Sunday, January 21, 2018

Teaching Plot Using Esio Trot

"The distance between their balconies might not have been more than a few yards, but to Mr. Hoppy it seemed like a million miles." (p. 10)

There aren't many love stories that would entice my fourth grade class full of boys, but earlier this month Esio Trot by Roald Dahl did just that.  Perhaps a lesser known and definitely shorter book by the timelessly popular Dahl, this story is just as enchanting as his better known works. It's the perfect length for teaching plot because it's easy to get a handle on the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

While the book title might seem a little intimidating, it is a good hook for curious kiddos who find out right away that esio trot is simply tortoise spelled backward. Mr. Hoppy, who is in love with his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Silver, makes up a magic spell to help her tortoise Alfie "grow" which involves reverse speak so-to-say. We listened to the story on audio from (included in a collection called Fantastic Mr. Fox and Other Animal Stories) and each time Mr. Hoppy's "magic" words were spoken, quiet giggles could be heard throughout my classroom.

Even if you are a Roald Dahl and Esio Trot fan, you may not know that the BBC released a made-for-television movie adapted from this story in 2015. I have yet to get my hands on a DVD copy (its currently only formatted for UK DVD players), but my students squealed with delight when I shared this movie trailer:

All my products for this novel can be found FREE in my TPT store.  
(The Comprehension Packet has been downloaded almost 4,000 times!) 


One of my favorite parts of my Novel Units is the Constructed Response included on every Final Test.  This writing component allows me to have a grade for both reading and writing when we take a test, and it allows me to get a glimpse of how deeply the students really became invested in the literature. Their passion for Mr. Hoppy's passion for Mrs. Silver was quite clear in their Constructed Responses for this test, which I'll leave you with today.  The prompt was: "As far as we know, Mrs. Silver never found out what Mr. Hoppy did. Imagine that he decided to confess to Mrs. Silver once they were married. Write a letter to Mrs. Silver from Mr. Hoppy explaining what he did and why he did it. Make sure to include details from the story."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Voices of Pearl Harbor

In December, we teachers plan lessons around many special events and holidays. There is one I always mean to get around to (whether it's directly in my curriculum or not) but up until now I never have. This year, I've got a class of mostly boys, many of whom love to talk about history and war, so I'm finally working in a lesson to recognize Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day this week (December 7th).

If you've never been to Pearl Harbor but Hawaii is on your bucket list, let me say this: don't go to Hawaii without going to Pearl Harbor. I'm not even that into war history, national monuments or really any activity that requires you to be quiet, but this is one that is worth every minute. The USS Arizona Memorial, the tour, and the surrounding exhibits are all extremely well-done and I guarantee you will leave with a changed perspective on service, sacrifice, and reconciliation. 

Just like many of you I'm sure, I tend to leave gift shops with a souvenir for my classroom. On my visit to Pearl Harbor last summer, I picked up this book: Voices of Pearl Harbor by Sherry Garland. It is also available on Amazon at this link. It's a beautifully illustrated book and it's the perfect length for an upper grades read aloud. However, my very favorite thing about this book is how it is written.  It presents many different perspectives of that fateful day, from the mother of a Japanese pilot to a mess hall attendant on one of the ships to a vice-admiral of the US Navy to the young son of a naval officer riding his bike just across the harbor. It's an ideal book to use as a tool for teaching or reinforcing point-of-view and perspective!

Today I posted a Book Walk companion worksheet to the book which you can grab for FREE here through this Thursday, December 7th. After that, it will go to my normal Book Walk price of $1.50. Whether you can squeeze in this book right away or have to wait until later in the year or next December 7th, I highly recommend locating a copy and using it in your upper grades classroom. I imagine my students will be as entranced as I was by the various accounts.

As an added bonus, Barnes and Noble has paperback copies of another wonderful Pearl Harbor novel listed at $1.99 right now.  Check out a A Boy at War here.  I'd love to hear what other high interest topics you guys use to teach literacy skills in your classrooms, especially if you have a boy-heavy classroom like I do this year.  Comment below with your ideas...

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Pirate Day

When I first started teaching 4th grade over a decade ago, four out of five teachers on my grade level had two years or less teaching experience. We were young and energetic, clueless but passionate. Some days we managed to make our classes somewhat behave, most days we taught them most of what we were supposed to, but every day we found new ways to have fun. My favorite idea we dreamt up lives on to this day each fall on Pirate Day.

