Five October Ideas for the Classroom

October has always been an interesting month. You're beginning to understand how our students and classrooms work, more behavior might pop up, and we're right in the middle of curriculum with parent-teacher conferences right around the corner. I love October, Halloween is coming and the excitement of fall. I don't even like pumpkin spice lattes but somehow seeing them just makes everything seem all is right.

I figured I'd share five of my favorite October (simple) ideas that center around Halloween that are fairly low prep and easy to do. The key is that you've got to make them work for you and they DON'T require that you have to dress up.

Goosebumps, Books and TV Show
Scary stories are the best. Make sure you introduce your students to R.L. Stine and his lively collections of scary stories. Monsters, mayhem, and unexpected endings are what it's all about. You might want to preface your students that the stories could be intense...but not clown-in-the-sewer-intense.

Mix and match the books by using recess and/or lunch time and show the students the 90's Goosebumps TV show. All the episodes match up with the books and they're under 30 minutes long. Netflix has the entire catalog available  but you might be able to find some on YouTube too.

Flashlight Reading with Sounds
Turn off the lights, grab a flashlight, turn on some monster music, and let the kids read. Flashlight reading isn't anything new, but adding the touch of spooky music is just what the Dr. Evil ordered. We love listening to music when we read and the perfect soundtrack enhances book reading immediately.

Check out YouTube, Amazon Music, Pandora, or where ever you grab your songs from. Just change up read-to-self time to match the mood. You might need to prep students to bring in flashlights, but if that's not possible just grab some lamps. It's easy and effective.

Study Bats 
If you want to focus on real-life, you probably need to go with BATS. These cross categorical mammals work well in ELA and science. From studying the types and species to understanding how they live, there's something for everyone (and at all ages).

We know the importance of bats in our ecosystems so think about challenging your students to design and create a bat house, which you can find here.

Or encourage your students to make life-size cut-outs of bat species.  They'll be amazed when they see the difference between a ghost bat and a flying fox. Your students can hang the bats from the ceiling or post them all over the walls.

Build A Bat Cave
See the full post here.

The Haunted Manipulative Math House
The simple idea is for your students to create a haunted house. Set out all the math manipulatives you have from unifix cubes, geometry shapes, ten sticks, basically whatever you have.  Then let them build a haunted house.  If you need to set a time limit, do so-- but step back and let them see what they can create (this is the STEM portion). Once they're finished, allow students to share their creations. Come up with a list of items they must be able to answer (who lives there, what's in the house, how is it haunted, etc.).

For some classes this is plenty but if you want to add more math skills assign each manipulative a number (example: each unified cube is worth 3 or $3) and have the students find the totals. You can assign each type of manipulative a different price or make them all the same. There's really no set rule because you can tie this into many different skills. It may take you (the teacher) a few minutes to decide how you want it to work, but it's worth it.

Dealing with Zombies
It is my personal opinion that a zombie invasion is a teachable moment.
Why, you ask? Here's why...
-It takes probable problem solving. How would students really react and what are their options?
-Mapping skills
-Survival skills. No seriously, what would they do without electricity or the internet?
-Are they team players? When the invasion happens who will they help?
-It requires research, but not the book kind. They have to study surroundings, locations, and geography-- books aren't nearly as important.
-A zombie invasion requires students to use their own particular skills (not reading fluency).

See it here.

Teachers can create a zombie invasion environment and see how students react, work together, and problem solve. It's team building but you've replaced trust falls with a well placed apocalyptic virus. Surviving a zombie outbreak is basically project based learning on the run, which is a resource I've created for students to do independently or as a group. It's a mix of tasks, problems, and story telling for students to work through.

Looking for more..

If you teach special education (like I do) then you definitely want to read why project based learning should be in every classroom. PBL gives kids (at all levels) opportunities to find what they're great at when it comes to how they learn and take in information. It's also the perfect way to pull in those reluctant learners.


Project Based Learning, Dissected

I wanted to take some time dissecting how I use project based learning in an elementary classroom. I'll break down the process I use for project based learning (PBL) and ease that overwhelming feeling you might have.

I'll preface this post by letting you know I'll be referencing my own resources throughout because it's how I use project based learning in my class, specifically this one.  

One of the initial issues I had with project based learning was how unstructured it was for young students. Remember, I'm talking about elementary students.  Giving kids an idea or driving question then asking them to try and solve it doesn't work very well. These students need structure AND the ability to solve complex issues. It was that reason why I started creating my own project based learning resources for students (and other teachers). I wanted a simple, effective, and laid out approach to introduce PBL activities that could be easily differentiated to students. I teach special education and I wanted materials that would engage students and push them into new territory

Just so you know, I love project based learning.

