skills. It includes expanded form, standard form, word form, value questions, place questions, and goes up to the hundreds place.

Just like everything else I share... it's free! :) Please take the time to leave a quick note of thanks (and follow me!) if you grab the Place Value Scoot freebie!

Have a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The BFG– Our Class Party!

Oh man. Yesterday wore. me. out.

We had our BFG Party, which I kind of morphed into BFG Day. I tried to tailor almost everything we did to the BFG in some way, and we had a blast.

This is one of my favorite read-alouds. Dahl just *gets* the kind of silliness that kids love. (I mean, the whizzpopping scene? Seriously, is there anything that cracks kids up more than an entire scene about passing wind?)

I let my kids wear pajamas, because Sophie was in pajamas most of the way through the book. One girl dressed up as the BFG, with the cutest little turtleneck and vest. She even brought in props:


A dream trumpet, and a dream jar- complete with the BFG-style dream label. (She purposely put backwards letters and misspelled fly. I love it.)


We started our morning with a math journal prompt. (I wrote about my math journals here.)


This one, I just loved. What great math thinking!!!

Next, we got creative and made our own dream jars.



The kids got to share with me one golden phizzwizard (wonderful dream!) and one terrible trogglehumper (nightmare) of theirs.


Some chose to draw the dreams the way they were described in the book, but others chose to draw what was happening in the dreams, but they had to label the jars with a summary, just like in The BFG.


What I loved was that the students asked if they could write it “like the BFG.” The special words, backwards letters, and ways of talking they remembered made me realize how into this book they really got. So happy.


This one said, “I is the first human bean to go bundjie jumpin out of a bellypopper and keep alive!” If you’d like a freebie copy of the BFG dream sheet, just click the photo above to find it on DropBox (and please say thanks!)


Then, we went to the computer lab, where I had students listen to Jack and the Beanstalk and then compare and contrast it to The BFG in their Reading Notebooks. After they finished the story, my kids could explore Universcale, by Nikon.

Have you seen this site? It’s amazing for comparing sizes of things, and very cool to just click around. I also had my kids find the things closest to the size of the BFG and the other giants in the book- which happened to involve some English-to-metric conversions. (So much learning packed into this day!)


Then we did an engineering challenge, like the Queen’s staff had to do for the BFG towards the end of the book. I’ll write more about this one later- it was probably my favorite activity of the day!

Note: the movie does include a bathtub scene you may want to preview before you decide to show it to kids.

Finally, we ended the day with watching the movie The BFG. (I actually found it on YouTube.) We also enjoyed some special BFG snacks- see the “snozzcumbers” below(cucumbers with the center cut out and cream cheese sprinkled with salt and pepper). I also had Frobscottle, but it was very quickly gone and I forgot to get a picture.

There’s an official Roald Dahl cookbook, but I kind of winged it.

I mixed together a can of Mt. Dew, a few generous squirts of lime juice, and lime sherbet. I let them sit in the fridge for about an hour until the sherbet mostly melted. Then I stirred and added some Fresca over the top. I hoped to sprinkle it with Pop Rocks, but had a hard time finding them. (My fault for shopping the night before!) It was delicious.

And very green!


We also enjoyed tiny snacks to make us feel like giants- see the cocktail weenies, baby carrots, mini Ritz crackers with tiny squares of cheese, Mini Oreos, and Chips Ahoy Minis. Oh, and my favorite- a mini baked potato bar.

Yup. Tiny potatoes baked during my lunch, and then kids could add cheese and bacon bits for bite-sized baked potatoes. Yeah, I think I may have enjoyed this part even more than my kids.

I’m excited to think of even more ideas for my kids next year. I love packing in as much learning as I can into a “party” day! Who knows- maybe if I ever decide to start a store, other people would have interest in a BFG Day packet?

It was a great day- but I came home very tired! Maybe that was just because I spent all day wearing footie pajamas, though :) Thanks for your help with ideas!

Monday, September 24, 2012


Tomorrow, our class is having a BFG Party!

I don't know about you, but I love love love Roald Dahl children's books. (Adult books, not so much.) The BFG is one of my absolute favorites, and my class is super into the book.

My plans for tomorrow include measuring how tall the giants in the book were, making a character profile (and drawing) of our own giant, watching the BrainPop video about Roald Dahl, enjoying snozzcumbers and frobscottle, watching the animated BFG movie, and eating tiny food to make us feel like giants. We might also make dream jars.

