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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Let it Snow! - A flurry of learning...

With the recent emphasis on standards, skills, and test scores in school, there has never been a more important time to be mindful of the need for imagination, creativity, and play in the lives of young students. There have been countless articles written and research projects undertaken to reinforce the need for creativity and play in the lives and education of children. Perhaps one of the most well known is the Ted talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Although the talk was presented in 2006, the problem persists, and perhaps, is even greater today. in many schools, than it was then! 

Even if you are teaching in a standards or skills-based learning environment, most standards and skills-based learning can take place within creative activities. The learning will undoubtedly be more meaningful, connected, and will be more likely to result in mastery, when presented in a playful way. Here is one example I have used with both first and second graders, but can easily be adapted for any elementary grade level!

What child does not like to build a snowman? Regardless of where you live, you can make a
snowman out of paper mache! Set aside one day for the messy part of this project. Cover a long table and the floor beneath with painter's plastic drop clothes. Arrange for parent volunteers and paint shirts for the kids. Send home a note in advance, asking the kids to wear old clothing. Gather balloons, newspaper (our local newspaper office has lots of old papers that they will donate) torn or cut in strips, bags of flour, large bowls or dishpans for the paper mache goop, and small plastic bowls or margarine tubs to hold the completed snowmen while they dry. I always inflated the balloons the night before, taping two together with masking tape, and storing them in large trash bags for easy access. On the day of creation, I asked parent volunteers to be on hand throughout the day until all the children had finished. Working with six to eight kids at a time, they assisted those making snowmen, while I worked with the rest of the class in other learning activities. You will need a place to store the wet snowmen while they dry. A windowsill, shelf, or other location will work. Be sure to cover that area with plastic as well and have plenty of small plastic bowls or containers on which to stand the snowmen. They take several days to
dry completely, so plan ahead. As the tops dry, remove them from the bowls to allow the bottoms to dry as well. Once they are completely dry, a pin will pop the balloons and pushing down gently from the top will form a flat bottom allowing the snowmen to stand on their own.

Decorating the snowmen requires a variety of supplies like construction paper, crepe paper, buttons, pompoms, wiggly eyes, etc. Craft glue works better than school glue to hold things in place. An afternoon of creativity will result in a classroom full of delightful characters sure to bring smiles and enthusiasm!  The learning, however, has just begun! The snowmen are the center of an abundance of learning opportunities. I will share a few I have used, then use your own creative thinking to find connections to the standards in your grade level!

Math Applications:
  • Geometric shapes (cylinder, cone, sphere)
  • measurement (height, weight, circumference)
  • child created story problems acted out with the snowmen. (Have each child write a story problem to be reproduced into a booklet or worksheet of problems for the class to solve.)
Science Applications:
  • Solid, liquid, and gas (balloons, paper mache goop, flour and water, evaporation)
  • weather
Literacy Applications:
  • Read a variety of snowman stories. 
  • Write how-to build a snowman (either with snow or paper mache).
  • Write creative snowman stories emphasizing fiction story elements like characters, setting, problem, events, solution, beginning, middle, and end. (I always used the stories as an opportunity for the kids to make an actual book, complete with cardboard and cloth covers, and illustrations. The books were then on hand for the other children in the class to read during reading time. They were sent home with the snowmen when the project was completed.)
  • Create a class version of the well known Snowmen At Night, by Caralyn Buehner.
    Collaboration, rhythm and rhyme, theme, imagination, and multimedia skills are all required for a successful project. Once the class decides on a theme, small groups are tasked with thinking of a location to photograph the snowmen and the rhyming words to accompany the picture. I used a paraprofessional in my class to take the groups, along with an ipad or other camera, to stage their photograph. The completed story was then reproduced for each child and became a book to read in class and at home. We also created a video of the story to post to our Youtube Channel. Examples of class themes have been Snowmen at School at Night and  Snowmen on the Playground. 


