Battling the Multiplication Blues

This year, after years at the middle school level, I made the move back down to elementary school.  I was excited for the chance to once again teach all the core subjects and to build a stronger community with my self-contained classroom students.

At the end of the summer I joined my new colleagues for a retreat to plan and discuss the coming year.  One of the activities we participated in involved having discussions with the grade levels above and below us about the skills students need most as they entered our classroom.  The one skill that seemed to permeate multiple grade levels was the need for knowing basic multiplication facts.  It was evident from the discussion that from 3rd grade on, the curriculum relied on a student’s ability to quickly recall basic multiplication facts and that students who did not obtain this skill by 4th grade were quickly falling behind.

When I began working with my 5th grade students this year, I saw just how true these sentiments were.  Some of my students came equipped with multiplication mastery but many, too many, did not, making everything from fractions to calculating the area of a square difficult.  I sent home practice worksheets, assigned flashcards, and even gave weekly timed multiplication tests but the fact remained, those who knew it, knew it and those who didn’t weren’t investing the time needed to get it.

While flash cards and practice worksheets are not fan favorites in my classroom, learning games are which is how the Multiplication Battle Game was created.  (It started as a sneaky way to fill an extra ten minutes before recess and get kiddos to fill out their blank multiplication charts.) This is how the game works:

Students build a game board that consists of a file folder, a completed multiplication chart, and a blank multiplication chart.

One student attaches their game board to another students game board using binder clips.  The binder clips act as a support so that students can sit facing each other while viewing their board.

Each student then covers 5-7 math facts on their top board (the completed multiplication chart).  You can do this using sticky notes cut into small squares.  These become their “hidden spots.”

To play the game, each player takes turns stating a math fact with the answer. For example, Player 1 might say “2 x 4 = 8.”  Player 1 then marks the answer in the correct spot on their blank game board. Once player 1 has written down their math fact, player 2 will announce whether or not this was a hidden spot on player 2’s top board. If it is, player 1 can mark this on their blank chart with an ‘X.’

Player 2 will go next, following the same steps as player 1. Play continues back and forth until one person discovers all of their opponents hidden facts.

The first person to find all of their opponents marked spots wins!

Having students complete the blank multiplication chart as they play is the real key here as this is the step that provides students with the repetitive practice they need.  As extensions to the activity, I have had students complete the rest of their charts as homework after the games are over and I have even encouraged students to teach and play the game at home, offering it as a homework menu choice.

The outcome of incorporating the game into my classroom has been positive.  Yes, there are still students who struggle but the idea of ‘practicing math facts’ has a lighter tone in the classroom now.  But the best result?  Watching one student in particular light up as he recalls math facts automatically, a skill he didn’t have previously.  The smile on his face as he fills with pride and states math facts with ease is worth every moment in the classroom!

Interested in trying the game in your classroom?  Find detailed instructions and resources here.

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I was that student…

Imagine your most recent staff meeting.  A long hour (or more) after a long day.  Data and statistics and dates to remember flying at your exhausted brain which is drifting off to the papers waiting to be graded on your desk or the chocolate waiting at home.

Now imagine a student.  Imagine the student who raises their hand in class with so much intensity you are sure they will fall out of their seat.  ‘Quiet hands’ is simply impossible for this student as they wiggle, squirm, and “silently” declare “Oh, I know this!”

Now imagine this… today, during my staff meeting, that student was me.

I honestly don’t know what came over me, whether it was exhaustion or stress (or both).  I certainly didn’t plan it.  But as my principal asked a question about the data we were looking at my hand suddenly shot up in the air, I literally kicked the co-worker next to me, and I “silently” declared “Oh, I know this!”  Thankfully everyone, including me, burst into laughter that felt like a much needed release.  Data, after all, is not easily digested at 4pm. Banter about whether the student without the quiet hand should be called on ensued but I was finally allowed to answer.

The incident got me thinking a bit about how I react to the ‘little things’ in my classroom.  Do I recognize the moments when laughter is needed more than information, structure and procedure?  Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are important and we educate in an age when time is precious and there is a lot to cover.  But perhaps taking a moment to laugh with my students, to treasure their enthusiasm over their ‘quiet hands,’ is equally important?  Sometimes I know I can let those little things become big things in a negative way, focusing too much on the distraction and loss of instruction.

But tomorrow I have decided that I will find time to incorporate laughter and positive spirit in my classroom and to relish the enthusiastic hand.

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I See Race Cars…

I have a confession. I collect bottle caps.  Small, large, from all sorts of bottles, everything from Gatorade to milk. In the summer, when my collection reaches mammoth proportions and I can be seen begging bottle caps off strangers and relatives alike, this obsession seems undecidedly bad.  But in the winter, when the first race of the season is underway, and my collection has been put to good use, it’s easy to see this was never an obsession at all.  Because in that moment it’s finally clear, I never saw bottle caps, I saw race cars!

