Monday, June 27, 2016

Getting Kids to Organize and Record Their Math Thinking

Even though I teach gifted kids, I run into trouble getting kids to show their thinking as they work some of the demanding math tasks I set them. Notice I didn't say showing their work. I encourage mental math, so I don't need kids to write out their arithmetic, unless they're practicing a brand-new skill. Besides, that's not what these tasks are for.

It's not always easy to find problems that require these kids to stop and organize their thinking. I use problems from the Math Olympiad Contest Problems (Find it here.) to provide enough challenge to make my students stop and think about strategy. Monday through Thursday, one of the math centers is a challenge problem. The next day, we engage in a whole class Math Talk to look at answers and strategies. They drive my fourth graders (who are in the first year of the gifted program) nuts, particularly, because they're so focused on getting done and being first that accuracy can get kicked to the curb. It takes a while to learn that doing it twice is frustrating and relatively uncool and that taking time to organize their thinking before engaging in endless (and often inaccurate) guess-and-checking saves a bunch of time and trouble in the long run.  

Having gone through this process, my fifth graders have learned that stopping to look for patterns, math rules, and strategies is the way to go. They think the problems are fun and do a really good job with them. 

Students for both classes turn in a sheet on Friday with one of the week's problems documented. They are required to provide a visual representation along with the steps of their thinking and proof that they're correct. It looks like this:
Yep. It's pretty simple. My fifth graders are also pretty adept at choosing a visual representation that helps them organize their thinking. This is the anchor that's in the room:

So, in all, teaching kids to organize and record their math thinking takes:
1. Challenging problems. If the problems are too easy, the students have no real reason to bother with other representations and no authentic need to document their thinking.
2. Time. Time to work and wrestle with a challenging problem, time to discuss their ideas, and time to bump their butts and learn the hard way.
3. Opportunities to talk with the greater group about what they did and how they did it, which also gives them chances to see others' strategies.
4. Time. (See number 2.)
5. Knowing that at least one of the problems will be graded, but having some choice about which that is.
6. Consistency and, oh yeah, time.

I hope you'll find these tips useful! Don't forget to pin the anchor chart so you can make yourself one!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Woo-Hoo! The Notice and Note Signposts for Nonfiction Are Officially a Thing!

Yes, it's sad what gets me all excited, but this one's worth it.

Year before last, I found the Notice and Note Signposts:Strategies for Close Reading while looking for a way to add to my bag of reading strategies, especially since I teach kids for two years. It's absolutely awesome! It helps kids see, very clearly, what makes an event, idea, or even a phrase in a piece of text important. That's not an easy skill to teach, but it's one that's way valuable to our students. Seriously, it's worth every penny.

So, when I found out that a version for Nonfiction reading was in the works, I made sure that Amazon would be sending me one on release day. And then life happened.

I skimmed it, but didn't take time to actually read it until this week. Yes, it's as useful as the first, and it isn't just an echo or a redux. The authors have given us a new and unique set of signposts (One is repeated from the original, but with a different take that fits nonfiction.) that will help kids question the text and understand what's important and why.

When it came time to use the original book in my classroom, I created a set of interactive notebook pages to make it easy for my kids to keep the information close all year. I put together a set for the nonfiction signposts, too.

Pin them so you can find them later!

Oh... here's a link to some free, beautiful, colorful bookmarks for the Fiction Signposts I printed for my kids this year. Found these at
Ladybug's Teacher Files Blog

Have fun getting to know the signposts!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Pimp My Unit: The Westing Game

This off-season, I've decided that most of my reading units need an overhaul. They're not awful, but they don't pull things together as well as they could. This unit is for my fifth grade gifted reading class, so it would serve for sharp fifth graders or for sixth graders.

I've spent some time working with the Understanding by Design model, and I like what I see. The question to begin with it, "What do I want my kids to be able to do?"

Enter The Westing Game, one of the most awesome mystery stories from childhood. I've been using it to teach mystery genre, but there's a lot more going on in that book. A whole lot more. There are themes of need, love and redemption running throughout, all of which warrant a closer look.
Oh, yeah,it's also a lot of fun!

