You Can Put a STOP to Classroom Disruption!

Active engagement activities are an important part of classroom instruction, but if getting kids up and moving causes disruption, these activities become ineffective and chaotic.

The Erase-a-Letter Strategy is an easy way to keep students on task during cooperative learning lessons. This strategy is for “whole class” management when students are moving about the room or working in teams. It should not be used as a consequence for individual student misbehavior. It’s never fair to punish the whole class when one student acts out. I recommend the Stoplight Management system to address individual discipline problems.

Advanced Planning – Very Important!

When you plan an active engagement lesson that has the potential for excessive noise and off-task behavior, think of a back-up assignment to use if your original lesson doesn’t go according to plan. Make sure that your back-up plan is quiet, focused, and easy to complete individually. Tasks that involve using a text book, completing a worksheet, or writing in a journal work very well. The task needs to be something students can complete without your help, so review assignments are great for back-up plans. It should also be something they can finish at home if they don’t have time to finish at school.

Erase-a-Letter Procedure

  1. When you introduce your lesson, give your activity directions as usual. Be sure to include your expectations for noise level and acceptable movement in the classroom.
  2. Next, write the word STOP on the board or on chart paper in large letters.
  3. Explain that you expect your students to work well together and keep the noise level to a minimum, but if a large number of them are too noisy or off-task, you will erase a letter from the board. When all letters are erased, they will stop the activity and switch to an independent seatwork lesson. Feel free to let them know exactly what the alternate lesson will be – some students will feel you are bluffing and have nothing else planned for them.
  4. Each time you have to warn the class about being uncooperative, loud, rude, or anything else, cross off a letter. Be sure to draw their attention to the fact that you are erasing a letter and calmly explain why you are doing so.
  5. When all the letters have been crossed off, you simply stop the cooperative activity and give a seatwork assignment. That’s it! Usually a class will push you to the last letter of the word STOP the first time you use this. But if you have your alternate plan ready for them that time, the next time you use it you will only have to erase a few letters. You’ll even begin to hear them whispering, “Shh! Shh! We only have 2 letters left!”
  6. Be sure to require that students complete the seatwork assignment for homework if they don’t finish in class. What should you do if the kids don’t do the seatwork assignment? That’s easy. I always plan a fun cooperative activity for the next day. The kids who had the seatwork have earned their way back in and are allowed to participate. The ones who didn’t do it sit in at a table in the room and work on the assignment they should have done for homework. In some cases, I’ll even arrange with another teacher for those students to complete the assignment in his or her room.

Tips for Success:

Stoplight Freebie

  • Don’t use this technique if just one or two students are causing a problem. Use another technique such as the Stoplight Management System. Don’t punish the whole class if one person is misbehaving UNLESS the whole class is encouraging the behavior by laughing. When you punish the whole class, the other students feel that it’s unfair and you begin to lose their respect.
  • You can use another word instead of STOP, this one has just the right amount of letters. A teacher once told me that she writes the word HOMEWORK on the board and if she crosses off all the letters they have extra homework. I said, “I’ll bet you don’t see any improvement in behavior until you are down to the last few letters, right?” She saw my point immediately. She was coming across as very ineffective because she was giving 7 warnings before taking action!
  • Don’t lecture the students about their behavior when you cross off the last letter. Just calmly tell them to go back to their seats because you are going to stop the activity for the day. Let them know that you will give them another chance tomorrow, if they complete the assignment. If they linger and don’t get back in their seats immediately, let them know that it might take a few more days before they are ready for another activity . . . tomorrow might be too soon! They’ll get the point! Just don’t lecture the class. The ones who were causing a problem will tune you out, and the ones who weren’t causing the problem will be irritated at having to listen to a lecture when it wasn’t their fault. Remain pleasant and calm, and project the expectation that you know they will get the work done and be ready for more fun tomorrow. It’s amazing how well this works!

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Interactive Whiteboards and Web Tools

Interactive whiteboards are more than just glorified overhead projectors – the interactive tools allow teachers to create lessons that actively engage students in creative ways. They also allow us to use a variety of interactive web 2.0 tools with our students in a way that allows all students to participate actively.

I hope to add more items to this page throughout the year – great links to other websites and my favorite Smartboard files. For now, it’s a somewhat random listing of files that I’ve either created or discovered on the Internet.

