August 7, 2019

Personal Narrative Writing with Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold Author Study with Personal Narratives

Typically, one of the very first units in our Writer's Workshop are personal narratives. A couple of years ago I wanted to do something a little different than the standard book creation of the students' final copies. This was when the thought hit me to do a focused author study who wrote about her own life in conjunction with our workshop curriculum: Faith Ringgold. If you're unfamiliar with Ringgold, she writes beautiful children's books that started originally as story quilts (see here for more information). So during our unit, we use several of her books as our mentor texts, with Tar Beach being the main one that we re-read a couple of different times. The writing process lessons were very much the same, the only huge difference with this change is that students produce their final story in the form of a "story quilt" as you see below. A couple other mentor texts that I used when teaching personal narrative writing and highly recommend as well additionally are My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston and Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran.

Faith Ringgold Inspired Story Quilt

From left to right we have a story about a Ferris wheel ride at a carnival, a boat ride while vacationing, and the welcoming of a new kitten into a family. The story below was about a blueberry picking trip over the summer. 

Faith Ringgold Inspired Story Quilt

For these story "quilts" students created a frame with scrap fabric (I had a stash they could pick from), drew one scene from their stories in the center  (we used canvas squares as the base), followed by writing the final story on the back. Additionally, students had to turn in a typed copy of their final story with their quilts. 

August 6, 2019

Making the Most of Back to School Night

Making the Most of Back to School Night

In my opinion, back to school night can be a super useful time when planned correctly. Let me take a moment to give a quick run-down of how I structured my time for it, and then I have six helpful tips and tricks for newer teachers to make sure they implement.

In my last school, the structure was a whole school assembly where information relevant to the whole student body was presented, followed by time for parents to wander from different stations to sign-up for various activities, and then a half-hour in the child's classroom for teachers to use how they wished. I typically formatted that time starting with a short presentation going over things that were applicable to all the students in my classroom. Remember, this is the time to go over the information that will be the same for every student and to communicate what you want all the parents to know about so that everyone is getting the same information from the same source (you):
  • Coming to class well prepared (this is also where I would go over snack rules if needed)
  • Grading and homework expectations and policies
  • Communication between myself and parents (i.e. expectations and the different channels of communication)
  • Classroom specific expectations and rules
At the end of my presentation, I also had the parents and students watch this video from Kid President to end on a really positive, cheerful note. Finally, I allowed for open Q and A time for about five minutes for the parents. Here are six other helpful ideas and suggestions on how to make the most of your time that evening: 
  1. Have all your sign-up sheets for particular activities during the whole school year: field trips, class parties, parents who can come in and help with specific projects, etc. Follow-up via e-mail in a couple of days outlining who signed up for what in something like a Google document or spreadsheet so that parents can have the reminder as well and get the correct dates on their calendars.
  2. On each student's desk have important information printed for parents to take such as information you went over in your slides or anything else that will be relevant in the first couple months of the school year. Additionally...
  3. I like to have the first Scholastic order sheets out for them to take that night as it is one less thing I'll have to worry about sending home that first month of school when the end of the school days can be a bit more hectic as routines are developing and settling in.
  4. Leave some time for parents and students to explore the classroom, put away school supplies (if they bring it), and meet you in person that night
  5. Have special wishlist items on a board or tabletop for more pricey items that were not on the students' supplies list that parents can sign-up for too. Typically, these were items that went with specific projects or units we did throughout the school year so that I wasn't paying for them out of my own pocket. 
  6. Leave blank notecards on students desks where parents can write a brief note of encouragement that they will leave for their child to discover and read on their first day of school when they come into the classroom.

August 5, 2019

Managing a Classroom Nature Center or Space

Classroom Nature Center

One of my favorite spots, no matter the room or grade level, in all of my classrooms was my student's nature centers. I pretty much spent my childhood days running barefoot in my backyard since having parents who were less than enthusiastic about having kids "plugged in" to devices or glued to the TV. While I've always had an appreciation for nature and being outside until I actually found myself in a school that actively promoted nature-based learning and play, I had never imagined that I would be integrating it as heavily as I did into my curriculum. This is also my apology right off that bat at how long this post is, but I wanted to make sure that I covered all my bases and shared everything I've learned over the last few years with this teaching practice. 

Classroom Nature Center

Two books that heavily swayed and influenced my love of nature learning: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv--anyone, and I do mean anyone, who has even the slightest interest in child development needs to read this book. It is an in-depth look at the importance of being in nature and all the incredibly positive benefits there are to having kids outside on a regular basis. Louv is an excellent writer, both from a research standpoint and storytelling; there are many real-world stories shared throughout the pages to hold your attention all while taking in the scientific knowledge. Second, The Sense of Wonder by the renowned naturalist Rachel Carson. A very short manifesto for experiencing nature alongside children with beautiful prose--it is just an inspiring book to have to help you to spur on your teaching or parenting with an emphasis on the natural world. 

Classroom Nature Center

Having prepared, managed, and taught with nature centers in differing grade levels (1st through 4th), I've formed some key beliefs about how to use this important space in the classroom.

