Mindfulness in My Classroom: A 6th Grade Teacher's Story

As my school year started, I knew I wanted to make mindset play a key role in my student's day.  Each day a bell ringer greeted my class, and almost every day that bell ringer had something to do with mind set, character education, or ethics.  We discussed how to deal with losing in sports, how to handle getting a bad grade on a test, how to challenge one's self to possess a better character, what to do if you found a lost wallet full of cash.  Yet, it became apparent, pretty quickly, that my class needed something more.

Mindfulness in the Classroom - A 6th Grade Teacher's Story

Behavior - bad behavior, or poor choices - was at an all time high in my class.  Our daily bell ringers, weekly character lessons, school PBS (Positive Behavior System), student affirmations, and classroom incentive program had done nothing to sway the rampant disrespect and disregard I had seen throughout my classroom.  I had tried all of my usual classroom management tricks and nothing had an effect.  That was...until my teaching assistant and I had an interesting discussion one warm October day, when we both shared with one another about our success with meditation and mindfulness on a personal level.

Mindset, Mindfulness, Meditation

As we both had been experimenting with meditation and mindfulness, seeing the benefits of calmness, serenity, and focus in our own lives, we thought maybe the class could see those benefits as well.  Within days I started my class on daily meditation, through an app I got on my iPhone, and almost immediately we started seeing results.

I tried the meditation and mindfulness at two different times of the day, after recess, and after lunch, finally settling on sharing our time together after lunch.  We would turn off the lights, turn on the speakers, and listen in to the message of the day.  Some kids would really hone in and focus, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, and working hard to master the techniques being taught, while others would simply color or put their heads down.  Regardless, of how they approached it, the mindfulness and the messages were working, as my behavior issues and referrals declined by approximately 30%, and our lesson content taught in the afternoons increased as well.
Meditation Apps - Headspace & Calm

Besides trying the meditation and mindfulness at two different times, we also tried two different apps.  These are not affiliate links, just my own experience and the feedback I received from my students.  The first app we tried was called Headspace.  I got this app recommendation from a doctor I had seen, and had only tried the free sample sessions previously.  Once the kids and I got through the 10 free sessions, we then switched over and tried Calm, an app I was recommended by a friend.  The kids immediately had an aversion to the Calm app even though I thought it had more features that they would like.  The students did not like the sound of the voice and felt like it was too rushed.  They also hated the background noise of the waves crashing on the shore.  So we went back to Headspace and I bought a yearly membership.  It's not cheap, just to warn you, although it is tax deductible if you're using it for your classroom.  I thought the investment of less than a $1 a day was worth it, but it can be a lot on a teacher's salary.

Mindfulness quote

Mindfulness wasn't the solution to all my problems, but it alleviated a lot of the headaches I was having.  It also gave me 5-10 minutes to reground and recenter myself before starting to teach again.  I enjoyed emulating and setting an example for my students and I think many of my kids appreciated having the guidance and the security to see that mindfulness is not hokey or stupid or goofy; it's something even adults do.  One of my most difficult students was one of my best exemplars when it came to our daily mindfulness and meditation.

So if you have been dealing with behavior problems in your classroom, or a class that just comes back from specials bouncing off the wall, try mindfulness as a way to calm them down and focus them on learning.  You can use your personal device, a computer, or even just have them breathe deeply in and out for 18 seconds while thinking about where they are and what they are doing in that present moment.  Another idea is to have your students ground themselves in the moment by examining what they can hear, feel, see, touch, and taste.  This not only helps you to focus on the moment and mindfulness, it helps those with anxiety to regain control.

So give these mindfulness ideas a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

The Power of a Greeting

Every day as students enter my classroom, I stand at my door and greet them.  Whether it's with a handshake, a hug, a fist bump, or just a wave, this simple gesture has power beyond measure and it's something you might want to consider adding to your teaching repertoire.

