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Help with homeschooling – 4 fabulous FREE websites.

Wow – what week, what a month, what a year! And it’s only April. I know so many parents out there are homeschooling for the first time ever and so many teachers are learning to teach in an online world. I am in exactly the same position. I’m doing my best to provide work for students, assist parents and learning to use a lot of new technology quickly. With all of that in mind, I thought I would share four websites that I use and recommend to the families of my own students to use in these tricky times. They are all completely FREE.

  • Behind the News (BTN) is produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and a new episode is released each Friday. We normally watch this each week in class. If you click on the link below, it will take you to the latest episode. Additionally, when you click on the latest episode and scroll down you will find an ‘Episode Package’ in a choice of Word or PDF format.
    Just click on this link: https://www.abc.net.au/btn/classroom/
  • Scratch is a coding program which is free and is suitable for primary students. The activities on this website encourage STEM thinking. With Scratch, children can program their own interactive stories, games, and animations. Scratch is a project of the MIT Media Lab and it is provided free of charge. Go to: https://scratch.mit.edu/
  • Smiling Mind is a mindfulness/meditation program that I usually use in my class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This is another totally free program which you can use as much as you like. Simply create your free account, click on the ‘All Programs’ tab and then scroll down to the ‘Classroom Programs’ section. Once there, you can choose from the grade level which is appropriate for your child. The link is: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/
  • Kids News is a fantastic free news website which has a huge range of well-written, well-researched and interesting articles which are suitable for children. There are a range of reading levels available, all stories include an audio file for students who need some assistance with reading and there is a range of educational activities attached to each article. I highly recommend you try it out: https://www.kidsnews.com.au/

Whether you are a parent homeschooling for the first time or a teacher looking for insipration, I hope these websites help you out in these tough times. Good luck and stay well!

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My secrets for using Writer’s Notebooks to encourage and inspire your students

For me, a Writer’s Notebook is a must for encouraging my students to be brave and truly creative writers. I started using them for the first time just a few years ago and my students and I haven’t looked back since. But first of all, you may be asking: ‘What is a Writer’s Notebook?’ To me, a Writer’s Notebook is simply a journal which allows students to note down thoughts, feelings and observations about the world around them.

After speaking to other teachers about how they use Writer’s Notebooks, I have found that they all seem to use them in slightly different ways. To be honest, I don’t think it really matters – as long as your students are being encouraged to write and they are finding it to be a positive experience. I make a point never to mark the students’ writing – this is their journal and they must feel confident that they are not being judged.

In my classroom, we use the Writer’s Notebooks twice a week (I teach three days a week) and I have a prompt ready to go for each session. I simply display the prompt on the interactive whiteboard and the students have one minute of thinking time. They sit without writing a word and just reflect on the prompt they have been given. I then give them four to five minutes of writing time but no other directions. They can respond to the prompt in any way they like – poetry, first-person, third-person, brainstorm, narrative, persuasive writing… the list goes on.

I always complete my own entry in my own Writer’s Journal at the same time as the students. I believe it is important for them to see me joining in the act of writing for enjoyment and I always share my writing aloud with them afterwards. They love to hear what I have written.

When the students have completed their Notebook entries, I get them to join a small group (2-3 students) and share their writing with each other. I then pick about three students to share their writing aloud to the class. They can choose to read the whole entry or just their favourite sentence. I am always shocked by how many students want to share their writing with the class. I give the student who is reading aloud feedback and so do other class members.

This activity only takes 10 minutes each session but the students often produce more writing in these sessions than in any other writing lessons and, most importantly, they become confident and enthusiastic writers. Go ahead and try it if you haven’t already – I guarantee you and your students will love it!

If you want to save time and get some ideas, click the picture below to see the writing prompts I use in my classroom:

Writer's Notebook - Writing Prompts for 1 Year
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How I create easy, affordable birthday gifts for my class.

I make a point of giving a small memento to students in my class to celebrate their birthdays. I usually teach a “split” class (more than one grade in the same classroom), so the children in my class range in age from 9 to 12 years old (and sometimes 13) throughout the school year. Even though the children are almost teenagers, I am always surprised and delighted with how much they love to sing Happy Birthday a get a birthday sticker to wear for the day. For some students, their circumstances out of school mean that they don’t have much celebration at home for their birthday and I love it that we can do something small to make the day special for them.

