Welcome Back!

Hello my friends! I am sitting down to update my blog while my baby boy is trying to climb behind the TV and play with the wires. “This Is Us” is on in the background, and I’m sipping on my iced Americano while I ignore the pile of essays that I eventually need to grade. Life has changed quite a bit since I first started Too Cool for Middle School!

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Let me reintroduce myself. My profile read “second-year teacher,” but now I’m in my sixth year of teaching. I work at an amazing middle school in Southern California with students from all over the world. I’m currently teaching 6th grade history, 6th grade English, and 8th grade English. I coach volleyball, softball, and I’ve acquired a little collection of clubs including a Human Rights club, a Hamilton/Harry Potter club, and a fashion club. Clearly my students and I share a lot of interests!

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This is a new season of life for me. For the first time since Kindergarten, I’m not a student. I completed my Masters degree in US History last May (at thirty-nine weeks pregnant!). I wrote my thesis on Rothschild Francis, my husband’s great grandfather, who fought for citizenship and civil rights in the US Virgin Islands in the 1920’s. Research, writing, and telling the stories of unlikely heroes truly fulfill me. I’m sure that I will find myself in the world of academia again soon.

Last June my husband and I began the most incredible journey we’ve walked together yet–parenthood! Our son Jenson was born on the last day of school in 2016, and we spent the summer learning all about diapering, nursing, swaddling, and functioning on two hours of sleep. Jenson is a year old now and he’s an absolute joy. He is THE cutest child I’ve ever seen in my life (I’m biased, I know), and he keeps us laughing constantly. He fills up my Instastories, so for his daily antics, check out my Instagram!

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Speaking of social media, my YouTube channel has grown slowly but intimately. I’ve made genuine friends through both YouTube and Instagram, and I love the sense of community from the subscribers who comment and engage with my posts. I want to write more about my lessons and classroom strategies, and offer resources to middle school teachers. This blog is a useful platform for those goals, so I am going to be more intentional about creating blog content in addition to YouTube videos.

I’ve always written and spoken about fashion, and these days I am even more invested in fashion than ever. My fashion goals are to purchase only fair trade clothing, or clothing made in the US. I am becoming much more minimalist in my style, and I want to invest in pieces that truly make me feel like my best self, and that will last for years to come. I am learning about sustainable fashion, eco-friendly fashion, and the effects that fast fashion have on human rights, the planet, and even our sense of satisfaction. I will continue to share with you amazing companies that are making the world a better place, while also offering beautiful products. I have a few fair trade fashion posts coming soon!

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Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I appreciate this online community of teachers, and I hope to make this Internet world a more positive and encouraging place. Thank you for the opportunity!

Photos by Joyetic

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Jeans  (made in the USA)

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theme for 2014-2015 {be grateful}

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I drove home from my classroom last night thinking, “Wow, does the new teacher glow really wear off that quickly?”  We had just finished two grueling days of meetings, trainings, acronyms, expectations, changes, new curriculum, and binders of information that we never even got to.  I have no computer or printer in my classroom, and we didn’t (still don’t) have final class lists.  We have a new schedule and we are implementing several new programs, so I just didn’t feel like I had my bearings.  Someone suggested, “Just go with the flow,” but the thing is, there is no flow.

It was hard to be excited for the first day of school when I was so stressed out and disoriented.  This is my second year at the school and I’m in the same classroom, so how could I possibly feel more unprepared and unorganized than I did last year?  I started thinking back to what I was feeling a year ago, and I noticed one major difference.

Last year I was so grateful to have finally landed a job after applying all summer.  I was so happy to have my own classroom that it was okay with me that it wasn’t quite perfect on the first day.  Honestly, the changes and expectations that we are facing this year are incredibly frustrating, but at the end of the day, I have a job.

I’m grateful that I have a job.

I’m grateful that I didn’t have to switch classrooms.

I’m grateful that I get to work with middle schoolers.

I’m grateful that I am physically able to make it up and down the stairs to my classroom every day.

I’m grateful that I woke up feeling healthy today.

I’m grateful that my car made it all the way to school without any issues.

We eased the kids into the school year today, so each class period was only about 25 minutes long.  By the time I took roll and figured out who was here, who was lost, and who moved over the summer, we only had a few minutes left in class.  Rather than jumping into procedures, I just told the students about my gratefulness theme for the year.

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I told them to remind me about this theme when I get grumpy.  And I will definitely be reminding them about it when they get all teenage-angsty.  We talked about training ourselves to be grateful every time we are annoyed or frustrated.

