Friday, December 26, 2014

Risk taking is learning

Are your students or own children afraid to make mistakes?  Children need to know that you can't learn without taking some risks.  And new research is confirming that overprotecting children actually does more harm than good.

I got thinking about this topic after reading a great condensed article in Reader's Digest titled:  The Revolution Will Not Be Supervised. (A longer version of the article is posted here for those who'd like the full read.) The article gives an overview of the safety movement for children's playgrounds that began in the 1970's and how in general it has not really made children much safer.  This was a surprise to me at first, but if you read the article, some of the reasons make perfect sense. One example - modern playgrounds are nearly always blanketed with shock absorbent material like rubber designed to protect children from falls.  Yet, despite this, there's evidence that injuries on these surfaces have not decreased, and for some types of injuries, they may have actually increased.  The reason is simple.  When children know there's a safe surface below them, they are actually less cautious.  This leads to more falls that lead to bone breaking injuries.

Ellen Sandseter, a researcher and professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College claims that safety regulations have transformed modern playgrounds into "sterile, boring places" with no imaginationIt's true that today one playground looks like pretty much any other.  And sadly, if you drive around the town where I live at least, you'll hardly see more than a handful of kids playing on our playgrounds.  If you do, they are never alone.  There are usually parents sliding down slides with their kids in their laps or hovering below their child with their arms outstretched ready to catch them if they fall off something.

Sandseter has concluded that children "have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement."  When we, as adults, strip our children of reasonable opportunities to take risks, then we are taking away an necessary part of their brain developmentAn interesting research fact from the article - children who injured themselves from a fall between the ages of 5 and 9 were actually less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. In other words, kids who aren't given opportunities to explore heights at a young age are actually more like to develop phobias of high places.

Okay, fair warning here's my "old man, pining about the good old days" moment...

I am amazed how much child's play has changed in just one generation. When I was a kid, I climbed tall trees.  I built forts out of scrap wood and rusty nails.  We built a tree house in an empty lot that was our "secret hideout."  We would climb up on the roof of our friend's house.  One time we even jumped from the roof on top of the bounce house his mom had rented for his birthday.  I threw rocks at things.  My friends and I played "Star Wars" with sticks we'd find. My friends and I would use our pocket knives to carve "spears" and see how far we could throw them.  We cut an old broom stick into "nun chucks" and played Bruce Lee.  We played tackle football.  My younger brother and I played "WWF wrestling", usually until one or both of us was  crying.  We went swimming with our friends, unsupervised by adults.  My friends and I built ramps and jumped them with our dirt bikes.  I crashed and fell sometimes.  I never broke any bones, but I had bruises on my body and scabs on my knees and elbows for most of my childhood.  You did not call them "boo-boo'sYou showed it off to your friends as a badge of how "tough" you were. I played outside until it got dark and my mom and dad had no idea where I was most of the time.  

So what has happened in the last 30 years?

The article mentioned above describes a fascinating counter-culture
Peter Yang/August
experiment taking place in Great Britain called "The Land" that provides children with playgrounds quite unlike those we see in our communities.  Its playground equipment includes lots of lose, moveable parts and even "dangerous" elements like a fire pit and a rope swing over the creek.

From the article:
"Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide, no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off, no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise, it deposits you in the creek). On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar."
The author of the article's son playing
around "The Land's" firepit (Hanna Rosin)
The concept  of this playground is for kids to explore and take risks without direct adult supervision or direction.  It is designed to encourage creative play and socializing with peers.  The space is staffed by specially trained "playworkers" who closely observe but do not interfere unless needed.  This sounds to me like the type of place I would have loved as a kid.
Camp Pransky.  This little pop-up has
seen a lot of the country

My family likes to camp a lot. We have taken our little pop-up camper from as far east as Maine, as far west as Yellowstone in and as far south as Savanah, GA.  These trips have given our family some of our most cherished experiences together.

