Team Builders

Team building is very, very important in a classroom environment. If you doubt how that might play into putting 20-some kids into one room and expecting them to get along for 9 months, reflect back to your elementary days, haha.

The 6th grade classes recently ventured out on a camping field trip, and I was introduced or reminded of the many team-building activities that are out there that could easily be adapted for classroom use. I will be using some of these ideas in the fall to unite my next class.

Note: Click on individual photos to get a closer look.


Spring Flower Hunt

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I was inspired by the recently blooming yellow daffodils to go on a spring flower hunt. I’ve missed spring for three years due to being in Costa Rica and I forgot how beautiful spring really is!!! Enjoy the photos 🙂

A Recent Student Blooper

Working with English Language Learners guarantees that there will be hilarious daily language bloopers. The secret to dealing with anyone’s mistakes (my students or my own) is to just keep on laughing… and being sure to teach students what they should say instead.

Sometimes a student mistake is simply a mispronunciation. We as teachers must be careful to not automatically assume where a student is coming from, like in this situation:

We are rearranging the room for our Power Point presentations, and Marcelo ends up trapped between three desks and the projector cart (the laptop cart complete with projector to be used for the presentations). Josúe moves one of the desks so that Marcelo is no longer trapped, but Marcelo reaches over and moves the desk back to trap himself in again. Marcelo says, ”It´s okay, I like being in here.” Josúe asks, ”What? You like being in hell?” Students laugh nervously, waiting for my response. Josúe seems very genuine in his question, so I ask, ”What do you mean, Josúe?” He explains that he wouldn’t want to be in prison like Marcelo wants to be. I ask what he means when he said the word hell. Josúe’s eyes get really big and his hand clamps over his mouth and he turns beat red. I ask again what he meant to say. He finally answers me, ”I wanted to say jail.” That’s when it clicked in my mind: the j sound in Spanish is like the h sound in English, making Josúe think he was saying jail and making everyone else hear hell. The whole class was laughing about that one for a while.


Making the Classroom Student Friendly

In a student-centered classroom environment, it is vital that students feel ownership in the organization and in the learning. Here are some ideas to get you started:

I mentioned concept maps in an earlier post. Here students are adding their recent learning about the Roman Republic government to our giant Ancient Rome concept map. I have found that making the learning visible not only reinforces the learned concepts but also builds student confidence and pride in their learning.

The concept map poster hangs from a clothesline for easy take-down and put-back-up so we can add to it regularly to give students ownership of the learning display.

An easy way to give students ownership in the organization is to organize in a way that makes sense and is easily accessible to the students. After I re-organized the Non-fiction section, it has seen more action in the last few weeks than in the whole first semester combined! After introducing the new non-fiction organization, we went into training as a whole class to put books back in the bins in a way that made sense. (My motto for everything: Be sure your decision makes sense!)

I make a point not to display meaningless posters in the room (Sorry, teacher stores, but I don’t need any inspirational quotes signs!). I prefer student-created signs, but not all posters in my classroom have student handwriting. The key to any poster you have in the room is that learning is anchored to it in some way. Several ways we utilize our ”feelings faces” are in mediating conflict resolution (”How did you feel when he pushed you?”), in determining how a book character is feeling, and in getting past ”boring” feeling-words like ”happy” or ”sad”. It’s also a great vocabulary builder : ). 

The Feelings Faces Chart can be found in Positive Discipline in the Classroom, by Jane Nelsen, H. Stephen Glenn, and Lynn Lott. Definitely a good read for any teacher looking for some fresh discipline ideas. The book argues that giving students ownership of the classroom environment often minimizes negative discipline issues. I would have to agree after using Positive Discipline in my classroom for two years!

Friendly Competition

The few times I have tried to brave any sort of competition games with my students, I quickly learned that someone’s feelings are likely to get hurt. While I know competition often hooks the boys, I also know I don’t want students to have bloody noses over a review game.

So instead of students competing against one another, we make prefixes and vocabulary words compete.

Prefixes un-, re-, dis-, mis-, and pre- battle over who can have the longest list. When students find a word with a prefix in their reading, they can add to our lists.

Homophones compete for who can win the most stickers. When students find a homophone in their reading, they can add a sticker to the word.

