Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.
The class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure after.
Before all of this, first thing in the morning, I will have the students sit on the carpet while I explain the rules and how the contest works. Students bring home a paper that has images of footballs on it. Each football represents 20 minutes of reading outside of school. They must be initialed by an adult; parent, caretaker, daycare worker, babysitter, anyone. Each football is one yard. It takes one hundred footballs to score a touchdown, but with the whole team working together, it happens faster than you think. If each kid reads 1 football each night for a week, and there are 12 kids on a team, you are looking at midfield (48 yards) by Friday! As you can see, there is lots of math in this contest. Each touchdown is worth 7 points. Field goals can be scored by students completing book reports.
In addition to the classroom contest, each of the five 3rd grade classrooms compete against each other in a grade-level competition to see who will be MVP. We celebrate the students’ successes with a “Reading Super Bowl Party” the Friday before the NFL’s big game. That is when our contest ends.
The students always love friendly competition. They get into coloring and cutting out their footballs. I have them tape them to the classroom football field that I post in the back of the room. Counting their team’s footballs seriously energizes the students to go home and produce multiple footballs for the next day’s taping session.
I got this idea from John Burger, my mentor in 2010 at Willow Lane. It was his last year, and we were teaching second grade. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the idea from someone else. That’s how teaching works. If you like the idea, use it, go for it. Good luck!
Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.
To appreciate something is to recognize its worth.
The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.
On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or cheese, the more expensive the bottle or package. There is value in something maintaining its importance, if not even growing its influence, over time.
A lesson that I have been doing for years explores this hypothesis. Every year, after Thanksgiving, an army of nutcrackers marches into the American commercial and decorative landscape. They are everywhere, decorated in every imaginable theme. There are Philadelphia Eagles nutcrackers, stormtrooper nutcrackers, teddybears, ninjas, knights, historical figures, bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness nutcrackers, etc. There is no limit. Where does this army come from? There is a famous, seasonal ballet with a terrific Tchaikovsky score. There are mountains of books. Where did it all begin, and why is it so popular?
In 2012 I dug up the original novel by ETA Hoffman and gave it a read. The 1816 text (translated to English from German) was difficult to comprehend and full of robust vocabulary, so, naturally, I decided to share it with my students. (Challenge is classy; future blog.)
Before beginning, however, I came up with what has proved to be a clever way to record our findings. I projected an image of a nutcracker onto the wall. Using different pieces of paper (eight in all), I traced the outline of the nutcracker. I photocopied and stapled the pages into packets. Students were instructed to write their notes within the outlines, but “Do not go ahead”. In the same way the mysterious nutcracker comes to life within the tale and eventually is set free from his spell by Marie, our paper packets start to reveal themselves once the students get to the image of a face, one of the last pages.
My friend and co-teacher Lori Merrill combined her class with mine, and we would take turns reading the original text to the class. We came across a copy that Maurice Sendak penned and illustrated. It is slightly easier to read than the Dover edition, published 1967. Plus, the Sendak pictures are amazing. This year we had the advantage of a school Youtube channel, “Willow Lane Read Alouds” that allowed us to videotape the read alouds and publish them to the web for kids who missed a chapter to catch up. They could share with family members, as well.
Throughout the read aloud, students record vocabulary, write down key events, and draw illustrations inside the outlines of their soon to be nutcrackers. After finishing the story, students complete their notes, drawing visualizations of the toy-mouse war, the Mouse Queen placing a spell on Princess Pirlipat, Marie giving up her toys and sweets to save Nutcracker, and of course the trek through The Land of the Dolls. Then the students lightly color in all of the sections, cut them out, and assemble their very own nutcrackers. We tape them together, and get them laminated, usually and hopefully just in time to bring home for the holidays.
Now, these third grade students have a tool that they can use to retell the real story (or at least, the original story) of The Nutcracker. They are also beautiful decorations!
If you look at reviews of the original “Nutcracker”, you will find Fritzes scolding the text for inconsistencies, flaws, and poor quality. There are Madame Mouserinks waiting to bite the Nutcracker’s head off with criticisms. There is no end to the naysayers who demean the text. So, again, why has “The Nutcracker” remained and even grown in popularity?
