Is It Your Birthday?

Nope, it’s not mine, either.  But it was Nicky’s birthday today, and something about it today made me think about sharing with you what we do to celebrate birthdays in our room.  Maybe it was the double-decker cookie cake that was so, so yummy that made me think of it.  Who knows? 🙂

So birthdays are a big deal at school–even when you’re in 5th grade and you’re turning 11.  No matter what you’re too cool for when you’re an almost-middle-schooler, birthdays are not one of them.  So in our room, we celebrate.  It’s nothing extravagant, but I hope that it still makes each kiddo feel special.

Of course the celebration begins with a treat.  And of course, because of the rules there are these days in school about what you’re allowed to share, they are store-bought goodies.  Bummer for me when my little man is in school next year and I can’t share any of my yummy goodies like Oreo Balls and Pumpkin Muffins with Cinnamon Cream Cheese icing with his class (oh, well, I can still share them with mine, right? 🙂 ).  Most kids lately have been bringing in cupcakes, today was a double-decker cookie cake ( they sell them at Sam’s if you’re interested in getting one of your own!), and sometimes it’s donuts.  We have a great bakery close by called McArthur’s that has blessed us with these really great smiley-face sugar cookies at a time or two.  Towards the warmer months of the year you might have popsicles or ice cream treats, and once several years ago, someone brought in pirouettes.  You know–those long straw-shaped cookie things with chocolate inside?  Yum.  (Man, did I just write a whole paragraph about food? )

The birthday person chooses two special friends to help him/her organize and pass out the goodies, as the rest of us wash our hands and sit in a circle.  We use this time to teach the simple manner of waiting until everyone is served to start eating, and letting the birthday person have the first bite.  After everyone has a snack, the B.P. calls on three friends to give a birthday compliment–we also have a conversation early on about how to give a meaningful compliment–and then we sing.  Well if they want us to.  B.P. has the choice of whether or not we will serenade them.  Most say yes.

Depending on the time of day it is, what happens next may be different.  When the celebration is at the end of the day, the we spend the next few minutes eating and chatting and sharing a fun time with each other.  If it’s right after lunch–which is a time we’ve found lately that works really well, too–then we read our chapter book while they munch.  I like this time a little better, because we can kill two birds with one stone.  Good food with good friends and a great book–what could be better?

So it’s nothing outrageous, but like I said before, I hope it’s at least a little bit of special in my kiddos’ lives.  I remember how special I felt when I was celebrated for my birthday.  Even as an adult it’s nice to be noticed, right?

How do you celebrate birthdays?  What are your birthday traditions?

The Cat’s Away

So I’m home with a sick baby again today.  I HATE to be gone, but sometimes I just have to be a mom, you know?

So today’s absence reminded me of an idea I learned about recently.  I was out a couple of weeks ago, and I used a great idea from a couple of teachers I met when I attended an EdCamp St. Louis conference earlier this month.  They both teach middle school, and are out of the classroom periodically for activities with their school, and so need to leave plans for a substitute.  Rather than just leaving written ones, they record videos to leave for their classes, often teaching the lesson from their couch and giving directions for what they want their students to do.

Last time I was out, I knew ahead of time, since her fever popped up in teh evening.  So with my MacBook, my plans and my couch, I set to work putting together what I hoped would be a great day of learning for my kiddos, even in my absence.  Here’s what I left as a welcome to the day, along with our normal morning routine screen on the ActivBoard:

After they went off to specials, it was time for Writer’s Workshop in our room:

That big blue button sent them here to this video:

Next in our day was Math Workshop.  This video was a little different, but hopefully just as helpful.

Off to lunch and recess they went, and then back into the room for Read Aloud and then Reader’s Workshop.  Again, a flipchart welcomed them with directions:

Ok, well at least it had a place to send them for directions.  Those were here:

And here:

Social Studies followed Reader’s Workshop, as it normally does, and the lesson that they worked on that day was about the Natural Features of Europe:

Unfortunately this was the last day of the week, since we had a Professional Development Day the following day on Friday. We were also going to be out on Monday, too, since it was President’s Day! That meant I wouldn’t see them for what seemed like FOREVER, so I sent them off to their long weekend with this Goodbye and Good Weekend video:

Ok, so if you’re a frequent visitor to our blog, you know that I can’t write anything without ending with my thoughts and reflections.  And of course the topic of this post means that those thoughts and reflections are definitely doosies! (Is that how you spell that?  There was no choice for it in the dictionary. 🙂 )

(Now would be a great time to take a break and grab a snack if you want one!  I know I didn’t warn you that last part would take so long.  Sorry.  It’s ok, I’ll wait for you.)

