Who is counting down the days more - your students or you?!  Before you leave for the holiday break, consider finishing these 10 things to prepare your classroom for January.  Then you can enjoy your winter break without doing any classwork!

Top 10 Things To Do Before Winter Break - Post discusses 10 things teachers should to do so they can have a work-free break!  Free downloadable checklist in post.
6 Easy Steps to Make a Bulletin Board "Present" - Looking for a fun and inexpensive way to decorate your room for the holiday? This post shows teachers how to make a bulletin board look like a present.
It is always nice to change the decoration in your room. It is like changing your hair - the kids always notice! In our building, decor just does NOT stay on the wall. EVER. As much as I might want to decorate, it just is too much hassle. Changing the bulletin board though - that is easy.

Is your class working on building number sense?  Shut the Box is the perfect game to play to build addition and subtraction skills.  It also helps students understand "part part whole."  Even better, you can modify the game layout of Shut the Box to make it for a few pennies!  If you don't have woodworking skills, just make it with numbered cards and dice.

Learn how to play Shut the Box - Post includes a video that demonstrates how to play Shut the Box, an easy game that helps players improve their number sense. Players need to add on two dice.
I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in bringing you downloads of value and information about educational resources. The link below is an Amazon affiliate link. You can read my full disclosure here.

On our trip to Colonial Williamsburg, we found a store with an entire corner dedicated to games played during Colonial times.  One of our favorite finds is Shut the Box.  Other game enthusiasts may know it.  I had seen it in stores, but I didn't really know how to play.

This is a great game for number sense and addition skills.  It is very easy to learn, and it involves luck.  Sometimes math games are tricky because the better math students always win.  Shut the Box requires great dice rolls to win, so everyone has a chance.

Shut the Box would be easy to incorporate into math class, but it could also be used during a Colonial America unit.

I think it is easier to learn a new game when you see it played, so I made a quick video for you!


What are your favorite educational games?


Are you still searching for your perfect personalized planner?  Many teachers have started using daily planners instead of planbooks.  I need a planner, but usually end up forgetting to use it because the layout doesn't work for my needs.

The Arc Planner: The Best Personalized Planner! - Create a 100% customizable planner using the ARC Planner system! This system can be used for teacher or life planners. In addition, it can be reused and modified as your needs change.

I tried many planners, but usually inexpensive ones because I am also cheap.  Why spend money on something I probably will forget to use?  Then my sister told me about Staples' ARC planners, and now I am hooked!  Staples did a great job designing the ARC system so that it can be adapted to meet anyone's needs.

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in bringing you downloads of value and information about educational resources. The link below is an Amazon affiliate link. You can read my full disclosure here.

What are ARC planners?

ARC planners are "build-your-own-planners."  They do sell a few already assembled, but in general you buy the pieces you want and organize the binder however you like.  It uses discs as the spine, and the paper can be popped on and off the discs.

If premade planners frustrate you, then you may like the ARC planner.  Right now we have so many things going on: homeschool, swim team, chorus, business, blogging, and on and on.  I need to be able to have each week together, plus I need space to plan for the week.  In other binders, I never had enough room.

Also, the discs come in two sizes.  This was a big selling point for me, because I have tried keeping everything in one binder and splitting things into multiple binders, but it never works for me.  Three-ring binders are either too large or busting at the seams.  With the ARC planner, I can make a smaller (and lighter) binder to carry around and later, I can just pop the pages out and move them.  This could be great for teachers, because smaller binders could be used for things like the gradebook, guided reading notes, literature circles, math centers, etc.

Which parts of the ARC  are customizable?

ALL OF THEM.  For real.  They make a number of pre-made pieces, but they also sell an ARC hole punch so you can use this system with any printable pages you want to use!  I have even thought about printing a cover, laminating it, and using that instead of the premade pieces.

The Arc Planner: The Best Personalized Planner! - Create a 100% customizable planner using the ARC Planner system! This system can be used for teacher or life planners. In addition, it can be reused and modified as your needs change.

What pieces are available to purchase?

The pieces I found recently included covers, dividers, calendar page sets, folders, pouches, pen grips, business card holders, multiple paper versions, and the discs.  They also sell a one page punch and a multiple page punch.  The pages are available in two sizes as well.

How much does it cost to make a binder?

The cost really depends upon how many pieces you want to buy.  I purchased a sample of nearly every piece, so I forked out a lot up front.  However, I have enough pieces leftover to make a second binder.  Also, the paper itself can be pricey, so I will probably print punch my own pages at home in the future.

Are there any negatives?

One thing I worried about was the pages falling out.  So far, mine have not popped out.  However, the pages on top can pull out fairly easily.  You also have to be careful when turning your pages around the discs - they don't slide around quite as easily as a spiral-bound planner.

It was also a little pricy, in my opinion, but I would say comparable to other customizable binders.  I believe the ARC planner could be cheaper in the end if you use fewer pieces.

If you are looking for a planner that you can 100% make your own, the ARC planner may be for you!

So, you want to take a field trip to New York City!  Whether you are a homeschool family or a just taking a vacation with kids, I learned a few tips during our visit.

Visiting New York City - with Kids! - Post gives tips for visiting NYC with school aged kids, but tourists of all ages will find many of the tips helpful.. Tips include places to visit and how to find your way around the city.

1.  Where to Stay in New York City

There are a lot of options for staying over in New York City.  We stayed with family, so I don't have advice on hotels.  If you are not comfortable following the Metro map, you may want to stay near Times Square, because all the tourist buses run through there.

A budget option that you may not have realized is staying in New Jersey.  My nephew lives in West New York, which is a 15 minute bus ride to the Port Authority and Times Square.  The ticket costs $3 - $3.50, depending upon the bus.  You may want to check the difference in price between hotels in Manhattan and West New York.

2.  Getting Around New York City

There are so many options for getting around the city.  Friends suggested taking one of the tourist buses, where you can get on and off as much as you want for the time period purchased.  That can be good if you are trying to pack in a lot of things in just a day or two.  You can also see a lot of the city as you are riding the bus.