Here is an example of one of our multimedia videos:

The possibilities for learning are endless with a project like this. A few days of messy, busy creativity will allow your young students to learn with their imaginations and playful spirits. Plan your learning targets ahead of time, then watch as engagement and mastery abound! 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Season of Hope and Light...

It has been a week of granted wishes and dreams! After partnering with a teacher in Australia for nearly 20 years, our wish to meet in person has come true! She and her delightful family are traveling in the United States for their summer holiday. They left behind hot summer weather to spend a week with us in snowy Colorado! Laughter and joy abound as we compare our ways of life on opposite sides of the planet, and celebrate our much greater commonality as we are all citizens of the world regardless of the country in which we live.

Holidays are a wonderful time to reflect on the many blessings in our world and to celebrate diversity. As the last week of school before a break is upon most of us, it would be my wish that you remind your students that children everywhere celebrate peace and hope. My dear friends, John and Ann Marie Farrell, created a beautiful song and presentation to teach about holidays around the world in this season of hope and light.

May all of you and your students find the joy in life and light in the world and may all of your wishes come true!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Simple Family Gift...

With two weeks remaining before the holiday break, many teachers are planning gifts for their students to make for their families. One of my favorite student created gifts was an old-fashioned board game. I created a simple blank game board, reproduced it on the copy machine on legal sized paper, and the kids did the rest. Although, I don't have a copy of the one I created, a simple search for "blank board game templates" turned up a variety of reproducible boards that you can easily print. One of my favorites was: 
(The board above came from that site and can be downloaded as a PDF file. It is very similar to the one I created.)

Whether you use one you download, create your own, or have your students make the board, the fun is just beginning! Brainstorm board game words with your class. I always found that many children play video games, but there are some that rarely or never play good old-fashioned board games! The brainstorm session helps all the kids make a more interesting game. Make a list of game moves like:

  • lose a turn
  • go back to start
  • move two spaces ahead
  • roll again
Next, talk about game themes. Will you make your game a Christmas or Hanukkah theme or, perhaps, your favorite topic! Brainstorm possible themes like:
  • around the world
  • a trip through the forest
  • deep in the sea
Of, course, the age of your students will determine how complex the game becomes. The creative possibilities are endless as each child designs a game they think their family will enjoy.

Writing in the boxes and decorating the board are the next steps. Be sure to remind them not to color over the words. 

When the board is complete, you can laminate it if you are able. I always purchased cardboard gift boxes after Christmas when they were on sale, but if you have not planned ahead, you can look for the least expensive ones to purchase now.  Choose a size in which the game board will fit. The children glue their game boards inside the bottom of the box. Add objects for game pieces. I used plastic milk jug lids, beans, coins, or any small objects that can be colored different colors or marked in some way. Add two dice to each box as well. (You can often find them in bulk at the dollar store, or purchase small foam cubes from a craft store and have the kids create dice. )

Once the games are complete, the kids partner up with classmates to play the games they created. 

Wrapping is quite simple! Simply put the lid on the box, add a bow and a gift tag and send them home! 

The joy of this gift is the opportunity for the child to present a gift that brings the family together for a game. Dice games are a perfect way for children to practice their math facts as well! Creativity, writing, strategy, and math in a simple family gift!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The 12 Days of Christmas Revisited...

Classroom days between Thanksgiving and winter break are few for most classrooms. Add to that the excitement of approaching holidays and young students need more than ever to be captivated by lessons to stay on track! One fun language arts activity my students always enjoyed was writing new words to Christmas songs! Second graders who had been learning about local wildlife and our community in the prior months, eagerly transformed the 12 Days of Christmas into lyrics that fit where we live! Suddenly a review of science and social studies lessons becomes the basis for a collaborative writing assignment that engages all the children! Brainstorming, rhythm, syllables, patterns, research, decision-making, and cooperation all come into play as the kids negotiate the final version.

