2017 - The Teacher Studio: Learning, Thinking, Creating
So many times I am asked questions about why many students seem so disengaged in math.  I ask these teachers to flip through their resources and see how many of them truly help students see the real life application of math--and solve rigorous, engaging problems that students can relate to.  PBL (project based learning) can help make the connections between the math skills and the real world, and my students are always BEGGING for more!  It's always fun to tie this work to the seasons, so I have tried to make a number of these projects that are the perfect break from routine to do at those special times of the year.  This one?  A "feast" project that is perfect for Thanksgiving!
Project based learning, PBL, Thanksgiving, math projects, problem solving, elapsed time, Thanksgiving math, fourth grade, fifth grade, math workshop

Benefits of Project Based Learning

It would be hard to list all the benefits of having students dig into real-world math challenges and other project-based learning opportunities.  Let me just leave you with a few.


  • They are engaging!
  • They nurture collaboration and math communication.
  • There are often many solutions.
  • These experiences provide students with a chance to struggle (and this is so valuable!).
  • Connections to the real world help students realize WHY we do math!
  • Students who learn in different ways can shine.
  • They allow time for teachers to coach.
  • They are perfect for differentiating!

How to Differentiate

It may seem contrary to what one might thing--how can a challenging, rigorous task be easy to differentiate?  Aren't they best for our top students or fast finishers?

Not at all.  I love using these tasks in a number of ways--and I DEFINITELY want ALL my students to have exposure to and experience with quality, real world tasks.  How can we help them succeed?


  • Strategically partner/group them with a supportive team.
  • Allow use of "tools" such as calculators and manipulatives (remember--we want them to be problem solvers so don't let the computation get in their way!)
  • Spend more time scaffolding directions or simplifying directions if needed.
  • Reduce the amount of writing or allow them to use technology.
  • Use the tiered problems included so they can do the same work at a slightly more simplified level.
  • Provide more frequent coaching opportunities.
  • And so many more ways!  
  • Provide the emotional encouragement and support to keep them hungry to solve the task.
And don't forget our super capable students!  A list of additional challenges and extensions are included as well so they can take this project as far as they want!
Project based learning, PBL, Thanksgiving, math projects, problem solving, elapsed time, Thanksgiving math, fourth grade, fifth grade, math workshop

Remember, self-esteem and mathematical mindsets are elevated by tackling challenging work--not by be given simple tasks!  

How Can I work These Tasks Into My Math Schedule?

I just wanted to share a few ideas on how to work this type of problem solving into your schedule--which I'm sure is already packed!

Here are just a few ideas to get you thinking...

1.  Consider introducing this as a whole-class activity where you give students/groups some time to get started and get clarity on the project.  After that, it becomes something they work on when they have extra time.

2.  Dedicate a few days to the task and let students get as far as they can.  There are logical stopping points in each task--so some students might only solve the main challenge, others may tackle some of the computation work, and still others may try some of the extensions.  You can let students choose their path or you can steer them the way you wish!

3.  Use this as an enrichment activity for students who are "fast finishers" or who may need compacting out of their current unit.  This is a perfect, meaningful independent math task for students to do if they already have mastery of the current math topic.

4..Give students a small chunk of time each day to work on this--either in a center, as a warm up, or at the end of class.  Over time, students can get as far as their initiative and math will take them!

So what does this really look like?



I hope these ideas get you intrigued enough to dabble in some high level math--for ALL your students!  This task focuses on a feast...but there are SO many other options out there! 