You don’t feel like doing this worksheet?  Be grateful that you have the ability to actually read that worksheet.

You are tired in class and wish you could go home?  Be grateful that there is a bus to take you there at the end of the day, and that you don’t have to walk.

You got a low score on an assignment?  Be grateful that there is an extra credit opportunity coming up.

We also just casually shared out things that we are thankful for in general.  This was a pretty cool way to get to know some of the kids on the first day.  Some said they were thankful for their parents, their friends, God, bacon, and clean water.  One kid said he was thankful that his sister didn’t get deployed to Afghanistan.  They were thankful for their new school clothes, and the fact that they don’t have to wear uniforms.  Every class seemed to have one cheeky little student who said, “I’m thankful that I get to be in your class this year.”  Well played, kiddo.

On that note, happy new school year!

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favorite book foldable

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The most popular books with my 6th graders this year were YA novels that became movies (Divergent, Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, etc).  This is probably partly because those books got so much publicity (plus they are awesome).  My students usually don’t think to ask their friends or teachers for good book recommendations, so I created a project where my kids broke down the elements of their favorite books and practiced sharing their favorites with the class.

My favorite novel is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  It is a quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, off-beat type of book that I picked up during my freshman year of college after a recommendation from my friend Lauren.  (See how useful recommending books can be?).  I based my example off of this novel.

I cut construction paper in half length-wise, and then made all the foldables myself while my students were taking their finals.  (This was a last week of school activity).  Here is a video on how to make the blank foldables:

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I’m not a great artist, but I copied an element of the cover of the actual book and did my best to match the font.  I required my students to draw cover art as well.

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I wanted the Setting tab at the top because that is the smallest tab to write on.  I listed each category in order by how much room students would need to adequately explain that element of the story.  (P.S. My writing is quite crude and simple in each of these examples so that it could serve as a realistic 6th grade model).

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The conflict is where I wanted my students to draw other people in.  They needed to explain enough about the story to get readers interested, without giving away the resolution.  The crazier the details about the story, the better!

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This is generally the hardest section for students to complete, but theme is something that we have been working on identifying all year, so it also served as a bit of a cumulative assessment.  I remind them to consider the question, What does this book say about how life works?

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There is really only enough room here to list two to three characters.  I asked students to just list the characters and then give a brief, but colorful description of each one.

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As with the conflict section, the summary should leave readers interested in finding out more about the story.  There is no need for elaborate explanations.  Students should simply try to hook other students into wanting to read the full book.

And there you go!  This project took two class periods, lots of construction paper, and my big box of colored pencils.  I made the blank foldables, and I told students to bring copies of their favorite book from this school year.  I kept the completed projects, so I am going to make a display board at the beginning of the school year so that my new students will have plenty of book recommendations at their fingertips.

As they worked, I also played this YouTube video by BooksAndQuills to encourage my students to seek out book recommendations and discover new books.

2014 spring semester in instagram ootd’s

My summer break has finally arrived and I’m looking forward to catching up on about a million blog posts! Since I failed to upload “teacher chic” posts for about six months, here are 15 looks for inspiration for next school year. A few are weekend outfits (clearly), and the rest are casual classroom looks (I don’t get all that fancy). I realized while writing this that I really only shop at about 5 stores, and that I get a lot of use out of the more expensive/quality items that I’ve invested in. I love browsing through other teachers’ work outfits, so here is my contribution to the teaching world.  🙂

(descriptions are under each photo)

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cardigan: JCrew

chevron shirt: GStage (I think!)

necklace: World Market

jeans: Guess (my first Christmas gift from my husband, 5 years ago!)

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blazer: H&M
striped top: Forever 21
belt: Target
jeans: Express
flats: Cathy Jean

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cardigan: Target
necklace: Charlotte Russe
shirt: Target
pants: Target
shoes: H&M

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chevron top: Windsor
jeans: Express
shoes: Payless Shoe Source
wallet: G Stage
nails: Essie Play Date

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cardigan: Old Navy
dress: H&M (school colors for bonus points!)
wedges: Toms
necklace: Forever 21

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sweater: Windsor
jeans: Express
wedges: Toms
earrings: G Stage

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tunic: G Stage
scarf: Target
jeans: Lauren Conrad (Kohls)
earrings: Target
phone cover: Phone Cover of the Month
(I had just discovered beauty bloggers and was trying to get in on the action)