Plickers Free Online Assessment Program

Are you using Plickers? It’s a free online program for assessing students, and it’s fun! Here are some resources to check out:

Cool Websites and Applications for Any Computer

BrainPOP Free Videos

  • BrainPOP Free Video Collection – Do you know Tim and Moby? They are the animated characters in all of the BrainPOP videos. Each video is about 5 minutes long, and somehow Tim and Moby are able to teach the essential aspects of almost any concept in that amount of time. My 5th graders loved them! BrainPOP has an entire collection of free resources for each video, too. Unfortunately, many of the videos can only be accessed with a subscription to the site. However, I found this link to all of the FREE BrainPOP videos on the site, and there are actually quite a few. They have a cool iPad app, too. Definitely worth a look.
  • Online Countdown Egg Timer – Egg TimerWhen you click the link, the timer won’t look like the one on the right. But after you enter your time and click start, you’ll see the sand begin to run out. Cool! This website also has other great timers so you can have fun and add variety to your classroom management. You can learn more about these online timers on Corkboard Connections.


Webinar Recording: 5 Amazing Web Tools for Classroom Collaboration

Free - 5 Amazing Web Tools Webinar Recording

  • Stop the Clock Interactive Game – Drag the digital times to match them with the analog clocks. Stop the clock when finished! Can you beat your time?
  • Bang on Time Interactive Game – Read the time below the clock and watch the hands move. When the time on the clock matches the time in word form, stop the clock. Score points for accuracy.

Click to watch the recording of a webinar hosted by Laura Candler featuring five terrific educators and their favorite web tools. Presenters include Joan Young, Paula Naugle, Erin Klein, Suzy Brooks, and Lisa Dabbs.

5 Amazing Web Tools Webinar Recording – This is the full version of the webinar as seen in Blackboard Collaborate. You can’t view this file on a mobile device, but it works great on a computer. You’ll feel like you are right in the webinar room with us in the live session! You’ll be able to view the chat area and navigate back and forth through the session.

More Amazing Web Tools Webinar Resources

Web Tools LiveBinder

Interactive Fraction Bars Computer Application

Interactive Fraction App
Check out this amazing free computer application for manipulating fraction bars! Use the first link to open the program and use it on your computer. The second link has directions and information. The third link is a video demo. Play with this program before you use it with your students.

Smartboard Notebook 10 Files

Polygon Explorations for the Smartboard
Mini Pack: Polygon Explorations for the Smartboard

Over 2 dozen pages of patterns, printables, and teaching strategies to supplement any geometry unit. The Smartboard version includes a unique gallery of all 30 “Poly Shapes” used in the activities.

Click through to the Polygon Explorations Mini Pack page to learn more and preview the materials online.


Note: The files below require Smartboard Notebook 10. A free trial of that program can be downloaded from Some of the activities have directions, but you’ll have to figure out the others on your own. 🙂 You may be able to open them with other types of interactive whiteboard software, but I can’t guarantee that the features will remain the same.

Attention Firefox users! Right click on each file name below to download the file and open it using your Notebook 10 software. Otherwise, you’ll just see gibberish!


Note: If you are looking for The Hat random name picker, I no longer host this file on my site. You can find it on this free download site, but download it at your own risk! Be careful not to download additional stuff that you don’t want along with that file!

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Honoring 9/11 – A Delicate Balance

Each year on September 11th, we reflect on a series of horrific events that changed the course of history. As a teacher, you might be struggling with whether or not you should discuss 9/11 with your students. Although your students weren’t even born in 2001, it’s important to  recognize the events of that significant day in some way.

A few years ago, I discovered a great book to read aloud on September 11th, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. I want to share a few free resources  that I created to go with the book, as well as some teaching tips and management strategies for using this book in your classroom.

1. Read aloud The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

This classic children’s book describes amazing true story of Philippe Petit who walked on a high wire between the two towers right after they were constructed.  The Man Who Walked Between the Towers focuses on his daring feat and simply mentions at the end that the towers are gone and only live on in our memories. Be ready for the question that is sure to arise, “What happened to the towers?” How you answer that will depend on your students’ ages and what you feel is appropriate to share.

2. Discuss The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Use this set of question cards to discuss the book with your students. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I suggest discussing them as a whole class or in small guided reading groups rather than in cooperative learning teams. These questions deal specifically with Philippe Petit’s daring feat and they don’t mention the events of 9/11.

3. Compare Literature and Informational Text

Before you read aloud The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, explain that the story is based on a true event. Ask your students to help you create a list of questions about the event that include additional information they wonder about what happened. Then ask them to read a news account or an encyclopedia article about Petit’s walk between the towers.

I found a description of Petit’s walk in an article on, and I edited it to create a shorter PDF version to use with students. If you use it with your students, please remember that the details in the Wikipedia article may not be 100% accurate. After your students read the article, work together as a class to create a Venn diagram  to compare and contrast the two versions of the event. What was left out in the story? Why did the author leave out these details? Are any of the details different between the two versions?

4. Explore Numbers and Measurements

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers includes many references to lengths, heights, and widths, so I created a set of task cards that display those quantities. After reading and discussing the story with your students, show each of the task cards to your students, one at a time, and ask them to try to remember what each number referred to in the story.

