Sunday, March 18, 2018

Strategies for Supporting All Writers in Kindergarten

Teaching writing has been one of the most challenging things about teaching kindergarten. Not only do students come in with a variety of skills, including the inability the hold a pencil for some students, but they also need support in so many different ways. Our students have an entire step of writing development that other grade levels don't typically see: pre-writing. We have to navigate our way through the development of pre-writing and early writing skills and make sure we nurture that growth for all students.

It's hard.

I've been talking to lots of you who feel the same as I do, so I wanted to compile some of my favorite strategies for taking all of my writers to the next level in their writing. These strategies include some old favorites as well as some things that I've just pulled out of the air that ended up working well! I hope these strategies help you feel more confident in your ability to support your writers, too!

Well, not a lot. The Common Core Standards list 3 main writing focus areas for kindergarten:
  • W.K.1 - Using a combo of writing, dictating, and drawing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or name of a book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book.
  • W.K.2 - Using a combo of writing, dictating, and drawing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.
  • W.K.3 - Using a combo of writing, dictating, and drawing to narrate a single event or several loosely-linked events, tell about the events in the order they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
As you can see, the standards DO support the use of drawing AND writing in composing pieces. They also provide kindergartners with exposure to various types of writing. However, not much is said for working on writing complete sentences, using sight words to build those sentences, and supporting the development of those sentences. Not much direction or structure is given for teachers to get their students to writing those opinion, explanatory, and narrative pieces.

While I want my students to be able to write across genres and content areas, I first must make sure they understand what writing is. I explain that in math, word study, reading, writer's workshop, or science time, writing is how we can share our ideas when we aren't able to tell with our words. I always model this idea using pictures FIRST before adding a single letter to the page.

I always begin a writing session with a mini lesson. While I do use the Lucy Calkin's Writer's Workshop Units of Study, I feel compelled to add a little more structure after we finish the first month or so. At first, we write to build stamina. Then, we write to build excitement. Next, we start writing to build structure and actually begin to tell stories with words. You can click HERE to read an older post about my writer's workshop part of my day.

I think October is a great time in kindergarten to START having students add words to each page of their writing. Up until then, I ask them to write a "story" (always a story, never a one-page writing prompt) using pictures. I give them the option to add letters to their pages in the form of labeling the first sound (which comes with the ever-popular "Label Your Teacher" with post-its mini lesson) and even encourage them to sound out any words that they think would help tell the story using "stretchy snake" (stretching out the word and writing all the sounds they hear, also taught during a mini lesson).

This is end of year kindergarten writing. Using a complete sentence, correct spelling of sight words, and a very detailed picture! This is what we're working towards.
The main reason why I have students write stories instead of one-page writing prompts during our writer's workshop time is so they can continue working on a piece multiple days in a row. I want my students to get used to revisiting work, revising, adding more, and making sure their story has a sequence. Eventually, they'll start working with a writing partner. This will be effective if they actually have a larger piece of writing to look at that has a sequence. Published stories don't usually come on one page, so I'm asking my budding authors to write a multi-page story!

One of my favorite things to do to end a writing session is a share out. I think share outs in all content areas are extremely powerful for showcasing students' strategies, building their confidence, giving them a chance to question one another, and to reinforce your mini lesson.

My goal for writing by the time my students leave kindergarten is that they are able to use a combination of words and pictures to tell complete thoughts and convey a complete message. However, I'm very aware that even well into kindergarten (as we are currently in the middle of March), some students still are not ready to independently add words to convey complete thoughts. I have some strategies for that.

Sentence stems are your best friend for so many reasons. I use them in every single content area, but especially in math (Number Talk Sentence Stems) and in writing. I want to make sure my students start developing the concept of a sentence rather than labeling individual words. Sentence stems are the best tool for this that I've come across. I don't always model writing during my mini lesson, but when I do, this is when I'll use a particular sentence stem myself. When I'm not writing, though, I simply write the sentence stem I want them to use on our boards.

Here's a tip: Keep sentence stems SHORT. You don't want to structure their writing so much that they don't have the chance to be creative. Give them just enough scaffolding to get them started, then encourage other strategies to keep going.

This strategy is harder to implement, especially if you're alone without an aide or volunteer, but it's so meaningful. Students who are not yet writing words still need to hear and see their story come alive through writing. Having students dictate their writing to you while they watch you write it directly on their page is one of my favorite strategies. When I'm transcribing, I tell my other students I'm off-limits for help so that I can focus on the students who need my support.