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jacket: Forever 21
sweater: Windsor
jeans: Target
flats: Sole Society
earrings: Target
phone cover: Target

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necklace: Charlotte Russe
top: Ann Taylor Loft
pants: Banana Republic
loafers: Me Too (Marshalls)

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sleeveless top: Peter Pilotto for Target
t-shirt: Cynthia Rowley (Marshalls)

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earrings: Target
cardigan: Target
striped tank: White House Black Market
pants: Banana Republic
flats: Me Too (Marshalls)

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necklace: Forever 21
chambray shirt: Target
skirt: Target
belt: G Stage
shoes: Target

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necklace: Icing
top: TJ Maxx
jeans: Express
shoes: Calvin Klein (TJ Maxx)

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top: Kohls
shorts: TJ Maxx
shoes: Aldo

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necklace: Forever 21
tank: Old Navy
vest: Target
pants: Ann Taylor Loft
sandals: G Stage

acrostic poem assessment (the north)

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To my delight and excitement, the chapter on the North is mostly social history.  We look at working conditions, economics, changing family structures, women’s roles, child labor, inventions, unionization, etc.  Some of my students seem to be a little restless for a battle to map out, or a president and vice president to memorize, but I love the opportunity to slow down a little bit and look at regional history.

However, I don’t think that a multiple choice test is necessarily the best way to test my students’ understanding of this content.  I decided to use an acrostic poem as their Chapter 11 assessment, and I was impressed with the information that they retained and were able to communicate.

The directions were to write a fact/detail about the North starting with each letter in “T-H-E N-O-R-T-H.”  Responses were worth 2 points each, for a total of 16.  If they wrote something totally uninspired, like “The North was in the north,” they would only receive one point.  Somewhere on the worksheet they were also required to draw an image of anything related to the North, worth 4 points.  Total, the test was worth 20 points.

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It was a very open-ended assessment, but students produced good work and were actually happy to do it.  I had been telling them all week that the Ch. 11 test was on Wednesday, but when I handed it out, they were so relieved they started laughing.  Even one of my most negative students said, “This is the best test ever!”  They were quiet as mice while they took it, and no one bothered to try and look at their neighbor’s test.

To them it seemed “easy,” but it actually required significant knowledge of Ch. 11, and it gave me a good sense of which details they retained the best.  The hand-drawn image offered my artistic students a chance to really shine, too.

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These examples aren’t perfect, but overall students’ scores were pretty high.  Quite a few of my students have IEP’s and have a lot of trouble passing tests, so it’s nice to give them a confidence boost every once in a while.  It’s definitely true that they need experience taking the kinds of rigorous tests that will be required in high school and beyond, but our school was also taking the SBAC state tests this week.  I figure they had had their fill of high stakes testing for the week!

I like the train on this one:

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And this one just made me laugh:

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The stick man overseer looks so angry!

The charm of acrostic poem assessments will surely wear off soon, but they are a nice tool to use every so often.  They are much more nuanced than multiple choice tests, and I enjoyed seeing Ch. 11 through my students’ eyes.

What are your favorite forms of alternative assessments?

grammar wednesdays

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This is my first year teaching English, so back in August, I was looking for all the help I could get.  Structuring my curriculum for the year was a challenge compared to my History classes (which pretty much just progress chronologically).  Even though I had a district pacing guide for my English classes, I was a little overwhelmed with the task of trying to fit all of the content into one year in an organized and logical fashion.

I’m actually still trying to nail this down, but one structural decision has really helped me this year.  On Wednesdays we get out of school about an hour earlier than usual, so each class period is a little shorter.  (Well, the students get out early.  The teachers have to stay for professional development).  I decided to make those days Grammar Wednesdays.  I had a feeling I might get swept up in all the stories and worksheets and essays, and forget to cover the basics.  Many of my students speak another language (which they usually cannot write), and they’re only, you know, like eleven, so grammar lessons are very important for them.

Most people probably hated grammar lessons as a kid, but let me tell you, my students LOVE Grammar Wednesdays.  I wish I could take credit for that, but it’s really because they love the videos on Flocabulary.com.