For people that are good at maps, I really recommend getting a multi-day Metro card and taking the subway.  A 7 day unlimited Metro card was about $32 for an adult.  As long as you are not trying to take the subway at rush hour, you can easily get around the city.

Download the app, Subway Map: NYC for your phone.  This app allows you to see all the subway routes and stations without needing wifi.  We used this and Google Maps to help find our way around the city.

3.  Plan Ahead

Okay, I usually am a TYPE A planner, all caps.  However, I had this idea that we would just wing it in New York City.  That, my friends, is a seriously bad idea.  We were there in the middle of October, relatively off-season, and things were still sold out.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - Plan far, far ahead.  Tickets to go up in Lady Liberty's crown were sold out for four months.  We went mid-day thinking we would have enough time to just visit the islands.  Much to our surprise, the ferry tickets were sold out.  They also explained that the security line to get onto Liberty Island takes about 2 hours and another 30 minutes for Ellis Island.   (If you stay in New Jersey, you could go to Liberty Park and travel from there.  It is possible that it would not be as busy as South Ferry.)

The Tenement Museum - I wrongly thought this out of the way museum would be less busy.  Nope.  They run different tours, but the tours have limited space because they are inside the tenement.  Most days, the majority of the tours were sold out by the night before.

Broadway Shows - If you want to see a show at a discounted price, you need to go to the TKTS Booth in the morning and wait in line.  If you are lucky, you will be able to snag some tickets.  Your best chance of this is during the week.
Visiting New York City - with Kids! - Post gives tips for visiting NYC with school aged kids, but tourists of all ages will find many of the tips helpful.. Tips include places to visit and how to find your way around the city.

4.  New York City Museums

The nice things about most museums is that they have a suggested payment policy.  There is a price, but you can pay less if you can't afford it.  We went to the American Museum of Natural History, which was fun for a while but exhausting by the fourth floor.  We enjoyed the limited time exhibitions though, because they had a lot of hands-on things to do.  I definitely recommend buying the extra tickets to see them.

5.  Look for Freebies!

Okay, even being careful, things can get expensive pretty quickly.  My son wanted to see the Empire State Building, and that was actually really nice - but not cheap.  Instead of hitting all the tourist spots, we decided to go do "New Yorker" things.  Central Park is free - and you could hike around the park for days!  In Brooklyn, you can walk under the bridge to DUMBO.  Another day, you can go to South Ferry to ride the ferry to Staten Island, see the charging bull statue on Wall Street, and visit the Museum of the American Indian  - all for free!  It is actually pretty easy to entertain yourself without spending a lot of money.

6.  Helpful Hints

A few takeaways from our trip:

1.  Wear your most comfortable shoes.  We walked all day, every day.  And be prepared for a lot of stairs.  A LOT!

2.  The weather is unpredictable.  The city feels hotter than the temperature - especially on the Metro platforms.   Even in the high 60s, which is usually cold for us, we were wearing t-shirts.

3.  You cannot swipe your card at the same Metro stop twice.  If you accidentally go down and swipe, then realize you need to be on the other side of the platform you are stuck for 20 minutes.  If you are lucky, you might see a Metro worker who could reset it for you.  My nephew warned us not to duck under the stalls unless you want a fine.

4.  Broadway matinees are only on the weekend.  If you are not a night owl, plan ahead to see one Saturday or Sunday.

If you have any travel tips for New York City, I would love to hear them!

When I first started using interactive notebooks, I really wondered how to vary the types of formative assessments.  The summative assessments were easy - a quiz or a chapter test.  The main type of formative assessment that I could find was grading students' notebooks.  Honestly, I found grading notebooks took a long time and required me to cart around a lot of notebooks.  I didn't mind spot-checking them, but didn't want to cart home a set of notebooks every week.  I also wanted to see what they understood - not just what they wrote down. Over time, I figured out how to use interactive notebooks for a variety of formative assessments.

How to Use Interactive Notebooks as Formative Assessment - Post discusses five simple ways to use students' interactive notebooks as formative assessments.

1.  Exit Tickets

Exit tickets can be a fast - and fun - way to check what students know or think.  In language arts, I made tree trunks on my cabinets and had students post up their responses for different topics.  For example, when we reviewed Greek and Latin roots students wrote words using that root on "leaves" and taped them to the tree trunk.  (Teachers could use Post-It notes for this type of activity as well.)  I have also seen teachers using quarter sheets of paper or index cards for students responses.

It is important that the teacher select a question that represents what they wanted students to learn.  Reading responses to that question will show whether students are ready to move on or not.

How to Use Interactive Notebooks as Formative Assessment - Post discusses five simple ways to use students' interactive notebooks as formative assessments.

2.  Short Response Questions

Short responses take a little longer to complete than exit tickets, but they are helpful if the teacher wants to see if students understood the "big picture."  In math, a teacher might ask students to explain how to estimate a number.  In reading, students might be asked to explain why a character did something in the story.

In my social studies classroom, I asked students to respond to a few types of questions.  The essential question is a good short response topic.  I also would ask students comparison questions, such as "How were the Plains tribes different from the Northwest tribes?"  Sometimes I asked students their opinions, such as "Would you have rathered lived in Sparta or Athens?  Explain why."

3.  Interactive Worksheets

Doing anything too often gets really boring, but sometimes a worksheet is a fast way to check comprehension.  A worksheet does not have to always be written though!  I try to keep in mind that students have different strengths.  Students with processing problems or vision problems can really struggle with written activities.  Occasionally, I will use a worksheet where students sort pictures/statements and glue them to the correct place.  (For students with OT issues, teachers may want to cut the pieces for them.)

Also, teachers could have a worksheet where students create a Snapchat profile for a character or historical figure.  This type of activity really shows how well students understand a person's motivations.

Another idea is to have students draw something related to the topic.  For example, teachers could ask students to create a t-shirt that represents that New England colonies.  Longer drawing activities could include creating a comic strip ( 2-3 frames).

Just keep in mind that not all students enjoy drawing, so it might be better to offer a choice of activities.