There is growing research to support the use of hands-on, inquiry lessons in the science classroom (Kauble & Wise, 2015).  In fact, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adapted by most states puts a great deal of focus and emphasis on collaboration and student-led discovery.  But how does all this research and theory translate to the day-to-day of the classroom?

When I first started building race cars with my 8th grade students, pre-NGSS, I used it as a culminating activity. It was an active, engaging way for students to summarize and evaluate 4 weeks’ worth of Newton’s Law knowledge about how things move on Earth.  Powered by balloons, students had to engineer a car that could move fastest and furthest down the raceway.  Each of Newton’s three laws must be put into action for students to experience success and though the task sounded easy to most students at the beginning, a lot of hard work and critical thinking is needed in the end.  Race day was always a well-remembered highlight of the year and the students walked away with a much better understanding of motion after experiencing the hands-on engineering project.

But two years ago, when I started to evaluate my teaching in light of the new standards, I started to wonder… what if I didn’t teach Newton’s Laws?  What if students built the cars first?  Would they make connections and ask questions that would lead to a self-discovery of the laws of motions?  Or would my classroom devolve into a not-so-glorious mess of recycled boxes, glue, and, yes, bottle caps?  I decided to take my chances… we would build without knowledge of Newton or his laws.

When I first posed the question (Who can build the fastest race car made only from recycled materials and powered only by balloon?) there was a lot of excitement in the room.  But after the first build session, excitement turned to frustration… quickly.  A pack of frustrated middle schoolers can be a little scary, so it was important to channel this energy, thus the debriefing, an important strategy I discovered as I was making my transition to student-led inquiry.  I learned that it’s important to take time (10-15 minutes) to stop and generate questions when using this style of teaching.  Why are you frustrated? (The wheels don’t turn; the car won’t move.)  Responses from that first question turned into new questions.  (Why don’t the wheels turn?  Why is it important for the wheels to turn? (Newton’s Law #1!) How do wheels turn on actual cars?) And these questions became topics for research.  At this point, building stopped and research began but more importantly an atmospheric shift occurred in my classroom.  Suddenly the classroom atmosphere had shifted from ‘I want my students to know why’ to ‘my students want to know why.’  There was deliberate purpose behind their search for knowledge.  They had a mission to accomplish!

So, how did my quasi-experiment on the use of student-led science projects fair?  Well, as I would tell my students, more data and research would be needed to fully gage the impact of this method (they would roll their eyes too, don’t worry) but here is a bit of qualitative data I found… my students were far more engaged and present in the lessons.  The truth is, there is still direct instruction needed here.  The difference is instead of me saying “today we will learn about Newton’s second law of motion which involves the math formula force = mass x acceleration” the students are asking “why does my car stop moving when I add decorations?” and I am responding with a lesson. Additionally, students are assigning themselves homework, a phenomenon I find hilarious!  I am not a big advocate of homework and I don’t often assign it but in this situation, I found that most students would go home and do something related to their project.  Whether it was asking someone for advice, taking to the internet, or reading a book, the majority of students were considering the science well outside of the classroom.  And finally, the students were turning to each other for help and advice (collaboration anyone?).  Discussions about why wheels that turn are better than wheels that don’t turn supported by information from Newton’s laws and a few tests we did on friction were happening all around me.  It was enough to bring this curriculum nerd to tears.

So, the next time you see a bottlecap, or an old box, or even a scrap of paper, ask yourself what possibilities it might hold.  What could a little science, a little engineering and lot of middle school creativity bring to life from that simple recyclable?

Check out the complete balloon powered race car lesson here!


Kauble, A., & Wise, D. (2015). Leading Instructional Practices in a Performance-Based System. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 88-104.

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Earth Science: Up-Close and Creative!