We began with the traditional version both in song and book form. One of my favorites is by Jan Brett:

The significance of the 12 days was revealed in our holidays around the world lessons as we learned that Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, is celebrated in many cultures.

The history of the song is interesting for kids and the lyrics contain gifts that may be unknown to young children. Wikipedia has a page with links to a picture of each gift:

We always had pen pals in Australia, so we learned the Australian 12 Days of Christmas. The unusual animals and southern hemisphere celebration add opportunities for a wonderful discussion of Christmas in a new setting.
Provide written lyrics for the students to sing along (the lyrics are shown in the Youtube video). Allow time for researching the animals in the song or show pictures of each. After a bit of compare and contrast from the original to the Australian version, you have the perfect lead in to the writing of your own local version!

Once the lyrics have been determined, it is easy to find karaoke music on Youtube. Here are three of many versions:
Listen to the versions to find one that has the appropriate tempo for your students.

A bit of history, local knowledge, and music become a song written by your students! Print the lyrics and you have a reading lesson to practice for fluency! Here are two versions performed by my class in rural northwestern Colorado:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A letter to Santa...

December brings holidays and opportunities for letter writing! For children who celebrate Christmas, writing to Santa is a holiday tradition, so what could be more motivating for learning or practicing commas, capital letters, periods and question marks, as well as correct letter format, than a letter to Santa Claus? Over my years of teaching, I located a few resources that added to the motivation by resulting in responses to the letters!

One of my favorites is located here in Colorado. The North Pole in Manitou Springs, Colorado is a fun visit any time of the year, but you don't have to visit in person to get a response from Santa. Have your students write a letter to Santa (using any language arts skills, standards, or requirements that fit your curriculum). Make sure each child has written his or her first name clearly on the letter. I always made copies of the letters to send home as well. Put them all in an envelope and send it to:

Santa's Workshop
5050 Pikes Peak Hwy
Cascade, CO 80809

If your letters are received by December 10, your class will receive an envelope of personally addressed post cards from the North Pole in return! (Letters received after that date will not be answered.)

Another wonderful site that provides an instant response, but does not allow for letter writing skills, is  Children enter information in boxes on a form letter (they can skip the email address, which is not required), check boxes, and choose responses from drop down menus. There is a place at the end for them to type a personal message as well. I always made a copy of the form so they could be prepared with correct spelling, capitalization, and a list of gifts for which they were asking before they entered their information online. (The response from Santa uses their exact spelling and capitalization, of course). Choose the second option for sending the letter (it suggests that option for classrooms of students sending letters). Your children will watch as a picture of Santa appears along with immediate messages telling them that Santa is reading their letter, writing back to them, and to click the candy cane to see his letter! In a matter of moments, a personalized letter from Santa appears, including responses to the specific details in the child's letter. Before closing the window, be sure and print out both their letter to Santa and his response to them.

One of my personal favorite sites does not provide free letters back from Santa, but provides a glimpse into, perhaps, the actual North Pole in the Arctic Circle where Santa lives! Located in Rovaniemi, Finland, Santa Claus Village is a place I would love to visit! The website has links to marvelous videos I have used in my classroom. My second graders had been reading books by Jan Brett, including The Wild Christmas Reindeer, when questions arose about where Santa actually lives and how reindeer fly. As we researched, we came kept coming up with the same answer: Rovaniemi, Finland. We were lucky to have pen pals in Finland, so the kids were familiar with Scandinavia, and knew it was located in the far north. The illustrations in the book, as well as The Christmas Trolls and Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?, also by Jan Brett, were definitely Scandinavian in design, further supporting the research.