Whitewater rafting in the Adirondacks.
I think camping has given my kids opportunities to take reasonable risks and to learn from them.  We have done overnight backpacking in bear country, mountain biking, white water rafting, and horseback riding among other things - all involving some degree of danger.  (Sometimes, even something innocuous like going to see the world's second largest ball of twine can lead to adventure.)  These activities have given my kids opportunities to make choices, adapt to situations, and I think, as a result they gained confidence in themselves.

One of my friend Greg's signature
"teepee" campfire starts
Fire is, of course, a staple of camping.  While we sit around the fire, we usually talk and tell stories about our day.  Everyone is around the fire as opposed to at home where we may tend to be drawn to our favorite, but separate, areas of the house to hang out.  My son, in particular, likes to "play" in the fire.  For example, he likes to find a long stick that he can hold over the fire and once its lit wave it around as you might do to a sparkler until it smolders out.  And while he's never really burned himself (or anyone else) by the fire, I think it has helped him to respect fire and its power.

Similarly, my son was always keenly interested when my friend Greg would split the firewood into smaller pieces to use as starter wood.  One day, Greg decided to teach him the proper technique to do it safely without embedding the hatchet in your foot. Now, this is one of his favorite camping activities and he's gotten quite good at it.

One of my favorite camping memories occurred at Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont.  We had done a lot of hiking and site seeing in the area when Lilly, my friend's ever-quotable daughter, started acting bored and tired of it all and replied snidely, "You can see all this on the internet!The adult rolled our eyes at this and made a mental note to remember this comment for the scrapbook.

Rogan and Lucas cruising on kayaks on Emerald Lake
Later that trip, we decided to rent some kayaks to take out on  Emerald Lake.  It is aptly named as it is a beautifully clear, cold, and deep glacial lake.  We soon came across a rope swing that someone had tied high up to a tree that hung out over the lake.  Despite the element of danger and the fact that it was probably illegal, we just couldn't pass up on the opportunity to give it a try.  We all took turns swinging out over the lake and diving/dropping in.  It was frightening but extremely fun at the same time.  

At one point we each decided to say something clever while we were swinging.  My friend's son, Lucas shouted, "Live Free, or Die!", New Hampshire's state motto which he had taken on as his personal credo.  But, Greg topped us all by turning his daughter's quote around on her as seen in the video below.

I think its important for all kids to take reasonable risks.  After all, we can't wrap them in bubble wrap and protect them for their whole lives.  Life is messy, and it involves skinned knees and bruises from time to time.  In fact, I couldn't imagine childhood without these things.

If you are interested in more on this topic.  Check out this great article, Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids...And How to Correct Them.  I also would recommend this terrific Ted Talk by Gever Tulley that makes some of my same  points.

5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Better Lesson Planning Using Google Spreadsheets

Create Lesson Plans that are more complete, efficient, and collaborative with a Google Spreadsheet


Thanks to Juliet from Teaching Trio for the Link-Up.  I found this through my friend and co-teacher's blog Mary over at 4th Works and I'm glad I did.  I thought I'd share an idea I've used for years now that has truly saved me time on my lesson planning while at the same time making it more functional for everyone I teach with.  

I adapted this idea from Tammy Worchester Tang a great presenter who I saw once at a conference and then started following through Tammy's Tip of the Week.  Sign up for that - its always great.  She is a google guru and had a really neat and simple way to use google spreadsheets for lesson planning.

First, here's what my plans looked like a few years ago when I was teaching a mostly self-contained fourth grade classroom teaching ELA, Math, and Science.

So, what are the advantages to creating your lessons in a google spreadsheet, you ask?


#1  Easy to share

If you work with the special ed teacher, title reading teachers, tutors, speech, etc... it is very easy to share your lesson plans in google so that everyone is one the same page.  If you co-teach, you could even give editing privileges and create lesson plans together.

#2 Easy to refer back to later

I like to look back to my plans from previous years as a starting point to help me plan this year's lessons.  How I do this is I simply create a new "sheet" for each year (see those tabs at the bottom?)  That way, all I have to do is click a single tab and I can look at what I did in past years.  Searching is easy, too.  Sometimes I'd want to search for the title of a novel like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" so I could see what activities I did with that book.

Bingo!  There's that introduction lesson!

