High Five: Contingency Plan Tools

The end of a year is the perfect time to reflect and regroup, recalling the best ideas, tools, and strategies of the year in order to make use of them in the future.  Looking over my last year, I have compiled some lists of the things I have found to make my life as an educator simple.  As we approach the new year, I will be sharing this series of High Fives.

When you work with children, you know that having a plan B is just as important as plan A.  Many beautifully planned activities have to be suddenly abandoned due to unexpected technical difficulties, unpredictable student disinterest, and other impossible-to-expect obstacles.  The last thing an educator wants is to have a room full of bored students.  As has been said for centuries, idle hands are the devil's workshop.  When things go wrong, and the little hands in front of me are beginning to look for mischief, I pull out one of these no-fail, no-prep-required tools.  Then, while students are occupied, I can focus (some of) my attention on writing passes to the nurse, restarting computers, or otherwise handling whatever excitement has come up.

1. Shortcuts by Jeff Harris
 My very first post on this blog in 2008 featured Jeff Harris' weekly learning comics called Shortcuts.  Harris' cool activity pages are published each week in lots of newspapers around the country.  Cut these out and laminate them for easy-as-pie independent learning.  Wet-erase markers (such as Vis-a-Vis) seem to work best for us.  Just a spritz of water and a paper towel leave these ready to go for next time.  To extend this activity, check out the Shortcuts Teaching Guides page which includes ideas for turning the comics into a full-fledged lesson.  This page also lists the topics that will be featured over the next few months, meaning you can plan ahead to include a Shortcut in a future lesson.

2. Sesamestreet.org
The Videos page on Sesame Street's website has 1000 segments from Sesame Street episodes going back decades.  If you're like me, you can recall parts of your own favorite episodes from childhood, and you are likely to find those classic clips.  This fall, I was teaching students about community heroes, and I remembered the "People in Your Neighborhood" song.  Turns out the site has several of these segments featuring all kinds of helpers like a grocer, a lifeguard and a dentist.  But, the best part of this tool is that once you get it started, it doesn't require any other adult attention.  For example, if you type Kwanzaa into the Search Videos box, many related videos will appear as results.  Once you press play on the first video, it will play through.  When it ends, the next video from the search results will begin and so on.  Once the search results are exhausted, other clips will play.  This can mean several minutes of problem-solving time available for the grown-up.

3. Puzzles
Jigsaw puzzles help students develop problem solving, logical thinking, and spatial relation skills.  They also help with students' hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and cooperation (when shared). But the best thing about puzzles when you're in a planning pinch, is that they are ready to go.  I pick up puzzles, as well as the next two items in this High Five list, at dollar stores and in Target's Dollar Spot.  If you help students build a habit of checking their area for stray pieces at the end of each playtime, these $1 puzzles will last through many, many uses.

4. Flash Cards
Flash cards often get a bad reputation.  However, I have had great success letting students have free play time with the colorful flashcard sets you can buy at Target and the dollar stores.  My 5th grade students loved to challenge each other using Solar System or World Landmarks sets (both from Target).  Students love to stack up all the cards they answered correctly and marvel at their own success.  In no time, learners will memorize tons of facts of the sort that are frequently featured on standardized tests.  I always let students make up their own rules for flash card play.  This keeps the activity pretty stress-free and creates time for me to handle other dilemmas.

5. Dry-Erase Activity Mats
Target's Dollar Spot also frequently has these dry-erase activity mats that come with their own marker and eraser.  Each page is two-sided and focuses on a specific topic.  I have used these for Math, Science, Social Studies and Foreign Language reinforcement.  Like the activities above, these mats are totally independent and require basically no preparation.  If you lose the little foam eraser or the little marker, students can use dry-erase markers and paper towels to continue playing and learning.

Sesame Street image from Sesamestreet.org.  Flash card image from Monkey See Monkey Do. Wipe-off map image from The Snail's Trail.


3...2...1 -- Holiday Countdown Calendars

With just a few days between here and Christmas, there is a shared mood of anticipation.  Kids and adults alike are distracted from daily routines by thoughts of travel, food, family, and gifts.  When an exciting event is just around the corner, countdown calendars can be a fun way to mark time until the main attraction.

Since I was in school, I've enjoyed marking the corners of my calendar pages with little numbers and then crossing them out each day as winter, spring, and summer breaks approached.  Turn this practice into a fun tradition by making a countdown calendar you can use and reuse.

This felt Christmas light version from Elsie Marley conceals a small treat for each of the December days leading up to Christmas.

