Good Times: Productive Transition Times in the Classroom



Do you need more time in your classroom? Do transitions kill your flow? Want to show your students that every minute counts and have fun while doing it? I have my students all day, besides lunch, recess and an encore class. I love getting to know them so well but sometimes, you just need something to break up the day. Enter- transition songs!

If you walk into my classroom at 8:25, our discussion leader will be finishing up the daily discussion question. All of a sudden a student will stand up and say, “Give me five, it’s time for writing.” Then you will hear… [to the tune of One Call Away]

I will write when I need to vent
I just want to share my thoughts
Come on, come on, come on
Share my mind with my audience
No matter where I go
Ideas will always flow
I’m only one word away
I could write and write all day
Maybe then you’ll see what I mean
I’m only one word away

As the students sing, they grab their materials out of their desks, walk to their book bins, find their groups and get ready for writing. Meanwhile, I also grab my materials and switch the objective on Prezi. By the time that short song is over they’re looking at me, ready for the mini-lesson.


Come 9:15, a student will pop up and say, “Give me five, it’s time for reading.” And then you will hear our reading chat. You’ll have to come visit my class to hear this one.

Later in the day, the students arrive back from recess. That can be a disastrous time, right? WRONG! My fifth graders turn the corner into the classroom and you’ll hear… [to the tune of Monster]

Word time!
This is my word, this is my word.
Working in our notebooks.
Word time!
Find the meaning, in the word’s clues.
Working with our folders.
Word time- Grammar, vocab.
Word time, this is my word.
This is my word. Working with great urgency!
Word time!

Then you’ll see busy workers in their groups completing their spelling, grammar or vocabulary work for the day. When the clock strikes 12:50 you’ll see another student pop up, “Give me five, it’s time for pack up.” Pack up? Seriously? You actually have a song for that? YES! Pack up has such potential to go awry. But it just doesn’t because of the transition song. One student calls binders while the others grab their binders, get their mail and homework and put all of that in their bags to go home. All of the students are back in line to head to the bathroom in less than two minutes. SUCCESS! You’ll hear… [to the tune of Turn Down for What]

Pack up for what
Put your papers
In your binder
Put your binder
In your backpack
Put your backpack
In the closet
[Silence- Count to three with your fingers in the air]

Fast forward and we’re back after a quick bathroom break. The students turn the corner from the hallway and head into the room for math. You’ll hear… [to the tune of Bad Blood]

It’s time for math class
We’re multiplying, dividing
Adding and subtracting
You gotta know where the decimals GO!
Now we got word problems
And you know we can solve them
Gotta use your strategies
Math class starts NOW!

When the song is over you’ll see the students’ math binders opened on their desks and all of the students will be gathered on the floor discussing what we did yesterday in math before the lesson begins. Yes, we also have a chant for social studies and science, too.

Starting Transition Songs

So, how do you start transition songs in your class? Every year I create the first chant and teach it early on, although, it’s never too late to start now. I type it up, sing it to the class and then send it home. The next day I expect the class to use it. Does every student have it memorized yet? No. Some of them go home and forget the tune. That’s okay. Enough of the class has it memorized the next day. Since the students sing the song every day, it doesn’t take more than a week for the whole class to have it, even if they aren’t practicing at home.

Then, there’s always that first day in the fall when I have training and need a substitute. So, for writing, I tell my class ahead of time that I’m going to give them a challenge. They are to come up with transition songs for the rest of the subjects. When I get back, we’ll have a sing-off and the class will vote on their favorite songs for each subject. It’s a win-win. Now, writing time will be super productive while I’m gone and the students will have new transition songs. They love this! My only regret is I never get to watch the process of how they create their songs. Also, as a word of caution, the students do not need to listen to the original songs/lyrics to complete this task. I don’t open that can of worms.

When I come back, we have the sing-off which is simply the best. If you are at all skeptical about the quality of the songs your class will produce, don’t be. Every year I’m amazed at how much better the songs are than I ever could have imagined. Once the songs are chosen, I type them up, send them home to practice (best homework ever) and they begin using them. Transitions are truly a good time in our room!