#3 Saves a ton of time

One you have the format of a regular week (which I'll acknowledge, takes some tinkering to get it just right) use the magic of copy/paste to add your other weeks.  Have a rock solid awesome lesson plan from last year?  Copy/paste into this year.  Have a routine activity that you do every week.  Copy/paste.  It's that easy.

#4 Allows for more detailed lessons

Because they are typed in I have more space to add detailed notes about my lesson.  Since I use them year after year, it doesn't bother me to put a bit more detail into my plans.  Back in the day, my handwritten lesson plans always had a ton of my own personal shorthand that would have been indecipherable to a sub.  But with my current plans someone could walk into my room on a moment's notice in an emergency and follow my plans pretty easily, I think.  (At least that's what my subs have told me.)

#5 You can print them out and keep them on your desk, just like you're used to.

I usually would print my lesson out in two sheets like below and put them in a binder with my other lesson plans on my desk.  Getting the spreadsheet formatted to fit properly for 8.5 x 11 paper takes some trial and error, but once you've got it, then the other weeks will be all set up and ready to go
My morning
My afternoon

#6  You can easily modify or make changes as the week goes on

I'm a visual person so I like to use color to help me "see" what my week looks like.  This is helpful to me, especially when I have a week with a lot of programs or other things that break up the flow of a normal week.  Also, sometimes you move faster than you expected.  More often (for me at least), you don't get as much done as you thought you would in your plans.  Sometimes you have a snow day or two or fourteen (like last year) and your lessons become a jumbled mess.  Making changes or moving lessons around in google spreadsheet doesn't require a giant eraser, just a simple keystroke of command-c and command-v.

Are there any downsides to using a google spreadsheet?

Yes, there are a few.  First, formatting your text in a spreadsheet is a little tricky. One tip is to use Option + Return to make a new line in your cell.  A regular Return jumps you to the cell below.  Also, any formatting choices you make apply to the entire cell too so it needs to be all centered, all bold, etc.. in the cell or none at all. As I mentioned a couple times, formatting your lessons for printing will take some tweaking to make them look nice, but once you've got it the way you like it, that job is done.

I hope that gave you some good ideas for using google lesson plans.  I started using them years ago and haven't turned back.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Task Card Freebie! - Curently December

Thanks to Farley over at Oh Boy 4th Grade for the Link Up.  I wasn't prepped for it ahead of time, so I pulled this one together quickly.  Hopefully I am not too late to the party. :)

Listening to...

My printer.  Between my kids school projects and the things I have to print for school, we go through a lot of printer ink in our house.  I've heard people say before that it can be cheaper to continue to buy new printers rather than buy the ink to replace them.  I can believe that.


Having my kids home.  Our kids had the great opportunity to travel to Disney World with the Anthony Wayne Marching band.  They were gone for one week over Thanksgiving break.  It gave my wife and I a small peek into what the house will eventually look and sound like sometime in the near future when the kids fly the coop.  We both missed them terribly and were anticipating when they would call us each night to tell us about their day.  So how did it look with the kids gone?  Much less cluttered.  How did it sound?  Quiet, too quiet.

Here's a peek of their marching routine at the park:


of what to get my wife for Christmas.  My wife is truly wonderful in every way.  But, she is really, really hard to buy for.  She doesn't collect anything.  She doesn't have many hobbies.  She's not into jewelry.  I wouldn't ever attempt to pick out clothing for her as we have totally different tastesShe likes to cook, but she's got about every tool or gadget for the kitchen that she wants and our kitchen is overflowing them.  Today, I bought her some art that she mentioned she liked when we were at an art festival over the summer.  It was expensive, but I'm still thinking of something nice to get her.  Got a great idea for me?  Please feel free to post in the comments.

The new Apple Watch.  I don't know if technology can be made sexy, but if it can be then Apple has done it.  I just wish they had this thing ready for Christmas.  Judge for yourself.

A haircut.  Done.  Went to the new "Great Clips" in town and got my hair cut for just $6.99 + tip.  I got a haircut from there the first day they opened for just $2.99!  My friend said that it looked like I spent at least a $5.  :)

One of my new task card products for free.  Its Christmas themed and great for review.  I hope you enjoy it.

