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...
BLINDFOLDED!


... 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...

8 Party Games Good for Any Time of the Year



This week I blogged over at Minds in Bloom about 8 FUN party games you can play in your classroom. I think you are going to love these games! The best part is that they are great for ANY time of the year. Here's a quick teaser...


With so many holiday and class parties happening throughout the school year, I'm always looking for games to play that are simple, easy to setup, and LOADS OF FUN!

The 8 games that I'm going to share with you are some of my students favorites and would work wonderfully ANY time of the year. The best part is that they require minimal prepping or setup, which is a BIGGIE in my book! I mean, who has time to put together complicated games with a gazillion different materials when you have a room full of 25-30 excited and wound up kids bouncing off the walls ready to have some FUN!

1. Anteaters- This game is one of my students favorite!
Materials Needed: 1-2 bags of plain M&M's or Skittles, straws, and paper plates or napkins (either one will do). Instructions: Divide students into teams (the number of teams doesn't matter). Give everyone about 20-25 M&M's. I like to prep these ahead of time in reusable and sealable plastic containers or Ziploc baggies. (The M&M's represent ants) The goal is for students to pretend to be anteaters, and use only a straw to suck up and transfer as many ants/ M&M's as possible from a napkin to a paper plate in 1 minute. The team that transfers the most wins.

Head on over to Minds in Bloom to read the rest of my post...

8 Ways to Help Ease Your Students' Test Anxiety

This week I blogged over at iTeach Third about how to help ease your students' testing anxiety. It's unfortunate but we all have those students that get REALLY nervous during the Big Test... some so badly that they actually make themselves sick. If you know what I'm talking about, then I think you're going to love the 8 tips I share and the freebies I've included. Here's a small teaser... 

My students and I are currently in Crunch Mode... unfortunately this does NOT mean that we spend the day doing stomach crunches or eating Crunch bars, although I wouldn't mind a Crunch bar marathon :0) Instead this is what we call the last few weeks before our high stakes testing begins. For most, this is also the time when anxiety levels are through the roof for teachers, students, and parents alike. Especially in my state (Florida) where student retention is determined based on test scores.

I've seen first hand how HORRIBLE anxiety can be. It can cause so many symptoms ranging from stomach aches, head aches, clammy hands, nausea, sleepless nights, anger, frustration, inability to think clearly and even hives! (Yes, I actually had a parent break out in hives one year due to stress) 

We can't change the fact that our students have to test, what we CAN do is help them deal with their testing anxiety. If you're unsure where to start, here are 8 ways you can help...
  • Practice Breathing Exercises- In my school we call our relaxation technique S.B.G. or STOP, BREATHE, and GO. When students feel frustrated during a test, they stop and close their eyes, breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth (2 times), and then go on or continue with their test. We practice how to do this quietly at our seats so that others aren't disturbed.


    Head on over to iTeach Third to read the rest of my post... 

Distributive Property of Multiplication


For many years I dreaded having to teach my 3rd graders the Distributive Property of Multiplication. They just always seemed to struggle!

Then one day I had an idea that changed ALL of that and teaching the Distributive Property has actually become one of my FAVORITE math lessons of the year!

What’s my secret you ask?
The Distributive Doctor 
more on Doctor D. in a little bit... 

But first, let's talk about planning... I like to block out a few days (usually 3-4) in order to provide my kiddos with plenty of practice at all 3 levels of instruction: concrete (using manips), pictorial (making drawings), and abstract (using numbers).

  We begin by...

Manipulatives are key in order for students to be able to "see" and truly understand this property. So we use them quite a bit in the beginning!

I'll start off by having my students show me an array. (This step is usually easy, since we've already learned about multiplication and arrays.)


Next, I tell them that we're all going to be distributive doctors or surgeons for the day! They LOVE this! I even refer to them as Dr. Smith or Dr. Rodriguez :0) You should see their faces light up when I call them all doctors!!!!!

Our first "operation" as newly named Distributive Doctors is to use our scalpels, otherwise known as popsicle sticks, to cut our arrays. 

Using an EXPO marker, I have them write on their desks a multiplication expression for each of the arrays. (Don't worry, the writing comes off easily with a tissue.) 


At this point we spend some time discussing that we haven't added or taken away any counters so the number of bears we started with has not changed. What has changed, however, is how we've decided to group them. 


Next, we add both arrays together to find the total. We repeat this a few more times and practice "breaking apart" the arrays in both horizontal and vertical directions. 


The following day we practice some more! 
Drawing Pictures is next... Once I feel the majority of my class has mastered breaking apart with counters, we move on to pictorial representations. We follow the same steps we practiced above, the only difference is that students are no longer using manips., but instead drawing pictures.



You can make things interesting by using a Q-tip and paint. The key is to provide plenty of time experimenting with the Distributive Property so that students become comfortable with it.




You can even set up a center with supplies such as graph paper, scissors, colored pencils, and glue sticks.

One of our favorite activities is Doctor D. You can check it out by clicking here.




Using Numbers is the last step. Now that students have had plenty of practice visualizing the Distributive Property, it's time to remove the support.


Some students will reach this level sooner than others and that's okay. The goal is for all kids to receive PLENTY of practice and support in the beginning, so that by the time they get to the abstract level of understanding they get what's going on. All of the hard work and time that was put in in the beginning will pay off in the end!

I hope you can take an idea or two back to your classroom! If you have other ideas on how to practice the distributive property, share them in the comments below!

Many of the resources used in this post come from my 
Distributive Doctor resource which can be found here.


Looking for more great math ideas? 
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