The Election Process: Helping Kids Understand

With the 2016 Presidential election right around the corner, it's important to dedicate a few weeks to teaching our children about the election process.

But how does one go about teaching KIDS about a process that is even difficult for ADULTS to understand? Especially when a lot of the information that is out on the Internet is not kid friendly or goes into way too much detail.

For days I searched for resources that broke down the election process in a way that I knew my third graders could understand. After turning up empty handed, I decided to create my own election unit with mini Election Booklet, interactive notebook activities, book recommendations, mock election resources, writing prompts, etc...

My family and I  even visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas which had an entire room dedicated to the history of our election process. My favorite part, was an interactive exhibit where you selected a card giving you the role of a person in history such as "an African American woman from Alabama". Then you had to walk right past all these ballot boxes until you reached the year where you were allowed to vote. In my case, I wasn't able to vote in a few elections because I was not white or a male. Great way to feel the unfairness of the times!

In less than a week, my class and I will embark on our journey through the voting process. We will begin by reading Duck for President.  This book doesn't go into too much detail, so it's a perfect book to start with and help you figure out exactly how much background knowledge your students already have going into the unit.

Here's a great read a loud of the book just in case you don't have the book handy.

Next, we'll learn about our rights as US citizens to vote by reading The Right to Vote in our election booklets. Students should understand the 3 requirements to vote and what the voting process looks like. Especially since in just a few short weeks many of them will probably be going with their parents to polling stations.

For a fun activity, have your students fill out a Voter's Registration Application. Then watch their faces light up as you hand them their very own Voter's Registration Card. Remind them to store their card in a safe place so that they have it handy come election day.

This is also a great time to introduce the idea of polling stations and ballots. A great way for students to visualize the process is with this Going to the Polls cut and paste activity for their interactive notebooks.

Another story that is great to use once students have learned a little bit more about the election process is Grace for President . This story does a wonderful job of introducing students to campaigning, campaign slogans, speeches, campaign promises, and even the complicated electoral college.

What I like about Grace for President is that it's a good transition into the more complicated side of the election process.

Many students think that running for President is an easy task, when in truth it is a complicated and lengthy process that takes many months and even years to complete. To simplify the process a little for my kiddos, I've broken it down into 9 steps.

The electoral college and the idea of the popular vote vs. the electoral votes is another tricky concept. However, I think that Grace for President and the video clip below do a good job of making it kid friendly.

Once we've covered all of the basics and students have their own Voter's Registration Cards, I think it's time for them to take part in their own mock election. What better way to understand the voting process than to have to vote themselves.

For our first mock election, I plan on having my students vote for a class mascot. Every class needs a mascot, right?

On election day, they will each have to approach their polling station with their Voter's Registration Card. They will then sign their name on the list of Registered Voter's and be handed a ballot. Once they've cast their vote, they will turn in their ballot in our ballot box. All secret ballots will be counted and the winner announced. We might even incorporate some math into the lesson by having them graph the number of votes each candidate receives.
By the end of the unit, students will be begging their parents to take them to the polls in November! At least, that's what I'm hoping for...

If you'd like to take a closer look at what's included in my complete Elections Unit, simply click on any of the pictures above or here for the direct link.

Product Review: The Classroom Friendly Sharpener

Throughout the years, I've bought about a dozen brand name heavy duty pencil sharpeners for my classroom. They were all rather expensive and supposed to be durable. However, none of them ever lasted for more than a few months.

Last year, I finally gave up and simply relied on mechanical pencils and asked my students to bring a sharpener from home. However, this wasn't any better! After spending a year picking up pencil shavings from the floor, and having to remove pencil points from countless sharpeners, I decided to give a classroom sharpener one more try.

The only difference, was that this time I was going to use a pencil sharpener recommended by fellow teachers. That's how I ended up with my Classroom Friendly Sharpener. I kept seeing them on my Instagram feed and on Facebook and decided to give them a try.