I'm going to refer to this incredible chart (below) that I've made throughout this post because it's important to understand that project based learning COMPLETELY depends on the kids (or class) you teach (based on my own professional opinion). Let me say that again: PBL looks different for EVERY SINGLE teacher and class. The depth and complexity will be different for each student--and that is okay. It's just like any other concept or piece of curriculum--your students will drive how you teach.

Four main issues (structure, independence, technology/research, and literacy & numeracy skills) will determine how I have to work with each of my students. This is the case for teachers around the world, it's why PBL varies so much from class to class and student to student.

The younger the students, the more hands-on the teaching must be (see my handy chart). Primary and intermediate students need the most structure, which is why integrating PBL into elementary grades can be tough. They also need more guidance with the technology. You don't want them playing Minesweeper on "accident" the whole time.

But let's back up and start at the beginning-

Why do I use project based learning with my students?
(Professional Answers)
-Authentic learning, real-world learning
-It works for all levels of learners
-Kids use their own prior knowledge and skill sets
-Social Aspects (collaboration, solving disagreements, asking for feedback)
-I want my students to experience something different.

(Fun Answers)
-It's messy and filled with surprises.
-I get to tell kids "yes" to all their questions.
-Constant discovery and conversation
-Kids want to go home work on it then come back the next morning and tell you.
-Art is always involved.
-It's always different.
-I see students connect in ways typical lessons wouldn't let them.

What are the problems I face when doing it in class?
-Time frame and constraints
-Students don't know how to pick topics
-Student independence levels with technology and research
-Figuring out how to share it with an audience
-Literacy and math skills needed at primary age

What are the benefits I see?
-Engaged and motivated students
-Increased student independence
-Kids recoginzing their strengths and skills
-More risk-taking
-Willingness to fail...and try again
-Do you want me to keep going?

Depending on where you look there can be anywhere from 5-9 steps for project based learning, so I'll try to stick with what I think are the biggest and baddest.

The Essential Question, The Driving Question
I like to give younger students the idea, question, and/or topic. It takes the bad groupthink out of the mix. I've given students choices and options, but have found that to be ineffective for younger students. The driving question or task comes from me.

And this is also where I go off-roading rather than following the typical project based learning formula because the essential or driving question isn't always a single question (to me). Sometimes it's a task or objective that include tons of moving parts. I know, it's a little different.

The example I'll use is this: The students have been asked to run a music festival in their town.

"But that's not a question," you're thinking. I know. But it is a complex issue that can be related to communities or interests of students which requires a high level of thinking and problem solving. It's also open ended so every kid can choose their own adventure. I want students to create something completely original and unique that solves an issue.

Starting with a single idea or task for everyone also give the kids more structure. They need to run a music festival, but they don't know how they're going to do it. And they're all in the same spot (as a class).

For an introduction I like to show a video or film clip to get the kids interested. We talk about what we saw, what’s involved and see what kinds of information we can learn from it. Current events work really really well and kids see the immediate connection. Also—never underestimate the power of pop culture in the classroom.

-Introduce with a video but don't give an explanation.
-Find a read aloud book that matches with the PBL.
-Complete the brainstorm as a class.
-Use the white board or resource (projected) and complete with the students.
-Share your own personal experiences.
-Ask your students to predict what the PBL activity will have.

Research and Planning, Sustained Inquiry
How do I get elementary students to research and plan when they haven’t been taught? How do I send them to research on the internet when they don’t know where to look? These are issues that are still tough for middle and high school kids.

I consider Research, Planning, and Feedback to the be ultimate circle of life (cue the Lion King Music). Most tasks within these PBLs require it.

I incorporate a classroom brainstorming session where we all share what we think we know. We like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I start to see little sparks and it all begins.

  • What do you know about music festivals?
  • Who plays at a music festival? Do you know any bands?
  • Where have you seen them?
  • What kinds of music are there?
  • What kinds of music do you listen do?
  • Have you ever been to a concert? What was it like?
  • What else was there?
  • How big was the stage? 
  • Who worked there? What was being sold?
  • Who schedules the bands? 
  • What kind of stage is there?
  • How is this planned and organized?
This is the place where I want students to begin to pulling from their own experiences and unique backgrounds. If kids don’t feel represented or can’t represent themselves in their work nothing will stick with them.