The delightful videos included information about reindeer and glimpses into life in Santa's Village. Although you will not receive letters back, your students can send their letters to Finland at this address: 

Santa Claus Main Post Office
96930 Arctic Circle

What could be more authentic than that? And, regardless of where you send the letters, videos like this will inspire and motivate your young students to do their best writing, perhaps of the year!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making Global Friends

If you have not connected your students to friends somewhere else on the planet, they are missing out on an amazing opportunity to build global awareness, understanding, and meaningful projects. Over my years in the classroom, my students had a variety of experiences with global friends. From actual letters sent through the mail, to travel buddies and Flat Stanley projects, to Skype and shared online projects, the experiences were all valuable and engaging for children!
We, in my last years of teaching, had long term friendships established with teachers in Colombia, Finland, South Africa, Lebanon, and Australia. Over the years we also had connections and projects with children in India, Saudi Arabia, England, Zambia, Sweden, Taiwan, Mexico, Canada, Iceland, Turkey, Scotland, Brazil, and undoubtedly others I am forgetting. One year we had friends in Iceland while a volcano was erupting and, at the same time, in Australia where wildfires were burning out of control. My students were watching the events on the news at night, and communicating with students in each location at school. Each experience added to the knowledge of children on both sides of the exchange, as they learned how much alike they all were in spite of their geographical differences.

There are many ways to build international connections for your students. My favorites were ePals and the Microsoft Educators Network (Now call Microsoft in Education). My original connections were made within ePals. As a result of one such connection, I became part of the Microsoft Innovative Educators where I met others in person at global conferences. The new Microsoft in Education site has Skype in the Classroom which I have also used to connect with students in other places. One of my teaching partners found great success with using grade level hashtags (i.e. #kindergarten or #1st grade) to find pen pals on Twitter. Her kindergarten students communicate with students across the globe. Here is a list of links (some I have used, others I have not) to explore for finding a partner class or global project to join:

One of the most important things to remember is that finding a great international partner for your classroom requires persistence. Some requests for partners go unanswered. Others result in a one time communication that does not continue. But, if you are patient and don't give up, you will eventually find another teacher who is willing to establish a long-term friendship and connection from his or her classroom to yours. Below are links to two posts from another blog of mine. The story begins in the very first post made to the blog in 2009. I have chosen these to share because they tell a bit of the story about what can happen when you reach out to teachers in far away places:
(The two international teachers mentioned in that blog are still my friends. The photo above is of Rawya and I at the Cape of Good Hope. The teacher from Australia and her family will be visiting me in my home in Colorado in a few short weeks.)

Finally, finding the right project or style of communication is important. That will be the subject of several future blogs as I share the many incredible experiences my students had with friends around the world. For now, reach out to a few classrooms and try to make a connection. Or, perhaps your class wants to start a project and is looking for partners to join them. There are many places to try, but concentrate on one and be persistent. You never know where you and your students may find that special new friendship that can last a lifetime!

(This one is for you, my dear friend, Rawya!)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

History, Geography, and Environmental Studies

On a recent trip to northern New Mexico, I found myself in a thought provoking situation. We spent the first part of a day visiting Bandelier National Monument, hiking the canyons and cliffs that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people. The beauty of the natural surroundings were breathtaking and imagining life in that setting without modern civilization was inspiring. That afternoon we traveled to nearby Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was the site of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bombs that were used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Visiting museums and learning about that terrible time in human history was a stark contrast to the morning visit to Bandelier. The reflection that resulted remains in my mind even today. 

One specific understanding I have reached is that many people today do not feel the same need to honor and respect the land as did the native people. An obvious reason is that we no longer depend on our immediate environment to support our lives. Goods and materials from around the globe are easily obtainable for shelter and clothing. Our food source is the local supermarket. We can easily take our world for granted. 

The lesson idea this week is closely linked to that experience. The study of Native People is a topic that captures the interests of most students. Interwoven in their story are invaluable lessons about geography, habitats, natural resources, and environment. While this is not a new idea and is part of many curriculums, there are a vast number of resources available. I will share those I used.