Studying the formation of the Earth and all of it’s non-living parts is an exciting adventure for middle school student-scientists.  But what if they had to live under the Earth? How would that change everything they know about life?  Luckily for them, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember imagines just that, painting an existence where humanity has moved underground but the move was so long ago, no one remembers anything different.
The story begins with our two young heroes, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, on the day of their job assignment ceremony.  At just 12 years old, Lina and Doon are finished with their education and will select their jobs by pulling them out of a bag.  Such a random act of job selection is bound to create disappointment but as fate would have it, Lina and Doon each receive jobs the other was hoping for and quickly arrange a trade.  This small act is the catalyst that intertwines these two unlikely companions as the plot of the story builds.
The city in which Lina and Doon inhabit is a place riddled with problems.  The warehouses that have stored all of their food and resources since the beginning of known time are running short on supplies and the electric generator they rely on is slowing giving out.  The generator is the only source of light and heat in their world.  Without it, the entire city threatens to be plunged into utter and complete darkness forever.  Since no one alive knows that they actually live under the Earth, this existence is the only one they believe possible but it is quickly coming to an end.
Although they are both aware of the looming danger surrounding their city, Lina and Doon prove to be quite opposite in character, dealing with the uncertainty in different ways.  Where Lina is carefree, adventurous, and sometimes irresponsible, Doon is serious to a fault.  But, when Lina uncovers a secret that may save the city from certain death, she knows Doon is the only person she can turn to for help.
The City of Ember is choked full of mystery, intrigue, and suspense.  Built around characters that are 12 years old, this is a perfect novel for young readers, especially those in 6th grade who are likely studying components of Earth science as part of their Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  Additionally, because we have both a heroine and a hero, the book is likely to appeal to both boys and girls.
Book Stats:
pages – 270
Lexile – 680
Accelerated reader grade level – 5
Grade level interest – 4-8
Science Tie-ins:
The City of Ember ties in well with NGSS standard MS-ESS2-4 (Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity) typically taught in 6th grade.  Using the book as a jumping of point, students can explore questions such as:
*Do rivers or other water sources exist underground?
*How does water cycle throughout the Earth, allowing it to flow both underground and above ground?
*If people could live underground, what resources would they need?
*Is there a place on Earth where a city like Ember could exist? Can you made a model of such a city existing on our Earth?
Social Studies Tie-ins:
The City of Ember also ties in well with middle school social studies standards, particularly those found in 6th and 7th grade.  While reading the novel, students can examine the following characteristics of the city:
*What are the geographical features that make it an ideal place to build a city?  What are the restrictions?
*What are the political, social, economic, and religious structures in the city and how do these effect the inhabitants?
Students can use their analysis of these questions about this fictional city to compare to the real-life ancient civilizations of our Earth.
Happy Reading!

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From the Beginning…

After writing her first two novels documenting Lina and Doon’s adventures out of Ember and into the new world, author Jeanne DuPrau visits the pre-Disaster world 50 years prior in her novel The Prophet of Yonwood.  In this third installment of the Ember series, DuPrau takes us to the small town of Yonwood, North Carolina.  Our Protagonist is 11-year-old Nickie, a visitor to the town of Yonwood during a time of tumultuous world events as well as strange events within the town.  Nickie’s great-grandfather has just passed away, leaving behind a mysterious old house packed with possessions.  The house intrigues Nickie, a precocious and curious young girl, who quickly decides that her family should keep the house and make Yonwood their home.  But Nickie has yet to discover the secrets of Yonwood.
As Nickie’s aunt Crystal sets to work preparing the house for sale, Nickie sets out to discover as much as she can about Yonwood, encountering many interesting characters along the way.  These characters include: Mrs. Brenda Beeson, a stern rule-abiding woman who believes that Yonwood can be saved from the troubles of the world so long as everyone follows the rules; Amanda, a teenager on her own, making a living as a caretaker; and the Prophet, Althea Tower.  At the time our book takes place, the world is in crisis with the possibility of a nuclear war on the horizon.  But Althea Tower has had a vision about the war filled with such great horror that its caused her to become bed-ridden while mumbling odd rules.  Mrs. Beeson convinces the town that the rules must be followed exactly so that Yonwood can be saved from this terrible fate.  Nickie also wants to do something good for the world and thinks Mrs. Beeson may be right… until she starts to question the prophets vision.
The Prophet of Yonwood is a fantastic book filled with mystery and adventure.  Although it is part of the Ember series, the book takes away from the time of Ember to ask the question ‘how did it all begin?’
Book Stats:
Pages – 289
Lexile – 760
Grade Level Interest – 4th -8th
Cross-Curricular Tie-ins:
Although this book could tie in well with 8th grade U.S. history curriculum, allowing students to ask questions about conflict and resolution between warring nations as well as civilization development, there are many explicit references to religion throughout the book.  Depending on the population of your learning environment, the religious aspects touched upon in this novel may be an issue for some families.

