Solving the Area of Irregular Shapes With the Distributive Property

My class has been learning to find the area of shapes for a few weeks now.  My students have learned how to count tiles or squares or to multiply length times width.  So now it was time to up the ante and tackle this particular common core standard:

Common Core Standards 3.MD.C.7.d
Recognize area as additive.  Find areas of rectilinear figures by decomposing them into non-overlapping rectangles and adding the areas of the non-overlapping parts, applying this technique to solve real world problems.

Hmmm....ok..but what exactly does that mean?  It means that students should use the Distributive Property of Multiplication to bisect irregular shapes into rectangles. Then finding the area of each rectangle and adding those areas together to find the total area.

But does it mean that if students are given an NON-tiled shape (meaning no tiles to count, but labeled side lengths and widths with measurements), they are to also find missing or non-labeled lengths?  Good question.  I tried that and it was way TOO HARD for my students.  Even the other third-grade team members said that it was also too hard to do for their students.

Let's look at the progression of my lessons. It was a two-day lesson on which the first day was just practicing and reviewing the Distributive Property of Multiplication to find the area of REGULAR shapes.

Day two, focused on finding the area of IRREGULAR shapes.  I gave each student an irregular shape, a sticky note for doing calculations and showing work and the instructions were simple:  Find the area of this irregular shape.

After the students had cut out the irregular shape, I heard nothing but crickets for a few minutes.  So I started giving them some guidance.  You can do anything with the shape: fold it, color it, cut it.  That turned on a few light bulbs.

One student decided she could fold it.  Great start!

Many students decided to cut it apart.  They were not all cut in the same way, but all did end up with two regular rectangles.

"So what are you going to do next?" I asked.  I told them that this should look familiar from the previous day's lesson.  More light bulbs went off.

One student came up with this on the sticky note.  My next question to him:  Where did these numbers come from?  How do you know that answer is correct?

Another student did something similar but actually showed multiplication.   I told the student that he was on the right track!

Here's a little trick I like to use with my class when I see that several students are on the right path.  I take a picture of their work with my iPhone.  Then I use the AirPlay feature of my iPhone to send it directly to my projector so the rest of the students can see what was done.  I also have the students explain their thinking.  This is also a good place to use the Math Talk techniques and have students repeat what a student said, or add to what a student said or disagree with what a student said.

At this point, my guiding question was this.  You've cut apart the irregular shape.  You know how to find the area of each rectangle because it's just an array and so you can use multiplication.  But how do you get the total area of the irregular shape?  The discussion eventually went to the idea that we are joining the two areas back together, which in math is called addition!

From there, it was just a perfect segue into the writing a Distributive Property of Multiplication sentence.

So let's review what we just did.

The lesson continued with finding the area of irregular shapes without the tiles.  This is where things just started to get too difficult for my students.  In my teaching plan, I assumed since they knew how to find a missing side length when we studied perimeter, that they knew how to use the Distributive Property of Multiplication and that they knew how to find the area.  So I figured removing the tiled squares would be the next step.  Boy, was I wrong!

Above is the example I used.  I had them also take out their math journals and copy the shape into their math journals and label it.

Then, I proceeded to work with them by demonstrating how to bisect the irregular shape into two regular rectangles.  Then figure out how to label the sides that are not labeled by using subtraction and reasoning.  Then using the formula of length times width, find each area and then add them using the Distributive Property of Multiplication.

I told my students to keep this math journal example out on their desks as we went to a worksheet to start some guided practice.  But even with the guided practice, it was too hard!  They really struggled with finding the correct sides to multiply or reasoning for an unlabled side.

I could tell that just after two problems, there are just too many steps involved in solving this type of problem.  So at this point, I abandoned this worksheet and went back to the math book and had the students continue practicing with tiled shapes using the Distributive Property of Multiplication.

This is not to say that my students will not practice with shapes that are not tiled.  But I will have to make sure EACH length and width is labeled.  It is that step, figuring out missing sides of irregular shapes that really confuses the students.

How do you teach finding the area of irregular shapes?  Let us know below!

Parents! What You Need to Know About Your Role in Education: PART 2

Do you remember rotary dial phones?  Do you remember VCRs?  Do you remember cassette tapes? 

If you used dial-up on AOL, then you are as old or older than I am!  If you think a modern classroom is like that old, quaint technology, then you are mistaken!  Parents need to stop comparing today's classroom to the classroom of when they were in elementary school or middle school or high school.  Just as things have changed in the classroom, things have also changed dramatically for the parent's role in education.  Parents no longer have the option of just "hanging back" or letting the school do it all.  Parents are now an integral part of the education equation for success.