Here's a tip: If you're walking around transcribing, wear a hat! It tells the rest of your class you're off limits. I own a large wizard hat from Amazon that it easily seen from around the room. When students see me with the hat, they don't come talk to me! You can also have the students who need to dictate meet you in a special spot in the classroom (at your teacher table, in the reading area, etc.). When you're in that special meeting spot, other students will learn not to disturb you.

Establishing writing partners is beneficial for many reasons. It allows students to collaborate and discuss their writing. It gives each student a voice. It takes pressure off of having to read in front of the class or to the teacher each day (if you do share-outs at the end of your writing time, which you should!). And it gives you the ability to let the students take charge while you turn your voice off.

Writing partners work best when they are students who have different but similar writing abilities. For example, if a student is not yet writing words, they would work well with a partner who is using sentence stems to begin adding words. Students who are successfully using sentence stems would work well with partners who no longer need stems to support their writing. This method works well because the ability levels are similar enough that one partner does not feel self-conscious about their skills while the other partner does not need to provide a ton of assistance and can still get something from the partnership.

Here's a tip: Be flexible! Allow your writing partners to move seats or meet on the floor, writing with clipboards. Have your partners in close proximity to each other, and set up the routine of moving near your partner at the very beginning of your work time. You can use a song for the transition, and by the time the song goes off, your partners are next to each other ready to write!

You know those students that, no matter what strategy you try, they just WON'T write? Even if you know they can, they have the skills, they're so bright with so many ideas, but they just won't do it! I've been there. And while I can say that the happy ending of that story was that my writer eventually wrote many great books with plenty of words, it was a long process to get him there.

You'll know a reluctant writer when you realize that for the 10 minutes you've been transcribing and meeting with partners, this writer has done nothing beyond write his or her name and look out the window. Maybe they have scribbled a little bit of a picture, but likely their page is still empty. Sometimes they may lay their heads down, sometimes they may start conversations with their writing partners about Minecraft. Whatever they may do, writing is not happening and there is no growth.

I encourage these writers to JUST DRAW. They're allowed to start with drawing things they like. It can be totally off-topic and have nothing to do with the mini lesson. In the same way we want to build a love for reading by letting students be surrounded with fun and interesting picture books, we should allow students to grow their love for writing by writing (drawing) about anything they like! This usually starts with a conversation with me about their interests. I ask them about favorite movies, games, sports, foods, you name it. I even make a list of all the favorites that he or she tells me. This is a great reference for me to continue to support the writer, but it's also great for the writer to see that there are plenty of things to write about!

Don't push coloring. I've learned that many of my reluctant writers are not ready to add colors. To grow their confidence, we call their drawings "sketches." They love to feel like they are doing something special that no one else is doing. I love to show their sketches a couple of times a week at our end-of-writing share outs. Eventually, you can ask them to add a few colors, but in the beginning just request a picture.

Eventually, you will want to see words on a page. Start with that original strategy of sentence stems and go from there. Make personal sentence stems that work for your writer's sketch. Like I said, it may not be on topic or match your mini lesson, but that's okay for a little while. Once your writer is using stems, then give them a partner. You may want to coach the partners first, reminding them that their partner will use less words or words that may not be spelled very clearly. Coach them that that is okay! Remember, progress with a reluctant writer (or reader for that matter) will look different from the rest of your eager writers. Celebrate the small victories and build, build, build their confidence.

I hope that these strategies and tips help you feel a little less stressed about teaching writing in kindergarten. It's one of the most complex things we do as K teachers, but these strategies have helped me manage it much better. I'm still continuing to grow as a writing teacher, so if you have any strategies that you love, head over to Facebook and leave them on this thread!

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Number Talks and Warm Ups: Meaningful Math Routines

If you told me you wanted to come watch me teach, I'd probably invite you in during our number talk. Not because I feel strong as a math teacher, and not because I've created some stellar activities for my students, but because you'll be floored at the level of math thinking you'll hear my students doing. Since creating a daily math routine this year, I've seen my students do and understand things that I didn't think kindergartners could do. So, I want to share what I've learned!

What's the difference between a "number talk" and a "warm up"?
Ok so right off the bat, let's define what number talks and warm ups are and can look like. For some, they are one in the same. For others, they mean different things. But for both, students are both thinking AND talking about the math. The thing that underlies them both is the amount of mathematical argumentation you'll hear your students do, and it's amazing.

Number talks in my classroom occur when my class is all looking at the same number, addition or subtraction problem, number bond, number comparison, counting sequence, number chart, or equation. We talk about what we notice, and then I pose a question. After some think time, my students have a structured response in the form of a sentence stem that they share with a partner. Then I choose 3-5 students to come up front and share out what they talked about.