Thoughts and reflections from using video sub plans:

Ease: The only reason I tried this whole thing originally is because I knew at around 6:00 the night before that I would be gone.  Since that was the case, I had lots of prep time to get it all ready.  This would not have been possible had I woken up and been surprised with an absence (like today, for example!).  Also, this was for an absence for a sick kid, not a sick teacher.  Had I been the one that was ill, this would have been almost an impossibility.  I hope, though, that since I’ve done it once now, and figured out all the logistics, the next time it won’t take me quite so long to put it all together.  And no, I don’t really want to admit how long it took me.  Ask your kiddo if you want.  I told them. 🙂  The other idea I had just now, though, is to prepare a generic “sub plan video” that could be used at any time if I had to suddenly be out.  It could then be added to my normal sub folder or uploaded to the portal that we use online to secure our subs.  Who knows, maybe I’ll start working on that one.

Logistics: I know this is partly related to the “ease” subject I just mentioned, but what I mean with this one is that there are a lot of logistical things on the school end that have to happen in order for my video plans to work like I had hoped they would.  The substitute has to know how to use the ActivBoard flipcharts I made, they have to know how to log on to my YouTube channel so the videos all play, and they have to be willing to follow the directions I gave in my videos.   So, in a perfect world, this would have been a great way for me to be at school with my students even though I wasn’t able to be there in person.

Impact: While the original reason I decided to try it was because it sounded like a great idea, incorporated technology and was something I hadn’t done before (which is often very motivating for me), I decided as I went through my planning, that maybe just seeing my face would be a subconscious reminder to follow the rules.  You know, unfortunately some kiddos tend to move into a different state of mind when they see a substitute at the front of the room instead of their normal teacher. I was also hoping that having me “teach” the normal lesson they were going to have for that day would help as they tried to keep the learning day as predictable and productive as possible.  I wanted to get the most bang for my buck.  I know that the day is never the same without me as when I’m there, but this was my way of trying to do what I could to help make it as normal as possible.

What experience do you have with using video sub plans?  What suggestions do you have for me? If you’re a parent, what do you think?  If you’re a substitute, have you used video sub plans in a classroom you’ve been in?  I’d love to know your thoughts!  Leave a comment for me. 🙂

Guided Math

I thought I was going to share an update about what’s been going on with our math rotations, but when I went back to look for the posts to link to, I realized I haven’t actually done it yet.  So now I will.  🙂

I will remind you of how I’ve been learning and reading about math lately.  You can read about that here and here and here.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Hee hee….

One of the biggest changes that can be seen in our room during Math Workshop is the use of rotations and small groups.  I guess I have always done groups of some sort, but I’m not usually a follow-this-strict-time-frame-and-schedule kind of person.  They usually happen spontaneously.  After a mini-lesson when kids have questions, or when some need review of some part of a concept.  We might just meet once or twice to meet a specific need and then move on to the next one.  So the whole idea of planning strict, timed math rotations with a predictable schedule and routine was a big rigid for me.  Believe me, there is structure and routine in my room, but many would say it’s a more relaxed version.

Well, hearing how great it was working in some other classrooms around my school (and especially in my neighbor Pam’s 5th grade next door!), I decided to try it.  So now, at least during math, we have a schedule.  It’s built on a 4 day cycle of rotations, with days 1 & 3 and days 2 & 4 being the same (thanks again to Pam –this was not my idea.  She TOTALLY created it and shared with me.  Gotta give major credit where it’s due. 🙂 ) The schedule looks like this:

Now, I am lucky enough to have another teacher push-in to my room for math support during the second half hour of our math time, so she takes one group and meets with them, and I spend time with the others.  We get to do double duty and it works really well.

Every 15 minutes, kiddos rotate through stations and work on something math related (I know, duh, right?):


We have a laptop cart that is shared by my teammates and I, so we grab 5 and set them up in a mini-lab situation during math.  Most days we play games on, which my kids are absolutely in love with (again, a find by my ubersmart friend Pam).  I love that I can set up which skills they work on.  Each kid has their own username and password, and it keeps track of how they do.  I get periodic emails about what’s happening there, so I can keep up on what’s going on when they’re in that station.  Double nice for all of us.



I’m pretty sure that it’s meant to be called Active, like with an E on the end, but since our interactive whiteboards are ActivBoards, I thought that name was catchy.  I know, it’s weird, but that’s what I do.  So, at this station, students work on something I’ve got ready for them on the ActivBoard, and it usually related to the unit we’re studying.  The one they’re doing in these pictures is one I found from Promethean Planet, and has word problems about decimals.  I just made a flipchart for next week, however, that has sudoku puzzles.  I’m excited to share that one.  The take turns in their group working at the board–“sharing the pen”–and then work out the problems on their own when it’s not their turn.  Of all of our rotations, this is the one that seems the hardest for us for some reason.  We’re working on making it go more smoothly.



This is a basic math game station.  When kiddos come here, they play a game with their partners that is about a concept we’ve already learned about.  Usually it’s from the last unit we just completed, or is related to basic facts or operations that most everyone needs practice with, like multiplication and division.  Usually I tell them which game to play, but everyone in a while they have a “free” day where they can play a game of their choice.