The Power of a Greeting

In 2017, approximately 1.3 million children were homeless at some point during the year. [1]  In addition to this, nearly 438,000 children are in the foster care system in the United States, with 12% of these kids living in group homes or institutions. [2]  This does not even include the children in domestic violence situations (5 million children each year [3]) or in homes where parents are deployed (over 900,000 children have had one or both parents deployed multiple times [4]). 

Thus, with at least 6.7 million kids in situations where tensions are high, depression and anxiety are elevated, and connections with loved ones are often missing or strained, a simple gesture of hello in the morning, or whenever your class may be, can help make a connection with a student who may not otherwise get to make a positive connection with an adult that day.  Not only does it allow for a basic connection with a student, a greeting has been shown to build confidence, promote self-respect, and encourage positive feelings about ones self.

Even if you live in an area of affluence where both parents are present and students are well taken care of, a greeting can go a long way to build self-respect, confidence, and respect.  A smile, bright eyes, and a welcoming grin, joke, or gesture can put students at ease and earn you a well-disciplined student for the day.  While simply learning how to correctly shake hands can earn students a lifetime of respect.     

Besides the statistics, isn't it just obvious that a greeting can warm even the coldest spirit?  I've had the grumpiest students brighten up and become engaged in my class just because I met them at the door and exchanged pleasantries with them.  And I've had the saddest kids and kids traumatized by outside events make it through day after day after day inside my classroom, because I stopped and showed them how much I care before we began each day.  It's just a simple, "hello," or, "How are you doing?" or, "I missed you," and you've shown them that you care, thus making a connection with a student, and allowing many doors of opportunity to be opened.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
There are many ways to implement a morning greeting in your classroom. Here are just a few...

  1. You can simply stand at the door and shake hands as students approach.
  2. You can let students choose their form of greeting (handshake, fist bump, wave, high five, etc.) and greet each student in a way that they feel comfortable.  For a printable resource you can hang outside your room to let students choose their greeting, click here.
  3. You can let each student create their own greeting or handshake and greet each student in a unique way.
  4. If you're really busy, (although not advised) assign a student to greet students for you.  It's better than nothing.

Morning Greeting Printable

So, how do you greet your students?  Comment below, and let me know.

[1] https://www.icphusa.org/interactive_data/the-united-states-of-homelessness/?gclid=CjwKCAiAyrXiBRAjEiwATI95mVAWHTpnDWkbtoJ-EbeEmnhggMdN7iTJackF11hQAEZ-XSfAjgjdiBoCtTQQAvD_BwE

[2] https://www.childrensrights.org/newsroom/fact-sheets/foster-care/

[3] https://cdv.org/2014/02/10-startling-domestic-violence-statistics-for-children/

[4] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-military-families

New Year, New School, New Challenges, New Rewards

A new school year can be challenging, a new school...intimidating, but add in a brand new school building with a newly formed school and it can become downright daunting.  Yet about 50 other brave souls, along with myself, have accepted the mission to open a new charter school in our city and we're excited as all get out.

Along with the usual beginning of the year decor challenges, book labeling, and student names to learn, we are building a school from the ground up.  In fact the paint is still drying and the carpet is still being laid, but our determination and hearts are strong for the decisions we make and the training we undergo to make our school what we want it to be...a beacon for parents, a place for learning, and a spot where students will know they are loved.  It's why we are all so committed.

Just a few weeks ago, a blueprint and a targeted building list was as close as I could get to my classroom.

Now, with just a few weeks left of summer vacation, I can peek in my room and see the potential that all our work is driving towards.

 We learn about Capturing Kid's Hearts so we can build relationships with our youngsters and have them learn to be leaders in our communities.

We dive into Singapore Math and CKLA training so we can grow minds with great curriculum.

But we also build schedules that will let all sides of our students thrive.

  • We create a schoolwide DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time so that not just kids read but everyone from the principal, to the teachers, to the campus security reads and sets an example for the youth in our building.  
  • We include character education blocks so it's not just something we say, but it's something we walk.  
  • We have science and social studies in every schedule, every day so that every student, from kindergarten to sixth grade, is getting a well-rounded education.  
  • And we include the specials, which for us right now, in our first years, are PE, music, art, and Spanish.    

