First Week Watercolor Portraits

Every year, my second graders paint a watercolor self-portrait.  It is truly my most favorite first week activity of all time.  After sharing this picture of this year's portraits on Facebook, a sweet reader asked if I had a blog post about them.

Well, it dawned on me that while I have shared my annual self-portraits many times, I've never really shared them exclusively in a post.  So, here goes!

Every year, I have my students paint a self-portrait during the first week of school (an idea I learned while student teaching many moons ago).  I hang these portraits in the room, for the entire year.  They really brighten up our space and they are such a joy to look at (this is a picture of my students' portraits from last year).

I am not an art teacher and I believe that kids should be encouraged to take risks, so when I task my students with painting their portraits, I pretty much let them "have at it."

Don't worry, it isn't a total free for all.  I do model the process and I also share examples from years past, like the ones shown below.  I just make it very clear that I don't expect their paintings to look like an actual photograph.  ;)

I always begin by pointing out how much of their body/self they will be painting.  I tell them to think about the pictures they see in their yearbooks and how those pictures only show people's heads and shoulders. I explain that they will include only their head and shoulders in their paintings.  I then show them examples from previous years (sometimes students move and they get left behind, so I have a few on hand).

Once the students understand what it is that they will be including in their portrait, I model the drawing process on the board.  I discuss how large the head should be in relation to the paper and show them what this looks like.  From there, I show them how I draw a neck and shoulders, hair, and facial features.  I apologize that I don't have a photo of this, but essentially, I model and narrate the process, one step at a time. 

And,'s the students' turn.  I give each student a piece of white card stock (8x10 inches) to work with.  Card stock is brighter and thicker than construction paper, and it just seems to hold the paint better, in my opinion.  Then, they start their drawing.

Sometimes, I have them draw the outline of their pictures with a black crayon (see below). When I do this, there is NO pencil involved. This helps them to really slow down and visualize before they draw because they know that they can't erase.

However, this year, I let them draw with pencil first and then they traced over their pencil lines with a Sharpie.  Why did I do that?  I have no idea, it was just what I decided to do when I was prepping the materials, but the end result was still fab!

Once the students draw the outline of their portrait, they get to paint!  Using watercolor is a tricky thing for many second graders. They have a hard time always gauging how much water to use, so a discussion about this (and a little modeling) ahead of time is a good idea.

Tip: No matter how much explaining and modeling you do, you'll still have a student or two that uses too much water.  Let them use a tissue to blot their paper if you notice this happening.

I lay the portraits to dry on the floor, in an out of the way spot. They dry within minutes here in the desert.  Once they are dry, I flatten them by stacking heavy teacher manuals on them overnight.  I could iron them, but my iron and I do not get along.  At all.  The next morning, I hang them up and admire the sight before me...all year long.  :)

At the end of the year, it's always fun to repeat this process.  You will be amazed at how much growth your students show.  Here are a few examples from last year.  Amazing, right?

We always get lots of compliments on our portrait display, and the kids are always very proud of them.  They love seeing if their parents can guess which one is theirs, and it's fun to see how many parents get it right!

At the end of the school year, I send the portraits home as a keepsake.  Many parents have commented how much they love them, and they are the perfect size for framing!

First week self-portraits are a great way to encourage students to take risks, have fun, and learn to use materials.  Beyond that, the students take great pride in their creations and enjoy them just as much as I do, and we have something truly magnificent (that they created!) to look at all year long.  :)

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Teacher, I'm Done! {Keeping Fast Finishers Engaged}

There are so many things to think about when it comes to classroom management, including how to manage your fast finishers.  So, let's talk fast finishers!

Do these sound familiar?

I'm done!
What should I do next?
When I finish, what should I do?
What can I do when I'm done?
I'm Done! Now what do I do?

They are all valid exclamations and/or questions, but let's be honest, who wants to hear them repeated 40 times throughout the school day?  I don't (just keeping it real, friends).  That's why I have a "fast finisher" system. Most likely, you have one too!  Having a system definitely helps save my sanity and it keeps my students busy when they finish their assigned tasks. Win-win!

My System
In my classroom, whenever a student finishes an assignment, they follow this protocol.

This pocket chart hangs just above my "I'm Done" box so students are always reminded of what they can do if there is time to spare.

Just like any procedure, I have to teach my students how to follow and use this system.  They need reminding, lots of reminding, at the beginning of the year.  But, as time goes by, they become pros and don't need me to nag them remind them anymore.