 Have a great few weeks up until Christmas everyone!


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Made it Monday - November

 First, thanks to Tara at Fourth Grade Frolics for her Made It Monday Linkup!
Full disclosure.  I hate bulletin boards.  There, I said it.  I know that's blasphemous in a Link up with super creative, crafty types like yourself.  But, please, before you judge me, let me explain.

When I first started teaching I had an amazing fourth grade teaching mentor by the name of Nancy.  At the beginning of each month she would diligently pull out these cute, already prepared bulletin boards that she had created and neatly filed away to use.  Usually these were taken from ideas in Mailbox magazine and were most often used to display exceptional student work.  With all of the other things I felt I needed to do in my first year teaching, I dreaded having to change my bulletin boards at the end of every month.  It became a chore.  On top of that, not only were they not as nice as the ones by my mentor, but I felt like they weren't worth the time and effort that it took to put them together.  Too often, they were just for decoration, and it was frustrating to me that students barely even noticed when they were changed.

All that being said, I understand that teachers today now use bulletin boards for more than just window dressing.  The best bulletin boards are student-centered, interactive, and purposeful.  Still, sometimes I just can't shake that old feeling when there's a bulletin board that I need to put up.  So while its not my specialty, per se, I still think I've come up with a few decent bulletin board ideas.  Here are a few I've made in the past:

This is our "team" bulletin board right outside of my door.  Since the bulletin board is in the hallway and there's usually a table in front of it, it is not very useful for much other than as an eye catching display.

We are a team of three classes, hence the three columns of names in the middle.  I teach with Mary Dressel at 4th Works who teaches Language Arts and Mary Beth who teaches Social Studies and Science. 

My son designed our web logo himself in the game of Minecraft

We call ourselves Team Mindcrafters, playing off of the immensely popular game video game, Minecraft.  I got the idea for the team name and for the bulletin board from my son who is a real Minecraft Whiz.  He showed me this site where you can make Minecraft foldables of all kinds. So, before school started we folded and taped all of the blocks and characters. 

A little clear tape and a pin was used to put the block on the board
Then, Mary and I pinned them up on the board using some tape.  Voila!  A three dimensional bulletin board.  The only problem with this board is its almost impossible for the kids to resist touching it!
A google search helped us find a couple Minecraft fonts to use.

Mary, Mary Beth and I created characters to resemble each of us.
Mary Beth, who loves jewelry, even added a few tiny gems to her character. :)

Another simple beginning of the year bulletin board that the students seemed to like is my movie-themed board.  Included is a popcorn container overflowing with packing peanuts, a "clapboard" from Party City, tickets from Office Depot, a printed class list ("Starring actors"), pictures from previous fourth grade activities, and finally "reviews."

This is the movie marquee that I made, but you could make create your own here.  or do a google image search and modify your own!

Class Dojo has its own free "decoration pack"
of images that can be printed and used for bulletin boards
This is a bulletin board that I used to introduce Class Dojo at the start of the year.  I modified the idea from someone else on Pinterest.  I wanted the dojo to stand out a bit so I rolled black construction paper to give it a 3D effect and pinned and stapled it into place. 

I did a screen grab of the student's names and avatars for inside the dojo
My original intent was to use this board to list incentives that students could earn after collecting certain numbers of points.  As a building, we went with a whole school incentive system that has worked out pretty well.  Students can use "Generals Dollars" (We are the Anthony Wayne Generals) to buy trinkety items or special privileges like bringing a stuffed animal to school or wearing slippers for the day.  We were kind of surprised, for example, that a lot of our fourth graders really wanted to be an honorary Battleball referee.  Battleball is our end of the week reward for responsibility and good behavior.  Its basically class vs. class dodgeball and the kids REALLY look forward to it each week.  The kids enjoyed putting on a black and white striped jersey, blowing the whistle to start the games, and helping watch for people being knocked out of the game.