Warm ups in my classroom also occur when my whole class is looking at the same thing, but what we are looking at generally doesn't involve numbers. Rather, we are looking at pictures, talking about shapes, positions, sizes, measuring objects, or comparing by attribute. The structure is the same in that we take time looking/talking about what we see, think about it, share with a partner, and then a few come up and share with the group.

When do these math routines happen?
I like to begin my math block with a routine. Right after we finish calendar time, we take about 15 minutes for our number talk or warm up. Afterwards, we go to math rotations, and you can read more about those HERE.

One crucial component of these math routines is that you limit it to 15 minutes MAX. You want this to feel like a mini lesson, a warm up, a quick way to check in with skills. You'll be doing the majority of your teaching of your math goal during your small group rotation.

Another thing, make sure you do these EVERY DAY! These math routines should be a non-negotiable for your instructional time with students. Even on those crazy schedule days, make sure you don't skip your math warm up or number talk! Trust me, it will pay off.

How do students share out?
I always have sentence stems displayed for my students to refer to and use. I make sure that I am explicit in my modeling of these sentence stems. Sometimes I let them choose whichever stem they want, but other times I use a clip or pin next to the specific stem I want them to use. I like to remind students to use their sentence stems with sharing with their partner. Since this is a CRUCIAL part to the success of these math routines, I've put all of the stems I use into one resource for you! Click on the picture below to get your ready-to-print sentence stems for every single routine listed below. Comes in color and black and white!

There are 9 posters, one for each kind of math routine!

 There are so many ways teachers can structure a number talk. I'll break down my favorite activities and the ones I find most meaningful and impactful.

Counting Sequences and Number Charts
Whether it is early September or late March, make sure you are continuing to talk about counting. Don't assume your students have mastered the skill of counting or a counting sequence. Challenge them and push them with a counting number talk.

Display a number line. Draw it yourself or have it pre-made. Leave some numbers off, and challenge your students to find the missing numbers. DON'T let them give you the number without also giving you their reasoning for choosing that number! This is the heart of a number talk, explaining their thinking.

Do the same with a number chart. Color/cover some numbers, and have your students figure out the missing numbers and prove how they know. Talk about patterns on the chart (how each row has the same beginning number or each column has the same ending number). Talk about skip counting and how students can use that to find numbers.

These number talks don't need to be fancy or complex! Basic, fast, and meaningful, that's all you want.
These students looked at a flash card of 5 and shared the strategies they used to count the pictures.
Addition or Subtraction Problems
These number talks are always fun because students solve them so many ways! Write an addition/subtraction problem on the board, but don't solve it. Students can solve and compare their answers with their partner. Easy.

One way to make this number talk more challenging is to leave out a variable. For example, 2+__=5. This kind of number talk pushes students to solving with proof. This is also challenging because they won't have paper, pencils, or manipulatives to use!

You can vary your vocabulary depending on where your students are in developing this skill. Early on, you may want to start with "2 and 1 is __" then eventually move on to "2 + 1 is ___." In that same vain, for subtraction, you could start with "4 take away 2 is ___." then move on to "4 - 2 is ___." You can eventually write the problems with the equal sign when your students are ready.

I used two flash cards, one with a digit and one with a picture, to push my students' ability to join even when the numbers are in different formats.
Number Bonds (Composing/Decomposing)
Want to really hear your students' math thinking? Ask them to show you how to break a number apart! I like starting these types of number talks by writing the number on the board, then drawing that many circles. Ask students how many ways you can color the circles to break apart the number (8 is 4 and 4, 5 and 3, etc.). Eventually we move on to using number bonds just so students can become familiar with the tool, but the premise remains.

Remember, students won't have any manipulatives in front of them, so this number talk takes a lot of thinking! The proof component can come when you select a few students to come up and share with the group. Allow them to draw on the board or use manipulatives to prove their thinking.

Comparing Numbers
This one can be tailored to fit your students' needs in lots of ways. I typically use flash cards that have pictures on one side and the number on the other side. I found a set from the Target dollar spot about 5 years ago that I still love! I will start with pictures, then move to numbers later on. I put two cards next to each other, then I'll point to a card and they call out "More!" or "Less!" We do it as a fast, group call-out warm up for a while, but then I'll eventually show them two cards and have them share with their partner instead of calling out.
This student was explaining how he compared the numbers in the ten frames. You can be creative and use pictures (like this) or flash cards with digits.
When letting students share with the group, allow them to draw or touch the pictures so they can prove their thinking.

