Monday, January 18, 2016

Back to First Grade: Penguins and Polar Bears and Reindeer, Oh My!

It's been two weeks since returning from winter break, and I think I've maybe, a little bit, almost recovered from my post-break blues. I traveled back to the States to spend the holidays with my family, and I always find myself in a bit of a funk when I come back to Japan after some time at home. Homesickness rears its ugly head I suppose. I had a particularly exciting trip because I did quite a bit of wedding planning thanks to my family and my soon-to-be in-laws... and I unexpectedly found my wedding dress! Although Kevin and I aren't getting married until summer 2017, I couldn't resist trying on some dresses with my mom and sister. I thought it would just be a fun day out for us and I'd really go for the hunt this summer. Naive, right?! We visited just one shop, Carlisle's of Pittsburgh, and I fell in love. Oh how I wish I could post a photo here... But the most I'll say is, it was inspired by this photo...

I was never the girl that dreamt of her fantasy wedding, but let's just say that once I got swept into planning mode, my inner, suppressed girly- girl combined with my love of organization and attention to detail, and I got caught up in the excitement. Is it summer 2017 yet?!

After finding a wedding dress, selecting the perfect church, browsing potential venues, and getting a tentative "yes" from my favorite Pittsburgh- based band to play at our reception (not to mention 24 hours of travel each way), I had a tough time coming back to reality once school stared again. Fortunately, all that travel time gave me a opportunity to create some fun materials for a mini penguin unit to kick off the new year.

Thank goodness I had some plans ready to go, because my first week was consumed with kids coming and going from my class. My school is part of a military community, which means that the flow of kids in and out is kind of like a revolving door. Within 10 school days, I lost 3 kiddos and gained another three. It's amazing to see the flexibility that these children develop due to this lifestyle! Having lived in the same neighborhood my whole life until I went to college, I can't really identify with the constant state of flux experienced by these children. They come to my classroom with such varied experiences and background knowledge. They've all been through the process of moving, starting new schools, finding new friends- and many of them have gone through it multiple times, at only six years old. As heartbreaking as the goodbyes can be, it's just as heartwarming to see the open arms with which my kiddos welcome new children into our little classroom community. They all get it. Friends come and go when you're a military child. You've got to embrace and appreciate them while you have the chance.

So, given the significant changes to my class during the first week after break, things were a little chaotic for a few days. That didn't stop me from launching into my mini penguin unit, and the kids absolutely loved it! It blew their minds to learn that penguins do not, in fact, live in the North Pole, and that they're only found in the Southern Hemisphere. One student refused to accept that penguins and polar bears don't live in the same place- he was convinced that polar bears love to eat penguins! One thing I love about first graders- the sense of conviction they feel when they are convinced they are right about something. 

We kicked off the penguin- filled fun with New Years resolutions- aka "penguin pledges." They came up with all kinds of interesting goals, ranging from "I want to learn Hindi because my parents speak it" to "I will eat Mandarin oranges" (love how specific he was with that one). My favorite:

"I will do more than 100 pooshups!" Love the sound spelling here!

Our Readers' Workshop focus for the week was comparing and contrasting, so I checked out a few nonfiction books about penguins and other polar animals for our mini lessons. We had already leaned about owls earlier in the year, so I pulled it this anchor chart we had made, and led a discussion about penguins vs. owls:

Then along came polar bears... 

And Venn diagrams to match!

I've got Venn diagrams for penguins/ owls and penguins/ polar bears (with facts to match) in my Penguin Science Activities product available here on TPT. We haven't gotten around to the mini research report available in that pack, too, but that's on the schedule for next week!

We also read about reindeer and narwhals, and although we didn't do any Venn diagrams, students compared and contrasted the animals in their reading journals. To be honest, I didn't know much about narwhals before planning a lesson on them. One kiddo said, "Oh, they're like unicorns, because they have that horn on their heads!"

Another great first grade quote during this unit: "Polar bears don't need to live in groups. They're at the top of the food court!" You never know what will come out if the mouths of first graders!