My Facebook friends are suggesting food items. Some so far:
- Cookie Crisp, or mini Chips Ahoy
- Mini Oreos
- Cocktail weenies
- Tiny sandwiches
- Mini pizzas
- Baby carrots
- Mini pizzas

Any other ideas of tiny food and/or fun giant-themed activities? I am getting so excited for our party!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

One Word Mission for the Year

On Monday, I have a meeting with my principal. She likes to schedule a casual sit down with each teacher around the beginning of the year, just to check in and make goals.

Well, this year, instead of a list of our goals, she asked us to try something different.

We are supposed to think of ONE WORD.

That ONE WORD is our goal, our outlook, our purpose for this year. Essentially, it's taking all the long-windedness of a mission statement and breaking it down to its simplest piece. It looks like the idea started as a Christian new year's resolution idea, but it can work for anything.

The principal gave us an example of her own- BOLD.

Well, I'm supposed to think of one word.

My ideas?
- Organized.
Seriously, this could be my goal for every year for everything for life.
- Balance.
I'm doing the classic new teacher thing of spending many many hours working on school work. I need to find a way to be smarter about my time and spend more time for me and my family.
- Differentiate.
I think this can be true of how I want to teach better, but also just not being afraid to do my own thing compared to other teachers. I think it can also stand for cutting myself a break when I realize that I don't have to be as good at everything as everyone else is (especially as a new teacher- so hard!)

- Push.
Push the kids by doing more enrichment and more challenges. Push myself to be better and smarter. Push my parents to be involved by making it easier and valuable. Push my colleagues to try new things and collaborate more.

Build my knowledge and confidence; build students' knowledge and confidence. Build a community and a passion for learning that will never disintegrate.

I'm leaning towards 'push,' but I'm just not quite sold yet.

If you were picking one word (any word!) on which to focus this school year, what would it be?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Punctuation Dance

Have you ever had a student who can finally decode words quickly, and so they race through the words, never stopping or pausing?

An important piece of fluency is teaching kids how to react to punctuation. They need to know when to pause, when to make their voice rise, and when to change their tone- and be pausing at the right places, they also gain better comprehension!

The first step for me is helping kids pay more attention to punctuation, and the best way I've found also happens to be the perfect way to get kids up and moving during reading.

This is *not* my original idea- but when I learned it at a reading workshop, I fell in love!

Punctuation Dance- an active, stand-up-and-move strategy for building reading fluency and teaching how to read punctuation!

The Punctuation Dance is very simple. While you can use any text, the Punctuation Dance works best for a text with lots of different punctuation.

When you get to a period, you stomp.
When you get to a comma, you step to the side.
When you get to a question, you put your hands up side to side like you're asking a question and wiggle down a little.
When you get to an exclamation point, you jump in the air with arms up!

This is perfect for that "WOW these kids need to move!" type of morning, but it also helps kids pay attention to the punctuation and how they should read it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

5 Great Freebies to Leave for a Substitute Teacher

Well, it's been a rough week.

I found out on Sunday that my godmother, Joanna, has passed away.

Everything else pales in comparison to that kind of news. She was one of those beautiful people who found joy in everything and never let go of her passions, even as she dealt with the frustrating and debilitating symptoms of MS for years. She was only 55.

I didn't live as close to her as I would have liked to, but I will still miss her infectious laugh like crazy. For those of you who pray, please keep her husband and kids in your prayers.

Unfortunately, as teachers, we don't just get to call our bosses and say, "I'll need to be gone" and go. A lot of times, I will avoid being gone simply because it's hard to be gone. I hate writing sub plans.

But in order to carpool to Wisconsin for Joanna's service tomorrow, I will need to miss some school time. I'll share next week how I use my custom lesson plan template to make easy sub plan templates, but in the meantime, I thought I would share a few of the go-to freebies on my blog and elsewhere that work so well to leave for a sub.

First of all, I would be crazy if I didn't mention the free emergency sub plans over at SubHub. She takes a book or book series as the focus, and develops age-appropriate substitute plans that are meaningful but could be used any day of the year. Terrific resource for the "just in case."

One of my favorite reading activities is this free foldable from Rulin' The Roost. It can work with any fiction book, and once I've introduced it, the kids can do it completely on their own. Plus, it's still meaningful review of reading strategies.

Miss Nelson Is Missing!

I love to have the sub read aloud Miss Nelson is Missing (okay, I don't love it... actually, I wish I could dress up and be a "sub" one day and then read it aloud, but that is an awful lot of work and I'm not sure I could really convince them I was someone else anyway).