Equal Equations (True/False)
These number talks are fun because you typically get lots of disagreement! We play true/false often because of how much my students argue. Math argumentation is good! I draw an equal sign in the middle of the board. If I want to focus on addition, I'll write addition equations on each side of the equal sign. I'll do about 3 or 4 sets during the 15 minutes. For the first set, I typically keep them equal (2+2 = 3+1). The students will think about if this is true or false, then give me a thumbs up when they're ready to share. They share with their partner first, using a sentence stem, and then I choose someone to come share in front of the class. A sentence stem for sharing when it is true would be:

"I know these problems are true because ___."

Then I erase and either do another true set or a false set. If I did a false set (2+3 = 3+3), the students would share with their partners, and then the student who was chosen to come up front to share would have to PROVE why the equations are not equal. This sentence stem could be:

"I know this is false/I know these are not equal because ___."

An extension would be asking students to find ways to make false equations true. For example, a student could explain that 2+3=3+3 is not true because if you add the numbers, 5 is on one side and 6 is on the other. A way to make it equal would be to add one more to the 5 to make it 6. It's amazing to listen to all the ways that students can make equations true.

You may notice more "arguing" because of the ways that students solve problems or understand addition or subtraction. The power is in the share outs! Make sure you choose many different students to come up and share, especially students whose ideas may be wrong or arguable.

This was when we first started doing this kind of number talk. She was pointing to the digits and proving it was equal because the digits were the same on each side!

We do warm ups when I want to focus on skills other than number sense or operations. Even if shapes or measurement aren't your focus areas of the moment, don't forget that skills need to spiral and loop in kindergarten!

Which One Doesn't Belong? (WODB)
If you want to use numbers for this warm up, you can, but I love doing this with pictures of food, road signs, weird shapes, cards, all kinds of other stuff! The premise of WODB is having students look at 4 objects and decide which one doesn't belong. That's it. The best part of this activity is that there really is no wrong answer! The other best part is that WODB allows students to explain their thinking in many different ways, and those students who are typically quiet or unsure can have a space to speak up!

Want some excellent FREE resources for WODB? Go to this website: - it's where I get all of the pictures that I use.

Don't be afraid to choose WODB pictures that seem hard! My students did an awesome job explaining their thinking with this one!
Describe, Draw, Describe (DDD)
This is the only warm up we do that involves students needing something in their hand. A DDD involves students looking at a picture, typically displayed via projector or document camera. The idea behind DDD is that students will describe the picture by being prompted by you first ("What do you see?"). You can have a few students come up one at a time to point out the things they see. You keep your part to a minimum, only prompting students to tell about what they see. Many students will naturally talk about the individual parts of the picture, shapes they see, amounts of things, or other details. After a couple of minutes, students will use a pencil and paper and draw the picture. You will only prompt by saying, "Draw what you see."

I typically set a timer for 5 minutes. In that time, rotate around and notice how students are drawing. How's their perspective? Are they able to make a visual match to the picture? Can they position the things in the picture in the same way? If students get finished drawing, prompt them to label the picture or write a sentence about what they see.

To find pictures, I just search for blackline masters or coloring pages via Google. I only choose pictures that have some sort of visual depth like motion (like the rocket below), differences in perspective (foreground/background objects of different sizes), many kinds of shapes, or objects that are have a position component (things are beside, on top of, behind...).

This one was fun because it accompanied our viewing of the SpaceX rocket launch!


Make sure that you don't skip this part. Giving students think time and partner talk time is important, but the share outs at the end are so meaningful. They allow for students to prove their thinking to more than one person, they allow the other students to see different perspectives and ways of solving, and they allow you to hear how your students are thinking about numbers. One of my math mentors once said, "If you're not doing the share out, you shouldn't even do the warm up at all."

Be Intentional with Partnering (Especially Early in the Year)

If you have a rug with designated spots for students to sit, this makes this part easier. Put certain students next to each other for your warm up time. I typically try to partner students who are working at different levels, but not too different that one partner won't be able to understand their partner's thinking. You can also think about language development and have students paired in a way that one partner's use of language and sentence stems can support the other partner. Now that it's February and we have a flexible seating classroom, my students just partner with someone sitting near them, but I'm comfortable with this since these math warm ups have been part of our math routine since August.

Turn Off Your Voice!

