Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Case for Class Plants

 This is just a quick post to strongly encourage my teacher friends to get some plants into their classrooms (or add a new one).  There are a number of reasons why class plants make a fantastic addition to your learning area.  Increased oxygen levels, responsibility building, novelty in otherwise mundane tasks, a hands-on science manipulative, and bright accent in your room are all good reasons to go green in your living spaces!
An increased oxygen supply is one of the main reasons I brought plants into my classroom- especially because I don't have any windows or outside doors, and the air circulation in our 40 year old school isn't so hot.  Well, actually it is hot, because we don't have any air conditioning!  More oxygen equates to a better-fed brain, which should in turn help with higher productivity and better learning in your class.  In the age of high-stakes tests, this is always a plus!

 Another reason to get class plants is to have students build responsibility by caring for them.  This is particularly helpful for students who need a "special job" or for one of the options for your class job list.  In my classroom, all students can apply for jobs, and those who get their job applications turned in on time and relatively neatly with good reasons for why they should get that job, enjoy employment for two months.  "Gardener" is one of the jobs, and it's usually a popular one.  I'll do a whole new post on my class jobs.
Yet another reason I keep plants around is to add novelty to mundane things.  For example, instead of having students just say the scientific method aloud, or sing a chant, or read a page of their book aloud, or recite the parts of speech poem, they sing or say it to a PLANT!  For elementary school students especially, this is weird, unusual, and a little crazy, which makes it inherently FUN!  We have also named all our class plants, and I can refer to them when doing related science lessons, like teaching about photosynthesis, camouflage, etc. Pictured below is Frederick Jr.  He is a sprout off of my original class plant, Frederick.  The two spider plants above were started as tiny spiderlings and have grown over the years, much to the delight of my dozens of students who come back to my room after moving on to middle and high school.  It's one more thing that students will remember fondly from your classroom!
There you have it.  Increased oxygen supply, responsibility building, something fun to practice oral language with, a hands-on science manipulative, and something to make your classroom a nicer, brighter place to be.  The only question is what type of plant you should add to your room.  I have 2 marble queens and 2 spider plants at this point, and I'm going to add bamboo to both of my fish tanks.  What types of plants do you have in your classroom?  What species thrive with only florescent light?  Which are little-grabbing-finger resistant?  What plant do you have that you think looks the best?  Leave a comment and share what's worked for you, or your plant-related quandary!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Classroom Pets ~ Fish Edition!

 I love animals.  This is part of the reason why I love to have animals in my classroom.  Even if you're not really an "animal person," there are SO many great reasons to have a classroom pet.  Many students never get to have a pet of their own at home so this is their only 'pet' time, it builds interest in your classroom, they are great for writing about, kids learn responsibility by caring for them, develop empathy taking care of them, they get to learn about a new organism, develop their observation skills, you get additional inside jokes with your students, etc.  I have had about a dozen different species of animals in my classroom over the last few years.  I've already talked about my amazing bearded dragon, Chubbs, so this post will be devoted to the classic classroom pet- FISH!

I started with a tank of goldfish and added a few other community fish to their tank.  Visit your local petstore to find the perfect fish for you (I suggest starting with something easy like Tetras, ghost shrimp, etc).  There can be a bit of a start up cost for getting fish (buying the tank, gravel, filter, light, plants, food, etc), but try posting something on Craigslist.  That's how I was given two bearded dragons, a cichlid fish, an oscar fish, 2 goldfish, an eel, and a Chinese algae eater for FREE!  A lot of families lose interest in fish after they've had them for a few months, but they want to give them to a good home.  What better environment than a classroom where they will be loved and adored by 30 students each day and carefully cared for and examined.  Check in with your community to see if there's anyone wanting to rehome their fish.  You can also look around 2nd hand shops, like Goodwill, for a used tank, because they almost have a great setup for a very reasonable price.

 This is my favorite fish, perhaps of all time, because of his amazing eyes.  His name is Calico, and he is fabulous.  Look at that tail! Fan-tailed goldfish are great.  One of Calico's eyes is a regular yellow eye, while the other is all black.  My students love when I talk about Calico being my favorite fish in a fake-whisper voice (so the other fish won't hear and get jealous).  I also pet this fish (it started on accident when I was moving the plants around the tank the first time, and now purposefully every so often for fun). He shares the tank with three other goldfish and one Chinese algae eater.  All of these fish are Community fish, so they get along well.

 Think about a variety of fish that will go well together.  Fish are generally categorized as Goldfish/Community OR Semi-aggressive OR Aggressive.  Your local pet store can help you find compatible fish.  Below is Bubbles, a cichlid, who shares his tank with an eel.  Bubbles is the only fish I've ever known who routinely rearranges his tank.  I knew Bubbles was unique when I looked over after school one day to see him pulling one of his tank plants to the other side of his aquarium WITH HIS MOUTH!  Fung-shui is very important to Bubbles and other cichlids, and they make for cool pets.

