November 29, 2011

Draw... Then Write: Workbook for Reluctant Writers

Struggling to motivate a reluctant writer?
I bought Draw...Then Write a few years ago to use with my English language learners. Since then, it's been great, not only for ELLs, but also for native English speakers who are reluctant to write or just need a little prompt to get the creative juices flowing.

The concept behind Draw... Then Write is simple. Students are given easy, step-by-step instructions for drawing high-interest objects--mostly animals, people, and vehicles. The drawings are so simple that no child will fail and not too much time will be spent drawing at the expense of writing.  The students' drawings become the basis for fun writing activities. Each drawing has writing prompts at three levels of difficulty to facilitate differentiated instruction. The activities range from completing sentences with a choice of preselected words, through brainstorming and writing sentences, all the way to composing complete paragraphs.

I make copies of the (legally reproducible) pages for my students, but the drawings are so simple that I could see a teacher copying them by hand on a whiteboard and prompting writing that way. My Draw... Then Write book is recommended for grades one through three. There is also a version of Draw... Then Write for grades four through six, which I have not used. See sample pages for both books on amazon.

Do you have a favorite way to motivate reluctant writers? Please share in the comments.

November 28, 2011

Eleven: Fun Card Game for Practicing Math Facts to 20

Eleven - Fun Card Game for Math Facts

"Eleven" is my favorite card game to help students practice addition and subtraction facts up to 20. It's for any number of players, and all you need is a deck of cards.

Remove the face cards and jokers. Count aces as one. Shuffle the cards and place them in a pile face down. 

The goal of the game is to reach the number 11 exactly by adding and subtracting the value of drawn cards. The first player draws the top card and places it face down next to the  pile, saying  the number on the card. The next player draws a card, adds the two cards' values, says the sum of the two cards as a number sentence and places the drawn card on top of the pile. The next player draws and adds the number of the newly drawn card to the previous sum. Play continues until the total reaches 11.  If the sum exceeds 11, then players subtract the number on the drawn card from the total, and state the difference as a subtraction sentence. Play continues until the sum or difference is exactly 11. If you want to keep score, the player whose card makes exactly 11 gets the whole pile of cards.

A typical game might go like this.

First turn: With a 3 showing, player draws a 4 and says, "Three plus four equals seven."

Second turn: Player draws an 8 and says, "Seven plus eight equals fifteen" (This is more than 11, so the next player subtracts.)

Third turn: Player draws a 3 and says, "Fifteen minus three equals twelve."

Fourth turn: Player draws an 8 and says, "Twelve minus eight equals four."

Fifth turn: Player draws a 7 and says, "Four plus seven equals eleven!" This player takes all of the cards and play resumes again with a new card drawn.

There's nothing magical about the number 11. If you want to practice math facts with bigger numbers, you can play 21, 50, 100 or whatever number you want.

Questions or comments? They are welcome below.

November 23, 2011

Make a Paper Bowl

The Chinese invented paper over 4000 years ago. For our unit on ancient China, we made our own paper bowls in the classroom last week. The main things you need are construction paper, newsprint, water, a blender, and a kitchen sieve. For step-by-step instructions with lots of photos, check out my How to Make a Paper Bowl page.

November 22, 2011

Top Three Circle-Time Songs

Anyone who has worked in a preschool or as a camp counselor knows that a good song can break the ice, set a fun tone for the whole day, and get kids in a great mood. These are three of my favorites. I've written  in detail about them all elsewhere, but thought it would be nice to round them up here.

1. Going on a Bear Hunt teachers rhythm, and attentiveness; can be useful as an introduction to a study about bears, and provides the scary-fun feeling that little ones love. I wrote a web page about the Bear Hunt song that includes lyrics, activities, lesson plans, printable worksheets, and a zany video of Michael Rosen performing a version of the song based on his classic book.

2. Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar? is another clap/slap icebreaker chant that helps kids in a group remember one another's names. It gives a little rush of adrenaline when children hear themselves accused of the dastardly act of stealing a cookie. I wrote a web page about the cookie thief song too that will help parents and teachers extend extend their children's learning.

3. Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes is great for getting the blood flowing when children are a little sleepy. It's good for learning parts of the body, and you can try out some alternate lyrics for even more fun and learning. Here is my page about Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

Question: What is your favorite circle-time or campfire song. Please share in the comments.

November 6, 2011

Borrow Kindle Books for Free from Amazon

Amazon has recently announced that its prime members who own kindles can now borrow a book a month for free. This is exciting news because there are already 5300 books available for the Kindle Owners' Lending Library including over 100 current and past New York Times Bestsellers.

Kindle Books to Borrow for Free

Several of these books are featured on the Lending Library Home Page, but others are hard to find. For those who are interested, here is a link to

all 5000+ titles that are available to borrow for free from the Amazon Prime Lending Library.

Besides the ebook lending program, Amazon Prime members get free 2-day shipping on most purchases and free streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows.

I have a Kindle that my son and I fight over. It works great for us living in Japan because we we can order books and start reading them right away without having to pay overseas shipping. He especially likes the built in dictionary feature where you just take the cursor to a word and the definition pops up.

Question: Do you have a Kindle? If so, are you intrigued by the lending library?

October 16, 2011

Fun Card Game for Place Value

I was recently asked how to teach place value. One fun way to teach about place value is through a variation of the old card game, War. You'll remember that in War, the deck is dealt evenly to all players, the players players flip one card face-up simultaneously, and the player with the highest card takes the other cards. This continues until one player has all the cards.

In Place Value War, which I adapted from a Singapore Math teacher's manual, each player has a place value mat or piece of paper with thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones, written on it. Follow this procedure to play.
Click for a printable PDF version of this Place Value Chart

  1. Deal all the cards face down. (I recommend using an UNO deck rather than regular playing cards because the UNO deck has zeroes and the ones are proper ones, not aces.)
  2. Players simultaneously flip one of their cards face-up, decide where to place it on their chart, and state their choices. ("Seven hundreds" or "three ones.")
  3. Continue until all places on the paper are filled, then each player says the number that is on his paper.  ("Seven thousand, five hundred, twenty-three.")
  4. The player with the highest 4-digit number wins the round and takes the other players cards.
  5. Continue play until one player has all of the cards.
This game naturally teachers place value because players soon realize that, for example, a 3 in the hundreds place is  greater than a 9 in the tens place. Unlike regular War, Place Value War includes strategic thinking about probability. ("Should I place a six in the thousands place on my first draw or hope for a higher number?")

Of course you can adjust the game to include more or fewer places on the paper. To increase the suspense, I sometimes have the players take turns instead of flipping cards simultaneously. Enjoy the game, make up your own rules, and share your experiences or suggestions in the comments.

You may also be interested in How to Teach Math with UNO.

October 12, 2011

Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo

The other day, we visited Sunshine Aquarium in Ikebukuro. As you may know from previous posts, I love watching animals. Here are a few highlights from the day.

Sea Angels are simultaneously cute, otherworldly, and mesmerizing. They are two-inch-long translucent, gelatinous creatures that flap their "wings" like angels. They live in the Arctic Ocean. Here's a sea angel video from youtube.

The ocean sunfish looks like God played a joke. It's a gigantic fish (up to 2000 pounds!) that swims ever so slowly with a dead serious look on its face. This serious look belies that fact the the ocean sunfish looks like just a big head and tail with no body in between.

Ocean Sunfish (public domain image)

A comment that I overheard several times at the aquarium was "Oishisou!" which means "That looks delicious!" Only in Japan.

Zoos and aquariums are places that we city folks sometimes take for granted. We visit them only when we have out-of-town visitors. But they contain high concentrations of fun learning. Getting out and watching animals leads to great questions (like "Does a bat poop on itself when it hangs upside down?") So by all means, take advantage of the zoos, aquariums, and parks in your city. If you live in the country, you may be able to see plenty of God's creatures in your own backyard, or at a local farm or ranch. Go animal watching and recover a sense of wonder.