You could even give each cooperative learning team a set of eight cards and have the students write that information on the back of each card. For example, on the back of the “Quarter of a mile” card, they might write “height of the towers.” After they work through the deck and make their guesses from memory, reread the story aloud to check and discuss answers.

5. Experiment with Center of Gravity

One thing that amazes me is the way Petit was so confident about his ability to walk across the wire without falling. The story does not get into the scientific aspects of how he’s able to do this, but his secret has to do with that 28-foot balance pole he carries. This is a perfect opportunity to have your students explore center of gravity concepts.

Rachel Lynette’s book Gravity: Forces and Motion has some excellent discovery activities for this concept. One of them involves trying to balance an orange on a pencil, which is nearly impossible, and then adding forks to the sides as shown below. Add a lump of modeling clay to each fork handle, and you can balance the orange easily. The lumps of clay move the center of gravity to a point lower than the orange, allowing it to balance.

You can find a more complete explanation in Gravity: Forces and Motion or other science books about force and motion. 

6. Discuss the Events of 9/11 (If Appropriate)

I realize that none of these suggestions deals with the events of 9/11. If you want to talk to your students about what happened on that day, I would suggest starting with the  BrainPOP video titled September 11th. I showed it to my 5th graders, and it was very really helpful as a foundation for a discussion about what happened.

The 6-minute video explains why these events occurred without going into unnecessary detail. Be sure you watch the video yourself before showing it to your students so you’ll know how to answer their questions. (Note: This video used to be free, but apparently it’s not free anymore. If you have an account, it’s a video worth watching.)


Every year, September 11th is a difficult day for those of us who were old enough to remember how the events unfolded. We remember that day with sadness, and also with an awareness of how quickly our lives can change. It was a day when we discovered that our sense of security about our own lives can evaporate in a flash. However, I don’t believe we should allow our feelings about those events to negatively impact our children. Children need to feel a sense of security in order to grow and thrive, and we should be mindful of this tomorrow. That’s one reason I love the book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Reading this story to our students allows us to honor the memory of the day the twin towers went down in a gentle way without instilling a sense of fear and insecurity in our children.

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How to Teach Social Skills, Step by Step

Seating students together is not enough to ensure teamwork. Many kids have very little idea how to interact appropriately with their classmates. They simply lack the social skills needed to perform the most basic cooperative learning tasks. Lack of social skills is probably the biggest factor contributing to lack of academic success in teams. Fortunately, social skills can be taught just like academic skills. If you use a systematic approach like the one described below, you’ll find that your students CAN learn how to interact appropriately and become productive team members.

Listen to the Podcast: How to Teach Social Skills for Working Together
For more information about how to teach social skills, listen to Episode 7 of my Inspired Teaching Made Easy podcast below.

Six Step Process for Teaching Social Skills

1. Discuss the Need for Social Skills
Before you can help students improve their social skills, they need to understand why these skills are important. You might begin by asking your students to think about problems they may have experienced when working in groups, such as team members not listening to each other or not taking turns. Explain that most of these problems are caused by poor “social skills,” sometimes known as “people skills.” You might even mention that sometimes adults need to work on their social skills, too! Brainstorm a list of social skills that might make it easier for students to work together in teams. If they can’t think of any social skills for working together, share some of the suggestions from the list below.

Social Skills
2. Select a Social Skill
Even though your students may need to work on several different social skills, it’s best to focus on just one skill at a time. You can start with the skill you feel is most important, or you can let your class decide which skill they need to work on at a given time. I like to start with “Praising,” which might also be stated as “Showing Appreciation,” because when kids master this skill, all of the other skills are easier to learn.

3. Teach the Social Skill
Step 3 is to teach the skill explicitly so that your students know exactly what to do and what to say in order to master the social skill. For this part of the lesson, you can use the Working Together Skills T-chart below by projecting it on a whiteboard or drawing it on anchor chart paper.

Write the name of the social skill in the box at the top of the Working Together Skills chart. Then ask your students to help you brainstorm what they might do and what they might say when demonstrating the social skill. Write what they might DO under the Looks Like heading because this is what the skill looks like when it is demonstrated. Write the words they might SAY under the Sounds Like heading because this is what the skill might sound like to someone who is observing the activity.