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Project based learning, PBL, Thanksgiving, math projects, problem solving, elapsed time, Thanksgiving math, fourth grade, fifth grade, math workshop

Want to check out other Project Based Learning Tasks?
Project based learning, PBL, Thanksgiving, math projects, problem solving, elapsed time, Thanksgiving math, fourth grade, fifth grade, math workshop




One thing I really like to do with my literacy instruction is to make sure that I weave reading and writing together whenever possible.  This is especially true when working with narrative writing--in our independent reading workshop and our narrative writing unit. One of our phrases this year is "Read like a writer and write like a reader!" and we are working to dig into what that really means.
lesson ideas narrative

Studying Characters in Narratives

As we started our narrative unit several weeks ago, we spent a great deal of time studying our main read aloud, Fish in a Tree, along with other picture books I selected.  We studied the characters, their traits, their actions, and then--finally--their words.  We actually then worked to create our own characters that we would later insert into some "mini" narratives that we wrote.  The students were SO engaged and I truly saw them thinking more deeply about the characters in their own books.  (Note:  This student had a bad experience with a pigeon...I guess my "hint" that authors often work their real life into their books paid off!)
invent a character

Creating a Story Arc or "Story Map"

From story arc to detailed plan...this TRULY helps the students plan ahead, make sure they have a clear ending, and gives a place for them to add quality sensory details.


prewriting strategies narrative writing

Learning how to write dialogue

As we started to realize all the ways writers help us get to know characters, I told my students we were going to work hard to do this with our own narratives--we were going to write so our reader can really get to know our characters.  We went back to our own books (great because no matter WHAT level a child reads at, this activity can be done) and searched for dialogue "tags".  We jotted them on sticky notes and then came back to the large group to do some sharing.  I recorded their findings on a chart and then we talked about the messages writers can send by carefully choosing tags.  What does "mumbled" show about a character instead of "shouted"?  If a characters "demands" something, what does it say about them?
writing lessons
If you have taught writing dialogue before, you know how challenging it can be to get students punctuating it correctly.  There is a LOT to remember!  I decided to go back into our read aloud, "Fish in a Tree", and do some practice with this sentence frames...I gave them permission to change the "tag" to match the characters, but I really wanted them to think about what these characters might say--and to use the guides to punctuate these made-up sentences.  They worked in pairs for a while and then shared with others--they had a GREAT time imagining they were these characters and came up with some great dialogue examples!
teaching writing lessons
I then wanted to give them some more practice, so I used this "sort" activity where they had to manipulate the parts of the sentences and mindfully add the punctuation.  It was challenging for some, but I saw many of them referring back to the pink strips from the lesson before!
writing lessons dialogue

punctuating dialogue
Finally, I talked to the students about how a true dialogue involves characters speaking back and forth--and how their discussion helps move the story forward.  It often reveals character feelings or plans and should have a purpose.  We worked in partners to try writing some dialogue scenarios based on my dialogue task cards and we had a blast.  It was a great chance for me to walk around and do some coaching on the punctuation, remind about indenting for new speakers, and so on.
writing dialogue

punctuating dialogue
 It was so much fun to see how creative they got--and how their dialogues REALLY started to show their understanding of how characters can be revealed.
dialogue lessons

Using "Fish in a Tree" and other books to put all the pieces together!

 With all the pieces in place, we were ready to write our narratives!  It's funny...we spent 2 weeks prepping for them and three days writing them--and it was amazing to see how all the "quick writes" we did paid off--and the students REALLY saw how the planning made it so their story essentially wrote itself.  When I asked how many of them felt it was the best thing they had ever written, it was almost unanimous!  Also, if you are working on narratives, I can't recommend "Fish in a Tree" highly enough to really look at character development, character change, and more.

Want to see the resources I used?
My novel study for Fish in a Tree...
Teaching Fish in a Tree
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teaching narrative writing, teaching dialogue, writer's workshop, story map, writing process, quotation marks, teaching character development, fourth grade writing, common core narrative writing, writing process, Fish in a Tree, punctuating dialogue






One thing that I have noticed over the years as I have done more "kid watching" as I teach...is that we have most definitely conditioned our students to "fill in the blank".  Whether we use workbooks, do worksheets with cute graphics, or encourage students to track their scores--we definitely convey to them that there is a "right way" to do things.  Of course, in math, we usually DO want a correct answer...but in elementary school, I really believe our focus should be on the PROCESS and thinking involved in learning math rather than a stress on the correct answer.  That will come.
math instruction

But don't students need to work accurately and with precision?