Perhaps, it is because the characters are so unique. Nutcracker is not just a toy that comes to life. He is the Superman of toys. Judge Drosselmeier is a lawyer, tinkerer, seeming villain, and finally patriarch. Fritz displays the same militaristic attitude that his stiff soldiers show when he sentences Nutcracker’s fait. And, the noble, sweet Marie is about to sacrifice her most precious possession to save the Nutcracker. And, is there a more sadistic nemesis in literature than the seven-headed Mouse King?
The Nutcracker might maintain its popularity because of its foreignness. Winter swoops in, bringing cold and snow and holidays. Initially, it is fun and exciting because it is so different from summer and fall. Similarly, Nutcrackers take over the turkey, Pilgrim, and Native American displays. They often have an Eastern European aura to them. Also, the ballet was produced by Russians; The story written by a German.
Maybe The Nutcracker is popular because he is a symbol of olden times; simpler times. Who cracks nuts, nowadays? What kid treasures wooden toys that have one moving part?
I don’t know why our culture is so fascinated with The Nutcracker, but visiting its conception is one of the highlights of the school year. I feel like a textual anthropologist when I lead students into reading, learning, and studying the first writings of this cultural icon. I hope that not only do they develop a deeper appreciation for this classic, but that they learn the importance of appreciating the past.
I was glancing around my classroom before I unplugged the Christmas lights and took off, yesterday, and I saw this: A chess board had been “put away” by being placed on the Red Bin. The Red Bin is the place where notes, money, messages, etc. for the office are placed first thing in the morning. They then get sent down to the office with our lunch count in the green envelope seen under the chess set.
We are just beginning our school chess club, this year. I accepted too many members, and don’t have enough of the nice big vinyl boards with 3 inch plastic pieces for everyone. (Christmas idea;) So, we have been using a mishmash of different sets. The one in the picture is magnetized, that’s why the pieces can stay in place.
What struck me about this pic is the concept of actually sending the board to the office! Did a student think that this was a message for the secretaries? Should we move a piece and share the board with another class? There is a buzz around the school of students becoming increasingly interested in this “thinkers game”. I have been working on populating a webpage from my classroom website with chess related information that could be helpful not only to the members of our club, but any beginning player. Mr. Vitale, my third grade teammate and partner in running the chess club, and I have made several videos to post on this website. My dream is for the whole school to become interested in playing chess. I wouldn’t be upset if other elementary schools caught this vision. Wouldn’t it be great for our district, state, country to learn, practice, and master thinking strategically, analytically, as well as creatively?
Mr. Vitale and I began a chess game this past week during lunch. We couldn’t finish it, so it remained set up in Mr. Vitale’s room. He couldn’t help but show and talk to his students about it. I took pictures and shared them with my class. By Friday, we were able to complete the game, but only after both of our classes worked on analyzing the following images to help with potential moves. It was fun, exciting, motivating, and infectious. By Friday, my students were sneaking onto Chesskid.com whenever they could. I found iPads with chess games begun, hiding under notebooks.
Here is an idea: Teachers sign up for the Chess Challenge. The magnetic board travels around the school, visiting learning spaces (not just classrooms). A chess enthusiast, either chess club member or one of my students or myself, can visit participants, if desired, to help with some chess instruction. (In other words, teachers shouldn’t feel like they have to be good at the game to participate.) A paper with notation will accompany the board. This will also be posted on the website for classes to keep up with the game, virtually. The color a class is responsible for will depend on which is moving at the time the game arrives at their doorstep. If it is Black’s move when Room 205 gets the board, then they are part of the black team. When a class captures a piece, they get to keep it until the end of the game. They can display it as a chess trophy. Much of the game is strategy, so rooms could even display thinking by posting writing or drawings of the ideas that prepared their move. Perhaps awards could accompany the moves that displayed creative, analytical thought.
My aim is to not only spread the love of chess, but inspire thinking, especially an affection for analytical reasoning. Lets get kids excited about using their cognitive abilities as much as they are pumped to tackle, shoot hoops, hit home runs, etc. The brain may not literally be a muscle, but it should definitely get exercised!
I couldn’t possibly be more excited to be starting a chess club at Willow Lane Elementary! This Tuesday is our first meeting. I had tossed around the idea of starting this club when I began teaching at Willow, 8 years ago. Instead, I began an after school club that published a school newspaper: Willow Lane News Update.
