The Life-Changing Moment of My Teaching Career

Before Spring Break, I announced to the class that there would be a big surprise when they returned. Some guessed it would be different seats, others said new name tags, but I had a much grander revelation in store. After a year of collaboration and production, all of our Really Good Stuff tools and products finally arrived and I couldn’t wait to share them with the class. Our reading and math strategy animals are an integral part of my classroom as they support and enhance the district prescribed curriculum. Students have such a connection with the animals; some even believe the animals are real so I knew they would be delighted to see the accompanying hands-on tools. I decided to host a Premiere Party to share the exciting news.

First, I added the new decoding and comprehension banners to the Reading Roost (my guided reading area) along with the problem-solving strategy banners at Problem-Solving Pond.

Reading Roost center

To enhance the surprise, I added these special reveal curtains using plastic tablecloths and a winking Hazel as a special clue.

Reveal curtains

Next, I planned special centers in which students would be able to explore all of the new hands-on products and tools.

Math ToolsFinally, I made these adorable owl cupcakes and  wrote a special note on the door as a hint to the big surprise.

Owl cupcake

Reveal sign

When the class walked in, they were silent, staring at awe at the new room arrangement, balloons and cupcakes. I announced that we were having a Premiere Party to reveal a huge surprise. I explained that Really Good Stuff, a company that produces and sells teaching products, found our strategy animals online and loved them so much, they turned them into hands-on tools. I showed them the Really Good Stuff website with all of our products and they oohed and aahed.  As I scrolled through the products, I explained that they would get to explore each one in special Astute Hoot centers and they squealed in delight.


Briana watching video

As students rotated through each Astute Hoot center, I was so moved by their excitement and enthusiasm. They were truly captivated by these new tools and demanded to know when we were going to use them “for real”. Their comments were so touching. “I’m so proud of you, Mrs. Murphy! You are amazing!” and “Mrs. Murphy, I am so lucky that you are my teacher.” My favorite was, “I know you are going to be famous so I better get your autograph.”

Rereading racoon

Reading Hazel books

Hazel Books

Modeling Mouse CountersMath mats

Problem-Solving Poster

Paco Pointer

Problem-Solving Journals

A few students even asked to write reviews and testimonials of the products. They are truly our biggest fans!

Erika Testimonial

Connor TestimonialBrody Testimonial

Briana Testimonial

Josh Testimonial

These pictures don’t fully convey the true joy of learning I saw as students explored all of the new materials. This was definitely the most monumental moment in my teaching career and one that will stay with me forever. Not only are my students getting to use these new, innovative tools to help them learn, but they witnessed that with drive, determination, and dedication, dreams do come true.

Check back each week to see these exclusive Really Good Stuff hands-on in action. Download See What The Hoot’s About, a comprehensive sample file that contains a glimpse into the magical world of Astute Hoot, guaranteed to spark enthusiasm in your classroom.


How to Use Elkonin Boxes and Sounding-Out Slates





















“I’m Sally the Sounding-Out Snake.
S-s-say, have you heard?
Stretch out all the sounds that you see in a word.
Blend sounds together, it’s really quite nice.
S-s-smooth out the words. That’s my advice.”

Sounding Out

Sally the Sounding-Out Snake is one our decoding strategy animals in Hazel’s Reading Roost. Sally motivates students to practice critical early decoding skills. Read more about Sally’s strategy below…

WHAT is sounding-out? Sounding-out, or decoding, is the process of translating print into speech by rapidly matching a letter or combination of letters (graphemes) to their sounds (phonemes).

WHY is sounding-out important? Sounding-out, or decoding, is important because it is the foundation on which all other reading instruction builds. Proficient readers need to be able to segment words and hear individual phonemes in words. If students cannot decode words their reading will lack fluency, their vocabulary will be limited and they will struggle with reading comprehension.

HOW do I teach sounding-out? Explain that Sally helps readers decode unknown words by stretching the words out by sound and putting the sounds together to make a new word. Teach specific patterns to help students decode efficiently.

