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An Aquarium in my Fifth Grade Classroom

using a fish tank to teach science in an upper elementary classroomThis year, my class welcomed a new addition that I have NEVER EVER done before....a fish tank.  I have to tell you, while my students were (and are still) amazingly excited about the whole thing, I, on the other hand, was (and still am) quite nervous about it all.  I mean, there is a living, breathing ecosystem in my room that needs specific attention to ensure all of those living, breathing beings do not end up belly up.  Honestly, it is a huge undertaking that I just didn't think I could do.  But you know what?  It is working!

I thought I would use this post to share with you all how I got my tank up and running and how we are incorporating it into our 5th grade class.

The Set Up

Science standards come to life with a fish tank in the classroomSo, I cheated a *little* bit here and bought a10 gallon aquarium kit.  It was a little more expensive than just getting a 10 gallon tank, but all of the accessories (like a filter, water de-cholorinator, thermometer, heater, fish food, etc..) came with it and I wanted to make this process as easy as possible.  I bought gravel and some little decorations for inside the tank as well.  I just followed the directions on the tank kit and got the aquarium up and running, minus the fish.  After one day of having it filled with water, one of my students surprised us all and showed up with two guppies and two tetra fish...and we had living beings in there!   (I admit that actually figuring out how to get the fish to school without them dying in my presence was a huge stressor on me, so when this student randomly brought in the fish, I was SO happy!)

The Science

While I realize that a fish tank is calming and fun to own, the entire point of having this tank was to incorporate some academics into our room in a meaningful way.  I wanted to bring more hands-on, real life science, so we began using these awesome lessons I found from the Florida Aquarium.  It took us step by step on how to really make sure that our tank was running smoothly as well as gave us some great advice for how to care for our tank.  Using these lessons as a guide, I set up a feeding schedule, in which the kids would take turns feeding the fish, as well as note the temperature of the water.  I also created a fish observation form, where once a day the students just observe the fish behaviors.  They make note of anything interesting, as well as draw pictures of the fish.  

So far, other than the beginning observations (which I plan to use in a few months to note changes over time), we have also ventured quite a bit into the Nitrogen Cycle.  With this being a living ecosystem, and our wish to keep the fish alive, we have had to learn how to keep the ammonia levels low.  After learning about the nitrogen cycle, the students decided that we probably needed a plant to help keep the good bacteria flourishing.  Students set out to research (on their own) which plants would help the most, how to keep those plants alive, and how to get them growing in our aquarium.  
Once a week, groups of students are also in charge of cleaning the tank, getting the algae off the glass, and measuring ph levels.  If levels are too high, they go to the computers and figure out what to do to fix it.  
A classroom fish tank is a great way to teach responsibility as well as get some science standards in

So far, there has been a LOT of buy in and excitement surrounding the fish tank.  Kids are taking research on themselves, observing and figuring out how to keep our fish alive, and using our science standards to do it.  I am very, very pleased with what is going on.

We also have an aquaponics component to this fish tank...but I think I will leave you here for now.  (as this alone was probably enough information ;)) Do you have a tank in your classroom?  How have you used it as a learning tool?

Screencasts and Group Projects...a Match Made in Heaven

I have been teaching a long time.  Because of this, I tend to get bored with what I have "always done" and I find myself venturing out and mixing things up every once in a while.  So when it came time to review character traits with my students,  I tried out something new....we used a screencast!

Ok...so before you ask what a screencast is, here is an example.


Cool right????

There are so many different ways to use this technology in your class, but here is what we did.  Don't limit yourself to what I describe, but this is a good jumping off point for you.

For our character trait project, the students had to go through a few different steps.  The students gathered into groups of 3 or 4 students and divided up the 6 major character groups in our class novel Gregor the Overlander.   They thought about the various character traits embodied by those character groups (i.e.: the crawlers/roaches are very loyal and would give up their lives to save the majority of the group if needed.) The students wrote one paragraph describing the character groups using evidence from the text.  You can get the graphic organizer they used here.  If you would like to see the post I wrote about how I taught character traits in the first place, you can find that here.