Now don't get me wrong--I'm not talking about accuracy and precision problems!  Do I think students should know their facts and compute precisely?  Yep.  But I also truly believe that many students tend to equate THOSE math activities as the most important.

One of the first discussions I have each fall is that math is complicated.  Much like reading is more than "saying the words", math is more than getting the right answer.  We talk about growth mindset...about the mathematical practices...about persevering...about how math doesn't always happen quickly...about asking for help when needed...and all sorts of other "math behaviors" that lead to success in math.  It is SO important for students to understand what I believe--and that research supports this!  Once they realize what I value, it's time to provide opportunities for students to practice these behaviors and to provide me the chance to observe and see how students handle this climate for learning.  For me, helping coach students in THIS is just as important as teaching them how to add and subtract.

Math with a growth mindset

Throughout the year, I use discussion starters to get students talking and thinking about the role mindset has in learning.  By exposing students to this type of conversation, it reinforces the values I have and also gives them the language to talk about their own strengths and goals.  The other day, we had a GREAT discussion about this one...and were able to give tons of examples of what this might look like and what types of situations might be impacted by this.  (Note:  These are a part of my growth mindset resource if you are interested in seeing more.)
math culture math practices teaching math problem solving

Collaboration and questioning in math

Another way I work to build this culture throughout the year is by helping students learn how to work collaboratively in a productive way.  Learning how to ask questions, ask for help, offer help, take feedback graciously, and be willing to share ideas are all skills that not only contribute to math success--but "life" success as well!  Check out these students talking about their number line work!
math discourse math talk

One great way to do this is to have students play games and be an outsider where you coach not just the math, but the interactions as well.  This group was struggling with being patient with a student who processed more slowly so I sat behind them and coached.  Not only did it help the student who was working slowly to realize that it was ok to work slowly, but I was able to work with the others to learn how to manage that situation with grace while making the other player feel valued.  This Target Number Toss game is great because there is more than one way to complete each turn--and great discussions can arise!
math culture math practices teaching math problem solving
Another thing I do to help students realize that math is more than an answer blank is to make sure we are constantly doing "work" where we NEVER even address the answer!  That may seem counterproductive...after all, how will we know if they can DO the math?  This is the power of shifting our focus.  When I do activities such as "Thinker Tasks", I do not always even collect them--and I certainly never share what the correct answer is.  Why?  Because there ISN'T one right answer!  The process students use to solve the challenges is the key...and, again, the "kid watching" is where I learn the most--far more than if I simply checked the answer.


The importance of differentiation in math

I can see who struggles with the math concepts. I can see how students work together--or don't. I love using my Thinker Task project based learning tasks (PBL) to help with this.  I can see which students seem to relish a challenge and which steer away.  I can see if students work with care or if they rush.  I can see if students are independently able to dig in or if they need guidance.  I can see how long they are willing to persevere or if they struggle to maintain focus.  It allows me to start to notice which students gravitate toward each other to collaborate and which students tend to work alone.  I also love that there are so many components--so I can differentiate as needed.  In a few short work sessions, I was able to learn SO much about my students as mathematicians!
math culture math practices teaching math problem solving
Finally, I want my students to recognize how--like reading--math is multidimensional.  In reading we need to sound fluent when we read, need to be able to decode new words, summarize, write about our reading, discuss a text--and countless other things.  The same is true for math!  We need to be able to add and subtract--but also to recognize patterns, solve problems, make connections, explain our thinking, organize our work, and so on.

I use Mind Boggling Math to help with this...because students have the skills to do the addition required--but it's the perfect way to help students realize that there is so much more to it!  Students share organization ideas, share strategies, check each other's work, troubleshoot problems and more--certainly way more valuable than simply doing a page of addition problems!  Most importantly, it is yet another activity that helps students realize what I value in our math community--the answer is only part of the game.
problem solving addition computation

math culture math practices teaching math problem solving
 I hope you have had a smooth start to your year and realize that there are many ways to build community in your math class.  Watch for more blog posts coming soon that will help share more ideas for moving your students to a deeper understanding of what math truly is!

