Monday, August 31, 2009

Barbie Bungee: A Maths Investigation

Last week we completed one of my favourite maths investigations. Basically, we tied a string of rubber bands around a Barbie Doll's feet and threw her out of a really tall window . . .

In reality, it's a lot more sophisticated. Barbie Bungee is an investigation which covers a number of mathematical skills and strategies, but with my Year 5s and 6s really served to teach them that a) patterns can be graphed and b) predictions can be made from these graphs.

To complete this investigation the class was broken into four groups (I have 4 Barbie dolls), given a Barbie Doll each and a whole pile of rubber bands which were the same size. We then broke the investigation into steps which were completed over a few days.

Step One: Students learned about the investigation. They practiced tying the rubber bands (one looped around another then pulled through), thought about how they were going to take measurements (grabbing 30cm rulers, 1m rulers and tape measures) and practiced throwing Barbie from various places (important to get this need out of their system) We also talked about the goal - to throw Barbie from the sound box in our school hall, getting her as close to the ground as possible without touching . . .

Step Two: Taking our initial measurements. Students staked out the best spots and dropped Barbie with one rubber band, two rubber bands, three, four and five rubber bands (and so on). They were required to complete three tests at each stage and then find an average (for accuracy) and they had to record their information in a table. This took one to two days. The best thing I saw during this was the use of different measuring methods (sticky taping two measuring tapes together) and creative placed to drop Barbie (out the classroom window).

Step Three: Graphing the results: Students used their results to make a graph (number of rubber bands against distance fallen). They then used this graph with it's almost straight line to predict how many rubber bands they would need.

Step Four: Test Day. We took the students and an audience to the hall and each group had three goes at tossing Barbie from the sound box. The measurements (how close to the ground) were averaged and the closest to the ground won. All in all, very entertaining and a fabulous time. We did a small write up afterwards - what steps did we take, what maths was involved, but nothing too much.

A great investigation.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Children's Book Week Recommendations: A Wrap Up

Here are the five books I recommended over the last week:

Juggling with Mandarins by V.M. Jones
Mahtab's Story by Libby Gleeson
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore
Mail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder

I'm also going to add a special teachers book which arrived from on Friday and I devoured yesterday. The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers by Nancie Atwell was a short, easy read which let me know what elements of Reader's Workshop I was getting right and where I might be able to make improvements. It also includes notes to the children and to the parents which would be invaluable in setting up Reader's Workshop next year.

Even before I read this book, I was intending to review Reader's Workshop with the children tomorrow. I think this book will be invaluable in providing alternative ways of 'doing stuff'.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Children's Book Week: Day Five: Mail Order Ninja

Check out Day Four: CHERUB Series

So, Book Week has wrapped up at our school, although my class doesn't do our craft activity until Monday. And that brings me to the fifth book of the week, which is actually a graphic novel. This book isn't an assigned reading, nor is it a book I'm reading to the students. Rather it's one that's being passed around and adored as soon as it's read.

Mail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder is one of my growing collection of graphic novels. It tells the story of Timmy, the graphic novel (not comics) obsessed boy who detests bullies, 'trust-fund queens' and his bratty sister. When he finds an advertisement for a Mail Order Ninja, he has to get it. The ninja then helps him clean out the bad elements of the school.

The first one has been in my class for a couple of months now, and I just received the second one from What I love about this series is the way it's drawn, there's an awful lot of information for the students to gain from it and it's a very smart book. There's also a lot of sly humour that adults would appreciate.

I highly recommend this graphic novel, especially if you're putting together a collection for a classroom.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Children's Book Week: Day Four: CHERUB

Check out Day Three: Artemis Fowl

Day four is slightly late due to a little 9 and a half hour sleep :) But after a highly successful Book Day (with lots of brilliant costumes) I'm going to talk about one of the most successful series of books in my classrooms.

The CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore is a British series based around spies, who also happen to be children. The main character, James Adams (formally James Choke) is a gifted 12 year old, particularly in maths, but is always in trouble. When his mother dies, he is put in a home and steadily moves towards the criminal element. Until one morning when he wakes up in the nicest school campus he has ever seen.

There is a wide cast of characters in CHERUB, including some strong female characters and characters from diverse backgrounds. The books deal with missions ranging from environmental terrorism to unsolved deaths to gang setups. The books do grow in maturity with the ages of the characters, so some of the later ones may not be appropriate for younger children. (I have the first couple in my room, but the later ones are usually bought by parents who also read them :) They are universally popular)

What I have found with these books is that they get reluctant male readers to read - or devour. When I began reading the first one to the Year 7s I had last year a lot of them got their hands on their own copy to read themselves. I recommend these to 12 years and older, though some more mature 10 and 11 year olds could probably handle them too.