Using screencast-o-matic to help the students present their character trait paragraphsNext, I asked the students to draw a full sized picture of just that character group.  The picture was to include some of the character trait ideas in it, but really needed to convey that particular character group. (meaning, I wanted to be able to look at the picture and tell it was about the fliers, not the gnawers....which are the bats and rats, for those of you who haven't read the book ;))  

Afterwards, the students created a 6 slide Google Slide project.  They took a screen shot of the picture and inserted each one onto a different slide.  I also asked them to write the name of the character group on the slide for easy identification.
Using Google Slides in fifth grade to create a screencast-o-matic presentation of character traits

Using a screencast is a great way to get the students to present their material in a low stress environmentThen the real fun began.  Using a free program called Screencast-o-matic, the students read their paragraphs about the various character groups while recording their voices!  The screencast-o-matic recording box was set around their picture so that was the only thing shown as the voice was being recorded.   You can see it in the picture to the left.  The black and white box is the recording area.  The red button is the record button with a timer that tells the students how long they were talking.  When each student finished their reading, before moving on to the next slide, the recording was paused, and then restarted when the next slide was shown and the new student began to read!

Now, what I have is a speaking sample for each student, a sample of them reading, evidence of their writing and group work, as well as a technology sample!  It had the added benefit of immediate buy in as well, as the students really, really wanted to do the screencast.  They knew that the final project was headed that way and they worked hard (and fast) to get there.  This was also such a low stress way to have the student, even my EL students, present their paragraphs.  They didn't have to be put on the spot and stand in front of everyone, yet they still spoke and practiced those oral skills they needed.

A little note:  The students used my laptop to do the actual screencast, as you do need to have an external microphone available (that is not present on the chrome books.)  This entire project took about 3 days to do, with the actual recording taking only one day to get all of the groups.  

Have you used Screencast-o-matic in your classroom?  How did you incorporate it?

Building a Positive Class with Character Trait Word Clouds

This year, I am trying to do things that will keep our classroom positive and happy, so I thought I would connect some of the academic ideas we are learning with a bit of team building fun.  So as we wrapped up our unit on character traits (you can read about exactly what we did here), I had the students think about the traits that their classmates embodied.

Create a word cloud for the students to think about their classmate's character traits using a google form.
So, this is totally made up, but you get the idea ;)
I created a form on Google Forms that included each of my students' names.  (I made each entry a "short answer" question)  I then asked the students to think of 3 POSITIVE adjectives that described their fellow classmates and input that into the form.   I wanted them specifically to think of inside traits that we had learned about in our character unit, as outside traits were a bit too obvious.  To help the students really dig deeper on the character traits,  I projected this character trait list from Read. Write. Think onto the board.  I also added several unique character traits about each student, as well as their name about 10 times (which will become important later on.)
Once all of the forms were submitted, I created an individual doc for each
student with all of the adjectives listed.  Using the "Save as Doc" add-on in Chrome, the individual doc was easy to create.  I then shared it from my drive to the student who it belonged to.

The students then copied and pasted all of the words into a word cloud form from ABCYa.com.  This generated a cloud with all of the character traits that their classmates used to describe them.   This word cloud takes the words that appear more than once and makes them bigger than others, so the student's name should appear the most on the doc.  After taking a screenshot and inserting it into a Google Slide, the students took a selfie and added that on top of the slide.  

I made this about myself.  Look at all the positive words I used ;)
I printed the slides out, laminated, and now we have a gorgeous display with hundreds of positive character traits to describe our class!
Kids using google classroom, ABCya, and form word clouds with great character traits for each other

Prepositional Phrase Paper Planes and Poems

Teaching prepositional phrases using a paper airplane in 5th grade.This week we began working with prepositional phrases and I wanted to grab the kids attention with something hands-on (because, let's face it, grammar worksheets aren't exactly captivating.)  So I scoured the internet and pieced a few things together that resulted in a memorable lesson the students actually learned prepositional phrases from!
I began by creating an anchor chart with the students defining prepositions, prepositional phrases, and samples of some of the more common prepositions students will be using in their writing.  They copied these into their grammar journals and we were off to the fun part.