How to Use Interactive Notebooks as Formative Assessment - Post discusses five simple ways to use students' interactive notebooks as formative assessments.

4.  Oral Responses

Don't forget that oral responses can count as a check of students' understanding.  I know I sometimes overlooked class discussions, but that can be a very quick way to see which students understand the material and which ones need more support.

5.  Student Experts

I called this assessment "student experts," because I can never remember the official education terms I have seen!  After I got to know my students, I would place them into small groups of varying abilities.  Each group would be responsible for becoming the "experts" on their section of the text.  I would give them class time to work together.  I also made sure to circulate to all the groups and help them if they had questions.  After that, students "taught" their portion of the lesson to the class.  This activity works best in groups or 2-3 in order to make sure all students are participating.

It was often interesting to see what they really understood in their presentations.  Sometimes students misunderstood concepts, and I would step in and explain it further. This was very eye-opening for me, because many times students did not understand the informational text as well as I expected.

If you would like to try interactive notebooks in your classroom, I have a few free activities in my TPT store for upper elementary grades on Colonial America, Florida's Geography, and Economics & Civics.

What are your favorite ways to use interactive notebooks for formative assessment?
Okay, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt really isn't a Hidden Gem - I think this book has gotten a lot of attention.  However, I love this book.  If you are teaching upper elementary or younger middle school grades, your class needs this book.  It is really that good.  It will speak to so many of your students in different ways.  If you teach in Florida, Fish in a Tree made the Sunshine State Book List for grades 3-5 for 2016-2017.  Your school library probably has a few copies available!

Discover a Fish in a Tree, a "Hidden Gem" of a novel.  This is a terrific book to either read aloud or use as a novel study in your upper elementary classroom (grades 4-6.)

Summary of Fish in a Tree

Ally is the main character in Fish in a Tree.  We slowly get introduced to her and her family.  At the beginning of the story, Ally comes off as very sad and insecure.  She wants to do well and she tries her best, but things never work out for her at school.  In order to escape, Ally decides to get in trouble and visit the principal - at least that way she doesn't have to feel stupid.  (Wow, how many teachers have already thought of a few students?)  Ally really puts her foot in it at her teacher's baby shower.  I won't spoil it, but what she mistakenly does is heartbreaking.  The reader just feels so sorry for Ally who-never-does-right.  The new teacher, Mr. Daniels, is very different from her previous teachers.  He is kind, but he also lets Ally know that her old tricks won't work.

At the same time, Ally has other issues that she is dealing with at both school and home.  Ally is bullied by other girls in the class and struggles to make friends.  Her family moved frequently, and she doesn't have any long-time friends to support her.  Her dad is deployed, and her grandpa passed away recently.  Ally's mom works as a waitress to try to make ends meet.  Travis, Ally's older brother, is her main support system - but he has his own struggles.

You are probably thinking that this is a depressing book - but it's not.  One of the things I love about this book is it is about resilience and overcoming adversity.  I don't want to give away the story, but Ally's life improves so much by the end of the story.  Ally makes some friends - who teach her a lot about coping with problems in different ways.  Mr. Daniels is the teacher that all teachers want to be - and changes her life forever.  You really just have to read the book.  If I say much more, I will give it all away.

Teaching Fish in a Tree: Character Development & Themes

As far as reading skills, Fish in a Tree would be great for character studies.  Not only could you track how Ally changes in the story, but also her friends, brother, and the class bullies.  Students could be assigned to track different characters and their actions in each chapter.

Fish in a Tree would also be great for teaching theme.  As I stated previously, students will connect with this book in so many different ways.  It is a terrific example of how a book can have more than one theme.  A few that I noticed were:
                            - overcoming a learning problem
                            - dealing with loss of a family member (death or deployment)
                            - coping with bullies
                            - everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
                            - personal impact (one person can impact someone else)

This book would be great for the beginning of the year as well.  You can discuss how the students treat each other and how that impacts learning.

HIdden Gems: Fish in a Tree is an excellent book for teaching characterization or theme.  It is also great to discuss class bonding/rules.  Blog post summarizes the story.

If you plan to read Fish in a Tree, I do have a set of reading responses/journal prompts in my TPT store.  I have one question per chapter, as well as two questions for after the book.  Teachers can print the questions to glue into a journal or print them as task cards for a reading center.

I really hope you check out this book!
Are you going to use digital resources with students this year?  If you are new to Google Drive, there are some easy tasks you will want your students to be able to do.  Here are two tutorials that show how to add an image to a Google slide and how to hyperlink an image to another site or slide.

How to Add & Link Images in Google Slides - Post contains two short videos that demonstrate how to add and link images in Google Slides.
If you are like me, every year you try to improve your independent reading program.  Even though I wanted an alternative to a daily reading log, I usually ended up with some form of one - which everyone hated, parents, students, and me.  I did not want to be the reading log police, and apparently neither did parents.  I didn't find reading logs effective either.  If I was lucky, half of the students completed a log and, for the most part, they were not high quality.  Students were writing about books they read to younger brothers and sisters - or just whatever book they had at home.  My best readers hated completing them.  They were often the kids I had to chase down - even though they were reading constantly!

How to Play Readingopoly: A Fun Alternative to Reading Logs - Are you looking for a more interactive way to engage students in reading? Readingopoy uses stickers and Brag Tags to encourage students to read variety of genres! The program works well for both libraries and classrooms.

What is Readingopoly?

I decided I had to come up with something that had more student buy in.  My goal was to get students to like to read, not make it another chore.  I also wanted to encourage students to read different genres.  Yes, I know that students enjoy reading books in a series.  Yes, I know kids should be able to select their own book.  I wanted a system that would encourage kids to read a lot of different books while providing student choice.  I also didn't want to spend a lot of time or money tracking what each student read.

I created Readingopoly! It is a "game" in which students collect game board pieces and earn brag tags for collecting a set.  Each set focuses on a different genre.  Students keep track of their own pieces on a mini-game board.  You give them the sticker when they earn it - no more lost (or stolen) pieces.  If a student doesn't want to read the genre, they just don't earn the sticker and brag tag.