I don’t have a picture of this one–probably because it would just look like a bunch of kids writing in a notebook.  During this rotation, kids work on problems that might require writing, or that are an “extra” thing we’re not directly doing in our math unit.  They are usually higher level, and are meant to stretch them a bit.  One group was working on problems related to whether or not the Harry Potter franchise was successful at the box office (this one was a big treat for some MAJOR HP fans in my class!), one group solved problems about conversation hearts, and then there was one related to volume of chocolate Valentine’s candy. These were all found on


So since I was taking the pictures, you get a glimpse of my teaching partner, Ms. Rose.  She’s pretty great, and this is the group she works with on most days.  Whether they are meeting with her or with me, these times are used to meet the specific needs of the group, based on info from a pretest (in the beginning stages) and the work we do together (which I use to know where we should go and how fast).


Sorry.  Again a pretty boring picture, but it’s of kids practicing.  Makes sense, right?  This is a station they go to after we’ve learned something together.  The work they do here helps me know where to go the next time our group meets together.

We are in week 4 of this whole Guided Math math rotations thing and I think it’s going pretty well.  Check out what my kids had to say about it the other day by reading what they wrote about it on their blogs.  Their words speak volumes to how beneficial it seems to already be for them as learners.  Can’t wait to see where it goes!

***MAJOR SHOUT OUT:  I’ve mentioned all over this post that these ideas are not mine.  They are not original to me, and come from some really hard work shared with me by my colleague and teammate Pam LeSeure.  She found the whole Guided Math framework to begin with and then ran with it!  I have been lucky enough to benefit from her blood, sweat and tears as she figured it all out. She’s been an amazing support to me!  Thanks again, Pam.  🙂 ***

Save the Last Word For Me

I love my job.  I love my school.  I love my principal.  She has such a great way of making meetings so relevant and useful, usually showing us strategies that we could replicate in our classrooms the very next day.  There are actually many meetings I go to around our district that are like that.  It’s kind of refreshing.  So when we were taken through the protocol for discussing an article called “Save the Last Word For Me” on Friday, I decided that this time I would try it with my class.  I teach 5th graders, after all–and amazing ones at that–so I knew they’d do great things with it.

Here’s the big idea:

We were using the article that’s in the picture here, which is about cloning.  It gives some background and then highlights the pros and cons of the issue.  As a means of ever more deeply discussing the topic, we tried this protocol in our small “heads together” groups this afternoon.  I tried it with a small group of friends as an example first, and then sent them to work.  I wish the video I had taken was of better quality, because it’s the kind of thing that makes more sense when you see it, rather than just read about it. Sorry.  Maybe next time. 🙂

Overall, most groups did a great job, and most were able to dig a little deeper by hearing other people’s perspectives on what they had individually read first.  Once we were finished, we debriefed and they shared what was hard for them about trying something like this for the first time.  I heard them share the very same things that were hard for me as an adult reader and listener the first time–talking for the whole minute when it was my turn (that’s a lot longer that you realize when you aren’t sure what to say!),  stopping when the minute was over (it’s a long time unless you have a really good idea to share, and then it’s AMAZINGLY short!), and only talking when it’s your turn (which is only once during each cycle of sharing).  That last one didn’t surprise me, because I have a class of talkers.  Or maybe I should call them arguers.  No, debaters.  And during this protocol, you are not allowed to comment on other people’s ideas unless you’re the next one in the circle.  Anyway, they have important things to say and we’re all working together on finding the appropriate times to share our important thoughts.

Like I said before, I am always learning new things in my job as an adult learner, and when I can share those experiences and ideas with my kids, it’s a double bonus.  We’ll use this one again, for sure, and I’ll be excited to share with you how it goes.

And so I’ll end with a short shout out to Mrs. Sisul and Mrs. Ford for using this protocol with me.  Love that I learned it from you. 🙂

So have you heard of protocols before?  Have you tried this one?  What other ways do you use in your classroom to facilitate conversations around a text?

Valentine’s Day

What fun we had at our Valentine’s Day party on Tuesday!  The parents in charge of this party did such an amazing job putting together many great choices for us.  Each classroom had a different activity, and kiddos were allowed to participate in whichever they wanted.  The food was amazing, with the theme of “I’m So FONDUE of You.”  Cute, right?  Here are a few pics of the fun!

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The End of Literature

Literature Circles, that is. 🙂

We have spent the last few weeks meeting in Literature Circles to read and discuss a book together.  The kids have done an amazing job of thinking deeply and talking openly.

At the beginning of our study, we read several texts together, learning the roles that they would later use in their groups independently.  They learned–and then practiced–the roles of Discussion Director, Character Creator and Literary Luminary.

After we worked together, each student was given the choice of which Literature Circle they’d like to join.  Each kiddo gave their first, second and third choices for which group they’d like to join, then were put into groups of 4-6.  For the next three weeks students read and wrote questions about the book they chose.  Their lit group met three different times, and students had different roles each time.

The themes of the unit were responsibility and choice, as students focused on taking turns, making sure their voices were heard, and using the text to support their thinking.

My students did an amazing job with these groups!  They’re excited to try it again later in the spring with different book choices.  What great experiences we had together.

What experiences have you had with literature circles or book clubs?  Do you have any advice for us for the next time we meet? What book would you choose to read?