Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Christmas in July Party for Kids

We held our second annual Christmas in July party today. This year, we added some fun and did Christmas Eve in July too. Yesterday we took a trip to Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth and watched Elf. This is the photo board we made for the two-day celebration. 
When the kids woke up today, we had tree waffles. 

We made fake snowballs out of equal parts of cornstarch and shaving cream. 

I made a pan of brownies and cut them out with a circle cookie cutter. I frosted the brownie circles, added a marshmallow, some fondant for the scarves, buttons, and nose, and frosted on arms and a face. 

Then we made frozen hot chocolate. (I put two packages of hot chocolate mix, about 15 ice cubes, and about a cup of milk in the blender. Then I topped each cup with Redi-whip. This made three cups of frozen hot chocolate.)

Christmas wouldn't be complete without some presents. (Our Elf on the Shelf even came back for the celebration today. He is sitting on our summer tree.)

For dinner we made candy cane cheese bread. 

We wrote letters to Santa for the Elf on the Shelf to take back to the North Pole. 

We finished the day watching Christmas Vacation. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Strengths Finder 2.0 for High School Students

After doing personal growth literature circles with my juniors, I realized the impact this type of book has on their lives. With just over a month left in the school year, I went to Barnes and Noble looking for a quick read aloud I could use for the rest of the year. One of the employees suggested I look at Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath.

In this book are the 34 most common human strengths/traits. The book challenges the reader to focus on their strengths instead of spending all of their time and energy on their weaknesses. I also explained to the students that one of the most common interview questions they will hear is, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" We decided that if the students could do a personal reflection on these 34 characteristics, they would have a really great answer for that question when the time comes.

So, I created a Google spreadsheet listing the 34 traits. Every day I read the descriptions of two of the strengths out loud. In their spreadsheet, students reflected on the following columns: Yes, that's me...No, I don't...Maybe this is me....Someone I know that fits this description...Ideas for action. We discussed the qualities of each strength and students took notes in these columns while I read. (This took about 10 minutes at the start of class.)

After we reflected on each of the strengths, I had the students go through their notes and pick their top 5 strengths. Before they settled on their top 5 for sure, I separated them into random groups of their peers and they discussed the strengths each of them had chosen and whether they saw those strengths in each other and if they would have chosen different strengths to fit them.

Then I gave them the essay they would be writing for their final exam. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yPYaSxTgtThXryJ_7tCdsxV7h8jRd5Ua1uaBIq4Qg7Y/edit?usp=sharing

Students could organize their essay in any way they saw fit to hit all of the requirements. I have never enjoyed reading essays more than I did for this assignment. Every student poured their heart into this piece. And of my 75 juniors, none of them had exactly the same five strengths. This was such an eye-opening experience not only for my students, but also for me. I did this exercise with them and found it so beneficial for my own personal growth. I am encouraging our entire staff to do the same. (A lot of students picked staff members they thought had the same strengths as them!)

And because this was a final exam, I didn't see the students after I graded them. So, this was a great way for me to email them as a final wrap-up for the class and to give them feedback on this powerful piece.


Updated July 7, 2018

I often receive 30-40 graduation open house invitations. It is not possible for me to attend all of them, but I do love that students think enough of me to want me to come to their open house, so I want to give them something special. This year, I pulled out all of the final exams I had saved from last year. I created a mini canvas for each student, writing their top 5 strengths on the canvas with their name. I gave them a little easel so they could display those strengths when they either go to college or start a new job. I gave them back the copy of the essay they wrote for me the year before so they could remember why these were their strengths. I then reminded them in a card to never forget their strengths and to continue to build upon them. 

Using Common Core to Motivate ELA Students Beyond the Classroom

The Common Core standards we use in our English classes definitely give some freedom when it comes to the books we choose to teach and the creative approaches teachers can take when trying to motivate students inside and outside the classroom. 

This past year, I was moved to 11th grade English (which gave me the same students for a third year in a row). One of the positives to that is I knew the students' strengths and weaknesses and was able to create meaningful lessons that gave them the skills they need to succeed now and in the future. This post is dedicated to one of the units I tried. 

When most people think about English classes, they immediately think about the "classics". But, that doesn't always hold everyone's attention and the common core doesn't require teachers to just teach the same books that have been taught for years. There is a lot of flexibility. So, I asked myself, what types of books do adults read in their careers and how can I prepare these students for life outside of high school? 