Examples for the social skill of Praising:
Looks Like: Thumbs up, Clapping, Smiling
Sounds Like: Terrific! I knew you could do it! Way to go! I like the way you…

4. Practice the Skill
After you complete the Working Together Skills chart with your students,  it’s important to have them practice the skill right away by participating in a structured cooperative learning activity. For example, if you taught Active Listening as the social skill, you might follow up with a team discussion activity in which students take turns answering questions or sharing ideas around the team. Here a a few suggestions for cooperative learning structures you can use to practice specific social skills:

Social Skills and Cooperative Learning Structures

Social Skills

Structures for Practice*

Active Listening Roundrobin, Think-Pair-Share, Mix-Freeze-Pair
Praising Rallytable, Roundtable, Pairs Check, Showdown
Taking Turns Rallytable, Pairs Check, Roundtable
Using Quiet Voices Think-Pair-Share, Numbered Heads Together, Showdown
Staying on Task Rallytable, Roundtable, Pairs Check, Showdown, Mix-N-Match
Helping or Coaching Rallytable, Pairs Check, Showdown, Mix-N-Match
Using Names Mix-N-Match, Mix-Freeze-Pair, Showdown
* For more information about these cooperative learning structures, check out Dr. Spencer Kagan’s book, Cooperative Learning.

5. Pause and Reflect
Sometime during the practice activity, use an attention signal to stop the class. Ask them to think about how they’ve been using the social skill. If you have observed teams or individuals doing a good job with the skill, share your observations with the class. Challenge students to continue to work on their use of the social skill as they complete the activity. Refer to your Working Together Skills T-chart if students have forgotten what the skill Looks Like and Sounds Like.

6. Review and Reflect
At the end of the activity, reflect again on how well the social skills were used. Take a few minutes to discuss the positive interactions that were happening, and aspects of the social skill that still need work. This is a also a perfect opportunity for personal journal writing and reflections. Consider these writing prompts:

  • How well was the social skill being used on your team? What specific examples do you remember?
  • How did you personally use the social skill? What did you do and/or say? To whom?
  • How might you improve in using this skill next time?

By the way, it’s not necessary to follow all six steps every time you teach a new social skill. The most important elements are explicitly teaching of the skill and immediately following the instruction with a cooperative activity to practice the skill. The reflection steps are important and should be included as often as possible, too.

Modification for Younger Students
Younger students or special needs students could benefit from watching an excellent video created by Model Me Kids called Time for School. This video shows students exactly how to perform specific social skills. Even if you don’t use the video with your students, you might be interested in viewing it yourself to see how social skills can be broken down into steps and taught. If the video is appropriate for your students, they could watch it before completing the Working Together Skills chart above.

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Daily Math Problem Solving and the Common Core

Daily problem solving is a highly effective way to help your students master the Common Core mathematical practice standards. Fortunately, when you have a plan in place, it can also be the easiest way to motivate your students to become proficient problem-solvers.

I’ve always recognized the importance of daily math problem solving, but in the early years of my teaching career, I struggled with how to incorporate this practice into an already-packed curriculum. I finally developed an easy plan that takes just ten or fifteen minutes a day, and this practice actually motivated my students to love solving problems! I called this method the Daily Math Puzzler program, and began sharing the strategies with other educators. Recently, several teachers have asked me if my Daily Math Puzzler program is aligned with the Common Core. The answer is a resounding YES, which is easy to justify when you take a look at how the Common Core Math Standards are organized.

Mathematical Practice Standards

The Common Core Math Standards are divided into “content” and “process” standards. The mathematical practice standards describe “how,” and the content standards describe “what” in math instruction. Much attention has been given to the content standards, so it’s easy to overlook those all-important mathematical practices. Yet those practices are at the heart of good mathematics instruction.

Because it’s easy to forget about the practices, I created the Standards for Mathematical Practices chart shown below to use as a checklist to be sure that you are addressing these important areas throughout the week. Print it out and keep it in your lesson plan book. As you plan each math lesson, review the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice to determine which standards you can incorporate into each lesson.

Daily Math Puzzlers and the Common Core

Each of the four leveled books in the Daily Math Puzzler program includes a variety of word problems integrating different content areas across the various mathematical domains. Because these books are not specific to a particular grade level, it would be impossible to align them with the Common Core Math Content Standards. When students solve problems, they need to integrate content from previous grade levels, so it wouldn’t really make sense to align the books with one grade.

However, the entire Daily Math Puzzler program IS compatible with the Standards for Mathematical Practice, which is the “how” of mathematics instruction. These eight standards can only be addressed by having students solve math problems on a regular basis, use mathematical tools, and discuss their thinking and reasoning with others. If you download the Standards for Mathematical Practices chart above, you’ll see that they range from “Making sense of problems and persevering in solving them,” to “Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.” All eight practices can be integrated into math instruction when you have a daily problem solving program in place.

All four of the Daily Math Puzzler books are included in my Math Problem Solving Bundle, along with Math Mindset Challenges and a Math Problem Solving Webinar. Click here to preview the entire bundle on TpT.

