Feast Week Part 2: How I Learned Fractional Parts Without Thinking About Pizza

In case you missed Feast Week Part 1, check it out here.

Feast Week was born, and we had decided what (and how) we were going to teach that big, deep list of concepts about fractions.  We utilized the UbD template for planning the unit, focusing on what we wanted the outcomes to be and then how we’d get them there.

And then we told our kids about it.  And they were BEYOND excited!  We were giddy about the plan, and my students were as eager as me to start our fraction work so we could head down the road toward the beginning of the actual Feast Week.  And just as we had hoped, this was just the motivation that 81 5th graders needed to get through a really hard unit on fractions.

But first we had to learn about fractions.  The unit was broken down into eight big ideas:

1. What are fractions anyway?

2. How are fractions related and equivalent to percents and how can they be used to solve problems?

3. How do you find fractional parts of a group (i.e. what is 2/5 of 30 students)?

4. How do you add and subtract fractions?

5. How can you multiply a whole number by a fraction? What does it mean and why would I need to do it in real life? (As a side note: this one was cool, because it is the same as finding the fractional part of a group–they just didn’t know that back at the beginning of the unit)

6. How can you multiply a fraction by a fraction?  What does it mean and why would I need to do it in real life?

7. How can you divide a whole number by a fraction? What does it mean and why would I need to do it in real life?

8. How can you divide a fraction by a whole number? What does it mean and why would I need to do it in real life?

The really fabulous (yes, I know I say that word a lot, and yes, I do it on purpose 🙂 ) thing about this unit was how many times I heard the words “Wow, this is easy!”  And how surprised so many kids were that it was easy.  For some reason, fractions is a four-letter-word to most people and honestly, I think that’s why so many of us (including me!) had so much trouble figuring them out.

We use Investigations as a math resource in our district, and I have always loved the way it works through math concepts–always starting with the why before showing the how.  And it was no different with fractions.  We did not start with straight number problems where we colored in pies that were the same amount, or with “this is the algorithm for adding fractions.”  We started with the why–or the “what” really.  What is a fraction, and how does it relate to percents, which are something that everyone already knows about.

Our fraction unit introduced many graphic organizers for kiddos to use to represent their math thinking, and the first one we used was a 10 by 10 grid.  We used it to find fourths (again, going back to something they already know), and figured out what fractions and percents we knew from those: 1/4 is 25%, 2/4 is equivalent to 1/2 and 50%, 3/4 is 75%.  Then I blew their minds when I showed them how they could find eighths on the same grid.  Yep, even though 8 is not a factor of 100.  Again, we had them think about what they knew and how they could use that knowledge to figure out something they didn’t know.  (I’ll let you stop right now and see if you can figure out how to do it.  Go ahead, I’ll even give you a 10 by 1o grid to use.)

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Yeah, so I’m sure you’ve figured it out, but I’ll show you anyhow:  If you find fourths, then think about what an 1/8 is.  It’s half of a 1/4, right?  Yep, 1/4=2/8.  Since you know that 1/4 is 25%, then you can easily figure out that 1/8 is the same as 12 1/2%.  Now you can use that to figure out the percent that is equivalent to any fourth or eighth, just by adding more of them.  3/8 is 37 1/2% because you know 2/8 (1/4) is 25% and then 1/8 is 12 1/2%.  Crazy, right?  I LOVE THIS PART!!  It’s so freeing to kids who have thought all along that fractions are impossible, too hard for them, some secret that they haven’t been told.  But now it’s just another puzzle–and they have the pieces to help them solve it!  This fraction/percent equivalence plays a HUGE part in the whole rest of the unit, so we spend lots of time at the beginning working with those numbers in different ways to help get it sold in their minds.  They had a chart they used as a resource, as well, throughout the unit.  Math doesn’t have to be a mystery.  It isn’t something you have to memorize.  You have tools and you just have to know when and how to use them!

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Another organizer we used were 4 x 6 and 5 x 12 rectangles.  They’re arrays, just like the 10 x 10 grids, but work better for other numbers that have factors like 3, 4, 5 and 6 (thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, etc.). We could use them to find the fractional parts of almost any number that way.