  • CVC: Words with the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern (e.g., run, sad, beg, fit)
  • Double consonants: Words with the double consonants f, l, s, or z pattern (e.g., puff, bell, kiss, fuzz)
  • Vowel consonant –e: Words with a long vowel sound, spelled with one vowel and one consonant and a final silent e (e.g., date, bike, cone, rule)
  • Blends: Words with a group of consonants whose sounds blend together (e.g., slim, flag, grip, crib)
  • Digraphs: Words with a pair of letters representing a single speech sound such as sh, ch, th, wh (e.g., shed, chin, math, whip)
  • Vowel –r: Words with the er, ir, or, ar, or ur pattern in which vowel pronunciation changes before /r/ (e.g., park, term, dirt, hurt)

Rather than teaching phonics patterns solely in isolation, integrate direct instruction with time for application of the skill in authentic literature. Practice many examples of each pattern to achieve mastery of that pattern before moving on to the next. In addition to using strategies such as dictation, marking words and flashcards, push students to find words with targeted patterns in literature and use those words in their writing.

We recommend using our Sally Sounding-Out Snake resources as a supplement to a research-based, multisensory phonic program that includes structured, explicit, systematic, cumulative instruction. Although we do not endorse a specific program, our students have demonstrated great success using the Wilson Language System and the Spalding Method. Read reviews of specific literary programs at What Works Clearinghouse.

WHEN should I use sounding out?
Explicit reading strategy instruction should be included in a balanced literacy program. Sally Sounding-Out Snake can be incorporated into various components of literacy lessons. Here are some specific examples of when to use Sally:

  • Guided Reading: Introduce or review the sounding-out strategy by reading the Sally Sounding-Out Poem. Read aloud your selected guided reading text and model using a Sally Sounding-Out Slates to decode unknown words in context. Call on individual students to practice using Sally’s Slate with additional words. Encourage students to use Sally Sounding-Out Snake’s strategy when they are reading independently as well.

Sally Sounding Out Snake Puppet

  • Phonics Fun: Choose several one-syllable words from a weekly spelling list or phonics word study list. Guide students through verbally segmenting, or stretching out, the sounds of the word. Then have students write each individual sound (phoneme), in one of Sally’s scales on laminated Sally Sounding-Out Slates (see below). Last, students write the entire word on the line and blend the sounds together to read the entire word.


  • Independent Practice: This unit contains a set of reproducibles for each phonics patterns, including sounding-out worksheets, flashcards and sentence writing practice. Copy and distribute appropriate materials for independent practice or homework activities. As an extension activity, direct students to find words with a specific pattern in authentic literature or leveled texts and record them on the Sounding-Out Snake reproducibles.

Helpful hints:

  • Create a class set of Sally Sounding-Out Slates. Print slates onto cardstock using color printer and laminate. Distribute to class and explain specific procedures for using the slate (e.g., write one sound in each scale; no doodling, etc.). Use the slates to provide opportunities for strategy practice and application. They are perfect for spelling words, targeted phonics patterns or syllabication practice in a whole group, small group or one-on-one setting. These slates keep students actively engaged and serve as an informal assessment.
  • Use the Sally Sounding-Out Slates as Elkonin Boxes. Elkonin boxes are an instructional method used in the early elementary grades to build phonological awareness by segmenting words into individual sounds. Each box represents one sound or phoneme of a word. On the Sally Sounding-Out Slate, each scale is a box. To use Elkonin boxes, a student listens to a word and moves a token into a box for each sound or phoneme. In some cases different colored tokens may be used for consonants and vowels or just for each phoneme in the word.


  • Incorporate multisensory components. Introduce a variety of ways to segment or sound-out words.
    • Visual: Using the Sally Sounding-Out Slate, have students draw a scoop under each scale, reading the sound (phoneme) aloud as they draw.
    • Auditory: Prompt students to clap each part of the word to segment the phonemes as they say the word aloud.
    • Tactile: Refer to the Elkonin box strategy listed above.
    • Kinesthetic: Break apart the word and jump each sound or phoneme. Demonstrate how the number of jumps is equal to the number of sounds.

Sally’s unit is perfect for general education, special education, RTI and reading intervention.  Download the complete unit here.

