I’ve Got a Golden Ticket!

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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.


Innovators Don’t Just Drink the Kool-Aid

The phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” originates from the horrific massacre that occurred in Jonestown, a settlement in Guyana, in 1978.  Over 900 members of Peoples Temple, a religious movement founded by Jim Jones, were killed by cyanide poisoning.  Accounts vary as to whether or not the people were forced to drink the liquid or did so voluntarily but either way the psychological manipulation in the situation is apparent.  Hence the phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

Innovator's MindsetRecently I had the privilege of reading The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros  (@gcouros, http://georgecouros.ca/blog/) and I applaud the type of leader Mr. Couros is.  While reading, I couldn’t help but think what our world would be like if all organizations had an innovator’s mindset.  Ask any inventor whose invention has taken off and I bet he will tell you about hundreds of other ideas he had that weren’t as good.  We must adopt an innovator’s mindset and encourage risk-taking and potential failure so we can uncover genius ideas.

In schools, I like to think that the innovator’s mindset falls on a continuum.  Let’s take student behavior as one example from the classroom although this same continuum can be applied elsewhere.  Administrators, I encourage you to think about how this works for teachers as well.

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When students have a fixed mindset they don’t feel like they have the power to change and often blame set traits and external factors for their shortcomings.  I told her she couldn’t sit with us at lunch because I am a mean person.   As teachers we reach out to these students, develop relationships and help them realize their potential to improve.  They start to desire change and develop a growth mindset.  What I did at lunch wasn’t nice.  Next time, I’ll try to make her feel more included.

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The next step on the continuum, in my mind, is compliance.  The students want to progress, see the teacher as an almighty superhero and do as they are told.  Miss Babcock, I asked her to sit with us at lunch today after our conversation yesterday.  We all know our compliant students because they tell you everything they’ve done well.  Miss Babcock, I pushed in [student’s] chair.  I helped pick up a piece of paper in the hallway.  I said, “thank you” when I was in line in the cafeteria.  Sometimes it’s enough to drive you crazy.  But, can you blame these students? They are doing what you told them to do and they want you to know about it.

Unfortunately, I think we are guilty of getting students stuck in stage three.  But isn’t this just a stop on the larger continuum?  If our students only comply, aren’t they just drinking the Kool-Aid?  Quite honestly, of all of the behaviors I see in my classroom, compliance scares me the most.  Yes, you read that correctly.  When a student does exactly what I say because I said to, it keeps me up at night.  There is so much good in today’s world but there is also a lot of evil.  If I send my students out into the world at this stage, will they comply with good or evil?  Think about that.  It’s terrifying!  They need to be independent thinkers.

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After compliance comes emulation.  A student leader in the class suggests changing seats at the lunch table so students who typically feel left out are included.  It works well and the next day a student who admires the leader suggests to do the same thing again.  Instead of working to improve because they are told by someone else, these students take action because of intrinsic motivation.  They look to people they admire and mimic their behaviors.

Sounds great, right?  Not quite.  This still limits the students to what they’ve already witnessed.  If our students only emulate what is modeled, they will never be better than what they’ve seen.  Aha!  Enter the innovator’s mindset.  This is when students improve upon what already exists using their own ideas or come up with something completely new.  They innovate.  Miss Babcock, I made up matching cards to make people feel more included at lunch.  Let’s all draw a card, find the student who has the matching card, and sit with that student at lunch.

Innovator's Mindset- Circles

What if every student who graduated innovated?  Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid, our future generations would take action to improve upon current ideas and implement ideas that have not yet been imagined.  Yes, there are certain things that students need to comply with in the classroom.  But let’s not stop there.  Our students are so much smarter than us when we allow them to be.  Let’s make it a point to coach them towards an innovator’s mindset so we can ultimately step aside and they can come up with the solutions to tomorrow’s problems.

Mystery Skype

Where in the World-

A couple of months ago I finally bit the bullet and tried out a Mystery Skype with my class.  Before our first actual call, I listened to my students as they practiced.  Half of the class was going against the other half and their nerves were running wild.  I stood in front of them and told them they just needed to try out a real one before they felt more comfortable with it.  Meanwhile, underneath my confident facade I was feeling just as nervous and unsure about the logistics.  After all, when you enter the world of Mystery Skype, everyone else has already started.  This is a blessing and a curse.  You are behind before you ever start yet you need to Skype experienced classes to learn and grow.  Trying Mystery Skype had been on my to-do list for far too long, though, and I wasn’t going to let another year pass without trying it.  With some encouragement and resources from the Father of Mystery Skype (yes, I just deemed him that), Paul Solarz (@PaulSolarz), I got started.  *Thanks, Paul!*

For those of you who are new to Mystery Skype, the basic premise is that you Skype a class somewhere in the world.  Your class does not know where the other class is and must ask yes and no questions to find out where the class is located.  The other class is trying to do the same.  Once both classes guess correctly, the students come together to talk and find out more information about the other location and class.