Benefits of Transition Songs

• They are student-led, quick and fun brain breaks.
• They are a designated time to get materials out quickly.
• The songs incorporate kinesthetic movement and are a chance for students to be loud in a productive way. It’s not uncommon for my kids to clap, drum, use rain sticks and dance during the songs.
• I can get the pulse of the room. Is it Monday morning and the song sounds more like nails on the chalkboard than a song? I can instantly tell the kids are tired. I address it immediately while they’re singing and the whole tone of the day changes.
• I learn the type of music my students enjoy early on in the year. Some songs are country, others are rap and pop. I can capitalize on this knowledge and use it in other areas of my instruction.
• It lets my musically inclined students shine. This is important for me because I find out who can sing and carry a tune. I’ll need their help throughout the year because I do a lot with songs… and let’s just say there’s a reason I’m not a chorus teacher.
• The students whose songs are chosen grin ear to ear with pride during their songs…even in June.
• The winning songs, surprisingly, never seem to come from the same groups.
• The songs help build relationships. We all know our songs but no one else does.
• It puts everyone in a good mood. Did a lesson just flop? Did someone just make a bad choice? As soon as you hear those angelic voices, you can’t help but smile and regroup for the next lesson!

Happy Transitioning!



Competition & Collaboration: A Perfect Harmony


Every August, I can’t wait to tune into the Little League World Series.  I love the games in part because I grew up playing competitive softball.  I also adore how passionate the kids are about the game.  I love how their raw emotion makes the games wildly unpredictable.  This year, our local Maine-Endwell team won it all.  It was a blast to follow them, celebrate during the Welcome Home Parade and see the community rally around a bunch of talented tweens and adolescents experiencing a summer they’ll never forget.

What I love most about the LLWS, though, is the expectations.  When a pitcher lets go of a wild pitch and it hits the batter, he runs over to check on his competitor at first base…. because it’s expected.  When a batter knocks a homerun over the hedges in center field, the third baseman gives him a high five as he rounds the base, headed for home… because it’s expected.  When a team is down by one run in the bottom of the sixth with bases loaded and the batter strikes out, the coach reminds him to enjoy the moment and be proud of all of his accomplishments that got him to where he stood that day… because it’s expected.  Competition and collaboration coexist in perfect harmony.

Competition has a bad rap.  We assume that if we are competing, we also have to have the every man for himself mentality.  Yes, competitions can easily turn into this.  That is, if that is what is expected.  We’ve all been at a game when a parent takes things a step too far in the name of competition.  We’ve heard the winner who brags in the faces of others only to crush their spirits. But just as easily as a competition can spiral out of control, leaders can expect and promote the synchronization of competition and cooperation and set the tone accordingly.

In my classroom, we have four houses, or teams, that the students are sorted into on the second day of school.  The students keep their houses for the entire school year and we have a total of two competitions.  I have heard my fair share of criticism of this but most of it comes from people who don’t step foot in our classroom.  They haven’t seen, in this setting, how competition and collaboration can work together in harmony.  And it works, for the most part (we are far from perfect), because that’s the expectation.

I am confident that my students will be exposed to competition in their lives.  One of the many reasons I have my students compete is to teach them how to compete with full collaboration in mind.  I’ve seen how healthy, safe competition can push students to grow, especially when they learn to compete with themselves.  I teach them to win and lose graciously.  I teach them to congratulate the winner, cheer on the other team, and encourage the peer who is struggling, regardless of his or her team.  My goal is to teach my scholars the true spirit of competition, which is collaboration.

I’ll leave you with one last example: the Olympics.  Fierce competitors have the chance to showcase their talents to the world.  But at the end of the day, isn’t the goal of the Olympics, and the reason why so many people watch it, the spirit of collaboration and unity within the competition?  Didn’t Abbey D’Agostino, the runner who stopped mid-competition to help her fellow competitor who fell, steal our hearts just as much as Michael Phelps and all of his gold medal glory?

We are all leaders in some way or another in our lives.  So, I challenge you.  Don’t shy away from competition because of past memories when the every man for himself mentality was expected.  Promote collaboration within competition and my hope is we can all experience how beautifully they can coexist.