October 11, 2011

Use a Ruler As a Number Line

In math, primary students begin with concrete objects, progress through symbols, and arrive at abstract concepts of numbers. A number line is a great tool to help them along this path. Sometimes we forget, but a ruler is a perfect number line. Here's why:

  • A ruler goes from zero to twelve or thirty, depending on whether you are looking at the inch side or the centimeter side.
  • A ruler is in most kids' desks or pencil cases already, so there's no need to print out a paper number line and laminate it. (Having said that, if you do want a printable number line, there are several to choose from.)
  • A ruler is concrete in the sense that it's a real thing that students can touch.
  • Bonus! A ruler leads gently and naturally into fractions and decimals. ("Teacher, what are the little lines for between the numbers?")
So don't just use that ruler for measuring things and drawing straight lines. Use it for counting (including skip-counting), adding, subtracting, and introducing decimals and fractions.

Do you like the ruler in the photo above? Here is a link to that classic, brass-edged 12-inch wooden ruler on amazon.

Question: In your teaching, do you use objects in ways other than their "real purpose?" If so, please share in the comments.

October 3, 2011

How to Teach Children to Think

On this blog, I usually write about specific activities, books, or games that make learning fun. After all, that’s the name of the blog. But  sometimes we need to step back and evaluate what we're doing. If all we do is fill children’s minds with facts, even if the children have fun in the process, we aren’t really serving them well. We must help children learn to think for themselves and develop character.

Thinking Child (photo by Vocalities on Flickr)
Barnabas Piper has an interesting post on his blog about teaching children to think. He makes several excellent points and I thought I’d share and expand on a few of them.

He says read to your child, especially  “books that engage imagination and build vocabulary.” I would add this: when you read, make sure your child is engaging with the book. Pause before turning the page to give time for the child to digest what’s been read, ask questions, or comment on the text or picture. Children miss a lot when we are in too big a hurry to finish a book.

Piper says to be curious around your children. I agree with him and his reasons, and would add this reason. It’s good for kids to know that Mom, Dad, and teacher don’t have all the answers--that we are still questioning and learning.

After recommending that parents to be excited about learning and to use big words, Piper exhorts parents to answer their children’s questions, even if it takes time and research. I agree, except when I disagree. I think it can be better not to answer kids’ questions. Next time your child asks a tough question try responding this way: “Hmmmm. That’s interesting. What do you think?” This answer lets children know that we value their opinions and that we respect them as thinkers. Letting a child be the first one to take a stab at answering the child’s own question can lead to deeper thinking and understanding, and of course there’s the joy that comes from figuring something out for oneself.

Finally he suggests sharing the principles behind your rules. “Teach them to think in questions such as “Does this action honor Jesus?” or “Is this loving to my sister?” not just ‘Am I allowed to do this?’

If this topic interests you, please go and read Barnabas Piper’s original article.

Question: How do you make sure that your child is really thinking, and not just memorizing facts?

September 29, 2011

Fall Sculptures for Fine Motor Skills

As we know, older children groan at fine motor activities that would thrill younger children. After all, what ten-year-old wants to do scissors work or practice penmanship? But give a child a bagful of chestnuts, acorns, and pine cones along with a glue gun and a few other implements, and you’ve got an engrossed artist who will lose track of time in the midst of fine motor work.

Pine Cone Triceratops

Do you want to try it? Here’s what to do.

1. Gather your materials. (Involve the children in collecting the materials from outdoors if possible.)

  • chestnuts, acorns, pine cones, sticks, leaves (anything you can find outside in the fall)
  • glue gun and refills
  • liquid white out
  • Fine tipped markers
  • toothpicks

2. Let the children have at it!

Some children will benefit from having pre-made samples or photos from which to draw inspiration. If you're wondering what the white out and fine-tipped marker are for, check out the eyeballs on the birds pictured here.

Acorn Birds' Nest

Here is some more inspiration from around the web for making sculptures with pine cones, acorns, and such.

Acorn Animals from Red Ted Art’s blog
Mini-World from Streamers and Acorns from Se7en
Acorn and Pine Cone Critters from Menschenskind
Acorn Animals and Pine Cone Animals (more photos) from yours truly at

Question: Do you have a favorite seasonal activity for fine motor skills? Please share in the comments.

September 23, 2011

How Do Bats Poop?