Fourth grade social studies curriculum in North Carolina focuses on state history, and pirates are a big part of the history of our coast. At the end of first quarter, we spend a whole day learning about the pirates of North Carolina coast, including but not limited to Blackbeard. We allow the students to join us in dressing like pirates (short of anything that resembles a weapon), and we rotate to the different classrooms doing pirate math, reading pirates and playing pirate games. It's my favorite day of the year!

Our local chamber of commerce generously awards thousands of dollars in grants at the beginning of each school year and this year I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to spice up Pirate Day with a new game. My husband and I enjoy playing the strategy board game Catan with our friends, and I recently discovered Catan Junior is pirate-themed. This game features social studies, math and reading skills (vocabulary, resources, supply and demand, trading 2:1, etc.) and I got to spend the day teaching all the fourth graders to play this year. We look forward to playing it more this year, as the kids loved it!

While playing Catan Junior, one of my reading students said, "Wow! This is so much fun. And I thought you'd just read us that book," pointing to a book I'd had on display all week. He wasn't all wrong; I am a sucker for reading a good book, and I did enjoy the book with my homeroom class at a different time during the day. The book is P is for Pirate by Eve Bunting, and you can download a free Book Walk I created to accompany the read aloud here.


I am also a sucker for cute things at Target, and this year I splurged on a pirate ship for the hallway. For years, we've made a 2-D pirate ship display on the wall, and my last year's students were quick to come by on Friday and say, "You got them a real pirate ship?!? No fair!" It was a pretty big hit, and I took each child's photo in the ship and sent to their parents on Class Dojo. I also had printed pictures before Pirate Day, filtering them using an app called Pirate Pix so students could have their Pirate Picture on display all day.

One of my favorite resources for Pirate Day is this DVD from National Geographic. It has some great bonus features, and I always show the first ten minutes to my students to give them a more accurate representation of pirate life than what they've been exposed to up until this age.  I use the following discussion questions after watching those first ten minutes:


No themed day is complete without a fun snack. We enjoyed Pirate's Pot Luck at the end of the day.

Themed days are so much fun; we do another in the spring called First in Flight Day.  You can read more about that here.  I'm currently trying to think of one more for winter time-- perhaps a Lost Colony murder mystery? Does your grade level do themed days? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Do Not Be That Aunt

So... I let September pass by without posting once. OOPS! I can't think of a previous time I've missed an entire month, but I promise it wasn't for lack of thinking about it or trying to find the time. This was maybe the busiest back to school I've ever had, and I'm vowing to myself that October will not be as crazy as September was-- starting with finding time for TPT and this blog!

I hate it when people make excuses, but I'm going to make a couple of excuses anyway....

The first is my class size this year. When I took on teaching the AG class two years ago, I knew my class size could vary greatly from year to year. This is one of those years when it's swung to the high side and while I'm very grateful for the job security, it's been time consuming trying to get us all off to a smooth start.  When parents raised an eyebrow in response to my numbers at Open House, I laughed it off and told them I'd done 28 students several years and a few more was no big deal. I had myself convinced it wasn't a thing, but let me tell you, 34 kids is kind of a thing.  To those of you who do numbers like that every year, my hat is off to you!

Now, on to my second excuse...

My sister is having a baby later this month and I am over-the-moon excited! The last few weekends, however, have involved four baby showers, one of which was at my house last Sunday. Typically I devote most fall weekends to school, but my heart has been elsewhere in recent weeks...

Technically, I'm already an aunt, but I didn't meet my niece and nephew on my husband's side until they were 9 and 13, so I've taken this opportunity to ask for some advice from my students on how to be a good aunt to a little kid. This was part of something I've added to my classroom this year called Weekly Letters, a fantastic idea that you can read more about here.

I feel very prepared by the advice my students gave...

1. Take them to the movies. Oddly, this is the first thing I remember doing with my aunt. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1987) Also, toys are better than candy so they won't be so "hiper."

2. This kid agreed with the no candy rule. "Do not be that aunt." 

3. Buy her cute clothes, dress her up in them, take pictures and show them in class. Got it.  

4. Be calm and quiet. That might be a problem for me. But I can handle taking her to get her ears pierced. Another thing my aunt did for me (when she lied at Walmart and said she was my mom so I could get my second hole when I was 13).