When I see Michael Phelps, I see his gold medals.  I picture his remarkable Olympic swims, his triumphs, his records, his endorsements, his time standing on the Olympic podium as our flag was being raised, and, have I mentioned his gold medals?  But what I, and I assume many, don’t picture is the daily, grueling work that prepared Phelps to rewrite history.

Recently I finished reading The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work.  In one part of the book, Bob Bowman, the swimming coach of Michael Phelps and many other successful swimmers, talks about how many swimmers take Sundays off.  Because of scheduling issues when Phelps was younger, Michael began practicing on Sundays and stuck to it as time passed.  So, while others were taking the day off, Phelps was, “getting five years of training into everyone else’s four years” (Bowman and Butler 131). That’s preparation.  And it’s just one example of how Phelps prepared.

When people fall short of their goals, it’s often due to a lack of preparation.  Perhaps you wanted to become more fit this year.  But, did you come up with a daily plan and stay committed to it?  It’s easy to look at the end result of what we’d like to achieve but we often don’t envision the long road that will get us there, thus resulting in disappointment.

I now appreciate Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman so much more.  I no longer just see the gold medals.  I respect the intense preparation the two went through to achieve excellence.  I see the medals that Phelps earned and deserves.

So my #OneWord2017 is preparation.  I plan to focus on the daily grind, the steps that are arduous and don’t sparkle and shine like gold medals do.  I’ll make this choice because behind every successful person is this easily overlooked preparation.


Bowman, Bob, and Charles Butler.  The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class  

     Excellence in Your Life and Work.  St. Martin’s Press, 2016.


Remembering Our Angels

Four years ago today, a heinous crime was committed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Personally, this hit home on many levels.  Not only did I grow up in the town next to Newtown, but I am also a teacher.  If ever there was a town that something like this would “never happen in,” it was Newtown.  Every morning when I walk into my classroom, I place my key down on a table next to my door and I cannot help but think of that day.  After all, it’s one of the reasons I intentionally leave my keys where I do.  And four years later, the events that unfolded are truly still incomprehensible to me.

When you walk into my classroom, you might notice that my desk is topped with a bright, colorful, laminated collage with photos and inspirational quotes.  It’s a great pick-me-up on a tough day.  But what might go unnoticed is something that sits on the front, left corner of my desk.  It’s a laminated letter on understated white paper.  In the wake of the tragedy, I came across this letter from Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace got her wings on December 14, 2012.  I encourage you to take the time to read it.

As we remember all of the people whose lives were forever changed because of that day in Newtown, let us also remember the wise words of Ana Grace and her mother.

The Equalizer: A Fast-Paced Brain “Break”


This week we played a math game that I made up, somewhat on the spot (my best ideas always seem to come this way), that turned out to be really fun.  The students were in teams working through problems in math.  When their entire team completed the work and showed they understood the problem, they got to play the game.  It was a quick and exciting brain “break,” with math snuck into it, of course!  A support teacher in my class named it “The Equalizer” because any team, no matter how many questions they completed, had a chance of winning.  Seriously, it got crazy!  My students are not very familiar with negative numbers but this was a simple introduction to them.  With the basic use of a number line on our wall, they calculated their scores pretty easily.

Here’s how the game works…

  • Get three different colored dice. I happened to have green, white and red at school.  You could also number the dice or use one die and just roll it three separate times.
  • Roll the red die.
  • Roll the white die and subtract the white die amount from the red die amount. Sometimes this produces a positive number and sometimes this produces a negative number.
  • Roll the green die.
    • If the green die is even, your score for that round (red die minus white die) doubles. *This is wonderful if you had a positive number but it’s a huge disappointment if you had a negative number.*
    • If the green die is odd, your score for that round (red die minus white die) clears to zero. *This is wonderful if you had a negative number but it’s a huge disappointment if you had a positive number.*
  • Keep a running list of the scores for each round and add them together at the end.

That’s it!  It was fast-paced, exciting, and quite the toss up in terms of who was in the lead at various times.

I’ve Got a Golden Ticket!

