Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Counting Collections: Transform Your Math Instruction

It's been a few years since I first learned about counting collections. I was in a district-mandated training that was so amazing, as in, the kind you want to do over and over again? We were talking about math in such deep and meaningful ways, trying new strategies, discovering new tools...so much background information about mathematical learning. We spent a little while talking about counting collections, and I was very intrigued. However, life got the best of me. I started the school year with the best of intentions and dabbled with my new ideas, but counting collections didn't really get off the ground.

When I was finally ready to dive in and give it a real shot a full year later, it was messy at first, actually, it was down-right ugly. I had no idea how to organize them, prepare them, and generally "use" them with my students. I knew what they could do for students' number sense, but the application wasn't clicking for me.

Fast forward to now, and I think I've finally found a system that works for me and my students. I've been able to use counting collections in a variety of ways and have figured out a way that has totally transformed my entire outlook on how I want to teach math. I want to share that with you.




I first shared about counting collections on my blog HERE and HERE. What I read can also be found in an excellent summary on this website. In a nutshell, counting collections are groups of objects that can be as big or as small as the teacher desires that students count. During the count, teachers will watch students and notice their counting skills like one-to-one correspondence, cardinality, skip counting or grouping, etc. Teachers can encourage their students to use other strategies using a variety of prompts and tools. I highly encourage you to read the research and learn more on your own as this is just a very brief summary of what I have come to learn myself.


This is where a lot of the growing pains occurred while figuring out how to use them. I understood that I should provide collections for my students to count that varied in size and type. At first, that meant putting various manipulatives and small objects into plastic baggies and handing them all out. I would have variety in the amounts, but they would all be somewhere between 10-30. My students would count them, and then...?


I needed a better structure for the "how" of doing counting collections. After playing around with a few tools, I ended up creating some tools that help me and my students keep our collections organized, focused, and can provide appropriate extensions as needed. You can find those tools here if you want to check them out for yourself:


These resource pages and extensions have made such a difference in extending the count. There are many ways you can do this without paper, but since I have my students working independently on their collections, I wanted to give them fun and simple extensions that really pushed their understanding of numbers. These were created with the simple purpose of giving my students autonomy while using a counting collection and to push their thinking.


Presently, I do counting collections daily as one of my math rotations. You can read more about my rotations HERE. My students use counting collections during their "hands on" rotation. I believe that students should have their hands on actual objects to bolster their counting skills, so that is why they go so frequently. Some skills can be taught abstractly, but the actual skill of counting is best taught concretely, in my opinion.


Depending on the student, he or she may be using counting collections twice or three times a week. This is determined by the math group I have put them in based on skill and ability. So while collections are out daily, a student will not be completing them every single day.

Keeping track of their collections while working independently seemed challenging until I came across Seesaw. This tool has freed me up so much in terms of being able to work with students in small groups while also making sure my independent workers are on task and are understanding their work. Once a student completes a counting collection, he or she will record it on Seesaw, verbally explaining how they counted, and then upload to their portfolio. Every afternoon I check the videos and can leave my own verbal feedback (EXTRA AWESOME) that my students listen to the next time they use an iPad. I give almost immediate feedback that my students can apply the next time they get a counting collection. It has been an absolute game changer.


If you want to know more about how I use Seesaw, make sure you follow me on Instagram as I share about Seesaw frequently on my Tech Tuesday IG stories!

How has it changed your math instruction?
It seems silly to think that one math activity can change the entire way I teach math, but it's true. Watching my students count large collections, hearing them explain the intricate ways they sorted or grouped, and observing them grow over time in what they could do all contributed to by own confidence as a math teacher. I was so intimidated by counting collections at first, and I realized that's how I felt about teaching math overall. Even though it's "just kindergarten" so "how hard can math possibly be?", there was a lot of pressure (that I put on myself) to make sure they had a very solid foundation of mathematical concepts before first grade. I wanted to make sure I didn't leave any holes or gaps, so things like counting collections made me nervous because they weren't "traditional" in the sense of work to completion, score, and move on. I had to actually observe my students, listen to their individual thinking, and then work with each one to provide the right scaffolding, support, or extension. After learning how to do that, it impacted how I wanted to teach all math skills. I wanted to be able to provide that individualized feedback and instruction to all my students with all skills.