We also work as a team to create a school vision, lay the building blocks of how we will function as a team through our social contract, and work with our administration and literacy coaches on how to best serve our students.

It's an incredibly daunting and exhausting process, but it's so rewarding and enriching as well.  In the end, all this hard work will be worth it, as we create our new school and especially our successful students.

Let me know in the comments if you have ever opened a brand new school, and what were your favorite parts about the process.

Making Minutes Matter with History Minutes

Did you know that there was once a "year of confusion"?
Did you know that the computer was invented in 1822?
How about that President Garfield was actually killed by inept doctors rather than an assassin's bullet?

Each of these moments are covered in what are called "History Minutes," a brief two page look at a time or place in history.

I've had several people ask me about these new resources.  They've wondered...
Why did you create them?  
What's in them?  
How do they work?  
How can they be used?  
So I figured I would explain my "History Minutes," how they came to be, what they are, and just how they can be used in classrooms.  Then, at the end, I've got a couple ways that you can try them out and see how they fit you and your students.

Why I created them...

I created my "History Minute" resources for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost, I wanted to
integrate learning across the curriculum for my students.  That's why it's not just a social studies lesson.  It's a geography snapshot, a close reading activity, and a math or science lesson, all centered around one central theme.

At my school we were constantly looking for ways to integrate material between the language arts teacher and the social studies teacher.  Or the math teacher and the science teacher might be finding new ways to hook up and teach cooperatively, so I wanted to create something that was already geared towards that integration.

I also just love the true stories of history.  Forget the names and the dates and the memorization of facts, just tell me a story about people and connections and how one thing can forever change the world, and I'm mesmerized.  So in my "History Minutes" that is what I attempt to do. I try to hook students with the interesting stories that haven't been told.  I try to connect them to places by showing them what's cool or different that they maybe didn't know.

What's included...

Every "History Minute" runs around 30 pages when you count the answer keys.  That might seem like a lot for a "Minute" but there's a couple reasons for that.  One, is that integration piece.  I wanted to include the various pieces for the various subjects.  But two, is that the story is from a moment or a minute in time, not that it will take you just a minute to complete.  Here's a typical run-down of a "History Minute" packet.

For instance, in "Slavery, Snakes, and a Saint" students will read a 2-page story on the real life of Saint Patrick, who was never actually a saint.  They will then examine the main idea of what they just read, further explore the vocabulary that challenged them, and answer a page of comprehension questions as well.  Next up - support the idea with textual evidence, a great pre-cursor to standardized testing, and then delve into a writing prompt about metaphors.  Also included are guided cloze notes over the reading, a geography sheet on Ireland, a science lesson on the life cycle of snakes, and some fun notes which I've entitled "Smart Scribbles" that get kids taking notes and doodling at the same time.

How do they work...

"History Minutes" allow you to cover a history topic in as brief or as in-depth a way as you would like.

  • Don't have a lot of time?  Just read the 2-page story.  
  • Want to get in depth on Stonehenge and the Neolithic Age?  Complete the 5-part close reading activity and then explore the magical ratio of pi with circles and polygons.  
  • Want to split the work with a co-worker?  You take the close reading section while you allow a colleague to work with students on the geography and science lessons.  
Spend one class period on a topic, or spread it out, and use just five minutes at the start of each day, as a bell ringer, to cover a piece. 
The options are practically unlimited.

How they can be used...

A "History Minute" can also be used in a bevy of different facets depending on the needs of your class and the time you have as a teacher.

First of all, they are great to take and integrate into your unit lessons.  For instance, take "The Calendar Under Roman Rule" and add it to your teachings on Julius Caesar.  Who isn't going to know him for the crazy, mad dictator that he was, when they hear about the year of confusion?

If you don't teach lessons about South Africa, its colonization by Europe, or the diamond mines...then place "The Cullinan Diamond" in a station used for rotations or extra credit.  Students will have access to another point in history they might not have gotten to learn about, and you've got another work center for students to visit when they need a time out, when it's time to rotate through stations, or when they just need a new and different activity.

