Sunday, September 28, 2014

My 10 favorite review activities!

Okay,  so we were canceled for fog today so I thought I might as well do something productive, right?  I've been meaning to do a post on this topic, so here it is.  Here are my 10 favorite review activities, in no particular order.

#1 Task Cards

One of my TpT task card activities.
On Teachers Pay Teachers, these seem to be one of the "hot" products.  And, for good reason.  Task cards are awesome in so many ways.  They work great for general review, center activities, group work, formative assessments and more.  I've been using them for many years, though I never called them that.  Basically, they are questions that you place around the room for students to answer.  Usually students have an answer document of some sort that the teacher can check.

Upsides:  Students are up and out of their seat, always a good thing.  They are usually a fast and easy way to check for understanding.  They allow a teacher to "float" and help students as needed.  I like to add a little spice to my task cards by having them solve a code message.  They love this and it makes it easy and fast to check their answers. All students are engaged.  Even students who are absent can do this review.

Downsides:  A lot of the task cards that I have bought on TpT have problems with them - grammatical mistakes, wrong answer keys, etc...  That's annoying to be sure, but, what bothers me more is the lack of quality questions, or in some cases, the answers.  Task cards can used for higher level questions and even open response answers, but they rarely are.  Most task cards I see on TpT are multiple choice answers which can be pretty limiting.  My other pet peeve, especially for math task cards, is that the answer documents never have the questions on them.  That makes it difficult to help a student with a problem without them bringing the actual task card to the teacher.  That, of course, is soon followed by,  "Mr. Pransky!  There's no question seventeen!"  I like to include the question on the answer document if I can fit it on there.  
A great free resource from  
Mary Dressel on TpT

What's needed:  Not much, really other than questions and an answer sheet.  Clipboards are nice but not necessary.  Check out this awesome free product from my teaching partner Mary Dressel.  She gives some great tips on how to use task cards effectively and efficiently.  All of her products are top notch.  If you are a Language Arts teacher, I highly recommend that you check them out.

#2 Interactive Classroom Jeopardy
How it works:  Of all the games I play, this
is probably my favorite.  My students really love it, too.  Using the game system you can load in questions for whatever you need to review.  This one takes some time to make the games at first, but once you make them you can usually reuse them for many years. I won't go into the specifics of how to play because that is obvious to anyone who has ever watched Jeopardy of TV.  The game lends itself to "quick hitter" type review, but creative question writing can allow you to go into deeper questions if you don't mind hitting the timer button a little later.

Here's an Interactive Classroom
Jeopardy game I recently posted
for free on TpT
Upsides:  it plays just like the real game of Jeopardy.  What's not to love?  The new version of the game system even does images and videos - awesome!  I wrote a grant for the new one to replace the first one we bought about ten years ago.  (Fingers crossed.)

Downsides:  the game system is expensive ($500 at Educational Insights, but it goes for cheaper on Amazon)  Also, the game itself is a little bulky to store.  Unless you get a lot of controllers and scoreboards, the game can only be played by a few students at a time (I recommend no less than six scoreboards so you can have smaller teams of around 4 students).

What's needed:  Interactive Jeopardy Game system and wireless buzzers.  Also recommended for some review: dry erase boards (ex. to do math calculation questions).  If you can't afford that, there's always the free version of the game on SuperTeacherTools.  It has the advantage of being able to be saved online so kids can play at home, too.

#3 Wheel of Fun
Modify your "Wheel of Fun"with simple rewards your
students might like
How it works:  A lot of times I will use this when we need to review a skill from worksheet, something like math calculation, that after its introduced really just takes a lot of practice to master.  I give the students complete a page of problems and give them an amount of time to complete as many problems as possible.  Then I draw names to answer them.  If the answer is correct, the student gets to spin the "Wheel of fun."  I draw up all kind of simple or silly rewards that the students can receive.  My favorite is the team cheer.  You should see the looks of happiness on the students' faces when the class responds to me saying, "Three cheers for Natalie!"  "Hip hip, Hooray! Hip hip, Hooray! Hip hip, Hooray!"  Other categories I've used before are: high five, fist bump, get a piece of candy, earn Class Dojo point, class does "the wave", ring my bell, and honk an antique car horn.  You'll probably come up with some of your own as well.  Use your imagination!

Upsides:  It encourages students to do as many problems as possible, otherwise they can't spin when their name is drawn.  Its adaptable.  It bonds the class together in a positive way.  It doesn't take much extra time to prep or use.  It frees up your smartboard to show or demonstrate problems.