However, this can get expensive, especially when you have up to 32 students in the class. Over the years I have found a couple of small gifts which are easy to make, inexpensive and loved by the students. After singing Happy Birthday, each student chooses a birthday sticker which I buy from a teacher supply store. I also give them a birthday certificate which I have made myself as an editable document. When I get my student list for the upcoming year, I make up the birthday certificates, laminate them and keep them in alphabetical order on my desk. This way, whenever a student birthday arrives throughout the year, I can easily find their certificate. Click on the image below to download my editable birthday certificates:

Editable birthday certificates.

I also give each student a small “cupcake”. I make them using pom poms and small cupcake wrappers. I make the large pom poms myself, but of course you can just buy these from a craft store. I buy the tiny pom poms from a craft store because I can’t make them this small myself. These make a cute and affordable gift for students. Check out the images below to see how I make them – it’s so easy. Just use some PVA craft glue to hold them together.

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My secrets to creating a classroom that will inspire and motivate.

Here in Australia we are heading back to school in just a couple of weeks after a long summer break. I am one of those teachers who loves to prepare their classroom for the start of the school year and I spend a lot of time heading into school over the summer break to clean, de-clutter and decorate. For me, this is the best way to start the year feeling fresh, revived and prepared. For a lot of teachers, they prefer to stay away from their classroom for the summer and take the time to recharge and renew in their own way – and that’s important too. You just need to figure out what works best for you.

One top tip to make your classroom warm and welcoming is to use plants. I’ve written about this before here if you’d like to know what the best low-care plants are for your classroom. Plants filter and purify the air around us and surrounding ourselves and our students with nature is proven to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of well-being.

One of the many plants in my own classroom.

At the start of the school year, your classroom can look quite bare without any student work to hang up yet. To counter this, I hang up home-made fabric bunting until I have some student work to display. If you are not a fan of sewing, you can pick up ready-made bunting at fabric and party supply stores. But if you are on a budget, I recommend making your own because you can use fabric scraps and off-cuts. I make it super simple by using pinking shears to cut out the bunting triangles so that I only have to sew the ribbon or binding to the top of the bunting. Using fabric bunting is also great because once you have made it, it will last for years and can be used for all sorts of events like class parties, graduations and fetes.

My home-made fabric bunting.

Pin-up (or bulletin) boards can also look very bare at the start of the school year. I make sure I always have a welcome message on mine which the students can read as soon as they walk in the door on the first day of school. This year I am using this cute, editable pencil-themed banner. If you like it, click on the image below to download your own copy to edit and display.

Editable Pencil Bunting
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Unwrap a Christmas surprise!

With just two days until Christmas, I thought it would be a good time wish all the teachers out there a very merry and peaceful Christmas. I have put together a Christmas-themed clip art freebie for you to unwrap too. I am taking a break for a few weeks and will be back with my next post in mid-January. To unwrap you freebie just click on the image below:

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Students anxious or unsettled? One simple change that will have a huge impact.

In my first couple of years of teaching I never had a class timetable displayed for students. Then I had a student who really needed one to reduce his anxiety levels. Without knowing what was coming up next in the day, he would become worried and spend too much of his cognitive energy thinking about what might happen. As I usually teacher older students, I decided to display a daily timetable for all students to see rather than single this student out. It worked a treat; no one knew it was meant just for him and it really helped reduce his anxiety levels.

But what I didn’t expect was how much the other students (and me!) came to rely on it. If I ever forgot to update it from the previous day, they would ask to me to change it from the moment they walked in the door. After a while, the students asked me to remove the label for each lesson as the day went on. They seemed to get a sense of achievement when each task was completed. As the year went on, they were able to get the timetable ready for me each morning and I would simply check it and let them know if there where any changes to be made.

When I really thought about why this made such a difference to so many students it wasn’t so hard to see why. When I have a professional learning day or course, I find it really tricky to stay focused if I don’t know what’s coming up next. When I am handed a schedule or timetable for the day’s events, it allows me to relax and mentally prepare for the day ahead. I guess the students are exactly the same! So, now I haven’t gone a single year without a class timetable on display for all of my class to see. Click on the image below to see the one I use in my own classroom:

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My secret to a stress-free evening after work.

As every teacher knows, a day of teaching can leave you physically and mentally exhausted. Your mind feels like a computer with 100 internet tabs open at the same time and you’ve been on your feet all day. I don’t know about you, but by the time I get home the last thing I want to do is think about our evening meal, let alone buying ingredients and spending an hour preparing it. Over the years I have found two solutions that really work for our family:
1. Meal planning;
2. A slow cooker.