In this second part, I will show you some more considerations for parents and guardians in this new era of learning and instruction.  But first, let's recap!

In Part 1, I explained that today more than ever we need your support, especially when your child is experiencing behavioral or academic issues at school.  Today's teachers are teaching on afterburners all day long not only because of the demands and rigor of the new curriculum, but because there are many more children in our classroom with ADHD.  Additionally, parents need to understand how important starting the school day with breakfast is to learning in the classroom.  It's also important to teach your child how to listen and be patient.


I like to tell my students that I was born BEFORE the internet was invented.  I didn't have the internet growing up.  I didn't even use the internet as a college student.  But today, the internet is pervasive.  Everything is connected.  Many school districts are becoming 1:1 districts.  That means all students (or particular grade levels) have access to a device such as a tablet or a computer ON THEIR DESK.  We're not talking about a computer lab.  In my district, each 3rd -5th grade uses a Chromebook (an internet connected cloud laptop).  We use it DAILY, though NOT all day long.  

Students access assignments on their devices through Google Classroom, which is essentially a virtual classroom in which a teacher can post assignments, asks questions, grade and return assignments, provide students with feedback and yet, not one single piece of paper is needed.  It's all done in the cloud.  The internet is a necessity!  It is not to say we have abandoned books, paper, and pencils.  But now with the internet, we have instant access to the latest information at our fingertips.  How do parents fit into this picture?

Parents need to provide internet access at home!  And a device, such as a tablet or a computer to access it.  Nope, a phone won't cut it.  The screen is too small to do what's needed.  If you are not able to get internet access at home for whatever reason, consider using the local public library.  They offer FREE internet access to all library patrons.  If a teacher is assigning a project or homework and posting resources such as videos, documents, or assignment questions via Google Classroom, the only way to access them is through the internet.   If you have to, be creative about it!  Is there a relative, friend or neighbor who might let your child do their homework using their internet access in return for your child doing some chores?  

The internet is not a fad and will not go away.  More and more classrooms will go digital and the idea of writing on paper and physically turning in an assignment will eventually be a smaller part of classroom learning.  The digital age is HERE NOW.  Get internet access NOW!


Now that you have internet access, it's important as a parent or guardian to monitor its use!  At school, the students must abide by a district's Acceptable Use Policy.  Every district has one, and though similar, they do have specific dos and don'ts each child and staff member must abide by in order to use district equipment and the district network.  Violate the policy, and the child may be banned from using the technology.  Staff members can be disciplined or even terminated for violating the Acceptable Use Policy. 

Using the internet at school is very controlled.  Most districts use a web filter to block out ads and objectionable material and sites.  Email is limited to within the district only.  Teachers have control about which students can access which websites.  Any violation of the Acceptable Use Policy is easily traced to the user through an individual email address, username, and password.  In California, we are also obligated to teach your child about cyber security.  In other words, being a good digital citizen and being safe when using the internet.

At home, however, unless you have specific hardware or software to filter, limit or block your child from accessing the ENTIRE internet, your child is free to explore it all, including the good and the bad.  

If your child needs to access the internet at home for school, here are some tips for making sure your child is safe while surfing the net:
  1. Whatever device your child uses to access the internet whether it's a tablet or computer or video game console, the device should be located in the family area with the screen easily seen by anyone in the room.  Someone should be in the room monitoring.  Your child should ask for permission to access the internet.
  2. Teach your child to spot suspicious activity like pop-up windows from strangers.
  3. Do NOT let your child go to chat rooms unless you are monitoring the chat and you know the person your child is chatting with.
  4. There are age limits for signing up for social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.  Make sure you are aware of these.  On Facebook, friend your child's account so you can monitor it.  On Instagram, be a follower on your child's account so you can monitor.
  5. Check the browser history a few times a week to see what sites your child has opened.  Make sure your child knows that he/she is NOT to erase browser history.
  6. Make sure you have all the passwords to all your child's accounts (schools can provide your the username and password of district issued accounts).
  7. Talk to your child about how the internet is forever.  In other words, anything you post on the internet will remain there, even if your delete it.  How?  Google saves a cached version of all web pages.  Anyone can take a screenshot of what you posted.  Anyone can download pictures you post.
  8. Understand that posting personal pictures carries risk.  Today's phones and digital cameras automatically geotag your pictures.  In other words, each picture has a digital code which shows the EXACT GPS location where the picture was taken.  This is easily accessible which means they can find YOU.  Turn off geotagging on your phone, webcams, and digital cameras if you want to post personal pictures.
  9. Families should have time limits for using the internet.  A set amount of time to do school work and another set amount of time for personal use.  Just like television, it should not be ON all the time.
  10. Talk to your child's teacher if your not sure what are kid-friendly and family friendly websites. Your child's teacher can provide you with links or a list.  Be involved in your child's education by asking about school work and assignments.  Sometimes the internet is NOT needed to do school work.