Let's talk about the pro's:
*They come in a variety of colors, so you are no longer limited to blue and black... AMEN!
*Each costs $24.99 and includes free shipping. That's not too bad. Maybe a months worth of Starbucks coffee :0)
*They are simple to use and sharpen pencils in the blink of an eye. It's that quick!
*They are not noiseless, but fairly quiet.
*They sharpen pencils to a VERY sharp point EVERY single time.
*They can even handle pencils with metallic paper.

Let's talk about the con's:
*The clamp that is included with the sharpener does not do a great job of holding the sharpener in place. Over time the clamp does need to be retightened. If you'd like, for an additional $9.99 you can purchase a plate to mount them permanently. I've been making do without it and it's been working out just fine. I just tighten the clamp every few days or so.

So how does the sharpener work?
It's actually really simple. The first thing you have to do is pull the silver face forward until it locks into place like this...

Next, pinch the two black knobs together and insert your pencil completely into the sharpener...

Place one hand on top of the sharpener to secure it. Then turn the handle clockwise to begin sharpening the pencil. The handle will spin freely once the pencil is fully sharpened. While the pencil is sharpening do NOT touch the pencil. The silver face will pull the pencil in automatically so no need to push.

Pinch the two black knobs one final time to remove the pencil... All that's left now is to ooh and ahh over that point! Actually, that's exactly what my kids do... LOL!
Can you believe the point on those pencils?

So what's my verdict on Classroom Friendly Sharpeners? I think everyone should own one! They are that good!!! Not only is this sharpener quick, relatively quiet, and lightweight, but every pencil comes out perfectly sharpened time and time again.

Right now I wish I could be like a teacher version of Oprah and say, "Here's one for you and you and you!" Because you all would be loving me right now!

If you want to find out more click here.

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers

For the past few years, I've noticed that many of my 3rd graders start off the year struggling with the concept of problem solving. Not only in math class but throughout the day and in all areas. 

For example, if my kiddos have a problem with a classmate... they come to me in hopes of a solution. If they've forgotten their pencil at home... they ask what they should do. If they are stuck on a math problem rather than attempt to solve it... they shout out "I don't get it!"

Have you noticed the same thing? If so, then this post is for you because today I've decided to share a few tips that have been working for my third graders. Let's start with some basics...

This is a process in which students are encouraged to think for themselves and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances or situations. This method involves teaching students a series of steps that will help them solve problems. It encourages flexibility, perseverance, resourcefulness, and common sense rather than relying on others to tell them what to do.

The main premise behind this approach is that students need to learn to figure things out on their own. They need to learn to make hypothesis, test out their ideas, adjust their thinking if need be, collaborate with others, and take risks. 

This is usually the most difficult step for students. It involves them being able to verbalize what the problem is in their own words. In the beginning, I recommend having students work with a partner or in groups to write down a problem statement. "What's wrong? What's the problem?" It is important that they learn to write clear and specific problem statements. 
For example: How will I complete my homework on nights that I have baseball practice?

What is preventing them from reaching their goals. Identifying barriers right from the beginning, will help them when they have to come up with possible solutions.
For example: When I come home from baseball practice I have to shower and eat dinner. Then I'm too tired to do homework. These 2 factors are keeping me from finishing my homework. 

Brainstorm possible solutions. Try to have them come up with as many solutions as possible with a minimum of 2-3. Having multiple solutions allows them to have a backup plan in case their initial ideas don't work out. 

It might also be helpful to think about how others have solved similar problems. I like to encourage my students to accept every idea during a brainstorming session, even if it seems silly... If you think it, write it down I always tell them.
For example: I can start my homework on the way home, work on hw on the way to baseball practice, ask the teacher for work in advance, wake up early in the morning to complete hw...

Test out solutions and if their first idea doesn't work,  try something else. Remind them that mistakes are part of the learning process and that it's okay if they have to go through a few solutions in order to get to the one that works best. Perseverance is essential for success! Some of the best scientists test numerous theories over the course of many years before achieving the results they had been hoping for. 

This step is difficult for many. In the beginning you might see them throwing in the towel when their first idea doesn't work. This is your moment to encourage them, motivate them, and remind them that this is all part of the process. Keep in mind that mastering this step is really going to come in handy during math class.