I instructed kids to fold a paper airplane out of a piece of colored copy paper.  You would have thought I told them they had won the lottery.  Once the airplanes were created (which, for some, was a lesson in and of itself), the students headed outside to fly them.  Once the plane landed, the student needed to write a prepositional phrase describing where the plane was. 
On the pavement
Under the bench
Near the leaf
Around the tree
In my hands
Below Sally's foot
Next to Carlos' leg

This went on for 10 of the most glorious minutes the students have had to date in my room.
When the time was over, we gathered together to share out some of the prepositional phrases that were written.  I allowed the students to write more on their plane that applied.

Writing a prepositional phrase poem about the flight of their paper airplane in fifth grade.We headed back inside and used those phrases to write a prepositional poem describing the journey of our paper airplanes.  Using this template here, the students wrote the poems using different prepositions to begin each line.  We peer edited and then published on a Google Doc.  

All in all, this was a great way to not only introduce prepositional phrases, but internalize them.  Our next step is to take out some of their old Paragraph of the Week paragraphs and add the newly learned material into them.

Johnny Appleseed for Big Kids

Johnny Appleseed Day in an upper elementary classroom.

My second grade son recently brought home a note from his teacher asking him to bring in an apple so they could make applesauce in honor of Johnny Appleseed Day on September 26.   So, me being the history lover that I am, decided to do a little bit of research on Johnny Appleseed and discovered that there was a lot there for my fifth graders to work with too.  So this week, I teamed up with my partner teacher, Susie the Panicked Teacher, to have a little fun and learn a little bit about Johnny Appleseed at the same time.

We began the day reading two paired texted about the man who came to be known as Johnny Appleseed.  The first was a legend that was filled with lots and lots of legendary notes about him.  My students picked up on the fictional facts immediately.  As one of them said, "No one on earth can possibly walk across a whole state in one day!  Especially not if he is planting apple seeds.  That takes time!"  When we were done reading the text, we created an anchor chart of the facts and fictions that were presented in the legend.  

Then the students read and annotated a non-fiction piece about Johnny Chapman, underlining any facts presented and boxing any legendary aspects.  This article, which can be found here, was a great way to follow up on the legend with some research-based information.

Annotating a nonfiction article about Johnny Appleseed to look for legend vs facts about the man.

Using Google Slides to create a shared presentation about facts and legends of Johnny AppleseedAfter the reading was done, the students broke into groups of four and created a collaborative slide project in Google Slides.  One slide was to depict all of the legendary aspects of Johnny Appleseed and the other was to have the facts.   If the students needed more information on their slides, they were to do a simple google search using key terms (coincidentally our computer lab lesson for the week....funny how that works out like that ;)  lol) to gather more info.

These slide presentations were then presented to the class as a whole, making all of their learning accessible in a more public forum.

STEM activity where kids create a device to put on their heads that will hold an appleThe second half of the day found ourselves knee deep in a STEM investigation (that is, admittedly NOT about Johnny Appleseed, but we used apples so that keeps it thematic.)  Using this resource from Kerry Tracy, the students engineered some sort of hat that could hold an apple successfully AND be transferred to another hat during the course of a relay race.  My students had SO much fun doing this engineering challenge.  They tested their ideas, helped each other to create a better hat, scrapped those hats that just weren't working, and tweaked ones that were.  It was very interesting to see who shined during this process and who struggled.  I learned a lot about my students GRIT and PERSEVERANCE (or even the lack there of for some....) during this challenge as well.

Once the allotted time was up (only 35 minutes!) the students headed outside for a relay race.  While they were racing against each other, the primary goal of this challenge was to see what worked well while engineering the hats and what ideas weren't as good.  After a very fun race, the kids came back into the room to debrief about the successes and failures, detailing just what did make a good hat and why.  
The STEM relay race to test the apple holding structures they built.

All in all, this was a great way to get some rigorous learning in while still celebrating a fun little holiday in class.  The kid had a day that they will never forget and learned a little bit about an American legend to boot!

Want to read a few more ideas about how to Johnny Appleseed up your upper grade classroom?  Head on over to Susie's blog where she shares a great graphic organizer she used with her students!

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