Fix Letter Reversals with Mr. db!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Many of my young students struggle with letter reversals.  B and d reversals are the two I see the most, but p and q reversals show up often as well.  Discriminating between b and d can be a really hard skill for beginning writers to grasp. So, if your students' sentences look like this: "I have a dig dlack bog," or "The doy plays daseball," I might be able to help.  Introducing, Mr. db!

 I learned this strategy way way back when I was substitute teaching during my college vacations, so I can't take any credit for the idea.  A kindergarten teacher had a hand-drawn poster of Mr. db up in her classroom.  I was fascinated by the way the students looked up at the poster for help during their writing centers.  That trick stuck with me, and I've used it whenever I have students struggling with letter reversals. Since that time way back in Mrs. Hart's kindergarten, I've given Mr. db a friend named Miss qp.

Once I see a chronic letter reversal problem, I introduce Mr. db and/or Miss qp, and I post them in plain sight for my students to see.  They become classroom mascots, and the students enjoy making up stories about their adventures.  

My little old hand-drawn classroom poster finally faded away over the summer, so I made myself an updated version.  I want you to have it, too!  I created a blank list for students to keep on their desks or in their writing folders, too.  You can grab the posters and worksheet here, for free! 

If your students are struggling with letter reversals, I hope this trick can help them!

Small Group Classroom Management Ideas

Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Whether you're deep into the school year or just starting, classroom management is an integral part of ensuring student success.  A professor I had once said that teaching is "70% classroom management and 30% instruction." That sounds like a lot, but I believe it! I'm the kind of teacher who thrives on routine, structure, and practiced procedures with my small groups.  In my small group pull-out classes, maintaining consistency means everyone knows what to expect at all times, allowing our short instructional time to run smoothly.

It's easy to decide on a group strategy at the beginning of the year, but once you meet your students you may find your needs have changed. That's happened to me so many times! There are also years where I introduce a new strategy halfway through the year.  Most years I use two or three of these strategies in conjunction with each other. Flexibility and responsiveness to the unique needs of your class will help you find and maintain the best strategy.  Below, I'm sharing some of the strategies that have worked best with my small group pull-out classes.

1. Fabulous Cone

Simple, fast, and only cost me a dollar! I picked up a Fabulous Cone at a dollar store and implemented it from the very first day of school.  I pass it around to students who are on task, helpful, and trying their best.  Kids LOVE to get the fabulous cone! One of my classes needed a bit more motivation than just the cone, so I paired it with my clip chart- whoever had the cone at the end of the day got to "clip up." That was a game-changer!

2. Clip Chart

I've gone through a few different versions of clip charts over the years (scroll down for my first one!) but I do find that students LOVE the opportunity to clip up, and I try to give them that opportunity.  There were years when the clip chart wasn't right for my class, so I didn't use it.  In the 16-17 school year I had a rowdy first grade group, so this came out mid-year.  When kids clipped up to "Wag your tail," they actually got to wag their tails! It was a great motivator for my bouncy kids who really needed to get the wiggles out. 

My very first clip chart! 

3. Money System

This is a strategy I used mostly with my upper elementary and middle school students.  I would pass out MC money the same way I would the Fabulous Cone (see above).  In middle school, students would have to turn in MC money in order to exit the room for a drink or bathroom (except in an extreme emergency).  This worked well with older kids who were more responsible and had a better grasp of the concept of money.  I would pair this strategy with a treasure chest or book raffle at the end of a marking period, which was another great motivator.

4. Reward Coupons

Some students really need tangible items to motivate them, and keeping a treasure chest or prize box gets expensive very quickly! I implemented reward coupons in a three-step system conjunction with the fabulous cone and the clip chart.  Once students got the Fabulous Cone, they had the chance to clip up.  If they clipped up to a certain color by the end of the week, they could then choose a reward coupon.  This took a little more recording, but worked for the group I used it with! 

5. Mystery Student

This one is really low-maintenance.  I start by picking a mystery student, usually one who I noticed doing a great job the day before.  Throughout class I mention how well the mystery student is behaving, walking in the hall, or being a great friend.  When it comes time for independent work, I reveal the mystery student, and that child can then sit in a comfy VIP beanbag chair, use special VIP materials, and read VIP books that I set aside.

There's no one-size-fits-all classroom management strategy.  In some cases, classroom management may need to be as differentiated as your lesson plan! My best advice is to go in with Plan A, but have plans B through D as a backup.  

What are your favorite classroom management strategies?

