Use Environmental Print to Practice Literacy Skills

Monday, August 22, 2016
If you have struggling readers at home or at school, practicing with environmental print may be the solution to your literacy problem.  My English Language Learners often come to class with very little exposure to American vocabulary, and environmental print has helped them get a better grasp on letters and sounds.  

Once, I had a class of ELL first graders working in pairs with letter flashcards, and one student started sniffling and tearing up.  When I knelt down to help him along, he showed me the card; it was J for Jam, but he had never had jam before, didn't know what it was, and was afraid he would be in trouble for not knowing.  After a hug and a few tissues, I collected all the flashcards and we sat down with Google Images to find other words that started with J.  I started using environmental print the very next day, and am so glad I more tears!

Whether at home or at school, print is really all around us.  From food wrappers to license plates, children are exposed to words from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.  Use that to your advantage! There are so many ways to use environmental print at home or at school to help early or struggling readers.  Here are just a few!

Here are some more ways to practice reading skills using environmental print
  • Play I-spy on the road with license plates or car models (I spy with my little eye, a car that starts with S!)
  • Pick a common sign (like Speed Limit) and count to see how many they can find along the way
  • Use the morning cereal box to find the first letter in the child's name

Here are some more ways to practice writing skills using environmental print

  • Cut out the logo from a cereal box and have children trace over it 
  • Keep a pen and paper in the car, and make tally marks each time you see a sign that starts with a certain letter.
  • Use magnetic letters on the fridge to form the words of household items
Here are some more ways to practice speaking skills using environmental print

  • Ask students to explain whether or not they like something, and why (like Legos) 
  • Have kids tell you if something belongs or doesn't belong (like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Barbie) and why or why not.
  • Practice on a Saturday running errands by making a list of places you went.  ("First, we went to Lowe's, then to Petsmart, and last to Subway.")

Here are some more ways to practice listening skills using environmental print

  • Provide a list and ask students to tell you which was first or last. 
  • Spread out word cards and ask students to put in order using directions you give
  • Allow students to discuss likes/dislikes with a friend, then summarize the conversation
You can use environmental print to practice math skills by counting and comparing letters, and practice social studies skills by finding out if there is a McDonald's in every country.  How else can you use environmental print in your class?  For more information and research about environmental print, read this or this!

Strategies for English Language Learners

Sunday, August 14, 2016
It's not easy to be an English Language Learner in the USA.  In fact, the odds are somewhat stacked against our ELL's.  We're asking them, from the minute they set foot in a school, to learn specific content-area vocabulary at their grade level, when in reality, they may not have the background education, knowledge, or experiences to be able to keep up with their classroom peers.  There may also be environmental factors that affect their ability to attend or focus at school. So how can we reach them?

1. Get off on the right foot.

2. Get to know your student.

  • Learn where he came from, how he got here, who he lives with, and any information you can about his culture and customs.  Use that information to make slight adjustments within your room to make the student feel more at home.
  • Find the student's proficiency level.  In NJ, we use WIDA, which provides us with  Can-Do descriptors.
  • You can think of "Can-Do's" like an IEP: it's a summary of what students can be expected to achieve.  Here's a teacher friendly version- just click the picture to download.

3. Assume nothing! 
  • Just because it happens in the USA doesn't mean it happens around the world. Many of my refugee students come from cultures where birthdays aren't celebrated.  That makes it difficult when you want them to read and answer questions about a book called "Susie's Surprise Party!" Not only does it make it difficult to understand the concept, but the students may feel ashamed of not knowing, and therefore become alienated.
  • Many students come to the US without the experiences that our students take for granted.  We can't assume that ELL's have been to the beach, rode a roller-coaster, gone camping, or trick-or-treat'ed with friends.  
  • If you know that this week's guided reader is about camping, take a quick needs assessment to see if your ELL's know about camping.  If they don't, there are things you can do to build the vocabulary they need: put together a short slideshow with common camping vocabulary for the benefit of all the students in the class, find a Youtube video, or let the kids explore Google Images. 

Another tip: have one student be the "expert" on a topic to build community and enhance speaking and listening skills.

4.  Teach vocabulary in context: 
  • This strategy will work for all the students in the class!
  • Here's the scenario: The students need to know their vocab words, so you send a list home on Monday with this week's 10 words, and there will be a quiz on Friday.  Whoa! Pump the brakes! If the objective is for the students to learn how to SPELL a word, sending a list home might be adequate.  But if the objective is for students to learn how to USE a word, sending a list home will result in a big fat nothing.    
  • Whether it's sight words, math vocabulary, or elements of the periodic table, ESL students need to be taught in a way that will allow them to take the word and process it, then produce it.  Marzano's Six Steps are a great framework to use.
  • Let students hear, use, and read lots of examples where the word is being used throughout the week or unit, and let them practice using the word correctly. 
    • Here are a few examples where the vocabulary words are used throughout the unit in many different forms. Click either picture to see them in my TPT store.

How do you reach the ELL's in your classroom? Share your stories of success (or difficulty!) in the comments.  