So, here's how it works.  When a student finishes an assignment and turns it in, they must finish any unfinished work they have.  This is nonnegotiable.  Each student has a special folder in his/her desk that is used to store assignments that are still being worked on.  This task is a must because I don't want their work to pile up and it teaches them to follow through on incomplete tasks.

If a student does not have any unfinished work, he/she gets to choose whether they would like to complete a "Fast Finisher Activity" or read silently. They are allowed to read a book from our classroom library, or they may read their own books that they have brought from home. This gives the students a bit of choice in what they do.  They love this, of course.

Fast Finisher Activities
So, what exactly is a fast finisher activity?  In my classroom, it's something that is both "fun" and meaningful, but more about that in just a second.  I usually set out three buckets of activities at a time (you can only see two).  The students can use the materials in any of the buckets until it is time for us to move on to the next lesson in our day.

Here is a look at the kinds of materials you might find in my "Fast Finisher Activity" buckets.

Materials shown above:
  • Saxon wrap ups (These were left over from years ago, but they are great practice!  My teaching partner found a few sets on her storage shelf just the other day, and I gladly took a set off her hands since my old set went by the wayside years ago.)
  • One Breath Boxes from Donna Coleman
  • 100 chart puzzles from Sarah Cooley
Materials shown above:
Switching Out the Activity Buckets
There is no scientific method as to which items I decide to put out.  Each has value and each is a meaningful resource for students to interact with throughout the school year.  I switch out the activities every 2-4 weeks, or whenever I can see that students need them to be changed out.  I know it's time to switch them out when the students are aren't frequenting the buckets quite as often.

Whenever I set out a new batch of materials, I share them with the students and explain how to use them, if necessary.  Most of the materials I set out are variations of each other, so I really don't have to do much explaining throughout the year.

Storing the Activities
I store all of my fast finisher items in large storage tubs (like the one below) so that I can switch them out quickly.  When I change out the activity pages in the dry erase pockets, I do need to go to my digital files and print out the pages I want, but other than that, everything is stored in these tubs.  ;)

It is pretty common for me to add more/new materials to my stash over the course of the year.  I'm always on the lookout for resources that my students will enjoy and benefit from!

I've used this system for years, and once it is taught and understood by the students, it keeps things running smoothly in our classroom.  And, I never have to hear, "I'm done! Now what do I do?"



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Classroom Decor Tips & Tricks

Today, I finished setting up and decorating my classroom and I am one happy, happy teacher!  I know this isn't every teacher's favorite thing to do, but I'm not ashamed to admit that it happens to be one of my favorite back to school tasks. :)

Setting up and decorating my classroom helps me get excited about all of the learning that will soon take place in our space. And, I love making my classroom an inviting and cozy place to be.  I want my students to walk in and immediately feel like they are in a special space that was made just for them.

So, if you also enjoy decorating your classroom space, then hopefully this post will speak to you!

Pick a theme.  Themes are a great way to create a sense of cohesiveness and regularity throughout the space.  I currently have a rock star theme, but over the years, I have had lots of different themes including forest animals, pirates, cowboy/cowgirl, beach, dogs, space, and so on.  I like to pick themes that appeal to kids, but are also themes that I enjoy.

Regardless of the theme I use, I always pick a color scheme to go with it.  I like to have consistency throughout my space and color is an easy way to achieve this.

My rock star classroom is black and white with pops of pink and turquoise. Here are a few details.  :)

Not into themes?  You could also go with a simple color scheme.  Color is an easy way to spruce up a space!

Recycle your theme.  If you use one, that is.  ;)  For the past three years, I have reused my rock star theme.  This means I can either keep my room exactly the way it was before, or I can change it up a bit.  I always change it a bit, I can't help it.  Just like my teaching, I like to try new things and make little changes that keep things fresh and exciting. 

This year, I added curtains (which were actually a necessity because my blinds are warped from the harsh desert sun and my poor students get blinded by the sun all afternoon).

I also made some changes with my bulletin board borders.  I've always used a combination of polka dots and zebra stripe borders.  This is fun, but also a bit crazy when it's plastered on every wall of my (super small) classroom.

So, this year, I added a new combination to the mix.  I added some solid black and bright blue (the closest thing they had to turquoise) border to a few of my other boards.

 I also replaced my hanging tissue poms with lanterns.

These are all small changes, but they have helped my space to feel refreshed and new again.