Primary: Researching and planning requires books, videos, and teacher’s accessing the internet. I don’t let young kids go crazy on the internet, it’s ineffective and time consuming.

Intermediate: Same as above but I can start taking the training wheels off because their independence is growing. By this age most students are beginning to understand how to read/research/use tech and find information on topics or interest. I’m still guiding them as they do this.

-Go to the library and pick out books for the students to use (have them ready)
-Start a Symbaloo page with links to sites they might need (photos, videos, maps, articles). This is one of my favorite ways to make technology resourceful.
-Allow kids to work independently OR collaborate with others. Let them choose.
-Tell students, "yes" all the time. 
-Have technology ready, but don't rush to it. I'm amazed at how far we can go with a project because each student has something great to offer.
-Stop Everything and SHARE! Stop the class and ask for students to share what they've learned, picked up on, or thought of. These ideas are priceless because they help the rest of the kids.
-Give them time. You will feel the need to rush research and planning...don't do it. Relax and get yourself a cup of coffee.

When it comes to planning, break it all down into small pieces. 
I break my resources down into small manageable bites that normally focus on accessing prior knowledge, planning, organization, design, and reflection. These PBL elements are crucial for students. I've also designed them to work in a cross-curricular format because when we're doing the PBL dance, we're working on all skills. Below is an example of how 18 activities fit into into one PBL. Within each of these activities are math, ELA, writing, and art elements all working toward a final goal/project. The other aspect is that I pick which parts I want students to complete. Each worksheet can build on the next, but it can also be stand alone. So I can have a group of kids focusing on math content (budgeting for supplies and concession stand) and have another group researching locations or practicing map skills.

Students need those graphic organizers that are filled with essential questions to push their ideas forward. What I've done is break down the steps into manageable portions for students to complete. And each page/section can follow the PBL Circle Of Life when it is complete.

I asked myself how many questions students would ask? A few, maybe. Mostly they'll just do research that doesn't have a specific point. There's no guidance. Below are just a fraction of the issues they'll deal with when they're given structure (planning ideas).

Where will you have the concert?
When will you have it? Date and times?
Why are you having it? Oh, it’s for a charity or cause…cool. Which one? Why?
What’s the name of the music festival? Is there a logo? How will you promote it?
What about ticket prices? How much will they cost?
What are specific jobs people will have at the festival? Do you have classmates that can fill them?
Who will be playing? What are the acts?
Now that you have the acts, you have need to create a schedule.
There’s two stages bands can perform on. Can you fit them all in within the time limits allowed?
Why did you schedule acts that way?
Did you run into any problems scheduling?
What kind of supplies and materials do you need?
Now you’ve got a budget and tough choices to make. What do you need? Why?
You should probably have a concession stand? What’s in it? What are the prices?
What would the cost be if a family buys something?
What does the festival look like?
You should probably design the map?
What are you going to do if a problem arises?
How will you solve it?

Feedback, Revising, Editing
Feedback should never stop. It should always be there and I (as the teacher) should constantly be asking the kids what they are doing, how are they processing information they're learning, and how they're overall progression is. I also what to ask them WHY. Why is an essential word. Why are they making the decisions that they are.

These are great to have during share time when all students give updates on what they're doing. I have my questions and I encourage other students to share feedback as well.  This take a lot of practice and modeling, but it's worth it. One student's comment can be a lightning strike of ideas for another student. 

Use feedback to question, motivate, inspire, and push imagination. I'm straightforward with my students --letting them know that every choice they make will be questioned. Questioning isn't a good or bad thing, it's just going to happen. I want to see how they are learning and choosing to apply it in their work.

Present, Share, & the Final Product
At the end of a PBL activity, the big decision is deciding how students should present their final projects. This changes each time based on a variety of factors like the type of PBL, time limits, and kids. 

It's a format that I've played around with on my resources because the end goal is for students to present and share what they've learned. Sometimes the final product is within the resource itself, when a students demonstrates they've accounted for every possible outcome and shown incredible problem solving skills and decision making.

There's other times when students literally make something such as designing a taco truck or a tiny house. 

Recently the News Sentinel and Fox shared a story of a teacher that had her class use my Run A Taco Truck PBL and had food trucks line up outside of the school. It turns out that she was using MY resource and she added the perfect idea to complete the PBL activity.
 Angela Potchka along with other sixth grade teachers spent the last two weeks showing students how to operate and maintain a food truck business. Lessons included creating menus, adding and pricing menu orders, and discussing potential obstacles they could face along the way. The lesson culminated with a classroom discussion and hands-on experience from several Fort Wayne food truck owners. -WFFT FOX 
Image via WFFT FOX
The dream scenario is to invite professionals in that area of work to come and listen to the students. They can also share their own experiences and answer any questions students may have.