Downsides:  You could probably just have the students do the problems and check it faster, but its definitely not as motivating.  You don't want to do it too often otherwise it loses appeal and excitement.

What's needed:  A magnet spinner like these or make your own on the smart board.  (Just search spinner in your gallery items.)

#4 Basketball shoot
How it works:  I play this game similarly to the "Wheel of Fun" game above and use it to provide review and to have students check their work.  Drawing names randomly, students come up to the board to shoot a Nerf basket after answering a question correctly.  If they make the basket, they can get a piece of candy or other prize.

Upsidest:  it encourages students to do as many problems as possible, otherwise they can't shoot a basket when their name is drawn.  Its easy set-up and can even be thrown together at a moment's notice.

Downsides:  Students who struggle won't get as many chances to answer because they won't finish as many problems.  My suggestion is to draw their name early on the problems you think they completed.  Do you have students who were wasting time when they had a chance to work?  Draw them near the end.  They won't have the answer, and they'll soon learn to use their time more wisely.

What's needed:  nerf style hoop and ball, incentive like candy if you want

#5 Dart Review Game
How it works:  There are a lot of fun ways to use these magnetic darts.  The simplest way is just to use them to award points for correct answers in a team game.   For this activity I use my chalkboard and some magnetic darts as shown at the right.  I like to make my dart board interesting.  For example, if I am studying weather in Science, I may draw clouds, with lightning and even a tornado on the board.  Inside each of the shapes you can draw different points.  Small clouds are 500 points, big clouds are 100 points, the lightning might double your points,... you get the idea.  Use you imagination to make your dart board targets one of a kind.  These darts also are great if you need data to practice graphing or figuring things like mode, mean, median and range.

Upsidest:  The darts add an element of luck so students don't get too down it they lose.  Plus, throwing darts is fun!

Downsides:  If kids throw the darts too hard, they'll bounce back and fall off.  Sometimes you'll need to make a judgement call about throws on the lines. Some chalkboards and dry erase boards aren't magnetic.

Needed to play:  Magnetic darts and a magnetic surface.  I ordered my darts off of Amazon for less than $5.

#6 Math races

How it works:  Split students into teams of about four.  Each team should be seated in groups and gathered in a way that can help them work together.  Each team has a representative who is the "point" person for that question.  This works best for math calculation problems that take a little time to answer.  It rewards accuracy and speed.  Typically, I announce a math problem such as "648 times 7." The students answer the questions as quickly as possible on their wipe off boards and when done the "point person" grabs a numbered index card that I have placed on a stool in the middle of the room.  The top card should be labeled 1, and the rest should go down in order for the number of teams you have.  These cards represent finishing order.  Once I see most everyone has answered the question and all of the cards have been collected, I ask the team who finished first to show their answer.  If correct, that team earn one point.  If incorrect, then I move on to the 2nd finisher, and so on.  Importantly, I also award one point to each team if everyone on their team has the correct answer.  This encourages all students to participate in answering the questions, and it promotes cooperation among the teams.  So, all teams who get the problem right get a point.  Teams that finish first get a bonus point.  

Upsides:  Students must work together to be successful.  Teacher can adapt the time and difficulty of questions as you go.  Speed is rewarded, but so is accuracy. Kids get to move a little bit.

Downsides:  Sometimes students finish at the same moment and there may be a fight to get the lower card.  Its best to establish rules here before you start, such as no running, and first person to touch the card gets it.  If you have students who are really slow or do not know how to do the work, their team can get discouraged with them.  Part of the "pre-game talk" needs to include that cooperating is not copying answers.  This means that teammates should take the time to help explain the correct way to solve a problem if someone is wrong, rather than just have them copy it.  Proper distraction of ability levels between teams is important here, too.

What's needed:  Index cards labeled 1-5.  Dry erase or chalk boards to show work and answers.  Some questions to give students that require a little figuring.

#6  Eraser Slide

How to play:  This simple game requires a chalk/dry erase tray and an eraser.  As you as give questions to various teams, each team sends a representative up to slide the eraser for points after answering correctly.  The board is set up with various point values.  I usually surround a big point value with two hazardous values such a zero points or bankrupt.

Upsides:  Easy set up.  The kids have never done anything like this before and they think its fun.  It also has an element of luck which makes losing easier for your highly competitive kiddos to swallow.

Downsides:  Sometimes the students get a little excited and toss the eraser right off the board.  It's actually kind of funny when it happens, though.  Also, you'll need to decide what to score if it land on a line.  Sometimes I give a "line score" or just split the difference between the two numbers.

What's needed:  A chalk tray and and eraser.

