Monthly Archives: January 2015

TenMarks: A Website Review

I’m probably a bit over-excited about this, but it’s not often you have a class vote with a unanimous result.

Today, we tried the website TenMarks, which I foresee using as an independent math activity while I meet with small groups. I learned about TenMarks from the wonderful members of #4thchat (Thanks!). Before I go into what we liked today about TenMarks, you should know about our current Computer Aided Instruction program.

Our district currently uses SuccessMaker, which is a Pearson product. Overall, this is a quality product. The instructional modules are decent, and the data can be useful if you know where to look. This post certainly won’t trash our current product.

It does, however, have one flaw that causes issues. It lacks a motivation piece. As they work through a session, the student doesn’t have a goal, and there is no target they can achieve. In today’s gaming world of “leveling up,” this has developed into a large detractor.

Enter TenMarks. I set up my free account last night and my accounts and assignments were ready for students in about fifteen minutes. In class today, I wrapped up my regular lesson a bit early so I could present this new website. As I talked through the features, I could feel the energy starting to rise. I was not expecting this because, honestly, the graphics on the TenMarks website are not flashy, no cartoon characters to be found.


I soon figured out what the students were magnetized by…the chance to earn certificates and unlock games. They were all talking about this possibility. After trying out the site, I asked them to write which program they liked better on a sticky note, and every answer was TenMarks.

Now, I understand that this could be just a novelty. As fourth graders, they have been using the previous program for five years since kindergarten. It could just be they liked something new. I also worry that they’ll rush through just to unlock games, though I’m looking for a setting that prevents this. Either way, this was an interesting study in what motivates today’s students online.

“Where’s All Your Stuff?”

During my first year of teaching, I built a pile of papers on my desk that was literally ten inches high. It wiggled, wobbled, and constantly threatened to cascade off my desk and turn the whole room white. Luckily, it never did.

When the annual Open House event approached that year, I knew I needed to clean up and make a good impression, but the huge pile of papers, and all of its smaller relatives, certainly wouldn’t help. So I gathered the entire stack and put it in the closet. If this were the end of the story, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, the end of this story features me finding that stack three months later, long after anything important in that stack was needed.

However, this week, my newest colleague came into my room, looked at my desk and said, “Your desk is so clean…Where’s all your stuff?” I give all the credit for my transformation to two books: Spaces and Places by Debbie Diller and The Together Teacher by Maia Heyck-Merlin. From these books, I have five main improvement I have made that might help your classroom too.

1. Build an online calendar – If you haven’t built a Google Calendar, this has to be a starting point. You can set repeating events so you don’t forget anything and receive an email notification each morning full of reminders. The poster-sized desk calendar just becomes a place to stack stuff.

2. Use Post-Its but make them a intermediary – Post-It notes work well for quick reminders, but they collect and create a mess. Transfer the information you write on Post-It notes onto something neater. I use an app called G-Tasks because it integrates easily with Google Calendar.

3. Buy and label trays – I have two sets of labeled trays on the shelves next to my desk. One set is labeled with each day of the week; it’s where papers for the upcoming week go. Another set holds labels like “To Be Filed,” “Keep Handy,” etc. This leads me to #4…

4. Only move a paper once – You stop by your mailbox in the office, and you have a stack of papers in your hands upon arriving in your classroom. Resist the urge to set them down and start working on something. Take the fifteen seconds needed to put them in the correct tray or straight into the recycling bin.

5. Get rid of the junk drawer – Yes, that drawer in your desk where you put random things. Honestly, you don’t really need any of that stuff. It’s probably a jumble of junk you took from students, old CD-ROMs, and expired medicine. Empty the drawer, buy a drawer organizer, and stick with it.

People who knew me as a first year teacher would probably laugh to know I just wrote a post about organization. My mom definitely would. Good luck organizing your desk!

Helping Students Succeed With Expository Writing

Elementary school students struggle to understand the concepts of plagiarism and paraphrasing. You could ask most classrooms, “Should we copy out of the book?” and they will respond chorally, “Nooooo.” Some students might even be able to tell you that you should “put it in your own words.” But can they actual put this into practice? Not usually. In this post, I will show how my team of teachers made one tiny tweak to a research assignment that helped students succeed and avoid plagiarism.