Have you ever wondered how bats pee and poop while hanging upside down without getting it all over themselves? Me neither. Nevertheless, my son and I discovered the answer today by watching some bats at the zoo. A bat, which had been hanging upside down by its feet, flipped over, hung by its wings, relieved itself, and flipped back upside down. Another one did this shortly after. I never knew that bats' arms/wings were strong enough to hold their body weight, but evidently they are, at least for a short time.

Fruit Bat at Rest (by Ben Charles)

These are the kinds of things you don't read about in textbooks. You just have to be there for the experience. I discussed this in my post a couple weeks ago, "Kick Your Kids Out of the House," and it should be self-evident, but I think it bears repeating that we learn much about the natural world, by being out in it. Science education is more than book learning!

I know I just knocked book learning, but I can't help plugging a wonderful book about a bat that gets adopted by a family of birds. The story is touching, the illustrations are excellent, and the science is good. If you haven't read Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon, please check it out. You can view the first few pages online by clicking the book cover to the left, but unfortunately you can't see the beautiful illustrations, only the text.

Question: What is something you've learned about nature just by being there to experience it?

September 21, 2011

Make a Homemade Paddleboat

Tokyo had a big typhoon today, so we came home early from school and work. My four-year-old and I watched a TV segment about how to make a paddleboat with recycled materials and just had to try it ourselves. Here's the way to make your own paddleboat if you want to try it at home.

  • Styrofoam tray
  • A pair of chopsticks (pencils or craft sticks would work too)
  • A milk carton or something similar
  • Electrical tape (Scotch tape doesn't hold up well in water)
  • A rubber band

  • Tape the chopsticks to the sides of the tray. We found that wrapping the tape all the way around the tray prevented the chopsticks from falling off when the rubber band was wound up.
  • Cut a rectangular piece from the milk carton for a paddle. Experiment to find the best size.
  • Tape the paddle to the rubber band and stretch the rubber band across the chopsticks.

  • Accessorize with Lego if you feel the urge.
  • Wind up the rubber band paddle, place your boat in some water, and enjoy! The video below is our paddleboat plying the waters of our bathtub.

You can use this paddleboat project to explore the ideas of potential and kinetic energy, or actions and reactions. Today we just had fun sending our boat back and forth across the bathtub. I'm just going to say that the physics lessons were learned intuitively.

Question: What's a rainy day activity that you enjoy? Please share in the comments.

September 18, 2011

Acorn Animals

A few weeks ago, I posted about the pine cone animals that my kids had made. A post about acorn animals at Red Ted Art's Blog reminded me that my kids had made some of those too. Here are some bird's nest scenes that they made mainly from acorns.

All you need are various kinds of acorns, pine cones, sticks, something flat for the base, and a glue gun to stick it all together. The eggs are actually dried beans. The eyes are made with a drop of white out and a sharpie.

 The book at left is full of great craft ideas. You can probably find it at the library,  but if not, click through to check it out on Amazon. You can see the first several pages there.

Question: What are your favorite fall activities? Share in the comments, and feel free to leave a relavent link.

September 17, 2011

Math Game: Use Dominoes to Practice Number Bonds

A fun, hands-on math game to practice number bonds, or fact families, is with dominoes. First choose a sum that the dominoes must add up to. I usually use the number ten for double-nine dominoes.

"Dominoes" by Becky Bokern

Then place all of the dominoes face down and mix them up. Turn one domino face up. The first player draws a domino and if one of the sides of her domino plus one of the sides of the face-up domino add up to ten, she places her domino next to the face up domino and says, for example, "six and four make ten." Whether she can play her own domino or not, play passes to the next player. This game starts slow sometimes, but it picks up quickly and students end up scanning the table for all possible number bonds that add up to ten.

What I like about this game is that it is fun for any number of players, correction is immediate because the other players are watching, players are thinking mathematically while waiting for their turn, and once several dominoes are on the table, there are several possible correct answers for each turn.

Another fun game to practice number bonds is Salute. Also be sure to check out a page full of math games to play with UNO cards.

Question: What are your favorite games to practice math facts? Please share in the comments.