#7  Smartboard Games
This is a Science game I made when
"Who Wants to be a Millionaire" was the hot
game show.  I included a lot of real sound
effects and music from the show to add to
 the excitement.  My students today still love
 it.  There are templates for all
 style of games online.
How to play:  These can be downloaded all over the internet for free or you can make them yourself.  If you use Smart Notebook, search their Smart Notebook exchange of free games of all sorts.  I still prefer to make my own Powerpoint or Keynote games because the software is more robust, and its just easier for me to build a set of questions quickly.  Often I'll pair one of these with the spinner, darts, or eraser slider methods mentioned above to use to generate points.  I'll also often export these in a way so that students can play them online for practice before a test.  

Upsides:  Adaptable and interactive.  Can be published online to be used as a study resource at home.  

Downsides:  I can't think of any.

What is needed:  smartboard or other way to display the game, a way to track points
A cool buzzer set I found.

#8 Head to Head with "Buzzers"

How to play:  Sometimes you may want players to go head to head such as in the game Family Feud where the fastest correct answer is rewarded.  Here is an easy link to a site that gives you an interactive buzzer to use for this type of game.  For a lower tech option, just put a ball or other object on a stool and the first person to grab it gets to answer.  Its even more fun if you can use bells, horns, kazoos or other noise making devices to tell who answers first.  This can work if you want to get all of the teams a chance to answer.  I've never used this, but I found this on Amazon, and it looks like a great option as well.  For another, low tech option, you can even assign each team as a farm animal noise to tell who buzzes in first.

a crude looking but effective
online smartboard buzzer

Upsides:  Easy set up.  Adaptable to any type of review, but best suited to quick hit type questions.

Downsides: Not all students are engaged while you do this, so it works best for quick review activities.

#9  I Have... Who Has... Games
See my free product for
Rounding I have...Who has..
on TpT as an example

How to play:  These were introduced to me a few years ago, and I have used them as staple station game ever since.  Students begin with a starter card and read an "I have..." statement followed by a "Who has.." question.  This leads from card to card until all of the cards are read.  I usually give each group a timer and have them record their time.  This gives a goal for improvement if they do it again or a way to compare if they are competing for the best time. I like this to be played in groups of 4 or 5, but it can work well with a whole class, too.  The reason I like smaller groups is more student involvement.  When you play as a whole class, students tend to tune out after they read their single card.  

Upsides:  After initial training, students can play the game in small groups without much guidance.  Students like to compete to beat the class's "best time."  Students improve their listening skills and focus by playing this game.  Teammates tend to apply positive peer pressure when a student isn't ready to answer, and it costs the team extra time.

Downsides:  If students get off track and answer with the wrong card, its very difficult to find the mistake.  They generally just have to start over.  It can be frustrating if one person is not paying attention and everyone is waiting for them.  Playing this with a whole class is fine to show how to play but, in my opinion, this doesn't give students enough of practice of the skill.

What you need:  A set of "I Have..Who Has..." cards.  I recommend to make a couple sets of them for when students finish their work early.  Its also recommended to have an "answer chain"  to check work or to help if they get stuck.

#10 "Memory"-style Games

How to play:  Remember the game Memory you played as a kid?  Like the "I Have...Who Has..." game mentioned above, this activity is easy to learn and gives invaluable practice of skills.  This activity works best with things you want kids to memorize that come in natural pairs, such as matching 7 x 7 with 49 or vocabulary words and their definitions.  What you need is a set of cards that are paired in this way.  Students lay the cards face down and then draw two at a time looking for pairs.  When a match is made, the player goes again.  When no match is made, the challenge is to remember the position of the cards to help match them later.

Upsides:  Game gives a lot of repetition of concepts as cards are turned over and
read again and again.  The game is simple enough that it can be started and played independently by groups of students.  It can be played in partners or even larger groups so its flexible in that way.

Downsides.  Game is really limited to review of things that can be paired.

What you need:  Cards for ideas that you want students to remember that come in pairs.  See my example of pairing different forms of numbers.