These were used when we moved on to finding thirds and sixths (which you can do with percents, as well, too).  These were cool, too, when they figured out that 1/3 was 33 1/3% and that 1/6 is half of that.  That’s a crazy question: what is 1/2 of 33 1/3?  Wish I would have recorded them figuring out that it’s 16 2/3%. Really.  It is.  Try it.  Here, let me show you:

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The first time I did that it heard my head.  The second and third times it did, too.  Yeah, I’ll admit it.  Some of the things I ask my kids to do seemed crazy in the beginning.  Mainly because it’s not how I learned it, but this time around it totally makes sense.   I wonder what it would have been like to do math like this when I was a kid…

(Ready for Part 3?  Find it here.)

Feast Week Part 1: The Birth of Feast Week

First of all, Happy New Year!  I don’t know when you’re reading this, but I’m writing it during Winter Break, on New Year’s Eve Eve.  This is a time of year I both love and hate: the fresh start that comes both personally and professionally in January is one of my favorite things–there is an air of anticipation of new and wonderful things to come; the fact that Spring Break isn’t for another two months is a little disheartening.  Winter can be long in Missouri.

That being said, I am excited to tell you a story about what was happening in my classroom–well all the 5th grade classrooms at my school really–during the months of November and December.  It was a fun and exciting time in our school, full of learning and anticipation; an eagerness that had nothing to do with holidays or vacations.  We were doing hard work, focused on something that at that time seemed like it was forever in the future: Feast Week 2012.

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This year I have a whole team full of new friends, and with that comes new ways of doing things–mainly just because we have all done it differently in our previous teaching “lives,” and because we want to plan new things together.  So…when it came time to talk about fractions and how we were going to teach that dreaded fabulous unit, we knew it was something we wanted to do together.

First we looked at what we had.  I have taught a fraction unit of some sort for the last 7 or 8 years, in 4th and 5th grade.  Previously, we really just had to get our friends to a solid understanding of what “fraction” means (part of a whole), and be able to use fraction/percent equivalents to solve problems related to parts of a group.  There was also a small part that included adding and subtracting fractions, using the equivalents as the basis (rather than finding common denominators, which is a common practice).

This year, however, our school district is really trying to dig into the new Common Core Standards–hoping to get a feel for what they ask of our kids and how they’ll change things for us as teachers.  This is happening most deeply in math; all of our curriculum and rubrics were rewoven to match the CCSS this past summer.

Now, instead of just the basic foundation like I mentioned previously, our kids have to be able to do this:

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Can I be honest here for a minute and tell you that we were a little FREAKED OUT by all of that!  Unfortunately, until you get to know the CCSS really well, and dig into what they mean and are actually asking your kids to do, I find that they are written in a really complicated way.  Needless to say, the first time we even read those expectations we were scared: how were we supposed to get 10- and 11-year-olds to be able to do those things (and do them well, with a deep understanding) if we couldn’t even understand what the standards said?

So after we picked our jaws up off the floor, dried our tears, and got our heart rates back to a somewhat normal rate, we sat down to figure out just how we were going to tackle these things with our students. We began with the belief that they could do it, we could do it and we were going to do it well.  We wanted to do it in a meaningful, authentic and real-life way that would help build a “forever and always” understanding, rather than just an “I-get-this-now-but-will-forget-it-after-I-take-the-test-next-week” understanding.   That meant rewriting assessments, possibly reworking assignment and activities and rethinking our own working knowledge of fractions.

And so Feast Week was born.  It began as an assessment idea, really, but quickly melded into more of a celebration–a culminating activity that would incorporate all that we expected our kids to know and be able to do.  It was to take place the last full week before Winter Break, and would include all that goes into creating a Winter Feast–planning, shopping, cooking, and then of course, eating!  We based it on an activity I had done in previous years around Thanksgiving where I had students use the circulars from the grocery stores to plan dinner for their family.  In that scenario, however, the whole situation was hypothetical.  In this reincarnation, it was for real.  We set the 5th Grade Fraction Feast to take place as our Winter Party, and the kiddos were entirely responsible for making it happen.  Talk about real-life.  Authentic.  Engaging.  Motivating.

