Getting ready for back to school

Summer sunSummertime is here, and the living is easy. And here in Florida, it’s also hot!

Back to School Questions

It’s only late June, so there’s lots of time left before you have to think about heading back to school. But it’s going to happen eventually.

Here’s a free printable that you can use to learn more about your kids. Hand it out and have your students fill it out. You can also use it to have a discussion with your students – have them talk about what they like about school, what they don’t like, and what they’re most looking forward to doing in and out of your classroom this year. Then you’ll know where to work with them, how to energize them, and what sorts of things you can chat about with them!

You can also use it to have a discussion in your class, and get students with like interests talking together.

Back to School Reading Passages

Here’s an activity that you can do with your class to get them reading through some back to school stories and discussing what they’ve read in class.

Back to School Reading Passages - Close Reading

Back to School Reading Passages – Close Reading features four stories for your students to read. It is targeted toward first grade, second grade, and third grade students.

Your kids can read the stories and answer the questions on the worksheets. You can also read the story together in class, answering the various questions posed in the Notes section on each page.

One of the stories in the book features students who are returning to the classroom filling out a questionnaire with their various interests, and then comparing their sports and hobbies with the other students in the class. The questionnaire the kids use in the story is also available as a printable for you to use in your own classroom. So if you like the Back to School Questions printable you can download for free here, you might try the version in the Back to School Reading Passages packet. If you do, please let me know what you think!

I hope you have a wonderful summer!

Have you caught the running bug?

Mickey's Jingle Jungle 5K at Disney's Animal KingdomThis evening, Yvonne and our son are running the final Expedition Everest Challenge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I’m hanging out at home with our daughter; though we didn’t run this particular race, we went for a walk in town to see an art show, had a drink at our local coffee shop, and then walked home from town.

Running is a great sport to get into if you’ve got kids, and it’s a great sport to encourage kids to participate in. In most sports, you have winners and losers – a winning team or athlete, and then the losers who didn’t win. But in running, while you do ordinarily have winners of races, the focus is not so much on being the fastest person in the race (and in a race full of 2,000 people, there will only be one of those) but to be as fast as you personally can be, or to accomplish goals or milestones that you set yourself.

As such, running is the sort of sport that you always feel you can get better at – you can always improve your personal time, or if you’re doing intervals of running and walking, you can work to lengthen your running intervals or speed up how fast you travel during intervals.

While some people believe that “making everyone a winner” is taking away what it means to compete, in running, if you have done the best that you can do – if you’ve tackled your own personal goals – then you can declare yourself a winner. It’s a very internal thing, and if it’s kids who are doing the running, running the races, or working to improve their health and fitness, then it’s something that they can work toward without feeling that they’re not good enough or that they will never be skilled enough to compete.

If you haven’t tried running races with your kids yet, you should check it out. It’s great for your health and lots of fun! And in certain races, you can even dress up in costume to run them… how fun is that?

Writing opinions and arguments

Writing opinions and argumentsThe Common Core State Standards (CCSS) places an emphasis on having students express their opinions in both speech and writing. For example, CCSS.W.1, the first Common Core writing standard for the first grade, reads: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”

There are plenty of ways that you can have students express their opinions and offer arguments on certain topics in the classroom. You can:

  • Have them write essays or short passages about their opinions based on a question that you pose to the class or to different work groups or centers in the classroom
  • Stage a debate or discussion on a certain hot topic or current event
  • Place “Agree” and “Disagree” signs in two different spots in the classroom (or simply write the words on a whiteboard or blackboard), then pose different definitive statements to the class and have them stand near the sign for “Agree” if they agree with the statement, and “Disagree” if they do not agree with the statement.

Here are a few tips to getting the best from your students when having them express their opinions or debate arguments:

Brainstorm different ideas

When making an argument, students should not simply run with whatever fact or opinion first pops into their head. They should think of different ways to express their opinions, and come up with multiple arguments to back up their declarations.

Look at both sides of the problem

In order to argue a position, students need to be able to understand the other side of the argument. They should research that other, differing side, and then work to come up with specific points that can help to refute those opposing arguments.