There's also a prequel series The Henderson Boys which is set during World War 2 and is really good :)


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Children's Book Week: Day Three: Artemis Fowl

Check out Day Two: Mahtab's Story Here

And so we move on to day three, the halfway mark of children's book week. Today we're actually going back two years to a time when I taught contracts for terms rather than having my own class. At one point in time I had a non-gifted (but still some quite bright) class of grade 5s. Knowing I'd only have them for a term, I needed something which would grab them quickly and keep them going, but would be easy to complete in 10 weeks.

Enter Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Artemis is a genius. A criminal mastermind. And a 12 year old boy. He wants gold, but not just any gold - he wants fairy gold. And he's willing to kidnap to get it. On the opposing side is Holly Short, pointy eared and occasionally neglectful of the more important things. Also, desperate to prove herself in the male-dominated LEP-recon world.

This really is a scream of a book - fantasy, action and comedy all poured into one. For reading outloud it's perfect, with plenty of opportunities for voices. I was also able to tell immediately at one point which children were really listening - they were the ones who knew there was a rip-snorter of a fart joke coming.

I've had a few kids really get into reading through these series of books and others simply devour them. Well worth a read, but even better to read out loud.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Children's Book Week: Day Two: Mahtab's Story

Check out Day One: Juggling With Mandarins here!

Onto Day 2 of Children's book week, with a book we're studying now. At the moment we're focusing on Theme, Genre, Audience and Purpose. The students are all required to read four books that cover themes such as family, children on their own, survival, conflict, bravery etc. One of these books is Mahtab's Story by Libby Gleeson.

Mahtab is a young girl in Afghanistan, before September 11th. She's terrified of the Taliban, the men in black, who rule over the streets. She's not allowed to go to school, she's not even allowed to leave her home. After the death of her grandfather, her father begins to make plans for their departure to a country he's heard of - a place called Australia.

There is some beautiful writing in the beginning - some of the most descriptive writing I've read in a children's book, which just sort of picks you up and carries you along. The setting of the story is quite universal, there are refugees all over the world. However, there are some parts which really sit within an Australian context, with recent debates over 'boat people'.

The ending seemed a little rushed to me, which was an opinion shared with the students. I think we all wanted to know more about Mahtab's settlement into an obviously strange country. However these discussions about what makes a good story or a good ending are just as important.

This is another book I'd recommend, particularly if you are doing any work on Afghanistan or on refugees.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Children's Book Week: Day One: Juggling With Mandarins

So this week, as many of you in the Northern Hemisphere are heading back to school, is Australian Children's Book Week. To celebrate this, I'm going to point out some of the books I've read to and shared with my students over the last couple of years.

Today's book, Juggling With Mandarins by V.M. Jones is one I read to my Grade Sevens last year. It is a New Zealand story about Pip, the 14 year old who's good at English and bad at soccer. Sadly, it's soccer his gruff father cares about, and soccer where his older brother Nick excels.

While Pip deals with the expectations and often irrational behaviour of his father, he's also also handling his growing feelings for the girl next door. Then he discovers the new sports centre, the Igloo, and its special climbing gym.

This was a great book to read with 12 and 13 year old students who are dealing with the experiences of finding themselves and defining themselves as separate from their parents. We did some work in class with it - mostly vocabulary and writing - but most of the time we just enjoyed it. If you can get your hands on it, I'd thouroughly recommend it for whole class and small group work.


Summer in Winter (and other stuff)

So, it's supposed to be winter here in Australia. Unfortunately, today's temperature is supposed to reach 33 degrees Celsius. Classrooms in my part of Queensland don't have air conditioning, and they're rarely well ventilated, so I'm afraid today might be a little uncomfortable.

Luckily, we're doing heaps of fun stuff, which makes it easier. In maths at the moment we're Bungee jumping Barbies. This is basically an exercise to show the children that they can graph algebra patterns, and that they can use these to make predictions. Then it's about throwing Barbie from something tall.

We also begin our astronomy Unit today in which the children will finish up by making a model of a community for Mars. Lots of science in this one, but today we're beginning by listening to famous 'space related' music and talking about what we know - should be a blast.