Once students have tested possible solutions it is time for them to reflect on the results. Are they satisfied with what they have achieved? If not, then they need to consider what they should have done differently. Do NOT skip this step or rush through it! This is where much of the learning will take place. Reflection is a key life long skill. Even us as adults should remind ourselves to reflect every now and then.

If you like the posters above you can snag yourself a FREE copy by clicking on the images below.  I've also included a recording sheet that you can use with your students in the beginning as they're practicing.

Now that we understand the problem solving approach a little bit better, let's talk about those tips I promised you...
Teach problem solving skills in ALL areas! This skill can be applied in math, science, reading, social situations, etc... Help your students understand that problem solving is a life long skill. It is something that they will continue to use in the classroom, at home, in college, and in their adult lives. Do not be afraid to share stories with them about how you've been able to solve a few of your own dilemmas. Another neat idea is to have students help you come up with possible solutions to a problem you might be having in the classroom.. such as class disruptions that occur when students use a pencil sharpener during a lesson.

Model... Model... Model! Problem solving is not an easy task. It is challenging, can be time consuming, requires students to be flexible and to persevere. {It is not for the faint of heart... LOL} In your daily classroom routines show your students that you can be patient when solving problems. Share your thinking aloud with them so that they are able to make connections between your actions and each of the 5 steps previously mentioned.

In the beginning, help them verbalize and record their problems in a journal or on a sheet of paper. Make sure that their ideas are clear and concise and that they have listed some sort of goal that they have in mind. In order for students to be able to solve problems, they first must be able to identify the problem.  

In situations where 2 or more students are having issues with one another, you can have them think about the problem they're having. Ask them "What?" and "Why?" questions. Have THEM work through their issues and come up with possible solutions. Encouraging your kiddos to take an active role in the decision making process can be quite empowering.

Take your time... This is not something that will happen overnight! Students are going to need ample time to think, collaborate, come up with and test solutions, correct mistakes, and reflect. Begin with group discussions, then you can move on to small groups, peers, and eventually independent problem solving.  Don't give up! Start small...

Ask questions and make suggestions, but be careful NOT TO TAKE CONTROL! Whenever a student comes up to you with a problem don't give them the answer. (Trust me this is going to be hard at first! Instead try "What do you think?", "Do you have any suggestions?", "Tell me about this...") Try encouraging them to ASK 3 BEFORE ME.  This will promote collaboration and problem solving.

It's also important to nurture a safe learning environment where students feel their ideas are valued and respected. They should feel comfortable enough to share without fear of what others are going to think.

Now it's time to put all of this into practice...
Saving Sam

The Orange Game
Source: Pinterest 
Marshmallow Challenge
Source: Pinterest

It's your turn now, I'd love to hear about how you encourage your own kiddos to problem solve. Do you have any tips you'd like to share because I'd love to hear from you?

5 Fun Back to School Activities

It's almost that time of year again... Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Denying it's not happening won't change a thing. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience :0)

Let's embrace the truth...  in about 4 short weeks school will be back in session. The smell of brand new crayons will fill the air. School supplies will take over our once beautifully organized classrooms and students will be unusually quiet and nervous. 

This time is crucial! The right Back To School activities can help set the tone for the entire school year and your classroom community.

To help save you some precious time searching through Pinterest, I've compiled a list of 5 fun and engaging activities that I think your students are going to love you for! Just pick and choose the ones you like best... or if you get inspired there's one for every day of the week!

1. FigureMe Out- What I like about this activity is that it involves math, can easily be differentiated for any grade level, and is a good way to catch a glimpse at your students incoming math skills.

2. The Great Cup Challenge- I've heard so much about this one, but have yet to try it out in my class... (This year it's on my to do list!) It seems like lots of fun and great for developing those team building skills right from the get go. After completing this activity, I’d probably make an anchor chart with my kids recording what they felt worked and didn't work when collaborating with others.

3. Saving Sam - (Some people call it "Saving Fred") This is one of my go to's every year with my 3rd graders. It’s another great team building activity that really showcases your students  problem solving skills. When I do this with my kids, I also like to get a glimpse of their writing skills by having them write down their solution in 3 simple steps. You can download that freebie by clicking here.