I was never a meal planner until I started teaching but now I couldn’t go without it. We don’t meal plan weekends or days that I’m not working, but Monday to Wednesday (my regular working days) are always meal planned. We plan meals that don’t need last-minute ingredients and don’t take a long time to prepare. Our favourites are home-made hamburgers, gozleme, curry and rice, soup and bread, toasted sandwiches and tomato risotto. We usually keep our meal plan the same for the whole school term (10 weeks) and then change it up when we get bored with it or a new school term starts. We shop for the ingredients fortnightly and I don’t have to give it another thought after that. It also means we save money and don’t waste food.

My second secret is a slow cooker (crock pot). I honestly could not be without our trusty Sunbeam slow cooker. We’ve had ours for about 10 years and it gets used every single week of the year (sometimes a few times each week!). Our go-to slow cooker meals are curry, vegetable soup and vegetable stew. I prepare the meal the night before and leave it uncooked in the slow cooker pot which I put in the fridge overnight. In the morning, just before I leave for work, I take it out and put it on the slow setting for the day. When I get home, I walk in the door to the smell of dinner!

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7 reasons why I absolutely LOVE substitute teaching…

I LOVE substitute teaching – or relief teaching as we call it here in Australia. When I was studying teaching at university, I always dreamed of having my own class, but there is a lot to be said about the joys and benefits of substitute teaching. I am very lucky because I have my own class three days a week and I choose to substitute teach at the same school on the other two days. This gives me a good work-life balance, but I know that I am very fortunate to have this choice.

So, why do I say I love it so much? Here you go:
1. The marking is minimal. I always stay back at the end of a sub day and mark whatever I can for the regular teacher but that only takes 30 minutes max. Not having to take home 32 essays or narratives to mark is fantastic!
2. If I’m busy (or just need a rest), I can simply say no.
3. The students are always so excited to see a new face and it’s a great chance for me to build relationships with them.
4. I get to work with children of all different ages and hone my skills a little more. Great for your resume and your confidence.
5. If I don’t love a particular class for any reason, I just say “no thanks” next time it’s offered to me.
6. I can try out innovative activities and ideas and get feedback from a range of students.
7. If I’m needing a little extra cash for a holiday or to pay a big bill, I can choose to take on some extra work.

Whenever I’m subbing, I make sure I have a file full of go-to activities just in case the normal class teacher has been caught short and hasn’t left anything for me. Click on the image below to see the my sub-pack that I take with me to all middle school aged classes:

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7 Reasons for Using Math Games in your Classroom.

Math games or maths games if you’re in Australia 🙂 Do you use them? I use them ALL the time. Why? Well, there are plenty of reasons:

  • Reason #1 – Fun – students that are having fun are more relaxed and open to making mistakes and learning.
  • Reason #2 – Time – time for teachers to observe student understanding in a non-threatening way.
  • Reason #3 – Practice – great way to practice skills and test prep.
  • Reason #4 – Cooperative learning – encourages co-operation and allows students to explain their thinking to others.
  • Reason #7 – Skills – develops strategy and problem solving skills.

So, how do I make maths games work in my classroom? I usually find it best to play any game as a whole class activity first. My students love to try beating me at any game and it’s a great chance to discuss our mathematical thinking aloud to each other. It’s also a chance for me to correct misconceptions at the same time. If I think that a game may be difficult for some students, I will pair them up with more capable students to help them along or I will work with them in a small group with me. Generally, I find that it only takes a couple of times before my students get the hang of any game and then I’ve got a go-to activity ready for when we have spare time or I find another lesson just isn’t working.

Here are some my favourite maths games that I use in my own classroom. Clink on the images to see them in my TpT store:

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

Christmas!!! My very favourite time of the year! It’s such a crazy time for teachers here in Australia because not only is it Christmas but it’s also the end of our teaching year. That means report writing, end of year ceremonies, graduation, gift-making, classroom clean up, the list goes on and on and on…

I love Christmas with my family and it’s wonderful to teach children who are still just young enough (10-12 years old) to get excited about December 25th. However, it can be a difficult teaching time of the year – you’re tired, your students are tired, there’s so much to do, so many loose ends to tie up. While I love doing some fun Christmas activities, it’s also a time when I don’t let my students get out of routine too much. Here are some tips that I use to keep things fun but calm:
1. Stick to routine as much as possible – keep most lessons to their scheduled time.
2. If you are planning a fun Christmas activity (like a quiz or some craft) I always schedule these for the last hour of the school day.
3. I always keep in mind that there are usually some students in my class who don’t celebrate Christmas for various reasons, so I always make sure they are still included or that the activity can be changed slightly to make it relevant to them.
4. Keep students motivated with seasonal rewards. I always run a Christmas-themed raffle to reward good behaviour.