Microsoft Word - Sally Sounding Out Snake.Preview.doc


Create Your Own Magical Guided Reading Strategies Roost

Do you love our reading strategies animals but aren’t sure how to incorporate into your classroom theme? It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3! You don’t need to have an owl or woodland theme at all.  Create your own personalized Guided Reading Roost in 3 easy steps:

Hazel's Reading Roost collage 2

1. Determine Reading Roost location: Display reading strategy animals in a prominent location near the guided reading table, carpet area, or on a large, central bulletin board.

Determine location

2. Create the magical tree: There are many ways to create the magical tree in the reading roost. Purchase a silk tree from local craft store or garage sale to use as the focus of the Reading Roost.

Create a magical tree

Lightly dust with gold glitter spray paint and cut out glitter foam leaves for a magical look.

Magical effects

Hazel's Reading Roost 2

Use a pre-made tree like this one from Really Good Stuff. Simply purchase and assembly; add extra leaves as desired.

Pre-made tree before

Premade tree after

Make your own tree by crinkling brown butcher block paper to make a large, textured trunk and branches.  Add green butcher block paper leaves or purchase fabric leaves from local craft store to complete the look.

Homemade tree BEFORE Home-made tree AFTER

3. Print strategy animals: Use a color printer to print reading strategy animals on thick, durable cardstock and laminate for durability.

Print strategy animals

Place self-adhesive Velcro to the back of each animal and accompanying place where each animal lives (i.e., leaf or branch of Reading Roost tree). This allows you to pull appropriate strategy animal(s) to greet the students and teach the lesson.

Add velcro

Here are a few helpful tips to make our reading strategy animals fit into any “habitat” or classroom theme:

1. Pick a tree that works with your classroom: My classroom has a woodland theme, so the silk tree with the large, green leaves works perfectly. However, if you have a jungle, pirate, nautical, or tropical theme, a palm tree would be best for your roost. Trees are an integral part of most habitats and locations so it is natural to see one in any type of setting.

2. Add your own touch: Add minimal, themed items to enhance your tree. For this pirate themed, classroom, I found a variety of fun decorations at Hobby Lobby and added them to give it a personal touch.

Pirate accents

Hazel’s eye patch is my favorite feature! This pirate-themed Reading Roost is just one of the many possibilities.

Pirate Hazel

Other suggestions to incorporate into popular classroom themes include:
Ocean – Make a tropical palm tree and add shells and beach decor around base of tree with the saying, “A Sea of Strategies”
Bees – Add a bee hive to tree and hang a few buzzing bees around the tree with the saying, “We Are Buzzing With New Strategies!”
Sports -Add a few balls or sports-themed items around the tree with the saying, “Strategies Are A Ball!”

Get creative and think outside the box! Download our Guided Reading Strategies Bulletin Board Set to get started. Need suggestions or ideas to get started? Email me at — I would love to help you bring the magical world of Astute Hoot to your students too!

Check out our complete reading strategy units here along with our hands-on resources and posters available from Really Good Stuff.


Whooo’s Hazel?

Hazel Hoot, an adorable green screech owl, is a struggling learner as she lacks the strategies needed to help her succeed. In our charming book, Hazel Meets the Reading Strategy Friends, Hazel stumbles upon a magical tree in the forest.

Magic Tree

Out of the tree appear 10 colorful woodland animals that each introduce a research-based, standards-aligned reading strategy. These animals guide Hazel to become a proficient reader.

Astute Hoot's Reading Strategy Animals

In the sequel, Hazel Meets the Math Strategy Friends, Hazel swoops down to catch her dinner at the local pond when she grabs Upton, an enchanted fish.

Hazel's Problem-Solving Pond

Upton oversees Problem-Solving Pond and promises to introduce Hazel to his animal friends, all who teach a special problem-solving strategy. Using these strategies and Upton’s guidance, Hazel blossoms into an accomplished mathematician who is able to tackle problems with ease.

Problem-Solving Pond

Astute Hoot’s unique cast of strategy animals make learning safe and fun while teaching critical strategies in a child-friendly way. Students make an immediate connection to the animals and relate to Hazel’s struggles. These delightful animals and rhymed text motivate the most reluctant readers and alleviate math anxiety.