Picture from

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Returning to class - again

So, I've been away at training to learn more about Coolabah Dynamic Assessment, which is, quite honestly, some of the most exciting stuff I've learned about in gifted education in the six years I've been reading and learning about it. But now it's back to school.

After three days away, I'm a bit nervous about what's been happening in my classroom. Will it be an absolute mess? Will the supply teacher have kept up the work while I've been away? Has anything happened that I needed to know about.

There's also the next, big thing I need to prepare for - our school's Poetry in your Pocket day. I need a funky way to announce it to the students and the teachers- and I must get it done by next week. Help!

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Carnival of Education

One of my favourite things about coming to education blogging has been the Carnival of Education. Now Clix from Epic Adventures are Often Uncomfortable has pointed out that Blog Carnival is listing the Carnival of Education as discontinued :(

Luckily, Clix is willing to do something about it and has set up EduCarnival v2. But she needs help!

"What's a carnival without articles, after all? Email me at uncomfortableadventures at yahoo dot com with a direct URL, or use this handy-dandy form to submit your article."
She'd particularly after summer reflections and she needs them by next Monday. I've submitted my mini-series on Reader's Workshop but it's your turn now. Go. Now. Now!

Handling Something New

I'm off for three days training beginning today, and although I'm incredibly excited about it, I'm also rather anxious. I mean, I'm leaving my class in someone elses hands for three days. And I'm not 100 percent sure what I'm getting into. And what if I'm no good at this. How am I going to keep my notes organised? You get the idea.

This makes me wonder about my students. How do they feel when they are confronted with new things? Do they have the same mix of anxiety and excitement that I'm feeling at the moment? If so, how can I make sure that their anxieties are reduced?

Making sure they have a good understanding of the criteria would be one thing. Making sure the students know what is expected from them in order to achieve. Making sure they know this as early as possible.

What else would assist in reducing anxieties? What would you do?

Image from

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reading, reading programs and standardised testing

I was going to begin this post all angry, because I really was, but then I decided to have a coffee and a chat with my ever-patient husband (who is currently painting the back deck - looks relaxing . . .).

It started when I read this - Venting about the Fate of Reading and Reading Teachers at Musings of a Book Addict. I couldn't really believe what I was reading for most of the post, but this really got to me:
If they finish a lesson early they may read one of the following books from the program's library: The Tiger Rising, Johny Hangtime, Bird, The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Night of the Twisters, Every Living Thing, Locomotion, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup.
Only these 8 books - OR -They may read either the Kids Discover Magazine, Cobblestone Muse, Faces or Odyssey Magazine or Footsteps.
And then there was this:

On day 5 and 10 if they finish their computerized lesson they are to go to the online book cart (part of the program) and pick one of their selections and read it and test on it and then go to their online books (part of the program) and read a passage and test on it.

If at anytime they finish all of the above the only other approved book is their required novel from their Language Arts class. Due to our curriculum, all 6th graders in the county read the same novels, at the same time and follow the exact curriculum at the same time. The same goes for the 7th and 8th graders. As of this year they have implemented the core curriculum for high school and I believe elementary. That way if a kids transfers schools in the district everyone is at the same place at the same time. What? You are asking what about the child that can't keep up and never gets that book read? We are told they need to learn the skills to keep up. If they are ESE or ESL there are built in modifications that the entire district is supposed to follow.

All pleasure reading is to be done at home.

At first, my knee-jerk reaction (after the spluttering) was to say 'this could never happen here in Australia.' But then I thought a little more. The program described is a response to the state reading test. And more and more we have a government and media led movement toward teaching for and from the NAPLAN test. For example, last Saturday we were encouraged by the lone state-wide newspaper to compare school data when they published school-by-school NAPLAN results (from 2008, a little detail that was mostly glossed over). In my school we are currently required to prepare our Year 2, 4 and 6 students for next years test. District offices are putting pressure onto Principals to show rapid improvements. And Queensland has pretty much had a year long beat up of its teachers, schools and students because we came second last in the testing in 2008. (of only 7 states and territories).

With all the pressure being put on schools to produce good results, and all the people out there realising there's a good buck to be made from NAPLAN (NAPLAN-style support books, expensive 'readers' sets promising better results, NAPLAN-style tests, and even a company taking advantage of swine flu to flog their NAPLAN products), surely it's only a matter of time before Principals take these programs up as a way of achieving better results, insisting that their teachers enforce these programs, no matter what. Particularly if Queensland does poorly again this year (not terribly unlikely, we've got another cohort of children here used to the Qld tests, rather than the NSW/VIC style tests used in NAPLAN).