Keep a record of your sources for your facts

If you are going to state facts, you should know where the facts came from, which author can be attributed to which fact, and which sources contained each fact. Some sources are more credible than others – you should teach your students that facts found in credible academic journals may be more legitimate than facts found on Wikipedia (a crowd-sourced form of information gathering) or from the words of an actor or other celebrity who is simply stating his or her own opinion about something.

Speak or write eloquently, firmly

While the facts are king when debating, being able to speak and write fluently and eloquently can help you drive in your argument. Learning how to speak confidently and charismatically can make a big difference in a debate or discussion.

You can be personal, but do not take it personally

Everyone has personal opinions, and people can be have very strong emotional attachment to those opinions. When debating, do not take it personally when people refute your opinions or arguments. It can be difficult!

One last point: helping your students understand ethics and equality

One last point for teachers and educators – while you should let students have their opinions, be sure that opinions that may be racist, sexist, or immoral should be controlled. While people (students included) do have the right to free speech, you should work to help those students who may have racist or sexist opinions to understand why all humans should be treated with equal respect and understanding. This is a very important lesson to learn!

Writing Opinions and Arguments

Writing Opinions and Arguments Common Core worksheetsIf you’re looking for fun prompts for students to use to express their opinions in the classroom, here is a packet of worksheets that you can have your students work on. Each worksheet prompts the students to think about their opinions and arguments in point form, and then write out an essay-style response to the opinion or argument. If students run out of room on the worksheet, they can can continue writing on a piece of lined paper or in their interactive reading or writing notebooks, if you use interactive notebooks as a teaching tool.

Writing opinions and arguments can be a lot of fun! I hope your students enjoy learning how to express their opinions and to debate hot topic arguments on both sides.

If you have any opinions of your own about how best to teach students to express themselves, I’d be glad to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment below.

School science project tasks and milestones

Middle school science project displayIn my previous post, I discussed how our middle school-aged son was tasked to complete his science project like an actual project. Along the way to the completion of the final project, he had to accomplish a series of tasks with a series of completion dates throughout the fall term. At the end of the first stage of the project, he ended up with a prototype of what the larger science project display would look like, were he one of the five students in his class chosen to continue to the school-wide science fair.

Steps toward a successful science project

In order to get to the prototype, our son had to complete the following tasks (according to a sheet provided by Science Buddies):

  • Topic selection: Choose a topic that you would like to work on for your science project
  • Pose a specific question that you will be answering in your science project
  • Create a research plan on how you plan to answer the question you posed
  • Research your sources, and create a bibliography of sources that you will use to answer the research question
  • Write a research paper to provide background information about the topic that you have chosen, including the history of experiments on this topic, definitions of important words and concepts, answers to background research questions, and any mathematical formulas that you might need to use during your experimentation
  • Create a list of variables and a hypothesis that you will use to conduct your experiment
  • Write a detailed list of materials you will need and procedures you will follow as you conduct your experiment
  • Conduct the experiment, using a minimum of three trials (runs) of the experiment
  • Analyze your data and create graphs and/or charts to represent the data
  • Using the data analysis and graphs, write a summary of what you have discovered
  • Compose a conclusion indicating what you have discovered through your experimentation
  • Write a final report that collects all of the information you have worked on above, including an abstract of your project with the final report
  • Put your project onto a prototype display board to show how it would be displayed if you placed it on a larger tri-fold or bristol board
  • Hand in your completed science project for consideration at the school science fair.

Each of these tasks was given a firm due date. In some cases, only proof of experimentation was needed (a few photographs of what you had accomplished). Basically, these steps were created to make sure that students got done what they needed to in time for that final completion date later in the fall. In total, the different tasks were spread out over the period of three months.

Science project success

In the end, my son’s science project was one of the five science projects in his classroom selected to enter the school-wide science fair. As such, he was told to take what he had put onto his smaller prototype display (as per the previous post) and create a full-sized version of that display. That final display can be seen in the photograph above.

And after the school-wide science fair, his project was selected to represent his school at the county-wide science fair! So working the science project like an actual project, with project deadlines, milestones, and deliverables, turned out to work well in his favor.

Wish him and his schoolmates luck at the county-wide fair!

Managing your science project like a project

Middle school science project prototypeWell do I remember that day in the early fall when our middle school-aged son came home and uttered those words that every parent has come to dread: “We have to do a science project”.