Here are some of the biggest benefits of Mystery Skype that I’ve seen…

  • Your students will learn a lot about where they live so they can share facts with the other classes.
  • The students have a meaningful reason to improve their map skills.
  • You can step back and let the class run the show. They will stumble and fall, regroup and, most importantly, learn and grow as a result of you getting out of the way.
  • The students are highly engaged. This is not uncommon in my classroom.  A student this year told me that what we do is, “unpredictable (in a good way).”  I plan to be unpredictable and the students usually eat it up.  But, when I say highly engaged I mean that I had a student try to talk her mom into changing their vacation so she wouldn’t miss a Mystery Skype.  Come on, now!
  • When students socialize with completely new people they authentically practice their soft skills.  This is challenging for them, in a good way.
  • Your class can practice being humble winners and gracious losers.
  • Critical thinking skills are constantly at work. The students never know what will be asked or how the previous question will be answered.
  • Students must think on the spot. You have no clue what will come up and there is definite value when students respond to the challenges they face, in the moment, under a bit of pressure.
  • The students will feel connected to the world around them. Their world is no longer a dot on the map and the most beautiful thing about this is you don’t have to leave your classroom or spend a dime to make this happen.

The only thing about Mystery Skype that I regret is that I didn’t start sooner.  This year we “traveled” to New York (that one was tricky since we are also in New York), Alabama, Iowa, Missouri and… Venezuela!

So, are you ready to try it out?  Are you already a Mystery Skype expert?  Save my Twitter handle (@MollyBabcock) and let’s set up a time to Mystery Skype next year.  I will have a bunch of new fifth graders who will be eager to connect!

Education Heroes

If you could pick your top five education heroes, who would you choose?  For me, the list is easy.  I push myself harder and harder in the hopes that one day I will find myself in their company.  In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I would like to thank each of these educators.  You truly are my heroes. In no particular order, here they are.

Ron Clark

Ron Clark is a storyteller.  I could seriously listen to this man all day, every day and it would never get old.  But the true story he tells is within the walls of RCA.  I admire Mr. Clark because he was thrown into the teaching world and just figured it out.  He didn’t follow in the footsteps of others. He blazed his own trail and teaches his students to do the same.  Mr. Clark has created a school of excellence filled with rich tradition.  He has turned the world of education upside down and has redefined teaching for countless educators, including me.  I have made remarkable adjustments to my teaching just from observing him.  I want nothing more than to sit in the back of his classroom for a year (a month, a week) to observe him.  It would change my life forever but for now, I’ll just have to keep dreaming (in true Rêveur style).


Kim Bearden

If you know The Ron Clark Academy, you know Kim Bearden.  Even though she is the co-founder, her name doesn’t decorate the outside of RCA.  And quite frankly, that doesn’t surprise me.  Mrs. Bearden is a phenomenal educator with accolades galore but you’ll never hear that from her.  Recently, I sent her a message and she replied that she was so sorry she didn’t get to something because she had a school event.  I later found out from her colleague that this event was her induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame (minor detail, right?).  She is one of the most brilliant and humble people I “know.” Her humility moves her way up on my list.  I truly feel honored to listen to her speak and I love soaking up everything she shares.


Dr. Steve Perry

Our education system is broken.  Injustices are constantly justified.  This is where Dr. Steve Perry comes in.  He is a change agent with an unwavering commitment to children, education and social justice.  He has stepped up in Hartford, Bridgeport and now Harlem to break the status quo and show that students are extremely capable when they’re given teachers who are qualified and committed to their scholars.  He is a man after my heart, partly because I spent most of my childhood in Connecticut, where his work began but also because he speaks the truth even when some don’t want to hear it.  But he’s not just all talk.  He backs his words up with action.  Maybe one day I’ll join him in his schools.

Dave Burgess

Dave Burgess teaches educators how to be creative.  He shows you how to be passionate.  He gives you concrete ways to bring it for your students.  After reading his book, participating in his Twitter chats, and seeing him “speak” (can we even call it that?), I have been forever changed.  He has taught me how to observe what is around me and create educational experiences for my students using my observations.  He is kind and confident.  He knows his stuff!  I wish I could go back to high school and participate in his social studies classes.  Social studies didn’t speak to me in high school and now, as an adult, I really wish it did.   I know that if a teacher like Mr. Burgess was standing in front of the room (scratch that- flying around the room) I would be much better off today.