Although the lesson I created was for second graders in the United States, most of the ideas can be modified or adapted for older students or those in another country as well. The lessons for my students followed a study of our local habitats as they pertain to wildlife as well as social studies lessons about basic needs. Making the connection to the effect of habitat on people is quite easy to do when teaching about history and the lives of our ancient native people. We always began with mapping and a geography lesson about our country. In addition to small individual maps, one of the key elements to the unit was a large class created relief map:

Our map was made with a mixture of 1 cup of any brand powdered laundry detergent (the least expensive and scent-free) to 1/2 cup liquid starch. Add powdered tempera paint or food coloring for the color. I covered a table with plastic, then taped a large piece of butcher paper with the map outline over the plastic. The students worked together to color in bodies of water, and the connecting countries of Mexico and Canada. We looked at relief maps online, traced in mountain ranges and the desert region. Students used wadded up paper towels and masking tape to build up mountain ranges. After mixing the detergent, liquid starch, and coloring in a large bowl, each child took a turn covering the land with the thick mixture. Leaving the desert uncovered to be filled in with glue and sprinkled with sand. To illustrate forested regions, the kids cut double-sided green triangles and glued them over straight pins to be stuck into the woodland and mountain regions of our map. The map became the focus of our learning and included a compass rose and map key.

We used four geographic locations and the Native Americans who lived there to learn about the variety of land and habitats in our large country. The Woodlands, Great Plains, Desert Southwest, and the Northwest Coastal regions were our targets. We learned how the people of each region met their basic needs with the resources found in their environment. For each region we watched videos, read nonfiction articles as well as Native American legends, stories, and poems, created a craft, tasted a food, and wrote a report. The reports, poems, pictures, and maps were gathered into a student made book to be taken home at the conclusion of the unit.

One of the most beneficial parts of the learning was the use of video I originally obtained from United Streaming. Re-enactment videos are rich resources for young children. The ability to visualize helps them comprehend written accounts and details. I have since located the videos I used on Youtube. They are available at no cost. Each video can be divided up into shorter sections for discussion. I did not include the portions at the end telling about the arrival of the Europeans and the conflicts that resulted. For the purpose of these lessons we were focused on the land and how it was used to meet the needs of the native peoples. We did talk about the end of the Native American way of life at the end of our study, but not as we learned about each region. Preview the videos to decide which parts are relevant for your lesson targets. Here are the links:

Our crafts were related to learning from the videos and reading. There are many possible choices. We created birch bark baskets for the Woodlands, teepees for the Plains, kachina dolls for the Desert, and totem poles for the Northwest Coastal region. The links to crafts here are only examples. Check Pinterest for other ideas.

The National Museum of the American Indian has a wonderful website with ready made projects for middle school students. It highlights the current day stories of Native Americans in four regions as they tell about environmental problems affecting their land. 

The National Park Service also has a variety of related resources for all ages that connect to this lesson. Ready made lessons and informative passages can be found at the site. One example for older students is a lesson titled Who Uses the Land? For younger students a great resource is Deciphering Pictograph Messages.  Although we are not able to visit the National Parks, we can benefit from their educational resources.

I have also used expert sessions through Skype in the Classroom to take virtual field trips with my class. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody Wyoming has a beautiful Skype session about the Plains Indians. 

More Than Moccasins is a valuable resource for teaching young children as well. 

Finally, take time to extend the lesson into a project-based experience. There were native people all over our land. Which ones lived in your region? How can your students show honor and respect for those who first lived in your location? How can they help preserve the history and preserve the land where you live?

Through these lessons focused on history, geography, and the environment, children will hopefully gain a greater appreciation of the land around them. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Music - A Key to Learning!

Mastery and transfer is, or should be, the goal of all learning. Teachers, after all, do not spend time planning and teaching only for students to simply learn, pass a test, and disregard information. At least one would hope that is not the case! For learning to move to mastery and transfer, however, students must be able to quickly and fluently recall and apply that which they have learned. I believe that one key to learning concepts and information for instant recall is music!

I am not a singer. Not that I don't enjoy singing, but others, perhaps, would not enjoy listening to me sing! That, however, did not keep music from my classroom. One quite valuable resource for using music with my students was an album called All Around Us by singer, songwriter, and my friend,  John Farrell.