Flocabulary.com is an educational website that uses hip hop songs and videos to teach content.  I use the grammar videos most often, but I’ve also used a few of their US History videos.  Here is a screen shot from my account on my iPad so that you can see all the subjects Flocabulary covers:

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I go to Language Arts and then choose from the grammar videos.  Here is another screen shot of a few video options:

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The videos also come with tests in pdf format, so you can quiz your students to assess what they learned.  Usually, I will let my students watch the video once through, without any worksheet or anything to distract them from the song.  The songs are really catchy, so usually after that first run-through they can sing most of the chorus already.  Then I hand out the test and just let them work on it while I play the video a few more times.  Some students fill it in right away and then just dance in their seat to the video, and others have to really pay attention to the video until the answer they are looking for comes up.  We go over the answers together after that, to make sure that each student has all the correct answers.

Since I make sure that everyone has 100% of the correct answers, I don’t really grade this assignment.  I just 3-hole punch their worksheets, and they have to keep all their grammar worksheets in their binder.  At the end of each quarter, I give a grammar “final,” using questions from Flocabulary.  We take a day or two at the end of the quarter to go over and study all of the grammar worksheets to prepare for the final.

The first video I ever showed was the “Back to the Roots” song on root words.  I was just kind of testing out the website and trying to decide if I liked it.  When I played that song my 6th graders literally got up out of their desks and started, like, getting hyphy to the music.  I had no idea they would like it so much!  I told them, “This is just a sample.  There are actually quite a few other songs that I like better.”

One kid said, “I don’t know how it could get any better than this!”

And isn’t that what you want to hear everyday?  😉

Plus, that content is so stuck in their heads that they couldn’t get it out if they tried.  Ask any of my students what the parts of speech are and they will rock side to side and sing, “Noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunctions, interjec-TION!”

Here’s the kicker: you do have to pay for the service.  I pay $7 a month for my personal account, but if your school or district signs up, the prices are a little different.  $7 seems like kind of a lot when you multiply that every month, but for me, it’s worth the time that I save planning grammar lessons and making grammar worksheets every week.  Plus, nothing that I could come up with would be nearly as entertaining as the hip hop videos.  If my students are good during the lesson (which the always are), then I turn it up and play it one more time at the very end of class and let them dance around and sing to it.  They’ve had full-on dance battles while simultaneously singing about grammar.  To me, that’s $7 well spent.

And just to please all of the Common Core junkies, here is a link to the 6th Grade Conventions of Standard English Common Core standards.  We are hitting them out of the park.  You’re welcome! 🙂

#summarize

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This is my first year teaching English, and I have found that one really difficult skill to teach is summarizing.  My students nod and say that they understand, but when it comes down to it, they struggle (and come up with some crazy ideas, way out of left field!).

Well, Facebook recently implemented hashtags into its format (oh man, that is going to date this post for all eternity, isn’t it?).  I’m not much of a “hashtagger” myself, but one day I was trying to think of hashtags to tack on to a status update, and it was really hard!  As I came up with a few really lame words and phrases, however, I had an epiphany: I was really just identifying key words and summarizing my post.  I thought, I’ll bet my students do this on Twitter and Facebook all the time.  They’re probably way better at it than I am!

So I decided to design a lesson where they could use their hashtagging skills to identify key words and themes in literature.  Since I’m sure not all of my students are Twitter fiends, I began the lesson with this very informative video about hashtags by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake:

(Don’t worry, I ended the video right before Questlove walks in).

According to my pacing guide, we were supposed to read a story from our literature book called “Everybody is Different, but the Same Too.”  I created a worksheet to go with the story that incorporated hashtags (instead of writing down key words or phrases) to summarize each paragraph.

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#summarize     click here for pdf file

My English students really like to read out loud, so a different student read each paragraph, and we added hashtags after each one.  I modeled the first one, and the students caught on pretty quickly.  Their hashtags were much closer to actual summaries than other assignments had been where I just asked them to summarize.  We then connected their summaries to the overall theme of the story, and I’ll share that activity in a separate post.

Warning: I did kind of create a monster with the whole hashtag thing, and for the next few days, they added the word “hastag” to everything.  

“Hashtag-hi Mrs. Forbes!”

“Hashtag-can I please go to the bathroom?”

“Hashtag-what is the homework?”

“Hashtag-have a good weekend!”