5. "Nobody likes grouchy aunts." Solid advice.

6. I will try not to drag her to the grocery store against her will.

7. Everyone needs a good "roll modle."

8. "Give them a second chance. THEN punish them."

9. This poor guy wasn't sure he could offer any advice since he's not a girl, but he did advise me to be nice to my "sister's child" and not spoil her, which "may cause big problems." I hear ya, buddy!

10. Just be myself... "be normal you!" Maybe my favorite advice of all...

Now, if only they had such solid advice on large class sizes... :) 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Top Five Tips for Using Donors Choose

Have you tried using Donors Choose for your classroom?  If not, why not?

I posted my first project way back in 2008.  It was never funded. Back then, I thought all you did was post the project and donations from strangers would flood in. Maybe that's true if you teach in a high priority school or have the most creative project ever, but neither was true for me.

I didn't try again until 2012.  By then, I had learned a lot and Donors Choose had come along way.  My project was fully funded and my love for Donors Choose has only grown since then.  Last week, I had my fifth project fully funded. If you aren't utilizing this resource, you and your students are missing out.

Nothing like a pile of boxes from Amazon arriving on the second day of school, thanks to Donors Choose! :)

Here are my best tips for using Donors Choose:

1.  Don't be afraid to solicit donations. 
Ask the parents of your students directly through letters, e-mail or school social media sites like Class Dojo.  Considering asking the parents of your upcoming students, especially if it's near the end of the school year.  And ask the people in your personal life. You'd be surprised who's willing to give sometimes (old friends, fellow church members, retired teachers, family members, etc.). People really do love to help if they're in a position to do so.

2.  With that said, DON'T ask for donations without a match code.
There is something about knowing Bill Gates (or whoever) is going to match dollar for dollar that makes people want to give.  Write your project, then sit on it until you receive an email that a matching code is being offered (usually for a limited time).  I got SO lucky this last time because I wrote my proposal and two days later the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was offering a matching code, just in time for Open House.  Sometimes you'll have to wait longer, but it's always worth it.

3.  Ask for resources that regular people understand.
My first project that wasn't funded was for Speed Stacks. If you aren't a teacher, or maybe even a P.E. teacher, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  People don't want to fund what they don't understand. So maybe think about ditching the proposal for Bouncy Bands and going for special stools or stress balls instead.  Remember you'll be asking non-teachers for the money so run it by your husband or friend and see if it even makes sense to them.

4.  Team up with your grade level and get more bang for your buck.
My first funded Donors Choose project was for a set of 150 novels so our entire grade level could read the same book. We were asking for a lot, but we had a lot of people to ask since we had six classes of students that year. The more kids the project touches, the more people are willing to give.

5.  Don't be AT ALL afraid of writing the proposal itself.
Seriously, y'all, they make it so easy.  There are prompts and samples and fill-in-the-blanks and magically when you're done, they've turned it into a grant proposal for you.  One of the things I love about Donors Choose is they seriously make it as painless as possible.  They know we don't have a lot of time but that we genuinely want quality resources for our students.  And they want to help!  Let them.

Donors Choose does suggest a 15% donation to their organization when someone gives, but the donor can opt out if they choose. I always encourage people to include this 15% because I've always had excellent customer service, they offer so many matching programs, and again-- they make it so easy!

If you're thinking about trying Donors Choose for the first time, you'll automatically be eligible for a match code called LIFTOFF for the first 7 days your project is live.  That's true for everyone! If you've had a failed project before or only piddled in this, try again!  Don't be afraid to go big!  My project that was funded last week was for TEN Chromebooks and a charging station. Through matching grants and the generosity of people in both my personal life and parents of my sweet students, we funded the $1700+ project in 72 hours!

Here are links to my old Donors Choose projects if you'd like to see examples:
Still Crazy About Chromebooks
Fun Reading For Fourth Graders

If you have a live Donors Choose project or try one after reading this, I'd love to read about it, donate, and/or help you promote it.  Please comment on this post. And if I can do anything to help you get started, let me know!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Wayside School Giveaway

I'm giving away a class set (30 new copies) of Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar plus my Novel Unit, both digitally and a paper copy.  Giveaway runs through Monday, August 28th at midnight. The books and unit will ship by the end of the month.  Qualified entrants must currently teach in a public, private or home school.  Click here or on the photo above to enter. Thank you!