How to Play Readingopoly: A Fun Alternative to Reading Logs - Are you looking for a more interactive way to engage students in reading? Readingopoy uses stickers and Brag Tags to encourage students to read variety of genres! The program works well for both libraries and classrooms.

Setting up Readingopoly

It does take a little set up in the beginning.  Teachers need to print and assemble the game board and post it on a bulletin board or science board.  Teachers will need a game board for each student.  I recommend printing the stickers and the brag tags and storing them in an organizer or file.  Templates for each are included in the resource.  I printed the stickers on address labels.  Also, a book review form is included as an additional option.

I will tell you, the board draws a lot of interest from students.  It is definitely an attention grabber.  My students enjoy collecting the fast food stickers for prizes, so this was easy for them to understand.

Readingopoly: A Fun Alternative to Reading Logs

This program can be used with a lot of flexibility.  Students can easily read books on their own level. Teachers could require students to show the book to earn the sticker.  Teachers could use AR and Reading Counts tests or a simple discussion about the book as proof of reading.  Teachers could also require a completed book review to earn the sticker.

Look what teachers have said about the Readingopoly program:

Francesca said: "My students are so excited to start collecting their readingopoly pieces! I can't wait to see how this goes throughout the year. I was looking for a new way to have students track their reading and this is so much more fun than the traditional reading log. Thanks!"

The Literacy Lodge said, "Love this resource and how I am able to customize it for my classroom. I plan to use it as incentive for students to read a variety of books with our AR program.. Thanks so much for making reading fun!"
I hope you enjoyed learning how to play Readingopoly! If you are interested in this resource, it can be found in my TPT store.
Are you using interactive notebooks with your students?  I have used them for a few years, and I have discovered the best supplies for interactive notebooks!  Okay, a bit of hyperbole there, but I definitely have found supplies that I prefer over others.

Are you trying to decide on the best supplies for interactive notebooks? This post discusses a teacher's favorite elementary classroom-tested supplies.
I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in bringing you downloads of value and information about educational resources. The link below is an Amazon affiliate link. You can read my full disclosure here.

1.  Spiral Notebooks 

Yes, some teachers love, love, love composition books.  I don't.  I have really large handwriting, and even teaching upper grades I have so many students with really bad handwriting.  Using spiral notebooks gives me more room and if someone makes a big mistake, then we can just rip out a page or two.  Also, most importantly, spiral notebooks are super cheap.  Cheap is important.  (Don't forget to lurk the after school sales to get them even cheaper!)

2.  Crayola Twistables Colored Pencils

Okay, you know that special stash of school supplies you keep in your room?  You know the ones.  The ones that are partially hidden or the kids know that they are NOT to touch them.  Teacher Only Supplies.  And not any teacher - just YOU.
Get Crayola Twistables for you.  They are not super cheap, but if they were, I would get them for every student in my room.  No more waiting for kids to sharpen colored pencils.  No more kids breaking the pencil sharpener with colored pencils.  All they have to do is twist them and more color comes up.  They do last a fairly long time, so for me they are definitely worth it.  The Crayola Twistable Crayons are also nice, but I do like the colored pencils more.  (No affiliate promotion, but I would really not object to some product....)
I also have found that I can use the colored pencils as highlighters, so that is a way to save some money.

3.  Colored Pens

Personally, I prefer Paper Mate Profile pens.  I have arthritis, and I have found that it is hard for me to grip some pens after a while or that some pens are just hard for me to hold.  (Hard to hold = really bad handwriting)  I have also found that gel pens are easier on my hands, but they can be expensive.
Why do you need colored pens?  It helps to have pens to label things before you color over it.  A bright color makes the words stand out.

Are you trying to decide on the best supplies for interactive notebooks? This post discusses a teacher's favorite elementary classroom-tested supplies.

4.  Bic Round Stic Grip Pens

Okay, I hear you.  Why do you need even more pens?  Because, kids lose theirs and somehow your pens disappear.  The fancy colored pen?  They go in that DO NOT touch area you have.  These Bic pens write really nicely and are usually very affordable at BTS sales.

5.  White School Glue

This is definitely a teacher preference just like the notebook style.  White glue makes a mess.  Kids will soak their paper until you have them trained.  Why not just use stick glue?  Because stick glue is falsely named.  Nothing sticks, at least not for long.
If you want your students to have their notebooks long-term and actually still have their work in the notebook, use white glue.  I personally use Elmer's School Glue.  I know their are off brands, but for the past few years Elmer's is either 25 or 50 cents a bottle at BTS.  Stock up - students will go through more glue than you ever thought possible.  (If you don't buy the glue at the BTS sales, it is much more expensive in the middle of the year.)

6.  Scotch Brand Titanium Scissors

Once again, these are for your hands only.  However, nothing cuts as nicely as these little Scotch scissors.  These are sharp, and they do not rub into my fingers.  Completely worth a few bucks.  (They will last forever as long as you don't try to cut something with them that you shouldn't - like a wire.  Just don't.  Trust me.)

7.  Mechanical Pencils (Optional)

If you write with a pencil because your students use pencils, you may want a mechanical pencil.  It goes back to the pencil sharpening issue.  However, my handwriting is really rotten, especially with pencils.  Mechanical pencils are a bit better.

8.  Colored Paper (Optional)

I didn't put it in my picture, but I do know many teachers like to copy the interactive pieces on colored paper.  I have had mixed results with that.  I had certain colors that kids told me they didn't like because it was hard to read.  Other students preferred colored paper because they hated to color.  In the end, I use colored paper sparingly because it is expensive and because I tend to have a lot of maps in my social studies notebooks.  I find it easier to add map details on white copy paper.

Do you have any other must have supplies for your interactive notebooks?