Interested in any of the resources mentioned?  Just click the pictures for more information.

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teaching math, fourth grade math, math mindset, problem solving, growth mindset, standards for mathematical process, perseverance, accountable math talk, cooperative problem solving, collaboration, third grade math, fourth grade math, fifth grade math



If you are a teacher, you may be obsessed with office supplies, storage, or classroom gadgets.  Just a hunch.  Want to check out a few of my favorites?  Read on!
I spent some more time in my disaster of a classroom #justkeepingthingsreal today, and I started unpacking different boxes to begin the process of "reassembly".  I thought it might be fun to share with you a few of my classroom "must haves"!  Note, there are affiliate links in this post.

Math workshop storage ideas

The first thing I unpacked (because it required no thinking!) was my mobile math cart!  I love being able to move this around my room--from my large group area to ALL the places I meet with small groups.  It has a bin of white boards, a tub of Expo markers and erasers, and then other "stuff" on the bottom shelf that varies depending on what we are studying...could be number lines, manipulatives, calculators, graph paper--you name it!  It keeps all those things at my fingertips and allows students to easily return these items to their proper spot.

Classroom library displays

The next thing I want to share was a new purchase two years ago--these collapsible book easels.  I have them all around my reading area to showcase new books, books related to a genre we are studying, "forgotten" books (I love finding great books that students may not have heard of to showcase), books I share during a book talk, or even content area books.  I bought a set of them and they are always full!  I also love to have student helpers pick favorite books to highlight as well!



A teacher's best friend--the stapler

As I unpacked a crate of office supplies, I couldn't help but pause over my prized stapler.  If you are like me, you probably have 9 of them--none of which work well.  This one has been A-MAZE-ING for me...it is like a power stapler that has a super easy "touch".  I am thinking of splurging on a second one--and have given it as a gift to new teachers as well!



I don't have a pen addition.  Really.

OK...let's talk writing utensils.  I have a bit of a problem--I can't lie.  I may or may not have a little problem when it comes to my favorites.  I thought I'd share a few--in case I can spread my love to at least one more teacher.  Let's talk pens first.  I am a bit of a pen snob--and this is my all time favorite! It comes in a few colors--but purple is my color...so I typically buy purple--until I saw the multipack I listed below!  I love the smoothness of the ink and they last a really long time!


Anchor charts, smelly markers, and more

Now for markers.  I make a TON of anchor charts, and I really use color to highlight different components of my chart so Mr. Sketch markers are my favorites.  I like that I can use the wide side for titles and the thinner edge for lettering.
But this is only one way I use them...my students' favorite is for signing their assignment books.  Every single day my students fill out their planners, and I'm trying to build good habits with them.  I ask them to share their planner at home with SOMEONE (I don't like to require parents because it puts pressure on families with complicated work schedules, and so on)--it could be a parent, a big sister, a childcare provider--anyone who is home with the student.  If they initial it, that counts!

When the students bring the planner back the next day, I "star" their initial with a smelly marker.  The students love to see which marker I am going to pick...and then on special days (Valentine's Day...Packer games...you get the drift), I may just get a little creative!  I also use the markers to write special comments home like "GREAT job in math today!" or "Max was a great friend today!" or "Ask Anne about her story!".  The bright colors (and smells!) make sure families see the messages and encourage students to share them.
I'm not going to lie--I may have ordered 3 more packs.  



Math word problem storage

Finally...as I started to put together my math area, I was reminded of how I could not live without my pocket charts.  I keep them up on my walls all year and keep a revolving collection of word problems in them.  Sometimes I have them tied to our current unit...sometimes they are "seasonal"...sometimes they are tied to our content (like human body).  I keep a nice collection printed and cut and ready to glue into math spirals!
Want to read a blog post with a few more details about this?  Just click on the image below...
I used to use this chart until I changed the color scheme of my room...but I loved the fact that you could use the charts together or separately.


