Luck of the Irish…

…or How I Juiced-up a Tried and True Activity to Help Me Meet My Goals.


In my first post on grit I reflected on what I felt I could do better.  Two of my goals was to improve my STEM activity to promote the trial and redesign process and to create more authentic assignments.

Today we did our Leprechaun Traps.  Now, I know – I know – St. Patrick’s Day is next week.  However after the “big test” we needed to do something fun.

However, I didn’t want it to be a throw-away activity.  I ain’t got time for that!

The fact that we are trying to capture a very wily leprechaun didn’t lend itself well to the test and redesign process, but I saw an opportunity for authentic learning.  Goal #2.

We did it as a mini-PBL.  We set an essential question:  How can I design a trap that will trap a leprechaun?  We brainstormed what we needed to know in order to answer that question. We did a close reading activity of an “Informational Text” on leprechauns to answer those questions.  They had to pull facts from the article that they could use in their design and explain how they would incorporate that information in their trap design.

The POURED over that text.  They read closely, and deeply.  It said they were cobblers, they learned that was a shoe maker – they could disguise their trap as a shoe shop! Vocabulary, comprehension, application…  Bring it on!!

They built their traps, and through the working buzz – I overheard them cite the text while working with their friends.  (“It said they like logs, so I colored this tube to look like a log”  I heard that.  I ACTUALLY heard that!)

And then we tied it into our current Opinion writing unit and I gave them choices – a letter to a company, a script for a commercial, a brochure – that explains why their trap has an effective design.

And I know that it’s not about the grades – but I was able to take a reading grade by scoring their traps based on if they demonstrated close reading and comprehension by incorporating facts from the text as well as a writing grade from their opinion piece.

It might not have used technology – but no doubt they were engaged and motivated!

I’m including the materials that I created for this – enjoy…  Leprechaun Trap PBL


Still talking Discourse – Let’s Talk Discourse Part 2

Last time I started out with the nitty gritty of discourse.  How I implemented in my classroom on a practical level.  Now, it’s time to move on and really think about making it a part of your classroom.

Letting Go

The last time I ended with how I used it in guided groups.  This brings me to the question – if it’s guided groups, why aren’t you guiding.  Aren’t they being guided though?  Just sometimes they are being guided by each other rather than me. To be successful in using discourse in your classroom you have to be very, very clear in your mind what your educational-goal is for that day, but very open to allowing them to reach that goal in a way that maybe you hadn’t considered before.  And it’s under a watchful eye where I can pose a question or a thought – as one of the group members not as a teacher – that helps direct them to where I want them to go.  I vary the support I give the group, I vary how much information I give them beforehand, I vary the question.  What I never vary, however, is the idea that each group of kids – including those that might be below grade level – deserves a chance to think about complex ideas and voice their ideas.

Connect the dots

Finally, after any type of discussion, you need to facilitate them recapping, quantifying, and summarizing what they discussed so they see the direct connection between what they talked about and your day’s objective.  Sometimes you have to connect-the-dots a bit for them to see the picture they created themselves.

We’ll recap, make an anchor chart of their conclusions, I’ll weave what they’ve talked about into a direct instruction opportunity.  Discourse does not replace direction instruction, but enhances it and makes it more meaningful to them.

Anyone? Anyone? 

To wrap end let’s talk about where to begin – good discourse always starts with good questions. Does anyone remember the teacher from Ferris Bueller?  Anyone? Anyone? Boring questions = bored kids.

Kids love to feel smart, and a good question that they can sink into makes them feel smart.  Discourse in the classroom can be as simple as a turn-and-talk opportunity, but if it’s not a good question then it’s just turn and share answers or turn and repeat what I just said.  Not that there isn’t a place for that – but just to be clear – that is not discourse and does not stretch their thinking.

Developing questions that promote good discourse is – in my opinion – the hardest part.  Personally, I found it a little easier to start in reading.  We are just more accustomed to talking about the things we read.  We talk about that news article we’ve read, we have book clubs, we even talk about the news and movies.

Posing good math questions was a little harder for me at first but I think you’ll find though that the more questions you ask – the more you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t and it becomes much more natural.   I have found that questions relating to common misconceptions really get them talking – sometimes I’ll even pose them as a “who is right” question (I always use two Star Wars characters, it’s our thing.). A good source of this is look for common errors on tests/pretests.  Also Brain Teasers work well – I’ve used a lot from Eduplace Math. And of course – those productive struggle questions (questions that are posed before a concept is fully taught but where they have enough background to possibly figure it out).

For example – after introducing fractions, but before introducing improper fractions – I posed this question. “Represent the fraction 3/2.”     They worked with a partner to come up with a way and then they met in Math-Talk groups to share and discuss their strategies.   Another one recently was “Luke ate 5/8 of a candy bar.  Han ate 3/4.  Han thinks he should get more because 5 & 8 are bigger than 3 & 4.  Should Han get more candy? Prove your answer.” and “R2-D2 says that 3/4 has equivalent fractions.  C-3P0 says no,  that only 1/2 has equivalent fractions. Who is right.  Prove it” (you’d be surprised how many kids said C-3P0!).