I have memories of working on my own science projects in elementary and middle school, of course. I seem to recall having to pick a topic, and then having several weeks’ worth of time to get the project completed. Managing the timing, the budget, the write-up, the tri-fold display… it was all up to us. And as we all know, some people are better at managing time than others. Many kids left working on their science projects to the very last minute!

This past fall with our son’s science project, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Our son’s science teacher (who is in many ways an excellent teacher) had laid out a manageable schedule for her students to follow to achieve science project success. Each student was given a set amount of time to complete a series of tasks on the way to the completion of each science project.

Having managed Information Technology (IT) projects professionally for many years, this made a lot of sense to me. And it made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of doing it this way before? A science project is of course a project: a series of tasks on the way to completion. It should be managed as such. And by doing so, you are teaching kids not only about science projects, but about how proper projects of all sorts should be managed!

I’ll discuss the steps my son and his classmates took in my next post. But first, I would like to share another great idea that was used for our son’s school’s middle school science project – the prototype display.

Using a prototype of the final science project display

One thing that our son’s school did that impressed me was assign each student the task of creating a prototype for his or her science project. This prototype is much like a mock-up that might be made when working on a project at a computer software or Information Technology company – something that I am quite familiar with!

The creation of prototype displays by each student had several advantages:

  • It is much easier to create a prototype of what a large-scale science project will look like, than to create the actual large tri-fold display
  • It is much cheaper to create a prototype of science project
  • It is much easier for teachers or school administrators to collect the various science projects to view and grade
  • Creating prototypes does not detract from the display – it is the same display, only done in miniature
  • By creating prototypes, you can quickly decide which project should go forward to the school-wide, county-wide, or city-wide science fair

Note that in order to start with a prototype, you still have to complete the actual science experiment – the prototype is the science project in its entirety, except it is displayed in miniature.

Our son created a prototype version of his science project (which he is holding in the picture – not something you could easily do with a tri-fold display). It is a smaller version of what a large tri-fold or bristol board display would look like were he to create the actual science project.

In this manner, the five best science projects in the classroom were selected to go forward to the next step – creating the large displays that would be then judged during the school-wide science fair. These students were then instructed to create the actually large display that would enter the judging. These students were also given bonus marks in science class (as they would be doing extra work that the other students in the class wouldn’t be doing).

School science project tasks, milestones, and deliverables

In my next post, I discuss the steps involved with the completion of a successful science project!

Learning computer programming with the Raspberry Pi

Raspberry PiHave you ever heard of a Raspberry Pi? It’s a tasty slice of technology!

The Raspberry Pi is a $35 computer from the United Kingdom, designed to help children learn computer programming. It’s not difficult to set up (though you need to supply your own peripherals – such as keyboard, mouse, and monitor – for it). And once it’s set up, it’s easy for kids to start exploring technology with it.

Our son received his own Raspberry Pi just before Christmas. So far, he’s been having a lot of fun setting it up and learning how to use it.

Here are a few things you should know about the Raspberry Pi:

  • It does not run Microsoft Windows. Raspberry Pi uses the Linux operating system. Linux is an open source operating system that is somewhat more complicated to use than Microsoft Windows or MacOS, but is a very powerful operating system once learned.
  • It can be a little slow. It has a 700 MHz ARM processor. That’s not a tremendous amount of power, but apparently it is enough to run a Raspberry Pi version of Minecraft.
  • It can be used to show videos on your TV. Some people buy Raspberry Pis (and a similar hobby computer called the Arduino) specifically for this purpose.
  • You can connect the Raspberry Pi to your wireless network. So you can use it to check your email or surf the Internet.

If you have children or students who are interested in learning about computers, technology, and how to computer program, the Raspberry Pi is a great choice. Children can learn to program Python, Java, or a number of other popular computer programming languages used today. While the Raspberry Pi can be a bit trickier to operate than a Mac or a Windows PC, for those kids who are interested in technology and willing to take the effort to learn new skills, it is an entertaining and inexpensive choice.

It’s time for some Thanksgiving fun!

A Thanksgiving turkeyAmerican Thanksgiving is just around the corner! And I, for one, have plenty to be thankful for. It’s been a great year so far! And the holiday season is nearing – I love this time of year!