And yes, it was.  None of it was easy.   And yes, I can admit there may have been some tears shed along the way.  But we made it, and yes, it was FABULOUS!

Hopefully you’ll hang on for the rest of the story of Feast Week! I promise it’ll be worth your time.  🙂

(**Be sure to read Part 2 here!**)

Close Reading

We’ve been working on close reading lately in Rm. 202.

I know–before this past summer I wouldn’t have known what that was, either.  If you haven’t heard about Common Core yet either, it’s another thing that is on the forefront of every educator’s mind right now, too.  And while reading closely isn’t a new thing, necessarily, the importance of it is perhaps emphasized now, more than ever.

I found a great post about close reading when I was doing some research on it the other day.   I was looking for directions for exactly how to present to my 5th graders.  What I love about this one, is that the way it was described had pieces that I knew my readers would already be familiar with because of the S.H.A.D.O. strategies we had learned earlier this year in Reader’s Workshop.

I love how Dr. Douglas Fisher describes it in a recent video:

A close reading is a careful and purposeful reading. Well actually, it’s rereading. It’s a careful and purposeful rereading of a text. It’s an encounter with the text where students really focus on what the author had to say, what the author’s purpose was, what the words mean, and what the structure of the text tells us.

So I made this chart to help my friends remember what to do:

IMG621So like I said, it’s not really anything new (at least not to me and probably not to you, because we’ve been reading for a while now), but to my 5th graders, it does equal something new in how deeply they are expected to look at text.

While I’d love to say that I’ve always taught students to read and reread and reread again, I’d be lying if I did.  Yes, we talk about rereading as a fix-up strategy for monitoring comprehension, I’ve never emphasized it as something that good readers do on a regular basis.  And I know I’ve never talked about it this in-depth.  It’s never before been an expectation for how my readers will dig into a text to really get at the what and why, the “meat” of a text.  And it’s never had a name.

I think the big thing I’m trying to get at, really, is that I haven’t ever emphasized it this specifically with my students.  I haven’t asked them to pay such close attention to when they’re rereading and how they’re rereading.  Reading and rereading have now become one.  Now the expectation is that they will always reread, more than twice, as a means of better understanding the text at hand. The big idea of reading now, forever and always, will be to dig deep into a text, to really get to know it well, like a good friend.  Regardless of what that text is, I want them to make it their friend–knowing it so well and closely that I could ask them anything and they’d be able to tell me more.  And yes, ideally, I’d like them to want to do it because they desire to be a better reader, not because their teacher said so.

And so that brings up an interesting conversation we had today during Reader’s Workshop.  We were reviewing some questions we’d answered on a monthly benchmark assessment from the other day; we’d practice closely reading on the text and so were expected to have really understood what it was trying to say.  As we discussed our answers and gave evidence from the text to support our thinking, I could tell that most had done a reasonably good job of getting the main idea of the text; most of our answers were correct also.  As we were moving on, and most of us had agreed that reading more closely had helped, a question was raised:  But do we always have to do a close reading?  I don’t really want to.  It takes too long.

AHHHHH!! Just when I thought I had them, there it was.  A friend who needed convincing.   And what I loved was that many other students jumped in to answer the question for me.  That’s key, I think, actually–often times things mean so much more when they come from peers rather than adults.

What came next, though, instead of a real answer was another question, and this came from me.  It was related to purpose: So yes, you should do a close reading every time you encounter a new text, but why?  Why should you want to?

Their answers were interesting and got me thinking about how we define reading.  Many of their answers were related to “getting good grades” or getting the “right answer.”  So I kept digging: Ok, well let’s back up.  What is reading?  How do you read?

Again, answers were all over the place, none of which really getting at the main purpose: Reading is making meaning.  It’s understanding what the words on the page mean, and how they work together to help you understand the message of the author.  And as a reader, you should want to understand.  You should not be happy with not “getting it.”