Morning Meetings for English Language Learners

Friday, July 14, 2017
One of my favorite parts of my daily schedule is morning meeting time.  By the time I see my fourth class of the day, it's "afternoon" meeting time, but it serves the same purpose.  Morning meeting is a routine activity in my classroom, one that my classes come to look forward to and cherish.  Setting aside these 5-10 (sometimes even 15) minutes of community time allows me to create relationships, introduce and review skills, and foster a strong sense of classroom community.

One of my morning meeting set-ups.

Setting it up:
I choose a spot in my room with a rocking chair, an easel, and plenty of leg space for kiddos, as we'll be there for a while. I set up whiteboards, markers, and erasers in a basket for easy access. Then, on the very first day of class, I model for my students how to walk into the room, sit on the carpet, and wait for instructions. I use the first day's meeting to introduce myself and have students introduce themselves.  We learn and practice the rules for the class, then we play an ice-breaker or get-to-know you game.  For the next 3, 5, 7, or 10 days (depending on the group), we practice the same procedure so that all the kids are familiar and comfortable with the protocol.  While I may not be teaching to the standards for these first few days (although I may reference them during a read-aloud or activity), I am setting the stage for a smooth transition.  Think of it like sanding, taping, and putting primer on a wall before you paint- the better prepared your surface is, the smoother the work will go.

This was way back in 2012, with a group of 3rd grade ELL's.

Routine and Structure:
Maintaining a routine for your morning meeting is essential to keeping a calm and orderly environment.  I try my hardest to say the exact same things the exact same way every single day. This is an integral part of keeping the kids focused and on task, especially for my pull-out classes.

Here's how our greeting sounds:
Me: Good morning, everybody!
Kids: Good morning, Mrs. M-C!
Me: I'm so glad to see you. How are you today?
Kids: (thumbs up/thumbs down/Good/Bad)
Me: You're good? Awesome. Kate, tell me one fun thing you did yesterday.

Every child gets to a turn to tell about their day or weekend.  The question may change to reflect holidays or special events, but every child gets a chance to answer a question every day.  Later in the year I open it up so that the kids can ask ME any question they want.  The asking/answering questions part can sometimes take a long time, especially with newcomers or kids in the silent period. I try to build extra time in to the morning meeting to allow for that.  My current greeting is very teacher-centered, but I've read and heard about a much more student-centered approach.  One of my goals for this school year is to work on making our greeting more interpersonal for the students.

Once we greet each other, we move into our daily activity.  This is where, depending on grade or subject, I keep the routine and structure, but change up the activities.  For example, my first graders needed a lot of work on fluency.  We would greet and then move right into our weekly poem routine, then end with a vocabulary game.  My second grade class needed some fluency help, but more work on sentence structure and syntax.  So that group would greet, do a quick fluency practice, and then work on a daily edit. My third graders, who were the most proficient group of all, would greet, work on a speaking/listening task, then work in partners to complete their morning work. In the afternoon, I saw my kindergarten group for math intervention. We still did morning meeting, just with a math twist.  We would greet each other, then do calendar math and counting exercises, and then move into our lesson.

My students worked on a team-building activity
 during the first week of school.

Benefits of Morning Meeting for ELL's
Morning meeting gives students a chance to speak and be heard in a comfortable and welcoming environment.  I've used morning meeting to work on everything from fluency to team-building to mental math! I've even brought in guidance counselors and administrators to participate in our morning meetings. When students feel safe, they're more likely to begin taking greater risks in speaking and writing, and they'll demonstrate greater fluency in reading and listening.  Morning meeting is different from direct instruction in that you're not lecturing on a topic, but introducing and spiraling skills in a collaborative method. If you're interested in reading more about the benefits and practice of Morning Meeting, check out the book by Dr. Felicia Durden- it has really helped me start to work towards a more student-centered meeting.

Do you do a morning meeting in your class? How do you set it up?

Types of English Language Learners

Wednesday, June 7, 2017
If you're a teacher or administrator, you're bound to encounter an English Language Learner at some point in your career. In New Jersey alone, 5 out of 6 districts have ELL's in their schools, and 1 out of every 20 public school students is an ELL. However, the title "English Language Learner" can mean many different things, and it's beneficial to understand the differences so you can best meet the needs of your learners. According to researchers and experts in language acquisition, there are three types of English Language Learners.  I'd like to break them down for you in teacher-friendly terms.

1. Long-term English Language Learners

These are the students who were born in the US (or emigrated at a very young age) to parents who speak languages other than English. They may have started kindergarten in an English-speaking school, and/or have English-speaking family members. These kids can fool you with their social fluency, but might struggle for many years to become fluent in academic vocabulary, often performing below grade level on standardized tests.  These students may also have a greater understanding of American culture and customs due to exposure and environment.