So I was quite angry. But now I'm just determined. I'm determined to make sure this doesn't happen. I'm determined to make sure that our Principal and our HOC give us teachers the information that we need. I'm determined to find good, tested methods of improving students learning. I'm determined to make the classroom a place which is not dominated by one test. And I'm determined to speak out more, and to stop keeping quiet because it's the easiest thing to do.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Enjoying Moments of Beauty

After a short week (agricultural show holidays on Monday and Wednesday), I'm kind of looking forward to a proper week of work. Unfortunately I won't be enjoying that next week as I have training Monday to Wednesday.

Yesterday was another variation when the next door teacher and I took our combined classes to the Queensland Art Gallery to see the American Impressionists and Realists exhibition. This wasn't a terribly planned excursion (although it fitted in to my museum unit, it wasn't written in) but the chance to take them to this was just too good to pass up.

Our aim was simple - to have the kids looking, enjoying and sketching the paintings. The reality was amazing - students were completely engaged with some of them spending up to an hour working on one painting. Most of them had never been to an art gallery before, and many of them were completely awed by the beauty of the paintings - one even begged to go back and look at one painting 'just one more time.'

It really reminded me that part of being a teacher is allowing the students to have moments like this - to allow them to explore and experience beautiful things. To let them immerse themselves in it, without a huge focus on what is 'produced'. I think yesterday is going to be a day which sticks for many of those kids, for all the right reasons.

Picture from Queensland Art Gallery

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Arrival: Shaun Tan

Since the beginning of the term, my students and I have been exploring The Arrival by Australian artist/writer Shaun Tan. The Arrival is an entirely wordless picture book/graphic novel which follows the story of a man who leaves his homeland and emigrates to a strange but beautiful new world. Here he struggles at time with the new experiences, but is helped by a number of people with similar experiences.

This is a truly beautiful book, with carefully drawn illustrations. There are six chapters, and we have taken on a chapter a week with four small groups (we'll put 5 and 6 together). Each group takes time to go through the chapter, talking about the story as it develops and examining some of the visual symbols within the chapter. Students write on post-it notes whenever they find something they want to comment on, and it gets stuck into the book. Later it's put into the students' notebooks and they write further comments.

Sometimes the students have needed more preparation - before chapter 2, in which the main character comes to the new world, we read about migrant experiences with Ellis Island, particularly inspection procedures. This made it easier to understand the sequence when the character is examined and 'labelled'.

The students have surprised me at times with their understanding of some quite complex images, being able to explain them in ways I had never thought. There's a lot of sharing with the book - although we're working in different groups, each group reaches the same point by the end of the week, so they are able to discuss it with other people in the class. There's also comparisons with other books such as The Golden Compass, so that leads to further reading. I think I'll make some recommendations about books which feature moving to different places next for students who are interesting in reading more about the topic.

I highly recommend this book for a higher elementary/middle school group, particularly if you are doing work on immigration, new experiences or symbolism - I have loved watching the students become entranced by this amazing world..
Images from Shaun Tan's Website

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reader's Workshop: Part Three - How is it working

Read about the previous posts on Reader's Workshop here and here:

I know it's too early to make a full reflection on the Reader's Workshop (after three weeks), but there have been some early indications of success:

  • There is an increased interest in books in the classroom. New books do not stay on the shelves for long, but are quickly passed from hand to hand. There's also talk about books and reading and lots of sharing of information.
  • The students are thinking more about characters, the scenes, the symbols in books
  • I'm hearing them read from books that interest them. One student read to me from a book which we both knew was below his ability as a reader. I listened to him, discussed how he was having no problems with it and asked him to read to me again when he'd finished the book - he got to finish a book he was interested in and we had a discussion about reading, and what he might be interested in next.
  • The students are writing about books more coherently than ever before. One student was reading 'A Wrinkle in Time' and wrote me a letter about it. I wrote back to her about Meg and she noted:

    "I think she would make a bit of a dull friend, if you asked her something she would be thinking about something else"

    This was something I'd never considered, but the student made me approach the character from a different perspective. As a class they're making me do this an awful lot.
It hasn't been all peaches. I've had to revisit how to respond a few times to make sure all the students were clear on it, and I need to continue to have a clear focus of the week (this week is perspective), but so far it's working nicely and I'm really enjoying it. After all - we've created a reading community, how can you go wrong?