One of the hardest things for me to do when I first started doing these math routines every day was to just stop talking. Being a kindergarten teacher, I'm so accustomed to wanting to scaffold and steer and support my students' thinking. But one of the most important parts of facilitating these math routines is to be as quiet as you can, only asking clarifying questions or re-stating what your students share. I set up the routine, ask my focus question, then I stay fairly quiet. I walk around and listen to partner talk, and then when students are up front sharing, I just ask for clarification or to re-state. At the end, I'll come back and wrap up the routine as a whole, "Today we did a DDD so that we can notice the shapes and positions of objects." And that's about it! Assessment tip: Have the notes app on your phone (or an actual notepad) for taking notes of what students share. This is AWESOME when I need to check it with standards and have real-time anecdotal records of my students' thinking.

Create a Safe Environment for Sharing

It makes me cringe to hear stories from other teachers where they've done activities similar to these math routines where students get up front to share, and then another student blurts out something negative or derogatory from the audience. There's no faster way to completely shut down a student's thinking and make them feel like they're bad at something. And no matter how much damage control you do as the teacher, the words have already been said. So make sure your classroom is a space where students know that each individual has something special to share, that all ideas are welcome, and that even if we disagree or think someone is wrong, we can let them know in ways that help them rather than hurt.

I can't wait for you to use these math routines. They have given all of my students a voice and a chance to feel like a mathematician. We have to start young to turn off those negative feelings about math, and these math routines allow for ALL students to share and talk about math in an open, supportive environment. My students literally cheer for these math routines when we start them. So try them for yourself!

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Math Rotations: How to Deliver Truly Differentiated Instruction

I'd like to talk about my favorite time of the day (okay, it's tied with word study rotations and play centers, but those are for another time). Our 30-minute block of math rotations has allowed me to become a stronger math teacher and my students to become more confident mathematicians. How could 30 minutes be so impactful? Keep reading.

For the majority of my time in kindergarten (the past 6 years), I taught math in a traditional format: Set, whole group direct instruction, guided instruction, and independent practice with me floating around helping individual students. And while that method allowed me to teach all of the standards on our scope and sequence and get through most of the chapters in our adopted program, it lacked many other things.

The most obvious: there was no room for meaningful differentiation. I say it like that because I could easily copy different worksheets or have some students working on the reteach lesson rather than the new material, but that's about it. I would sometimes pull a small group of struggling mathematicians over to the kidney table to do their lesson with me, but it was essentially the same thing the rest of the class was doing. When I'd be up front during guided instruction or independent practice, I'd always see a few blank stares (they were totally lost), a few yawning faces of boredom ("Seriously, Ms. Hodges? I've been adding since I was 4."), and then had my core group who was actually engaged. And I thought this was how you were supposed to teach! But no more.

This school year, I became part of a group of teachers who have a "blended learning" classroom. You can learn more about what a blended learning classroom looks like through various other blog posts or websites, but here is the basic layout: teach in a variety of ways that include technology, small groups, collaboration, hands-on activities, and games, and make sure that students have the opportunity to work with other students in groups, partnerships, and independently.

Blended learning still involves direct instruction, but it has some flexibility. It can occur in a whole group mini lesson (no longer than 10-15 minutes), or you can meet with small groups for a longer amount of time to deliver the instruction and then give them time for skill practice. I do the mini lesson format in my kindergarten classroom. Then, the most important part of blended learning, you give students a flexible learning environment so they can practice the skills you've taught!

Our rotations provide time for students to work in multiple ways. I try to make sure that the rotations include opportunities for collaboration, hands-on learning, small group instruction, technology use, skill building, games, and, most importantly, DIFFERENTIATION. Groups are flexible and change frequently as students gain new skills or need more time with other ones. The students all receive the same mini lesson from me, but I am able to structure the rotations to provide practice in skills that each small group needs.

Hands-On Activity
In kindergarten, one of the most important opportunities I can give my students is for hands-on learning. I haven't come across anything more powerful for that than counting collections. If you've been following me for a while, you know my deep-rooted love for these tools. I love structuring them to challenge my students' counting skills, number sense, and give them practice in addition and subtraction. My students go to the "hands-on" rotation completely independently. This is where my other love, Seesaw, comes in! My students select a collection, counting it using our recording sheet, video themselves in Seesaw, then complete the extension activity on the back either on their own or with a partner. This rotation never changes, it's always counting collections. You can read more about them HERE, and you can get this resource that explains exactly how I use counting collections by clicking on the picture below!

Teacher Small Group
I also use LOTS of hands-on learning opportunities in my teacher group. I meet with 2 small groups a day, and when I do, we almost always are using manipulatives. I teach many different skills in these groups! It all depends on what my groups need. Right now, I'm teaching composing and decomposing to 5 in one group using red and yellow counters. I'm working on the same skill with another group, but up to 10 instead of 5. Then in another group, we are working on extending our learning of addition and subtraction using word problems (find them HERE). And in my last group, we are working on fair share word problems (click HERE) and decomposing teen numbers.