In other news, this is my newest Novel Unit and it's on sale for only $5 (usually $10) through Thursday, 8/24 at 11 pm. Click here to view.

Also, did you know that there is a Wayside School Movie on YouTube? What a fun Friday treat if you use this book with your class...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Making Workdays Work For You

I truly love back to school. What I truly DO NOT love is walking back into this...
I've yet to figure it out: I can pack up this room in 1.5 days flat knowing summer vacation awaits, but it'll take me at least three times that long to set it back up.  (Even though I've been in the same classroom for a decade now...) What gives?

For all our complaining about kids with focus issues, let's face it: we teachers are the worst to have focus issues.  First things first: we've got all our teacher friends to catch up with after a [not quite] long [enough] summer break.  Plus, we bought loads of stuff over the summer [at the Dollar Spot] we've got to incorporate into the classroom decor.  And let's not forget we've got a meeting of some sort to attend every other hour. [Seriously- if I work with you, don't let me forget. Speaking of which, where's that new planner I bought this summer?  And the cute pens? Let me run out to my car and see if it's in those bags in the back...]

...this is my [large] bin of items I've purchased for school this summer

It's always amazing to me how quickly a teacher workday passes compared to a day with the students. Coffee, chat, work, meeting, chat, work, lunch, chat, work...the next thing you know you're pulling "overtime" on your first day back. [Do teachers call it overtime? Or just regular life?]

Every year, I say I'm going to do better.  So this year, I'm putting it in writing, both for myself and maybe for some of you if you're interested.  Here are some tips for making these short-lived workdays work for you in a way that will hopefully have lasting effects.

1.  Prioritize. 

Make your first tasks the ones that must be done in your classroom (furniture arrangement, bulletin boards, library organization, etc.).  Save small things, like writing name tags, to do at home in front of the TV so you don't have to stay there all night.

Start with the things that have to be done by Open House. As tempting as it is to reorganize the inside of a binder for a unit you're going to teach second quarter, don't do it! [That's a message to my later-this-week self.]

2. Socialize sparingly.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy gabbing with my teacher besties as much as the next person. But oh how quickly time gets away! If you do want to chat, try to bring something into their classroom you can work on while you talk and remind them to do something while you talk. Then switch classrooms after a while so you can do a bulletin board while they do paperwork.

I still remember some solid advice from Erin Cobb from Lovin' Lit at the TPT conference two years go.  She said if someone is in your classroom talking and you just can't shake them, make up an errand. Say, "I'm going to the office, want to walk with me?" or pretend you have to use the bathroom. It's not personal; sometimes it's just necessary to get the job(s) done!

3. Set short-term goals.

I'm talking hourly here.  We all love a checklist, but by the end of the day, how much of it really gets checked off?  Count the items on your daily checklist at the beginning of the day. Then divide it up by how many hours you have in your classroom.  Then you'll have in your head, realistically, how long you have to spend on each task.  Otherwise, you'll still be reorganizing that first cabinet at noon when your teacher bestie yells, "When's lunch already?"

4.  Enlist help.

Especially if you have a couple of non-official teacher workdays to spend in your classroom, ask for help! I know we like to do it all on our own because we're perfectionists [control freaks] but I'm always amazed at how much non-teachers enjoy seeing the inner workings of a classroom given the chance. [This is not necessarily true of your husband, but he IS still required to come help you move the furniture.]

Ask a college student who hasn't started back yet or a retired friend to come help you for a few hours.   Before they come, make a list of things they can do without your help and while they're there, focus on things they can't do.  In other words, don't label folders or hang border if someone else in your life is willing!  It took me too long to learn this lesson, but it's a lifesaver.

5.  Give yourself a break.

Don't walk around and compare your progress to the teacher down the hall. Don't see something they did that you wish you had done and spend an extended lunch break running to Target to get the supplies to [almost] copy them. Don't feel like every corner of the room has to be perfect by Open House. It's okay to have a blank [but neatly covered] bulletin board and there comes a time when you have to shove the stuff you haven't organized in a closet and forget about it for a while. It's okay.

There are many aspects of the teaching profession that make it unique, and the magic act we perform on our classrooms in a week's time each August is one of the highlights.  This social media driven world we live in adds extra [but unnecessary] pressure.  However, the students who walk into your newly transformed classroom in the coming days are going to be much more interested in the smile on your face than the decorations on the wall.  I keep smiling!