A Thanksgiving turkey craft

If you’re looking for a fun craft to make in your classroom this November, here’s a Thanksgiving turkey with a variety of different feathers that you can cut out. Your students can cut out and paste or tape together the turkey, then write the various things that they are thankful for on the provided feathers. Finally, they can color the turkey and otherwise decorate it however they like!

The free PDF download for the Thanksgiving turkey craft can be found at the bottom of this post.

Math and English Language Arts Common Core Thanksgiving Activities

Thanksgiving Stress-Free Printables Common Core Math and LiteracyLooking for something to do in the classroom in those days leading up to Thanksgiving?

Here are some easy-to-use Common Core-aligned math and literacy printables that you can use in your classroom for those days or weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Problems involve mathematics and English grammar and writing skills for a variety of grade levels.

These worksheets are designed to be stress-free, offering an easy-to-use solution for the classroom activity, or for a substitute teacher. Why not check them out?

I hope that you have a wonderful lead-up to the Thanksgiving weekend, and that your Thanksgiving is spent with food, family, and friends!

What are you and your students thankful for?

Using the following Thanksgiving turkey craft, students can cut out the featherless turkey, and the oval feathers. They can then paste the feathers onto the turkey to create a turkey with feathers. On each feather, they can write something that they are thankful for – for example, family, friends, food, pets, or good health!

When the crafts have been completed, you can put them on display on your classroom wall or on your classroom door, or let your kids take them home to put on the fridge to add some Thanksgiving cheer.

A quick disclaimer – I did this craft when I was a kid, and while I may be a turkey, I’m certainly no spring chicken. So I am pretty sure that variations of this craft qualify as “fair use”!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Career Day at school (featuring Cyclops Kid)

Cyclops KidBrian writes: Late last week I participated in Career Day at our daughter’s school, presenting in front of my daughter’s fourth grade class. Instead of focusing on a single profession, I decided to share a variety of different aspects of my career through the years: the places I’ve lived, the schools and universities I’ve attended, the jobs I’ve had. This is because it seems to me that these kids will go through many changes throughout their careers. While they may start their careers as librarians or doctors or astronauts, they may switch partway through to become teachers or writers or botanists.

So I showed a map of the places I’ve been, pictures of the places I attended school, and outlined some of my career highlights, including computer programmer, web designer, project manager, and of course, creator of educational products. I described some of the opportunities I’ve seized simply because they presented themselves, and how taking advantage of such opportunities helped to further my own career. I showed them some examples of web design and computer programming (including some Minecraft code that I found via an image search – they liked seeing how games like Minecraft actually looked behind the scenes).

I was impressed by the questions these fourth graders asked, how well behaved they were, the curiosity they displayed, and the general positivity in the classroom. I showed them how we created educational products by actually doing some graphic art (with input from the students) and creating a Career Day worksheet right there on the board in front of them. It was a fun interactive experience and in the end we ended up with a fun Career Day worksheet that you can find here. The “cyclops kid” was their idea – when I asked what kind of eyes the boy we were making should have (thinking that they might say big, small, wide, or what have you), one of them said, “one eye!”… and the rest of the students agreed! They also got to choose the various fonts we used to create the activity.

I received a small stack of thank-you letters from the class the other day. I was touched that two of the kids said they wanted to be like me when they grew up – working with technology in a creative way. I sincerely hope these fourth graders (including our daughter) have long, industrious, and enjoyable careers.

At the end of the presentation, I told the class that I would put the worksheet that we had created together online so that other students at other schools could use what they’d created, too. So here it is!

A Career Day worksheet (designed by our daughter’s class)

Here is the Career Day worksheet in PDF or JPG format. Like I said, don’t blame me for the wacky kid at the top right corner of the page – he was designed by a bunch of fourth graders!

September is here! Along with some cooler weather

An autumn sunsetSeptember has arrived!

Here in Florida, it’s been a hot July and August (not surprising, really). With the arrival of September, I’m happy to see some of the cooler breezes arriving on our porch. September evenings are terrific evenings to go for long walks in the neighborhood, to spend some time at the swimming pool, or to visit the Disney parks! Our family much prefers to visit central Florida’s attractions in the evenings; the weather is nicer, the crowds are fewer, and as such, the lines to the various rides are much shorter.