Many times the journey is the final product. I know, sacrilege! But if that's what works best in my class and for my students--I'm going to go that way.

Just remember, the final presentation DOES NOT have to be a replica of America's Got Talent. Why? Well, because when you're in the classroom you have to do what's right for your students. Just find a way to present or share that fits within the parameters of your class (I know, this is kind of breaking the PBL rule). 

Photo by @shammanaj  
@shammanaj shared (on Instagram) that she had her kids create full scale tiny houses after they created miniature versions using Build A Tiny House. The class went outside and used the blacktop to sketch a full scale version of their houses they designed. "You have to be creative to fit all the furniture in 400 square feet!" This is basically the perfect way to present and share in a simple and functional way.

The Last Thing to REMEMBER:
You need to see yourself as the most important part of project based learning. That's right, I'm talking about you, the teacher. When your class is knee deep in PBL it'll be up to you to make sure all students are reaching their best. Sometimes it'll be chaotic and other times it'll be electric. But no matter what --keep guiding your students into the right directions and decisions. It's okay if we're used as a safety net, they're going to need us.

If you teach special education (like I do) then you definitely want to read why project based learning should be in every classroom. PBL gives kids (at all levels) opportunities to find what they're great at when it come to how they learn and take in information. It's also the perfect way to pull in those reluctant learners.

If you're interested in PBL and still want to know more, see my top ten tips to easily get you and your class started. These are the ten tips that I live by in my classroom and when I'm introducing it to others. Don't make it difficult, make it meaningful.

Earlier, I stated that I love project based learning. I've created over fifty different resources that are completely unique because I saw an avenue that would get my students excited to learn about real world issues and make the connection on the importance of learning. These resources work with kids from second grade and up to high school at all different learning levels. They're simple and effective for teachers to utilize in the classroom and rigorous enough to blow students' minds.


Five Reasons I Choose To Do Projects in the Classroom

I love having students do projects in my classroom...and so should you.

Before we begin, let’s throw all the cards on the table: Projects (big and small) are hard. They’re long and time consuming. They can be messy and exhausting for teachers because each student might be working on something different. Projects don’t let you have your ducks in a row, because it feels like you’re chasing squirrels.

Okay, Phew. We got that out of the way. Breathe.

All of those are valid reasons for dreading projects. They ARE time consuming. They ARE all encompassing. They ARE messy. But that’s okay. So let me tell you why they're so beneficial to my students and why I'm going to keep doing them.

The students are doing the work.
When you (or me) take time for projects at school we know the students are doing the work…not the parents or family. We’re not seeing if mom or dad can design their very own tiny house to live in. We want to see what the students can do. The only way that happens is when we give them time to do it in the classroom. I want to see my students’ abilities. I want to see where they struggle. I want them to do the work.

Projects are cross-curricular.When students are accessing and applying skills from multiple content areas to create a project, it’s a win. I’m not just talking about math and reading. I love how many other aspects of learning are included such as art, design, research, and problem solving. I believe projects allow students to weave it all together to see how everything is connected, just like in the real world.

Photo by @shammanaj on Instagram. Her class designed miniature tiny houses inside and then took their ideas to the blacktop to make the actual sized building. "You have to be creative to fit all the furniture in 400 square feet!"

I can see how my students think.This is my absolute favorite part! Watching and learning how my students work and function is fascinating and allows me to understand how they think. If I understand how they’re thinking I will have a much better way to reach them in my teaching.

I can’t tell you the number of times this has helped me as a special education teacher. It allows me to see strengths that can be hidden in the confines of rote work.

Photo by @the615teacher on Instagram.  Students build their Geometrocity using a variety of math and design skills. Each part can be moved and turned but still fit  together. This project (PBL) focuses on geometry but uses so many other cross curricular skills.
The importance of social skills.I’m really trying not to use the word collaboration…so I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on the larger umbrella issue of social skills. Completing projects in the classroom can be a lightning rod for seeing positive and negative social skills. I use the time to monitor students’ skills and identifying areas for individuals and classroom to work on. Kids have to be able to work together, solve problems, have discussions, and interact appropriately -But they also need time to practice these skills which is why I like projects in the classroom.