The album contains ready to use songwriting tracks called "Sing, Write, & Learn". Through the use of the tracks your students can create a song for any learning! There is even a track explaining how to use them and tracks with examples created by the artist and children in a classroom. The entire album can be purchased and downloaded (or purchased in CD form) for $9. You can even purchase it as a gift and have it delivered via email to a friend.

Here is one example created by my second graders, telling facts about owls. Sometime after creating the song, we were on an outdoor ed field trip when a naturalist asked my kids what they knew about owls. They began sharing facts and it didn't take long for me to realize they were sharing them in the order they were recorded on their song! The track is called "What's So Great About...?" and can be purchased individually for only $1 if you would like to give this idea a try:

The process is really quite simple (more so now even, than when I used these tracks with my students! There is also a tutorial on the actual album called "Introduction to Songwriting Tracks");
  • Choose a learning concept or topic or question needing an answer. That becomes the title and theme of the song.
  • Students use research skills to gather facts. (There is the standard!)
  • Students apply writing skills to form well written factual statements. (Another standard!)
  • Working together, the class decides which statements to include in the song and in which order they should appear. Timing becomes important and the class will need to plan order and presentation to fit the musical track. (Collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving!)
  • Create the chorus.
  • The entire class rehearses the chorus, while individual students practice reading their lines with fluency and timing.
  • Enjoy the song!
  • If you would like to make it permanent, download and record the musical track to your digital device. One example would be the use of iMovie which allows multiple audio tracks along with a video track where you can add images. 
  • Practice singing the song along with the track until you have the timing down. Record, add images, and share! Posting to Youtube allows your class to share their work with the world!
Sharing with the world may seem a bit lofty as a goal, but the following video was also created by my second graders and they did just that! After watching a global online event by TakingITGlobal, about the orangutans in Borneo, my students wanted to learn more. We invited our superintendent, who had worked in an International School in Borneo, to speak to the class. They researched in books and online to learn about the issues. One site they found particularly interesting and helpful was Orangutan Outreach. As they learned, they felt the need to take action. It was one of John Farrell's songwriting tracks that became their strategy. The kids created the following video to post for the world (This track is called "Welcome to the World"):

They had contacted Orangutan Outreach for permission to use images from their site, and sent a link to the video when it was posted to Youtube. Orangutan Outreach posted their video on the website and gave the kids a free orangutan adoption so they could follow the story of a young orangutan. We also posted the video on Twitter and our website. The kids received feedback from around the world. This project is still a favorite memory of the kids who experienced it. I believe music was the key.

Another track on the album is called "I Wonder What We'd See?" and would work perfectly for any habitat or geographical study. Although there are examples and ideas for the use of the tracks, they are limited only by your students' imaginations and creativity. Music is one of the best ways to connect learning to memory, achieving mastery and transfer. And, perhaps most important of all, it makes learning fun! Please don't leave the fun out of teaching and school! 
There are many resources for adding music into your classroom. If you have not used the resources created by John Farrell, you will not regret taking time to explore. His sites include not only links to download the songs, but also lyrics and sheet music. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Taking on a local environmental challenge...

Early in my teaching career, a local naturalist told me something on a second grade field trip that stuck with me through the rest of my teaching years. She said many classrooms teach about faraway places like the rainforest or polar regions, but many forget to emphasize the local habitats and environment. Through an understanding of their own backyard, children build the concepts and background knowledge required to really attain global awareness and understand global issues. There is, perhaps, no better way for students to learn than to actually experience learning in the real world around them. Authentic projects tied to the world they see everyday are invaluable, especially for young children. Add in experts as teachers beyond the typical classroom and the learning multiplies as children begin to understand point of view, critical thinking, problem solving, and the need for collaboration. Local environmental problems present valuable opportunities for students to not only learn, but to engage in solving real world problems. In 2010, my second graders took on a local problem with great success! Their work was the result of two timely events. The first was a growing debate in our community over how to manage the growing population of deer living in our city limits. The deer were causing destruction to yards and the local people were asking for something to be done about the problem. The second event was a live online webcast from Shout Learning, a collaboration between the Smithsonian, Microsoft, and TakingITglobal. My students joined the webcast called "Forests and Deer: Requirements for Conservation" hosted by Dr. Bill McShea, wildlife ecologist for the Smithsonian. Although the webcast addressed the negative impact of too many deer in the eastern forests, as the children listened to the speaker online, they began to make connections to what was happening in our town. From the connections came questions and a project was born. Could they actually develop a solution for our community?