Here are some more considerations about the use of technology by children. Children under the age of four should NOT be using technology such as tablets or mommy's or daddy's phone.  Pediatricians have warned that children under two should not be watching television and children under four should have very limited or no technology use.  Why?

The brain of a child grows the fastest and the most neuron connections are actually formed from birth through age three!  Children under four need to interact with the physical world and use their senses to make sense of their world and learn basic concepts.  None of that is learned through a static TV display or virtual world on a tablet.  

Language learning is also delayed with too much technology use.  Children need to interact with other adults or children to develop language.  A child staring at and swiping a tablet or phone will not develop his or her language!  Our brains are hardwired to quickly develop a listening vocabulary and then a speaking vocabulary. This is developed naturally in children through constant conversations with others.

For older children, too much technology use during the day creates a psychological dependency.  It's like an addiction.  Once a teenager gets a cell phone, trying getting the teenager to put it down!  Too much technology use also rewires the brain making it harder to learn in a classroom.  That is why when we do use technology in the classroom, it is for short periods of time and then we put it away for later again during the day.  In the classroom, we want to make technology a tool to use, not something we become totally dependent on for every task.


All public schools receive funding from state governments with supplemental funds coming from the Federal government.  But is it enough to cover the actual costs of education a child? No.  That is why schools must turn to fundraising and donations.  ONE bus for a field trip can easily cost a school $500.  Then there's an entrance fee per child for admittance into a museum or attraction.  It all adds up, especially when you account for a typical school which has 20 classrooms.  Think about the cost of all those computers, the network, and the storage carts to ensure that all students have access to technology.  It adds up.  

Districts can ask for bonds or a special levy to be passed in order to raise funds, but we all know that those are hard to pass because voters think that schools already have enough money.  But the budgeted money goes to paying salaries (education is labor intensive), maintenance, utilities, school supplies, textbooks, toner and paper for the copy machine, office supplies, cafeteria lunches, insurance, pensions, and even repairing vandalism.  You must also understand that money that comes from the federal government, state government or local government comes with strings attached.  Those funds are always earmarked for specific purposes and can not be used for anything else.

That is why schools and PTAs and PTOs turn to fundraisers.  These fundraisers are needed to fund field trips, more school supplies (we never have enough to last an entire school year), playground equipment, assemblies, awards for students, etc.  Parents, that's why we need your help with the fundraising.  Schools do not have the "extra" funds for these things and the only way to raise that money is through fundraisers.

As a teacher, I can tell you (and I have receipts to prove it) that I spend at least $1,000 a year for my classroom buying more school supplies, folders, books and other materials that I need but the school can not purchase for lack of funds.  Most teachers do this because we care about our students and doing the best possible job.  That is why we also ask for donations of tissue boxes, wipes, and even glue sticks! 

That is why TODAY more than ever, parents need to get involved and help promote these fundraisers.  The PTA and PTO always need volunteers and help!  Call the school and get involved now!


Do you know how many times teachers get asked this silly question every day by students!  When I was a kid in school, I always had an extra pencil inside my desk. If I didn't have one, I turned to a friend to borrow one.  Problem solved.  What teachers are finding today is that most children can not solve simple problems like this on their own.  They are waiting for others to solve it for them.  How does this happen?  Simple, we don't teach children how to take responsibility and solve their own problems.  When I say problems, I'm talking about everyday common sense problems.  Of course, we want children to come to adults when they do have a serious problem.  

I have actually had a student who sat at his desk for ten minutes doing NOTHING while the class was working on an assignment and I was helping another student.  Why is the child not working? He didn't get a copy of the paper.  So for ten minutes the child just sat there until I noticed.  It never occurred to the child to raise his hand to ask for one.  Yes, it has gotten this bad.  

How do parents fit into this part?  Problem-solving begins at home.  Let your child attempt to do things on his/her own.  Let your child make mistakes.  Making mistakes is the biggest teacher in life.  It is how humans naturally learn what works and what doesn't.  Children learn from mistakes. Shielding them from this only produces adults that still expect mommy and daddy to solve problems for them.  Teachers are seeing more and more of this every day in our students.  Students who will say:  My mom forgot to put MY homework folder in my backpack.   Shouldn't that be the CHILD'S responsibility to put folders in the backpack and be prepared for school?  I'm always hearing about how mommy or daddy didn't (fill in the blank).  STOP! Mommy and daddy are NOT in my class, you are.  I do not let my students shirk responsibilities with these kinds of excuses.  I let them know that they will need to figure out a way to make sure that it doesn't happen again.  And for the most part, they do.   Let children figure it out.  Of course, you can and should give guidance and advice, but not do it for them.