One of my favorite things to get them talking about is wrong answers.  Sometimes we’ll also do a “My Favorite No” where I take a kiddo’s wrong answer, make a big deal out of the fact that although it’s wrong it shows great thinking – and have the kids talk about why it shows great thinking, but also where is the error.  I love this strategy because it promotes not only error analysis, but celebrates that growth mindset that we are always looking to include.

Go Forth and Talk

Discourse is an embedded and integral part of my classroom, but the great thing about it is that you don’t have to jump in all the way.     Make it work for your style, your classroom.

Now turn and explain your plan to your partner.  Partners, listen and ask them questions about their plan.  And…Go!

Let’s Talk about Discourse – Part 1

Discourse seems to be one of those school words.  In the real world we talk about
something – but in schools we have discourse.  Kind of like the word tardy – no one uses it in real life.  And I’m not a fan of the word, like the word moist, however, I love what it means.  But I digress…

It’s interesting to me how the nature of conversation has changed in society.  I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my best friends – talking about all the things tween girls talk about.  My heart sinking to my feet when my mom would call that a boy was on the phone for me – and taking the phone in my room and closing the door.

That’s all but gone now.  Everything is done by text.  The vast majority of my daughter’s communication to her friends is through social media and technology.  My son had spent an inordinate amount of time talking to a girl… with never speaking a word.  And in this world – efficiency is king and words, thoughts, ideas, are all boiled down to 12o characters or less.  And if speech = thinking, then we are allowing our kids to truncate their minds.

Often schools are the only place where kids today will talk to each other – really talk.  And if we want to expand their minds we need to allow them.   And the beauty of it is -it really works!

FYI – Hyperlinks will take you to a good resource for more information on that particular topic.

Not all Talk is Equal

Let’s be clear what we are talking about when we refer to discourse.  I’m not referring to just having kids talk in class, although that is a key part.  It’s the kind of talking they are doing that is important.  Share your answer is not discourse.  Explain how you came up with your answer and having your partner share theirs is.  Repeat what I just said is not discourse, explain in your own words is and your partner asking questions is. If you are going to take the time to allow kids to talk, make sure it is meaningful and purposeful and that above all else – it gets them thinking and then communicating about what they think.

Building a Conversation Culture

I always start building the skill of discourse in my classroom with direct instruction on how to turn-and-teach.  Or turn-and-share.  Or turn-and-justify.  Notice the and-something is a verb that describes what I want them to do.  Not just talk.  This happens on Day 1 of the year and I utilize Whole Brain Teaching strategies for this, but with my own spin to make it work for not just Turn-and-teach.

The next step is to expand it away from partners into literature circles.  My favorite technique is Laura Candler’s Talking Sticks.   I began using them with literature circles and found this technique to be highly effective.  She also has great information how to conduct classroom book clubs, which are a great introduction to more discourse. Just a side – I have never been a huge fan of Literature Circles with roles, especially where everyone has just one role (I have in the past done them where each person does a little of everything).  I feel it becomes a literature scavenger hunt and that it does not promote good conversation.  This is why I like Laura’s approach.  The concept behind that is that each child has 2 sticks, and put it in the circle each time they speak.  When they are out, they can’t talk until everyone has put in a stick – then they all come back out again.  (In my room – clarifying questions are free and the discussion director can ask someone a question without putting in a stick).  This way all kids are required to be engaged, but in a way of their choosing.  (And by now – we don’t even use those.)

But this didn’t happen at once.  I directly instructed.  I fishbowled.  I set them up for success.  We first started practicing good conversations moves with a partner, then expanded our circle.  For my strugglers I gave them cards with conversation moves on them that they could look at and use.  And don’t worry – eventually they will develop into a more conversational style – but start them with their hands on 10 & 2 on the steering wheel.

The secret to success to starting them is giving them something they are really excited to talk about.  In my room I introduce this process during a “Mystery vs. Mysterious”reading unit with Chris VanAllsburg books.  They LOVE talking about what they think really happened – did Fritz really get turned into a goose in the Garden of Abul Gasazi?  Who is The Stranger?  Because it’s open to interpretation – they really have an opportunity to put forth their opinions and defend them with the text.

In math, I begin creating a Discourse Culture by introducing them to the Number Talks routine as part of my whole group instruction time.  A Number Talk is a short conversation with the class – mostly about computation and mental math Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Grades K 5, Updated with Common Core Connection by Sherry Parrish is the resource that I use, but there are others as well.

Math Moves

Once we have begun to show some skill with text talk and Number Talks, we quickly expand to even more math discourse.  We know the routine of talking in a group from reading and we’re used to explaining our mathematical thinking from Number Talks.  Now we put that together.

In truth – my math block is often more verbal than my reading.  I teach them math conversation moves that are similar to text talk moves, but tweaked for math.   I also find math lends itself to even more casual conversations than reading tends to do.  In addition to math talk, often they will work on a Brain Stumper  with a partner as arrival morning work or a rotation station.  We also play a game where they don’t know who in their group is going to be called on to answer a question, so they have to work together to make sure everyone understands. After they have finished Independent Practice, I’ll tell them to find a partner, compare answers, and if they’re different – talk it out to see who is right.