Summer Letters (2).jpg

Summer was exciting as a child and so was getting mail.  As soon as school let out, literally the day after school ended, I remember checking the mail multiple times a day waiting for my classroom placement letter.  In one school I attended they taped the class lists inside the front windows of the school building.  Luckily we lived close so we could swing through the school’s bus loop often.

There was something special about finding out who my teacher would be and calling my friends to see if we’d be in class together.  Then it was off to buy school supplies aka Christmas in August!  As a teacher, the excitement is the same.  I still check my email for my class list weeks before I know my inbox will have mail and don’t even get me started on a good Staples run before the year begins.

But for me, the summer letter also marks the day my school year begins.  On every first day of school since kindergarten (yes, even my first days of school as a teacher) my mom has told me, “You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So here’s a quick look into what goes into my summer letter… my first impression.


My first goal of my summer letter is to make my students eager to return to school.  Some students are like I was growing up.  Others are not.  I want to show everyone that this year is going to be different.  In the past I wrote them a letter, which quite frankly, lacked the gusto I wanted it to have.  This year I created a golden ticket instead.  It didn’t say much but that was the point.  It was just enough to pique my students’ curiosity.  I question whether students still call each other when they open their summer letters but if they do I want them screaming into the phone, “Did you get a golden ticket?”  Before school began I ran into one of my student’s parents and she said her daughter was running around the house, jumping up and down, asking everyone, “What does this mean?” Success!


Each summer I choose a few days to invite families into the classroom before school begins.  I can’t imagine being a parent having to send my child on the bus the first day not knowing who he/she would be spending time with that day.  So I pick days that I’ll be in school, putting the finishing touches on the room.  This is a great chance for me to meet the students and their families in a non-threatening way, before anything has happened to put a possible dent on our relationship.  It also takes the pressure off of the first day of school and Open House because I meet the majority of my class over the summer.


Next, I include a one-page letter telling the parents a little bit about me.  I share where I went to college, what I studied and some of my interests.  I also stress how much I care about my students and how communication is of the utmost importance to me.  This letter sets the tone so the families know my priorities.  I work really hard to back up my words with action during the school year!


The next page is homework for the parents, another way I win over my students.  I ask each guardian to describe his/her fifth grader in a million words or less.  I leave this extremely open-ended on purpose.  The families typically write about what is most important to them.  Despite the lack of parameters I always learn why the student is special to the family, what challenges the child faces and what obstacles he/she has overcome.  I learn about the child’s interests and sometimes unresolved frustrations with the school are mentioned here.

In the second part of the letter I ask for family photos to be sent in for our family bulletin board.  Quickly we create a huge collage of our scholars’ pets, friends, cousins, parents, and siblings.  The students love having a piece of home in the classroom and we all enjoy learning about each other by looking at the photos.


Cue Staples commercial.  “It’s the most, wonderful time of the year!  They’re going back!”  The less exciting, albeit necessary, supply letter comes last.

The students don’t know it yet but the letters are printed on paper that matches the four house colors for our competition.  It’s all about the details!  And just like that, in the rip of an envelope, I’ve made my first impression for the school year.

Math Doesn’t Run in My Family

Yes, a student told me this once.  My internal response… baloney! Math was my favorite subject growing up and it saddens me when self-doubt and math phobias creep into the classroom.  My goal is to help my students forget they ever disliked math.  Here’s a preview of how I do this in our first math module of the year.  I’ve used some of these lessons before and others are lessons that I’ve revamping from last year and have yet to try.  I’m oversimplifying each lesson for the sake of brevity.

CHA CHA SLIDE [Place Value]

What do place value and the Cha Cha Slide have in common? Well, imagine a giant place value chart and your students as numbers.  You give them a problem.  4.3 x 100.  They respond, “Sliiiiide to the left.  Two hops this time [hop, hop].”  Or perhaps it’s .35 ÷ 1,000 and, “Sliiiiide to the right.  Three hops this time [hop, hop, hop].  *Warning: This one can be a little dangerous. Space and knowledge of directions are definitely needed.* 🙂


Oh no! Barbie and Ken are en route to their honeymoon when they crash land on a dangerous island.  They must get off of the island but are surrounded by shark-infested waters.  Lucky for them there are special lily pads which grow exponentially and will help them cross the waters to safety if only they can figure out how to manage their growth. Thanks, Classroom Chef, for inspiring me to incorporate Barbie into my math plans!