Anyway, after we read it, it's fun to have the kids write about where they think I am. Ginger Snaps just shared the cuuuutest way to do this, with both primary and intermediate paper, and for free, too. This is SO much cuter than how I usually do it- and to top it off, she included a way for them to write it as a news article, too. LOVE IT!

In spelling, I love to have a game. We've played them before, the kids will be a little active, but they won't be too active. Perfect. My go-to games are pretty simple, but you can download them here.

One easy math activity to leave is the My Number sheet (my very first freebie!). Again, meaningful review at any point in the year (although I do update it and make it a bit harder by the end!)- and the kids already know what to do.

I also think that there is simply no way to have kids practice math facts enough, so I have some of the great games from Deb at Oh My Little Classity Class, like this free addition one. I like to include games at least once during the day- especially with a sub, it helps with the wiggles.

I really try to make sure that days with substitute teachers are worthwhile- in part because we just have too much to learn to skip a day, and in part because I know the kids can see right through busywork and I know they won't behave as well.

Other great options?
- Scholastic News, Time for Kids, etc.
- Math Journal prompts (I gave away some freebie prompts here!)
- Free video on or (if you trust technology to work!)
- Color-by-Number type sheets- great to leave "in case you have extra time"

None of us like to miss school, but these are some of the freebies that sit in my "sub plans" file, easy to copy in a pinch to make it a little easier. Any other easy activities to leave in sub plans that I'm missing?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Are You Making Your Brain Stronger?

I think every teacher has one or two of those phrases they say constantly.

You know-
"Criss-cross applesauce!"
"Bubbles in your mouths!"
"You get what you get, and you don't get upset!"

Well, I have a teacher-ism I use all the time.

Click the picture to get your {free} copy!

At the beginning of the year, I pick up two pencils and start holding them like weights and curling my biceps. I tell the kids that I'm working out and I'm going to get super big muscles.

And of course, they start to laugh.

So I ask them why, and someone always tells me that my muscles won't get bigger when I'm picking up something so light. They insist that it won't work, even if I do it a lot.

I then tell them that their brain is the same way.

If you only do the things that are easy for you, even if you do them over and over- your brain won't get any stronger. You have to give your brain a challenge to make it grow.

I explain to them that, as their teacher, it's my job to make their brain stronger. That means I'm going to be trying to push them to try new things, and hard things- because if I only make them do things that are easy, their brains won't be stronger.

Sometimes, when I give them a big challenge, I call it a "Brain Workout." I tell them about when I started a new workout (Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred- whew. I am tired just thinking about it.) The first time I tried it, it was hard. I felt overwhelmed, my heart was pounding, I was doing terribly, and I just wanted to give up.

But the second time I did it, I was a little better.

And the next time, a little better.

Eventually, I got to where I could do it!- and I was pretty proud of myself.

And when it wasn't so hard anymore? I moved up to level 2, and made my body even stronger. And don't get me wrong, level 2 was just awful at first- but each time I did it, it got a little easier and I got a little stronger.

(... I decided that I probably didn't need to tell them what happens when you stop that workout program, but I suppose if you have kids that stop trying or stop doing their work, muscle atrophy might be a perfect analogy. )

This also works well when I have students who want to "help" others by giving them answers, or just telling their buddy reading partner the word. "Are you letting your partner's brain get stronger?"

Simply put... muscles are a great analogy for brains.

With my 3rd graders, I went on to explain how your brain actually has to make new pathways when you learn something new, and that's why it's so hard. Sending that first electrical impulse is much harder than doing it a 2nd time, or a 10th time, or a 100th time.

(Yes, I teach my 3rd graders about neural pathways and synapses. I am a complete nerd.)

So, I'm wondering... what do your kids hear EVERY day?
What's YOUR teacherism?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Real Life Wednesday

I just saw something on another blog that made me smile.

Real Life Wednesdays

She's hosting "Real Life Wednesday," a day where the (mostly mommy-blogger) readers post pictures or stories about how their life is really today.

Sometimes, I look at other teachers' blogs and get kind of jealous. I know, it's dumb, but I feel like other people just seem like they have their stuff together. And their room is probably neat and wonderful and organized and active and perfect all the time.

Well, then I scrolled through the first page of my blog- and, honestly, it looks a little like that.

I know the negative's not inspiring, but I want you to know that if you are in survival mode and things haven't gone as planned and your room looks like a tornado just flew through... well, you are not alone.