The counting collections activity is one of the main reasons why I began teaching in rotations. After one full year of doing rotations, I can honestly say that the performance of my students was the highest I've ever seen. I was working with one group on multiplication by the end of the school year. Not because it would be cool to try, but because knowing them so well provided me with the insight into skills they were ready to work on. My most-struggling group at the beginning of the year was at grade-level by the end (with the exception of 2 students). I fully credit rotation-model teaching for this success, and I fully credit my success with counting collections for that confidence to start.

Try counting collections. They will transform the way your students think about counting and the way you teach your students. They will make a difference in your math instruction.

Want to know more? If you follow me on Instagram, I post weekly videos on math instruction on Math Monday IG stories. If you'd like to see other math resources that I use with my students, make sure you follow my Teachers Pay Teachers store where I post all the math materials I have created to use in my own classroom.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

How to Teach Phonics in 15, 30, or 45 Minutes a Day

Do you have a phonics block built into your kindergarten day, or is it combined with your reading time? Do you have 45 minutes to an hour to teach those foundational skills, or are they taught during a warm up or daily routine? No matter how your phonics time is structured, I'd love to share some strategies I use to teach phonics skills to make sure that my students have a solid foundation.


You could have a few minutes or a complete block of time to teach phonics, and my advice would still remain the same. Make sure you spiral your skills, do many skills at once, have both oral and visual cues, and get your kids into small groups. Let's break down how you can do all of these things in a variety of time frames.


Some teachers just don't have the time during their day to devote an entire block to teaching phonics skills. Maybe you are using an adopted program that does a daily phonics routine, but it's short and not that great. Let's make sure that if all you have is 15 minutes a day, you do these things.

Cover lots of skills. For whatever reason, I used to have the mindset that I cover letter ID and sounds in early Fall, rhyming and initial sounds in late Fall, and don't get to medial sounds or onset/rime until late Spring. Unfortunately, in covering skills in a timeline/progressive manner, my higher achieving students were bored in September and my slower-moving learners were not getting enough coverage to help them progress. Be sure that during your phonics warm up, you are covering multiple phonics skills. Cover about 5 skills during each warm up (letter ID, rhyming ID, beginning sounds, compound words, and blending sounds would be excellent skills to practice in early Fall).

Spiral skills, come back to them often. Don't leave letter ID behind after December. Students can continue to benefit from exposure to build their fluency and automaticity. Also, don't be afraid to introduce a more difficult skill early in the year since you'll be coming back to it periodically throughout the year. Even if your students can't segment or blend CVC words yet, make sure you put it in your warm up. They'll be able to hear and see you do it, and that will help build their confidence when it's time for them to try on their own.

As you continue to spiral skills, make sure you assess as you go. You can choose a small group of students to watch over a few weeks and check for progress during the warm up. (These are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons)
Use oral and visual cues. Flash cards with letters on them are great. Hold them up and quickly go through the alphabet. You can do the same thing except ask students to give you the sound. If you have rhyming flash cards, that's great, too! But don't worry about having visuals for every skill you cover. One of the most important parts of this warm up is your students hearing the sounds being manipulated in the words. Hand motions are a great addition to oral skills (using your arm to tap out the sounds in words when segmenting, sliding your hand down your arm to blend).


If all you have is half an hour, you have time for a warm up and a mini lesson with one of your small groups. Do all of the strategies mentioned above for the first 15-minute warm up, then do a mini lesson.

Create small groups of students. You may already have "guided reading" groups, but this isn't that. If you use some sort of screener like DIBELS or Fastbridge, look closely at the results of your BOY assessment. You can also do your own version of a beginning of year skill check in order to see which phonics skills your students seem to know or need to learn. If you have this kind of data, you can start putting your students into small groups by skill. For example, I first group my students by letter sound ID. I try to make 4 groups which have anywhere between 4-7 students in each group. I make my own criteria for groups, so you can as well. My lowest group knows 5 or less letter sounds where my highest group knows 21-26 letter sounds. When students are grouped by skill, I am able to tailor my mini lessons to their exact skills.