So there you have it!  My musings after my first day back in my classroom--and some of my "must haves".  I hope you all have a wonderful school year!

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teacher hacks, math workshop organization, math manipulatives, staplers, classroom library, word problems


That's right.  I couldn't stand a book--and that's rare for me!  Several years ago, my team wanted us all to read "The Tiger Rising" to go with our realistic fiction unit, so I read it.  Then I read it again.  And again.  Each time I disliked it more.  I told them that I just couldn't do it--I couldn't invest that much in a book I didn't enjoy myself.  They were fine with that...so I went on a quest for a new book to use.
novel study Tiger Rising

Here's the deal--the more I thought about it, the more I felt I should do what my team was doing so we could have quality discussions about how we were using the text and so on.  Our unit was a new one, and I felt it would be odd to be the lone defector.  Besides, I reminded myself, it isn't about ME, right?  So I made the commitment to read the book with my class.
novel study Kate di Camillo

So I took it on and we dug in--despite my misgivings.

And
my
kids
loved
it.

Seriously...each day as we read my students got deeper and deeper into it and we had some of the BEST discussions I have ever had with fourth graders.  From my top readers to my strugglers, everyone found a way to connect to this text.  We talked about bullying.  We talked about characters.  We talked about death.  We talked about animal cruelty.  But most of all...we talked about how powerful books can stay with you forever.  Another amazing thing happened--students all began to understand that they could HANDLE these very "grown up" texts.

Making books like "The Tiger Rising" matter

So often we break reading up into its small components like fluency and context clues--especially for our lower readers--and we don't give them enough time to just immerse themselves in wonderful stories.  I've always said, if a child is reading at a "Henry and Mudge" level, they still MUST be exposed to rich, sophisticated literature or they will never learn how to read it and think about it.  Our read aloud texts are the perfect way to do this.

I am getting ready for my fifth year of reading this book with my students, and I can't wait to see what elements this group relates to the most.  Each year we seem to take a slightly different spin on it, but the effect is the same--books can make us FEEL, and when we can learn to do that with a read aloud, we can learn to do it when we read on our own.  So this fall as we begin our study of this masterpiece, I am reminded that teaching isn't about me...it's about my learners and the interactions and experiences I provide for them.  I can't wait--and a good reminder that we don't have to LIKE something...we just have to be open to learning how to love it!
Kate di Camillo novel study
I even invested in a set of 25 so we could use the text later in the year to "dig deeper" and go hunt for evidence!  We ended up talking about this book and the characters ALL year.
To help me and other teachers really dig into this book, I have also created a novel study to go along with it.  I hope you find it helpful.  Use it to help guide your discussions or to provide occasional writing reflection opportunities. It helps me make sure to maximize the content of the book without having to take copious notes.  See what you think.
novel study

Want to see more about it?  This is an affiliate link if you are interested.

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The Tiger Rising, novel study, teaching character, read aloud, book clubs, literature circles, Kate DiCamillo, reader's notebook, reader's response, response to reading

Developing life-long reading habits is so critical, and as teachers we have so much power to help students learn how to learn and grow as readers.
reader's workshop, indendent reading, life-long reader, teaching reading, reading stamina, classroom library

Today is my day to blog over at Upper Elementary Snapshots, and I'd love for you to stop by and check out my 10 tips for making sure your classroom is a place to nurture life-long readers!  I hope you'll click the image above and check it out!



It's TIME!  The official Teachers Pay Teachers Back to School Sale is happening today!   I try to not do shameless product plugs...but at these sale times, I do like to showcase some of my favorite products you may not know about.

I also have a freebie if you want to grab it as well!

OK...so now some of my absolute favorite resources...

My number 1.  My fraction unit.  This unit literally took months and months and was a true labor of love as my students and I worked through it.  I believe it to deepen true understanding of fractions at a level no textbook I have seen provide, and I love that you can use it as a complete replacement unit or use parts of it to supplement a textbook.  


This huge bundle has the fraction unit plus NINE more quality resources for you to use as you immerse your students in fraction work this year.