”Daze” is winning!

We hunt for interesting words in our Read Aloud books, and then the words compete for stickers. These words are from The Report Card, by Andrew Clements, and ”admit” takes an easy first place.

I have found that the simple privilege of writing or putting a sticker on our charts is highly motivating for students.


When I hear the word “injustice,” my mind immediately pictures the African nation of Guinea-Bissau where unwanted babies and children are buried alive in ant hills as sacrifices to the gods. While in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Isabel Johanning-Mora, an amazing Costa Rican woman who decided she was going to move to Guinea-Bissau as a missionary over 15 years ago. Today, she runs the orphanage Casa Emanuel and calls Guinea-Bissau home. Teletica, the Costa Rican CNN of sorts, broadcast the story of Casa Emanuel over several days, and Costa Ricans responded by giving more than $22,000 to support the incredible work Dr. Johanning is doing.

”Injustice.” I also think of the Kony 2012 campaign that has gone viral within the last week. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted thousands of children to join the fight for no apparent cause other than to cause terror in Uganda and surrounding countries. Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has his hands full as he juggles his sudden global fame with his argument that the U.S. must support African nations in arresting Joseph Kony this year.

Even while thinking of Africa’s many injustices, I can’t help but think of injustice that is closer to home for my 6th graders. On Friday, I sat down with them to explain their ISAT (standardized test) prep assignment, and Yessenia tells me, “Miss Siscoe, we didn’t prepare for the ISATs last school year.”

“Oh really?” I ask, not sure where this is going.

“Yeah,” cuts in Tomas. “And our teacher would just text on her cell phone all day.”

“She didn’t listen to us when we had reading conferences. She would just text,” adds Josúe.

Seeing that this struck an emotional chord with these 6th graders, I continued to listen.

“And you know how you talk with us so much about why it’s not okay to be a bully? Well last year the teacher didn’t do anything about the bullies. It was hard to come to school,” Gabriel looks at his classmates for support.

“Yeah,” Yessenia is raising her voice now. “Teacher, you wouldn’t have liked our class last year. That teacher said she didn’t like us.”

By this point, my heart is breaking and I think I’ve heard enough, but they continue.

“Remember that one time,” Tomas asks everyone, “She had her nails done and then she didn’t want to touch our books? She said she didn’t want to mess up her nails.”

Several more memories surfaced before I gained their attention again.

“Alright, boys and girls, I just have to tell you that my number one rule for myself as your teacher is that my cell phone stays in my purse.”

“We know,” interrupts Yessenia.

I raise my “be quiet” sign. “Also, I want you to know that when I am not listening to you during your reading conferences, it is because I am writing down notes about what I should be sure to teach you. I’m sorry that your teacher last year wasn’t the kind of teacher that you deserve.”

Thoughtful silence.

“Okay, are we ready for our assignment now?”

Injustice in today’s schools does not only exist in U.S. public schools. I observed numerous examples of injustice in private Christian schools in Costa Rica as well. I remember during my first year of teaching, I asked my group of fourth graders what types of healthy snacks were acceptable to bring to school. A fourth-grade-style riot broke out as (I figured out later) students were terrified that I was going to have the same strict snack policies that their 3rd grade teacher had enforced (Her healthy snack list included things like hard-boiled eggs and tofu… Pure injustice in a fourth grader’s mind!). In my second year of teaching, I was faced with the fact that I was paid twice as much for my teaching job than the tica teachers I worked with… simply because I came from the United States. As I ate lunch with my compañeras, I wondered how they treated me so kindly when they knew I was favored above them. After two years of teaching at that school, I turned in my resignation letter explaining my reasons for moving on — being favored above other employees was one of my reasons as I chose not to associate myself with such obvious unfairness.

Here’s the thing about injustice: All that matters is what we do about it. Not what we say. Not what we know. Our actions speak louder than our words. Dr. Johanning decided to build an orphanage, school, and a clinic where hundreds of children’s lives have been changed; Jason Russell is globally campaigning that Joseph Kony be captured and tried in court; and I am being daily faithful to the learning of my 5th and 6th graders. No matter where you are, you can choose to make a difference.