Take a glimpse into the magical world of Astute Hoot by downloading See What The Hoot’s About, a comprehensive file with samples of our most popular resources and tools. Check out our store at for complete units guaranteed to spark enthusiasm in your classroom.

See What The Hoot's About Preview

The Time-on-Task Chart I Can’t Live Without!

During my 14 years as a special educator, I’ve created and designed various tools, forms, and charts to support students and teachers.  This Time-On-Task Chart, however, is one of my top tools as it has enabled me to gather valuable data about student performance in both general education and special education settings. It measures behavior in 30 second intervals and tracks specific off task behaviors so teachers can easily see patterns in behavior in as little as 10 minutes.

TimeOnTaskObservationChart-1_Page_2Here are some examples of how I’ve use it throughout the years…

Pre-Referral: Data collection and documentation is an important part of the pre-referral and RTI process. This chart has been an effective tool in helping teachers gather baseline data, pinpoint patterns of behavior and determine triggers early in the process.  This information is then used to design behavioral interventions. The chart can be used to measure effectiveness of intervention and compare subsequent ratings to the baseline rating.  Furthermore, since time-on-task data is collected for a control subject as well, important information about the classroom environment, management, or teaching style is gained.  For example, if the control subject’s time-on-task behavior is just as low as the target child’s time-on-task, then perhaps there is an issue with the learning activity or behavioral expectations being provided during that time.

Evaluations: Classroom observations are critical components of multidisciplinary evaluations. I’ve used this chart to collect data and gather important information about how a child functions in the classroom for every single evaluation I’ve completed. I am able to provide concrete data regarding classroom functioning and on-task behavior which helps to provide a holistic picture of the child.

IEP Progress Updates: For students who have time-on-task or classroom functioning goals, I’ve used this chart to regularly progress monitor and update IEP goals.  It allows me to provide a concrete percentage of time-on-task, along with information about specific behaviors, learning tasks, grouping arrangements which impact student behavior.  I’ve also charted the data and shared with students and parents.  Students love to see when they make improvements!  If a student is not making progress, it is a great opportunity to discuss challenges and make necessary changes with them.  This helps to increase ownership and responsibility.

Behavior Intervention Plan: Data collected from the time-on-task chart provides key information about antecedents, behaviors, and consequences in authentic classroom settings. Since data collection is quick and easy, frequent data points can be collected throughout the day or week to measure effectiveness of behavior intervention plans.

Communication with Parents: In addition to sharing information about time-on-task behavior on formal IEP updates, I’ve also used this data during conferences and informal check-ins with parents.  Parents have also reported that this information was helpful to share with outside counselors and doctors to assist with ADHD diagnosis and monitor effectiveness of treatment and/or medication.

This easy-to-use documentation tool can be used by special educators, general educators, paraprofessionals and related service personnel.

1. Choose a target student to observe and a control subject (same age,same sex peer) to which to compare the student.
2. Indicate type of instruction: W-whole group, S-small group, I-independent, O-one to one for each interval of the observation.
3. Use a watch or stop watch to track the time. At every 30 second interval, either mark + for on task behavior or for off task behavior.
4. If the student is off task, indicate the specific off task behavior in the chart.
5. Total up data and calculate percent to determine total time the student was on task.
6. Use comments below to note additional observations and anecdotal data.

TimeOnTaskObservationChart-1_Page_1Download our Time-on-Task chart today!  Available on TPT and here. 

Don’t just take my word for it though…Here’s what others have said about this chart as well:


“Perfect! Just what I was looking for. Great observation form.” ~Jill Y.

“This is an excellent tool! I’ve used it for three students today! Very helpful…thanks!” ~Bill J.

“Exactly what I was looking. Thank you for saving me the time :).” Julie W.

“Really handy form to have to use for observations.” ~Renee R.

“I had my principal use this during one of my observations! It also gave me concrete data to take to my RTI meeting.” ~Marecela W.


Thanks for stopping by!