What do I want my kids to be able to do? To recognize, as they get ready for middle school, that people's behavior is driven by need, or, more specifically, unmet needs. I want them to see that the need and its ensuing behavior creates cycles,some of which are unhealthy, both in literature and IRL.

So, I set my central theme as 'need' with my understanding as 'Need drives behavior.' Next, what can my kids do at the end, that they couldn't have done before, to show that they get it? I've picked two things:
1. Create a podcast, using the cast of characters of their book club books, in which the main character and important minor characters are interviewed and they explain how a need left them stuck in a cycle and how the cycle was broken.
2. Create a piece of realistic fiction in which the protagonist's behavior shows cyclic patterns of unmet need and breaking that cycle.

The reading I set should lead them to the central understanding, so we're  not reading a bunch of mysteries, but working with text that introduces those cycles.

So, with the Westing Game, I'm pairing:
Jack Prelutsky's haiku, "If Not for the Cat"
with it goes the poetry web I made. Snag it here. They'll also do a vocabulary web with 'scarcity'. Find that here.

Before we move on, I'm going to introduce them to Maslow's Hierarchy of need. Remember that from ed psych? It will help them make sense of what we're seeing as we go. This is almost kid-friendly. I'm going to have to doctor it up just a little before putting it on the riso. I totally get that sexual intimacy is on the hierarchy; I just don't feel like dealing with the giggles.

I've put together a Jacob's Ladder for it. Find it here.

Other poems I'm using:
Langston Hughes' "Harlem"  ( A lot of people know this as "A Dream Deferred") I've created a Jacob's Ladder for it. We'll do a vocabulary web for 'defer'.
Angela Johnson's "The Other Side" we'll do a poetry web with it.
In pairs, the kids will compare and contrast two very different poems about the same idea.

I'm pulling excerpts from:
A Long Walk to Water - Two first person accounts, one, a girl in present-day Sudan, the other from one of the Lost Boys of the '80s. I'll pull the first chapter and have the kids annotate and another excerpt in which the protagonist is torn between giving some of his water to a dying man or to keep it for himself. (His uncle intervenes.) From that, the kids will do a blog post.

Bad Boy: A Memoir  Walter Dean Myers' memoir of growing up in Harlem. I'm pulling two excerpts that show the cyclic pattern of unfulfilled need and behavior and how two teachers helped him to break that cycle.

We'll watch:
God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary about several of the Lost Boys, grow to young men in refugee camps and moving to America. There are a very few small bits I zip past; you might want to preview it before using it.

With younger kids, you could also watch Lilo and Stitch. They're stuck in a behavior rut, too.

Book Club Choices:
 Before we wrap up the book clubs to get ready for creating our podcasts, we'll do a Socratic Seminar. The central question will be the central understanding, "How does need drive behavior?" to make sure we're all on the same page-ish before beginning our projects.

I'm scoping out about 25 days for this unit. I think it will lay a good foundation for the rest of the year. 

I hope you find this useful and a new way of thinking about an awesome book. 
Remember to pin this so you can find it again!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Poetry Web Freebie

It's the off-season! I spend a lot of the first few weeks of summer retooling the units I thought could be better. I did a lot with math last year, and it's time for my reading units to get a makeover.

As a gifted-ed teacher, I do a lot of work with concepts. Our county uses two of the William and Mary units, and as a whole, I like them. One thing I haven't liked, though, is that the literature webs that come with the units aren't differentiated from prose to poetry, and that leaves out a lot of the whole point of poetry. So I made one of my own.
Click on the image to snag a copy!
I gave a good bit of the page to space for drawing the central image, because poetry is supposed to create pictures in our minds with few words. I also added space for identifying sound devices.
What gave me fits was adding the little connecting lines in Photoshop since the boxes are so tight, and I'll either ignore them or grab a Sharpie before I run copies on the Riso. 

I hope you find this helpful.
Wishing you a productive off-season!
 Remember to pin this to help out your teacher friends!