Problem Solving Assessment Freebie

Before you begin a problem solving program, it’s a good idea to assess your students to determine how they solve problems. You’ll find this free Problem Solving Assessment packet to be really helpful because each page of the assessment requires students to show their work. You can also require students to explain their answers in writing if you want to gain a more complete understanding of their thought processes. You can download this freebie when you sign up for my Candler’s Classroom Connections newsletter. Just follow the links in the welcome message to a page called Laura’s Best Freebies.

The Common Core State Standards have raised the bar for all students in mathematics, and incorporating math problems into your instruction on a daily basis is one of the best way to ensure success with word problems.

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Math Mindsets Matter: How Can Teachers Foster a Growth Mindset in Math?

Oh no! I’ve tumbled down into the rabbit hole of growth mindset research, never to be seen again! All kidding aside, the more I learn about growth mindset, the more fascinated I am with this topic, and the more I realize I have yet to learn.

But as fascinated as I am with growth mindset, I’m even more intrigued by the challenge of putting these research findings into practice. In other words…

How can we use the most current brain research to foster a growth mindset in our students… and in ourselves?

Mathematics is arguably the subject where mindset matters the most, especially when you consider how many adults have experienced math anxiety in the past. Take me, for instance. I always excelled in math, but I’ll never forget the horrible experience I had with college calculus. I’ll save that story for another time, but let me just say that it totally shredded my confidence about my ability to learn math!

Despite that experience (or maybe because of it), when I started teaching, I discovered that I have an aptitude for teaching math. I love breaking down complex math skills to make them easier for kids to understand, and I love using creative teaching methods to help all students succeed in math. Now that I’m no longer in the classroom, I enjoy presenting webinars where I can share these strategies with other educators.

Mind-blowing Brain Research About Mistakes and Mindsets

During one of my recent math webinars, a teacher suggested that I read Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets. I had already been planning to develop a webinar about how to foster a growth mindset in math, so I ordered a copy right away. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to read it when it arrived so the book ended up buried on my desk until I noticed it yesterday.

Oh my goodness! Have you ever read a professional development book that was so compelling you wanted to talk about it with anyone who would listen? That’s how I felt when I started reading Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages, and Innovative Teaching. I was hooked from the first page!

All I can say is the book is definitely living up to the premise of that very long title. I thought I had a good grasp on growth mindset research, but after reading just a few pages, I realized that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic.

For example, I knew that mistakes should be considered to be a sign of learning rather than as a sign of failure.

But I didn’t know that when we make a mistake, our brain responds physically with increased electrical activity and actually grows a synapse! Neuroscientists discovered this by measuring this electrical brain activity in test subjects they observed while working. This brain response happens even when the person making the mistake doesn’t consciously realize a mistake was made!

This research finding just blows me away. It means that if our brains actually spark and grow when we make a mistake, mistakes should be encouraged rather than viewed as obstacles to overcome! Furthermore, completing too many assignments without making mistakes should be seen as cause for concern because students are not being challenged!

I learned this tidbit about the brain’s response to mistakes in the first few pages of the first chapter of Mathematical Mindsets, and as I continued to read, I encountered page after page of mind-blowing facts and information. That’s when I realized how much I had to learn about the scientific research supporting growth mindset classroom practices.

Math Problem Solving: Mindsets Matter Webinar (Register HERE)
I must admit that this realization was humbling in light of the fact that I had just scheduled a webinar called Math Problem Solving: Mindsets Matter to share strategies for motivating kids to love problem solving by fostering a growth mindset.

I decided to reschedule the webinar to give myself time to dig into Mathematical Mindsets a little more before the presentation. I’m really excited about what I’ve been learning, and my brain is just exploding with new ideas and information! I’m also excited to have uncovered a gold mine of information that could potentially have a tremendous impact on mathematics instruction! As a result of this, I’ve completely changed my plans for the webinar and I’m going to take on the role of facilitator rather than an instructor. Let’s think of the webinar as the beginning of a journey we can embark on together to discover ways of rethinking math instruction. We’ll explore some of the myths that educators and parents have about math education, and I’ll provide more information about where to find that goldmine of math mindset resources I mentioned!

As a former upper elementary teacher, I’m particularly interested in how to implement these strategies in grades 3, 4, and 5. I love collaborating with classroom teachers who are implementing innovative strategies to see how these methods actually work in real classrooms. So I’ve decided to create a free Facebook group for upper elementary teachers who want to share math mindset strategies and who want to support each other on this journey. I’m also hoping we can collaborate to develop appropriate “low floor – high ceiling” math tasks for this age range. During the webinar, I’ll explain how to sign up for the Facebook group.

Won’t you join me on my journey to discover how we can empower all students with a mathematical mindset? If you want to accept this challenge, register for my live webinar, Math Problem Solving: Mindsets Matter. If you read this after the webinar has ended, you can sign up for the replay by visiting the registration page.