At the very least, this conversation today got me thinking about how I proceed.  And how I start next time.  Perhaps we should have talked about close reading way earlier than now; had I named this strategy in August and set it as the expectation from Day 1, it wouldn’t be so scary now.  But I’m also intrigued by what we’re teaching our readers (and writers and scientists, etc.) about why we do what we do.  Somewhere they’ve still gotten the idea that they’re supposed to do something for the grade, the right answer, or because their teacher told them they were supposed to do it.  That their motivation should be something extrinsic, not just the mere enjoyment and satisfaction of learning something, understanding what an author is trying to say to them.  I hope to begin to grow a group of readers (learners, really) who know that they have a toolbox of strategies that they can use–that they should know how to use and when–and that use them at their discretion to solve problems, to understand and to learn.

But alas, this is not something I’m going to change today.  Or tomorrow, even.  But I can start.  I’m hoping that I have started this already with my “forever and always” thinking we talk about so often.  This fits into that beautifully: I want them to learn to closely read a text so that they will “forever and always” be able to understand any text they encounter, not just to get the answers right on their monthly Edison benchmark assessments in 5th grade.   I just have to keep pushing to convince them that this matters.

So I have a question or two (or four) for you:

1.  How have you presented close reading with your students? I’d love to hear what you’d add, or suggestions you have.

2. How would you define reading?

3. What reasons do you give for why we should want to understand text we read?

4. What other thoughts do you have?



This is HARD!

I am a writer.  I am not a published author, but I see myself as a person with an opinion, something smart to say, someone with ideas to express.  I do that is many venues, and one of them includes following along in each writing cycle that I ask my students to go through.

Usually this is a relatively easy task.  I’ve been writing for myself for years now, and have TONS of ideas to choose from in my many Writer’s Notebooks.  And as long as the genre is something non-fiction, I’m ok.  And then this time every year a fiction cycle rolls around and I start to get nervous.   For whatever reason, writing a story is just not something that comes easily to me.  It seems that every story I do end up writing has something to do with Santa Claus or Christmas.  Other than that, I got nothing.

So when we got to Thursday–drafting day–I should have been ready to sit down with my students and use my own seed idea and nurturing notes to draft, I had a little confession to make instead.

“THIS IS HARD!” I started.   I had to admit to them that I was not ready to draft.  I had to tell them that, in fact, I didn’t even have a start of an idea.  I had NOTHING!  Ok, not nothing–I did have 7 years of Writer’s Notebook filled with ideas, but nothing that spoke to me and said, “Hey, Mrs. Bearden–write a story about this!” or that could easily fit into a Santa or Christmas story (that’s all I know how to write about, remember??).

So on drafting day, instead of drafting, my job was to figure out my idea.  But I needed help.  And I knew just the people to ask. 🙂

As my students worked on their own drafts, then, I went back to work digging through my notebooks to find anything that I was at least a little bit interested in.  I wasn’t really even sure what I was looking for, but I did end up finding a couple of cute stories from my childhood.  Then one about my little brother.  And another about something funny my husband did when he was a kid.  And so finally my wheels starting turning…

After a few minutes, I at least had a start:

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What I came up with was an idea to incorporate many stories from my childhood (about me, my brother, my dad, my husband) into one, set in an old house I used to live in. The trouble was figuring out how to do that.  All I had to do was just begin to mention all of this to my students and within about 10 seconds I had at least 10 possibilities–one that even had a link to Christmas!  Love it.

And do now my hard work continues as I try this weekend to come up with my draft.  And believe me, it’ll have to happen, regardless of how impossible it feels to me now.  They’re counting on me.  I ask them to do it, so I should be able to do it, too, right?  I’ll let you know the answer to that when I figure it out.  Hopefully before Monday. 🙂

What’s your favorite genre to write?  Is there one that’s easier or harder for you?  Tell us about it!

Trying Something New: Writing Warm-Ups

So hopefully by now you’ve seen posts about how we use math warm-ups to reinforce and extend what we’re working on in our current math unit.