If you are new to interactive notebooks or are looking for resources, I have many free INBs in my TPT store for language arts and social studies.
I think most language arts teachers have a few go-to books that they use to integrate subjects.  When  get to the post-Revolutionary War period and need a historical fiction novel, I reach for Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.   The story takes place in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Fever, 1793 is a Hidden Gem of a book for using in a novel study or as a read aloud.  It is a terrific historical fiction book to incorporate into a study of Colonial America or American Revolution.  Post discusses how to use the book in your middle school classroom.Summary of Fever, 1793

Readers are introduced to Mattie Cook, a very typical teenager dreaming of her future, thinking about boys, - and fighting with her mother.  Mattie's mother runs a tavern, and like many families, Mother and Mattie rarely see eye to eye.  Grandpa lives with them and helps run the tavern.  Polly is a girl that works for them.  When Polly doesn't show up for work, Mattie assumes she is off flirting with the boys.  Shockingly, Mother discovers that Polly is dead - taken by a quick fever.  Soon, many people are passing along rumors of a fever running through the city.

Mattie is a very engaging character, and students quickly get swept up into her life.  As the yellow fever outbreak becomes more evident in the story, students begin to ask for more reading time - they want to know what happens to her!  Things get pretty dire for Mattie as she attempts to escape the city for the countryside.  Eventually, Mattie finds her way back to the city.  Will her family survive?  Will they be able to keep the tavern?

Teaching Fever, 1793

Anderson does an amazing job weaving in facts from the time period throughout the story.  It is a very accurate portrayal of life at this time.  Although the Cook family is fictional, the events discussed in the story are real.

The story does get a bit dark - after all, a lot of people died in the yellow fever epidemic.  It is a bit graphic in parts, but most kids really just want to know what happens next.  However, if you have a student that struggles with loss or handling death, the story may be too much.  I have used this book with 5th graders toward the end of the year and 6th graders.  This is not an easy read, so I do not recommend using it with below grade level readers.

Aside from a terrific plot and engaging main character, the book also has quotations from the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  These quotes come from a variety of sources, but all are taken from historical documents.  Many students had a difficult time understanding the quotes. However, teachers should spend time analyzing their meanings as the quotes often foreshadow events in the story.

I also recommend finding an audiobook version of the story.  Students love to hear it being read in a colonial accent!

If you are interested in using Fever, 1793 in a literature circle, I do have a novel unit available in my TPT store.

novel unit

What are your favorite books for integrating American history?
Okay, so we have talked a lot about struggling readers.  Do you know what struggling readers also hate to do?  Yep, WRITING.

I had been making Google journal prompts for my team to use in a writing center.  As they are slides, I made them really colorful.  My son did a double take and asked me what I was making.  At first, he laughed, "No way would I do that."  Then I discovered a powerful word, a word that actually made him say he wanted to use the prompts.  "Online.  You type your responses on the computer."
digital learning
My son and I have been reading a chapter a day to improve his reading.  Our "tutoring" has really reinforced to me how many signs I missed that he had a reading problem. Even with all my teacher training and reading professional development, I didn't know that he showed nearly every sign of a struggling reader!  He didn't need glasses, so I figured his vision was fine.  With this post, my goal is to help teachers recognize signs of an underlying problem - something the student won't "just outgrow."  Without help, some struggling readers will just fall farther and farther behind - no matter how many times they are retained or given the "gift of time."
5 Overlooked Signs of a Struggling Reader - Post discusses five often missed red flags that could be a sign that a student is struggling with reading. Teachers and parents of struggling readers will find this post helpful.
As a teacher, I really thought I knew all about reading problems and how to spot them.  I mean, we talked about dyslexia and other issues in my master's program.  However, I was never really taught to identify signs of other possible problem.  In general, I don't believe many training programs adequately prepare teachers for this aspect of our job.  Every year I talked with his teachers and mentioned these struggles - all signs of a problem - and none of us picked up on it.  And my son has had AMAZING teachers!

Red Flags

As teachers, how can we tell when there may be a hidden problem with our students?

1.  Resisting Homework

     Don't laugh.  Until you have your own child scream for 4 hours (not exaggerating) because he or she doesn't want to read for 10 minutes, you really can't believe that the parents are telling the truth about the homework struggle.  I continually brought this up with my son's teachers.  Math homework wasn't a problem.  Reading, however... I just can't even explain the torture.  Now, if I was reading to him, he was thrilled to read.  If I asked him to read, all bets were off.  HOURS.  I am not joking.  I tried to explain that his screaming was taking far more time than just doing the reading, but he didn't care.  Yes, friends, I often just gave up.  It was so exhausting to struggle with him that by bedtime I just couldn't do any more.
    Now when parents tell me that their child is refusing to do the work for hours, I no longer just chalk it up to a power struggle.  If the child has a pretty good relationship with the parent and doesn't seem to have other issues that stand out, pay attention to this refusal to do homework.  It may not be a vision problem, but I truly believe this is often a big red flag that there is a problem.  I had a student last year that was diagnosed with ADD - and the homework struggle was one of the things the parent discussed with me.  The family felt a lot of relief at finally discovering why she struggled so much when it didn't seem like she should be.

2.  Lack of Phonemic Awareness

     I know many primary teachers are tuned into this, and I noticed my son struggled with letter-sound matching, but it didn't occur to me that it may be a sign of a larger problem.  Now, emerging readers may not know all of their phonemes, but I am talking about a third grade student that could not tell you what sound a letter made.  Blends?  Let's not go there.  My son is going into sixth grade next year and I still review these with him.
     This struggle with phonemic awareness is another red flag that there may be a deeper problem.

5 Signs of a Struggling Reader - Post discusses five often missed red flags that could be a sign that a student is struggling with reading. Teachers and parents of struggling readers will find this post helpful.

3.  Sight Word Struggles

     As a student's reading level increases, his or her ability to recognize words should also increase.  Students with an underlying vision problem really rely on sight words to get them through a passage.   Once it becomes harder to have all of the words memorized,  the student struggles more and more with reading comprehension.
  My son was always able to squeak on grade level by the end of the year - which we all know means he was basically a year behind.  However, throughout the primary grades, he was always on grade level - or higher - in everything but reading.  I never could understand how he could be above grade level in every other subject but have such a struggle in reading.  I know now that he basically tried to memorize everything and learned through the teacher's instruction.  He did well when you explained it to him, but he couldn't figure it out on his own.
  As students transition to reading to learning, vision issues will cause more and more problems.  If a student seems to understand the material but fails reading and written work, that may be another red flag.