How to help: 

Teach these students strategies to overcome gaps in proficiency, such as cognates, colloquialisms, and understanding vocabulary in context. These students will be ready for more intense grammar work; and subject-verb agreement is something many of my long-term ELL's struggle with daily.  Engage with parents from an early age to promote home-based literacy, such as sharing bilingual books and reciting cultural fables and folk tales in their native language.

2.  Newcomers with a strong literacy background in their first language.

These students may have recently arrived to the United States, but they most likely will have attended some sort of formal schooling.  Students like these often have educated parents, as well.  These children will struggle at first with language and concepts, but may surprise you with how quickly they make strides. These students often learn social language first, but pick up academic language skills quickly, especially if you can relate it to their home languages.

How to help: 

Take advantage of the literacy background these students have, and use their cultures to help them develop confidence and fluency in speaking.  Some students may remain in the silent period for a time, but continue to engage them in level-appropriate activities across all content areas, with a focus on vocabulary acquisition. Reader's Theater is a great way to build fluency, prosody, and confidence in speaking and working with native English speaking peers.

3. Newcomers with a low literacy background in their first language.

These children, who have arrived recently, may have never attended any sort of school, or have experienced an interruption in schooling.  They most likely have a low first language proficiency level. Their parents may or may not be educated in their first language as well.  These students often experience a greater sense of culture shock than the ELL's described above, as they are entering the formal education system, which may be a stark contrast to their previous life. They may remain in the silent period anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, depending on the student.The achievement gap will seem extraordinarily wide, but with patience and persistence, these students will acquire enough language to converse with their peers.

How to help: 

It might be hard to figure out what these students know and don't know, in terms of both concepts and language.  My best advice is to start at the very beginning, with basic survival English. Strategies such as Language Experience Activities, targeted speaking activities, fluency practice and visual writing prompts will help them gain proficiency in all language domains. I've written a Newcomer Curriculum guide that may help you as well!

In conclusion:

My school had a really large number of low-L1 literate newcomers for several years, but our population seems to be shifting, We're receiving more long-term ELL's (the brothers and sisters of our earlier immigrants).  This has caused us to re-evaluate our program methods and practices.  It's helpful for us to understand the differences in backgrounds of our students so that we can plan accordingly. I hope this is helpful for you, too!

3 Ways to Use Art in the Classroom

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Art in the classroom may not be a new idea, but it's a great one! Read on to explore how art can improve instruction, engage students, and bridge the home-school connection.

In honor of Youth Art Month, I had the chance to interview Dr. Rebecca Wiehe, Academic Curriculum Director of the American College for Education, about the benefits of using art in the classroom.  Below are some highlights of our interview.
Everyone Deserves to Learn (EDL): How can teachers, administrators, and counselors use art to help students express themselves?
Dr. Rebecca Wiehe (RW): Planning deliberate and systematic ways that students can interact with art is a way to allow students to express themselves.  Classroom lessons, field trips, school assembles, etc. are all wonderful ways to incorporate art into the school day and the students' lives...Art should not just be an add-on...but rather it should be used in a deliberate way to enhance the students' learning experiences.  Whatever the method, teachers need to find ways to have their students interact with the figure out how it can become part of their lessons, and how those lessons can be different from classroom to classroom and year to year. 
EDL: Describe how English Language Learners can benefit from creating original art.
RW: Art is a language, a way of communication, that everyone speaks.  It also takes the focus off accuracy of language and allows students to express themselves in other ways than through just words.  Having students share their art and provide some explanation or description is an activity that can connect the use of art to the four domains (reading,writing, listening and speaking). 
EDL: How can teachers use this activity as a way to bridge the home-school-community connection?
RW: Displaying student created artwork around the school, either in individual classrooms, offices, or hallways, is a wonderful way to give pride and a sense of accomplishment to students.  Displaying their work in the community extends that pride outside of the school building and helps to build relationships among all stakeholders in the district. 
EDL: Explain the background for Youth Art Month.
RW: Youth Art Month is celebrated in the month of March and administered by the Council for Art Education.  It emphasizes the value of art education for all children, and provides an opportunity to discuss the skills that visual arts experiences can have in helping children develop.  This year's theme is "United through Art." In honor of this event, American College of Education is putting on a contest for teachers to submit their students' art work.  We encourage teachers to share their students' artwork by simply uploading a photo to Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook using the hashtab #ACEYAMContest.  We'll gather the photos and upload them to our Youth Art Month board on Pinterest to celebrate how art inspires the students in your classroom! For more info, please visit the contest page

Thanks for reading! I hope you'll join me in posting student artwork to the contest, using the hashtag #ACEYAMContest.