Well…math warm-ups have been working SO WELL for us, that I finally got around to trying something I’ve been thinking about for a while–writing warm-ups.

First a back story…

Everyone knows that learning the mechanics and grammar of writing is important.  But what is the best way to teach it?  For many years, I did what many people do–give kids lots of sentences to edit and correct, hoping that they would then transfer that “learning” into their writing.  One year I even turned daily edits into a weekly quiz, so that I could be sure I was assessing this work we were doing.  And I guess it worked ok.  Kids showed me that they knew how to capitalize correctly, use basic punctuation and pick the “right” word depending on the question they were asked.  But yet they didn’t do a great job of doing this in their writing.  It was like they had never encountered the rules for punctuation, capitalization or grammar.

This puzzled me, and I was curious about what else I could do to improve these skills in my students’ writing.  After learning from a smart friend of mine, and doing a little reading on my own, I had some different thoughts about what was better practice in this area.  For one thing, I abandoned Daily Edits.  These exercises, after all, only gave my students exposure to these skills in isolated situations–situations that made them unable to transfer the knowledge.  The thinking in not doing them, is that when all that students see is the wrong way to use mechanics and grammar, they may subconsciously be learning that wrong way to do it.  It’s totally against the logic of why I did those activities, but after I heard it, it made perfect sense.

So fast forward a few months: I began doing a punctuation study as a means of helping  my students discover and learn more about how writers use punctuation.  I wanted them to see the right ways that writers use punctuation to make meaning; I wanted them to learn why they should want to know how to punctuate correctly, not just “because my teacher told me to follow these rules.”

And so for several years I’ve also wanted to try something else.  Something that finally happened this past week.

The basic idea of the Writing Warm-up is to show my students a piece of writing (that I choose specifically based on what I want my students to discover) and ask them what they notice.   I want them to look for things the writer does with words, spacing, punctuation, etc., that they could then try in their own writing.  And unlike with daily edits, I can highlight a specific skill by showing them a quality piece of writing demonstrating the right way to do it, rather than one filled with mistakes.

So far we’ve only had three of these warm-ups, and here they are:



This first one, from a beloved read aloud we finished recently, had all sorts of “good stuff” to discover.  I specifically picked it because we were trying to figure out more about how to use the semi-colon, but obviously they found many other things I hadn’t expected.  We worked on this one together with the document camera so everyone could see it on the big screen.  They had their own copy of the text, too, so that they could take notes if they wanted to.


IMG595This one gives you a better idea of logistically how we manage these warm-ups.  Unlike the math version, we use the ActivBoard instead of the easel.  Instead of doing them in the morning, our writing warm-ups happen right when we return from lunch and recess.  Their “bellringer” before they head to read aloud is to check out the text, then jot an idea on a post-it what they think they can learn.  They put the post-it on the text near the thing they noticed.  Then, at the beginning of our Writer’s Workshop lesson, we return to this text and have a quick conversation before moving on to the main daily lesson.



Another excerpt from our current read aloud Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer, one that I chose specifically because of the dialogue included.  We’re in the middle of a fiction writing cycle, and there is an expectation that they will include dialogue in those stories.  We’ve already discussed how commas work in this situation, and so this is an extension–how you start a new paragraph each time a new character starts, to help your reader keep track of who is speaking without having to write “he said” each time.  The cool part is that most of them mentioned this without me even prompting them!  Good stuff.

The verdict is still out on whether these warm-ups will do what I want them to, but then again we’ve just started.  At the very least, it’s a good start for us, and my writers love them, so there’s good potential.  We’ll keep you updated. 🙂

How do you teach grammar and mechanics?   What do you think of Writing Warm-ups? Leave us a comment and tell us what you think. 🙂

Fiction Frenzy!

We have been busy over the last week collecting new ideas in our notebooks as we start a fiction writing unit.  As with every unit I teach, there are specific strategies that I teach about how to collect for that genre; the idea is that these can then be used over and over again once you know how they work.