 Then it gets tricky to choose...

Another set of "favorites" are my word problem bundles because I am PASSIONATE about getting our students to do more problem solving and whether or not you have a series you love, a series you despise, or no series at all--we ALL need to have more word problems on hand to use as class warm ups, cooperative problems solving, stations, and more.  My bundles of word problems are pretty popular and I have gotten lots of feedback about what a time saver they are.  Here are a few!
Another thing I feel pretty passionate about is helping students learn to be independent readers and book lovers!  These two resources have been helpful to hundreds of teachers who are looking for new ways to keep their kids reading, to track their reading, to build excitement about books, and to realize that reading is a personal and enjoyable experience.  The calendars are updated yearly so you only need to buy it one time.

I know lots of you have used my concept sorts over the last year, so I had to include my latest one. If you haven't tried using concept sorts--either that YOU have made or that you got from me...you seriously HAVE to try.  It is so much fun--and you can see how much more deeply your students will think about the topics.  I have more in the works--but this one is a GREAT one for back to school because it really gets them thinking about the concept of "equals"--the foundation of SO much math work!  There are also fraction, multiplication, geometry, and angle sorts available so far in my store--and a bundle as well!
In staying with a math theme, developing number sense is SO important--and many students move to the intermediate grades with a less sophisticated understanding of our place value system than we would like.  Using number limes in an open ended way has really helped me both see where my students' understanding is AND help me create lessons and practice opportunities for them. Last year I created a resource using the numbers 0-1,000 and it was a perfect thing for first quarter.  As the year went on, I realized that I wanted to do more with the higher numbers, so this resource was born!  It is a challenge for many at first, but you will see their understanding grow as you work through these and share ideas as a class. I have both sets available and on sale.
Along the same line, I feel pretty strongly about helping students learn to tackle challenging problems--even problems that may have more than one answer--so that they learn the trait of perseverance.  So often students are unwilling to take risks when they come to my class OR math has always been so easy for them that they don't know what to do when they encounter something tricky.  Thus, "Perseverance Problems" were born.  In my class, I used them in a few different ways--from cooperative problem-solving exercises to challenge work for some of my top students.  This is definitely one of my favorites--so check it out!
Another product line that has made a HUGE difference in my classroom is my Thinker Tasks.  These open ended problems area great for whole class, small groups, or fast finishers.  They are all differentiated and students can work at their own pace--some doing just a bit of it, and others taking full advantage.  There are 7 different products in the line now--and a bundle of all 7 at a reduced price.  See what you think!

Using formative assessment is SO key to making good instructional decisions.  I found myself CONSTANTLY creating exit and entrance slips to go with my lessons--so I created this resource as a time saver!  Each one has a whole bunch of "empty" slips for you to use to tailor to your lessons--almost like graphic organizers.  New to this?  I have given suggestions for use for EACH one!  Check out the preview for me.  I use these ALL. THE.  TIME.
Finally, last year I was complaining to my friend about how my students over the years seem to lack the creativity they had years ago and we chatted and put blame on everything from TV to video games to our textbooks and so on.  I went home that night and decided to do something about it! Over the next months, 6 different "activities" were born and all 6 of them are included in this bundle.  This is rapidly becoming one of my best sellers--and my students LOVE them!  See what you think!
I also am in love with my latest line of novel studies including one for the AMAZING "Fish in a Tree" book.  Have you read it?  If not, I highly highly recommend it!  

And finally, my "Maps and Globes" unit is done...this is how I start the year and it is full of projects, creative thinking, interactive notebook components, assessments, and more.  I am super proud of the level of challenge--AND the level of fun!

You may also know I have a TON of math games...I have started bundling them together in sets of "like" games to make planning easy.  They even have labels included for labeling bags or bins!  Here is one...there are 3 sets so far and more on the way!

So...this is just a small handful of the many products in my store...and after the sale is finished, this post will be hidden from view!  If you end up purchasing any--I'd love to hear what you think!  Stop by my STORE or my FACEBOOK page and check things out!

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