4. Chandelier- Although in this picture students are completing the task on their own, I think it would be great to do in small groups . What I like about this activity is that students really have to concentrate and work well together in order to balance so many plates on those cups. It looks a lot easier than it is!

5. TheTallest Tower- Which kid doesn’t love stacking cups? With this challenge, I think as long as you don’t mind the sound of cups falling and kids laughing it’s sure to be a hit.

There you have it... 5 fun filled activities to keep your students wanting to come back to your classroom every day on the first week of school! Don't forget to pin the picture on the right so you can come back later and pick out what you're going to do on that first week back.

Your turn now... do you have any other go to Back To School activities that are a hit year after year? If so, I'm always looking for new ideas and would LOVE to hear from you.

Have an amazing BTS week and school year!

Fun Games: Good for Relieving Testing Anxiety

A few weeks ago I wrote a post over at iTeach Third where I shared a few tips on how to help ease your student's test anxiety. {You can check it out here}  Today I'd like to continue on the topic of testing, but focus on something a little more positive...

In Florida, 3rd grade testing is a BIG DEAL. You see for my poor 3rd graders, their performance determines whether or not they have to repeat the year.  That's a lot of pressure to put on an 8-9 year old. No wonder the thought of the BIG TEST leaves them with a pit in the bottom of their stomachs.

That's why this year I've decided to carve out time before the BIG DAY to have some testing fun! I started out the same way I do every year... by reading  The Big Test by Julie Danneberg. She's also the author of First Day Jitters.  As usual my students LOVED it!

This book is all about a teacher named Mrs. Hartwell who prepares her class for the Big Test by going over a few important test taking strategies. Our very own students can relate to this...

The best part of this book though is the surprise ending when her students anxiously enter the library all frazzled about having to take the BIG TEST... however instead of being greeted by a scary testing monster they enter into a room-full of silly tests such as a taste test and a driver's test!!!!

Doesn't that look like fun?

I loved this idea so much that I decided to create my own version of Mrs. Hartwell's Big Test. The games below are a sample from my Test Prep: Bundle of Fun Unit which can be found here.

After reading the story and discussing with my students how they could relate to the children in the book, I let them know that it was time for us to take our very own Big Test. I proceeded to gather some testing supplies...
As my kiddos began to notice some of the items in the testing basket, their worried little looks began to disappear. They knew that something was up! We spent the next hour or so T-E-S-T-I-N-G...

First we tested our bubbling skills...

... and learned that many of us have some "mad" bubbling skills. Did you see how they managed to stay INSIDE those bubbles without being able to see! The only help they had was the directions their partner was giving them such as "go left, no a little bit more to the right... yea right there, bubble!"

Next up... I-SPY the Big Test Version...
Each team had 3 minutes to locate as many items as possible on their I Spy sheets. Check out the GREAT teamwork that's happening...

Another one of our favorite "Tests" was called Follow the Reader... This game tested if we were careful readers and if we could follow directions correctly...

The Reader's job was to read a series of tasks to their partner. The Follower had to listen carefully and follow the directions such as "place 3 red M&M's inside of the circle"... Some of the groups had to reread the last task carefully because they incorrectly assumed that the last M&M belonged in the empty shape {Which it did Not!} Great opportunity to remind your students NOT to assume ANYTHING, but to read directions carefully!

We ended our testing session with a game of Pin the Passing Score on the Big Test where everyone was given a passing score medal, blindfolded, and spun around a few times. They I gently guided them in the direction of "The Big Test" sign taped to the board. As you can see below, our Big Test is covered in awards... Woo Hoo... way to go 3rd graders!!!!

Don't you wish ALL tests were this much fun?
It did feel GREAT to take a much needed break from all the practice tests and strategy sessions we've been dealing with lately. My kiddos and I left that day feeling reenergized! Now it's your turn to share... I'd love to hear what YOU do in your class to keep your kids calm about the Big Test.

Click the picture to see more...
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