Fish are great because they are very low-maintenance.  I probably do about 10 minutes of work per month to care for them, because one of our classroom jobs is ZOOKEEPER!  This is one of the few jobs that I have two students cover (Zookeeper 1 & 2), so one of the students can care for Chubbs and the other can feed the fish.  Then at the end of the day, the other student feeds the fish.  Besides feeding them, that's all the students do.  The only thing I need to do is clean their filters about once a month and possibly change out some of the water.  You'll need to clean them more frequently depending upon the size of your tank and the type of fish you have; goldfish are notoriously dirty fish.  Still, 10 minutes of work to provide your students with a great topic to write about, an easy thing to have them "teach," a fun new organism to write about, and another fun memory from your classroom is definitely worth it!  Post an ad on Craigslist and see if you can add a cool new living feature to your classroom for free!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Student-Made Theme Books!

 What Are Student-Made Unit & Theme Books?
They are awesome.  These little books are very easy to make and cost about a penny each.  They help reinforce key ideas from whatever unit you are working in (I usually use mine for social studies, science, and health) and they help the students OWN the information.  It encourages creativity, reflections, fine motor skills, ELD, graphic organizer use, and some good, old-fashioned copying!  The day before the post test, each student can take home their theme book and study from it so they are ready to ace the test the next day, as well as show off their great work to parents at home.  These little books will make you look good on test scores and to parents!

How Do I Make Such an Spiffy Little Book for My Students?
Most schools keep the necessary supplies on hand-construction paper, blank white paper, and staples.  For most of mine, I just take a large piece of construction paper, and slice it in half.  Do that to 15 pieces of construction paper, and you have a class set of theme book covers!  Decide how many pages you want your book to have.  I usually want at least 6 pages (I make my students use the front and the back of each page).  For books that students will do a lot of writing in, like their Oregon Trail Journals that also have their journals as well as the info from the unit, I do 20 pages.  If you want 6 pages total, you'll just take 3 regular sheets of paper (in a cool color if you so choose), and fold them in half horizontally (hamburger way).  You just made the inner pages for the inside of your theme book!  I like to choose a color that has something to do with the unit we're learning about (like dark green cover and light green inner paper for Oregon, brown cover and tan inner paper for historical things like our Oregon Trail Journals & Corps of Discovery journals, and blue cover with white paper for our government books).  Tuck your inner papers inside the construction paper, and staple twice at the fold.  Done!  It's just that easy!  (The exception is the crazy Animal Classifications one picture above, I'll show you how to make it in another post).  I usually don't waste my students' time making these, but when I have former students come back wanting to volunteer in my classroom, or a random parent volunteer, or an awesome student teacher, I have them make a few class sets in a variety of colors.  If I don't use them this year, I'll sure use them next year.  Generally, I have the students do all the writing on their books, including the covers, that can look something like the picture above.

 What Do We Put in Them?
Anything & Everything.  If it's important, it's in the book.  Ideally, every answer on your post-test should be able to be gleaned from the pages of the almighty theme book.  Students will spend time on this.  They will labor over it, add more to it, decorate it, talk about it, teach someone else from it, and study from it.  I have very few student examples because NO ONE WANTS TO GIVE THEIRS UP!  They work hard on it and they keep them.  Here are some different examples of some things that could be included:

Venn Diagram comparing the life cycle of two organisms, complete with comparative sentence stems on the right side.

The names of Oregon Trail Landmarks along with a sketch of each...Dangers of the Oregon Trail, with a labeled picture for each.

Timelines of important events you want them to know for the rest of their lives (and the post test!)

Summaries of their textbook reading or a narrative input chart (look up GLAD strategies for that awesome tool!)

Labeled diagram of the life cycle of a Douglas Fir Tree and a salmon.

I'll do another post that goes through every page of an Oregon Government Book we are in the midst of teaching from, but the key to remember is that if it's important, it should be in the book.  You can have students teach a buddy (pair up with a younger/older grade classroom and have your students be the experts who are sharing their knowledge with their buddy).  This is NOT just a place for them to copy things from the board into their book without any actual teaching.  That has very little use.  This IS a great place to have students write reflections about what they've learned, write vocabulary words from the unit with pictures & definitions, copy down chants about the subject, write their related sentence stems, and record graphic organizers you've done as a class.  Theme books can make learning more fun, make studying easy, help parents connect with their child's learning, and will be a beloved memory of your students' time in your classroom.

Questions?  Have a cool variation or a different way you use theme books?  Please leave a comment, & remember to pass it on to others through Pinterest & Facebook!

Dictation ~ Dictado

Dictado Background
 Dictado (Spanish for dictation) has helped my students' writing skills grow significantly over the last three years I've been using it.  This blog is all about how I implement dictado in my classroom.  I am an ESOL teacher, not a bilingual/dual language/Lit2, and this year I have 2 Spanish speakers, 2 Russian students, 1 Mandarin speaker, 1 student who speaks Hmong, and one Dutch speaker!  If you want to help your students become more careful listeners, better writers, and better communicators, dictation is for you!