September 13, 2011

Kick Your Kids Out of the House

My older son loves to spend summer days in the park near our home, searching the trees for cicadas. When he finds one within reach, he catches it, looks at it for a while, and lets it go. He has been doing this for years, but it wasn't until recently that I realized how much he is learning just by spending time outdoors.

Cicada in Japan (photo by autan)

The other day day he said, "Dad, did you know that cicadas are higher in the trees late in the summer? I don't know if that's because they keep climbing, or because the ones lower in the trees get eaten." That is some deep scientific thinking. He observed a natural phenomenon and hypothesized some possible explanations.

He also noticed that one kind of cicada tends to have more wing damage than another. He reckoned that this could be either because the first kind comes out earlier in the summer and has more time for the wings to get wear and tear, or that it crashes more often due to reckless flying.

He made several other acute observations about the animal and plant life in our neighborhood. When I see other kids lugging their books back and forth to cram school, I feel sad for them. They are missing out on so much life and learning all around them. We need to give our kids more free time in the outdoors.

This free and active exploration is a lot closer to what real scientists do than the experiments that children do in their science classrooms. Too often, those experiments are really just demonstrations, recipes that deliver predictable results if followed precisely.

I'm not the only one advocating more outdoor time for kids. In the second of his pair of articles entitled "Want Your Kids to Get into Harvard? Tell 'em to Go Outside," Richard Louv writes in part:
Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.
So how about it? Ready to kick your kid out of the house for a few hours? If we can do it it Tokyo, you can do it anywhere.

Question: What's a discovery that you or your child has made just by spending time outdoors?

August 29, 2011

Salute: Quick, Fun Card Game to Practice Math Number Bonds

It's back-to-school time and children's math skills have become rusty. Try Salute, a quick, fun card game to practice math fact families, sometimes called number bonds. It's a game for three: a caller and two saluters. The caller deals cards out face down to the two saluters. When the caller says, "Salute," the saluters each pick up a card without looking at it and hold it face out on their foreheads. The caller looks at the cards and calls out the sum (or the product if you want your students to review muliplication/division fact families). The first saluter to say the card that is on his or her own forehead wins the round. Students can review a lot of math facts quickly with this game, and they are quick to confirm each other's accuracy.

Salute can be played with regular playing cards by treating aces as ones and either considering face cards as tens or culling them out of the deck. I prefer to play it with Uno cards, because the numbers are more prominent and there is no counting of hearts, clubs, spades or diamonds. Just cull the reverses, skips, and wilds.

Salute with Uno Cards

For more math card games, check out How to Teach Math with UNO.

Question: Other than worksheets, how do you practice math facts with your students?

August 26, 2011

Don't Turn That Page!

Here's a simple habit I've developed for reading picture books to little ones, especially my littlest one.

I don't turn the page until the child has interacted with the story in some way.

Usually he asks a question about the story or picture. Sometimes he makes a comment. Occasionally he traces a picture or runs his finger underneath some words. Only rarely does he want me to turn the page right away. Taking our time as we read stories makes the time more special for us and helps him to acquire the skills of a good reader.

Cowboy Small is in heavy rotation with my four-year-old.

August 24, 2011

Pine Cone Animals

Pine Cone Triceratops

My kids went to the science museum today and made these great pine cone animal sculptures. What a wonderful way to use found items for art! If you've read my blog before, you know I am interested in fine motor skills activities for older children. Well, holding a glue gun with one hand and attaching all of these little parts with the other is wonderful exercise for the small muscles of the hand. As with all of the best exercises, I'm sure making these cute pine cone animals didn't feel like exercise at all!

Pine Cone Dogs
Check out the acorn birds' nests the kids made the same day.

Question: What fun crafts do you have in mind for the fall?

August 22, 2011

How Much Attention to Give a Book

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” --Sir Francis Bacon from his essay, "On Studies"
"Pile of Books in Prague Library" by Callum Scott

With the explosion of available reading material, Bacon's words are more relevant than ever. I am pondering how to teach my students to read discriminately (in the good sense), and how to make it fun.

One piece of that for me will be reading Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke. I recommend his blog too. In fact, that's where I got the Francis Bacon quote above.