I didn't have to look very far past the nightstands in my house to find some ideas. I created a list of potential books I would have students choose for their leadership/personal growth literature circle. I bought most of these books used online. 
The initial list: 
The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
Drive by Daniel Pink
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson, M.D.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Mindset by Carol Dweck, Ph.D.
Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven
The End of Average by Todd Rose


Students created reading calendars at the beginning of the unit. They all had 12 days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) in which they had to have a chunk of reading complete when they entered the room. For about 30 minutes of each Tuesday and Thursday, literature discussions took place. Each student in each group had a different role for the reading assignment that was due that day. They all also filled out a response log for each reading assignment. Students took turns discussing the important points/quotes/stories they found in each reading selection. At the end of each literature circle discussion day, they were encouraged to highlight some of the features of the book they would like to include in their final project. Two weeks (two days per week) at the end of the unit were dedicated to working on final projects. 

I gave the students a lot of flexibility when it came to the final project. The only thing they couldn't do was Google Slides or PowerPoint. 

I had students creating audio and video podcasts, writing blogs, creating children's stories related to the content of their book, doing live Twitter feed presentations, creating board games, crossword puzzles, etc. 

I can't even explain the impact this unit had on these students. The ownership these groups took with their books and the content was amazing. Students saw the purpose in their reading and made more connections with the readings than I could have ever imagined. 

Purpose statement for the whole unit along with common core standards: 


Addition (July 2018) 
This unit was successful for the 2nd year. I added some new books and changed some things for this group of students. The biggest change I had was trying a literature circle group where all of the students in that particular group were reading different personal growth books. (I tried this because I had a lot of great books that I only had one copy of.)  This worked very well for certain students. If the students in the group are already intrinsically motivated, the discussions are very powerful. This particular opportunity gave these students a chance to describe something to their group members while making sure they added enough details because the other students had read that concept.

Here is my new list of book choices. (The groups that picked Make Your Bed also had to read Who Moved My Cheese. These are very short, quick reads, and they work well together.)  The students ranked their top three choices before I placed them in their groups: 

The success of this unit, led me to one of the most powerful lessons I have experienced in my classroom throughout the past 12 years. 

See the next post discussing the impact of Strengths Finder 2.0 in a classroom of juniors. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Importance of Reading Out Loud to Older Students (and Book Titles to Get You Started)

“But I don’t like to read.” “Reading is boring.” “Is there going to be a test on this book?” Phrases like these were becoming all too common in my high school classroom. I realized a love for literature was often missing in students within this age group. Not all students, but a lot of them. I tried to find answers as to where, when, and how this happened. Was it having to read too many books for programs like Accelerated Reading? Was it because they didn’t know how to pick a book that caught their specific interest? The list of possibilities continued. Until I stopped and looked at my own children. Why do my kids like books? This simple question brought out the answer to my problem. Parents and elementary teachers are reminded over and over about the importance of reading out loud to their children/students. And chances are, as adults we remember those books that our elementary teachers read out loud to us. I specifically remember The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pippy Longstocking, along with many others. There is something about the read aloud that brings the story to life and helps developing readers become invested in literature. Now think about how many books were read to us as teenagers. Probably very few, if any. As a teenager we are supposed to know how to read. And 99% of the time, students do understand the words they are reading. However, through my own investigation, I found that students truly forgot HOW to read.

Reading had become a job. They lifelessly scanned the pages, trying to find answers. The books they did like to read didn’t provide much of a moral lesson or were just about vampires and supernatural creatures. And whenever they read out loud, the emotion was completely gone. I knew I had to reteach them HOW to read, so they could expand their love for literature. And the best way to do that, was reading out loud to them. I had to show them how to use emotion in reading to bring the story to life.

I realized the read aloud was the answer to my problem when I started reading Never Fall Down, written by Patricia McCormick. This book is a biographical novel about a boy named Arn Chorn-Pond. As a young boy, Arn became a victim of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide. (I personally had never learned about the Cambodian Genocide of the 1970s. Very few of my students had either.) I read about 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each of my 10th grade classes. I told them that there wasn’t going to be a test over this; I just wanted them to listen and participate in our discussions. Simple as that. At the end of the first week, I thought about what I observed in these classes. Almost every day, the students were disappointed when I shut the book. They begged to read just a little bit more. While I was reading, every student’s eyes were on me. They all, even my most struggling students, had so many opinions about the book and the situation the main character found himself in. The same reaction happened daily for the almost two months it took us to finish it.