I got my idea for this bulletin board from another site, but put it together for a different purpose.  I developed this after I was having trouble keeping the students using apps related to skill areas we were working on.  For example, we might be working on factors and multiples, and I might find a student playing Stack the States. 
The board with some of the Place Value
apps I used to start the year

I used to give students a list of accepatble games to play, but I found that by posting the image, students had less difficulty finding the app. 

I started by finding an image of an iPad that would work to print.  It needed to be blank and high resolution so it didn't look grainy when it printed. 

Then I sent the image online to my local Office Max to print it poster sized.  Unfortunately, I had to send it to print in black and white because I'm cheap and the color cost over $20.  The black and white was only $3.38.  When I got to Office Max though, I discovered that they accidentally printed it in color.  Bonus! 
The board being put up in my Math enrichment area.
For the app icons, I did a google image search for them or if I couldn't find them there I did a screen capture of the apps in iTunes.

The icon for one of my favorite
Math games - Factor Samurai
I use this bulletin board to remind students of the choices of apps that can be used during Math time.  This prevents any confusion about what apps can be explored and helps focus students on skills that we are currently studying.  Its worked great so far!

Thank you! 
Since you made it all the way to the end of my blog, how about a little treat for your effort?  Here is one of my products on Teachers Pay Teachers that I'll make free for a few days.  Its fun and challenging for your students, and its a different style of task card than you are used to.  I hope you like it.  Enjoy!


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How much does the sequence of topics matter in Math?

I've always thought that place value concepts separated students who really "got" math and those that didn't.  Unlike learning algorithms for multiplication or long division which can just be memorized, place value really tests a child's basic understandings about the meanings of numbers.  And while I haven't used one in about 8 years, in every Math textbook our school district has ever purchased, place value was Chapter one in the book.  This always made sense to me since place value is such a foundational concept for understanding Math.

However, the new Pearson Envision Common Core edition has flipped the script on sequence of instruction a little bit.  

It lists the first 4 topics in 4th Grade Envision Math as:
  • Topic 1: Multiplication and Division: Meanings and Facts
  • Topic 2:  Generate and Analyze Patterns
  • Topic 3:  Place Value
  • Topic 4:  Addition and Subtraction of Whole Numbers 
  • Topic 5: Number Sense: Multiplying by 1-Digit Numbers

The sequence of topics made me scratch my head a little bit.  An explanation of the choice for this sequence is probably buried in the documentation somewhere, but couldn't find it easily.  So, I'm left to wonder why they decided to place multiplication concepts ahead of addition and why place value has suddenly be moved to third.
Where my books are stored for
occasional use

As I confessed earlier, I never use the Math textbook. This is no slam on Envision, as I think its easily the best math series we have purchased as a district.  I do use some of the worksheets and center activities from time to time and will use the online tools on occasion. But other than that, the student books remains on my shelf.  Knowing the cost of the book, I feel really guilty about that. But I believe that the textbook is not a tremendously effective instructional tool.  When I started teaching, the Math manual was very useful to me to help plan my Math lessons from day to day.  It was common to assign questions to be completed on loose-leaf paper from the book.  But after having four Math series and buying and creating so much of my own math "stuff" over 20 years of teaching, I really don't need it anymore.

And though I use the textbook as a general guide, I rarely follow the sequence of the topics/chapters in a Math series anyways.  Other than a few exceptions, the sequence of the topics is not as important as the sequence of your daily lessons in my opinion.  For example, I used to teach a unit on graphing (topic 17  in the book) right after addition and subtraction (second).  Why? I taught it there for a couple reasons.  First, it tied in well to a lot of the graphing that we did to show results of Science experiments.  And second, it gave my students more time to gain mastery of their basic multiplication facts that they needed to learn before we started to multiply greater numbers.

All this being said, you could probably ask ten Math teachers and get ten different opinions on the best sequence of instruction.  So, if you'd ask me: does the sequence of instruction matter?  I'd answer, if it does matter, it's not much.  What matters most is building upon the student's current understanding each day and making connections between new and old concepts a little bit at a time.

So what do you think?  Feel free to leave your opinion in the comments below.

This is a personal blog, so it should be assumed that I could preface everything I say with the phrase "in my opinion."  Feel free to agree or disagree (respectfully) if you like in the comments section.