Some general tips that I think make review activities successful:

  • Keep the focus on the skill you are working on rather than the other aspects of the game.  Part of my "pre-game speech" is always that the main reason we are doing the activity is to learn.  If the focus becomes winning or students do not show self-control or good sportsmanship, then we will find a less exciting way to practice.
  • Use sounds to add an element of excitement to your game.  I use a teacher bell when a question is answered correctly.  You'd be amazed how a little thing like that can make the game more fun.  You can use other online sound effects like this or these for dramatic effect.
  • Fairness is important, but remember you are the game master.  Keeping the right balance of competition, skill, and luck to keep everyone engaged in a game is tricky.  If I find a team/player is getting discouraged and not getting involved, I may double point values or make the final question worth one million points so all teams feel like they still have a chance to win. As the game host, its possible to manipulate here and there to even things out if necessary.  Always strive to have games end on a positive note for everyone.
  • Variety is important.  Even the most fun activity gets boring if you do it over and over again.  Change up your games frequently and your students (and you) will stay excited to play them each time.
  • Get everyone involved.  A problem with some games is they only involve a few students at a time.  Find ways where all students can think through the answers.  One way to do this is to randomly choose students to answer.  If students know they may need to be next to answer, they will be more alert during the game.
  • Cultivate an atmosphere that encourages cooperation and encouragement within teams.  Positive language should be modeled and praised when it is used by students.  This should be an essential part of your "pre-game talk" with your students.
  • Games don't have to end in prizes, candy or other incentives.  The primary goal of the activity is to learn in a fun way.  The learning should be its own reward and if you can have fun while doing it, that is a bonus.  When students ask me what they get when they win, I like to answer, "smarter." (Credit to super teacher Melissa Gottschalk for this great comeback.)

I'm a sucker for games.  Why?  Because they are fun.  I've always found it a creative challenge as a teacher to take something that might be somewhat dull and turn it into something the kids look forward to.  Hopefully, this gives you some ideas about ways to practice and review with your class.  Have your own awesomely fun ways to review?  Post them in the comments.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On blogging, boredom, and summer books

On Blogging, Boredom, and Summer Books

I decided to start this blog mostly as a way to reflect upon what I do as a teacher.  Plus, I like to write and share my opinions, though I'm a little out of practice on the former since college.  My uncle, my brother, my cousin, and even my 14 year old son are all published authors so I'm hoping good writing genes will carry me through.  

Hopefully anyone who might read this won't hold my lack of technical writing skills against me.  My writing is sure to have grammatical errors and typos, but hopefully the message comes through clearly anyways. 

As of this writing, I have been teaching fourth grade in my district for 20 years.  That fact kind of blows my mind because I don't feel like I've been at it that long.  I guess that's a good thing, too because it means that I'm not bored of teaching 9 and 10 year olds.  Boredom is one of my greatest fears you might say.  While I like some routine and predictability, I like to think I am a creative person at heart and the idea of doing the same thing day after day sounds torturous to me.  I couldn't imagine for example working in some factory and putting the same part on some car day over and over again.  I've worked a few very routine summer jobs like that back when I was in high school and college.  I would be counting the minutes until lunch or my break and I couldn't wait until it was time to leave for the day.  I could never imagine myself coming an hour early and staying an hour late to those job.  Yet, I do this every day at school.

Having something intellectually stimulating and challenging is important in a career, I believe.  And, if you are not challenged as a teacher, then something is definitely wrong. Each year is a new opportunity to improve at your craft and each set of students provides their own unique challenges.  I have friends and family who ask me about teaching who say things like, "Why do you spend so long at school?  Can't you just use your plans from last year?"  I smile and politely tell them, "No.  I wish it was that easy."

I think of teachers as similar in some ways to musicians or comedians or other artists that perform in front of a live audience.  Now granted, I never been a professional musician, comedian, or actor, but I have talked with many people who have performed in front of an audience and they have told me that there is something very dynamic about performing in front of a crowd.  The performer gives energy to the audience, and they in turn give back (or don't give back) energy that can affect the "show" as it were.  

In a similar way, teaching students has a "flow" that is really affected by the dynamics of the class.  For example, there are times when a class as a whole is very lethargic and I feel as if I need to will my energy and enthusiasm upon them for the topic we are studying.  Occasionally, that energy flow may come the other direction - where I am the one lacking energy and the students' interest, questions, and thoughts on the topic get me excited about what we are doing.

I guess this is one reason that I really fear very prescriptive approaches to teaching.  I have heard of programs that have come to some struggling schools in big cities where teachers are told exactly how many minutes to teach each subject, they are told the exact methods they are to teach that subject, and the exact words to say.  To me, this is a business model approach that does not work in a human learning environment.  It may work for Ford to study and copy the manufacturing methods of Toyota to become more efficient, productive, and safe.  But, to take a lesson that was used in a highly successful school by a highly successful teacher and copy it word for word and recreate it in another "failing" school does not guarantee success for those students.  (I'll save what we deem as "successful" teaching for another blogpost, I think.)

