Be the change, building community, challenge, Student-centered, students

Hey, It’s Ok To Go Outside the Curriculum Once in a While


I have felt like a new teacher this year.  Chalk it up to 27 students with a crazy range of learning needs, new program implementations, and just an insane amount of meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.  We also have a new block schedule to implement, which has been amazing in some ways and limiting in others.  Most nights I work 2 or 3 extra hours at home making up for the time I don’t get in school.   While I love this year, it has also been a crazy one and every day I feel the curriculum pressing down on me urging me forward, to just get it done.

So why on Friday, with the pressure of everything we need to get through, did I have my students do the spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge, swallowing up 40 minutes of our day?  Why “stop” the curriculum so the kids could have a team challenge?  Haven’t we already built community?

I did it because the kids need it.  They need to continue working in new teams.  They need to be challenged.  They need to think differently and deal directly with failure (there were epic attempts!).  And if you look closely, you would have seen how it absolutely was curriculum, even if FOSS science had not mandated it.  The students worked with design, creating a standard prototype and then testing their theory, adjusting along the way.  They changed and tried to control the different variables and engaged in deep on-the-spot thinking to ensure success.  In fact, as I looked up the Common Core standards for speaking and listening, I couldn’t believe how many of them we had covered.

Yet it’s bigger than that.  I made the teams so that kids who would not pick each other worked together.  I told them they would more than likely fail (based on previous years’ experience) and it was what they did with that failing moment that mattered.  The spirit of living up to expectations swallowed the room and carried the children home.  They did it together, and even though there was a winning team all of the kids celebrated and laughed about it.

We may think that when we leave the confines of our curriculum, we are breaking the rules or not teaching.  And sure there are times when the educational value can be hard to uncover.  But if the challenges are right, we are teaching the children more than some lessons do.  It takes courage to step outside the boundaries, but do it right, and the pay off will be immense.  My students left asking when they would do the next challenge, I told them “Soon!” and I meant it.  We have to think outside the lines of our own rush and needs to keep those kids challenged and engaged.

I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this fall from PLPress.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

building community, new year, Student-centered, students

Building Community Activities Just for You


Every year I try to have various community building activities for the kids to do on those first few days of school.  And while I detest ice breakers, in 5th grade, we do like the occasional get to know me activity.  Though the years I have used various scavenger hunts, time capsules, and bingo games to get to know them a bit better, to get them to know each other, and also for me to keep until the end of the year.  Then when summer beckons and we cannot believe that the year is over, I pull out the forgotten letters, the time capsules, the about me’s, and we reminisce and we laugh and we shake our heads at the answers we gave so long ago.

As I shared some of this with my teammates yesterday, I realized I should share it here as well.  Some of this is me created, some of it is adapted from others a long time ago.  Either way, I hope you have a phenomenal back to school and that some of these may be useful to you.

  • Around the Room Scavenger Hunt – customize to fit your room, helps the kids notice the things they need to find or know.
  • Human Treasure Hunt – great for when you have a lot of new kids so they can discover things about each other
  • A Letter to Me – I use this to peek into the kids’ thoughts and then save it until the end of the year to see how they have changed
  • Me Collage – a secret collage where the kids have to guess who made it
  • 3 minute time test – there are so many variations of this one but it is used to discuss the importance of following directions
  • Group Bingo – Instead of numbers they have to find kids that match the description
  • Time Capsule – Students fill in the blanks (this one always cracks me up)
  • How We Started – All of their favorites are listed here

Other Ideas for Community Building:

Other Ideas for Community Building:

  1. The Bloxes Challenge
    – a favorite of mine the past few years and this year the whole grade level will do it.
  2. Create a flag pennant:  Cut a white piece of 12”X18” construction paper diagonally to create two pennants.  Students write their name in large letters with color and then fill in the pennant with things about them.  Laminate and display above their lockers.

  3. Writing sample to see how they grow, a great prompt is; “What color is (blank) grade?”

  4. Every year I have the outgoing class write “Dear Future Student” letters so we read these in the first couple of days.

  5.  Using the students create a classroom vision video.  Educators can get a free account and then use that for student work.  We use the stock pictures and add out own sentences to show what we want to get out of the year.

  6.  Random pictures of you slideshow.  Create a slideshow with pictures that are meaningful to you and have students guess what they mean – this can be a lot of fun as students guess their meaning.

  7.  The firs test of the year!  Surprise them with a pop quiz that is all about their teacher, true/false questions work best.

  8.  Connect the students – this is a great activity that only requires a large sheet of paper and sharpies.  Students all write their name on the border of the paper and then one person makes a statement about something they like or do such as, “I play soccer.“  Anyone else that plays soccer gets to draw a line from his or her name to the name of the person who made the statement.  Then the next person states something and so on until everyone has had a turn.  Great way to visualize all the things we have in common.