Ideas and Resources for a Paperless Classroom

Sunday, July 31, 2016
Going paperless this year? Welcome to the club! Here are some of my best tips for going paperless in your classroom.

I've been teaching in a 1:1 paperless classroom since 2014, and I learn something new about it every day.  Just starting out? Here are some tips and resources for a smooth transition to digital learning. 

1. Pick ONE part of your daily classroom routine to start with.  

2. Just keep swimming!  

  • It's going to be hard, and you're going to have issues.  It's ok!
  • Issues include, but are not limited to: I can't connect! The battery died! The Internet is down! My screen is cracked!
  • Have a contingency plan for emergencies, such as device sharing and alternate activities.  
  • You can assign one or two of your students to be the "Device Manager," and let small issues be diverted to them. Watch their confidence soar!
Try word work using the Osmo!

3. Decide how you will monitor or grade work.  

  • If you're using Google Classroom or One Drive, make a plan for grading assignments, and share that with your students so they know what to expect.  
  • Here's a post about how I use One Note in the classroom.
  • With Google Classroom or One Drive, students can access their work from home, so homework assignments are a great way to get your feet with with digital learning, especially if you're short on devices in the classroom.
Students work on typing skills, researching skills, presentation skills all at once.

4. Once you've gotten the hang of one activity, add one more. 

  •  Going paperless one activity at a time is the best way to work out the technology kinks.
  •  You want to make sure you're not sacrificing quality instruction to jump on the paperless bandwagon.
  • Here's a really fun character traits activity using hashtags to try- kids will eat it right up!
Students can participate in shared research.  Group work takes on a whole new meaning!

5. Don't forget to be a learner.  

  • Over the course of my first paperless year, I learned more about going paperless from my students than I could have possibly learned from a blog post, text-book, or e-course.  
  • There are going to be things you don't know how to do, but your students will, and vice versa. Let them teach and help each other.
  •  Create a mindset where sharing knowledge and intelligence about technology is the norm; you will reap the benefits of a strong classroom community and even stronger technology skills.

Good luck going paperless! If you have questions, please leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to help you.

Ways to Prevent the Summer Slide

Thursday, July 14, 2016
The dreaded summer slide...when students come back to school in September and have forgotten everything they learned.  Teachers grit their teeth and say, "Sure, the curriculum pacing guide can wait 2 weeks while I re-teach 3rd grade."  The good new is, just like forest fires, you can prevent it!

Now I know what you're going to say: "My kids whine and complain when they do work in the summer." Believe me, I was that kid! When I was in elementary school, my mom used to plunk down a math or language arts review workbook, and I couldn't play outside until I had finished the assignment of the day. Mom's intentions were great- as a teacher, I totally understand it (and thanks, Mom)...but as an 8 year old, I hated it. But there are so many more engaging ways to learn during the summer, instead of through a boring workbook page.   Here are just a few.

These are great ways to prevent the summer slide and have some meaningful family time as well. 
Looking for more ideas? Here are some great ones for kids young and old! Your backyard can be your classroom, so get out and explore!

On behalf of all teachers everywhere, thank you for doing your part to prevent forest fires the summer slide. What are some other ways you've found to prevent the summer slide?

Ideas for Summer School

Thursday, May 26, 2016
Whether you're supervising, teaching, or volunteering at Summer School, you want to provide your students with a fun and engaging few weeks of learning.  There are so many things during the school year that get overlooked due to time, curriculum, or budget constraints, but Summer School is the perfect time to fit them in.  Not sure where to start? Read on! I've got lots of ideas for you.

1. Stick to a Routine

In the heat and lazy days of summer, sticking to a routine helps everyone stay on task. I'm a huge fan of morning work to get us started.  Whether it's math, reading, a question of the day, or a writing prompt, having something to focus on is a smooth and efficient start to the day.  I project our morning work on our Smartboard and the kids fill in the answers in their notebooks. After our morning work is over, we check it as a group and then go over our agenda for the day.

2. Exercise!

GoNoodle is a great way to get the wiggles out, especially on rainy days. It's also a great component to add to your morning routine.  We always start with yoga, then move into a dance or other higher impact activity.  It's just the boost some of my sweeties need after being couch potatoes at home!

3. Get your snack on!

 Most of the time, we asked our students to bring in snacks, but one day a week, my teaching partner and I would provide a snack that went along with our lesson.  Whether it was popsicles, lemonade and cookies, s'mores or watermelon, sharing food with your students is a great way to bond.  It may even be a chance to work on some table manners while you're at it!

4. Get crafty!

Summer school is a great time to experiment with some art mediums that the kids normally wouldn't have access to.  Make some tissue paper pom poms, finger paint, or experiment with squiggle drawing.

5. Stick to a Theme

 Olympics, Beach, Camping, Safety, Watersports, 4th of July...all of these topics are amazing starters for summer school themes.  You can do a weekly theme or even theme your entire session.  I tend to stick to summer themes, but STEM, forensics, robotics, cooking, and sports are all ways to engage your students.  For each theme I would choose books, reading and math activities, and a craft/outdoor activity.