Games like this Beginning Sounds Bingo are perfect for using in small groups. Students are totally engaged and love playing! You can then use these as centers when the small group is done! (These are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons)
Don't teach the same mini lesson to all groups. Once you have your small groups created by skill, you will be able to determine what to focus on. My students who know letter sounds will still get a spiral review of them, but we will go on to more in-depth skills so they can continue to advance. As far as what to teach in your mini lesson, that is up to you. Some schools have phonics programs for teachers to use, some use intervention programs like SIPPS (which I do not agree should be used for mini lessons for all students but only for students who need the intervention), and some use a variety of resources. I use something I created myself because my school had NOTHING for a while! There are 40 mini lessons, and I start my groups at different lessons. One group starts at Lesson 1 while another group may start at Lesson 11. The skills spiral but do progress gradually. If you want to use these mini lessons (made by a teacher for teachers!), then click below:

Set 1: Mini Lessons 1-20 include letter identification, letter sounds, identifying beginning sounds, & identifying and producing rhyming words

Set 2: Mini Lessons 21-40 include final sound identification, medial vowel isolation and identification, blending onset and rime, & syllable identification

Do one group per day.
I know you'll want to get in as many as you can, but trust me. Use the 15 minutes you have after your warm up to work with just one small group. Give them the entire time so that they can get the differentiated mini lesson, play a game, and do an exit ticket/formative assessment. The longer you work with them, and do it regularly, the more likely you are to see results! What are the rest of your students doing while you work with this small group? Preferably, a phonics skill rotation. Phonics centers, technology (Lexia, Starfall, or other ELA program), Words Their Way, or any other phonics-based activities you like to use.


If you're lucky enough to have this much time each day, you can do a warm up and TWO small groups. This will allow you to see your small groups 2 or 3 times per week (if you have 4 groups total). I typically will see my two lower groups 3 times per week and my two higher groups twice a week. I want more face time with my groups who need more reteaching, support, and instruction. How can you manage all of this movement?

Do rotations. If you haven't already tried rotations, then you're missing out! I love teaching both math and phonics with rotations. This allows me to strategically plan exactly how I want to support my differentiated groups. I have written more in depth about teaching with rotations in THIS POST. Rotations are messy at first. You'll want to adjust them to fit your class's needs. But don't be shy, try them! My students truly excelled last year and I attribute it to our rotation model classroom.

When you do two groups, you can assess more students each week and make the decision to keep them in your group or move them. These assessments are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons

There you go! I hope you can take away some strategies for teaching phonics no matter what time frame you have. Here are my final tips:
  • Don't be too rigid. It's okay if you need to skip a warm up because of a special event. It's okay if you can't squeeze in a mini lesson in the beginning of the school year. You'll find a groove and will make it work. I suggest not skipping the warm up if at all possible, but don't beat yourself up if you need to!
  • Keep your groups fluid. If a student is in your "lowest" group, your goal is to either move them out of the group or move the entire group up! The best feeling is when your lowest group gets so small that you end up combining them with the next group. Keep your groups to no more than 7, though, so you may need to split a larger group into 2. Just do the same activities with both of those split groups!
  • Set a timer! If you think you'll go over your 15 minutes, time yourself. When it goes off, stop and transition to your next activity. There's no good in calling it a warm up or mini lesson when it's 30 minutes long! 
  • Use games! Kids love learning through games. In your mini lessons, keep it fun and light. I have games in my small group lessons resources and they are kid-tested. They love them!
Best of luck! 


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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Planning with Google Calendar: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

If you're here, you may be seeking out a better way to lesson plan. Well I've got something for you that I have been using for a few years now that I love! 


Google Calendar is such an easy-to-use platform for keeping yourself organized, and I already had been using it for a while for personal things, so why not try it out for lesson planning? It is so simple, easily accessible, and visually appealing. I want to show you exactly how you can get started with setting up your Google Calendar lesson plans.

Besides meeting you at Starbucks with our laptops and a chai latte, the next easiest way to walk you through setting this up is with Screencastify. With that tool, I'm able to record myself talking while it records everything I do on my computer screen. Then it saves to a video on my Google Drive, and voila! You can watch it over and over again and learn exactly how to Google lesson plan.

The videos are in two parts (I am limited to 10-minute videos with the free version of Screencastify), so click on the videos below to watch this step-by-step tutorial. 