I planned to introduce adjectives last week, so I put together a noun/ verb/ adjective sort with a penguin theme. I always struggle with finding ways to make grammar fun, so I was relieved to find that they absolutely loved this! I introduced adjectives as a mini- lesson and had the kids brainstorm words to describe penguins; they came up with a great assortment of ideas:

(Forgive the funky- looking penguin. This is what happens when you realize you've got 2 minutes left in your lunch period and you forgot to make your chart.)

After the mini-lesson, we did the center activity together as a class, and I put it in the grammar center the next day. There are nouns, verbs, and adjectives written on on fish, and the kids sort them into the correct buckets based on the parts of speech! For the first few days I just put out the nouns and verbs as a review , and added adjectives later. They also got a kick out of writing silly sentences as an extension activity- they chose one word from each bucket and used them to put together crazy sentences. 

You can find this sort here! Next week I'm introducing contractions with another penguin-themed contraction activity available here... I hope it'll be as big a hit as the noun/ verb/ adjective activity! Here's a preview... Gotta get caught up on my laminating...

Besides the grammar center, I also set up some penguin activities at the writing center. 

To be honest, my kids didn't take these prompts and run with them at first the way I was hoping they would. They turned in some really sloppy, incomplete pieces on the first day! We had a BIG talk about expectations for the writing center, reviewed examples vs. non- examples using the document camera, and placed models at the writing center for reference. It made a major difference. The following is a piece that a student wrote the next day- we reviewed it during "author's chair" and displayed it at the center as a model. She was so proud of herself! It totally paid off, too. The next day, another girl brought her writing to me after centers and asked if she could share it with the class. We put it up on the SmartBoard and discussed why it was a great example. She beamed when I asked if I could display it at the center. She's not normally a motivated writer, so I loved to see her have an opportunity to take such pride in her work. I need to start doing this with their work more often! (Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the 2nd child's work, but here's the first example we discussed)

We've been reading the Tacky the Penguin books by Helen Lester, so the second prompt is, "Write 3 things you would do with Tacky the Penguin if you got to spend a day with him. Illustrate your sentences." Her first idea was so great- "I would play origami with him on the bus." It was original compared to some of the other ideas! These prompts and more are available with a cute penguin craft here.  The Tacky prompt is also available with "Write Your Own Tacky the Penguin Story with Craft" (see more on that below!).

My awesome first grade teammate had her kiddos respond to the Tacky prompt, too, and they wrote this model together before going off to write:

Speaking of Tacky the Penguin, I'm obsessed with the series by Helen Lester! The books are always a huge hit with my first graders. Hawaiian shirts, silly songs, and tender messages about accepting the "odd birds" among us- what's not to love?! If you're unfamiliar with the stories, check out the original on YouTube here. I guarantee you'll fall for Tacky in no time:) My kiddos haven't made the penguin craft yet because I'm planning to have them write their own Tacky the Penguin adventures next week for our bulletin board. It's looking bare at the moment...

... But we'll be making these cuties soon!

They'll be displayed along with the kids' Tacky stories... More pictures of those in my next post!

You can snag the graphic organizers for the Tacky story (there are several options in the file, if you're not crazy about this one), writing paper, and craft template here: Write Your Own "Tacky the Penguin" Story with Craft.

I can't wait to see how they turn out! I'd planned on doing the stories last week, but it took awhile for our class to get back into routines- I think the kids were experiencing some "post- break blues" of their own. Hopefully my board will warrant this reaction...

I'll post the results next week, and in the meantime, I'm also gearing up for our upcoming earth materials unit! I've really been putting the laminator to the test lately between my penguin activities and the "All About Rocks" materials I've been prepping:

You can snag the whole unit here or grab the freebie rock sort here. I'll be posting lots of details about that unit after I implement it next month, so stay tuned by following my blog or my Instagram account (@littleowlsteachertreats) for alerts on updates! Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Teaching: It's Like Climbing Mountains

I love mountains. If you know me, that’s no secret. I recently got engaged on top of one, if that tells you anything! Last month, I successfully completed my first winter climb. If you’d told me a year ago that someday I’d be standing on top of a snow-covered Japanese mountain, ice axe in hand and crampons on feet, I would’ve rolled my eyes and told you to pass the Nutella and leave me alone, I’m trying to watch The Walking Dead over here… but lo and behold, here’s the proof!