And yet, its happening in schools all over the country.  This summer I read Diane Ravitch's excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education and was floored but some of the ways cookie-cutter, business models are being applied to schools all across the country.  To summarize Ravitch's extremely thorough history and research on the topic, these approaches just didn't work very well. 

In fact, it could be argued that in most cases they were extremely detrimental to the schools and their communities.  There were stories of districts in which half of the teachers left or were fired in the first year if they wouldn't "get with the program."  In some schools 80% of principals were fired or left the district.  In these approaches, all classrooms would be furnished with items like a reading carpet, rocking chair, and a reading table and these would be expected to be used in the same way each day, at the same time, and using the same lesson plan in each classroom.

In my opinion, many of the political and business forces that are shaping education today are well intended, yet misguided.  Teachers sharing the best ideas from their teaching is a great way to improve education.  However, it has to be remembered that one size doesn't fit all.  If I start singing the words to U2's "With or Without You", that doesn't make me Bono.  I hope that there never comes a day where my school tells me what I need to say to my students, what rocking chair I need to sit in, and what reading rug my students need to sit on.  If that day ever does come, it will probably be my last.

Have an opinion on this you'd like to share on this topic?  Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflections on my first year as a teacher... 20 years later

The other day I was looking through my file cabinet and stumbled across an old newspaper article from my first year teaching.  It was about me, just out of college, receiving the Sally Mae First Class Teacher Award, a state award given to an outstanding first year teacher.  My very supportive principal, Dave Hilborne, had nominated me for this and told me that I would have to write an essay as part of the application reflecting on my experiences as a first year teacher.
I remember feeling tremendously honored that he had nominated me for the award.  Still, I didn't feel particularly worthy despite the fact that I was working 60-80 hours a week on my teaching.  Even then I knew that I wasn't very good.

Like most first year teachers, I tried to make up for my lack of experience with an abundance of enthusiasm and energy.  For the most part, I muddled through that first year and the students, parents, and obviously my principal seemed satisfied with the job I had done.

Curious to read what I wrote in the essay for the award, I tried to find the document on my computer.  It was typed as a Clarisworks file that is now so ancient that I don't even have a word processing application that will open it any more.  Nonetheless, I vaguely remember the theme the essay.  I wrote of the exhaustion, both mental and physical of teaching each day.  I wrote about the many "hats" that teachers wear throught each day - coach, cheerleader, nurse, counselor, disciplinarian, parent, etc... In all, I think it summed up my first year experience pretty well.

Now, twenty years later and still teaching fourth grade, I look back at my 22 year old self and just think how terrible I was.  I know that sounds harsh, but its not meant to be.  There are very few first year teaching prodigies.  I certainly was not a natural myself.  The first three years of teaching for any teacher can be brutal.  I think my newly married wife questioned her decision to marry me after several years of staying at school so late and still working on grading papers late into the evening.  Those years were exhausting and trying for us both.  Its no wonder that, statistically, almost half of all teachers change careers by their fifth year.  It's a really tough job.

It took many years for me to develop the materials, routines, lessons, and discipline strategies that worked for me.  Fortunately, I had many, many great teachers that I worked with who I watched carefully and learned so much from.   They shared ideas willingly and guided me simply by observing their interactions with the students.  I have always tried in my career to take the best from each teacher I met.  I am fortunate to work in a district with so many great teachers who have given me this opportunity to learn from them.

As I think about my early teaching,  I think about something that Dave Grohl, musician from Nirvana said about becoming a great artist.  I'm paraphrasing and heavily censoring profanity here, but the gist of what he said was that musicians today think that all you have to do is wait in line for 8 hours and then go up on stage and sing and everyone will tell you how great you are.  Instant stardom.  But, the reality is that if you want to be great, you need to go into your garage with your drum set and suck.  Really suck.  And then you invite your friends in your garage to play with you and then they suck, too.  And you all keep sucking, but eventually you suck less and less and have a best time ever with your friends and suddenly you're Nirvana.

Along those lines, here's a cool graphic I found after reading an article on Quora, that demonstrates a true "learning curve."  The idea of this is that, when you learn something new, whether it is math, or playing the piano, or learning a new language, or learning to teach, it is hard work and everyone learns at their own pace.  Importantly, this graph also shows how typically our improvement and confidence is fast to increase early on but has a tendency to wane over time.  Its in this phase of our learning that most people lose motivation and quit.  This idea could also apply to exercise programs or diets, I suppose as well.

So, the way I look at it, the first year I taught, I really sucked.  But, every day and every year I have taught, I have hopefully sucked less and less.  Who knows, maybe someday I can become the Nirvana of teaching.  One can only dream.