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.