4 Dirty Little Homework Confessions


As a former special education teacher, I always thought that homework time would be a breeze when my boys Alec and Jake got to school.  I knew all of the most effective strategies and consulted many parents during conferences and IEP meetings about homework tips.  I even helped create this Free Homework Reward Chart.  Some days really do go very smoothly.  I have a delicious, healthy snack waiting for them when they get home; they are focused, independent, and complete all of their work quickly; they look forward to reading their book and read for more than the required daily minutes!

Sometimes, however, things do not go as smoothly and we really struggle to get through homework.  On these days, all of my best strategies back fire and I have to admit that homework time stinks!  Here are my homework confessions on these not so ideal days…

1) I don’t always make my boys read the full 30 minutes listed on their reading logs, but I still sign off on them. One day I was volunteering at school and another mom and I started talking about homework.  We shared that sometimes we let out kids just read for 15 or 20 minutes.  We both felt so naughty for admitting to it, but also relieved that we weren’t the only slacker mom!  When I think about the overarching purpose of daily reading time, I am confident in saying that my boys get daily reading practice and that they truly enjoy reading.  I do not want to get in a power struggle about reading exactly 30 minutes or more.  Reading should not be an unwelcome chore.  It is a part of our daily routine, but we are flexible about the exact minutes because my boys read for enjoyment on the weekends as well.

2) Sometimes we do not have a quiet, distraction free, organized space for homework. I know that children work best under these peaceful, scholarly environments, but when the reality of our busy schedule sets in, we need to adjust at times.  My boys have completed their homework in the car, on the soccer fields, and in the doctor’s office before.  We’ve also gone on whole family searches for necessary homework supplies such as a ruler, sharpener, or glue stick that is not dried out.  These experiences have taught us to go with flow and adapt to get things done.  That’s an important life skill!

3) On occasion, I have served up an unhealthy snack after-school. I work from home now so I am so fortunate to be able to greet my boys when they walk home from school and have a healthy snack ready for them on most days.  Like these yummy apple crescent roll-ups I found on Pinterest…


There have been days, however, when my work day has run longer or I have been on a call and the boys have had to fend for themselves to get snacks.  Those snacks will usually consist of Cheetos, fruit punch or candy.  Eeek!  Definitely not brain food, but it kept them quiet while I wrapped up work.


4) We’ve experienced our share of full on homework meltdowns. If you’ve never experienced this, consider yourself lucky.  For the rest of us, I’m sure you know what this consists of: tears, crumpled up papers, broken pencils, slammed doors, yelling, refusal to work, etc. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my cool a few times in these situations.  I had difficulty understanding why the boys were not accepting my help, were shutting down when I knew they were fully capable, were struggling to stay in their seat and focus, or why an assignment that usually takes 5 minutes is now taking 30 minutes to complete.  Well, guess what?  We all have bad days and get stressed out, even kids. Through the years, I’ve learned that it is much more effective to take that movement break, provide them with some extra help even though I know they can do it, break assignments into smaller parts, give them some extra TLC and empathize with them because homework can be overwhelming.

Overall, I’m so proud of how far my boys have come along with homework and school in general. They are now in 4th and 2nd grades (Alec got on Honor Roll this past quarter and Jake got straight As) and the for the majority of the time homework time is a success.


Some days, however, I know it is going to be a rough day from the moment they walk in the door. Now, I do some deep breathing and put on some relaxation music in the background in preparation for what lies ahead!  I’d love to hear what your challenges and successes are as well! Please leave your comments and homework tips below.




Giving Back is a Hoot: Berlin’s Story

Giving back is so important to us and one of the main reasons we started Astute Hoot. Part of our mission is to help all children learn. We love hearing stories about children overcoming the odds.  Meet Berlin, a little girl who is near and dear to us, who was diagnosed with Autism.  Please consider giving back and making a donation for this wonderful cause.  Click here to make a donation.

Berlin 3

Berlin’s Story:

At the age of two when most parents enjoy watching their child reach milestones like talking and interacting with other toddlers, Berlin’s parents were relentlessly trying to find out why their child would not speak, make eye contact and why the poor little girl would scream in agony from triggers like noise or crowded areas.  Then the answer came in a diagnosis of autism.  Berlin is now six years old and since that day of diagnosis her parents have spent numerous hours and dollars trying every intervention possible to help their little girl have a normal life. And while Berlin has showed some progress, she has also regressed but there is hope!  As Berlin’s mother spends most her nights tirelessly searching the internet for any new breakthroughs in autism she was blessed to come across a new therapy called MRT.