I use our curriculum guide (you might call yours a scope and sequence) and structure my lessons based on those skills during specific times of the school year. I use our math toolboxes with almost every group every time. And I use simple formative assessments by asking my students to do certain tasks in their math notebooks (basic spiral notebooks with their names on them), then check it when they leave the group! Easy, simple, and meaningful.

It's blurry, but that's because I'm constantly moving and watching! See the math toolboxes and math notebooks in action?
Collaboration Group
Being able to collaborate and work together is CRUCIAL for math engagement and understanding. Being able to problem solve and work independently is important, but I love giving my students the ability to work, talk, and plan together. I have a few things that I do with my groups for their collaboration rotation.

If it is meaningful and useful, I'll use our adopted program workbooks. But only if the lesson actually works! Usually I'll use one of these resources:

I also love these B.U.I.L.D. station activities by Elizabeth at Kickin' it in Kindergarten. I have each month she offers! Between all of those resources, my students are able to really dig in and work together. I have an aide who helps with this station, but she usually only has to explain the directions/rules of the games, then just facilitates! I love this rotation because I can really differentiate the activities here. Each group gets a different folder filled with their activities (I switch activities every other week). Some groups are still tracing and IDing numbers while another group is working on addition centers. It is all different!

We are fortunate to share an iPad cart with another classroom, so we usually have about 8 iPads at our disposal. I know not everyone has this luxury, or you may have even more, so you may have to alter the technology component until it fits your classroom setup. My students use Moose Math as the primary app on the iPad. It's a fun way for students to practice skills. There are other apps that I use as well, such as Animal Math, Montessori Numbers, and Endless Numbers, but Moose Math is our main one. My students go to this rotation independently.

This was earlier in the year, now they are allowed to take their iPads and work wherever they want in the classroom!
So now you know our rotations in detail, now let's talk logistics. I have 4 rotations total, and my students go to 2 rotations per day (15 minutes for each). They rotate on an every-other-day basis. Getting this part set up was the most labor-intensive part of switching to a rotation-model math classroom. BUT, there is someone who has made it amazingly simple. Check out this M.A.T.H. Workshop resource by Laura at Core Inspiration. The way she laid everything out made it so much simpler to wrap my head around. I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted it to look, but I absolutely didn't know how to manage it. Laura helped so much with that!

That about wraps it up! If you have any more questions regarding my math rotations, leave a comment below or message me on Instagram! I do frequent Insta stories that focus on our rotation-model classroom. Thanks so much for reading!

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Utilizing Technology in the Primary Classroom

This blog post is a long time coming and will hopefully answer many of the questions I've gotten about using tech in my kindergarten classroom! And it is LONG but hopefully full of useful information! Let me preface this post by saying that these things work well in my classroom for my students, and I am just personally endorsing these products, apps, and websites, not being paid to!

Where do I start? I'll first say that I use technology in some form every single day for every single subject. I feel very lucky to be at a school that has pretty modern and recent technology updates, but I've also taught at schools that didn't have hardly any technology. You will need to take these suggestions as you can with your own school site and supplies in mind.

Tech Overview: What all do I have at my disposal?
Like I said, our district got a fairly recent technology installation (we were living in the dark ages before this so it was a long time coming), so I feel very thankful for the amount that we have. For those of you who do not have some/all of the things mentioned below, I highly recommend doing a Donors Choose project ( to ask for the technology you need. Tech projects get funded fairly often, especially in the fall when Chevron funds lots of them! I also recommend searching for grants that you and your students/classroom would qualify for. I know many teachers who've received tech from grants. Ok, now for the tech:
  • Teacher laptop computer (used on a standing desk)
  • Document camera (placed on low IKEA table for students to be able to reach)
  • Two interactive whiteboards + 2 ceiling-mounted projectors (the installed software that my district has a license for makes the boards interactive, otherwise they are regular ol' whiteboards!)
  • Bluetooth speakers mounted on the ceiling with teacher lanyard microphone and student handheld microphone (part of our district tech install, I did not purchase these)
  • iPad cart to share between K/1 teachers (I usually have about 8 of these iPads at my disposal daily)
  • 10 pairs of headphones
  • Wireless routers in each classroom
Wow. That's a lot of tech. I don't have nearly that much...
I get this comment a lot, but trust me, you can use pretty much everything I suggest with way less than what I listed above. I know how it feels to teach in a classroom with extremely limited tech while watching teachers post on Instagram about these amazing things their students are able to use. It's frustrating. BUT keep reading and see if you can find a way to try some of these resources!