4. Spelling, or He Who Cannot Spell

 I have almost given up on spelling.  I mean completely.  My son cannot spell.  It is a nightmare.  I have tried every spelling trick I can think of - as well as all my teacher friends' ideas - and he still at best gets a C on a spelling test.  And when a C comes home, it is party time.  Seriously.

  Now, there are many people that just struggle with spelling.  This is that times a million.  For example, I tried having him pretest and then only focus on the words he didn't know.  Yea, that bombed.  Every day he spelled different words correctly and missed other words.  We tried doing them orally.  Same thing.  Tried writing them, nope.  Tried grouping words in word chunk or CVC families.  Bombed.  He is just at the point where he has decided it doesn't matter, because even if he studies he will get the same grade.  And honestly, he is right.

Last year his teacher tried giving him tests where he had to identify which word was spelled correctly.  For example, misspell, mispell, missspall.  Surprisingly, he can do well on that type of assignment.  So, somewhere along the lines he just cannot recall spelling although he can recognize it.  (See how this ties into trying to memorize all the words and lack of phonemic awareness?)

Again, poor spelling by itself may just be poor spelling.  However, poor spelling combined with other red flags may be a sign.

5.  Wacky Errors

Okay, I know that title is really specific, but it honestly is how I think of it.  If you have a student that seems to do strange things and also has other red flags, there may be something going on.  Let me explain some of the things that I started to piece together for my own child.

- He would copy most things wrong.  How can you spell words that you copied incorrectly from the board?
- He still struggles with words that are very similar.  ex.  Were, we're, where;  though, through, thought, thorough.  Every time he hits words like this, his reading stops while he figures out the word.  What happens in the meantime?  His comprehension plummets because he spent all his brainpower on figuring out the word.
- He passed vision exams yet appeared to not see correctly.  Yep.  He once failed a test and I was so excited because I thought we finally had solved our problems.  His prescription was so low, and when we finally got with a therapist, we discovered that the glasses actually just made his vision worse.
- Incredible lack of coordination.  I am NOT exaggerating.  I mean coordination where you have to laugh so you don't cry,  Jump rope? No way.  Skip?  Lord help me.  Ride a bike?  Get the Band-Aids..  Toss the ball back and forth?  Be prepared to do a lot of running as the ball will be thrown but NOT in your direction.  Walk next to each other?  You will be walked into and probably pushed into something.  (Thankfully, therapy has helped these issues A LOT.)
- The ability to read larger print books, but not smaller text.  My son could read texts that were larger font and double spaced, but struggled as fonts got smaller and spacing got tighter.  This was a big light bulb for me, because if he were really such a poor reader this didn't make sense to me.

I hope these tips help you.  I know I was really surprised to find out many of these are common signs of a problem.  Do you know of any other red flags?

To learn more about vision problems, please read my blog series.
I also have learned some strategies for helping your struggling reader.

I recently spotted Death By Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart at the school book fair.  I mean, just look at that cover!  I actually picked it up a few times before I committed to buying it.  Usually a book featuring toilet paper in its title would not be something I would find interesting, but this book seemed different.  It wasn't a comic-style book like I expected.  It also didn't seem to be about gross humor.  Instead, this is a realistic fiction book that takes you from happy to sad and back again.

Death by Toilet Paper is a Hidden Gem of a book. Post discusses how teachers can use the novel in an upper elementary reading class. This story is both funny and touching - there is something for all readers to appreciate!
It turns out this book is written by the same author as Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen - which was a Sunshine State Book.  If you read Olivia Bean and liked it, you will love Death by Toilet Paper.

Summary of Death by Toilet Paper

I don't want to give away too much of the story, but it is about dealing with loss and facing adversity.  Ben is a middle school boy whose hobby is to enter contests.  He actually receives a monthly flyer that summarizes internet and mail-in contests!  He enters contests that seem promising.

 Ben and his family are struggling to make ends meet, and no one outside the family really knows how bad things are.  His mom is struggling to finish her accounting degree so she can get a better job.  Waitressing just isn't enough to pay the rent.  On top of that, Ben's grandpa shows up at the apartment and wants to stay with them, stretching an already tight budget.  (The reader soon finds out the Grandpa is dealing with dementia.)  Ben decides that he will win a toilet paper jingle contest to help his mom.

Honestly, toilet paper is everywhere in this book - in a good way.  There are TP facts at the beginning of each chapter.  There is a tragedy involving toilet paper (seriously).  Ben enters two contests about toilet paper. (Wait until you read about the toilet paper zombie bride!)

Teaching Death by Toilet Paper

I want to emphasize that this book has an amazing story.  Students will root for these characters.  Your class will be on pins and needles waiting to find out if they had enough money for rent or if Ben won the contests.  Teachers can focus on characterization with this story.  Ben, his mom, and grandpa are all great characters to discuss.  Teachers can also use the story to talk about coping with loss.  (Ben and his mom are dealing with their loss differently).  I highly recommend this book for grades 4 - 6.

Are you looking for easy ways to increase engagement in math and grammar?  Yahtzy games are the BEST!  They are easy to learn and play, and require few supplies.  Yahtzy also has differentiation built into the game!  Players that need more time can take it, or players can play as a team or ask other players for help.
Yahtzy: An Easy Way to Learn & Have Fun - Are you looking for a way to keep students engaged in math or language arts? Yahtzy games are easy to set up and use!  A freebie is included in the post.

Increase Student Engagement with Games

love Yahtzy.  In my house it was a super competitive game.  My youngest sister had to body block the rest of us so we wouldn't scoop up the dice before she had them counted.  (Clearly being the youngest had some drawbacks...)

Yahtzy: An Easy Way to Learn & Have Fun - Are you looking for a way to keep students engaged in math or language arts? Yahtzy games are easy to set up and use!  Freebie included in post.

