Sunday, March 31, 2013

Released Test Questions - California Standards Test

I am just like you.  Every year, just about this time, my sixth grade students and I start the long arduous process of going over the California Released Test Questions for the CST.  But I knew that somehow this year, I was going to have to mix things up a bit.  As many of you, I also saw the "I Choose 'C'" video that has spread across YouTube (made by an 8th grader, by the way).  So, I showed it to them.  When that many kids in a room identify with something like that, you know it is time for a shake-up.
My students are great test takers.  Sometimes I wonder if they are too good.  I noticed that many of them were going through the motions while we were analyzing similar questions during the year, so this year I tried something new.  In honor of the new Common Core and in honor of making these kids use their brains again, I took the California Released Test Questions and eliminated their choices.  Yes, you read correctly.  I took the choices away.  Well, I did leave a few choices, due to the fact that it is just necessary for some of the released questions.  Now, my students MUST answer them first without options A, B, C, or D.  It forces them to go find the evidence from the text, not just play the elimination game with the four options.  When I have given everyone time to answer the questions and discuss them in groups, only then do I allow them to choose their options.  I have put the choices into a PowerPoint and they use what they wrote, highlighted and underlined to make a choice.
Analyzing Released Test Questions "More Than A Niece"

Analyzing Released Test Questions "Water Picture"

What have I learned from this little experiment?   My kids have all the knowledge they need in their heads, but if they can find a shortcut to avoid using it, they will.  Now, they are having great discussions and they are finding and sharing things they weren't before.  I am getting more out of our time we spend going over the released test questions then I was before.  And of course, it was important to get feedback from my kids.  An easy majority of them said that it was better this way.  They said it was easier, not to so much confusion about second guessing their answers.  I am getting real information about what standards they are more comfortable with and where we should spend a few minutes reviewing or revisiting.  This is not for everyone and it does take time.  But isn't this where common core is heading anyhow?  Finding justifications in the text?  Writing out answers and synthesizing the information presented?  I can easily say that I am glad I took a chance and tried this out.
I would love to hear your strategies for covering Released Test Questions!  What are you doing to make them more engaging and how do you keep your kids thinking, not just test taking?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Creating a Field Guide in the Classroom

As our final project for the Redwood Forest, the students make their own field guides.  When they are done, I laminate them and they can take the field guides to camp.  It is a great activity that incorporates note taking, research, non-linguistic representation, and a little creativity.  Here is the process if you want to make a field guide with your students...
field guide notes in interactive notebook

The first thing my students do is spend time taking notes on the species of the forest.  They used a combination of resources that included pamphlets, other field guides, and the internet.  They put these notes in their interactive notebooks so they can also use them on their test.

When they are finished, we check them over for mistakes, and then they are ready to start the final product!

First, they copy their notes into pre-made boxes.  This is so they don't run out of room on their final piece of card stock and if they make a mistake, they can just get a new box, instead of starting their project all over.
boxes for field guide notes
Then, they get pictures of all the species that are included in their field guide.  I spend A LOT of time on Google images to find black and white pictures or line drawings of all of these plants, trees, and animals.  They are required to color the plants and animals the correct colors.
field guide pictures
Once they have done their boxes and pictures, they are ready to cut and glue.  I give them a piece of white card stock.  It tends to hold up a lot better than just plain white construction paper.  When they are all done, I like to laminate them just in case it rains at camp :)  Here are some examples of the finished products...
front cover of field guide
inside of field guide
This can be done for any biome or ecosystem project.  It could even just include species that you find around your school or in your neighborhood.  They love making them and love taking them out in the field even more!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Interactive Notebook Posters

This is a work in progress but I thought I would share now as people are making plans for next year already (really?).  After years of doing interactive notebooks, I wanted to make a series of posters that I could put up in the classroom as a reference for the kids.  They have a rubric in their notebook to guide them, but sometimes having them on the wall is much better for those who need the visual reminder.  Notebooks are more effective for you and your students if you have a clear rubric and set of requirements laying out what you expect.
Interactive notebook - organization

Interactive notebook - table of contents

Interactive notebook - headings and titles

My goal is to get them into dollar store frames and hang them right above the white board.  I did them in Powerpoint so that I can use it as a presentation for next year (on my new IPAD and Apple TV system!).  I am also working on something to send home to parents as well.  Of course, interactive notebook requirements are different for everyone, but I would say pick and choose what works for you and incorporate what you like for your class.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Teaching Resources for the Redwood Forest

I spent a boat load of time doing research, asking around, and using Google to find anything and everything that I could to develop a Science unit around the Redwood Forest.  Why?  Because I really believe in place based Science education.  I think students should study and understand the environment and community around them before they can understand the rest of the world.  Bottom line:  It is meaningful and they can touch it.  My students also spend a week in the Redwood Forest at the end of the year for 6th grade camp.  When we are done with learning in and out of the classroom, they understand and care about what they learned.