When I was growing up, I didn't really start thinking about college until I was a junior in high school.  Then it was just thinking about what my major would be.  As a senior, I then started applying for colleges and taking the SAT.  Back then, the competition to get into a college was not so intense.

Today, it is very different!  You must understand that planning for college begins NOW.  Start talking to your child about what it means to go to college.  Doing well in school means that it will put you on a path to college.  In order to get the classes one needs to fulfill college entrance requirements, means impressing on your the need to always do well in school, even starting from kindergarten!  Why is this?

Do you know that thousands of foreign students come to the United States for college?  So many in fact that it is crowding out resident students!  Foreign and out of state students will compete with your child for space at a university whether public or private.  Universities are crowded.  Space is limited.  Many students have to turn to Community Colleges to get started.  Community College is a great option to start with if your child is uncertain about a major or career path.  College is an investment in the future.  College graduates on average can earn more than one million dollars in wages over a lifetime when compared to non-college graduates.  

Do you also know that the jobs and careers that most of our children will have in the future have not even been invented yet!  Your child will have to compete for those jobs with others from China and India.  Your child will have to continuously upgrade his/her skills in order to compete with the rest of the world because the pace of change is more rapid than in any time in our history.  One hundred years ago, an 8th-grade education would have gotten you into the workforce.  Today, a Master's Degree is needed.  Specialized skills are needed that need to be continuously updated.  Your child will be competing in a global job market, not just a local one.

My final piece of advice.  Stay involved.  When your child knows that you care about education, then he or she will care.  A motivated child becomes a fast learner.  Doing well in school provides intrinsic or internal satisfaction and more motivation.  That leads to a confident child that will blossom in a confident adult.  Thank you for all your support!

If you have any questions, let me know through the comments below!

Parents! What You Need To Know About Your Role in Education! Part 1

I'm old enough to remember that as a kid, our schools were never fenced in.  You could go there after school or on weekends and play on the monkey bars (which were never really safe) or shoot baskets at the hoops.  School lunches included items from each of the four....yeah just groups!  Homework was rare.  We took naps in Kindergarten.  We practiced duck and cover in case of a nuclear attack.  There was never a Back to School Night or Open House.  The only time the teacher talked to your parents was when you got in trouble!

That was over 40 years ago!  Ladies and gentlemen, let me reveal to you a teacher secret.  That school...the one 40 years non-existent.  So is the one from 30 years ago, and the one from 20 years ago and even the one from just 10 years ago.  If you haven't stepped into a classroom in the past five years, you are out of touch with how education and schools function today!

So, I'm going to get you up to speed with your new role in education as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, guardian or supporter of education.  School is DIFFERENT, and your role has is even more important!


More than ever, I, as a teacher, need your support.  With the increased rigor and demands of what students must not only learn but MASTER, I can not do it alone.  There just aren't enough hours in a school day to get it all done.  That is why homework is important.  Homework was rare back in the day, but now it is common Kindergarten through college.

We need students to practice what they are learning.  As a parent, we ask that you support that by making sure the homework gets done. If your child has difficulty in doing the homework, that's a sign that your child missed an important lesson or wasn't paying attention in class.  Trust me when I tell you this:  I would never send homework home that covers something I have not taught in my class.  No good teacher would do that.  Ask your child about that day's lesson.  Was it about the material that's on the homework?  Hold your child accountable and ask why he or she can not do the homework?  Teach your child to ask for help when needed.  So many children just sit there and don't ask for help, instead act helpless.  

My parents would never have thought to question a teacher about my behavior or grades in the class if I got in trouble or had low grades. The teacher was respected.  What the teacher reported was fact, not opinion.  

Today, unfortunately, we have the majority of parents questioning everything a teacher does in the classroom and everything the teacher reports.  Think about when parents argue, in front of their child, about how to discipline the child.  That child gets a mixed message and also discovers which parent can be manipulated.  It's the same with the teacher-parent relationship.  If you have a concern, let me know privately.  We can discuss it.  Then bring in the child to discuss it.  But denying that there is a problem or that it's someone else's fault is not going to help your child.  No parent wants to hear negative reports about their child, but it will only get worse if you do not acknowledge the problem and support the teacher in trying to correct behaviors or failing grades.


I have been teaching for over 30 years.  There have been so many changes in education that every teacher feels like a brand new teacher every three to five years!  But one of the biggest changes educators have seen is the INCREASE in kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  This is a medical condition that can only be diagnosed by a medical doctor or psychologist.  A school can not just diagnose your child with this condition, we are not medical professionals!