MRT stands for Magnetic Resonance Therapy.  A recent breakthrough in autism, this treatment can actually reprogram the brainwaves in as little as four weeks.  What researchers have found is that autistic children have minimal alpha wave activity in their frontal lobe.  The back of the brain takes information in, but the front of the brain controls cognitive function and allows one to respond to others and function like a “normal” person.  The autistic child can hear, see and take in all the information available from their surroundings, yet the malfunctioning of their frontal lobe locks them in a prison where they cannot respond to others or express themselves.  MRT technology sends a magnetic current to the frontal lobe, inducing an EEG response, in other words producing alpha waves where there was once little or none.  The induced waves create a pathway that once opened will stay open allowing the frontal lobe to function properly.  The result is a child with a proper functioning frontal lobe and therefore a reduction in autism symptoms.
Berlin 2
Not all children respond to MRT, but those that do have had lasting results so far.  Recently Berlin received a trial treatment of MRT at the Brain Treatment Center in Newport and showed a positive response.  The week trial that Berlin received alone cost more than $1000, in addition to travel expenses from Arizona to California for the week.  The purpose of the week trial was to determine if Berlin was a good candidate for therapy.  The good news is her before and after EEG results showed a positive response to treatment and therefore doctors recommended a four week treatment, the bad news is the four week treatment is over $12,500!  Berlin’s parents have already exhausted all their funds doing their best to help their child.  That is why I hope that just a little from a lot can raise enough funds to give Berlin a chance at a normal happy childhood.  Any amount no matter how little is greatly appreciated.  We are trying to raise $15,000 total, the treatment is over $12,500 and the remainder will be used for board and travel expenses.  With your help we hope Berlin will be starting her treatments in January 2015.

Click here to make a donation.

Thank you for your support!  Here is a freebie as a thank you.  Hootin’ for a Great Day Behavior Chart.  Microsoft Word - Hootin for a great day.doc


Special Education 101: Setting Up Your Classroom

Welcome to the first post in our Special Education 101 blog series. I’ll be sharing my top tips, tools and resources I’ve gathered from over 15 years as a special educator.

The classroom environment is a critical component to academic success. Teachers can proactively set up their classrooms to minimize distractions, decrease misbehavior, and increase academic engagement.  Here are 5 key considerations when you set up your classroom.

1. Keep space clear for easy access and movement for students in wheelchairs.  Set up desks and tables to allow for wide aisles and space to turn around.

wheel chair access

2.  Set up tables for small group work.  It is important to have designated space for guided reading groups, small group interventions, and center-based instruction.  Small group instruction allows for easy differentiation when working with students with a wide range of ability levels and needs.  Check out this recent post on how to create a DIY interactive whiteboard table.

Use this dry erase table to promote active engagement during small group instruction.

3. Provide room for sensory equipment if needed.  Even if your school has a designated room or space for sensory equipment, it will be important to have a special space for sensory breaks in your classroom as well.  This space can be a quiet place for students to take a break when over-stimulated or a place refocus by completing activities per their sensory diet.

sensory equipment

4. Create a literacy rich environment.  Label classroom objects and materials to strengthen reading skills.  Set up a motivating and comfortable reading corner with a variety of text genres and levels. Use word walls to post commonly used words and thematic vocabulary.


5. Display student work on engaging bulletin boards.  Encourage students to take pride in their work and show what they know by showcasing their work on a special bulletin board.

Display Student Work

Looking for more resources and ideas?  Check out our Ultimate Special Education Survival Kit with over 125 pages of ready-to-use tools, assessments, templates and resources.




Golden Keys to Success, classroom management plans, behavior modification

Flash Friday Freebie: Classroom Management Keys

It’s our Flash Friday Freebie! Download the free Golden Keys to Success Classroom Management Plan and purchase the accompanying Golden Keys to Success Lesson Plans to start your year off on a golden note.