So, if there is anyone else out there hoping to teach their kids about the Redwood Forest, here is what I came up with, all in one place.  Hopefully it saves you some time...

  • Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (also good for tide pool and ocean stuff) this link will take you to their list of publications that are free to download
  • Redwood Video/Slideshow - this is a quick, but totally wonderful slideshow set to music that was created by Humboldt State and National Geographic.  It is beautiful and totally leaves an impression with the students when they watch it.  This particular version is through YouTube so hopefully your district has not blocked the site for teachers.
  • Save the Redwoods League (of course) they have great resources that can be downloaded for free.  You can also order some of their publications and they will send them to you in the mail.  They also have great links to online resources including loads of info on Giant Sequoias as well.
  • Humboldt State University Natural History Museum  This Redwood Ecology website is great for using in a computer lab or if the students have access to IPADs or other devices.  It includes a great Webquest that I do every time that I teach this unit.  
  • Redwood Ecology  Great website that has information about the species of the forest, very kid friendly.  Hosted by Humboldt County Office of Education
  • Climbing Redwood Giants - National Geographic movie.  Since the district has blocked Netflix, I cannot stream this video from there, but here is the link from the National Geographic channel.  It is about 45 minutes long, but a wonderful video.
  • California Forest Foundation - has a ton of downloadable materials, especially if you are into learning more about forest management with your students.  They also have a Critical Thinking section that has great links and more resources.
  • Redwood Ed from the California Department of Parks and Recreation - this is curriculum and resources for teachers.  It is a lot to print, so I would download and pick and choose what works for you, but it is a great resource.
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area - This link will take you to the Teacher's Guide for Into the Redwood Forest.  There are also plant and animal guides for download as well as a student journal.  You can also sign up for trainings and field trips to the area through the site.  
  • Reading the Rings of a Tree Poster from International Paper - good if you need a visual for dedronchronology
  • The Life of a Tree - from  It is a little animated/slideshow presentation about the parts of a tree and how to read tree rings.  
  • The National Park Service provides these great little fact sheets on Redwood Prairies and Forests.  It is a great download to use for non-fiction text features and getting basic facts on plants and animals.
  • The Sequoia Park Zoo - this links to their Redwood Forest Edventures curriculum guide, totally downloadable and printable
  • Operation Redwood by Terrell French is a great fictional book about a boy trying to save a grove of redwoods.  I personally just finished reading it and really enjoyed it.  They have a study guide with discussion questions for the book.
  • Big Basin Teacher Resources Page - includes some of the links that I have here, plus many more.  LOVE Big Basin.  If you have never had a chance to visit, you should go.
  • Redwood Forest Plant Guide - I am still trying to remember the original makers of this, but this one is on DocStoc.  If anyone knows the original link, please remind me.
  • Humboldt State Institute for Redwood Ecology - Steve Stillett is the rockstar of Ecology.  The kids always think his job is so cool.  Check out the great photo tours.
  • Measuring Redwood Giants from KQED Science on the Spot - speaking of Steve Stillett, this is a great short video on how they measure the trees and why.  Again, it is through YouTube.
  • National Geographic Photos and short article.  The photos are really beautiful and the point of view can't be beat.
So, this list is a work in progress.   I am constantly updating my curriculum as I find new resources.  If you have discovered anything new that I have not included here I would love to know.

Westing Game Character Chart

If you are reading The Westing Game or any other book with a large number of characters to keep track of, a large, wall-sized character chart may be just right for your students.

One of my favorite books to teach (obviously) is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.  You may have seen my other posts on the wanted posters or the way I use interactive notebooks to teach the book.  Because there are 16 characters, the kids always have trouble getting started and keeping them straight.  Then, as we progress through the book we are always trying to figure out who is the most mysterious character or who would have had a reason to kill Sam Westing.  We keep 4 x 4 charts in our interactive notebooks four times throughout the book where we keep track of what we learned about each character in those particular set of chapters.  We also keep a large interactive character chart in the classroom.  Each time we do a character chart, I also have students get into groups of three and I randomly assign them a character to report on.  They write all that they know on the sticky note that I give them in bullet points. Then, they stick them up on the wall for everyone to see.

Westing Game Character Chart
It becomes a giant reference wall. Each set of chapters has its own color of sticky note. It is especially popular when the students are making their Wanted Posters and are trying to gather as much information for their posters as they can.  It is also helpful when they are studying for their quizzes and final test.

If you are interested in getting the whole book unit check it out here.