At the end of the book I gave the students a chance to write a letter to the Arn Chorn-Pond or to just jot down a little reflection about the book. Almost all of the students wrote page-long letters about how moved they were by the book. They were recalling specific details that even I had forgotten. They even influenced the World History teacher to discuss other genocides in the world. And further evidence came when I saw other biographical novels in the hands of my students.

And chances are, if you ask those students to tell you one thing they remember about my class, it will be that book. Giving up 5-10 minutes of my class for a couple of months was the most beneficial thing I could have done for those kids. They not only learned an important event in history, but also learned how powerful a book can be if they allow themselves to bring it to life.

So as we get ready to go back to school, remember that high school students do have that love for literature that our younger students have. We might just have to show them how to find it again. Try the read aloud. I promise you won’t be disappointed in the results.

***Update on July 17, 2017***

I continue to believe in reading out loud to high school students, and after teaching a junior high class this year, found that they loved it just as much. I thought I would update this post with some other books I have found to be amazing read alouds for junior high and high school classrooms.

Junior High:
*Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is a story of a young girl that has severe cerebral palsy and is nonverbal. It is told from her point of view as she struggles to show the world her intelligence. The students absolutely loved this book. We had great talks about empathy during this read aloud.

*Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold
This story is told from Hannah Goslar, Anne Frank's best friend from childhood. It relives the day Hannah thought Anne and her family had run away and tells of Hannah's journey through the Holocaust (which involves seeing Anne in a concentration camp late in the war).
This story was great for my 7th graders that were learning about the Holocaust in their ELA class.

*Lion: A Long Way Home Young Readers' Edition by Saroo Brierley
I just read this book and will definitely read it to my 7th grade enrichment class this school year. It was such a captivating story that will help my students realize all of the dangers a lot of young children face in other countries.

*Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly
This is another book I picked up this summer with the read aloud in mind. It did not disappoint. The students love listening to nonfiction, and this story is so important to the history of our nation.

High School:
*Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick: This story is described above. (There is some language I altered while reading out loud, and because of the harsh conditions, I would use this book for 10th grade and above.)

*Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
I read this story to 9th and 10th graders. They were able to make a lot of connections to the things they were learning in their American history class. This was a captivating story that really provided some cross-curricular discussions.

*I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers' Edition) by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick
This book could be used for either junior high or high school. I used it for 8th and 9th graders. The young readers' edition keeps the kids interest and shows them the importance of education and standing up for what you believe.

Elf (The Movie) Photo Board

For our annual Christmas in July party this year, we decided to create an Elf Photo Board. I got this tri-fold cardboard from Hobby Lobby. I just drew the design freehand. Then I used a stencil to put the windows on the buildings. I painted Elf and used colored pencils for the buildings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Birthday Scavenger Hunt

We decided to put David's birthday presents in scavenger hunt form. Here are the clues Steve came up with...

Big Baller Brand Shoe Birthday Cake

David would love a pair of the big baller brand shoes, but after we saw the price tag, he realized they just aren't in our budget. So...I told him if I couldn't buy him the shoes, I would try my hardest to make him one. This was a time consuming cake, and there are things I would have done differently, but it turned out okay.

I started by making a 10" square cake. When it was cool, I cut it in half and stacked the halves together. I froze this portion for a few hours. Then I created a template on cardstock to give me an idea of where to cut. 

Then I carved out the top and sides. Looking back, I would have made the back a lot taller because it seemed to sink when I put the fondant on the cake.

I used my marshmallow fondant recipe for the frosting. (Place 16 oz of mini marshmallows and 2 Tbsp of water in a microwaveable bowl. Heat for 30 second intervals, stirring after each interval, until marshmallows are melted. Add 1 lb of powdered sugar. Stir. Then knead in 2 more cups of powdered sugar on a Crisco coated counter.) 

After the cake and frosting were chilled overnight, I started decorating. I covered with the white first and then the yellow. I added the other touches as I went. 

I used a toothpick to add the textured looks to the white frosting. 

I didn't have a ton of frosting left, but I did the best I could to make this shoe box to go with it. I used edible food writers to draw the design on the shoe box. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Emoji Movie Photo Board

The Emoji Movie comes out later this month. So, we decided to create a photo board. I buy the display boards for these photo boards from the Dollar Tree. Therefore, this is a very inexpensive project. I draw the images on by hand with a pencil first. Then I outline with a black Sharpie. Finally, I paint with acrylic paint. The kids have already had a lot of fun becoming their favorite emojis.