Here's my "Real Life Wednesday":
- The rules poster we made on the first day is still propped up in the corner where I keep meaning to hang it up.
- One of our anchor charts has fallen off the wall so many times today that I just told the kids to leave it where it was on the floor.
- The name posters are still not up on the wall.
- My teacher binder isn't all set up for the year.
- My desk is looking crazy already.
- My teacher bag is stuffed full of the same things that came home with me on Friday. And no, most of them are NOT done.
- I'm loving that I can do DIBELS on the iPad- but unfortunately, I did not figure out on my own how to sync it, and lost some data. Time to start over.

But I also have to remember some class positives:
- The first kid made it to Sparkling on the clip chart.
- My kids are at 19 minutes of Read to Self stamina.
- My class tried out Read to Someone today for the FIRST time, and read for 12 minutes.
- I have heard a few positive snippets from parents.
- My class is LOVING The BFG!
- I signed up for XtraMath and it was SO easy to get going.
- Writer's Workshop is finally happening (kinda!)

And some me positives:
- My car is fixed- AND my husband and his friend were able to install the battery without taking it in somewhere for an extra cost!
- I'm almost over my cold! (Although I'm still coughing a ton at night, which means I spent half the night sleeping on the floor of the computer room to not wake anyone. Still happy I'm almost better, though!)
-  I joined a choir! I'm much more of a band nerd, but I'm proud of myself for starting something new.

So... this is a tribute to keeping it real, and reminding you as you blog-stalk tonight that everything's probably not as perfect as it looks :) but look on the bright side- I'm sure you have some good things going on, too!

Feel free to link up too, or comment with one "Keepin' It Real" and one "But on the Bright Side..." :)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Place Value with Goldfish Crackers- freebie!

One of my favorite things about the blogging is that the ideas of other teachers inspire me.

Sometime last year, I saw Mel's post at Stapler's Strategies about using Goldfish Colors to teach place value, and I had an epiphany.

See, in college, they wanted us to teach kids how to use place value with M&M's to work as a 'code' for groups of 10's. It took us college students a few classes to figure out what we were supposed to do, so quite frankly, I didn't feel well equipped to guide my students to discover the system. But I do think it's incredibly important for students to understand what place value actually means, and be able to model it in different ways.

Fish are PERFECT for this understanding.

I tell my kids this story.

Once, there was a little fish. What should we name him? (This year, my students went with "Fishy.") He was a nice, friendly little fish. In fact, he was so friendly that he got to be very popular. Wherever he went, the others liked to follow.

Unfoooortunately, though (and I make this part really dramatic), when ten little Fishies get together, they tend to attract a bigger fish. (And I make this guy swim out from behind my easel, very dramatically.)

Annnd this green fish isn't a meanie, but he's hungry. And lucky for him, his stomach holds TEN- and only, exactly TEN- little Fishies. So he gobbles them up. What should we call this fish? (This year, they went with Albert. Hehe.)

But this green fish- well, he's also a very nice, friendly fish. In fact, he's so friendly that he's very popular. Wherever he goes, the others like to follow.

Unfoooortunately, though, when ten Alberts get together, they tend to attract an even bigger fish! (And another one 'swims' out.)

And of course, this red fish isn't a meanie, but he's hungry. And lucky for him, his stomach holds TEN- and only, exactly TEN- Alberts. So he gobbles them up. What should we call this fish? (Bob.)

But let me tell you about Bob. He's a very nice, friendly fish. In fact... (annnd by now, the kids are already saying "uh-oh!")

We go on with the story. I like to do the ones, tens, hundreds in a day, and then, for 3rd grade, we did thousands the next day. Putting a little magnet tape on the back means that your lovely fish can hang out on the board, too.

Next year, I will probably do the biggest fish in orange, because of my next part of the activity.

I give kids some Goldfish Colors and a laminated place value mat. (Before I laminate, I either color in or let them color in the little fish at the top to match our "code.")

Then, I call out some numbers, and I let them model the numbers with Goldfish and write the numbers at the bottom of the mat with dry erase markers.

I don't do this to replace place value blocks, but just as another way of practicing. For some reason, the analogy of the other smaller fish being in their bellies seems to help with understanding.

You can grab the place value mats for Goldfish Place Value as a freebie! (I included one with just ones, tens, hundreds, too.) Just click on the picture, and please say thanks if you grab it!

Thanks again to Mel for the inspiration! :)