This experience was very rewarding. I learned a lot about iMovie, editing and publishing, plus Google Sites. I found a fantastic tool for online publishing; Smore.com. I don’t regret one minute of it.
The chess club will be a lot different because, while it can be addictive, it doesn’t hang over your head the way a publishing deadline, albeit self-imposed, might. It’s just a game. Or is it? –Check out these two battle for Room 207 2017-18 classroom champion after a week and a half tournament!
The idea for this blog began when I decided to pick up the Newbery Medal Winner that I’ve been slowly chewing, “Tales From Silver Lands” by Charles J. Finger (1924). Low and behold, what do I think of but chess… Of course! But, hear me out: A character from the second story (Yes, I am only on the 2nd tale!) exhibits a wonderful quality that chess shares: Equality.
There is an aging king who is seeking a son-in-law to take over the reign of his land. The beautiful, talented, wise princess has found no suitor to her liking. Men from every corner of land compete in sports and arts to win the woman’s affection. One day a man dressed in rags shows up. Every other suitor brought wonderful gifts for the princess and king. This man has nothing. But, when he competes in the contests, his carefully aimed arrow splits that of the best marksman’s. This ragged man does not just run faster than the deer-like champion. He flies like the wind. And, when it comes to singing, the man dressed in rags attracts the beautiful birds of the jungle, who cover him with wonderful wings. In other words, the man who seemingly had nothing, possessed the greatest talents, abilities, and attraction.
No matter how large the piece, the symbolism remains the same.
The tiniest chess board can be played with the same depth and complexity as a DGT Timeless set used by championships.
One of the amazing things about chess is that anyone can excel. It is a classy equalizer. No matter the age, gender, physical ability, or socio-economic status, chess is a vehicle anyone can drive.
It was the ability of the man dressed in rags to out match his opponents, rather than his looks, wealth, or status. The events that he competed in could have been practiced for nearly free, so that this character could have grown up running and singing. He might have made his own bow and arrows that he used to gather the food to stay alive. In the same way, chess can be taught to and played by all. It is a game that anyone can learn and grow to play well.
The 2018 World Chess Championship began this week. I was reading an article about Magnus Carlsen, five-time world champion, and was impressed by one of his life goals: “Make chess cool” (Kleinman, 2018). Carlsen has produced an app called “Play Magnus” in which chess enthusiasts can choose different ages of Magnus Carlsen to challenge. The idea is for players to gain bragging rights. This champion of chess is putting himself out there for kids to beat! “I defeated Magnus Carlsen!” is what he hopes to hear from kids who will spread the excitement to future potential pawn pushers. What a great ambition. And, the greatest equalizing part of it all is that the app is FREE!
Another popular and fantastic equalizing story is that of Phiona Mutesi, “Queen of Katwe.” The true story of Phiona, who is from a village in Uganda where kids have to sleep in hammocks, high off the ground, so they don’t get washed away, out of their homes by surprise floods, among other things, was made famous by author Tim Crothers (2013). His book was made into a Disney movie in 2016 (Nair).
Frank Brady, the author of the one of the best-selling chess books in history, “Profile of a Prodigy,” wrote an article about an exhibition, “Into the Human Light: Uganda” (2016), for the US Chess Federation. In addition to all of Phiona’s hardships living in Uganda, Brady suggests that her plight was “sad”… until “She found chess.” Never mind economics, chess can raise the human spirit.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential organizations in helping me prepare to begin the new Willow Lane Chess Club: After School Activity
Partnership (ASAP) of Philadelphia. This past summer a friend, Julia Dweck, invited me to a Scrabble training that took place on the eleventh floor of a building in the heart of Philadelphia. I made the hour-plus drive to meet her there, and it was one of the better decisions I’d ever made! Come to find out the same organization that provides free training and supplies to educators interested in starting Scrabble clubs also promoted chess clubs. I greatly enjoyed my Scrabble training, and before leaving, found out about the chess program.