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The Saga Continues…

In her fourth and final Ember book, The Diamond of Darkhold, author Jeanne DuPrau brings us back to Lina and Doon, picking up where they left off in the town of Sparks.  Lina has settled into a quite life in town working with the town doctor while Doon is working hard to build a new life for the people of Ember.  While Lina’s character has mellowed and matured (she’s not quite the carefree adventurer we remember) Doon is as curious and driven as ever.  So, when Doon proposes that he and Lina embark on their most dangerous journey yet, Lina needs convincing.  But, with their fellow townspeople suffering from harsh conditions and little food, Lina knows Doon has the right idea.  It’s time for them to return to Ember.
The Diamond of Darkhold provides the perfect end to this fun and exciting literature adventure.  Discovering along with Lina and Doon what is left of Ember after the mass exodus is both thrilling and sad.  Additionally, we are given a glimpse into the future for Lina, Doon, and the others of Ember as well as the town of Sparks.  Our protagonists are once again young heroes saving their home, this time led by Doon.
Book Stats:
Pages – 285
Lexile – 790
Grade Level Interest – 5th-8th
Science Tie-ins:
What I love most about this series is how well it can tie into middle school curriculum outside of ELA, with the exception, perhaps, of the third book.  Having said that, from a curriculum perspective it would ‘work’ to leave out the 3rd book which does not provide any necessary information to Lina and Doon’s story line.  Except for a short (no more than 1 paragraph) reference at the end of book 4, book 3 can be removed from the lineup allowing for a cohesive story line surrounding Lina and Doon that also pairs spectacularly well with other curriculum areas.  (And since I am a curriculum nerd, I love a good pairing!  Some look for a fine wine to pair with a lovely meal, I look for a fantastic read to pair with a unit of amazing learning).
In The Diamond of Darkhold, Lina and Doon discover a secret during their journey back to the city of Ember, one that could change their entire way of life.  The builders left behind one final gift, technology to harness the power of the sun.  This provides an excellent opportunity to encourage students to study alternative energy sources (solar, wind, water).  The NGSS for middle school outlines standards for students to learn about alternative energy sources, most of which is concentrated in the 8th grade.  This is a perfect opportunity to link literature to a study on solar power.  Consider having students design solar powered cars or researching other areas such as wind and water power.
For a cohesive middle school curriculum program that links ELA and science through all three grades, consider reading one book each year.  Book 1, The City of Ember, can be read in 6th grade along side a unit about the Earth and Geology.  Book 2, The People of Sparks, can be read in 7th grade along side a unit about the biology of plants, and Book 4, The Diamond of Darkhold, can be read in 8th grade along side a unit about natural energy sources.  Pairing literature with science… does it get any better?
Happy Reading!

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Reflections of a not-so-first-year teacher

For years I taught middle school, and despite what most people might think, I loved the age group of kiddos I worked with at that level.  But this year I changed districts, schools, and yes, even grades.  This isn’t my first time being a not-so-first-year-teacher (a veteran teacher learning the ropes in a new school) but this year, my fellow newbies were, in fact, newbies.  The 4 other teachers hired with me are experiencing their very first year of teaching and watching their tired faces grace the halls first thing Monday morning has made me take pause and reflect on my very first year.  (Ironically, that very first of first years was in the same district I am currently employed; my teaching career has officially come full circle!)
My very first year of teaching was also my first year of motherhood, so to say I slept very little is quite the understatement!  I can remember clearly picking up my son from daycare before they closed at 5:30 only to whisk him back to school with me, rushing down a quick dinner on the way, so that I could finish some task like inputting grades or prepping a lab.  On Fridays, I would load up my car with a 100+ student notebooks and other materials, prepared to spend my weekends strategically grading and planning from one nap time to the next.  The first half of that first year was a blurred whirlwind of barely making it from day to day.  I confess to showing perhaps one too many Bill Nye videos during that first half of the first year, clamoring for any extra time I could get.
But even though those first months were unbelievably crazy, I also made sure to take advantage of every conference and professional development opportunity that came my way.  Through these tools I gained an abundance of knowledge and know-how.  By the time Winter break rolled around, I have no doubt I was zombie like in appearance.  Still, I spent a decent chunk of my two-weeks  reworking everything I had been doing up to that point.  New lessons, new methods, new ideas (and a decent amount of sleep too!)  When I returned, Bill Nye was no longer a fixture in our weekly line-up.  The students were taken aback for sure, the level of rigor and accountability had certainly risen ten-fold.  But it was a few weeks in to our new regime that I realized just how much my students had taken notice of the change.  “You know Ms. Green,” a student said as I was passing out the latest assignment, “I liked it better when you didn’t know what you were doing.”
To this day, that comment makes me laugh and I think about it at the start of every new year.  But I have especially thought of it this year as I have found myself surrounded by so many new teachers.  We have amazing teacher preparation programs in California and yet, just like with parenthood, there is simply nothing that can prepare you for that very first, first year.  So as I watch their tired faces roam the halls in zombie-like fashion, I offer up this little blessing: your kiddos love you no matter what, and sometimes they love you more when you don’t know what you are doing.

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