Best yet...if you're going to be absent and need something simple for your sub to do?  Pull out a "History Minute."  Have your students explore the life of Marie Curie or learn about the Columbia Shuttle disaster.  It's all at their fingertips and with the answers included, it should be virtually foolproof for any sub to accomplish when you're absent.

How do I try one out...

So now that you've made it this far, the real question is how do I try one out?  Well I have a couple of possibilities for you.  First of all, I've made a shortened sample of a "History Minute" on Machu Picchu.  Although there is a full length packet available, this will give you just a quick taste, as it's been cut down to one-third the size of a normal packet.

It is available HERE!

And if you want a full packet, you can enroll in my bulletin.  By subscribing, you will receive "Murder or Malpractice?" for free in your third issue, about ten days after you join.

Simulations Get Students Moving

Movement in my classroom can take many forms.  From music and juggling, to stations and rotations that get the blood circulating, to scavenger hunts that get kids racing from clue to clue.  Yet my number one favorite way to get kids up and out of their chairs is with a good, old-fashioned simulation.

Whether it's climbing in the dirt behind the school to get a glimpse of trench warfare, or breaking off into sides and debating the fate of Benedict Arnold, simulations allow students to get outside of their comfort zone and experience life from another point of view.  They get students to delve into history and examine the people, events, and attitudes that shaped our world.

Three of my favorite simulations are:
Each one offers new opportunities for movement and growth among the students.

The Roman Class Structure Simulation allows students to check out the roles of patricians, plebeians, and slaves during the Ancient Roman period by completing various tasks assigned to each of the social groups.  Students often go in assuming they want to be a patrician and leave wishing they weren't.

In the American Sweatshop Simulation students are put in the role of sweatshop workers.  The movement is limited in this one as they perform menial tasks in loud, hot, dark, and crowded conditions, but they come out realizing how good life really is nowadays and how fortunate we are, as Americans, to have the labor laws we do.

Finally, my favorite simulation, the French Revolution gets students up and out of their seats, grouped into social classes, and undergoing various simulation scenarios to please King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.  As the simulation runs on for days, the "peasant" class, or 3rd Estate, becomes more frustrated and actually rises up in revolt.  Little do they know a spy has been lurking among them, as Robespierre is revealed and students are led to the "gallows."  Although a harrowing time in history, it's a fun 7 days of lessons, and students really come out of it with a true understanding of class distinctions and the risks that social inequality means to peace.

So the next time you need to get your students up and moving, try creating a simulation to get them out of their seats and thinking about the world differently.  You just might be surprised with what you find.

Secret Santa for your Classroom

This is the time of year for lessons on gratitude and generosity, holiday cheer and happiness, and what better way to spread those ideas than with a class Secret Santa activity.

Every year about this time, when I taught elementary school, I would have my sixth graders partake in a Secret Santa activity.  We would run our Secret Santa's for two weeks before revealing them at our class Christmas party.

The first thing I would do is explain the rules.  There weren't a whole lot of rules to the festivities.  In my class, students were required to give two gifts per week, but gifts did not require any money to be spent.  They could gift class dollars, the promise of fulfilling class jobs in the new year, a sweet note, or anything along those lines.  Of course they were also allowed to gift candy, treats, soda, books, school supplies, toys, etc.  Secondly, they just couldn't tell anyone their Secret Santa identity.

The second thing I would do is give the students a questionnaire to complete.  It was a simple ten questions about their favorite foods, treats, books, movies, and the like.  Once these were turned in, I would scramble them up and pass them back out as my way of assigning Secret Santa's.  When completing this task, I had a checklist which I would complete with the student's name and to whom they were assigned to be a Santa.  I would then use this checklist to mark off the days that students received gifts to ensure we had no Scrooges in the class.  I also kept a small stash of Dollar Tree type items wrapped and ready to go just in case a student was being snubbed by their Santa.