This coloring calendar from Alphamom is customizable and simple.  There are two free templates available to print and make your own.  One has 24 windows, and the other has eight.  These templates are perfect for Christmas and Hanukkah, but they could also be customized for any other event: the twenty four days before a birthday; the last eight days before school starts.

d.Sharp has an envelope calendar idea with free printable numbers.  The tutorial suggests filling the envelopes with small treats or activity ideas.  This system could easily be customized for various holidays and events by changing the amount of envelopes and the treats and activities inside.

This library pocket variation by The Crafting Chicks is also completely customizable and also comes with free printable numbers.
The advent garland tutorial recommends filling each pocket with an activity idea like making hot chocolate or driving around to look at lights.

Oh Happy Day has a long list of fun ideas for a holiday activity calendar. It might also be fun to let students make up their own ideas for the activity cards, leaving just the order of events as a surprise.

Images from Elsie Marley, Alphamom, dSharp, The Crafting Chicks.


Christmas Bookmark / Ornament / Puppet printables

Baby it's cold outside, so while you're cozy indoors, scurry over to Wild Olive to get this fantastic set of holiday printables along with another nativity set.  Both bunches of holiday characters would make perfect decorations, but they can also be used as bookmarks.  Just print and cut to have festive placeholders for students' books.  Also, as Mollie suggests, these would make whiz-bang puppets when glued to popsicle sticks.  Students could write and act out stories for the Christmas characters.

Image from Wild Olive.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid

 The fifth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, The Ugly Truth; was released today.  My students cannot get enough of the Wimpy Kid.  Each of our library's copies of all four Wimpy Kid books, in English and in Spanish, has a hold list a mile long.  Bunches of students pre-ordered The Ugly Truth through our recent book fair.  So I figure I'd better do as the Romans and get wimpy.

Begin by re-imagining yourself as a wimpy kid.  Visit the Wimpy Kid website's Wimp Yourself page to create an image of your inner-wimp.

 Get the Book 4 Event Kit to get several printable Wimpy Kid games including a Secret Word Game that works like Scattergories.

Students can make their own comics online at Make Beliefs Comix.  Then, find worksheets that correspond with the series at Scholastic.

To get started reading right away, go to Fun Brain where the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid book is available to view online.

If you need a snack after all of that fun, get inspired by these Wimpy Kid cupcakes at Momma D and Da Boyz.

Images from WimpyKid.com, FunBrain, and Momma D and Da Boyz.


Something Squirrely

Squirrels, with their big bushy tails and little acorn-holding paws, are one of the fun things about autumn.  If you're feeling squirrely, check out a few fun squirrel stories to read and share.

Squirrel's World by Lisa Moser is one of my new favorite read-alouds.  Squirrel is active and eager to help his friends or just spend time with them.  But in the midst of all his excitement, Squirrel manages to get in the way.  Students listen and laugh at Squirrel and his silly mistakes.

Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend by Melanie Watt is another funny squirrel tale.  This book is better to share with a small group than a crowd, because it contains lots of funny side notes that a crowd may not be able to see.  In Watt's story, Squirrel must face all sorts of fears in order to make a new friend and not be lonely any more.

To keep the squirrel theme going while learning about signs of autumn, check out Leaf Trouble by Jonathan Emmett. Pip Squirrel is experiencing his first fall, and he's very worried about all the leaves falling off of the tree he and his family live in.  Students will giggle as Pip convinces his sister to help him collect ALL the leaves that have fallen from their tree and try to reattach them.  They will also learn about a natural cycle that occurs in trees each year.

After all the squirrely stories, enjoy a squirrely song.  You can see the lyrics and hear the tune for "Grey Squirrel," a traditional children's song, at Kids' Music Town.  My students thought this song was hilarious, especially the "shake your bushy tail" part.

 Then check out The Crafty Crow's round up of squirrel crafts including this pine cone cutie from Family Crafts.


Spook Your Space

With Halloween just a week away, it's time to kick your spooky spirit into full gear. If you are teaching about or celebrating the haunted holiday this week, check out these easy thematic ideas to put on the finishing touches.
Tricia-Rennae is sharing these adorable candy corn place cards courtesy of Shy Socialittles party shop.  Although these are intended to clarify where guests should sit at dinner, without the little feet, these smiling candies would be great as name tags.  Punch holes in the tops, and these could be strung into a fun and festive garland.  Also, you could cut each candy shape in half to create any sort of matching game.  One side could be a capital letter while the other shows the lower case, or one side could have a word beginning while the other has an ending.