Whether or not you sign up for my webinar, I urge you to read Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets. But be forewarned… you’ll need to adopt a growth mindset about making changes to your current instructional program. Implementing new strategies won’t always be easy, and I’m pretty sure you’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way. But, wait… that’s a GOOD thing because mistakes fire up your brain and make it grow!

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Island Conquer: Free Pirate-Themed Math Center Game!

Kids often get confused between area and perimeter, so they need lots of practice with these skills. When I noticed that my 4th graders were struggling with these concepts, I created a math partner game to give them a fun way to practice area and perimeter. They helped me name the game, and it became a favorite in math centers.

Island Conquer involves plotting rectangles on a coordinate grid and then finding the area or perimeter of those shapes. The grid represents the ocean and the rectangles are the islands. At the end of the game, players calculate the total area or perimeter of their islands to find out who won.

In the most recent version of Island Conquer, the players, or pirates, are given a mission to map all the islands in Quadrilateral Bay and to conquer them by correctly calculating their areas or perimeters. At the end of the game, both pirates count their “treasure” by calculating the total area or perimeter of all the islands they have captured. Island Conquer is a terrific review game because both luck and skill are needed to win. Players have to rely on luck when they draw a coordinate card from the deck, but they must correctly plot the island on the map and calculate the area or perimeter in order to capture the island and win.

Island Conquer Area & Perimeter Game Freebie

Click here to request this freebie!

Where to Find Island Conquer

Would you like to use this math game in your classroom? Island Conquer is free for my newsletter subscribers. If you’d like a copy and you’re not a subscriber, request Island Conquer here.  I’ll add you to my email list and send this free game to you.  If you are a current subscriber, look for an email from me with the link to the private page, Laura’s Best Freebies. I hope you find this activity to be a helpful math resource and that your students enjoy Island Conquer as much as mine did!

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Teaching Order of Operations: No-fail Strategies that Work!

Order of operations can be frustrating to teach, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no question that this is an extremely challenging topic for elementary students. Fortunately, there are loads of strategies for teaching order of operations that are both fun and effective.

One reason kids struggle with this concept is that there are so many rules to learn and follow. Even worse, rules that appear to be simple often prove to be deceptively complex.

For example, most kids can easily remember that multiplication and division are always performed before addition and subtraction, especially after they learn to follow the order described by “PEMDAS.”

However, they tend to get stuck when an equation includes both multiplication AND division. Most kids automatically multiply before dividing, but order of operations tells us to perform the operation that comes first when reading the problem from left to right. No wonder kids find order of operations to be super confusing!

Another reason kids struggle is that even when they understand how to use order of operations correctly, they don’t apply the rules systematically. Because the problems look easy, students try to rely on mental math alone to solve them. This may work with the easy problems, but mental math isn’t effective with more complex problems that include multiple operations, parentheses, exponents.

After watching my students struggle with order of operations, I developed a simple lesson that worked every time. As a result, my students actually remembered the rules and could easily apply them to any problem. I’d like to share these no-fail strategies with you, along with two free order of operations printables you can use to help your students grasp these concepts.

Order of Operations Lesson

The lesson begins with a quick activity to get students thinking about why we need rules for solving equations. This lesson “hook” is followed by an order of operations mini-lesson, a guided practice session, and a fast-paced game that doubles as a formative assessment activity.

To get the most from the activities, each student will need a dry erase board or tablet where they can work out the problems. You’ll also need at least one calculator for the class that uses order of operations correctly. A physical calculator is fine if displayed under a document camera, or you can use an online calculator. Be sure to test the calculator prior to the lesson to be sure it can handle order of operations problems. To find out, enter 1 + 2 x 3 and press the = sign. The correct answer is 7, so if your calculator displays 9 as the answer, it does NOT use order of operations correctly.

1. Lesson Hook: Solve a Not-so-simple Equation   

Before you teach PEMDAS or any other strategy, challenge your students to solve a simple equation such as this one: 3 + 8 x 2 = ?  Ask your students to write the equation on a dry erase board or tablet, and then solve it and show you the answer.

You’re likely to see two different answers, but resist the urge to reveal the correct answer at this point. Most students will say the answer is 22 because they added 3 and 8 and then multiplied the sum by 2. However, who have studied order of operations in the past will say the answer is 19 because they multiplied 8 times 2 and added 3 to the product. Your students might be a bit confused when they notice that some of their classmates have different answers, but they are about to become even more confused!