Image from Public Domain Photos

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reader's Workshop: Part 2 - Introducing the ideas

It's all about reading - more

All the students in my class a capable readers and most of them enjoy reading. Therefore, when I introduced Reader's Workshop by mentioning they would be reading MORE, they were generally happy with the idea. Those that aren't enthusiastic readers did like the fact they could choose their own books, as well as the new graphic novels I had puchased (more on that later).

Each lesson involves silent reading. The students can read anything, anywhere. This means I generally have students lying on cushions on the floor, curled up in corners, sprawled across desks, grabbing my comfy chair, as well as taking advantage of the blue skies and sunshine of winter in Queensland. (Generally when all the kids are outside is when the Principal or Deputy will come along. The deputy was great, though and saw it as an opportunity to talk about the book (Inkheart) he was reading. )

Read and Respond

After silent reading most of the students go on to read and respond. Students keep reading, but may pause to write what they are reading, a line they really like, or some information about a character. There are question prompts in the front of their notebooks, as well as a weekly question and some additional questions (downloaded from Adrian Bruce's website) for students who are having a little trouble. Students aren't expected to write lots, though some do, but are expected to write a little each day.

Additionally, students are sometimes asked to write a letter to me. I then read them and respond with my own letter, asking questions, making recommendations and generally having an ongoing conversation about reading and books.

Explicit teaching and conferences

On some days, before silent reading we'll have a mini-lesson focusing on a particular skill or aspect. These are short and pretty much serve as reminders, or options for the students to use.

While most of the class is read-and-responding, I'll work with a small group on a particular book or skill. At the moment we're 'reading' the amazing Shaun Tan book, The Arrival, which contains no recognisable words at all. Student make notes on post-its as we go through it, and then write up their thoughts about the chapter afterwards. Lots of skills are discussed here, and it's more focused on the group needs.

While the small group are writing I move around the class doing individual conferences. I listen to the students read, talk to them about what they're reading and look at their work. I also collect five books a day to read and write in - which is managable and lets me get through the whole class in an average week. This way I know where the students are at and I'm able to guide them to do more.

It's only been three weeks, and I haven't dumped this all at once, but introduced bits at a time. Already, there are improvements in their work, but I've also made some adjustments.

Next post: how it's all worked

Image from Public Domain Photos

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Introducing Reader's Workshop: Part One - the Set Up

So, with the beginning of our new school term, just three weeks ago, I introduced a Reader's workshop into the classroom. This is a new thing to me, and a new thing in our school. Luckily, I had time to think about how it would work, and was able to set things up accordingly.

My ideas originally came from the website of third grade teacher, Beth Newingham. Although I had read about the ideas before, I had been lost at how to make it work. Beth demonstrated how it worked in her room, allowing me to see how it might work in my room.

The first step was organising the books. When I started in my own classroom, 2 and a half years ago, I had half a trolley of books. Now I have several bookshelves full. To organise them I purchased a tonne of cheap plastic, rectangular containers (sturdy enough to hold books of course) from local discount stores. I sat down and surveyed the books I had, dividing them into some basic groups. Each book was then labelled with a sticker reminding students what group it was from, and each container was labelled with a laminated tag.

The groups ranged from the basic (realistic fiction, fantasy, historical) to the more 'Mrs D' specific (CHERUB books, ballet books), but most importantly, in their containers the books now faced outwards, allowing students to see what we actually had. This meant new reading material to a lot of the students, and a lot more of the books were actually being read.

The next step took place over the two week break and involved the muscles of Mr D. I've never liked the set up of my crowded room, and I was determined to do something about it. My biggest move was shifting my desk to a spot where I use it more and it takes up less space. I now have a cleaner desk and more space in the room. We then moved the dividers (head height) most of the way across the room (I share a demountable teaching space complete with asbestos walls) to block out some of the noise and lined up the bookshelves so there was more of a book corner, with a large seating space in front of it. I then swapped a couple of tables which were being used for computers with desks, which also opened up more room. Suddenly I had more space - and I was happier with it.

Outside of school I did up a simple notebook for each child (stickytaped a picture on front and some info on the inside) and stuck it in a large plastic lunch bag (a baggie?) with a pencil and some post it notes. These went into some cardboard magazine holders (one between two students) which I had painted brightly. Each holder had a laminated tag with students names on them and became a place for their books and reading workshop materials.

Now we were ready for school to begin.

Next post - introducing the reader's workshop to the students.

Image from Public Domain Photos