That being said, student engagement increases when the activity is fun!  And Yahtzy is fun.  Turns are fast - three rolls and your turn is over.  Change up your location to increase engagement - sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery.

Supplies to Make a Classroom Yahtzy

For the classroom, I created Yahtzy games that can be played anywhere!  I bought wastebaskets and foam dice at the local dollar store, and then just printed the dice templates and score cards.  Why did I get foam dice?  I built the paper dice around them.  It is totally worth the extra money, because the dice have some weight. They are easier to take outside and are protected from blowing away or getting crushed.  (You could also use packing tape to seal the dice, but I didn't go that far.)

The garbage cans make great shakers!  Easy to shake the dice and toss.  If you are really ambitious, you can use a cutting machine to add Yahtzy to the cans.  As it is the end of the year, I am more worried about simply surviving.  Beauty can come later.

If you have hula hoops, use them to mark off the playing field.  This helps keep students in one place;)

Yahtzy: An Easy Way to Learn & Have Fun - Are you looking for a way to keep students engaged in math or language arts? Yahtzy games are easy to set up and use!  A freebie is included in the post.

I really love Yahtzy, and I want you to love Yahtzy, too.  Place Value Yahtzy is available free in my TPT store.  Students use critical thinking to determine how to make the largest numbers with their dice.  It is best for 3rd and 4th grades, but it could be played in 5th as well.

I have a few Yahtzy games for grades 3 - 6, including Decimal Yahtzy, Adding FractionsOrder of Operations, Exponents, and Grammar Yahtzy.

I hope your students find Yahtzy easy and fun! I would love to hear whether or not they liked playing the game.  Do your students have a favorite game to play?

Have you ever gotten to the point where you have read everything in all of your favorite series and are just desperate to find a new one?   I really hope I am not the only one who feels this way.  I recently had to go to the book store to get a study guide for my high schooler, and of course I had to stop by the children's section.  Imagine my excitement when I found a new series to read!

The Lincoln Project is a new book that is a Hidden Gem for reading classes. This book is the beginning of a new series, and upper elementary students will love it! Post discusses how to teach the book.
This week's Hidden Gem is Flashback Four: The Lincoln Project by Dan Gutman.  I remembered Mr. Gutman from his Baseball Card Adventures - Babe & Me, Honus & Me, etc.  His new series is also historical fiction.  This new series has not been given a Lexile yet.  However, I would say that it would be a great fit for 4th and 5th grades.

Summary of The Lincoln Project

The story opens with four Boston students receiving mysterious invitations to a meeting.  Upon arrival, they learn that they have been selected by a tech billionaire, MIss Z, to form a time travelling team.  Although the kids think it's a joke, a test proves that time travel is possible.  But why them?  And what does she want?  Miss Z believes that children would be less likely to get into trouble if caught.  She wants the children to take photographs of famous moments in history, starting with Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address.  (Although photography existed at that time, no pictures were taken of Lincoln actually giving the speech.)  The Flashback Four are given a crash course on the time period - how to talk, dress, etc. - and then are sent back in time.

Integrate the Civil War and Reading

I believe this series will really pique students' interest.  The four students are varied in personality and background, and there are hints that one member has some personal problems that will be developed in future books.  The history is well incorporated into the story, and the premise itself is plausible.  The only thing I didn't care for was the ending.  The book ended on a real cliffhanger, but for me it left too much hanging.  Since I don't have the next book, I find that pretty frustrating.  However, the ending wouldn't keep me from reading it to the class.

This series would be a great way to incorporate history standards into your reading class.  This first book would also be a great to use when focusing on character development.  Students could be responsible for tracking information about each team member and Miss Z.

Are you in love with task cards?  I really love the way task cards allow students to work at their own pace.  I also appreciate being able to print them once and use them over and over again.  However, after using them a few times I wanted to find new ways to make them fresh again.

3 Quick Tips for Using Task Cards - Are you looking for new ways to use task cards in your classroom? Post describes three ways to use task cards as a center activity.

When I started using task cards, I just printed multiple copies and passed out sets to students.  Sometimes I had students work with a partner.  Other classes I jazzed things up by giving students different problems to work on.  But in the end, it was always me passing out the task cards.  The magic was gone.

So, I started to think about new ways to use task cards.  Space, or lack of it, was a huge roadblock.  Now, I have to admit, I am insanely jealous of some of the classrooms I see on Pinterest.  Where do these people teach?  In my first two classrooms, students were lucky to be able to walk between desks let alone move around the room!   Because of this lack of space, I needed to find ways that I could use task cards that didn't require students to run into each other.

3 Quick Tips for Using Task Cards - Are you looking for new ways to use task cards in your classroom? Post describes three ways to use task cards as a center activity.

After a lot of thinking (and a few stops at Target OneSpot!), I came up with a few different ways to use task cards that would make task cards seem new again.

1.  Bulletin Board or Science Board

If you have a bulletin board that is easily accessible, it can be turned into a task card center.  If you
are like me and really didn't have an accessible board, you can always use a science fair board.  (It isn't as easy to do, but it is handy and convenient.)

3 Quick Tips for Using Task Cards - Are you looking for new ways to use task cards in your classroom? Post describes three ways to use task cards as a center activity.

Now, I had to really think about how to attach the task cards to the board.  If you have a really good dependable group, you might be able to use thumbtacks - the big pretty kind.  However, that is probably not a great idea for many classes.  (I can just see kids poking each other with the thumbtacks.)  Instead, I got some twine and pretty clothespins for a few bucks.  I did break down and get the pretty thumbtacks, too - but only to tack up the twine.

I measured a piece of twine that was about 2 feet longer than the width of my bulletin board.  I tied a pretty bow near one end.  (It took a few tries, but I finally got it!)  I pushed the tack through the knot and pinned it to the board.  I pulled it tightly across the board and pinched the rope where the next bow should be.  I tied the end and trimmed off the stray strings.

Clip the pretty clothespins across the string, add the task cards, and your center is done!

