May 27, 2013

Building an Exhibit

It's time for our Spring Museum Exhibition!  Just like our fall Museum Exhibition, this school-wide open house is a way for each class to showcase their learning.  This time, the first grade is excited to share what we have learned about the ancient Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations.

As with our previous Museum Night project, this project is closely connected to the DC standards of learning for first grade, including:

  • Social Studies 1.4 Students describe characteristics of the of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations.
  • Social Studies 1.4.3 Explain their artistic and oral traditions, and their development of writing systems and calendars.
  • Social Studies 1.4.4 Describe the inventions and advances astronomy, mathematics, and architecture [of the ancient Maya, Inca, and Aztec people]

We planned out our display as a class and decided what topics would be most important to teach our families and friends about the Maya, Inca, and Aztecs. The kiddos worked in pairs or small groups to make posters about the most significant developments, advances, and adaptations that we had discussed.  Then we put together a detailed bulletin board that connected each poster to part of the Mesoamerican landscape.

Here's how we did it: 

We started the bulletin board by using large construction paper to create a backdrop with water, fields, hills, and a temple pyramid.

Then the kiddos created texture and add details: they dipped Q-tips in green and yellow paint to make corn for the hill tops; they layered tissue paper to build rocks, leaves, and dirt on the terraces; they sponge painted with cotton balls to create a stone facade on the temple. 

Terrace Farming "Close-up"

Then we used strings to link the posters to specific objects on the board. 

Poster about the importance of stars to the Maya, Inca, and Aztecs

Our final touch will be putting our version of "floating gardens" next to the bulletin board to demonstrate how the Aztec people grew their crops in water.  (See post about building our floating gardens).

The kiddos are ready show off how much they have experienced and learned about these ancient civilizations!

Aztec Floating Gardens

As part of our study of the ancient Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations, we learned how each of these groups adapted to their climate and landscape to grow (mostly) corn, beans, and squash.  We discovered that the Maya created "terraces" in the hills to capture rain water and used cenotes, or natural sinkhole, to irrigate their fields.  The Inca cultivated potatoes and were the first culture to use "freeze drying" to keep crops through the winter. And the Aztec developed "floating gardens," or chinampas, to grow crops in shallow water by building up small plots of land on wooden lattices.

Throughout this lesson, I emphasized a few important vocabulary words:

  • Maize - corn
  • Crops - food grown by people
  • Fertile - able to grow things 

The kiddos were very interested in all the different ways that people used the land to survive.  As a culmination of this unit learning, and also a fun hands-on exploration, we decided to build and plant our own "floating gardens." Of course, we used popsicle sticks and cheese cloth instead of wooden stakes, mud, and sediment, but generally the kiddos got to experience planting beans and watching them grow in standing water.

We are planning to use our floating gardens as part of our Museum Exhibit on the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations.

Building our floating garden

Planting Bean Seeds

May 25, 2013

Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs, Oh My!

For the past couple of months, we have been exploring the ancient civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec people.  Our DC Social Studies Standards indicate that first grade students should be able to, "Describe the characteristics of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations," including developing an understanding of their class structures, religious traditions, artistic and oral traditions, writing systems, and advances in astronomy, mathematics, and architecture.  It's a lot to cover and process for six-year-olds but we've been doing our best!
I began this unit by focusing on the Maya and using one of my favorite teaching tools: BrainPop Jr.!
( has great animated videos on a variety of topics and the kiddos love them!)  We watched the Maya Civilization video and found out that archeologists have studied artifacts and ruins in Mesoamerica to learn about the ancient Maya. We also learned that the Mayans built pyramids and used hieroglyphics to communicate.  Some of the kiddos had heard of pyramids and hieroglyphics from Egypt, but interested to find out that other societies had them as well.

I planned various lessons to explore the different advances that the Maya people had made in writing, math, and astronomy:

  • We watched a YouTube video of a calligrapher and Maya expert writing names in Mayan hieroglyphics and then the kiddos got to try to translate their own name into Mayan glyphs.  
  • We learned how the Mayans did math, using symbols of sticks and shells and the kiddos got to solve math problems using Maya Math.
  • We looked at photographs and artifacts (donated by a parent) of ancient Maya temples and calendars.
  • We read fiction and nonfiction books about the Ancient Maya.  We used a series of nonfiction books called "True Books" and also picture books such as Rain Player, an original folktale inspired by ancient Maya culture.

We are currently preparing for our Spring "Museum Night" where we will showcase our learning about the ancient civilizations.  The kiddos are very excited to share with the families and friends all the information they have learned.  More on that to come...

May 18, 2013

Separation Anxiety

I am very fortunate to have worked with some wonderful assistant teachers over the years.  I am always grateful for their support, but especially when I have to be out of the classroom.  Since I have always taught with an assistant (Pre-K through 1st grade at my school have assistant teachers), I have never had to write "real" sub-plans.  My assistant teachers know my students, expectations, and procedures at least as well as I do, so whenever I have had to be out of school for any reason, they have always picked right up with the kiddos.  Sure, I have left general guidelines for the substitute, or guest, teacher, but I expect that my assistant teacher will basically take over as the lead for the day.  Usually, we are able to chat the day before I leave so he/she knows exactly what to do and where everything is in the classroom.