Maybe 30 years ago, I may have seen one child like this.  But 30 years later, I have in my classroom at least three to five students with the diagnosis or who are undiagnosed (teachers are trained to notice behaviors and symptoms of ADHD).  Imagine trying to juggle 3 chainsaws, while running in circles and holding five conversations simultaneously and now you know how hard it is to teach with so many students like this in ONE classroom.  Of course, we are trained and we are professionals and we have our bag of tricks.  But, it is exhausting and difficult to give all the REST of the students the attention they need when a teacher is just trying to get those three to five ADHD students on task.  

If you suspect your child is ADHD or a teacher or other professional suggests that may be the case, please take your child a to medical professional to seek treatment.  It does not always involve taking medication.  But if you do nothing, your child will suffer (and fall behind) and so will the rest of the class.  Is it fair to have one child negatively impact a class to such an extent that the rest of the class does not receive the education they deserve?

The same is true of poor behavior.  Thirty years ago I always had one or two students who needed a lot of redirection and guidance for some mild misbehaviors.  Now, it is usually five to seven children in ONE class with very poor behavior ranging from defiance, disrespect, hitting, lying, stealing, profanity, and more.  The behaviors are sometimes extreme.  We need your help in stopping these behaviors.  They are NOT learned at school.  This is from parenting or lack thereof.  Hold your child accountable for these behaviors at home and carry through on discipline at home.  Believe me, taking away a recess is not going to stop these kinds of behaviors.  We need YOU to discipline at home so that your child knows that teacher and parent will not tolerate these behaviors.  We need to work together as a team so that your child knows you support the teacher's decisions and as well as, the teacher supporting yours.


When I was a kid, I didn't need anyone to help me pour some cereal and milk into a bowl.  Or pop some bread into the toaster for toast.  Or pour some orange juice or milk in a glass.  I was perfectly capable of getting my own breakfast.  When I was a kid, schools did not serve breakfast, only lunch.  Not having breakfast meant waiting for a long time to finally eat lunch!  

Fast forward to 2017 and at least half my class comes to school without breakfast!  Why?  They don't know how to serve themselves or there is no one to tell them they MUST have breakfast.  Now, they will have to wait four more hours to eat lunch.  How is a child supposed to concentrate on learning, if all they are thinking about is food and having hunger pangs?  Sure, you can bring a snack at recess, but most kids just want to play.  Or worse, they bring a junk food as a snack.

I am not only a teacher, I'm a parent!  I always make my kids eat breakfast, even if all they want is a yogurt.  There's a reason it's the most important meal of the day.  Examine the word breakfast.  You are breaking a fast.  Meaning the last time you ate was dinner the night before.  So if you ate dinner at 6 pm and then don't eat lunch until noon the next day, you have gone 18 hours without eating!  Your body needs energy.  And did you know that most kids just want to play at lunch time?  So they do not eat everything or just gulp it down.  What happens then?  They return from lunch with hunger pangs or a stomach ache!

Make your children have breakfast.  Teach them the importance of having three well-balanced meals every day.  We know some people just aren't hungry when they first wake up. But breakfast is necessary so a child can focus on learning and not hunger pangs - which will come.  If you are in a rush in the morning, consider sending your child to school with a breakfast bar or juice carton.  Most schools now serve breakfast as well as lunch.  They can have breakfast at school!  Don't skip breakfast.  Make it a habit.


I remember as a kid watching old black and white movies.  The slower pace was mesmerizing.  The way everyone talked and listened to each other harkened back to a day when life was slower paced.  We now live in a faster-paced world, but somehow that has also translated into the world in which no one wants to listen to someone else. Instead, everyone talks over each other and no one is heard.

As I am giving directions or explaining how to do something, invariably I have a student raising his/her hand asking what to do!  This is not a one-time occurrence.  It happens DAILY throughout the day.  Children are just not listening.  They tune out when others speak.  They talk when the teacher is instructing.  Why is this happening?  Because students need to be taught how to listen respectfully.  Take a look at this old adage:  children should be seen and not heard.  Maybe a little extreme for today's parenting, but I think it brings up an important point.  Children need to be taught HOW to listen, not interrupt a speaker and ask questions AFTER the speaker has finished.  And I'm guessing if children spend more time actively listening, they would learn more as well.

In my classroom, I remind students that they can only ask questions after I have finished explaining everything.  If not, I get constant interruptions of questions that I've actually just answered.  I use a lot of techniques to make sure students are listening.  I break up instructions into smaller parts and have the class repeat them.  I have students turn to a partner and discuss.  I have students write instructions down.  Parents can do the same with simple questioning techniques such as:  Can you repeat what I just asked you to do?  What was the first thing I asked you to do?  How many instructions did I give you? etc.