For the last couple of years I have been using these cute little Elf Reports that I made. They don’t cost me a cent and the students (even the older “cool” ones) love them! They get such a kick out of me handing them out to a couple of students at the end of each day in December. They boys really like to get a note saying they have been naughty instead of nice. Click on the image below to download your FREE copy:

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End of Year Traditions

Here in Australia we are coming to the end of the school year and it has got me thinking about some of the end of year activities I do each year with my students. I love to do some fun activities but I try to keep them to the final week or two of school because things can get a bit crazy otherwise!

I usually teach older primary students (11-12 years old), so they are able to do lots around the classroom to help out and they LOVE it. I get them to clean their own desks, trays and chairs and they love to help me take down artwork and student displays. Here is a great checklist for students that I will be using next year: https://mandystipsforteachers.com/end-is-near-end-is-near/

Because I am teaching older students who are graduating from primary school, a lot of the end of year activities are set by the school – graduation ceremony, camp and dinner-dance. It is great to be a teacher that gets to share these experiences with the students, but it’s also a LOT of extra work.

Last year I made a cute autograph page for my students and used it for the first time. They loved walking around the school in the last week and getting autographs from teachers and students. It was also a lovely way for them to seek out favourite past teachers and thank them for a great time at school. I have a FREEBIE here that you can download:

Click on the image for your FREE Autograph Page.

Since I’ve been having some time off, I’ve been able to create a whole booklet ready for next year. I can’t wait to use this with my next class. Click on the image below to get it for yourself!

Click on this image to take a look at my new End of Year booklet.

What traditions and activities do you do at the end of the school year? Let me know in the comments section.

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Classroom Decoration

Do you put much thought into how your classroom looks? I do, especially whenever a new school year begins. I have always thought that the care you take in presenting your classroom tells your students just how much you care about them.

Clutter can be a problem in any classroom, so I try to have good storage solutions. I have even asked co-teachers to come into my room and give me some critical feedback on what needs changing about my room decoration. There’s nothing better than seeing your classroom with fresh eyes.

I also have lots of houseplants in the room. I’m a keen gardener and I love to get home and tend to my garden after work each day – such a great way to reduce stress! If you are looking for some houseplants for your classroom that are very easy care, I recommend: snake plants, cast iron plants (aspidistra), devil’s ivy and spider plants. These plants can all take fairly low light and will survive if you forget about them for a while.

I love to display lots of student work too and I always take care to put up some meaningful posters and artwork around the room too. I have a great FREEBIE A3 poster for readers to download too. Just click on the image below!

Here are some more of my own designs that I use in my classroom:

What do you do to make your classroom feel welcoming for your students? Send me a comment to let me know!

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Co-operative Learning

While I’ve been taking time off work it has given me the head space and clarity of mind to think about how I like to teach and what I think my students really respond to. I would say that I use a lot more co-operative learning techniques that many of my colleagues. I know, I know… It’s now for everyone, but hear me out.

Here are the reasons I found that it works so well:
1. Students are not afraid of sharing their responses or ideas with the class because they’ve already shared with a partner or small group.
2. Bright students can really lift other students by showing them their thought processes.
3. It can be super low-prep. There are lots of simple co-operative learning activities that can be adapted to any subject or lesson.
4. It teaches students real-life relationship skills. Nobody works in a silo, we all need to engage and communicate with each other. Co-operative learning activities are a great way for students to learn these skills in a safe setting.

One of my favourite go-to co-operative learning strategies is the Placemat. So simple and so easy! I usually group students in 3 or 4 – any more than that and it all gets a bit hard to manage. Whatever the topic is, students have 1-3 minutes of silent thinking time. They then quietly jot their thoughts down in their own section (the triangle-like shapes on the outside of the placemat) for about 2-3 minutes. After that, each student shares their writing with their group – no interrupting! I usually only allow about 1 minute per student. Finally, the group puts their combined ideas in the centre oval – I always get just one student to scribe this.

When all of the groups are finished, (a timer is a really good idea to keep things on track) each group shares what they have written in the centre circle. Completed placemats are a great classroom display too!

I really hope this has helped someone out there and I hope you give it a go. It’s totally worth it! If you would like a free copy of my A3 placemat just click this link to download one for FREE from my TpT store: FREE Co-operative Learning Placemat.

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