What is the tech that I couldn't live without?
I have always taught with a computer and some way to project it (either using a projector onto board, projector onto screen, or plugged into a TV monitor for students to see), so I don't think I could teach without my simple laptop/projector combo. I rely HEAVILY on videos during my school day for transitions, sets for lessons, read alouds, etc. On days when the wifi/internet goes out, I feel paralyzed! I make do with using chimes instead of a transition video, singing instead of watching videos, or reading myself (crazy, right?) but it makes for a much longer day!

*Now that I run a rotation-based classroom, I don't think I could function without our iPads. They aren't a necessity, but my planning and instruction would be highly impacted without our iPads!

How do you introduce tech to your students?
Before I get into the "what" behind using tech, I'll briefly explain the "how." Early in the school year, I begin using iPads with my students. I've never encountered a student who abused their iPad privileges other than arguing about who gets to plug them back in to the cart at clean up time. However, I teach kindergarten and don't have any students (yet) who are trying to navigate the web or get on social media or other off-limits websites/apps, so this makes my job much easier. 

During the second week of school, I model very quickly at the beginning of each rotation time the exact app icon I want them to click on, where to click in case they need to get back to the home screen, where to plug in headphones, and how to adjust the volume. It only takes about a week for them to get the hang of it, and as you can guess, many of them already know how to operate an iPad/tablet.
Utilizing the document camera for number talk time, a tried and true tech piece in my classroom!
Logging them in.....
Now this is a whole other animal. My students only need to log in for 2 apps (Lexia and Benchmark), and thankfully we will be using an app called Clever next year for both of these. Students will each get their own login card that is just their name and a unique QR code. To log in, they just wave their QR code in front of the camera in the Clever app. Voila. 

For now, though, they each have a Lexia login card at their table. During their Lexia rotation, myself or my aide will walk around and talk them through logging in, helping those who need it done for them early on. We tell them exactly where to put the "numbers" and where to put the "word" (username and password). It's halfway through the school year and THANKFULLY we don't have to help anyone log in anymore!