On Monday, my assistant teacher and I are both going to be out of school!  This is the first time I will be leaving my kiddos with a "stranger" all day, and I've been anxious about it all week.  I tried to prep the class by enlisting the help of my most responsible kiddos to lead Morning Meeting.  I taught one particularly tech-savvy student how to set up our SMART Board.  I think I re-wrote my sub-plans three times!   I set up my table with all of the materials the guest teacher will need during the day.  (I probably went a little overboard, but it made me feel more comfortable.)

Despite trying to appear calm and confident as I explained the situation to the kiddos, I apparently passed on some of my anxiety to them as well.  By the end of the day, they were asking questions like, "How will our  substitute teacher know about Literacy Work Stations?" and "Will our substitute know about Writer's Workshop?"  Oops!  I reassured them that they would be fine.  I reminded them that they know the routines and procedures and our class expectations so they should act like they would on any other day.  I told them I expected a good report and that they should follow the guest teacher's instructions as if they were mine, even if they were different from what I would say.

Of course, I know they will have a fine day, even if their routine is a little off or their transitions aren't as smooth, but it's still hard to think of them at school without me.  Thankfully, I'm sure I will hear all about their adventures with the guest teacher when I return!

May 10, 2013

Publishing Poetry

Last week, we had our second "Publishing Night" of the year.  For our first Publishing Night, we shared our Personal Narratives in the classroom.  For this one, we decided to set up the hallway to showcase our class poetry.

We used the bulletin board and walls to display the kiddos' individual poems.  Then we set up tables with our primary Mentor Texts and favorite poetry books.  Instead of having families leave notes on post-its for our authors, we invited visitors to put notes to our poets inside a box. (The next day, we shared all of the notes as a class which the kiddos loved.)

We happened to have some fresh flowers and fun flower pens to add to our "Blooming Poets" theme!  Everyone seemed to really enjoy the event.


In a previous post, I shared about our Morning Meeting Greetings, but Sharing is another essential component of our Morning Meetings.  In the beginning of the year, I model how to do a "Share."  I share a picture of my family and encourage the kiddos to ask questions to learn more about me.  Throughout the first few weeks of school, I invite other adults in the building (other teachers, our principal, nurse, custodian, etc.) to come share with our class.  I ask that each adult bring a special item to help our class learn more about him/her as well.  The kiddos practice being quiet and attentive, nodding and making silent signals (such as "me too"), and raising their hands to ask questions.

Once the class has learned the routine, each kiddo gets to sign up for date to share.  I send home the completed sign-up sheet for the month so that families can help the kiddos prepare. The kiddos love this opportunity to be center-stage!  They usually bring in a favorite toy or special picture.  They get to share for a couple of minutes and then tell their peers, "I'm ready for questions or comments." 
This practice helps students master many of the speaking and listening objectives from the Common Core Standards.  It also gives our class a chance to get to know each other better!  So far this year my kiddos have brought in special drawings, family picture albums, sports trophies, and favorite stuffed animals and action figures.  I even had a student demonstrate her new roller skates!

I love starting my day with Sharing because it is a good reminder that even the kiddos struggle to listen or take turns, they are can still be attentive when they really want to hear from their friends.  They also appreciate the opportunity to ask questions and make connections.  I love that we get to start our days with this community-building experience and set a positive tone for the day!

The Power of 10

In first grade, I put a great deal of emphasis on learning combinations of numbers that equal ten.  When I started teaching, I didn't fully understand how important it was for young students to develop fluency with the number 10 and internalize these combinations.  It wasn't until I started tutoring 2nd graders who are behind in math, that I realized how critical it is for students to understand that not only does 5+5=10, but also 8+2 and 7+3 and 3+7.  Because we have a base ten number system, knowing these combinations is actually the foundation for understanding place value, estimation, addition, subtraction, and mental math with bigger numbers.  

Through our Investigations curriculum we have a lot of games that reinforce number combinations up to and equal to ten.  In addition to these games, I have started using transition time to review key facts.  The kiddos really enjoy when I toss a ball and call out a number between 0-10, then they gets to toss the ball back and say the number that will equal 10 (like 1 and 9 or 4 and 6).

I urge the kiddos to "put away their fingers and turn on their brains" to recall these combinations quickly.  I know that the faster and more automatically they can connect numbers to equal ten, the more comfortable they will be to add and subtract.  Once the kiddos have committed these combinations to memory, they are able to use the "get to 10" strategy for adding larger numbers.  For example, in order to quickly add 8+4, the kiddos can "get to 10" by taking 2 from the 4; then they know there are 2 left over so there are 12 all together.  Eventually, the kiddos can also use these primary combinations to add 2-digit numbers, such as 40+60.  If students know that 4+6=10, they know that 4 tens (40) plus 6 tens (60) equals 10 tens (100).

Although we practice these combinations throughout the week, we really work on building confidence and teaching mental math strategies on Fridays.  More to come on our "Fluency Friday"routines and Math Minutes!