Part 1

Part 2

Just an FYI: You will need a Google account (like Gmail) to create a Google account. If you don't have one already, what are you waiting for? I love all the awesome Google apps and how everything is linked together!

How do you see yourself using this tool? Let me know and feel free to ask any questions you may have!


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Monday, June 25, 2018

Live, Learn, and Share: My Best Advice to New Teachers

This post is a long-time coming. Having just finished another school year, I am reflecting on my time in the classroom like I do each summer. This year, though, it feels different. There are things I *finally* think I have the hang of after 7 years of teaching, and I want to share the things I've learned with any new teachers, student teachers, or teachers who are already in the classroom!


You know they don't (and can't) teach you everything you need to know about teaching in college. Even if you went to an amazing school with a thorough program (shout out to UT and their awesome ECE program!), there are scenarios, parents, and paperwork that you can't encounter until you're fully "in charge" of your own classroom. Since starting Research and Play, I have been getting messages from lots of new teachers who are fresh out of college or just recently hired that are similar in their search for tips, advice, or secrets that will make that first year in the classroom smooth and successful! So, I've thought, thought, and thought some more and finally compiled a list of my best pieces of advice for those teachers who are about to enter into the best career in the entire world.


Since you're coming into your career in the time of Instagram and Pinterest, chances are you already have your entire classroom setup planned down to the custom stamp you've ordered to grade papers with. You've probably already raided the Target dollar spot, you're getting your dad to build you a stage, you've got wireless doorbells in your cart on Amazon, and you're asking for gift cards to Lakeshore for your birthday.

None of that matters.

Of course it's important to plan your classroom design, but all those "extras" that you've seen going viral on social media? You don't need them. Your students don't need them. And there's no sense in stressing out over strobe lights and microphones when you really need to be backwards planning your very first ELA unit that you're about to have to teach in a few weeks.

My biggest piece of advice to ALL teachers: Don't get caught up in the hype. Kids don't need the bells and whistles to learn, and you do not need them to be a "good" teacher. Engagement is important, you want your students to buy in to and enjoy your lessons, but intentional planning goes a long way. Keep it all simple that first year (and second, and third...). Your energy and money and time are much better suited to making sure you're using developmentally-appropriate practices, teaching focus standards, and establishing strong classroom management. The kids working at their tables with their peers learn just as much as the kids on stages. Do your research about colors, lighting, and the physical environment. Know what zones or areas you want to establish in your room for the quiet learners and the kinesthetic ones. Think about where you'll store materials for your kids to access. Then step back and breathe. You don't need all that extra stuff (but go for it if you want), it's just not necessary.


It's hard to think about exactly how you'll discipline your students until, well, you have students. But doing research about *why* you'll do certain things is really important. Read, read, read about behavior. Understand why your students will behave certain ways, and start training yourself to recognize those behaviors. When it comes to how you will handle behaviors, ask yourself these questions:

What behaviors will I accept as developmentally appropriate?

What are absolute "no-go's" that will always get a consequence?

What behaviors will I have to teach my students so that they can be successful in my class?

What will my flowchart of consequences look like?

How will I recognize, support, and reward positive behavior?

Some of you may teach or will teach in a school where a behavior system is already in place, and depending on your principal/admin, you may have to follow that system with fidelity. It may or may not sync with your philosophies around behavior, so just do your best to be compliant but don't give up your own style. After all, these will be your kids for 180 days and you all have to find a way to live harmoniously together for that whole time.

My biggest tip for educators regarding how to establish a strong foundation for classroom management is to READ THESE BOOKS. I am a huge supporter of Responsive Classroom and their strategies, techniques, and philosophy of behavior management. I studied them as a grad student doing my student teaching and every single year since, I still get them out to remind myself of best practices. You'll meet your students and have to adjust the day-to-day practices, but having a strong foundation of *why* will make a world of difference.

My teaching bible. I still read it every August.

Framing your rules in ways that totally involve your students' needs, not just yours.

You'll have those hard kids, and this book will help.

This is the most important thing we can teach!

For learning why 6 year olds do the things they do. This book is incredible, I even recommend it to parents.