6. Try something new

 Saw an activity on Pinterest that you want to try? Summer School!  Want to experiment with flexible seating? Summer School! Need to test out some iPads for your principal? Summer School!  The few weeks in a summer school session are fabulous opportunities for experimentation.  The expectations for curriculum and data are usually much lower, so think about something you're interested in and go for it!  One year we experimented with a technology rotation that worked so well, I implemented it the first day back to school.

 7. Find the Fun

 Some students may be in Summer School because they have to be, some students may be there because they want to be, some may be there because there's no other safe place for them to go.  So while you're covering curriculum points you missed or prepping for the next grade, try to find the fun in it.  Do things that take your students by surprise.  Hand out stickers with math facts/sight words/periodic elements on them and make them be "nametags."  Instead of guiding the reading, give kids a scavenger hunt through the book.  Make it a summer they won't forget.

If you are teaching Summer School this year, good luck and have fun!
Looking for more ideas? Check out my pinterest board!

End of the Year Ideas for Administrators

Thursday, May 19, 2016
If you have the last day of school circled and highlighted on your calendar, you are not alone! There's a great sense of relief that comes with the dismissal bell on the last day.  But before that last bell, there are a few things you can do to keep up morale for staff and students and ensure a smoother transition back in the fall.

1. Hold a Moving Up Day

What a great way for students and teachers to get a glimpse of the next school year! Moving Up Day is a great way to build community for all grades. 

2. Have an Open House

It's not just for September! You can have an Open House for parents before the end of the school year to showcase what students have learned.  The ESL Department at my school even holds an extra Open House at the end of Summer School to keep our parents updated.  This has been so valuable for our back-to-school transition!  

3. Plan Summer School

If you've got some money left in the budget, plan for few weeks of summer school.  It can be for certain subgroups- ESL, Basic Skills, Sp.Ed, or for certain grades. Summer school can be all new topics and themes or it can be an extended year program.  I've done both versions, and some of my plans for a few different grade levels are linked, just in case you need an example.  STEM, robotics, forensics, environmental studies, and book clubs are all great starting points for course offerings. If you need more hands, round up some local college education majors as volunteers- free for you and resume builders for them!

What are some things you do to close out the year and prepare for the next one?

Morning Work: My Favorite Part of the Day!

Sunday, April 17, 2016
My first few years of teaching, I would stand at the door greeting every student as they walked into class and began copying the objective and word of the day.  I thought it was a genius thing to do- we engaged, then they immediately had something to do.   My low-functioning students knew exactly what to expect each day, were independent, it was a no-stress no-prep routine for me, and I rarely gave it a second thought. When I moved to a new school, I followed the same procedure, and it was working great (or so I thought). But after a while, I realized my students were not learning from just copying, and the routine had become stale.  I needed something for them to do that was low or no prep, followed a routine, and could be done in the first 5 minutes of class. After lots of research, blog reading, and trial and error, I found my solution: morning work! 

I spent a few hours over the summer with my pacing guide and created an outline with the topics I wanted to focus on during each month.  They fell into the categories of writing, grammar, phonics, and vocabulary.  That was a perfect way to organize my week.  I decided to keep the format for each week the same in order to provide the structured routine my learners needed. I included things my students could do independently, as well as things they would need help with, as well as topics that would promote class discussion. 

After just a few weeks with our new routine, my students were able to greet me at the door like usual, then come in and get to work on something that tied in to what we had learned or would be learning.  I found myself re-arranging some of my lesson plans to better incorporate my morning work topics, and vice versa.  If there was something scheduled for Thursday but we were learning about it on Monday, then I just switched up the days.  

Each Monday my students added the week's prompts to their own notebooks, and each Friday they turned them in.  I didn't grade each day's work, but we always discussed the prompts as a class before continuing on with our work. 

I could print them 2 or 4 to a page, depending on the size of my kids' notebooks, which varied year to year.  But since we've gone paperless, the kids use OneNote or Google Classroom to open up each week's file of work. 

one of my students researches the prompt of the day using his tablet

Morning work time quickly became my favorite part of the day.  I found myself really looking forward to the discussions we would have or reading the 20 word stories the kids would write.  Sometimes I'd let my students work in partners or groups to complete the day's assignment and that was always fun, too.  

I made a version for Google Drive, too!
If (and when) my principal walked in during the first 5 minutes of class, he would see my students actively engaged in review or enrichment that was on their level, not just boring seat work.  That alone filled me with a sense of pride, and dare I say, *hoping* that he would walk in just to see it.

independent morning work, great for 3rd and 4th graders. get the bundle!:

There were some times when my kids got really invested in a prompt, such as the research writing prompts on Mondays, that we'd skip Tuesday and Wednesday morning work and just work on writing.  I'd often have students suggest topics for the writing prompts, and most of the sentences contained the names of their sisters, brothers, and friends.  This was more than just busy-work or seat-work- it was a framework for our entire classroom.  There were many times I'd hear "Remember, we talked about that in Morning Work?" 

Just this simple change revolutionized the way I teach, definitely for the better.  Have you revolutionized your teaching? Tell me all about it!

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