Dress up your boards.  I like to dress up my bulletin boards. My standard issue beige board with a metal frame is just boring and dull. Actually, it's kind of depressing.  To dress these boring boards up, I cover them in solid colored fabric.  This helps my students' work to stand out once it is up. 

One way that I add a little extra interest to the boards is by layering my borders. Borders are great for framing a space that you want to stand out.  I tend to stick to no more than two layers, but that's simply my preference.  Like to layer?  Then, layer away!  On a few of my boards, I have used mixed prints (as I already mentioned) and on others I have used a few solid borders.

I also like to add embellishments to the corners.  This year, I went with two embellishments per board and placed them in opposite corners.  The embellishment pieces were ones I've had the past few years (one bonus of recycling a theme is you've already got a lot of stuff at your disposal). 

I also make my own "boards" to help frame important resources, and help them stand out a bit more.  I embellish these mock boards just like the others: two layers of border and two embellishments in opposite corners. 

You can find more bulletin board tips and tricks {here}.

Have a plan.  I like to have an idea of what I am going to be hanging up, and where I am going to hang it, and where I am going to place student materials and resources for that matter.  I make notes, and I even draw diagrams.  What can I say, I totally geek out when it comes to decorating my classroom.  It's my home away from home and I really want my kids to love their space.

Now, with that said, I always tell myself, a plan is just that-a plan. Plans can change.  Sometimes they have to change.  Be open to making changes on the spot.  This year, I made these guitars.

BUT, when I hung them up in the classroom, I hated them!  So, I switched out the star and glued a bow to the top.  Now, I love them!

I was also planning to cluster my new lanterns, but decided that wasn't going to work in my space, so I ended up scattering them about the room.

Have a plan-Part 2.  When you are ready to visit your classroom and spruce up your space, I highly recommend you have a plan (a To Do list).  Know what you need to do and decide on the order in which you would like to get stuff done. Again, don't forget to be flexible.  Not trying to be bossy, I just know that sometimes I have to change the order of my tasks once I'm in my space.  But seriously, having a list is so helpful because I am easily distracted, so making a list helps me stay focused.

Bring your gear.  I don't keep a toolbox at work, so when I go in to set up my room, I always bring a few tools from home to help me get the job done: extra hot glue sticks, a measuring tape, painter's tape, etc.   Basically, just bring whatever you think you might need.  Better to be safe than sorry.  ;)

By the way, the extension cord is GREAT for being able to tote my hot glue gun around the room, and the painter's tape is perfect for attaching borders to the whiteboard.  To do this:
  1. Put painter's tape around the edge of the whiteboard-see pic below
  2. Put hot glue on top of the tape
  3. Attach your border 
If you are doubling your borders, like I do, just repeat these steps for the second layer, only this time, place the tape along the silver frame of the whiteboard (you may want to use a narrower tape for the second/top layer).

However you decorate your space, have fun! And, I truly, truly hope you were able to take away a tip or trick today.  Thanks for stopping by!


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Favorite Read Alouds for the Primary Classroom

Reading to my students is one of my favorite things to do!  And, I love it when my favorite read aloud books quickly become student favorites.  So, today I plan to share my favorite read aloud books, as well as some reminders about reading aloud.  Ready to get started?

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There are about a thousand and one research backed reasons why we should read aloud to our students (of any age).  I won't list them all, but here are some of my favorite reasons to read aloud to students:
  • It models good reading (fluency, pronunciation, expression).
  • It promotes listening comprehension.
  • It helps fuel meaningful discussion.
  • It makes reading pleasurable.
  • It helps struggling readers feel successful.
  • It helps foster a love of reading. 
  • It exposes students to rich vocabulary and descriptive language.
  • It encourages students to think and use their imagination.
If that isn't convincing, I don't know what is.  Bottom line, there really is no reason not to read to our students.

When reading aloud, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

1. Read the book first.  To yourself, that is.  Make sure that the content is appropriate.  Make sure it serves a purpose.  Make sure you like it.  There are lots of reasons to read the text before sharing it with your students, so make sure you do.

2. Don't rush when you read.  It isn't a race, so read in such a manner that you are modeling good fluency and pronunciation.  When you "rush read" (as I like to call it), you trip over the words, you overemphasize words in the wrong place, and you are not modeling good reading.

3. Just do it.  Make it happen.  Find the time to read to your students.  Even if it's only two or three days a week because that's all you can squeeze in (I know, classroom and school demands can be tricky to work around).  Just make sure it happens regularly so that you are able to model good reading, facilitate class discussions, develop vocabulary, etc. 