Technology Hacks for Teachers

Monday, February 20, 2017
Logging grades, managing conferences, volunteering with the PTA, scheduling dentist appointments, paying the bills... balancing the duties of home and work can be like walking on a tightrope! I'm sharing three of my favorite technology hacks that help keep me organized at home and at school.

1. Google Keep

I've never been the type to carry a planner or agenda, but Google Keep keeps me organized and in the know.  I used to keep important dates and times in the Notes feature of my phone, but I think Google Keep is a lot easier to edit, plus you can see it across all devices!  I can see my work to-do lists at my work or home computer, update my shopping list on the run, and share calendar updates and reminders with my husband. I love being able to move and edit the boxes to reflect priority, too.  

2. Screencast-O-Matic

Did you ever wish you could record yourself giving instructions and replay it on multiple occasions? This program helps you do just that! I've used it to record directions for students completing an individual project.  I've also had students narrate their own presentations.  If you need to record yourself giving direct instruction for an IEP student, this is a great (FREE) program to use! 

3. Snipping Tool

The snipping tool is permanently pinned to my taskbar, and I use it all the time to take screenshots both at home and at school.  You can drag the parameters of the snip to just the shape you want, and then edit the photo right in the tool itself.  I love it for adding diagrams from the internet into student worksheets, or coping important home information (like an order or reference number) without having to print a page. 

 These are just a few of the technology teacher hacks I like to use.  What are some of your favorite technology hacks?

Teaching ESL Kindergarten

Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Need some ideas to spice up your kindergarten ESL intervention time? I'm sharing some 20 minute listening and speaking activities that I use with my kindergarten ELL students.  

I pull my kindergarten ELL's out of classroom for 20 minutes in the morning, while the rest of the students are doing their morning work.  During that time, I focus mostly on listening and speaking skills, since their phonics and reading instruction takes place in the mainstream classroom.  Here are some ideas to get your kinder kids listening and speaking!

Warm-Up (5-7 mins)

We start our lesson the exact same way, every single day.  Even if I've already said hello to the students, I say hello again and ask how they're doing.  By doing that, I'm creating the expectation to respond in full sentences, as well as enforcing the societal norms of responsing to greetings.  As the students become more proficient, I add to our daily questions by asking what they had for breakfast/lunch, or what they did the night before. We then move into a warm-up game such as picture Bingo, which takes about 5-7 minutes to complete. 

Picture Bingo is one of my kids' favorite, if not THE favorite game to play.  It improves vocabulary and speaking skills, teaches game-playing skills and reinforces those social norms that many students are missing.  The game often starts out as a teacher-directed activity, but as students gain proficiency, they take ownership and begin calling out the names on the cards themselves.

Guided and Independent Practice (10-15 mins)

In the beginning, when students have very low proficiency, I tend to stick with flashcards for direct instruction.  There are SO many ways to use flashcards.  We can describe attributes, listen and point, and discuss likes and dislikes.  That's just a few!  I like to use cards that are seasonally appropriate, as well as objects they're interested in.  As students gain proficiency, I teach them to use 10 Finger Sentences to describe a picture or prompt. 

We also use some iPad apps, but I am very picky about what apps I use for instruction.  Many apps have "robot voice" narration and dictation, which is not the fluent speaking I'd like to model.  One app I do like for kindergarten language learners is the English First High Flyers Game.  Students learn 5 related words at a time, then take a short quiz to assess. 

Another one my kinders love is the Disney Princess Story Theater app, where you can move the princesses around, add accessories, and then narrate a story and play it back.  My little girls love it! The younger boys love it too, but for older kids, I'd recommend the Sock Puppets app.  

You can save your stories and play them back- what a great way for kids to hear their progress!  There are lots of possibilities for creating speaking and listening tasks, too.
We will also use whiteboards and dry erase markers to play a modified pictionary game.  I'll show a card (secretly) to one student, who starts to draw the picture.  The others try to guess the name of the card.  That's a fun game for warm-up or review, too!

 Closure Activity

We usually end with a GoNoodle activity or a youtube video.  The movement helps my little kids get their wiggles out, and they are great for listening skills! ELF Kids Learning channel is my favorite, hands down.  We also love to do the Starfall Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes video- great for practicing the tricky /s/ sound at the ends of words, and it's quite a challenge!

While I introduce new activities, songs, or videos every few days, our general intervention time runs as you read above.  Having a structure and routine really helps my students to stay focused and on task, and helps to establish a safe space for trying to speak.

If you're interested in more kindergarten ideas, check out my pinterest board!

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