Also, teach your child how to have a conversation. If your child is constantly interrupting you, say you will stop the conversation until the child stops interrupting.  Teach your child conversation cues about when to speak and take a turn.  In a class that is really needed.  Twenty or more students in one class need to learn how to take turns to share in a discussion and listen.  As teachers, we teach children how to discuss in large groups.  But that can't be done if a child can't even have a one-to-one conversation without interrupting or actively listening.


And it's true!  We seem to live in an on-demand world.  Everybody wants everything NOW.  But life doesn't work that way.  Learning to be patient is a skill.  And those who have learned it, have a good virtue which will get them far in life.  As a kid, I had to wait to see the new episode of my favorite cartoon.  I didn't have a VCR or DVD or Netflix.  I waited the entire week until Saturday to watch my cartoons.  There's a certain satisfaction one gets out of being rewarded for showing patience.  It was expected of you as a child to wait patiently if your parents were speaking to other adults.  It was expected of you as a child to wait patiently in a line at the grocery store or waiting to be called next at the dentist or doctor.  Parents were role models of sitting patiently and quietly while not showing impatience or anger of having to wait.  

It seems today those days are gone.  Where do children learn this patience?  Is it from parents who immediately take out a phone and go on social media the minute they have to wait?  Is it from parents who demand to be seen ahead of others?  Is it from parents who try to cut lines?  

Teach your child to sit comfortably in a chair, with hands folded and wait.  My own children like it when complete strangers compliment them on how politely they are waiting, while other children are NOT.  I do not take out my phone to amuse myself while I have to wait.  I might read a magazine or just people watch or engage my children in conversation.  I want my children to understand that the others who are waiting have just as important issues or problems as we do, but we need to wait for our turn.  

Patience is needed in a classroom.  There's only one teacher, but 20 or more students.  Some students need help and that's my job to help.  But how can I help one child, if the other child who needs help can't be patient but instead distracts those around him/her because they don't know how to wait patiently.  I tell my students if you're waiting for me, is there something you can do quietly while you wait?  Read a book?  Practice your math facts? Finish unfinished work from before?

Don't miss PART 2, in which I focus on the use of technology and some more important roles parents must take in today's modern education setting.

Having Fun (while making a mess) With Science!

This past week,  our school was treated to some hands-on fun with science hosted by California State University at Long Beach (CSULB) latino students who are majoring in science and engineering (  This was their second visit to our campus.  The college students worked with our students to create a chemical reaction using household ingredients.  The result was a polymer ball (you know, those super bouncy balls!).

Students had a lot of fun and it was messy.  But they did learn that when certain chemicals combine, they do have a chemical reaction.  The entire event took about 45 minutes.

If you're interested in having your students make their own polymer balls, here were the materials and steps needed.

Once the students were prepped about what they were going to do, the fun began!

When we arrived, each table area was set up for each student with two cups.  One cup had borax and water, the other water and glue.  There was another larger cup that had corn starch that each student would add later with a spoon. Each student was given a craft stick to stir and different food coloring bottles were at each table.

The first step is to stir the borax until it mostly dissolves.

The next step is to add one spoonful of cornstarch to the glue/water mix and stir until mixed well.

Now it is time to add food coloring to the glue/cornstarch mix.  Stir well to get it the right color.

The mixes are now ready to be combined and have a chemical reaction!

Students used the craft stick and pour the borax/water mix into the mix of glue/cornstarch.  Then they use the craft stick to stir vigorously until it begins solidifying.

Once the stirring has combined the two mixes well and it is becoming solid, students take it out and begin forming a ball shape.

However, if you didn't stir well or didn't dissolve the borax enough, you will get a sticky mess!

Finally, a polymer ball!  The students took their polymer ball home in a baggie to share with their families.  Also, I took lots of pictures and videos and sent them to parents via ClassDojo Story Posts.

If you're feeling brave, go ahead and try it out!

Share your messy, fun science activities below!

Dear Online Standardized Test: We'll Be Ready for You!

Do you believe your students are ready for the upcoming round of state standardized testing with either the SBAC or PARCC (or some variation of them)?  Though I haven't yet taught all the common core standards as of right now, I believe that by the end of April, my students will be prepared to tackle the California version of the Smarter Balance Assessment.  In the past, I've given some tips and suggestions for getting ready for these assessments.  Since this will be my fourth year administering the SBAC to my students, I thought I'd update those tips and give some new suggestions!