Once the scene is set, enjoy Dav Pilkey's The Hallo-Weiner, a story about making friends and Halloween fun.
This story is silly and fun, and it makes a great read-aloud.  While the moral unfolds, students will enjoy Pilkey's colorful and comical illustrations.  Adult readers may also enjoy this story which includes a classroom full of dog students whose tie-wearing dog teacher is reading a book called "Dogs Who Hate Fleas and the Fleas Who Love Them." 

After the story, visit The Hallo-Wiener page at Pilkey.com where you can find a quiz for the book as well as a coloring page, a word find, a crossword puzzle, and a promise that two more books featuring Oscar the dachshund will be coming out soon.

Images from Tricia-Rennea and Pilkey.com.


Xtranormal Fun

As a teacher, I have spent lots of time being frustrated about last-minute software incompatibilities that have turned a lesson I spent nights preparing at home into a huge waste of time. When the computers at work don't have the same programs or versions I use at home, all my hard work becomes worthless. For this reason, I am a huge fan of all the cool new free web-based tools that can replace (and often improve on) tried-and-true for-purchase software.

Today, my favorite tool is Xtranormal. This program lets you make a cartoon with customizable characters, scenery, sound effects, camera angles and more. Just type in the text your want the characters to recite, add in gestures and expressions, and click Publish.

Check out my very first movie! It's a book fair promotion.

This would be a fun tool to freshen up an otherwise less-than-thrilling lecture. Students could use this tool to create book reports or presentations. Once you publish, you can just copy the link to your movie and paste it anywhere you want to share.

The only downer with this program is that users have access to other people's movies. Students could easily meander onto the Watch Movies page and view whatever content other users have posted. Students' use of this site may need to be monitored closely.


Monster Bowling

If you are preparing for a fall carnival or looking for a fun physical activity for this time of year, monster bowling is the perfect solution.

Start by rounding up empty 2-liter bottles. You'll need 9 bottles to play, but we made a few extra to have ready in case one rolls across the room during a game. Next wrap each bottle with construction paper and draw on their monster faces. Get creative. We made ghosts, vampires, skulls, Frankenstein and other monster-y creatures.

Once the monsters are decorated, you need to set up your bowling alley. We used a long sheet of butcher paper and cardboard boxes to lay out a lane.
To make this event extra festive, let students use small pumpkins as bowling balls. Have an extra on hand in case an excited bowler tosses a pumpkin with too much force and busts it open.

This activity is good exercise for the bowlers, but boy is it a workout for the person resetting the pins after each turn. Notice the look of exhaustion.
Avoid this phenomenon by allowing student helpers to round up and reset the pins after each turn.

You can bring this activity back for repeat appearances in other parts of the year by modifying the theme...Cupid Bowling, Leprechaun Bowling, the possibilities are endless.


Columbus Day

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew of 87 men set sail from the coast of Spain to explore the ocean to the west and attempt a journey to India.

In the U.S., the second Monday in October is Columbus Day, a celebration of the landfall in the Americas by Columbus' famous Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña. This holiday provides the perfect opportunity to teach about perspectives, cultural diffusion, and navigation tools.

Explore the background of this holiday by visiting the Library of Congress' Hispanic Exploration in America page which features documents like The First Voyage which depicts Columbus' farewell to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Find a guide to analyzing primary sources in the LOC teacher tools section.

Also visit the Library of Congress' 1492: An Ongoing Voyage to see Columbus' coat of arms, which was printed in Christopher Columbus: His Book Of Privileges. This 1502 book outlined the rewards Columbus was granted by Isabella and Ferdinand for his successful first journey. Then explore the exhibit to see other primary documents related to the discovery of the Americas.

Explore the geography of Columbus' first voyage starting with Palos de la Frontera, Spain. Continue on Columbus' route through the Canary Islands and then to San Salvador and other islands of the Bahamas, as well as Cuba and Haiti.
Finally, check out the Columbus Monument in Barcelona, which marks the place where Columbus returned in the Niña to Spain. These photos of the monument and the port are from my trip this past summer. Seeing this spot brought new clarity to a story I've heard my whole life.

After studying all of that history and geography, let students practice map-making by drawing a map of the classroom or their route to school. Discuss navigation tools such as the compass, star charts, and the telescope. Then visit Kaboose's Columbus Day crafts page to find tutorials for telescopes and binoculars made of cardboard tubes.

Images from my collection and from the LOC.


Classroom Organization Printables

One of the most important keys to a well-run class is organization. Activities happen according to a schedule, students follow routines, and everything has a place to be neatly stored. But, all those systems take lots of time, resourcefulness and ingenuity. To get started organizing your classroom or rehaul some of your old systems check out these resources for printable signs and organizers.