  9. Name your table and create a banner for it.

  10.  Toilet paper introduction.  Pass a roll of toilet paper around and instruct students to take as many squares as they want.  Once everyone has taken their squares, tell them they need to share as many things about themselves as they haven taken squares.

  11.  Guess the like.  Every student writes down something they do or like on a piece of paper (no name on it!) then crumble it up.  Have a paper toss battle for a few minutes and then everyone grabs one “ball.  Try to guess whose paper it is.”

Some of these I use, some I don’t but either way, feel free to use.

I am a passionate 5th grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this fall from PLPress.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.


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building community, classroom setup, new teacher, new year

Some Ways To Show My Students They Matter

This year we start the first day of school with a first day of school.  And while there will be no orientation day, no meet and greet, I still want them to feel that excitement of a new year, a new room, a new group of kids, and definitely a new teacher.   I want them to know that I am so happy to teach them, because I am!  So I have been thinking of little ways I can show them how much they matter, feel free to add more in the comments.

  • The welcome letter – I spend a lot of time crafting this letter because I want them to get to know me a little bit, get excited about the great things we will explore, and for them to feel welcomed.  I change it every year, but here is last year’s letter as an example.  (Don’t mind the atrocious picture quality, I had to compress the file).
  • The book bins – Every student will have a book bin waiting for them with books carefully selected from last year’s students.  On each book is a post-it note explaining why the book was chosen and how much they loved it.  I hope this makes my new students excited about reading.

    Student created book bins with selected books
    Student created book bins with selected books
  • The letters from former students – each student also has a handwritten letter from my old students giving them tips on 5th grade, insider information about “surviving” their new teacher, and things they can look forward to.  I love the care my old students take to welcome the new students even though they are not at the school anymore.  (And I keep these letters every year after the new students have read them).
  • Pencils with messages – these don’t show up for a few weeks as I get to know them but I love leaving small messages on number 2 pencils.  Why buy them pre-printed when you can write exactly what you want with a sharpie?

    messages on pencils from last year
    messages on pencils from last year
  • Purchasing their favorite picture books – I have been on a picture book binge this summer – they are just so absolutely fantastic.  So what better way than to expand my library then by asking my students what their favorite picture book is and then surprise reading it aloud for them at some point?  I cannot wait to make this a reality, even if it means spending more of my own money on books.
  • The precepts – we finished last year sharing “Wonder” and I asked my students to write precepts for how to love 5th grade.  They did and these will be welcoming my new students in the hallway leading to our room.
  • The family picture – Someone smart (and if it was you please let me know so I can give you credit) wrote about how they would have students bring in a family picture to leave in the classroom all year.  I love this idea!  So I will ask every child to bring in a special picture (or photocopy of one) and then we will make a display out of all of them for the whole year.  I want the students to feel this is is their room as much as mine right from the beginning.

I am sure as summer winds down there will be more ideas, but for now I am excited about these.  What will you be doing?

building community, classroom expectations, community, new year

A Teacher’s Biggest Fear

Last Thursday I had a parent meeting for the students that will be in my 4/5 class.  We had set up this opportunity since my school has not had a combination class for a long time and therefore wanted all questions and concerns addressed before orientation day.  It was a great turn out and a great night, something I wish anyone could do really before they start the school year.  And although there were many great questions, the best one was, “What is your biggest concern?”  My answer was “Building community.”

I am sure many would have thought I would have answered how to get through the curriculum or something of that nature but that does not worry me as much as building community does.  And I am not alone with this concern.  Every year, when we start a new year, we want the best class possible.  We want our students to walk away from the year feeling that they belonged, that their teacher trusted them, respected them and that they had a genuine voice in the room.  No longer is it my room, but ours.  So community, that old catch phrase, is the one that keeps me awake.  
Since we are a combination room, community has to be a major focus right away.  Some students know each other and a lot do not.  However, that is true for almost any class.  Students tend to congregate with like-minded peers but often at the 4th grade level we start seeing some of the first shifts in friendships as students spread their wings a little and discover the world.
So how do I plan on building community, well let me count the ways….
One thing I am big on is language; language can destroy or build up.  In this case being a combination room rather than split class says a lot about how I feel.  We are a fusion, a combination, not something that is split off from the school, from other classes, other kids.  My welcome back bulletin board says, “We are a Terrippic Combination” and a bag of Combo’s, one for each student, with their name on it, is stapled around the door.  This is the first things students see; combination rather than split.
I hate ice breakers.  They are awkward and contrived.  Rather we need to create a common purpose and that purpose is to have an amazing learning experience together.  So our first week activities reflect that.  We will be creating a digital scavenger hunt through questions made up by the students, they will decide what is important to know and find in our room and then do a voicethread presentation on it.  I will share my Animoto with them and invite them as a class to create one of our vision and class environment.  Armed with cameras and ideas students will lead this as well.  We will come up with filmed definitions of what student, classroom, and community means and share them on Wordia.
Students will come up with what they would like to be called when I do need to split according to grade level.  I don’t want to continue calling them 4th and 5th graders, those words stick, whereas the birds and the dogs or something else does not remind them of their age difference.  We will talk about ourselves, our families, our hopes, our worries.  And then we will talk some more.  Although curriculum is super important, these first days and weeks set the tone for the rest of the year.  
So as I continue focusing on community, I wonder, what other teachers are doing?  What works for you, what will you never do again?  I have many small exercises as well that I will not bore you with, but what are the big things that leave students smiling, ready to learn?
building community, collaboration, new teacher, new year