This past year, my grade level at my school doubled the number of proficient students from the previous years in both ELA and Math.  I think some of that can be attributed to the fact that we were more strategic in preparing the students to take an online test.  How do we prepare our students?   The nuances of taking an online standardized test need to be understood so that students can adapt.  In this post, I hope to give you tips, suggestions and ideas that you can implement right now before the testing window opens up!  Be sure to click on the links to previous blog posts I reference as well as other website links!

Let's Talk Comfort Level

As a 1:1 classroom, my students are very comfortable with using the technology to work on assignments, projects and even to take an assessment. Why?  Because we've been using the Chromebooks since the first month of school!  To get students very comfortable with the technology, they need to be using it daily until the testing window begins.  They need as much practice as possible so they can adapt to reading text on a screen rather than in a book or on a paper.  On screen reading can tire eyes more quickly than if it were in a book.

Think about peripheral technology like trackpads, mice and earbuds or headphones.  Using a mouse is very different than using a trackpad.  Most students take a while to learn to use a mouse.  A mouse also needs more room to move around and may need a pad.  If students are used to using a trackpad, stick with that and don't use the mice.  If students have to use a trackpad, make sure they know how to properly use a trackpad as many are configured as one and two button mice are.  Earbuds are preferable to headphones.  Headphones can get students sweaty and and hurt their outer ears if left on too long.  Train students to take earbuds out or headphones off if no audio is involved.

Since the beginning of school, my students have been using Google Slides for many projects that I have created as Interactive Digital Notebooks, as well as, practicing math skills in Google Slides with movable objects that represent virtual math manipulatives.

Let's Talk Ergonomics

As teachers, it's not like we can order the best, most comfortable chairs for our classroom.  We make do with whatever furniture is given to us.  Most of the time it's a hard plastic chair or maybe even an old wooden chair.  Sitting on one of those for at least an hour can make one stiff and tired.  It is important to take frequent stretch breaks when feeling tired or stiff.

During testing, allow students to stand up and quietly stretch behind their chair without bothering anyone around.  Model this, practice it and enforce it.  That way, during testing students can monitor themselves if they are getting tired.  I would also recommend every 30 minutes of testing, the entire group stand up and take a brain break for 5 minutes.  On the SBAC, students can leave the test running for 20 minutes before they will be automatically logged off.  It does save their work, but they will NOT be able to go back to previous questions if they are logged out so keep all breaks to less than 20 minutes.

Screen brightness can also be adjusted by the student using the brightness controls.  Everyone has a different tolerance for brightness so they should adjust it to their comfort level.

By the way, yes students do need to learn keyboarding.  But I have concluded after many, many years of trying to teach third graders keyboarding skills, it's a lot of effort for little pay off. Eight and nine year old hands can barely reach the keys when they place their hands on the home keys.  They do not have sufficient coordination to look away from the keys as they type.  Since the tests are untimed, what does it matter how much time they take to type?  Let them hunt and peck for now, and eventually they will learn the keyboard to become real typists.

However, do teach them the keyboard shortcuts for copy, paste, etc.!  Here's a FREEBIE you can use with your students to remind them of the keyboard shortcuts.

Let's Talk Test Format

With the advent of online testing, new ways of asking questions in unfamiliar formats can throw students off completely.  Usually on paper and pencil tests, students have questions that are either multiple choice, true or false, fill in blanks, matching or short or long written responses.  Online tests are the same, but the way in which they are presented through drop down menus, dragging objects on the screen, selecting certain tools for math symbols, can really confuse students if they've never practiced these types of questions on a computer before.

We also want students to understand that test taking strategies that they used on paper and pencil tests can transfer to online tests.  On paper, students can use process of elimination to cross out incorrect answers on a multiple choice question.  On a computer, they would use the strike-through tool to cross out incorrect answers.  Process of elimination is a cross over strategy!

Drop-down menus for choosing an answer can sometimes be confusing to students.  Now, they've probably encountered these types of menus before, but I've noticed something rather curious. Sometimes in a drop down menu, not all answers are displayed at once. It may require the user to scroll within the drop down menu to see more choices.  Students sometimes don't notice this and only choose answers from what is displayed!  Teach students to notice if the menu has a scroll feature.

Test that are presented in a booklet, usually have the passage first with the questions following below it or on the facing page.  On an online test, students are presented with a split screen.  Teach them how to adjust the split screen to see the entire text or to focus on the questions.   If you want to practice working with split screens, there are some nifty add-on extensions for Chrome.  One is Split Screen, but it doesn't always work with every page.  I believe a better one is Tab Resize which essentially let's you have two or more tabs open simultaneously next to each other as separate screens.

It is not technically a split screen, but it has the same effect.  For example, I can upload a PDF with a passage to Google Classroom.  On one screen the students can open the PDF with Kami so they can highlight and annotate. On the other screen, students can open a Google Form that I have prepared with questions regarding the passage.