2.  Buckets

Remember that $1 section?  I also picked up a few of those buckets that they sell in different colors.  (I think my mom buys them in every single color.)  I also noticed that they sold the cute clothespins on a stick.  (I believe they were called clip picks.)  I believe they are used to hold place cards at showers.  I picked up some Play-Doh, too.  If you already have some or have clay, then you don't need to buy it - just recycle!

3 Quick Tips for Using Task Cards - Are you looking for new ways to use task cards in your classroom? Post describes three ways to use task cards as a center activity.

I formed two mounds from each jar of dough.  I placed one mound in each bucket.  The dough doesn't stick well to the buckets, but it doesn't matter.  All it has to do is hold the party sticks up.  Clip the task cards in the party sticks and spread the buckets around the room.  Voila!  Done.

I like spreading the buckets out for a few reasons.  First, it keeps the students from running to the same spot.  Second, I can control the traffic flow better by monitoring how many students are at each card.  Third, I just do not have room to set out all those task cards otherwise!

3 Quick Tips for Using Task Cards - Are you looking for new ways to use task cards in your classroom? Post describes three ways to use task cards as a center activity.

You can also use the buckets to split the class into groups.  Place an even number of cards in a bucket for each group and assign students to each bucket.  (This works well for differentiating lessons.)

3.  The Desk

Let's be honest here.  We all strive for that Pinterest moment, but it just doesn't always happen.  And that is OKAY.  For those days when you are lucky enough to have the task cards printed and cut, just place the cards on the desks or pass them out.  Remember, if you are mixing up your routine every once in a while, placing them on the desk will seem new, too!

How do you use task cards in your room?
For this month's Hidden Gem, I discovered Little Cat's Luck by Marion Dane Bauer.  This is a novel written in verse, which I found to be a fresh writing style that many students may not have experienced.  It would be a great choice for poetry month in April!  (This is a companion to her previous book, Little Dog, Lost, so if your class loves dogs that may be a better choice.)

This poetry book, Little Cat's Luck, is a Hidden gem for all ages. It is unique in that the entire story is told in verses. Post discusses how to use the book in an elementary classroom.
This story is about Patches, a cat that is owned by a nice family with a big house.  However, Patches has searched and searched for a special place all her own, but she just can't find it.  One day, she finds a way out of the house and wanders the neighborhood looking for her special place.  On her journey, she encounters the meanest dog in town, but she shows him who's boss!  She isn't scared of any old dog and continues searching.

As the day goes on, Patches realizes that she is lost.  She can't figure out how to get home nor has she found her special place.  Just in the nick of time, she spots the perfect spot - but it happens to be in the meanest dog's house.  However, that doesn't stop Patches.

How does the dog react to finding a cat in his house?  And not just any cat, that annoying know-it-all cat!  Let's just say that this book has a surprise ending. Students will learn that sometimes a person's bark is worse than his bite.

If you have a student that is mean in order to push people away, this story would be a great way to talk about why some people are mean without pointing fingers.  The happy ending may also give your students some ideas.
Over the past year, I read a few articles that discussed making classrooms less visually stimulating for learners.  They discuss how walls cluttered with posters actually distract learners rather than helping them.  However, I think these studies miss the mark.
Make Your Classroom Sensory Friendly - Posts discusses four things teachers can do to make their classroom decor and layout sensory friendly for students.
Let me explain.  I am very sensory sensitive, and visual stimulation is just one part of this.  A number of things might make someone sensitive to sensory input, including autism, ADHD, allergies, and even introversion.  For me, it is in part fibromyalgia.  I always wondered why no one else could smell something when I could.  My teacher friends were always amazed when they didn’t smell it at first, but a few minutes later they could.

What causes sensory overload?

Sensory overload is when a person simply can’t stand any more sensory input.  I think a good analogy for this is a mall during the summer versus a mall during the Christmas holiday.  I try to avoid shopping after November 1st because after about 30 minutes I want to run out of the building!  It isn’t just the never-ending music on a loop, but the lights, the decorations, the huge crush of people, and the heat.  One of them would be okay, but put them all together and it is overwhelming.

Honestly, I think a lot of teachers have a huge amount of sensory things in their classroom and don’t realize it.  If you aren’t sensitive to it, you probably wouldn’t notice.  And, in all honesty, most students probably don’t either.

How can you make your classroom sensory friendly?

1.  Consider your visuals.  

Please understand, I am not saying that your classroom needs to be cold and uninviting.  No one wants to be that classroom that looks like a hospital room.  However, the decor should not overpower everything else in your room.  (I affectionately call this throwing up a rainbow.)  Every square inch of wall space does not need to be covered, truly.  When I first began teaching, I also felt the need to cram as many educational posters on the wall as possible.  However, it is a lot of work for the teacher, and it isn’t really necessary.

2.  Cut back on scents.

Don’t stop with your visuals, consider the odors.  Your kids with really bad allergies will thank you. 

Yes, it is so nice to have a really nice smelling room (especially if you teach 5th and 6th grades!)  However, when you have a fragrance, plus hand sanitizer, plus perfume that you wear, plus all the girls in your class that need their own hand sanitizer and perfume…..it becomes overwhelming.  (Don’t even get me started on the current favorite spray for boys.  If I could ban that, I would.)

In a classroom, everyone is so packed in that each individual smell mixes with the others.  Every year I kindly ask that students bring hand sanitizer only in the normal version or a citrus version.  That helps to cut down on the smells, and most students really will comply.

3.  Reduce the classroom noise.

Another issue can be noise.  Sadly, this is really hard to fix in most schools.  I haven’t worked in many places where you couldn’t hear noise in the hallway or the teacher in the room next door.  Just be aware of how much sound is coming in your room and try to monitor it.  I know a lot of teachers play music, and that really isn’t an issue unless all the other sounds play over it. 

4.  Declutter the classroom layout.

Finally, think about your classroom layout and space.  Again, some teachers are really limited by the size of their room, but try to space your tables and desks so that everyone can at least get in and out of their desk with ease.  I also try to establish pathways through the room, so students aren’t squeezing through a ridiculously small space.  (You know some students will always squeeze through a microscopic space no matter what you do….) 

What is your best tip for keeping students focused?
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