Maybe you've already tried backwards planning, but if you haven't, I highly recommend it! It has been one of the most valuable, useful, practical things I've learned how to do as a teacher. Now, every school seems to have its own policy about lesson plans like how to write them and when they are (or aren't) due. So take this piece of advice and see how it fits in with your school's policy.

Backwards planning doesn't focus on activities first, which is where teachers can sometimes get into a pattern of starting. "Oh I found the cutest pumpkin activity with rhyming words!" or "Look at this awesome project about creating a house using cardboard and paper clips!" have definitely come out of my mouth at some point in my career. Where that line of thinking falls short is not starting with the outcome.

"What do I want/need my students to learn and be able to do at the end of this unit?" should be the main question you ask yourself. If you determine that over the next 6 weeks, you want your students to be able to produce rhyming words, and that cute pumpkin activity lets them do that, then go for it! Just make sure you always circle back to the outcome. I attended a training for backwards planning in my old district and they structured it this way:

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 years from now? (The BIG picture outcome, the entire reason you're doing this unit - As a 45 year old, I hope they can manipulate words in ways that help them in conversations and extend their vocabulary.)

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 days from now? (The end-of-unit goal - After this unit, I want my kindergartners to be able to produce rhyming words.)

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 minutes from now? (The short-term outcome, end-of-lesson goal - After this pumpkin activity, I want my kindergartners to be able to read a rhyming word on the pumpkin and verbally tell a word that rhymes with it.)


In my first year of teaching, I was on a team of 9 kindergarten teachers. Honestly it was a new teacher's dream. We were about equally split as newbie and veteran teachers. I had mentors I could ask questions, people who taught me how to lesson plan, other newbies to vent to and laugh with...it was awesome. Then I moved schools, and then there were 2. It was so different! Thankfully I got along well with my teammate, but I had to start doing a lot more than I was used to. I had to learn the real meaning of collaboration and start actually doing it.

As a new teacher, you might feel like you don't have things to share or just don't know what to contribute. Trust me, veteran teachers love learning from new teachers, too! Collaboration in the basic sense of the word means working together for a common goal. Sharing ideas, planning together, giving advice, those are all ways to collaborate. You have so much to learn, true, but you also have so much to share! Every single teacher has his or her strengths. If you're comfortable with technology, share that expertise! If you've done research in STEM practices, teach them to your colleagues. Ask what you can do or how you can contribute rather than waiting to have things delegated to you.

One thing to keep in mind, though: You do not need to be exactly like your teammate(s). You were hired for your own personality, experience, energy, and knowledge. If all the other teachers on your team do something one way but you really don't want to, voice to your team that you'd like to try it another way and see if it works, then go for it. Want to do flexible seating? Maybe by pioneering that in your room you can inspire your team. Don't be shy!


Some schools have amazing adopted programs, some schools have crappy ones, and some schools have none! You might not ever need to supplement with other curriculum (insert sarcasm), but if you do, be discerning. You're lucky to be teaching in the time of Teachers Pay Teachers and social media. Sooo many awesome ideas, units, activities, plans, and projects are easily accessible to you. It can honestly be a little overwhelming with so much at the click of a button.

Don't get carried away with the things you purchase to supplement with. There are most definitely things you will want to use, just make sure you do your research, look around, and compare before you buy. Not all addition word problems are created the same! In that same vein, don't feel like you need to buy "packets" of activities. I've seen this too many times with new teachers. Just putting it out there, but 6 year olds do not find any joy in doing multiple worksheets every day they come to school just because it has a little spinner in the corner or thematic clip art.

Buy what you need, not just what you think is cute or checks a box on your standards. Find things that encourage talking, working together, and cuts down on making copies. Plus, giving out worksheets all the time doesn't challenge you or help you grow as a teacher.

My first class of kinders back in 2012! These kids will be starting 7th grade soon, where did the time go?!
All of the advice I've listed are things that I wish I could have heard when I started teaching. However, there is a lot of benefit to the whole "you live and you learn" saying. I feel like there are some things that I haven't' changed at all since I started teaching 7 years ago, and there are things I look back on and think, "What were you doing??!!" Don't be hard on yourself. You are going to rock this whole teaching thing. And remember, you always have people like me to reach out to!


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