The answer to the problem could not be found in a textbook and I, as their teacher, could not supply the information they needed. Instead, we turned to other resources. Experts representing the two sides of the issue were invited to class. The mayor spoke about community concerns and decisions. A Division of Wildlife officer spoke to the class about conservation and protection of wildlife. In addition, the kids researched the problem and discovered that our small town problem was a growing issue in towns across the country. The class used Twitter to seek help from other locations. Using the hashtag #comments4kids, we posted links to our blog video requests for help. Answers came from as far away as England offering suggestions. 

Ultimately, the class arrived at a solution that might help our community. They published their advice in a brochure that was distributed throughout our town. We posted the project on both the Shout Learning website and the ePals website. As a result, the children's work was featured in a Smithsonian in Your Classroom publication. You can access and download the publication by clicking on the link. 


The publication contains step by step suggestions for recreating a similar project with your students. The process always begins, however, with identifying an environmental problem in your own backyard. What is the problem? What are the causes? What are possible solutions? 
  • Research
  • Organize your thoughts
  • Turn to the experts
  • Turn to the community
  • Listen to the children and help them see that this world belongs to them!

Shout Learning is no longer active, but you can still watch the archived webcasts. There are many websites that provide information about environmental issues for students. TakingITglobal and Design for Change are two possibilities. The Smithsonian is about to unveil its new learning resource called the Smithsonian Learning Lab as well. The possibilities are endless. Engage your students in learning with a real world problem! You never know what might happen!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Monster Project: Collaborative Descriptive Writing!

Photo by Michelle Balleck - Craig Daily Press

October is the perfect month to inspire children to practice descriptive writing! Describing jack o'lanterns, Halloween costumes, or nocturnal animals were all favorite assignments for my first or second graders. The all-time favorite, however, was always The Monster Project

This writing assignment requires partners for collaboration. We used international pen pal partners, but the project can be just as easily and effectively completed with partners in the next classroom or a school across town. The steps are simple:
  • Prior to the project it is helpful, depending on the age of the children, to review geometric shapes, directional words, prepositions, and adjectives.
  • Each child draws a monster. 
  • Next, the child writes a detailed description of their monster, explaining how to draw it.
  • The descriptions only (no pictures) are given to another student. Possible partners might be another child in the class, students from another class in your school, students from another school in town, or distant pen pal partners.
  • The student receiving the description, recreates the monster.
  • The recreated monster drawing is returned to the original student for comparison to their original drawing.
My class exchanged their descriptions with pen pal friends in other countries. We used a wiki for posting the project. Each class had a page on which they posted their descriptions. The receiving class uploaded their redrawn monsters. The originating class then upload the original drawings for all to see. The examples below were from an exchange between our class in Colorado and a class in Beirut, Lebanon:

Such a simple idea to get kids writing with an authentic audience!

Here are links to some of our monster project results from years past. We, at times, had partners who did not speak or write the same language. Wikispaces allowed the students to write in their own language and translate the postings of their friends:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Fall Poetry Writing With Kinect-tions!


 Poetry writing is a standard for most grade levels, but what happens when you combine it with an outdoor experience, an art project, and avatar creation? Kids engage, excite, and create! Don't be scared away by the technology... there are several layers to this lesson idea. You can omit or change the technology to fit your available tools!    