September Interactive Math Notebooks

These days, interactive notebooks are red hot. Most of the elementary and middle school teachers I speak to are using interactive math, reading, writing, and/or science notebooks in their classrooms this fall. They’re a great way to get kids to get some hands-on practice using the various skills they will need to master during the school year.

If you’re looking for September-themed interactive lessons for your students, we’ve made a Common Core-aligned September interactive math notebook for first, second, and third grades. Inside you’ll find various interactive activities with a back-to-school and fall theme. You can find the products here:

A September poster for your classroom

Here is a free poster that you can download in PDF (or JPG format. You can put it on your classroom door or tack it to the wall to add some September charm to your decor. We hope you have a wonderful September!

The Disney Wilderness Preserve

A path through the Disney Wilderness PreserveDid you know that the Walt Disney Company owns a 11,500 acre wilderness preserve in the middle of Florida?

Neither did I, until I visited the site with the family this weekend. The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a massive chunk of land near Poinciana, Florida, south of Orlando and the Disney theme parks.

In 1991, The Walt Disney Company planned to develop land that would impact an estimated 4,560 acres of existing wetlands. As part of The Clean Water Act, designed to protect America’s diminishing wetlands, Disney was required to either avoid, minimize, or mitigate this loss. In order to comply with The Clean Water Act, The Walt Disney Company purchased 8,500 acres of working ranch land being considered for home and golf course development and, coupled with an additional 3,000 acres of land purchased by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, worked with The Nature Conservancy to restore the land to healthy wetlands and forests.

Cloudy skies in the Disney Wilderness PreserveInstead of doing what companies often do when complying with the Clean Water Act, creating small pockets of restored land with minimal positive impact to plant and animal communities, Disney decided to do it right with the planning and development of the Disney Wilderness Preserve. This was the first project in Florida to take on a long-term, large-scale comprehensive wetland mitigation endeavor. The land purchased by The Walt Disney Company had been heavily logged, ditched, and grazed since the 1940s when it had been used as a ranch. The Nature Conservancy restored the land to its original state by redirecting natural water flows disrupted by drainage and introducing a prescribed fire program for the area.

The area now hosts more than 1,000 native plant and animal species including the bald eagle, Florida scrub-jay, gopher tortoise, longleaf pine, and scrub oak. Two Florida panthers, members of one of Florida’s most endangered species, have also returned to the area on their own to live and thrive.

Florida cypress trees at Lake RussellOur family visited the Disney Wilderness Preserve early Saturday afternoon. The sky was starting to darken, and the winds were picking up – a sure sign of a storm to come. But we had traveled all the way south of Poinciana to visit the Preserve, so we at least wanted to walk inside a little ways! We ate a quick picnic near the Conservation Learning Center, a combination administrative hub and museum at the start of the walking trail, then headed out on foot.

We hiked along the trail to Lake Russell, one of the last remaining pristine lakes in central Florida. At Lake Russell there were some stately cypress trees with their “cypress knees” poking out from the shallow water of the lakeshore. At this point we started to hear the low rumblings of thunder. I should mention that if you’re going to get caught out in a thunderstorm, one of the places you might not want to be caught is in the middle of a low pine savannah! We weren’t sure if the storm was going to blow by us or come at us, but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to playing with electrical storms. So instead of hiking the rest of the two-mile trail we opted to head back and take a shortcut that would lead us back to the Conservation Learning Center and the parking lot.

Lake Russell in the Disney Wilderness PreserveJust as we were about to reach the Conservation Learning Center, we saw streaks of lightning in the sky, and droplets of water began to fall. Great timing! We had passed one more fellow out on the trail carrying a large expensive camera; we hope he made it back before the rains came in earnest. We signed out and made for our car. We stopped in at a nearby Home Depot on the way home, and that’s when the deluge started! At one point, the winds were pushing through the mesh siding of Home Depot’s garden center, sending clay pots of orchids crashing to the floor and employees scurrying about in a panic. Apparently there had been a tornado warning for our area. The amazing power of the storm was really something to see! And I, for one, was glad to be seeing it in Home Depot and not in the middle of the pine savannah.

So that is my summary of our (shorter than we might have liked) visit to the Disney Wilderness Preserve. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you pay the site a visit – preferably on a clear day! It’s an amazing and beautiful place, and a terrific example of wetlands restoration.