SPAM [Converting Measurements]

“Check out this can of SPAM!  Ewwwww!  Oh my gosh! Look at it.  That’s so gross! Oh, come here and smell it!  Nasty!  We just have to change something about this!”  After getting students jazzed up about SPAM, they learn what the acronym SPAM means.  It spells out the steps to convert measurements.  There is even a song and some intentional high and low fives to make it stick.  And boy, does this lesson stick like glue year after year.

INTERLOCKING CUPS [Standard Form, Word Form, Unit Form & Expanded Form]

Interlocking cups are put together by students and then pulled apart to reveal each form of the number.  This is a great station lesson.  The cups help students visualize and manipulate numbers.  Oh, we also have chants for each form!  Thanks for the cup idea, Google.

OLYMPIC RACING [Comparing Decimals]

I saw someone post about the Olympics and comparing decimals and it was just the inspiration I needed.  The students will look at the final times of a bunch of runners or swimmers.  They’ll figure out who they think received gold, silver and bronze.  Then, they will watch the race.  The final results will be revealed so students can check their work.  I love this one because it’s the shorter times that win the race.  Thanks for the inspiration, RCA app!

GOLDILOCKS [Rounding with Vertical Number Lines]

Get your Baby Bear, Momma Bear and Papa Bear voices ready for this one.  Baby likes her porridge just the way it is.  Momma likes her porridge just the way it is but high fives baby for being so polite.  Papa Bear always wants more.  Don’t forget to yell at Goldilocks to get out of the house!  Believe it or not, imbedded within this story are the steps to round with vertical number lines.


If you’ve ever seen Supermarket Sweep or Shop ‘til You Drop (two of my favorites growing up), this is a combination of the two.  Since my dream of participating on either show was not achieved, I live vicariously through my students in this lesson.  Students are split into teams.  Fake food items with dollar amounts tagged on them are placed around the room.  Students are given a checkout total and they must run to find the combination of items that add to the exact total.  When they think they have the correct pieces of food, they run back, ring the bell and get a new total.  The race is on!

CLOSEST TO ZERO [Subtracting Decimals]

Students are given a cart full of fake food (can be the same food as the day before) and need to return their items.  But there’s a catch!  This grocery store does not believe in full refunds.  The cashier gives the students a receipt (not itemized) and the students decide which combination of items in the cart they should return to maximize the money they get back.  As long as it’s not a full refund the store will pay.  Hence, they try to get their receipt the closest to zero.

GIANT CHIPS AND DISKS [Modeling Multiplication of Decimals & Area Models]

Play-Doh chips and number disks combined with giant place value charts and area models taped off on the floor make this a jumbo hands-on way to model and relate two concepts.  There’s something about making math life-sized that gets students excited, right?

HUMAN SORRY! PRIZE DOORS [Estimating Products and Multiplying Decimals]

What’s behind door number one? Let’s hope you use your estimation skills well and guess the correct prize door because it will give you a chance to get out of start and participate in a game of Human Sorry!  Solve the problem, pick a door and start on the game board.  Answer more questions correctly to keep moving.  Land on the Sorry! slide spot and hop on a scooter (you know, the ones from gym class) to slide forward.  Whatever team winds up safe at home wins.

LOST JUNGLE KEY [Estimating Quotients and Dividing Decimals]

Did you hear?  Our math support teacher’s brother went to the jungle and lost the key to estimating quotients.  We must go into the jungle to help him find it.  Jungle noises accompany math facts and snakes that hang from the ceiling in this lesson.  Students earn chips and each chip has a letter on it.  Once they’ve earned all of the chips they must unscramble the letters to find the key to estimating quotients.

WOULD YOU RATHER? [Word Problems]

This one is borrowed from Classroom Chef.  Students will debate real-world would you rather situations that incorporate the different concepts in this unit so students can practice applying their new skills.  Thanks for the idea!

If you have an idea that makes one of these lessons better, please share it!  We don’t start school for a couple of weeks and I’d be happy to hear ways to kick a lesson up a notch before my class arrives.