Finally, during our class Christmas Party we would play a guessing game and reveal our secret identities.  For this final reveal, students were asked to bring a gift up to $5 in value.  I would then have every student find their final gift from a big pile made earlier in the day.  Before they could open it, students were given 3 opportunities to guess the identity of their Santa.  Raucous laughter would usually ensue if the Santa was able to escape the guessing without being named.  Once all the presents were open we would partake in a potluck feast and share some fun and fellowship with one another.

If you would like a copy of my Secret Santa activity papers, which includes my rules, questionnaire, checklist, and party flyer, please click here to receive them for free.

I hope you have a marvelous time celebrating the holidays with your students.

5 Fun & Free Ideas to Teach about the Aztecs

Third Grade Social Studies Activities: Make an Aztec Sundial
If you've been searching for ways to teach about the Aztecs, you may have been searching for a while.  There's not a lot of resources out there, readily available, and free for your use.  So that's why I have compiled 5 free resources to make teaching about the Aztecs fun.

The Aztecs carved a huge sun stone in 1479.  It was 3 feet thick and almost 12 feet across, and weighed 25 metric tons.  Made from basalt, this large sun stone was one of the first sundials and it was dedicated to the sun god.  Your students can make their own sundial with this first activity.  Students use a paper plate, craft stick, Playdoh, markers, and pencils, to create and decorate a real working sundial.  They can even lay it out in the sun and check it hourly to write the hour times upon it or mark it in some way fancy, like this one shown to the right.

BMserpentThe Aztecs highly valued and worshiped the snake as a sacred symbol, as they believed it to be a symbol of one of their most treasured gods, Quetzalcoatl.  A very prominent serpent once owned by the Aztecs and possibly given to Hernan Cortes just before the destruction of the Aztec Empire now resides in the British Museum and students can recreate this serpent with just some cardboard, tissue paper, scissors and glue.  You can get the full directions here, but in a short lesson or two students will have a beautiful work of art to display in their school or at their home, showing the importance of the serpent to that of the Aztec people.


Aztec Sun Clay ARt for Kids - Homeschool History Project
A third option for studying the Aztecs is to make pottery and artwork like the Aztecs did.  This step by step site will show you two examples of how to make a pot or a sun similar to those made by the Aztecs.  They have great examples and an Aztec pot for comparison.

If you're looking for something a little less crafty and a bit more meaty, than I have just the lesson for you.  This Origin Story Lesson covers the origin of the Aztecs and how they came to be in the south central valley of Mexico.  It includes an original article that your students can read to learn the background and history of the Aztec people.  It then includes comprehension questions and a craftivity foldable that deals with the symbolism behind the Mexican seal.  See, supposedly back in the 1300's, the Aztecs were told by one of their gods to look for an eagle perched on a cactus on an island in the middle of a lake, munching on a writhing snake.  The Aztecs saw this sign one day and that is what led them to build their village on the island inside of Lake Texcoco.  This symbol, of the eagle on a cactus eating a snake, has been preserved on the seal and flag of Mexico.  Students are given a picture of this seal and asked to summarize the story of the Aztecs inside.  They then have the opportunity to come up with their own symbolism for a home or business that they find near and dear to their hearts.  It could be their own house, a grandparents, an aunt or uncles, siblings, cousins, etc. but they get to think about where it's located and what makes it unique and special to them.

AztecchocFinally, for a fifth free and fun idea to teach about the Aztec, learn how to make Aztec Hot Chocolate.  Many people do not realize that the cocoa bean to make chocolate came from the Aztecs.  The Aztecs showed it to Cortes and he quickly changed the Aztec recipe to one involving vanilla and sugar, before shipping it back across the ocean to Europe.  In this fun recipe, you'll get back to the origin of the story and try your chocolate with a small kick of cayenne pepper, just as the Aztecs intended.

I hope you've enjoyed these five fun and free ideas to teach about the Aztecs.  I hope they have provided you with your own ideas that you'll go on to share so that this area of history no longer has such a tiny area of reference and materials from which to draw from.  But most of all I wish you and your students a great day of learning and a ton of fun.