What are your favorite websites, and how do you use them?
Back when I did my Tech Tuesday post asking teachers to tell me what kinds of tech they use, teachers said that they use free websites the most! And why not? They are so easily accessible and are full of great learning! Here is a list of my favorites, listed in order of how frequently I use them in my classroom:
  • Youtube**: Some of my favorite channels to follow are Harry Kindergarten, Have Fun Teaching, Kids TV 123, Hooked on Phonics, and ELF Kids Videos. I use their videos for everything - transitions, calendar, counting, math skills, letters/sounds, sight words, phonics skills, science skills...I could go on. I'd suggest following them if you aren't already and spending some time browsing and creating some playlists of the videos you like on your own Youtube channel. It's easy to make one and start saving videos! You could also just follow me on Youtube and use the playlists I've been curating for the past 7 years: Holly's Youtube Channel
  • This website is so fun for review games! You can click on your grade level and browse ELA and math games (plus some fun seasonal games). We use this website during small groups to review skills (Bingo is our favorite review game) as well as an end of the day 5-minute time filler. We use this on the interactive whiteboard, so students are able to come up and touch/manipulate the game themselves. If you do not have this technology, you could just sit by your computer and have the kids come up to the board/screen and point to what they want to select, and you can click on your computer. I had to do this before and it still works great!
  • Storyline Online: I absolutely love reading aloud to my class, but sometimes I don't have exactly the right book to fit the topic I want to read about. Sometimes, my voice is cracking and I don't have it in me to read another book aloud. And sometimes we have indoor recess and I need something engaging/academic to entertain them for 10-15 minutes! This website has actors reading some awesome storybooks aloud. They even animate the pages from the book, so students are even more engaged. We have listened to every story on the website and my students have some favorites at this point in the school year!
  • Pandora**: I think music is one of the easiest ways to set the tone/feel of a classroom (or any room for that matter). I always have music playing in the morning when my students walk in and while they're playing in their play centers. I use piano music to signal work time during writer's workshop. I listen to music when I'm getting prepped for my day and when I'm cleaning and working in the afternoon. My favorite stations: Solo Piano, Children's Indie (no bad words!), Sam Smith, The Civil Wars, and Luke Bryan.
**These websites have ads, and there's nothing worse than getting ready to play a counting video on Youtube than having a Victoria's Secret commercial come on. Yes, it's happened to me, and yes, it was horrifying. There's a way around these ads! If you are using Google Chrome for your internet browser (I like it waaaay more than Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer), you can install Ad Block as an extension and it will block those awful/hilarious ads. Here's how:
  1. In Google Chrome, click on the 3 dots on the top right corner of your browser window:
  2. Hover your mouse over "More tools," then click on "Extensions."
  3. Scroll down to the bottom of the page, then click on "Get more extensions."
  4. In the box that says "Search the store," type in "Adblock" and hit enter.
  5. You'll see a few results. I recommend installing Adblock Plus and Adblock for Youtube. All you do is click on the blue button that says "Add to Chrome" and presto! No more lingerie during math time!
What about apps?
There are so many apps out there that are marketed towards education. I have downloaded so many free ones, thinking they sounded so good from their descriptions and would be perfect for my students, only to be disappointed that once I opened it, only 1 or 2 levels were free while the rest required the paid version of the app. Boo. Below, I've listed my favorite actually-free apps that my students love to use. Some do require that you create an account/class beforehand, but it's still free.
  • Seesaw: How would you like to send your students off for a 15-20 minute work time and not have to check in on them once?? That's where Seesaw comes in! No matter what task I assign (I'm currently using it mostly during counting collections), I can have my students complete a Seesaw upload at the end of their work time so that I can see exactly how they used their time, if they understood the task, or if they need help. There are so many ways to use Seesaw and it's so user-friendly that I HIGHLY encourage you to download the app and start playing around on it yourself to discover all of the amazing features! It also has an optional parent login so that you could have your students' parents download the app and get alerts on their smartphone anytime their child uploads new work! Amazing!
  • Chatterpix: Similar to Seesaw, Chatterpix is a great way to give students the automony to work while also making sure they are staying on task and understand the assignment. A fun application for Chatterpix is during reading time. Assign students the task of giving a summary, retelling the story, talking about the climax, listing the character traits, etc. using Chatterpix. They will talk over a picture from the story, and their voice will animate the picture!
  • Moose Math: Talk about engaging, my students love using this app for math skill review! The graphics are great and the explanations are very kid-friendly. I use this app during my math rotation time for skill review. Logging in is a little frustrating as it doesn't sync between devices. So, on Monday a student may get to level 3 on a game on one iPad, but if she uses a different iPad to get on Moose Math on Tuesday, it will only have the level she reached last time she used that iPad. So, use this for review, not for skill progression.
  • Endless Reader: Sometimes I find my students sneaking off of Lexia to this app, but it's really fun! The graphics are so engaging and my students love building and reading the sentences. It's a great app for practicing sight words and decoding. 
  • Lexia (not free): Our school uses Lexia Core 5, an ELA skills-based program that is designed mostly for students K-3. Each student has a username and password, they can access the program at home via the web or app, and they progress through differentiated levels based on their ability. I love using this program because it builds on itself and becomes progressively more challenging as the students learn. However, it's not free, schools must purchase a license.
Two students using the Lexia app during word study rotations
Tech Misconceptions & Myths
Now that I've told you all about the tech I use, I want to reiterate and drive home this very important point: You do NOT need to have iPads, interactive whiteboards/Smartboards, or be 1-1 to be a tech classroom. So many teachers I talk to feel discouraged because they do not have those things and immediately develop the mindset of not being able to really use tech with their students. I'm telling you, you can! Be creative, find ways to share tech with other teachers, get on Donors Choose, take turns with the one working laptop you have, whatever it takes! Our students are growing up in a very different world than we did (yes, I remember a world without cell phones!). Technology is no longer a luxury item, making learning even more engaging. Technology is a NECESSITY that should be woven into the way we teach.

Students a little older and have their own devices? Embrace it and invite them into your classroom! Set restrictions and expectations and follow through with consequences when misused, but take advantage of that! 

Have a couple of iPads or laptops? Create a partner rotation schedule where every student has a chance to use that tech weekly. Students can create a video together on Seesaw, so you're hearing two voices explain. That way, you'll only need 12 visits to the iPad in a week instead of 24 individual ones.

Have parent volunteers? Make one volunteer the "tech coach" volunteer. I had a mom a while back who would come it some mornings and log all the students in during their computer rotation until they got the hang of it. Parents would love helping in any way they could, and why not give them a task that they can totally do without any additional training or explanation?

Ok, I think that's all I have for now. Please continue to watch my Tech Tuesday Instagram stories for more quick tips and answered questions regarding utilizing technology in your classroom. Thanks for reading!

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