23 Appropriate Books to Challenge Young Readers

Has your young student’s reading level exceeded their grade level? Having trouble finding texts that are challenging but still age-appropriate? We’re here to help you find that “just right” book. Below are 23 texts with upper grade difficulty, but lower grade interest and appropriateness. (Fountas-Pinnell Levels Q-U, interest grades 1-3).

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23 Guiding Questions to Make Student-Led Conferences More Informative

So you’ve decided to implement student-led conferences.  Congratulations!  You are well on your way to empowering students to own their 21st century learning.  If you’re still new to the process (or want fresh ideas), be sure to begin with our student-led conference practical starter guide and resources.


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How to Spark Joy & Individualize Students’ Needs with Guided Math

After boring both my students and myself with largely direct instruction math for a couple of years, I decided to try guided math. The results?  Increases in interest, one-on-one time, student initiative, and just plain joy in math learning.


Why Guided Math?

Most math programs are still set up in very traditional, teacher-centered constructs.  In the name of “offering support,” some even provide scripts!  This is typically followed by a barrage of worksheets. Then quiz tomorrow. Spiral review. Repeat.

Perhaps the monotony would be worthwhile if we all become mathematically literate adults, but this does not seem to be the case. As the National Center for Education Statistics keeps confirming in surveys conducted since the 1980’s, most Americans’ math skills remain lacking:

It’s time to look outside the box of traditional math education in order to foster life-long mathematical illiteracy!

Overview

_Untitled-1 via Flickr
_Untitled-1 via Flickr

One day, while complaining to another teacher about how I’d started hating the sound of my own voice, she introduced me to guided math.  What I found most intriguing:

  • The use of math “stations,” even for older students
  • The possibility of teaching lessons to small groups (4-8 students at a time)
  • Easier access to limited math manipulatives
  • More time for individual students to receive what they need most, whether it’s practice, instruction, or extension projects.

I started literally the next day.

And while it took longer than that to refine my approach, the beauty of guided math is you can easily adapt your school’s math program to its structure.

Set-Up

  • Time Needed: 1 to 1 ½ hours block
  • Breakdown:
    • Warm Up (first 5-15 minutes): Number Talks were one of my favorite ways to warm up (see this 3-page pdf for more details). At the end of warm-up time, write or project on the board any materials students may need to bring to each station.
    • Stations time (45-60 minutes): Students either rotate among or choose stations.
    • Wrap Up (last 5-15 minutes): Allow students to share any mathematical discoveries they noticed.
  • Stations Ideas:
    • Mini-lesson: This becomes a much more flexible idea than simply delivering lessons to the whole class. Some options:
      • The teacher works with small groups with math manipulatives, individual whiteboards, or other resources that are difficult to share/manage in larger groups.
      • Set up a computer with a video on the concept of the day from free video databases like LearnZillion or Khan Academy.  See a fantastic example of how a 4th grade colleague of mine uses her classroom blog to direct students to the video she selects (they have the additional convenience of checking out a mobile lab for the entire class during math).  The video option can be especially helpful on days that you need to have one-on-one math conferences with students.
    • Practice: Students try out concepts learned within the unit or the lesson of the day.
    • Fluency: Students work on math facts with flash cards, games, and/or websites like this one. I would sometimes have them record their progress on spreadsheets like this one.
    • Activity: Math board games, challenge projects, digital games from your class blog, or even blogging their math understanding using Educreations! Especially effective if you have parent volunteers available to help support!
    • Reflection: Students record their math thinking and processes in journals.
  • Choose a Structure: Rotations vs. Choice
    • Rotations: Divide your students into 3-5 groups (mixed or leveled based on benchmarks, quizzes, or daily formative assessments). Take the length of math block time, subtract 10 minutes for whole-class time at the beginning and end.
    • Choice: Right after Warm-Up, take a status of the class, asking your students which 1-2 stations they will be working on that day and why. You may choose to require all students to select the mini-lesson and/or practice stations each day before choice time, but that depends on your students’ needs!
    • Don’t be afraid to try out both options a couple of times! Ask students to notice successes and issues, and to be ready to report back during the wrap up or weekly class meeting.  Give them the opportunity to solve problems, and they will surprise you!
  • Model, Model, Model!