The Goods- Dictado Journal

I used steno pads for our dictado journals for the last 2 years, and they work really well.  The size of the page is perfect for one 3-5 grade length dictado.  This year, it was going to cost $2/steno pad, and because of budget cuts, I didn't want to cost the school anything extra.  Instead, I put the 60 spirals that I got for a penny each to use!  I'm also trying out the combination of the ELD (English Language Development) work along with the dictado in one spiral, and we'll see how it goes.  My awesome student teacher, Michele, labeled the class set, and then if the kids have extra time they can decorate their journal.  Here are 2 shots of the cover of my dictado journal.

I just have two sections for the journal- the front is for random ELD goodness and dictado practice (like the pretest, partner dictado, and other practice) and the back is for dictado post tests only.

Differentiation in Dictado
 Last year, I saw that some of my students were ready for a challenge, while others were failing every week (these were mostly my students who read/write at a first grade level, so making them write this fourth grade level dictado is unreasonable and unfair).  In the official dictado, there is no differentiation for students with different needs.  That's just silly.  So I made my own differentiation up.  This is why I have three groups for dictado- Foundations, General, and Challenge.  Foundations are my kids who work just on the first sentence of the dictado- we pour our attention and practice into that one sentence so they can be successful with it by Friday and actually learn something from it (rather than getting frustrated and just giving up).  The majority of my students are in the General group, and they do the first two sentences of the dictado.  These are my on grade level students.  Then there are my Challenge students, who are ready for the third sentence, which is usually high school level in terms of vocabulary and complexity of syntax.  To become a challenge speller, a student either has to get 100% on the first three dictado post tests of the year OR get 100% on the Challenge Dictado Week (which is about once every other month).  For that one test, every single student tries doing all three sentences, and if they get it right, they get 10 bonus Pioneer Dollars instead of just the normal 1 Pioneer Dollar that they usually get for earning 100% on any test.  If they get it, they become a Challenge dictado student and do all 3 sentences for the rest of the year.  Of course there are exceptions to all this, so use your professional judgement as you work it in your own classroom.

Dictado Schedule

Here is the run-down on the dictado schedule that I generally follow for each week:

Teacher administers pretest- The instructor reads the entire dictado (usually 3-4 sentences for 4th grade) aloud fluently.  Then the teacher reads the first sentence slowly, word by word, going just fast enough for the slowest writer in the class to just keep up.  Next, they read the sentence fluently again.  Follow this fluent, word-by-word, fluent pattern for all the sentences.  The last thing to do for the pretest is to read the entire dictado fluently one last time.  You will need to do a lesson (probably after the first one) about teaching students to listen to your voice to hear pauses (commas or semicolons go there!), all the sounds in a word, etc.  This is a perfect time to teach them about capitalizing the title, starts of sentences, & proper nouns. Dictado is the time to teach indentation, homophones, and language patterns.  The teacher writes the dictado based upon what the students are struggling with, so it's geared exactly to the class needs.
Mini-Lesson-  Once the pretest has been administered, the teacher gives a brief lesson on the focus for the week- capitalization of proper nouns, your/you're/you are, there/their/they're, use of semicolons, how to use quotation marks, how to spell key vocabulary words...whatever your students need!  I usually write my dictados about whatever our social studies/math/science unit is so they get content along with the writing lesson.
Students Copy the Dictado- Students write the dictado from the board (I have mine typed up on my SmartBoard and on my class website each week) right below their pretest.  I have my students write it in green felt tip pen ("Editing Marker") and I expect them to write it perfectly as they're just copying it from the board.
Students Edit their Dictado-  Next, students read through their pretest and correct any mistakes they've made using the editing marks (we have a poster of the editing marks and most of them are already familiar with them)

Students just copy down the dictado on a 1/2 sheet of paper to take home to study from.  I sometimes have them body spell the dictado on Tuesday morning to connect with the passage more kinesthetically.

Partner Dictado-  The students pair up and take turns dictating to each other in the front of their ELD/Dictado Notebooks (write your email in the comments if you want a copy of the instructions I post for students to remind them what a good partner dictado will look like).  Then they trade and correct each others work using the correctly written dictado from Monday.  This is when I pull my intervention/Foundations group and I dictate it to them while hinting at the language focus for the week.  Then I correct each Foundation student's dictado and discuss the results, reteaching if necessary and mostly giving more language pattern tips.  I sometimes have my students write something to the effect of, "Today during partner dictado, I was still tricked on _____________.  On Friday, I will make sure that it doesn't trick me by remembering ___________________________."

During school, students write the dictado on a 1/2 sheet of paper to study from that evening.  Their homework for the night is to study the spelling words and the dictado, and to turn in whatever they did to study the next morning.  I have a long list of different ways to study; leave a message with your email if you'd like them!


Teacher Administers Post Test- The teacher administers the post test in the same fashion that they did on Monday.  This time, students leave their dictado open to that testing page and turn it in to the teacher, who grades it.  The teacher simply edits the work carefully, and marks how many mistakes (a misspelled word counts as -1, incorrect capitalization -1, forgot to indent -1, etc) there were total.  Celebrate the improvement from Monday, and remind students that they can use the language patterns that they've learned in dictado this week in their writing for the rest of their lives!
Questions about dictado?  Leave a comment!  Happy writing to you and your students. :)