Although as a friend pointed out in a Facebook comment, I could’ve posted a picture of anyone from my couch while stuffing my face with Cheetos given my getup. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one, Internet strangers, that’s me… but for the record, I’ll still take that Nutella if you don’t mind…

Anyway, back to that mountain. That’s Karamatsu-dake, a lovely 2,696 meter peak in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. I climbed it over the course of 2 days in December (shout-out to David at Kanto Adventures for putting together yet another fabulous trip). I tend to be the slow poke of the group any time I hike, so I found myself bringing up the rear for a good portion of the climb and was left with a lot of time to think. As we made our way to the summit, one crampon-laden, snowy step at a time, my thoughts alternated between, “Why the hell am I doing this?” and, “I wonder when we’re stopping for lunch (I spend an embarrassing amount of time thinking about food while hiking),” and it dawned on me that mountain climbing has a lot in common with teaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered to myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” as a teacher, whether I’m tumbling down the Pinterest rabbit hole way past my bedtime; trying to salvage a lesson that is clearly in full meltdown mode; pumping my students full of sugar at 9 in the morning because “it’s a holiday!”/obviously I hate myself; or throwing 30- unbudgeted- dollars at the Target cashier because what teacher can walk past that dollar section with willpower… and goodness knows lunchtime is never far from my thoughts during the school day.

As I continued my quest for the summit, I thought some more about mountain climbing and teaching. The similarities kept on coming, and in no particular order, here they are:

There will be times when you want to give up.
It amazes me sometimes that I ever make it to the top of any mountain. There’s always that little nagging voice in the back of my mind whispering things like, “You’re never gonna make it,” and, “Doughnuts.” I have to actively work to silence that beast and keep going, even when the task before me seems impossible. It’s the same with teaching sometimes. I had this first grade class a few years ago that almost destroyed me. Twenty-six students, and 13 of them had some kind of need- learning disabilities, English language learners, multiple behavioral issues… I remember one time when I came back from taking two days off for a trip, and within an hour no less than 10 coworkers let me know how terrible my class had been for my poor sub. By the time one of my close friends got to me and told me the same thing, I snapped and started crying. I felt ready to give up, call my dad and tell him he was right about what he said when I told him I wanted to be a teacher- “You’ll be overworked and underpaid!” and find a nice box to live in under a bridge somewhere. But… I survived. With support from my coworkers and a little determination, I got through the year, and my students the following year were like angels descended from heaven in my eyes. At least for the first few weeks, when the nightmare of the previous year faded into memory. Then they became your standard first graders, keeping me on my toes and putting me in bed by 9pm every night!

(For the record, my dad had the best of intentions when he said what he did. I had long dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and when I changed my mind during my freshman year of college, he was genuinely concerned that I would be… well… overworked and underpaid. However, he has the utmost respect for what we do as teachers, and I have no regrets about my decision).

You need the proper equipment… and it will cost you.
I just dropped a sweet penny on a new pair of winter mountaineering boots, and it hurt a little… but they’re so pretty… and necessary if I want to climb safely and comfortably. Mountain climbing isn’t exactly a cheap activity. Sure, you’re just heading out into nature. Nature is free, right?? However, there are many necessities and fun add-ons that you need when you’re venturing into the outdoors for a serious climb. That stuff ain’t free.

Let me ask you a personal question: how much of your own money have you spent on your classroom in the past month? Year? If your answer is, “I’d rather not talk about it,” (which is my answer), you get what I’m saying here. Yes, you have a teacher workroom. Yes, you have your sad supply room- or closet- but does your supply room have adorable little Rudolph cups that will compliment your winter holiday breakfast decorations so perfectly? Does it have enough homemade playdoh for all of your students to make models of the earth when learning about Earth’s layers? Are you going to find the word sorts that you need to provide appropriate interventions for your struggling readers? That stuff isn’t hiding behind the crusty old glue sticks in your school’s pathetic excuse for a supply closet- it’s at the Dollar Store. Or Target. Or Teachers Pay Teachers. And it costs money. Your money. Good thing my dad was wrong and we’re all loaded, right?!