Ready for some great book recommendations?  Here we go!

Picture books are my all time favorite books to read aloud. When I read a picture book, I delight in the pictures, just like the kids do.  I find it very easy for me to "get into character" and use a level of expression that resonates with the kids.

Please, Mr. Panda-This book is great!  The text is short, sweet, and to the point, and it is a fast read.  Mr. Panda is looking to share his donuts, but every animal he encounters has bad manners.  Ultimately, he finds a well mannered animal to share all of his donuts with.  It's a great way to remind students that good things can come from using good manners.

I Don't Want to be a Frog- Little frog doesn't want to be a frog.  He wants to be a cat, a pig, etc. With the help of a few other characters, he realizes that being a frog really isn't so bad.  My favorite kind of books remind students to be happy with who they are, and this book is perfect for sharing that message.

Rude Cakes- Cake has no manners.  In fact, he's just plain rude.  While the story is funny and entertaining, it can be used to discuss the importance of having good manners and treating others with respect.

Frog on a Log?-  This is another easy read aloud.  It's filled with great illustrations, lots of rhyming, and it's a bit silly at times.  Ultimately, it does show young readers that each animal has its own special place to sit and it's a great tool for working with rhyming, but for my second graders, it was just a fun book to read aloud.  They laughed and enjoyed the illustrations.  **Yep, sometimes, I pick a book to read aloud simply because it's a fun story. Just don't tell anyone, OK?  Hehe.

Last Stop on Market Street- There are so many wonderful things about this story about a boy and his grandmother heading back to the neighborhood after church.  Not only does it have vibrant and interesting illustrations on each page, but it sends a message that we should all appreciate where we come from.  The boy wonders why he doesn't have the same things as his friends, or why he has to go to the dirty part of town, as he calls it.  His grandmother has an answer for every one of his questions and helps him to appreciate and recognize how wonderful his world really is. 

The Book with No Pictures- So, technically, this isn't really a picture book. Hehe.  But do not let that fool you.  The book is full of silly words and lends itself to expressive reading.  The kids love hearing this book read aloud. I think they enjoy watching an adult make strange faces as they are forced to read really strange words.  Last year, I had one kiddo that could barely contain himself as I read it aloud. 

I also have a few favorite chapter books that I share with my students. These reads take a bit longer to get through (obviously), but the students always love them just as much as they love the picture books. Chapter books provide a deeper experience with the characters in a book. They invite the reader to enter another world and see and experience things in a new way. 

Mercy Watson - This series is so much fun.  Technically, they are beginner chapter books, but I don't care, they are so fun to read.  Mercy Watson is pet pig who gets herself into all sorts of silly situations.  The plots are easy to follow, there are lots of opportunities for making inferences, and she's just so darn lovable.  Once I start reading these books to my class, it doesn't take long before they find their own copies to check out from the school library.

Gooney Bird Greene- Gooney Bird Greene is a girl who knows what she wants.  She has an odd sense of fashion and a knack for telling stories. Her stories are over the top, but Gooney only tells stories that are "absolutely true."  This book is great for encouraging students to describe a character and it provides an opportunity to help students make connections to their own storytelling (writing).

Lulu and the Brontosaurus- Lulu is a spoiled brat who wants a brontosaurus for her birthday.  Her parents tell her no and she sets off to find herself a brontosaurus.  When she finally finds one, he wants to make Lulu his pet!  In the end, Lulu learns some manners.  There are alternate endings to the story, making it a bit interactive and exciting for the students.  This story may be outlandish, but it's great for helping students to examine their own feelings and reactions to situations. It's also a great reminder that we don't always get what we want.

Lulu Walks the Dogs- This book is a follow up to the one mentioned above.  Lulu finds herself needing to earn some money and decides she'll do so by walking the dogs in her neighborhood.  Well, things don't go as smoothly as she'd hoped and she has to put up with her annoying neighbor.  Lulu is just as sassy in this books as she is in the first story, but she is tad bit less spoiled.

NOTE: There is a third book in the Lulu series, but after reading it myself, I decided it just wasn't nearly as good as the two mentioned above, so I never read it to my students.  I remember there was an illustration/description of a character's appearance that didn't sit well with me, and it just wasn't a memorable, engaging story to follow.  So, remember it's always a good idea to read the book to yourself first.

Do you have any favorite read alouds?  If so, share them in the comments.  I'd love to check them out!


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