There is endless amounts of free apps, websites, curriculums, worksheets, etc. about chess online and at libraries. I downloaded a humongous manual on managing a chess club the summer before. It wasn’t until I revisited the ASAP office on Locust St. in Philadelphia, again in July, though, that I felt like I could actually do this. A handful of other future club leaders and myself were shown how to focus on deepening an understanding of each piece, rather than simply explaining the rules and letting kids have at it. Not only is this training completely free, but if I were an educator within the city limits, the organization would have provided me with supplies for free! In addition to the phenomenal training, ASAP also sponsors several free tournaments and other events throughout the year. The kids of Philadelphia are incredibly lucky to have this truly philanthropic organization. It is working to equalize the opportunities for urban kids to be able to participate in the challenging, competitive, thinking, rewarding game of chess.
Earlier this year a student from my room hurt the feelings of a peer by pointing out a physical characteristic that contrasted the child’s appearance with the other kids in the classroom. The rudeness was unintentional (Whitman, n.d.), but painful nonetheless.
The only reason that I knew about this interaction was the hurt child came over and told me about it. It almost seemed like she wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. As she told me her story, others, overhearing the tale, chimed in with their two-cents. This additional commentary seemed to spin the story into a negative frenzy, so that I put an end to the retelling in order to address the class.
I talked to my third grade students about the effect that pointing out differences among people can have. I explained that while the observant student may not have done anything overtly wrong, it wasn’t polite to focus on what makes someone different from you. It is great to be proud of what separates you from others; These characteristics make us unique and special, but don’t draw attention to how other people are different from you. Rather, we should celebrate our similarities.
What the boy did when he pointed out the way a little girl looked different from himself was a natural thing to do. We humans can’t help but categorize things (Vanderbilt, 2016). We have genres for music, books, movies, art, dance; You name it! It’s much easier to find things when they are labeled. When I’m in the mood to read a mystery, it’s much faster and easier to go to that section of the bookstore, rather than sift through every single shelf. But, what about those books that are very funny true stories about a person’s life that happen to also be highly mysterious? Now what? Often times, we simply create a new category.
Tom Vanderbilt (2016) goes a step further, suggesting that the more we like something, the more we want to categorize. A person who enjoys candy will separate a bag of treats into several groups of like sweets. How many times has the book-lover rearranged his or her library, recategorizing titles? I have grouped books that I read close in chronology, only to separate them after reading new texts.
The problem with doing this to people is that genre-making exaggerates differences (Kaufman, 2012). When we categorize things, we look for what makes them unique. When it comes to relationships, it is wise to seek similarities over identifying differences. Contrasting characteristics can create wedges and rifts between people. Locating, examining, celebrating, and strengthening the things we have in common will pull people closer together. This will build relationships that will be useful, helpful, comfortable, and enduring.
I came up with an activity to help reinforce this concept in my classroom. I call it “Building Bridges”. We have a snack/play time in the afternoons, when we give ourselves a brain break. I instituted a “constructive” play rule, where kids use items that can be connected or built upon in order to make things, rather than just mess around. We have Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, 30+ year-old Robotix toys from my childhood, and we also use the colorful interlocking blocks that came with our math curriculum. Because we have the most of this last medium, I chose to have the whole class use the colorful blocks in a contest. (The competition makes it more exciting.) Groups of kids–I not only let the kids pick their own groups, I didn’t limit the size of groups–arranged and connected blocks to form bridges that spanned distances between desks. I told them that the bridge had to be able to hold and transport a Thymio robot–This is a little robot that students can program to drive. The robot was the trick. Students worked to make their bridges wide enough, thick enough, and strong enough for the robot to use. Rather than drop robots on the floor during trial runs, we measured the weight with a simple scale. The robot was equal in weight to a half-full pencil box.
We discussed the concept of working together right after having experienced it first-hand. The kids loved constructing the creations.
The thing is, the blocks in our bridges were all different colors. Not only that, but they stuck together in varying strengths. Some had tight connections. Some were very loose. But every block had way more in common with the others than it did with the desk it rested on!
In the same way, humans are all different; We look, think, behave, talk, dress, and smell different. But, we have way more in common with each other than our differences would let on. Lets focus on our connectivity, building bridges, rather than tearing each other down.
The idea for this project surfaced this past summer. My wife Sonia plays keyboard and electric bass in a band that hosts an open mic in Allentown, PA. Sonia also sings.