As annoying as you might think hashtags are in Twitter-form, they’re much worse in spoken word!  But this ended up being a really fun way to break down a story, and the kids keep asking to do it again.  Using hashtags taps into their background knowledge and allows them to apply elements of their outside lives to school.  Plus, they gave me much more accurate summaries of the story than I had ever gotten before.  #winwin

happy national handwriting day! (jan 23)

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Happy (late) National Handwriting Day, everyone!  I have always loved anything to do with handwriting: keeping journals, writing notes in class, making lists, having pen pals, filling out forms, sending people birthday cards, you name it.  Even now, I keep track of my schedule in a planner that I take with me everywhere.  Sure, I have an iPad and an iPhone with brilliant apps that could organize everything for me–but I wouldn’t get to write everything down!

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Also, since 9th grade I have only used one kind of pen: black, fine point, Pentel RSVP pens.  Nothing else will do.  I’m very stingy with my pens, too.  I will watch you like a hawk until that pen is safely back in my pen pouch in my purse!

My husband recently bought me a Kindle Paperwhite to help me avoid the back and neck problems inflicted upon me by the 20-30 books I have to read each semester for my Masters program, but again, I need to write in the margins.  (I love the Kindle for pleasure reading, but when I am analyzing a text, I have to engage with it using an RSVP pen).

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You know what else is kind of strange about handwriting?  Mine is almost identical to my mom’s, and hers is almost identical to my grandma’s.  My best friend since 7th grade (Rochelle) and I also have incredibly similar writing.  Both of us have been confused when receiving Christmas cards from each other in the mail–Did this get sent back?  Did I have the wrong address?  Oh, ha ha, that’s not my writing after all!  Is handwriting hereditary, or do we copy what we see?

Anyway, I am always very excited for National Handwriting Day, and this year we celebrated it in my English class.  Sixth graders are never excited to hear the word “cursive,” but I opened their eyes to a whole new concept this year.  “You’re not in elementary school anymore,” I reminded them, “so now you can write however you want!  You can do loops on your y’s and g’s this week, and then hearts on top of your i’s next week, you can write in half cursive-half printing–the sky is the limit!”  I just wanted them to practice neat penmanship, and to have fun doing it.

We started off by writing the alphabet in whatever handwriting they liked best.  I encouraged them to develop their own signature style (no pun intended).  Then we wrote out some panagrams like,

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog  and

My grandfather picks up quartz and valuable onyx jewels.

(Panagrams are coherent sentences that include every letter of the alphabet).

Next, they practiced writing their signature, or autograph.  You would be shocked at how many of my 8th graders cannot write their names in cursive.  Like, no matter how many different ways I explained it, I still got their name written in printing.  It was nuts.  So with my 6th graders, I want to make sure that they practice writing their signature at least once a year.  If they get that MLB contract one day, they are going to need to know how to do this!

Students had the option to continue to observe National Handwriting Day by completing an extra credit assignment that was due the next day.  They could either make up their own panagram (it’s actually REALLY hard!), or hand-write a letter to someone on stationary.  The art of letter writing is pretty close to extinct, so I am doing my part to bribe students into reviving it.  Here is what one class brought back the next day:

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Really, they didn’t have to write the letter to me, but hey, they’re smart!  How can I not give you a bunch of extra credit if you hand-write all the reasons why I am amazing onto a cute card?  I also liked the homemade stationary (which they probably made ten minutes before the bell rang from their binder paper and a pen they found at the bottom of someone’s backpack, but whatever).

Side note: I have heard that many states are dropping cursive from their Common Core curriculum (California is keeping it, though).  This is a shame, because I have read in a few articles that the act of connecting one letter to the next requires the brain to think one step ahead, and makes writing in cursive a fundamentally different task from printing.  Experts also argue that cursive is useful to know for note-taking, although I would guess that most students will be typing their notes in the future anyway.

Still, I enjoy handwriting, and I love to read at beautiful script.  I am going to continue to celebrate National Handwriting Day every January 23rd, and I hope that you do too!  What other ideas do you have for NHD activities?

spelling bee word wall

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The school spelling bee is tomorrow!  I’ve trained my 6th graders well, and I’m certain that one of my students will win!  We started learning the words on the Scripps National Spelling Bee word list by creating signs with one spelling word and the definition.  Each student made a colorful sign with the word, its definition, and artwork that represented the word.  They taught each other how to spell the words, and practiced spelling their word in front of the class (“say, spell, say!”).  I needed something to block the morning sun from my 1st period class’s eyes anyway, so we made a Word Wall from all the spelling words.  Students try to incorporate the spelling words into their comments as much as possible (“mugwump” gets a lot of action), and even if their eyes are wandering every so often, at least they will probably rest on our colorful Word Wall eventually.  I can’t wait for the competition tomorrow! 🙂