One of my favorite times of the year, fall offers the opportunity for children to use their senses to observe change. Sensory writing, like poetry, is best when it is based on actual experiences. I liked to take my second graders outside on the perfect day. (Some spontaneity is required to make this happen as weather and nature do not always follow a lesson plan book!) The first frost, the appearance of color in the surrounding trees, the angry cloud morning, worms on the playground escaping the rain in the grass, or any other notable outdoor event make for fabulous descriptive vocabulary development! With pencils and notebooks in hand, we took our learning out to the playground to gather ideas and words for our poetry. Our school was fortunate to have an arboretum where the kids could observe a variety of trees and shrubs, but any outdoor setting will do! Children rarely stand silently still on a playground. Asking them to do so almost always leads to big ah-ha's! A bit of silence with eyes closed allows children to notice sounds and smells they may not otherwise notice. Still bodies feel the wind or chill on exposed skin. Eyes take in great detail when bodies and voices are quiet. After each experience, we took time to share what we noticed and jot down some ideas in our notebooks, stretching to move beyond simple words like wind and cold, to more specific descriptive words. Brainstorming together helps build everyone's vocabulary.  

In addition to descriptive sensory words, we practiced the use of poetic devices. In second grade, we worked with metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. After learning and practicing in the classroom, we moved outdoors to try out the devices when describing nature. Working with partners, the kids took time to sit quietly, touch, and experience nature while writing poetic phrases in their notebooks. At the end of the time, we gathered in a circle on the grass for sharing. Stretching them a bit further, I would point to something like a bird flying by, or a seed on a bush and ask them to think of an example for each poetic device. They were as delighted with themselves as I was when they realized how beautiful and descriptive their words could become!

Back in the classroom, poetry writing was ignited as they could not wait to paint a picture with their words! Although it often feels like there is never enough time at school, it is critically important to allow enough time for children to brainstorm and build thoughts and ideas. The time spent outdoors practicing, led to engagement within the class. I would never leave that part out!
Here are some samples of the resulting second grade fall poetry:

It is almost impossible for children to spend time outdoors in the fall without collecting leaves! In first grade, we had a scavenger hunt for specific colors and types of leaves. While gathering details for our poems in second grade, we also gathered colorful artifacts to bring back to the classroom. Once poems were written, we used leaves to make pictures based on the marvelous book, Look What I Did With A Leaf! by Morteza E. Sohi: 
I frequently used art as an incentive for writing. When students looked forward to artistic creation, they willingly worked hard on their written creations as well. This project was a favorite! I have to admit, that over the years, I found a way to make this much easier! Although the children collected bags of colorful leaves, we did not use the actual leaves for our artwork. That inevitably led to dry crumbly pictures that would not last. Instead, we scanned the leaves on a color copier and printed out pages of paper leaves for the children to use in their artwork. The results were fabulous and long lasting: 
The lesson could easily end right there! Adding one more element, however, takes this lesson over the top for kids and ensures they remember the learning for a long time! Using an Xbox 360 Kinect in my classroom, they children were able to record themselves reading their own poetry as an avatar! I had a Kinect system permanently in my classroom (I will share other uses in future blog posts!), but we also had one in our school that could be easily moved from class to class. If your children have one at home, it can also be brought in for a project as well.

Avatar Kinect is found on Xbox Live online. Click on the links to find the download for the game. As always, it is important to remember that you, the teacher, do not have to know how to do this. I will never forget struggling to teach my second graders how to create the avatars while they listened patiently. Just before the moment of frustration overcame me, I realized my huge error! Turning to the children, I asked if anyone knew how to do it. Hands shot in the air and I, chuckling to myself, quickly turned that part over to the kids. They helped each other with the game and recording of the poems. I turned my attention to children who needed help with their writing. We do not need to be the experts at technology! The kids need to be the experts!

The final result? Here is the work my second graders completed that delightful fall: