Monthly Archives: July 2009

I’ve Got Extra Time with My Students. Great! Now What?!

panic buttonby Kristin M. Woolums, M.Ed.

The best-laid plans, the most thought-out lessons, and the most carefully-crafted ideas are timed out perfectly to be completed exactly on schedule, right? After all, we’re teachers! We have to stay on schedule! So you can imagine that I was like a deer in headlights the first time I heard those five little words: “Mrs. Smith is running late.” Translation: I’ve got my students for 15, 30 or even 45 minutes longer than I’d planned, and I don’t have anything to do with them! Now what?

Like any great teacher, I have learned to beg, borrow, and steal ideas to stock my “arsenal” of tricks for whenever I find myself with extra time, which, surprisingly, happens quite a bit.

Got 10 minutes? Try one of these:

Mad-Libs. Yes, the same “parts of speech” game that you played on long road trips still works! Old-fashioned paper versions work well, but try them online at (Bonus: hook up an LCD projector for all to see!)

Foam crafts. Keep foam craft buckets (usually found at craft or discount department stores) in your storage closet. Students of all ages love to create with these crafts. They make great student prizes, too! What’s better than boosting skills while donating food to end world hunger? Check out – an unusual (and very addictive!) learning website!

Stand up, Hand up, Pair up. Put simple flash cards on steroids! Pass out one flash card (question on one side, answer on the back) to each student, tell them to “stand up” behind their seat, “hand up” to look for a partner, then “pair up” with someone else who has their hand up. They should greet each other, decide who will go first, quiz each other (coach if necessary), give a compliment, trade cards, and then raise a hand and look for someone else whose hand is raised (the signal that they need a partner) and repeat the process. This controlled chaos is great for reinforcing concepts, and my students love this “game”! Thank you to a Kagan workshop ( for this great idea!

Video clips from United Streaming or Brain Pop. These two websites are members-only, but well worth the investment. The video clips are targeted at kids and are chock full of valuable topics. Visit or

Got 20 minutes or more? Try:

Sparkle. Have the group stand in a large circle while the teacher calls out a spelling word. The first person spells the first letter, the second spells the second letter, etc. After the last letter is said, the next person says “Sparkle” and then the next person sits down. If someone misspells, they have to sit, and the word starts over. The last one standing is the winner. This is a great game of knowledge and luck, and the kids love it!

So you can see, filling extra time with learning activities isn’t hard… you just have to have some tricks up your sleeve! I hope some of these will work for you!

Kristin M. Woolums, M. Ed., teaches fifth grade at a private school in Atlanta and works at The School Box at Southlake during the summer months.

We’d like to know: What tricks do you have up your sleeve for filling extra time productively? Leave a comment to share your idea, and you’ll be entered to win a School Box gift card!


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Fun Summer Writing Ideas (that kids will actually enjoy)

chalboard boyPost a comment on this entry and be entered to win a School Box gift card!

Welcome to part three in our three-part series on easy, research-based ways to incorporate reading and writing into your summer schedule through 1) movies!, 2) family field trips, and 3) naturally engaging writing experiences.

“Aww, Mom, do I have to?” No parent wants to hear these dreaded words all summer, but if you want to keep your kids engaged in academic activities, it’s par for the course. Right?


The key to summer learning is keeping it real. Take writing, for example. Now, if you sentenced your children to an essay on their summer vacation, you’d be begging for an “Aww, Mom.” But, if you create a family scrapbook about  your vacation and write catchy photo captions together….well, now you’ve just made writing a whole lot more fun. Here are some of our favorite summer writing ideas that are kid tested and mom approved.

1. Shopping Lists
These count! Writing practice of any kind is valuable, particularly for elementary students. Get your child to record your grocery list while you dictate. Or make a list of things you need to buy for a family picnic. Or an upcoming birthday party. Or your beach trip. You can vary this idea by creating lists of things you want to do that day, places you want to visit in your hometown, and friends your child wants to have over soon. Make it even more motivating by posting a blackboard or whiteboard in the kitchen, and encourage your child to make their lists there. No kid can resist chalk.

2. Family Scrapbooks
Give your child the camera and let them document your life! You can put the pics in a pre-made scrapbook from the store…or create your own by printing the pics, gluing them to construction paper, and stapling it into a book. Just tell your child there’s one rule: they have to write a caption (in a complete sentence) for every picture they include! Some fun scrapbook themes: Our Vacation, A Day in My Life, A Day with My Best Friend, or The World through My Dog’s Eyes.

3. Letters
Pick a favorite neighbor, relative, or friend, and write a good ol’ fashioned paper-and-pencil letter to them. Brainstorm ideas with your child on what they might include in the letter, such as summer activities, sports,  trips, etc. This is even more motivating if you can secure a written response from the recipient of your child’s letter. And, if your child is artistic, give them art supplies and have them create their own stationery!

4. Family Skits
Write a family skit together. Come up with a story (or reenact your favorite book or movie scene), and then write it up as a skit, giving each family member a part. Put on the performance together after dinner one evening. Guaranteed hilarity.

Post author: Elizabeth Cossick, M.Ed.

How do you inspire writing over the summer? Share your ideas by posting a comment below, and you’ll be entered to win a School Box gift card!

Coming next: I Have Extra Time with My Students. Great! Now What??? by Kristin Woolums


Filed under Academic Success, Parenting, Summer Learning

Make Reading Fun with Local Family Field Trips!

family campingPost a comment on this entry and be entered to win a School Box gift card!

Welcome to part two in our three-part series on easy, research-based ways to incorporate reading and writing into your summer schedule through 1) movies!, 2) easy family field trips, and 3) naturally engaging writing experiences.

We talked about using movies to enliven summer reading in our previous post, and in this article, we’re going to talk about summer literary adventures! We’ve paired some favorite reads for preschoolers through teens with local summer events and attractions. Just check out a book, read it together, and then bring literature to life through the matching activity.

Ages: 3-8
Theme: Critters!

The Literature:

  • Backyard Detective: Critters Up Close by Nic Bishop. Discover the creepy crawlies that live in your own backyard.
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Meet the famous caterpillar who “eats” his way through this children’s classic.
  • Anansi the Spider: A Tale From the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott. Enjoy this Caldecott-honored retelling of a West African tale.

The Adventure:
Go on a nature walk! Walk through the woods at a local park with your child, looking for bugs, lizards and other wild critters. Or, better yet, check out a local nature center, like the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia, which has wildlife displays and many natural animal habitats to explore! For information, visit

Ages: 4-10
Theme: Roller coasters!

The Literature:

  • Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee. This charming picture book details the play-by-play experience of a little girl who rides a roller coaster for the very first time.

The Adventure:
Look for local listings for carnivals or amusement parks, like Six Flags over Georgia. Visit or call 770-739-3400 for tickets and information. (Six Flags, by the way, has a Thomas the Tank Engine interactive area for younger kiddos, including a journey on a replica Thomas!)

Ages: 8-12
Theme: The Civil War
The Literature:

  • Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. This poignant story portrays the impact of the war on two young boys who become unlikely friends. (War themes are best suited for mature children.)

The Adventure:
Well, this adventure may be easiest to achieve if you live in the South, where Civil War sites abound. Check out Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park: the battle site where General Sherman’s march toward Atlanta was delayed for two weeks by the Confederates entrenched along Kennesaw Mountain’s ridge tops. The park features a museum, hiking trails and ample picnic spots. Open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Call 770-427-4686 or visit

No battle sites near you? Reenact a battle with squirt guns in the backyard!

Ages: 8-14
Theme: Ghosts!

The Literature:

  • Time for Andrew: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn. This can’t-put-it-down chapter book is more historical fiction fantasy than ghost story. Great for kids who don’t like super scary but do like intrigue and suspense.

The Adventures:
Have a family camp-out in the backyard! Pitch a tent, pop some popcorn, get out the flashlights and tell fun (appropriate) ghost stories!
Or, for Atlanta residents, check out the Ghosts of Marietta lantern-led walking tour. Walk the streets of historic Marietta while enjoying a compelling blend of storytelling, history and the supernatural. The 90-minute tour is under one mile. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Reservations are recommended. Call 770-881-8011 or visit

The titles featured in this article can be checked out from your local public library, found at a local bookstore, or purchased online. Happy reading!

Coming next in the series: Make writing fun with authentic summer projects!

Post author: Elizabeth Cossick, M.Ed.

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Using Movies to Keep Student Skills Sharp!

Post a comment on this entry and be entered to win a School Box gift card!

mom and daughter popcornResearch shows that students lose up to 30 percent of the previous years’ learning during the summer months. But combating summer learning loss may be as easy as your local library…or movie rental center.

In this three-part series, we’ll share some easy, research-based ways to incorporate reading and writing into your summer schedule through 1) movies!, 2) easy family field trips, and 3) naturally engaging writing experiences.

Exercising the Noggin

Reading is like brain exercise. When people read, their brains process information on many levels, and their synapses fire like lightening. Research tells us that during reading, the brain is primarily engaged in seven activities, called strategies. These strategies are:

1. Visualizing (making pictures)

2. Connecting (relating what we read to what we already know)

3. Questioning (wondering)

4. Making inferences (drawing conclusions, making predictions)

5. Repairing comprehension (making sense of the story)

6. Determining what’s important (sorting through the details to retain the important parts)

7. And synthesizing (putting it all together to understand the story on many levels)

During the summer, just having your children read is great because their brains are doing all seven of these activities. But, what’s even better is picking one of the strategies above and using it as a springboard for a summer literacy adventure.

Let’s Start with Visualizing

Set the Stage: Tell your children that good readers visualize, or make pictures in their mind, while they read. Practice visualizing together. Pick a favorite book and read it together. Stop often to model your own visualizations: “Wow, when I read that, I can see the spider’s web all covered with dew, hanging in the barn doorway. Can you see it?” And ask your children to share their visualizations, too: “What color do you think the farmhouse is? What about Charlotte–how big do you think she is? Show me on your hand.”

Calling All Future Directors: Next, tell your children that they’re being hired by Hollywood to design the set for a new movie about the book. Have them draw or create what they visualized, being as detailed as possible so the set could be built by Hollywood. Any medium will work: colored pencils, paint, playdough, Legos–whatever motivates your child. If your child is reluctant to add details, prompt them with questions: “Do you think the sky was pure white? What color might it have been?” or “What about the other animals? Who else did you picture on the farm besides just Wilbur and Charlotte?”

Get ‘Em Talking: Have your child explain the details to you, telling you what they pictured.

Hello, Hollywood! If there is a movie that corresponds to the book you read, watch it together! Pop some popcorn and then, as you watch, compare your child’s visualizations with the movie.

A Book Guide to Get You Started

Picture books that are great for visualizing:

Jumaji, by Chris Van Allsburg*

The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg

One Tiny Turtle, by Nicola Davies

Atlantic, by G. Brian G. Karas

The Relatives Came, by Cynthia Rylant

Three Stories You Can Read to Your Cat, by Sara Swan Miller

Novels that are great for visualizing:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis*

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White*

Redwall series, by Brian Jacques*

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke*

The Tale of Despereux, by Kate DiCamillo*

The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black*

My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara*

Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen*

*denotes books with corresponding movies.

Coming next in the series: Making connections through local family field trips!

Post author: Elizabeth Cossick, M.Ed.

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Dazzling Behavior

teacher, student in cafeteria lineA Unique Idea for Motivating Good Behavior

by Kristin M. Woolums, M.Ed.

Oh how I wish I knew this little behavior management nugget during my first year of teaching! It’s simple, and it works: Dazzle Points!

What is a Dazzle Point and how does it work?
It’s a tally of how many times I’ve been “dazzled” by good behavior, kindness, compassion, good study habits, or by anything that I consider “dazzling.” On the board, I post the number of Dazzle Points earned throughout the year, and I give rewards for different levels along the way. When I see my students doing the right thing, I add a Dazzle Point to the displayed tally. We set an attainable goal together. (I suggest 10 for the first goal). They work really hard to get to this level.

Once they reach their goal, we brainstorm reward ideas, such as these:

• Extra recess

• Reduced/no homework

• Stuffed animal or pillow day

• Unassigned seats

• Video/movie time

• Free ice cream

• Class pet

I usually do a “heads down/hands up” majority vote to decide. And then I follow through with the reward within the week. After they reach the first level, we set a goal for the second level (I suggest 25), and keep going in this fashion.

There is one catch.
If anyone asks for a Dazzle Point, the tally goes back to zero, and they start all over (tough to do, but stick to your word!).

What constitutes being “dazzled”?
Watch for good behavior in either groups or individuals at recess, carline, or in the cafeteria or classroom. If I see genuine good behavior, I reward the dazzle point on the spot! Here are some of the behaviors for which I reward a Dazzle Point:

• Another teacher’s compliment (automatic dazzle point), but I have to witness the compliment – remember, they can’t ask for a Dazzle Point

• Assisting a student/teacher without being asked.

• Good test results (not necessarily all As, but each student did well for his/her ability)

• Good teamwork at recess

• Good following of procedures

• Good behavior without being prompted

• Good participation in fundraisers, service projects, attendance to school meetings

I don’t reward for each occurrence, since it would lose its effect. After all, the students shouldn’t be rewarded for something they should already be doing!

Why does it work?
Because the kids have say-so in the process, they buy into it even more. They decide to make good behavior choices, they decide the level when they’ll be rewarded, and they decide what the reward will be. Students love hearing these simple words: “I’m dazzled!” because they know I caught them doing the right thing!

For what grades would this work?
This works very well for me in my self-contained fifth-grade classroom, but I’ve had seventh- and eighth-grade students tell me that they wish the middle school teachers used Dazzle Points. This could easily be adapted for elementary grades or for classes that switch between teachers.

Good luck with Dazzle Points!

Kristin M. Woolums, M. Ed., teaches fifth grade at a private school in Atlanta and works at The School Box at Southlake during the summer months.

We’d like to know: How do you motivate positive behavior in your classroom? Leave a comment to share your idea, and you’ll be entered to win a School Box gift card!

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Teaching Compassion

Soccer Boy_blogWhen the holidays rolled around during my first year of teaching, I knew I wanted to do something unique with my fourth-grade students. Something that would take their focus off presents, off themselves, and put it on others. Something that would inspire gratefulness for all they had and compassion for those with less.

I scoured local nonprofit organizations, checked out donation opportunities at several churches, and talked to other teachers about their ideas. I considered “adopting” a local family and collecting donations from among my students to provide gifts for them, but so many of my students had done that type of thing in previous years. There was no wonder, no new lesson, no epiphany waiting to happen. And I really wanted something more…personal. I wanted my students to connect with whomever we chose to help, to be changed by the experience.

And then one day, it struck me. My husband and I had been looking into “adopting” a child from an international children’s advocacy group. You know, the kind that provides food, education and aid to children of struggling families around the world. I did a lot of research and decided that Compassion International best aligned with the objectives I was seeking for my particular class in our private school. So, I pitched the idea to my students.

“What if we adopt this little boy–Mario?” I asked, holding up the sponsor card I’d picked up at church earlier that week. Mario had brown eyes and dark hair, he was 7 years old, he lived in Mexico. Soccer was his favorite past-time, and he liked to read and draw. He had two sisters and lived with his mother and grandmother. My kids loved it. They loved him. We dedicated a wall to Mario, posted his picture there, and wrote him letters that I sent monthly. We put a collection jar on the counter, and it was always full. My students brought in postcards of our hometown, stickers, bookmarks–anything we could mail to Mario.

Mario, in essence, became the twenty-sixth student in our class. And, while the holidays came and went, Mario stayed. Rather than a hit-and-run attempt at teaching compassion through one isolated event, my class opened their arms, their hearts, to another child in another country for the entire schoolyear.

And the next fall, when a new group of students sat in front of me on the first day of school, I introduced our twenty-sixth student, again. And Mario was warmly welcomed.

Post author: Elizabeth Cossick M.Ed.

Teachers: Do you have a unique way of teaching compassion to your students? Parents: How do you instill compassion in your children at home? Post a comment on this blog entry to share your ideas!

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The First Thirty Days

Teacher with students wearing backpacksPart IV in the Current Series: “Building a Differentiated Classroom”

Every teacher knows that the first month of school sets the tone for the entire year. Here are some tips for establishing a differentiated classroom, where every learner is valued…and reached.