Troubleshooting Guide

  • Issue: Students become off-task at the game and/or fluency station
    • Possible Solution: Ask for parents to volunteer during guided math, either to help check off, help students with their practice, or even to bring a math game to share with groups!  You can also simply consider the location of your stations.
  • Issue: Students don’t get to every station every day
    • Possible Solution: That’s ok! If you’re doing rotations, just cut out one or two of the stations you’re using.  If you’re doing choice time, just have them choose 1 station a day beyond the mini-lesson and practice.
  • Issue: Instruction time not long enough
    • Possible Solution:  If you don’t find a LearnZillion or Khan Academy video you like, make a video of yourself teaching the concept!  Not only can it help you say things more succinctly and briefly, but your students can individually pause, rewind, and rewatch as many times as they need to.
  • Issue: Students don’t have enough time to finish worksheets in the practice portion.
    • Possible Solution: Become a more careful curator of your resources–sure, your manual assigns 38 problems to practice adding fractions, but is that really what your students need most today? Or do they really just need to practice the 4 problems that involve mixed numbers? Or maybe, they need you to design a challenge activity that gets them thinking more about the concepts behind fractions.  Never assume that the math textbook knows more about your students’ daily needs than you do!

Any other questions, tips, or experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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Student-Led Conferences: Practical Guide & Resources

Have you ever felt parent teacher conferences become a blur of shallow compliments and trite suggestions?  Have you ever worried about the quality of students’ involvement?  Do you want parents to gain more meaningful insight on how their children spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week?  Then consider shifting to student led conferences!


Background

After a couple years of traditional parent teacher conferences, I began to doubt their value.  Attendance was patchy, and the bulk of meetings that did take place often felt inconsequential.  Given the vast expenditure of time and energy in preparations, conferences generally seemed to yield trivial returns–goals quickly forgotten, behavior largely unchanged, and work samples simply discarded.  All that changed when my school introduced student-led conferences.

Step-by-Step Guide

Note that this is geared toward upper-elementary.  However, it can easily be adapted for younger and older students–our entire school adopted student-led conferences. 

Stage #1: Introduce Student-Led Conferences to Students (Estimated time: 30 min)
  • Kathy Cassidy
    Kathy Cassidy

    Give a labeled folder to each student to keep conference materials organized.

  • Hand out the “During Conference Checklist” students will use.  With this, students should:
    • Write down 2 items or areas of the classroom they want to share during the first part of conferences.
    • Write down their current feelings about reading, writing, math, and behavior.
    • Choose a writing and math sample. (I had my students keep their portfolios on blogs, so I gave them the option to present digital samples as well).
  • Give students their report cards, progress reports, and/or other records that are to be shared during conferences.  Let them know they need to be familiar with everything on it, so to ask for clarification as needed.
Stage #2: Make Goals (Estimated time: 45 min.)
  • Brainstorm as a class possible areas for improvement in math, reading, writing, and behavior.
  • Teach class about writing goals according to your school or grade level standards.  Our team used SMART goals (s=specific, m=measurable, a=attainable, r=relevant, t=time-bound).  I also like Kath Murdoch’s idea of 1-word goal-making.
  • Have them write 1 goal for each subject area on the brainstorming sheet and turn them in.
  • Give back to students to write their final goals after you have reviewed them.
Stage #3: Meet with each student (est. time: 5 min. per student)
  • Make sure their conference folder has all required items in order (I gave each student this list to organize their work.  I also post it on the whiteboard, and have students sign up to meet with me once their folders are completely ready).
  • Double-check the finalized goals.
  • If your grading system has a “social skills” or behavior field, consider having the student self-grade with you.  Have a discussion on what each grade means (ie, 4 means “I rarely need reminders or help in this area,” 3 means “I sometimes need reminders and I could work on this area,” etc.).  Not only have I found that students are often harder on themselves than I am, but the increased ownership better prepares them for sometimes tough conversations with their parents.
  • Go over the “During Conference” checklist together.  Discuss any questions on how to present each area.
Stage #4: Final Preparations
  • Send letters home to parents from teacher and/or from students to prepare them for student-led conferences. If you want to provide questions in advance to help prepare parents, students, and yourself, check out our printable Student-Led Conferences Guided Questions list!
  • Have students practice going over their checklist with a classmate (tell them they can leave out sensitive items like their report cards).  Use a stopwatch to give them a realistic idea of the timeframe.
Stage #5: After Conference Tips

Student and Parent Response

After each conference, I surveyed parents and students.  Below is some of the feedback I frequently received.

Meme
Meme Binge

Students loved:

  • Removing the frightening anticipation of grown-ups discussing unknown issues during conferences (avoiding situations such as the one on the right).
  • The opportunity to “show off” some of the things they were most proud of.
  • How professional they felt as they took the lead.