Instant Display has bunches of printable poster sets for all kinds of situations. You can get a whole set of palindrome posters, like the ones above, as well as continents, idioms, contraction cards, synonyms, world flags, foreign language and sign language tools, and much more.

Then visit author and illustrator Jan Brett's site which is loaded with classroom printables. Go to the printable games page to get the beautifully illustrated animal matching cards above and lots of other flash cards sets, boards games, and puzzles. Hop over to Brett's classroom signs page to get posters for learning centers. Librarians can also print Brett's illustrated Dewey decimal system posters from the library signs page. Then check out her days of the week cards, field trip name tags, and incentive charts.

Images from Instant Display and Jan Brett.


This Book Belongs To...

Organizing a personal library is not an innate skill for most children. Without clear instructions and modeling, even eager helpers are likely to stack and pile books in directions and categories that you never imagined. In the beginning, just focus on getting all the books right-side-up with their spines facing out. Then you can use the organizing process to build awareness of genres and/or alphabetizing.

To instill a sense of ownership and appreciation for your classroom or home library, let little readers label their books with fancy book plates. This makes book lending simple. Friends can share books and easily remember where to return the ones they borrow.

To get started, here are a bunch of cool, free printable book plates. Print them out on sticker paper, so you can snip them apart to use right away.

Get these sweet and summery illustrated book plates from Issa at Executive Homemaker.

Find this set of colorful, animal book plates, designed by Shirley Ng-Benitez, at Frugal Life Project.

Also take a look at these fairytale perfect printable book plates from Lizzy House.

I love the cool 3D-look of the printable plates from Squish, Suzanne del Rizzo's dimensional illustration blog.

Images from Executive Homemaker, Frugal Life Project, Lizzy House, Squish.


Secret Messages

As a kid, I loved codes, "secret" passageways, and optical illusions. Anything that seems to happen mysteriously is a fun experience for kids and grown-ups alike. When you're in the mood for a little seemingly unexplainable fun (or you're learning about chemical reactions), this secret message activity is the perfect solution.

Students start with a blank piece of paper, some q-tips and some acidic liquids. In my class we tried out milk and lemon juice. Using a q-tip as a brush and the liquids as invisible ink, students can draw or write any secret picture or message they'd like.
Once the painting is done, the next step is to reveal the hidden message. We started with the iron on very low, but then we ended up turning it up a little bit to make the message appear darker. The heat from the iron will burn up the acidic liquids, turning the paper dark in places that were painted.
We found that the lemon juice appeared much more clearly than the milk. It would be fun to test and compare the results of using several different "paints." This activity would also work in a social studies lesson on espionage.


Bulletin Board Shortcut

With school kicking off, teachers everywhere are busy creating welcoming bulletin boards that will soon display exemplary student work. When I moved from teaching middle school to elementary school, I learned a trick that's well known among lower-grade teachers but a secret to many in the upper grades.
Instead of stapling student projects and papers directly to the wall, clothes pins can be used to attach the work examples to a row of background papers. Students will constantly create new work products, and this method allows the display to be changed just as often. I was able to use these purple background sheets for the entire school year last year. When we were ready to display something new, I just pulled down the old papers and clipped up new ones.

The plastic clothes pins pictured above can be replaced with wire paper clips, fancy plastic paper clips or wooden clothes pins which are easy to paint and repaint for each year's theme. Some large projects need two pins to keep them from curling.


More Fun Back-to-School Stuff

Click over to Babalisme for this cool page of back to school labels, perfect for sprucing up lunch bags and school supplies.

Image from Babalisme.


Back to School Printables

It's that time again. It's the time of the year when I creep cautiously out of my summer schedule into the alarm clock and coffee mornings of the school year. As much as I hate to give up sleeping 'til I wake up and staying up as late as I feel like all summer, there is something very fun about the beginning of the school year, full of possibilities and excuses to get new school supplies.
If you also love the smell of a fresh box of crayons and the excitement of selecting new pens and folders, then you'll enjoy these free printable back-to-school themed notecards from Tricia-Rennea.
These colorful illustrations would be perfect for lunchbox notes, teacher or carpool gift tags, or encouraging notes from teachers to students.

Then visit Don't Eat the Paste for this fantastic printable multiplication, geometry, punctuation and color wheel review cube. Print the free pdf and fold into a cube for classroom review or homework practice. Then check out the Don't Eat the Paste printable name tags.Images from Tricia-Rennea and Don't Eat the Paste.