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers Evolve and Change. Just as the natural world does, so do the centers and their evidence of learning as the students grow in their own knowledge. It is also reflected by the curriculum units and the very seasons themselves changing through the school year (summer, spring, fall, and winter). The above picture is my 4th grader's nature space at the end of September, which is right around the time when we started using it heavily. You'll notice that it is actually pretty sparse and that there is not a lot going on. That is done on purpose and intentionally because they are prepared to be student-led. The following two pictures show you a more "filled" nature space; these are from 1st grade, right as we were getting into winter those first winter-days:

Classroom Nature Center

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers are Student Owned and Teacher Guided. That is, I believe that they function best when managed as such. In many of these images, you'll notice that I mostly just provided the skeleton for these spaces--books, empty jars and basked, clipboards... essentially the tools to be used. However, it is the students who provided the specimens they were already interested in or had a connection to. On occasion I'd bring something in to share with the class and model how we interacted with each other's "artifacts," but for the most part, they had free range of what went into the space. Additional guidance would, at times, come in when I'd have them bring in something that went along with our specific unit curriculums.

Classroom Nature Center
Lots of Jars, trays, and clipboards--staples to a nature center
Classroom Nature Center
Seashells from a student's trip 
Classroom Nature Center
Other treasures brought in--don't worry, no wildlife was ever harmed 
Classroom Nature Center
...more backyard finds
Classroom Nature Center
...and more, some repeats in there as those are items that students either donate at the end of the year for future students or come from my personal stash.
I'd put out smaller bulletin boards for the kids to attach things to, or as a class, if we found something online, we could print it out and have out for everyone. 

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers are Learning Hubs. Depending on the unit of study, our nature center would morph and change. Depending on what the students were personally interested in would also cause the nature center to morph and change. It functions as both. 

Classroom Nature Center

In first grade, we did a year-long phenology study (how a selected tree changes through the seasons) where we documented changes and made observations. The journals were kept in the nature center so students could look back on them and keep their reflections going.

Nature Study
Focused nature study for our plants unit.
I would put up different activities throughout the year where students could interact with the nature center as a morning activity when they first came in until the bell rang (thinking routines). Usually, they were simple open-ended exercises in practicing observations skills. I'd often have this worksheet printed out for them to have evidence of learning for that time. 

Classroom Nature Center
Seed thinking routine

Thinking Routine
Rock thinking routine

Shell Sort

Another idea for our tidepool unit (which could be done with others) was a shell sorting activity. 

Classroom Nature Center

In third grade, we did a study on natural history using Cabinet of Curiosities. Students collected artifacts and build "cabinets" using miscellaneous cardboard. 

Classroom Nature Center

Another morning work option that was a part of our nature center were class journals. Students could write stories either about our class pet (Frodo, a frog) or about their nature experiences outside of class. Students could also go back and read each other's entries since they were all housed in a couple of notebooks only.

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What tips and tricks do you have for your classroom nature centers? Leave them in the comments below--I love getting more ideas and suggestions!

Classroom Nature Center

July 22, 2019

Birthday in a Box (A Birthday Themed Care Package)


Birthday Care Package

I can think of no better way to shake things up from a birthday card to a birthday in a box when it comes to wishing a friend a celebratory day who live far away! Recently I put together this care package, and here's what I packed inside:

Birthday Care Package

  1. Supplies to make a banner: bakers twine and scrapbook paper-made pennant triangles pre-hole punched
  2. A birthday candle
  3. A handful of balloons
  4. Box filler of your choice
  5. Party noisemaker
  6. Confetti washi tape
  7. Chomper (cable accessory)
  8. Crazy straw
  9. Glowstick ball
  10. Silly string


Birthday Care Package


Birthday Care Package

Small wrapped candies and a miniature pinata were a must! I found this unicorn one here. 

Birthday Care Package


Birthday Care Package

Layer up the items! I like to put heavier things on the bottom and make sure to add plenty of filler so that there is as little crushing as possible.

Birthday Care Package

And don't forget the birthday card with lots of confetti!

Birthday Care Package

Before shipping it off, I like to take time to decorate the inside flaps, so when the recipient opens the box there's that "wow" element to it.

Birthday Care Package

Birthday Care Package

July 18, 2019

My 8 Favorite Beginning of the School Year Activities

8 Beginning of the School Year Activities

#1. All About Me Posters: This is the most basic idea in the books, but it really works well regardless of the elementary grade level--and I've done this one in at least three different grades. All you do is give each student a big piece of paper (I always used anchor chart paper for this because the students were excited to be using my "big teacher paper"), access to markers, crayons, and colored pencils, and these simple instructions: Make a poster telling me everything you want me and your classmates to know about you. At the end of the time given, we take turns sharing them throughout the first couple of days.

About Me  Posters


#2. All About Me Bags: Much like the posters, only the focus is more heavily on the sharing with classmates and the teacher. Before school starts, either in a letter or at back-to-school night, send home a brown paper bag and tell the student to fill it with up to 5 items that are important to them and be prepared to share why. Often students put in small toys, photos of family members, and souvenirs from their summer trips. Again, students share throughout the first couple of days their bags with the class. (Here's a free instructions template I found that you can staple to the bag when you initially give it to the students.)