Parents loved:

  • How knowledgeable students were about their own progress and responsibilities.
  • Students taking the lead with the teacher helping where needed.
  • How students explained their report cards themselves.
  • The pride and ownership students took in showing their work.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Time allocations: Make sure there’s plenty of time for parents to ask questions and have further, informative discussions as needed!
  • Inadequate student practice: Let students practice at least 2 times in class.  This will help them with both confidence and purposeful time management.
  • Inadequate student organization: Use the conference folder items list to go through every item as an entire class one more time right before conferences start.
  • Hesitation to Jump In: One parent voiced concern that problems were sugar-coated, and that she could not speak freely because of the student’s presence.  Let your students know beforehand that in order for conferences to be effective, everyone needs to be 100% on the same page, and that you will redirect the conversation if necessary.
  • Unengaging Parent Homework: At first, we assigned parents to write a letter to their children reflecting on their feelings about the conference.  However, very few parents completed the assignment.  We switched to emailing a Google Form survey for them to share feedback on conferences.  Some of the questions we asked included:
    • What made you feel proud?
    • Do you feel your student’s goals match the areas in which he/she can improve?  If not, what are additional areas in which you feel he/she can improve?
    • How can you help your student remember and succeed at his/her goals at home?

List of Resources Linked Throughout:

Photo Credit: 

Featured Image: Claire Burge

Kathy Cassidy

Meme Binge

5 Ways to Make Veteran’s Day Meaningful

Veteran’s Day is observed on November 11 each year, the anniversary of the day World War I ended.  Help your students to truly appreciate our veterans’ sacrifices by selecting one or more of the ideas listed here.


#1: Gallery Wall of Veteran Photos

Author's Great-Uncle Milton Brown
Author’s Great-Uncle Milton Brown

On Veteran’s Day, ask your students to bring a photo of a veteran they know.  It could be a parent, aunt, cousin, great-grandfather, or even a neighbor.  Have students bring the following:

  • An 8×10 copy of their veteran’s photo
  • An index card with information that includes:
    • Veteran’s name
    • Student’s name & relationship to veteran
    • Term of service
    • Branch of service and rank
    • Country for which the veteran served
    • Any notable information about the service

Keep the photos posted in your halls for a few weeks–not only does this beautifully honor those who have served, but it also is perfect to renew the feelings of gratitude that we seek to magnify throughout the Thanksgiving season.

#2: Poppies & Poetry

Poppies are a classic, but not all your students may be aware of their significance. Choose a way to share “In Flanders Fields” with your students, whether you simply read the text and background, watch a video, or show a picture book.  (Alternatively, share Cheryl Dyson’s poem for a piece suited for very young audiences).  Then, ask students to find meaningful ways they can express their understanding and appreciation for this poem:

#3: Letters to Soldiers

Have students write letters expressing gratitude to a soldier.  Mail these to soldiers at your closest military base or visit websites like Operation Gratitude.  Students could also share their pieces created in the above Poppies & Poetry activity.

#4: Introduce the Veteran’s History Project

The Battle of Đắk Tô was a series of major engagements of the Vietnam War that took place between November 3 to 22, 1967, in Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). At 09:43 on 19 November, the three companies (330 men) of 2/503 moved into jumpoff positions from which to assault Hill 875. Charlie and Delta companies moved up the slope followed by two platoons of Alpha Company in the classic "two up one back" formation utilized since World War I. The Weapons Platoon of Alpha remained behind at the bottom of the hill to cut out a landing zone. Instead of a frontal assault with massed troops, the unit would have been better served by advancing small teams to develop possible North Vietnamese positions and then calling in air and artillery support.  At 10:30, as the Americans moved to within 300 meters of the crest, PAVN machine gunners opened fire on the advancing paratroopers. Then B-40 rockets and 57mm recoilless rifle fire were unleashed upon them. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the North Vietnamese, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. The American advance was halted and the men went to ground, finding whatever cover they could. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault on Alpha Company. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th PAVN Regiment. The men of Alpha Company retreated up the slope, lest they be cut off from their comrades and annihilated. They were closely followed by the North Vietnamese. All that prevented the company-strength North Vietnamese onslaught from overrunning the entire battalion was the heroic efforts of American paratroopers who stood their ground and died to buy time for their comrades. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of th
Robert Couse-Baker

This project was started by Congress in 2000, and is sponsored by AARP.  The goal is to “collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”  As a class, you could:

  • Discuss the interview questions listed in the Field Kit, and practice interview skills in class.
  • Complete the VHP preparations as a class:
    • 15-minute Field Kit Companion Video
    • Search the collections database
    • Print forms
    • Register for the VHP RSS feed (and add to your class blog if you have one!)
  • Locate a veteran to interview (either a student’s family member or someone found in a local veterans service organization), then hold the interview in class if he or she can make it, or by phone.
  • While volunteer student interviewers must be 10th graders or older, younger students can participate in interviewing family members.  Additionally, donations are welcome, so your class could alternatively hold a fundraiser for the project!

#5: Favorite Videos

 

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