A completed and gigantic city filled with highways, city life, and even some skyscrapers.
Photo by @missmiddleschoolmath from Instagram.
The power of creativity, imagination, and coloring outside the lines.
Give them the instructions and expectations then let them go. My number one fear with students is that they’re creativity and imagination is stifled because of their fear of making mistakes. We could laugh about it if it wasn’t true.

I don’t really care how messy or time consuming projects might be. I need my kids to push themselves, take chances, make mistakes, and be willing to color outside the lines. If they’re not given those chances in school, when will they? My favorite outcomes with projects is that the students will constantly deliver incredible work that surprises and impresses. Constantly.

If you're looking to start some larger scale projects in your classroom or were interested in a couple of photos (Tiny House, Geometrocity) you saw above, check out my collection of project based learning resource. 

These PBLs take you and your students through the projects with step by step instructions, but they're completely open ended for students to push themselves creatively.  You can find them here or click on the image. Other options included Run A Taco Truck, Build My Block, and even Produce a TV Show.


Project Based Learning In Your Classroom--Just Go For It

I’m a firm believer that students need to be exposed to the real-world as soon as possible. No, I’m not talking about making them pay taxes or get jobs. I’m talking about allowing kids to face issues or problems that are relevant and filled with life skills they will use when they grow up. Big picture stuff. Starting a business and helping the environment are just a couple of examples, but we can go so much further. It’s why we should be pushing more project based learning into our schools and classrooms.

If you know me, you know I love project based learning. This type of learning is crucial for students to develop underused skills in the classroom. So lets take a moment and focus on four of my top reasons you should add it to your classroom repertoire.

PBL is Critical Thinking
We want critical thinkers. We want our kids to think critically. What does that even mean to elementary students? Will they leave school with a monocle and English accent? I hear the term “critical thinking” all the time in reading, but not as much in other subjects (except science, but many districts only do that a couple of times a week). BUT what exactly does critical thinking mean at a younger age (don’t answer that, it’s hypothetical).

Project based learning fits the bill when we ask students to take a “critical” look at solving issues because it forces students to make sound judgements based on information they research and learn. There’s nothing really fancy about it. Break down information you learn, ask questions, and dig deeper. If students are faced with an issue (driving question)…what does that really look like? We want students to peek behind the curtain and see the wizard pulling all the strings.

One of my favorite lessons to teach is applying area and perimeter into the world of house building, tiny house building, to be a little more exact. How will a kid design a house with over 20 items included? It takes design skills (and practice), while spinning in math concepts, while adding a dose of realism that carpenters and designers must do every single day. You can see more of the tiny house here. A PBL that correlates with real-life skills makes the connection stronger for students to see why certain (academic) skills must be mastered.

With all that said, if your students decide to go the monocle route…well, that is pretty cool.

PBL Doesn’t Crush Imagination and Creativity
Let’s face it, schools do a really excellent job at crushing creativity and imagination. We don’t do it on purpose, but it happens. And it happens more than we’d like to admit. Sometimes I think that’s why we get so excited when kids come up with something wonderful—because we’ve been holding them back.

PBL encourages imagination and creativity because it involves the ability to problem solve (and even think critically). There isn’t a set course of rules and mandates that must be followed to solve an issue or find an answer. It’s one of the main reasons why I think visual design, drawing, and creating are such important elements within project based learning for elementary students.

I tell my students that if they ask me a question of “can I do this?” my answer will always be yes. This confuses quite a few of them. For years they’ve been waiting for instructions, now they’re being ask to take a risk and use their imagination. Don't make your students want to be told when to learn. Encourage and teach them to go after it for themselves.

PBL is Cross Curricular
In the real-world with real jobs and real people most projects involve more than one thing. Math, reading, science, history, art, collaboration, management, whatever, or everything combined—life is cross curricular.

If life is cross curricular, opportunities within the classroom should be too. And that’s where project based learning fits in perfectly.

PBL Doesn’t Care About Your Learning Level
The ability that all students have to learn and progress at their own level is a powerful tool to have. In the classroom, PBL is perfect for pushing students to their limits and even past them. They allow for immediate differentiation because every student or group is working at their preferred pace.

They’re also choosing how they want to learn or solve the issue at hand. All students have multiple ways to learn from books, magazines, internet, collaboration, hands-on experiments, STEM, interviews, and the list can go on.

You can read more about why I feel it is such a powerful tool for learners at lower levels.

If you’d like to read more of my musing on how to get started with project based learning read this. It doesn’t have to be difficult.

See more PBL Activities here.

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