Dave and I

Linda Cliatt-Wayman

If Strawberry Mansion High School rings a bell, you probably know about Linda Cliatt-Wayman.  I first heard about Strawberry Mansion when it was deemed one of the most dangerous high schools in the United States.  Enter a woman with a fierce heart of gold, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, who volunteered to be Strawberry Mansion’s principal after no one wanted the job.  She models grace, tenacity and commitment.  Cliatt-Wayman has removed Strawberry Mansion from the federal Persistently Dangerous Schools list.  Every day she signs off over the announcements saying, “If no one told you they loved you today, remember I do and I always will.”   How beautiful is that?

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Unlocking a Coveted Seat

Every week, my students work to earn Student of the Week.  Student of the Week is not easy to earn.  To even be eligible, you must have been given no warnings the entire week (not one!).  You must have had your homework done and binder signed the entire week.  Then you must have gone above and beyond in some way that stood out.  Perhaps you took a risk, helped a classmate, participated more than usual or asked insightful questions.  There is no limit for the number of students who can earn Student of the Week and we do have weeks when there is no Student of the Week.  The honored students get to spin our wheel for house points as their classmates cheer for them.


In the past, I’ve been a bit bothered that the students who had no warnings and all of their homework completed yet did not go above and beyond were not recognized in any way.  In our classroom, it is no small feat to be eligible in these two areas due to very high behavioral expectations and I wanted to make these students feel special.

Over the summer I saw Erin Klein of http://kleinspiration.com/  blog or Periscope about making your room appealing to students with comfortable seating and other items.  About the same time, Hope King of www.elementaryshenanigans.com did a Periscope about a new key system that she was going to use with her students.  I put these two conversations together and had an idea!  So this year, I threw something new into the mix.

I went to Target (gotta love those back-to-college deals) and bought four chairs and a lock.  Now, any student who earns Student of the Week automatically gets one of these coveted chairs to sit in for the entire next week of school.  Well, unless we have more than four scholars earn Student of the Week which did happen once this year!  Students who do all of their jobs but do not do anything that stands out as going above and beyond are in the running for the remaining chairs.

I put lock codes on post-it notes.  Some open the lock and some do not.  I make sure the number of correct codes matches the number of chairs.  Eligible students get to pick a post-it and try the code.  If the code opens the lock, they earn the chair.  If it doesn’t, they try again next week.  The code that opens the lock changes every week.


The students love these chairs.  The anticipation on their faces as they turn each letter on the lock never gets old.  The class cheers for the students when they hear the click and the lock opens.  They are also quick to tell the students whose codes didn’t work that they also did a great job. Last week I had a student, for the first time, earn a chair.  His smile was priceless.  He was so excited because his hard work all year led to him earning the chair.  And to him, it was well worth the wait.


P.S. Here is the only “person” in our school who has ever sat in the chair without earning it.  The class happily shared and got a really good laugh out of the whole thing.

Reading and Reflecting

Education is the most powerful weaponwhich you can use to change the world.

How do I grow as a professional?  I read, among many other things.  I read often yet always wish I read more.  My biggest weakness as a reader is how I take everything I read and connect it to teaching.  Seriously!  I’d like, just once, to read a book without thinking about growing as a professional.  Yet I know my biggest strength as a reader is how I take everything I read and connect it to teaching.  To keep things brief, I’ve chosen five books that have had a major impact on my growth as a professional.

The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn

We all need Freds in our lives but more importantly we all need to be Freds for other people.  From Fred, I learned to be the best person I can be and to go the extra mile no matter what I’m doing.  It really does make a difference in people’s lives.

Leading with the Heart by Donald T. Phillips

Coach K is the man.  Simply put.  What I would do to sit down and have lunch with this man.  His unwavering high expectations paired with his deep concern for and commitment to his players becoming phenomenal people make him a legend.   Not to mention, I still get a good laugh on days when I don’t feel well and I recall what his parents used to tell him.  Drink a cup of Polish tea and sweat it out.  You’re going to school.

Disney U by Doug Lipp

I’ll start this one by saying my parents both worked at Disney and met each other there.  I’ve had Disney in my blood since I was young.  But it wasn’t the princesses that drew my heart to the parks.  Instead, it was the stories of Disney’s impeccable attention to detail.  This book really got me to think about how educators, just like Disney U, can set the stage for their visitors (the students, families and others) to truly make schools The Happiest Places on Earth.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

Dave Burgess taught me to be creative.  All of the amazing lessons that I watched my educational heroes teach were finally within reach after reading this book.  He taught me how to plan experiences instead of lessons for my students.  This process is a constant work in progress but it’s work I’m so willing to put in because I see it benefit my students every single day in the classroom.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Change starts with a whisper.  That’s it.  Change starts with a whisper.  Building trust, lending a listening ear and whispering is all it takes to give voice to those who are not heard.


To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.

These five books only scratch the surface of my reading and reflecting.  Please comment with the books that have helped you grow as a professional.  I’d love to read them!