If You Have One Hour with a New Teacher…

We’ve all been there; arms full of papers, books falling out of our bags, and so many questions that we hardly know what to ask – ahh, the plight of being a new teacher.  Or at the very least, a teacher switching schools, or jobs, or grades.  So who do you turn to, where do you find those elusive answers that will make you sleep more easily at night before the big show?  And mostly, which answers do you really need?

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with a great friend from college who just landed her dream job in a 5th grade classroom.  Previously she has taught as an ELL teacher but had the opportunity to switch jobs and switch schools.  Prior to our meeting, I asked my PLN what I should share with her and had some fantastic responses.  So here is what I thought was important.

  1. Sign up for Twitter!  If you need to know why, read this post or read the Innovative Educator’s fantastic blog on how to use Twitter.
  2. Start a classroom blog; Tumblr or Blogspot are just fine – my classroom blog is is well visited by parents and they love how everything is accessible to them.
  3. Start a professional blog for your own reflections, this can even be tied in with your PDP and you will be amazed at the thinking you end up doing.
  4. Meet with teammates, ask questions but don’t forget yourself, after all, you will be teaching your own class and must be able to stand behind what you teach.
  5. Think about a morning and afternoon routine, or coming and going routine if you are non-elementary.  I explain and establish this on the 1st day of school and it sets the tone for the rest of the year’s expectations.
  6. Reflect on your hidden rules of your classroom.  We all have pet peeves, figure your out and then share them with your students!
  7. Come up with community building projects.  Although curriculum will need to get started quickly, make sure you have opportunities where the kids are engaged in something creative to establish trust and excitement in your room.
  8. Send home an introduction letter to students and parents.  Give them insight into you and your classroom.
  9. Don’t waste too much time on your hallway bulletin boards.  Spend the time in your classroom instead, setting it up for great learning and collaboration.  Cybraryman has a wonderful webpage with great resources for how to set up your room to boost learning. 
  10. Laugh, joke, smile, and most importantly be yourself!  You were hired because you were a great candidate, so go in there and show it.  Curriculum will be taken care of but those first few days set the tone for the year so have fun with it!
I know there are many more important ideas to add, so what would you tell a new teacher they should focus on?  What did I miss?
Be the change, building community, PLN

Get Out of the Way!

This past Monday, an article was published in our local newspaper in which I was quoted; a huge moment in my brief teaching career. The article was a narrative of a field trip we took in which we had one of my students, who is a paraplegic, backpacked into an underground cave. Being his teacher, I was heralded as a solution-maker prompting many friends and acquaintances to praise me and my efforts to include all students. While the praise is wonderful it was not completely justifiable, for the credit for this solution in inaccessibility was not mine.

That honor goes to Miss Anma, our fearless physical therapist who has worked with this child ever since he entered our school. It was her words in September when we first discussed this end of the year quintessential 4th grade field trip, “How about we backpack him in?” Up until then, the solution was to not go the cave and rather go somewhere else, thus disappointing a whole set of 4th graders. You see this field trip is epic and is the definition of finishing 4th grade. Students talk about it on the first day of school and write about it as their favorite field trip before they have even gone. We knew from the start that my student’s wheelchair would not be able to go into the cave and so we resigned ourselves that this year we would go somewhere else. Until Anma spoke up. “Yeah,” I said, “why not put him in a backpack?” laughing a little at the idea but nevertheless not standing in the way of it.
Permissions were granted, a carrier was found who was willing to carry this 90 pound boy around for an hour in a makeshift backpack, training was had for the ordeal. And the whole time, I just got out of the way. The field trip was a massive success cherished by all involved. Posters have been made in my district with pictures of the boy in the backpack and a title “Nothing is Impossible.” Hallmark would be proud. Accolades have been given, satisfied shoulder pats and misty eyes all around. And yet, the true teaching moment for me came when Anma hugged me and said, “Thank you so much for all of your support and help with this.” All I could answer back was but I didn’t help or support; I merely got out of the way so that you could do your job. And that was my biggest lesson; get out of the way so that others can get to work. Why make it harder for everyone else when they are there to help educate just as much as you are. So the praise for this adventure should not fall to me, but rather to a ingenious, compassionate physical therapist who dared to dream up a wonderful solution knowing that I would get out of her way.