Establish routines, routines, routines.
Begin on day one to start and end each day in the same way. Make expectations clear and have students practice the classroom routines for taking attendance, handing in homework, preparing for lunch, returning to the room after specials, distributing materials, and moving in and out of groups. Efficient transitions save you teaching time!

Set the tone for differentiation.
Use the first month to build the attitude that “it’s okay that we’re working on different things.” On day one, talk the talk of differentiation. Explain to your students, in an age-appropriate manner, how each of us has unique ways of learning, personal strengths, and unique abilities. Clearly state your expectations that they will take responsibility for their own learning.

Teach self-help strategies.
The sooner students learn to be independent, the earlier you will be able to focus on instruction rather than management. Use the first month to establish procedures in your classroom for solving daily problems, such as:

  • Borrowing pencils and other supplies
  • Using peer support while you are working with a small group
  • Locating clean-up supplies
  • Knowing how and whom to ask for help

Complete one differentiated activity.
Consciously target for differentiation during the first month of school. Choose one activity, one learning center, or one unit (if you’re feeling confident!) and design two or three levels of tasks that address different interests, readiness levels, or intelligences. Explain your purpose to your students.

Use groups flexibly and often.
As soon as possible, arrange for students to work in groups. Be crystal clear about what the group is to do and the role of each person in the group. Make sure that the composition of the groups changes often, so that everyone understands they will work with different peers on different days. (Remember to introduce group work in pairs with young students.)

These guidelines will ensure a successful start to your differentiated classroom.

This is part four in a four-part series on differentiated classrooms.

Post Author: This post was submitted by Scholastic and adapted from The Scholastic Differentiated Instruction Plan Book.

What strategies do you employ during the first 30 days of school? Leave a comment to share your ideas! One comment from this four-part series on differentiation will be selected to win a School Box gift card, and another comment will earn a Scholastic book of your choice…so comment away!

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Acing the Test: How to Assess with Differentiation in Mind

student showing artworkPart III in the Current Series: “Building a Differentiated Classroom”

Meeting the individual needs of each learner in a classroom can be daunting. Trying to assess them all fairly, while considering different learning styles and modalities, can seem downright impossible. These simple tips will help any teacher evaluate student progress without compromising authenticity.

Plan for informal assessment.
Create a personal, easy-to-use system for making quick daily notes as you notice behaviors, hear comments, and observe students’ struggles or successes. Your informal assessment tool may be a set of colored index cards, one for each student, on an O-ring. It also may be a clipboard with sticky notes individually labeled with student names, a notebook that will never be far from your reach, or even a small pocket tape recorder that allows you to take spoken notes about what you want to remember later. Have your method in place and ready to record observations on day one. This informal record will prove invaluable when determining student progress over time.

Create student work folders.
Decide how and where you will collect and file student work samples. Whether you use expandable folders, manila folders, mailbox cubicles, a stack of pizza boxes, or hanging files in a milk crate, the system needs to be orderly and accessible. Keep a camera in your desk for those assignments that are best recorded in photographs.

Keeping a record of student work is a great way to capture student improvement throughout the year. At the end of the year, the work samples can be compiled into portfolios and displayed for parents during a special afternoon to showcase a year’s worth of learning.

Provide options.
When assigning projects or homework, try to provide several options to appeal to different learning styles. Visual learners might enjoy creating posters or 3-D representations, auditory learners can give an oral report, bodily-kinesthetic learners can create a game to teach the class, etc. The more choice students have, the more differentiated–and accurate–their assessment will be.

Cultivate teamwork.
Brainstorm assessment and teaching ideas with special-area teachers, such as art, music, P.E., and library teachers, who will be valuable resources for reinforcing and expanding student learning outside the walls of your classroom. Share their observations during parent conferences to provide a well-rounded portrait of student progress in all areas of learning.

This is part three in a four-part series on differentiated classrooms. The next segment will cover the first 30 days of school.

Post Author: This post was submitted by Scholastic and adapted from The Scholastic Differentiated Instruction Plan Book.

What are some of your best differentiated assessment tools? Leave a comment to share your ideas! One comment from this four-part series on differentiation will be selected to win a School Box gift card, and another comment will earn a Scholastic book of your choice…so comment away!

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