An open mic is a different venue from a concert. It is more like a jam-style atmosphere. This is an opportunity for musicians to try new things and literally play, rather than perform. You can collaborate on projects, join other bands for a song or two without committing to membership, and meet new people.
Sonia had been going to and playing at this open mic for nearly a year. On a pretty regular basis, people thought that they should go up to Sonia and tell her what she could improve. It didn’t seem like these people were doing this to anyone else, and the pep talks, or whatever you want to call them, were unsolicited. It felt like Sonia was being bullied. She was new to the scene, and had quickly moved to center stage. Perhaps the bullies were jealous.
Whenever Sonia would tell me one of these stories, I tried to only listen, but I inevitably thought about what a classy response might be. It varied on the situation, but my favorite boiled down to asking the purveyor of symphonic wisdom, “What are you doing?” I thought up the idea of interrupting the (let’s presume) ignorant bully, and simply inquiring, “Why do you feel the need to push this lecture on to me?” It isn’t like Sonia had asked to be critiqued, so what was happening here?
Sonia is far from insecure, and she is very classy, so she nearly always let the ignoramus spout his advice. She, probably, rightly so, figured he wanted to feel important or knowledgeable. It’s not impossible the guy just wanted something to talk to my beautiful wife about. Wrong move. It was not providing Sonia with positive feelings.
I transferred all of this to a situation that I could imagine happening in a school setting. If an elementary student was being bullied, what would be the best response? Also, how could I communicate to 3rd graders appropriate ways to deal with verbal bullies? I came up with a lesson involving Cause and Effect that used Google Slides. I began by making a flowchart.
From each action (or inaction) a couple of different things might happen. From your next decision, new angles or issues would appear. What would be the best direction to take?
I made a Google Slideshow that has a simple, generic storyline for students to interact with. As they read each slide, they click on the box that they think will be best for dealing with the given situation. The boxes are all linked to slides within the slideshow, so depending on what is clicked, students will create their own narrative; like a “Choose Your Own Adventure”. There is a box on every slide that allows students to go all the way “Back to the Beginning” of the narrative to start over. There is also one that allows students to return to the “Previous Slide”.
Before using the slideshow, I recommend using yarn to form a story web. Index cards with elements of a story can be attached to a wall, placed on the floor, or read from desks. Yarn can begin at the start of the story and travel back and forth from causes to effects. The yarn is a timeline. This shows students that conflict is not linear. By definition, we do not deal with a bully once and done. Each variation in how we deal with the conflict is a science experiment. You think to yourself, “This time I will ignore the bully and see what happens.” You witness the outcome, analyzing how it worked out for you. Then next time, you tryout yelling, “Stop bullying me!!” Or, perhaps you give telling an adult a try. Never seeing the bully again or successfully dealing with the situation so that there is no more bullying could be represented by cutting the line of yarn. What would simply running out of yarnsymbolize?
After the yarn conflict web group exercise, students can independently or with partners participate in clicking through and reading the interactive Classy Conflict Management slideshow. This allows them to take control and explore the concept of cause and effect on their own.
This topic does not need much introduction. I’ve always thought that poetry was classy, and I tried writing some when I was young, to no avail. A couple of years ago, I had a story idea that began innocently enough, but morphed into a poem. Each year I get it out at this time for a few reasons. The story has to do with magic and witches. At the beginning of the year I am impressing the importance of spelling and teaching the use of dictionaries. And then, recently, I have taught poetry around Halloween because there are loads of cute, funny, and frightening poems.
Today, I put the poem into a Google Doc that I shared with my class, complete with definitions of vocabulary words and comprehension questions. A month or so ago I posted a blog about sharing creativity. The concept was that the more a lesson is taught, it lives on. For this reason I am sharing my poem here. I hope that you like it. I will mention a couple of thoughts about it at the end of the blog.
It may not be award-winning, but we found it fun to read. There are many “teachable” elements to the poem, also. My favorite is the idea of poetry breaking the rules. Lines 20 and 30, “Of course not,” are an example of this. The rhythm of the poem is broken to symbolize the youth not following directions, therefore messing up the spell. I actually remember chuckling to myself when I wrote these lines. The poem bounces along, and then it burps. The line “Maybe” (63) is another hiccup in the rhythm. This one symbolizes breaking the spell… Perhaps it will be broken.