Question: How do you decide whether a book is worth your (or your students') time, and how much attention to give it?

August 21, 2011

Catch the Match: Fun Pattern-Recognition Game for All Ages

Catch The Match is a deceptively simple card game that develops observation, pattern recognition, memory, and concentration skills. In the  box are 15 sturdy, colorful cards, each with pictures of the same 15 objects. The objects are in different places on each card and the colors (red, yellow, blue, and green) are mixed around. Any two cards has one and only one pair of the same object in the same color. The goal is to be the first to match that pair.

As a parent and educator, here's what I love about Catch The Match:

  • Everyone plays all the time. Unlike other memory games, there is no taking turns. All players have an opportunity to make a match at any moment.
  • Age doesn't matter. In my family, our nine- and eleven-year-olds hold their own against their mom and me. Our four-year-old, is less likely to be the first to make a match than the rest of us, but he still enjoys the game.
  • It's fun for preliterate or ESL players. No reading or vocabulary skills are required. In fact, players who speak different languages, can learn some new vocabulary words.
  • The rules are easy to adapt. Adjust the competition level by playing in teams or deciding whether or not to keep score. Add difficulty by matching items with opposite colors  (a blue airplane with red wings matches a red airplane with blue wings). You can even play Catch the Match alone against the clock.

A game similar to this one but more complex is SET, which I haven't played yet, but would like to.

Question: What is your top pattern-recognition activity for kids?

June 14, 2011

50 Fine Motor Skills Activities for Older Children

Fine motor skills are crucial for everyone, but focused practice on them usually ends in preschool or kindergarten. Older children often need a little more work, especially to increase the legibility of their handwriting, but just practicing penmanship is boring. How can working on fine motor skills be fun?

Here are some fun activities to improve fine motor skills. Of course everyone has different different likes and dislikes, so to make sure there are at least a few choices to suit everyones interests, I present fifty fine motor skills activities for older children.

Crafts for Fine Motor Skills
Improve eye-hand coordination with crafts

Origami Blue Bird by Jacque Davis
1. Stringing beads

2. Origami

3. Cloth or paper embroidery

4. Crocheting or knitting

5. Fusion beads (tip: use tweezers for even better fine motor skills practice)

6. Paper cutting (the art form, not the preschool activity)

7. Aqua Beads (like fusion beads, but you spray water on the beads to make them stick together instead of an iron)

8. Basket weaving

9. Sewing

10. Pottery

Games for Fine Motor Skills
Add some competition

Jenga Tournament by Tom Rolfe
11. Operation

12. Jenga

13. Make 'n' Break (see my review)

14. Yahtzee

15. Foosball

16. Rush Hour

17. Marbles

18. Darts

19. Play dough charades

20. Video games (hate to admit it, but they do improve eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills.)

Puzzles to Help Fine Motor Skills
Engage the brain too
Playing with Brain String Advanced

21. Mazes

22. Jigsaw puzzles

23. Rubik's Cube and other similar puzzles

24. Crossword Puzzles

25. Brain String Advanced (see my review)

25 More Fine Motor Skills Activities for Older Children
Something for everyone

26. Enjoy coloring (not just for kids)

27. Practice a musical instrument

Use Chopsticks for fine motor skills
28. Use chopsticks

29. Tie flies

30. Go fishing

31. Try writing Japanese or Chinese characters (see my ideas for learning Japanese)

32. Learn how to tie cool knots

33. Practice typing/keyboarding

34. Play with Wikki Stix (see my Wikki Stix review)

35. Learn sign language

36. Sculpt with clay

37. Do paper mache

38. Make plastic models

39. Play with gears

40. Braid hair

41. Build with Lego

42. Decorate cakes

Magnetic Sculpture by Tamra Hays
43. Make magnetic sculptures

44. Play paper football

45. Make designer lattes and cappuccinos

46. Play with a tilting ball maze

47. Do a connect-the-dots puzzle

48. Learn calligraphy

49. Make a mosaic

50. Write with a fountain pen

Question: Do you have a favorite fine motor skills activity for older children? Please share in the comments!