Tell your students that you’re going to use a calculator to check the answer, and as they watch, enter the problem above. When the calculator displays 19 as the answer, act surprised and say you must have entered the problem wrong. Enter it carefully again, and when you get the same answer, try a different calculator. When you get the same answer yet again, ask your students to pair up with a partner to discuss why the calculator keeps giving the “wrong” answer. After they talk it over for a few minutes, tell them that 19 is actually the correct answer, and that you’re going to teach them some important rules for solving problems that involve more than one operation.

This activity is a great way to start your order of operations lesson because it creates a feeling of “cognitive dissonance,” a state of mind in which we struggle to assimilate new facts that don’t match what we thought we knew about a topic. When students experience cognitive dissonance, they become eager to learn and open to new ideas, so it’s the perfect time to start the actual instruction.

2. Direct Instruction: Introduce Order of Operations

How you introduce order of operations will depend on your students’ readiness and their prior experiences with algebraic concepts. You might want to start by teaching your students how to use parentheses to indicate which part of an equation should be solved first. Write an equation two different ways, keeping the numbers the same but placing the parentheses around different pairs of numbers like this: (5 + 3) x 2 = ? and 5 + (3 x 2) = ?

Show your students how to solve both problems, and point out that even though the numbers used in the equations are the same, the solutions are different. Give your students several more pairs of problems that have the same numbers and the parentheses in different locations. Stop after each problem to discuss the solution and clear up misunderstandings.

Next, display an equation that doesn’t have parentheses, like 15 – 5 x 2 = x. Point out that it’s not clear which part of the problem should be solved first, and as they’ve seen with the previous example, the order in which you perform the operations DOES matter.

Tell your students that mathematicians have agreed upon a set of rules called the “order of operations” that must be followed when solving problems. If your students have already studied exponents, you can teach the acronym PEMDAS which stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. The phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” will help them remember the order of those letters. If your students haven’t studied exponents, you can substitute the acronym PMDAS and the phrase “Pass My Dad a Sandwich.”

3. Guided Practice: Teaching the Step-by-Step Method for Solving Problems

For the next part of the lesson, you’ll need to download the Order of Operations Freebie shown above. This freebie consists of three pages from Order of Operations Bingo Level 1. Exponents are not mentioned on these pages, and the acronym PMDAS is used instead of PEMDAS.

After using the Order of Operations Review to explain the PMDAS acronym, display a copy of the practice page or give each student a paper copy. Introduce the step-by-step method for evaluating algebraic expressions by explaining the example at the top of the page. Using this strategy, each step is written on a separate line.

Guide your students through the process of solving the 6 practice problems one at a time. Check and discuss the solutions after each problem, and be sure to have them show you their work. If needed, refer to the answer key on page 3  of the freebie for step-by-step solutions.

If you have not taught this step-by step-method of solving order of operations problems, you might be tempted to skip it and let your students use mental math. Most of the problems are so easy that your students may be able to solve them without writing out each step.

However, relying on mental math to solve more challenging problems results in a lot of careless mistakes, so I recommending teaching your students to follow this step-by-step strategy with EVERY problem. If they get in the habit of using this systematic approach, they will be able to solve more complex problems with ease later. Trust me on this!

4. Play an Order of Operations Game

After your students understand how to solve order of operations problems, they’ll need lots of practice while the concepts are fresh in their minds. Games are far more effective for practice than worksheets because they are fast-pace and fun, motivating students to solve dozens of problems in a short time.

If you play the game as a class and discuss the answers after each problem, your students will know within a few round of the game if they are solving the problems correctly. If they aren’t, they will be motivated to ask questions and seek help to improve. Furthermore, many games can serve as formative assessment activities if you walk around while students are solving each problem to observe their work. Without having to administer a formal test, you’ll be able to see who understands the concepts and who needs more help.

Order of Operations Bingo is my favorite activity for practicing this skill because players can’t win without using order of operations correctly. To foster math skill development, ask your students to work out each problem on a dry erase board or tablet, using the step-by-step method. Stop after each problem to discuss each solution before presenting the next task card. Remind your students that they can only cover the answer on their Bingo boards with a chip if they had the correct answer BEFORE you revealed the solution to the class. If you enforce this rule, I can guarantee a huge drop in careless errors after the first round of the game!

5. Review and Practice with Order of Operations Task Cards 

The first four strategies are extremely effective for teaching kids how to use order of operations correctly. However, in order to retain what they’ve learned, your students will need opportunities for more review and practice throughout the year. The Order of Operations Task Cards below will make it for your students keep these skills fresh. You can use the task cards in math centers or for cooperative learning activities like Showdown or Team Scoot. Both sets include images for Plickers, so they can also be used for whole class formative assessment.