A few years ago, I read someone’s observation that if you have students research an expository text and then have them produce an expository text in the exact same format, plagiarism is almost unavoidable. You are setting them up to fail. (I wish I could remember the source; my apologies.) This really revolutionized the way we have designed research-based, expository writing assignments.

If students read expository articles on a topic, my team adjusts the written product so they students must fully understand and process the information, which eliminates the possibility of plagiarism. So what do we do? Read on!

animal project

Our state life science standards requires students to study animal adaptations and how those adaptations help animals survive in their habitat. After completing the research process (a post topic for another day), each pair of students had to develop a Google Presentation about their animal’s adaptations. However, instead of just having a list of plagiarized facts, the assignment asked students to create their presentation as a set of instructions for a young animal. So, instead of plagiarizing, “A giraffe has a long neck so it can reach the highest leaves in a tree,” the students might have written an instruction to a baby giraffe that says, “Use your long neck to reach leaves that the other animals can’t get.”


The science concept is, of course, the same, but the latter shows that the students fully comprehended the nonfiction articles they read, which shows we have helped students meet our nonfiction reading standards as well. By changing the genre slightly, we created an assignment that could help students succeed when producing original expository writing. Here are a few more examples from the students’ presentations:

greywolf slide

tiger slide

penguin slide

I was very proud of the student’s work, and I enjoyed the ways this assignment require them to think. The possibilities for this assignment-creation strategy are endless. I’m interested to hear other possibilities from teachers of various grade levels.

Should We Use Holidays as Snow Day Make-ups?

Now that many of us are experiencing our first cancelled school days because of the weather, the debate about whether or not to use holidays as make up days has begun.

Should we attend school on President’s Day? How about Dr. Martin Luther King Day? Both? Just one? Neither?

One side argues that attending school on these on these days is disrespectful to the memory of these important figures in American history. They think we should honor Dr. King and Presidents Washington and Lincoln with a day off that allows the general public to reflect on the contributions of these individuals.

Another side argues that attending school on these days gives us more opportunities to teach students the important of these historical figures. We have more of an opportunity to hold special convocations and read about historical events.

I’m okay with either of these views. They are both based in reasoning that makes sense. However, there is a third view that seems to represent the majority of school districts in my area. These districts make Dr. King Day and Presidents’ Day into conditional make-up days, days which there will be no school unless they need to be used to make-up a snow day.

I think the idea of conditional snow days is more disrespectful to these historical figures than actually scheduling school on these days. In essences, those districts are saying, “We think Washington, Lincoln, and King are important enough to honor with a day off…unless snow decides otherwise…”

Districts need to make a decision on these holidays and just go with it. Look at two other holidays – Christmas and Columbus Day. Most districts have Christmas off and attend school on Columbus Day. They have decided that Christmas is important and deserves a day off, but Columbus Day is not worthy of being honored in that way. There’s no middle ground with these holidays.

There shouldn’t be any middle ground with Dr. King Day or President’s Day either. These are either worthy of having school off or not. Leaving these holidays as conditional is more disrespectful than scheduling school these days.

Restarting the School Year

As adults, we have the tendency to want to pick up right where we left off in January. We expect that January 5th will be the same as the middle of December, or even October or November.

Our students, however, are not quite ready for this. After the fractured schools schedules of December and two weeks off for the holiday, returning to school in January is almost like starting over. Here are a few ideas to help the school year get off to a good restart.

1. Assume Nothing – Think your students remember how to line up? Walk in the hall? Get their lunch? Don’t count on it. This is likely progressively worse of a problem the younger your students are, but even my fourth graders hear a lot of procedures the first few days back.

2. Re-Build Reading and Writing Stamina – We hope that students have used the time off to be reading and writing more than they would on a normal school day, but this is not the case for many of our readers, especially the most reluctant. Unfortunately, many of these students spent more time playing video games than reading. These students might need help regaining their ability to read for thirty or more minutes.

3. Work on Team-Building Skills – During the holiday season, adults focus on their children, and those kids often get what they want (mine did!). The nature of this means that sharing and sacrificing were fairly absent for many students for two weeks. Reteaching cooperative learning skills and doing team-building activity benefit the classroom climate and help make the rest of the semester more productive.

Good luck and have a great second half of the year!