You're Finally Here

#3. You're Finally Here: This is an activity packet I picked up from Teachers Pay Teachers by Linda Kamp. The packet has anchor chart pieces, a write around the room activity with embedded math pre-assessment, a goal-setting craft booklet, printable games, and lots of other activities and resources you can use alongside the children's book You're Finally Here. My students really enjoyed working through all the different activities during our first week back to school. The book itself is hard to track down at a reasonable price, so be prepared to do some hunting for it ahead of time. If you have no success finding a physical copy, I'd just use a YouTube video of another teacher or parent reading it (such as this one).


Growth Mindset Flapbook

#4. Growth Mindset Flip-Flap Books: For the first week of science I always took that time to teach the students about their brain and growth mindset. While we do a variety of activities with this, one of the favorites are these flip-flap books from Sam Van Gorp. I have a Pinterest board linking to some of the other activities we do as well here if you want more ideas.

Math in My Life Activity

#5. Math in My Life: I used this activity with older elementary students to assess their writing skills even though it was about math. Each student gets a piece of paper and has to draw where they see math in their life. I always show them my example of a recipe card and measuring cups to show that I like to bake and cook, and I use math when I do so. Then on the back, they have an index card where they have to write a paragraph explaining what they drew, why, and how it relates to math. I also like this activity because, for the students who are not always as enthusiastic, this is a softer way to ease into the beginnings of our math classes and curriculum.


The Day the Crayons Quit Activity

#6. The Day The Crayon's Quit: This activity involves doing a read-aloud of The Day the Crayon's Quit followed up with a mini-response (free TPT download here) where the students draw a picture using only one color crayon and writing a sentence. It's just a simple activity, but I used it as a way to gauge the class's listening and participation skills during read-alouds at the beginning of the year. I'd note what were some strengths and things to build off of moving forward with read-alouds throughout the year. 

#7. All About Me Index Card Houses: I used this activity from TPT when I taught 4th graders, and they loved it! Usually, older elementary students are not quite as enthusiastic about posters (they do them every year nearly... why?), but this is a different take on sharing about themselves and they get to go home with a 3D Tower instead.

Kid President Book

#8. Kid President: Can you ever go wrong with a well-timed kid president video? I think not. Your students think not. Each year I've always shown the video on how to be awesome, then I'd have students brainstorm different ideas on how to make the year awesome in our classroom. I'd make a poster out of their ideas, and then we'd periodically go back and review it throughout the year when we needed the reminder. 

July 15, 2019

A Gnome-Inspired, Sensory Playscape + Free Printable Tags

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

Increasingly, giving sensory play based gifts, are becoming my favorites to give my friends little kids these days. I like how I can personalize them to fit the child's interest and that they're building important fine motor skills while playing with them. With gardening season in full-blown, so are days spent outside with kids running barefoot and imaging dozens of imaginative adventures in the given hours. This is a little DIY for a playscape kit I made for a child who's really into fairy gardens, insects, and gnomes. A pretty perfect way to spend your summer if you ask me!

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

Beginning with a container, I picked up this galvanized metal seed storage bin to keep with my garden theme from my local Michaels. 

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

For sensory fillers, I wanted to keep things on the less messy side, so I went with dried beans, some floral moss, pebbles, and natural fiberfill. Most of these can be picked up in your local craft/hobby store, the dollar store, or grocery store. 

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

For play cups and containers I got a craft tin can (it has no sharp edges), flower pots in a variety of small size, and some Mason jars.

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

The great thing about sensory bins as gifts, in my opinion, is that many of the items you may already have in your storage or around your house (especially if you're a crafter). I found wood pieces, mini-twig wreaths, wood thimbles, and acorns in my floral bin that were left over from previous craft projects. 

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

I also tracked down leftover buttons and craft petals. My local dollar store had a variety of fairy garden accessories that I picked up to add to this kit. 

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

Finally, I added in the gnomes. A lot of what is on the market are ceramic, making them easily breakable. I found this plastic set from Safari LTD. on Amazon that I think will have more wear and life to them.

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

Then layer everything up in your bin. I like to have various items peeking out and hiding throughout the box for when it is opened.

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

Another additional item to include potentially is a couple of these gardening drainage dishes. They're rather shallow, but I'm sure they have their uses in all of this imaginative play.

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

I'm all about pairing a new book with all my gifts, so for this one, I picked up a copy of the new story Backyard Fairies by Phoebe Wahl. It was too perfect to go along with the sensory box.

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

The final step is to stack everything up with some twine or ribbon and add on a tag. I went ahead and designed this gift tag below, which you can download and print for your personal use here...


Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

If you use my tag on a project or gift and you share it be sure to tag me on your social site or link it below so I can see how you used it!

Gnome Sensory Playscape DIY with Printable

© Natalie Grimm. Made with love by The Dutch Lady Designs.