With Google Forms, I can simulate some of the test format with drop down menus, check boxes for multiple choice questions with more than one response, fill in tables or even short responses.  In fact, my grade level is now going to start giving more and more of our classroom assessments using Google Forms, Google Slides or web based exams such as on  With the assessment window now just 2 months away, now is the time to begin switching to using online assessment instruments, which we are doing.

Let's Talk Note-taking

Most of the passages that students will have to deal with are written fiction or non-fiction passages presented on screen for them to read.  They can use test tools like the highlighter to highlight parts for use later on with answering questions.  On the SBAC, there is also a NOTEPAD tool for students to take notes on questions.

But, they will also have to learn to take notes from audio or video sources as well!  A student might have to listen to an audio presentation and use it to answer a multitude of questions.  If it were a text passage, it would be easier for the student to go back to the text and find answers.

But with an audio or video passage, that task becomes much harder.  Their first instinct is to just listen to the audio like was music on the radio or watch a video as if they were watching TV at home.  Instead, you have to teach them to recognize an audio or video source as just another passage that must be used to answer questions.  But first, students need to know how to use the controls to play, advance, rewind and stop audio or video.  Teach them to use the time index as well so they can reference sections if they need to go back and hear something over again.

Since the beginning of school, my students have used video as a learning tool.  I usually embed links to videos in the Interactive Digital Notebook.  I've taught my students how to take video notes so that they can use the notes to answer questions or compose a paragraph to summarize the video.  My school also subscribes to the Scholastic News and with the digital version, there are related videos that you can use to practice this skill.  Also, with the Scholastic News, there's an option for the text to be read aloud.  I use that too, to simulate an audio passage for them to take notes.

Another tool which is an excellent way to have students practice with video or audio, is  I recently discovered this site and even blogged about it HERE recently.  Essentially, pick a video and add questions for students to answer at specified points along the video!  Very easy to set up and use.

Let's Talk About Organizing Thoughts

Reading is understanding or comprehending.  Our mind wants to make sense of what we read and organize it in a way that helps us understand and remember.  I teach my students to make very simple graphic organizers that they can use to answer questions about a text or to use as a prewriting tool for writing tasks.

For writing a narrative, simple boxes with arrows to show sequence is the way to go.  The first box is used as the first paragraph to introduce setting, characters and problem.  The next three boxes are for three key events that occurred because the character acted in a certain way (character traits).  This becomes the second paragraph.  The last box is the resolution or ending of the story and is the last paragraph.

For writing an informative piece, I teach my students to use the house metaphor to state your main idea/topic sentence as the roof and pillars that show supporting details while the floor is the concluding sentence.

For an opinion, the students just remember the acronym OREO.  O is for stating your opinion on the topic.  R is a reason that supports your opinion.  E is for evidence to illustrate or explain your reason.  Students must give at least three reasons with supporting evidence.  Finally, the last O is for restating your opinion.  I actually tried this strategy with an online organizer.  You can see it here!

For short constructed responses, my students have learned and been using the RACE strategy since the beginning of the school year.  R is for restating the question.  A is for answering the question by making an inference or drawing a conclusion.  C is for citing evidence from the passage, video or audio that supports your answer. E is for further explaining or giving an example of the evidence.  By following this strategy, students can give well developed constructed responses.  If you look at the SBAC Scoring Guide, you will see that this strategy does help students with getting a better score.

Let's Talk Motivation and Test Submission

In my past experiences with administering the SBAC, it has usually taken two days for the ELA test, two days for the ELA Performance Task, two days for the Math test and two days for the Math Performance Task.  This is working about one and a half hours a day on each part.  These are just averages.  Some kids will need more time.  So how do we keep them motivated to do their best?

How about a cheer!  How about motivating posters around your school!  How about a ClassDojo message to parents to encourage their children to do their best each day of testing!  How about a class reward of free play during the day for great effort and concentration!  How about high fives! How about handing out Brag Tags after a testing session to reward effort and concentration!  Every class is different, so you will have to find what is motivating to your students.

On the SBAC, before a child can submit a test, they are asked to review any flagged questions as well as ALL the questions before submitting.  If they have paused the test along the way, they will not be able to review the previous session questions.  It can be overwhelming and discouraging to have to review all answers AGAIN, after concentrating so hard to take the test.  So I suggest we train our students to take a break before reviewing. Then have them only review a few at a time, take another break and continue.  Now that can vary depending on the student.  Some can handle reviewing all of them, while others may need encouragement to not just blow it off!

What kinds of test preparation do you do for online state testing?  Please share below in the comments!

/> type='text/javascript'/>