Together throughout the week we read several books together, then looked at an idea we could pull out of that book to use in our writing.  First we read The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris Van Allsburg and talked about how to meld real and imaginary events into the same story.  Then we read Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter, and talked about how to collect “interesting people” to use as characters.  We also tried a strategy that Eva, the girl in the story, uses when she asks “What if?” and then twists the story in an interesting way.  On Thursday we read Moira’s Birthday by Robert Munsch, and brainstormed “messy situations” that we could use in our stories to add interest, conflict and fun.  Lastly, we tried something that I knew my writers had probably never done, and that I knew they’d love.  And they did.  🙂

Let me tell you about it.

The big idea was that kiddos were given pictures from which to get inspiration for a story.  The strategy was a lot like something we did at the beginning when we first started our Writer’s Notebooks.  The first time around, though, the pictures were from magazines, and this time they were from my iPhoto albums.  Yep,  pictures of my kiddos–I knew my school kiddos would be excited about this one and give it their all.  They really love anything related to my family, which I love, too.

We rotated pictures around the room, two at a time, and kids brainstormed ideas for stories that they could write.  Each time they got a new picture, they could then start a new idea, or add on to the one they were already writing.  Here are the pictures we used for inspiration:


The activity was really fun, and I am pretty sure that many of these ideas will become the seeds they’ll choose to publish.  Be sure also see the posts about it on our blogs.  Maybe you could even try it yourself.  What stories would you come up with from these pictures? Comment and tell us about it!  We’d love to use your stories as inspiration, too! 🙂


I’ve told you about our Learning Buddies, right? What?  I haven’t?  Man…what have I been doing?

Ok, so quick explanation: at our school, each class is paired up with another class–one from a primary grade and one from an intermediate grade.  We spend time together doing fun and fabulous things together, learning and growing together.  Sometimes we read, sometimes we write, often times we just play games together.  We are lucky enough to be buddies with a fabulous group of second graders from Mrs. Uhles’ class.  We love them and try to get together as soon as we can!

So…the afternoon before we left for Thanksgiving break, we had our buddies up to play some games together.  We had just finished a study on Ancient West Africa, and had learned how to play Mancala–which is an ancient African game–and we wanted to share it with our little friends.


We were able to find a way to play Mancala online, too, so we got to show our buddies how to use QR codes, as well as the new iPads!  Double fun.  🙂


Do you have Learning Buddies?  What do you do together? Tell us about it!

Math Warm-Ups Nov. 26-30, 2012

This week we had five whole days of school!  And even better, we had five math warm-ups!  Check ’em out!







This warm-up question illustrates just how authentic and real-life I try to make these.  This one really came from a conversation I had with a group as they were working on the problem I gave during work time on Monday.  It was just where I wanted us to go, and so presenting it as a warm-up made sense.  And when it can be suggested as a kid’s idea instead of mine–which it really was, anyway–that’s even better.




As they did these warm-ups, the focus was on finding common denominators to help them add.  Rather than finding the LCM, however, I want them to connect these to work we’ve already done with fraction-percent equivalents; they know they can double or halve certain fractions to make other ones.  Mostly we’ve worked with thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, eighths, and tenths, but I threw that 25 and 50 one in there to see if they could transfer the thinking to a similar problem.  They could. 🙂




This one reminded (or introduced to some) us of important vocabulary of improper fractions and mixed numbers.  As we added these, they focused on changing the mixed number to an improper fraction, adding them, and then reducing it to simplest terms.  Notice how the last one has the fraction circled?  It was on this problem that someone figured out that we could add the whole numbers and then just add the fractions and put them back together.  Smart, huh?  Again–this was so much more meaningful that they discovered it on their own, than if I just told them that they could do that as a shortcut.




These problems encouraged my friends to focus on the strategy we had discovered at the end of the warm-up the day before, and also threw in some vocab we already knew (sums).  By the end of this conversation, there some kids who were smiling, which was nice considering all the frowns I’d seen early on in the week.  🙂

On a side note…sorry for the mess of the charts this week.  I ran out of chart paper and had to use the backs, too!  It’s resourceful, right?  Or just messy…not sure which. 🙂