Order of Operations Task Cards Bundle from Laura Candler

Differentiating Instruction is Easy

Differentiating instruction is easy because there are two levels of instructional materials, including the task cards, bingo game, and assessments. Level 1 includes basic problems like the ones used in the freebie. The materials for Level 2 have more complex problems and some of the problems include exponents. Both sets of bingo games, task cards, and assessments are included in one cost-saving bundle.If your curriculum includes exponents, the Order of Operations Games and Tests Bundle is your best option. If you use both levels in your classroom, you might want to print the task cards and game materials for each level on different colored card stock to keep them separate.

Order of Operations Games, Task Cards, and Tests Bundle

Classroom-Tested: Teacher and Student Approved

I’ve updated both Order of Operations Bingo games by adding more task cards with problems, along with new game boards to go with those task cards. The original game used a 4 x 4 Bingo grid, but I switched to a 5 x 5 grid to include more numbers for a longer game. I also revised the directions to include more information for teachers about how to use the game as an instructional tool.

After making these changes, I posted a request for volunteers to field test Order of Operations Bingo with their students. Several teachers offered to help, and two of them sent pictures of their students playing the game. I love to see photos of kids using my lessons and activities, and I couldn’t resist sharing a few of them with you!

Fourth grade teacher Christina Ashburn tested Order of Operations Bingo and had her students solve the problems on dry erase boards as described in the lesson. She didn’t have bingo chips, so she laminated the game boards and had her students color over the answers with dry erase markers. I honestly never thought of doing that, but it’s a brilliant idea! For one thing, if kids are solving problems on dry erase boards, their markers should be handy. Also, you don’t have to worry about plastic Bingo chips ending up all over the classroom floor!

Order of Operation Bingo is a fun and effective math game for practicing order of operations skills. #orderofoperations

Fifth grade teacher Sheryl Nicholas also tested the game in her class. After observing her students play Order of Operations Bingo, she discovered an unexpected benefit. Sheryl explained, “My favorite part was how my non-English speakers immediately felt involved in the review. So much lately is ‘drill and test,’ but this made it a lot more interesting for the students. All were engaged in the activity and there was quite a bit of math talk as well as individual practicing of skills.”

After they played the game, Sheryl interviewed her students to get their feedback and shared some of their comments with me. I especially loved reading two comments about having to write out the steps of each problem. One student said, “I liked that you wouldn’t let me do them in my head but made me write the problems on the iPad and do them.” Another student wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about that part of the lesson, stating, “I wish you would have let me do these problems in my head. But then again, I always work too fast so I probably did better since I had to write them down.”

I just laughed when I read that last comment because it’s exactly the sort of thing some of my students would have said! This “no-fail” order of operations lesson is fun for students, and the step-by-step strategies make it highly effective, too. After playing the game, even kids recognize the importance of writing out the steps when solving order of operations problems, whether they like it or not!

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Motivating Math Games

Motivating kids before a holiday break can be a challenge, especially if you’re still expected to teach skills and review academic content. Whole group instruction is particularly challenging because it’s so difficult to get kids to sit quietly and focus on the lesson when everyone (including you!) is hanging on until your break!

As a former 4th and 5th grade teacher, I’ve been there, and I found that the best way to keep kids engaged any time of the year was by using math games. I love using games because they are so versatile; you can use them in math centers, cooperative learning teams, or small guided math groups. Math games give kids a chance to talk and move, but it’s productive talk and movement, so playing math games is the perfect way to keep kids focused.

Free Island Conquer Area & Perimeter Game

Island Conquer Area & Perimeter is a perfect example of a partner math game that will challenge your students and engage them in learning. The players, or “pirates,” plot rectangles on a coordinate grid and find the area or perimeter of those shapes. The rectangles on the grid represent islands in the ocean, and the pirates color the islands they conquer. At the end of the game, players calculate the total area or perimeter of their islands to find out who won. This game is free for my newsletter subscribers; click here to sign up for Candler’s Classroom Connections and grab this freebie!

Where to Find More Math Games

Whether your school is still in session or you are already on summer break, this is a great time to build up your collection of math games. You can make your own, of course, but they are quite time-consuming to create. If that’s not how you want to spend YOUR time, check out my Math Games Mega Bundle because it might be just what you need. This bundle includes 16 math games that are perfect for upper elementary students.

Each game is unique, which means you need to preview them individually. If you’d like to take a closer look at them, click the cover images at the end of this post to find them in my TpT store. If you like all of them, you’ll save over $25 by purchasing the Math Games Mega Bundle below.

Tips for Teaching with Math Games

If you’d like some tips for teaching with math games, check out my post, How to Use Math Games Effectively in the Classroom. In that post, I shared some strategies and techniques for using math games as a part of your instruction rather than just for fun. I also described an easy mini-lesson on how to teach kids to be a good sport. Many of those tips and that mini-lesson are also included in my freebie, Tips for Teaching with Math Games, which you can download from my TpT store. Enjoy!

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