Conversations in Guided Groups

 In the conversation above, the kids are discussing the question “How does Chris Van Allsburg create a suspenseful mood?”  Our driving question for the whole unit was “What makes a story mysterious?” We had been talking about the fact that a mystery is solved, but the mysterious leaves you questioning.

My favorite is when I use discourse for their guided group time.  I’m a member of their discussion circle, but not the leader of it.  I can pose guiding and prompting questions but let them take over.

I can also differentiate the discussion to their level.  For example – on a lesson on introducing elapsed time I had my kiddos that find math a challenge just talk about which math tools would be best suited for the solving this type of problem.  They tried different ones – weighed the pros and cons – and then shared with each other their thoughts on each math tool.  The figured out on their own not to use a calculator, that a Judy Clock works great – and that they can solve using a number line.  For my on-grade group we solved a problem and shared what strategies we used.  For my high-flyers  – they solved a more complex problem, but also got into a discussion of adding time and regrouping minutes and hours.  In reading I might have my lower group talk about which evidence do they think supports the theme that we came up with together, my on-grade group might start with us together talking about events in the story and then they talk to figure out the together, and my high-flyers might come up with the theme and the evidence on their own while I sit and enjoy.

There are times in reading when I’ve had to get up from group to attend to an issue on the other side of the room.  The kiddos just keep talking.  They are running their own reading group!

So…. where is the guided in guided groups during discourse?  And what really keeps them talking?   I’ll talk about that next time!


Mrs. Smith’s Snow Day Challenge

I’m back!  I haven’t blogged in a REALLY log time.   I loved blogging, but I took a planned month break from it last year… which turned into almost a year.  Inertia got the better of me.

I live in the Mid-Atlantic, right in the bulls-eye of the now dubbed Snowzilla Blizzard.  When you saw those highest snow totals on the map on the news… that’s me.

For the past two days then, I’ve been issuing my students “Snow Day
Challenges” (something I started last year when we had SO MANY snow days) as a fun way to keep them engaged in learning while they are off.  It’s fun, it’s a favor to the parents, and I know with my own children if I tell them something they won’t do it – but coming from a teacher has a WHOLE DIFFERENT level of authority.  The kids love sending me what they’ve done, and I give them feedback in the comments section and email them back.  It’s supposed to be fun for them – but I have to admit – it’s fun for me too.

And then I thought I’d issue myself my own Snow Day Challenge to get back into Blogging.

Nothing deep this time.  Just thought I’d share what I sent out to my kiddos in case someone else there in snow-bound land would like to do the same.

So here was Mrs. Smith’s 2016 Snowzilla Day Challenges!

Day 1:  How much water is in Snow?

This is a super simple experiment that I found on many different sites.  The kids go outside, scoop up some snow in a container and either using a measuring cup or measuring the inches and look at the capacity/volume.  Then, they predict if the final volume of water will be greater than, same as, or less than snow.

I sent the kids the directions (I thought the ones from Home Science Tools the most user-friendly).

I posted to our Google Classroom a Google Slide, where each slide was a step in the Scientific Process.  I invited them to use pictures and create a Google Slideshow of their experiment – or just write it up if they didn’t have access to Google from home – and share it with me.

What I loved most were their predictions.  I was really surprised how many predicted there would be more water and loved it when they realized it was less.   Of course, I also provided in their Google Slide a slide that explains why this is, but I could see that they didn’t quite “get it.”  They just thought snow was bigger. So that inspired me with Snow Day Challenge, Day 2.Untitled presentation.jpg

Their extension was to measure their snow in their front yard and see if they could figure out how much water would be in that.

Day 2:  Snow Crystals

We have just begun are studying rocks and minerals in science, and I saw a great opportunity to begin them thinking about crystals.

For today’s challenge, I sent them/posted on Google Classroom a link to a BrainPop video on snowflakes as well as a link to a Scholastic Digital book on Snowflake Bentley and a video from the National Science Foundation and allowed them to get artsy.

After watching the Brain Pop, I challenged them to create the different kinds of snowflake crystals they talked about.  They could cut them out, draw them, use craft supplies, use the computer…. and label them.

Their Extention was to use a storytelling means – typing, handwritten, digital media, graphic novel/cartoon – to pretend they are a water molecule and to follow their “life” from cloud to melt.


Day 3:  A handful of Legos vs. a block of Legos.

I hoping Day 3 will be something we can do IN the classroom. 🙂 My thoughts are towards having them see that if things are arranged without any spaces, you can fit a lot more into a space – like if I take a handful of legos and put them into a bucket vs. building a solid cube out of them.  Seems intuitive to us, but that’s the fun of teaching – the surprise of what they don’t know.  Hopefully then, it will really click with them. (No pun intended Lego).  We won’t even discuss the

We won’t even discuss the possibility of Day 4.  Three Snow Day Challenges are my limit.

My Snow Day Challenge to you:  I’d LOVE to hear your ideas for Snow Day Challenges for Kiddos in the comments!