Teaching and mountaineering, my two most expensive pastimes.   

You will bleed.
During one of my first big hikes, my boyfriend (now, fiance) slipped on some loose rocks as we began descending the mountain. It didn’t look like a bad fall, and I didn’t think much of it when he calmly called ahead for our trip leader, “David, I’m bleeding.”

“Is it bad?”


A trip to a Japanese hospital and six stitches in his hand later, Kevin is fine… but oh, the blood. It’s bound to happen sooner or later when you’re mountain climbing.

Obviously, you’re going to encounter blood from time to time as an elementary school teacher. Bloody noses, scraped knees- it’s unavoidable. And gross (I don’t know why I ever thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I just wanted to cuddle puppies all day long. How do I get that job?). However, I’m speaking in a metaphorical sense when I say you will bleed as a teacher. You will pour your heart into your work, become emotionally invested, and feel real pain at times. Maybe a parent makes an off-handed comment that sticks with you, a student that you’ve been trying your damndest to reach just isn’t responding, or your educational philosophies clash with those of testing expectations. Teaching will bleed into your personal life and you will bring it home with you whether you want to or not. The best you can do is try to stem the flow and find time to heal once in awhile- summer vacation, I’m looking at you.

Don’t forget to stop and take in the view. It’s not all about reaching the summit.
My brain has a way of making 10 minutes seem like an hour when I’m climbing. Sometimes when I’m really feeling the burn, I try to fall into a trance by repeating some kind of simple mantra in my head to the beat of my footsteps- “Keep, mov-ing, keep, mov-ing,” or, “Al-most, lunch-time, al-most, lunch-time.” My mantras are occasionally more obscene depending on my mood and level of exhaustion, but you get the point. Sometimes I get so caught up in propelling myself onward and upward that I forget to take in the view. As I mentioned earlier, I recently got engaged on top of a mountain- Mt. Kita, to be specific. It’s Japan’s 2nd tallest peak and the climb offers stunning views of the tallest peak, Mt. Fuji. It was my first experience carrying a full pack for an overnight trip, and let me tell you, the mantras got downright filthy. I struggled the whole way. After getting slightly off-track from the rest of my group and foolishly attempting to follow a couple of rock climbers up a waterfall (you had to be there- it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a waterfall. Also, I’m not very observant), hoisting myself up multiple ladders and scrambling over a bunch of giant rocks, I had barely stopped to consider my surroundings… and then Kevin told me to turn around. There she was, Fuji-san, in all her glory!

This happens to me with teaching all the time. I get caught up in the daily grind and forget that there are so many reasons to stop and appreciate my students every day. The summit is the prize at the end of the climb, the reason to throw down your pack, proclaim, “I made it!” and take a few selfies to show off on Facebook if I’m being honest (c’mon mountain climbers, don’t act like it ain’t true). In teaching, the summit is the end of the school year. June rolls along and I’m ready to trade my pencil skirts and cardigans for shorts and flip-flops, turn off my alarms, and post the obligatory, “Summer vacation has officially begun!" status. Yes, I do have a countdown app on my iPhone to track the number of days left in the school year, and it may only be January, but my summer is practically filled with travel plans already.

While dreams of school-free days dance in my head, I’m also thinking about the end of the year in other terms. Will my students meet the required benchmarks in reading, writing, and math? Will I have time to complete all of our math units? How many days will it take to administer the necessary reading assessments?  These standards we have in place for our children are summits in a sense, too. Reach these peaks or fail. It’s natural to get bogged down by the weight of your load and trudge through the school year, dreaming of the end and forgetting that there’s a whole journey to enjoy along the way.  

So you see, mountain climbing and teaching have much more in common than the need to properly plan your pee breaks around prep periods or thoroughly dense bushes. Both are taxing and will push you to limits you didn’t know you had, and both are entirely worth the effort.

February in First Grade

Well folks, it's a brand new month. That means my entire store is 10% off for the first three days and you can snag my latest First of t...