Do you every feel as if you are a glorified manager, simply trying to control the herd and maintain peace? Your classroom management plan is to blame.  Most of the current, trendy behavior plans focus solely on teacher-based management. In these systems, the teacher directs and tries to control students’ behavior with little student involvement or ownership.

The clip system is the perfect example. Each student has a clothespin labeled with his/her name on it and begins the day in the middle of the chart on green “ready to learn.”  During the course of the day students have the opportunity to move their clothespin up and down the chart according to their behavior choices.  Positive behavior choices allow the student to move up a level and inappropriate behavior choices cause the clothespin to move down a level.

This system is  extremely laborious as it requires constant teacher monitoring and feedback. What happens if the students didn’t move the clip when asked? What happens if you forgot to tell the student to clip up or down? What do you tell the concerned parent when you forgot why her son clipped down? How do you handle the student who “lost” his clip? Everyone who’s used the clip system has experienced these scenarios, probably more than once as in my case. These issues occur because we are trying to dominate students’ behavior rather than make them accountable.

The Golden Keys to Success Classroom Management Plan and accompanying lesson plans are your answer! This program teaches five critical life skills: be respectful, take care of self, be prepared, be prompt and participate. Students learn how to apply them to the classroom and transfer them to new settings and situations.

Golden Keys to Success, classroom management plans, behavior modification

In this program students learn the definition of each key and practice the specific, accompanying behavior indicators. Furthermore, it provides daily home-school communication as students are required to get parental signature on the Keys to Success chart nightly. If an infraction occurs, parents can easily read the marked indicator to understand what happened.

Golden Keys to Success, classroom management plans, behavior modification

Golden Keys to Success, classroom management plans, behavior modification

The Golden Keys Success also provides weekly reflection; on Fridays, students write a Glow, an achievement, and a Grow, a short-term goal for upcoming week. A colorful, parent brochure explains the system, positive and negative consequences and essential questions about classroom behavior.

Golden Keys to Success, classroom management plans, behavior modification

The best part? It’s our Flash Friday Freebie! Download the free Golden Keys to Success Classroom Management Plan and purchase the accompanying Golden Keys to Success Lesson Plans to start your year off on a golden note.



Lights, Camera, Action!!!

We just finished filming our newest video that shares the story of how Astute Hoot came to be!  Our goal was for our mission statement, “Creating innovative learning tools to awaken the joy of learning and spark enthusiasm in all students” to come to life in this video.  Even though the finished product is only 2 minutes long, it took hours upon hours to prepare, shoot the video, and make revisions until it was just right.  It sure was a learning experience for us, but we are so excited to share our final video with you!

My favorite parts of the video are the children!  My sons, Alec and Jake and my adorable niece Miranda were the stars!  They were genuinely excited about interacting with our reading and math strategy characters so no acting was necessary.  Their pure enjoyment and curiosity about learning was able to shine through in a wonderful way.  They had so much fun!  Alec even said “I hope every classroom in the world could have the Astute Hoot animals!  Then kids would love to come to school and they wouldn’t be bored anymore!”

Jessica, Tina, and I on the other hand, had more outtakes and redos until we got it just right.  There were plenty of giggles, jumbled words, and even some strange animal sounds.  All in all, we had a blast with whole process, but are very glad it is done!

We would truly love to hear your feedback and comments!  Did our mission come to life? Is this an effective way to tell our story?  What are your favorite parts of the video?

Thanks for watching!  We’d appreciate it if you could share the video to help spread the word about Astute Hoot!


Master Meet the Teacher & Conquer Curriculum Night

Just the mention of Meet the Teacher or Curriculum Night makes most teachers break out into a cold sweat. Why is this? We speak in front of people all day, every day, but the difference is their age. Children will still love us if we make a mistake, get nervous or act silly (they especially love when this happens). Adults by nature are more judgmental and harder to win over. Stop the dread and take back control with these easy tips:

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare: Plan your handouts and student activities at least 2 days before the big event. Don’t wait until last minute–that’s when the copier breaks or the computer runs out of ink.  Not sure what to say at Meet the Teacher and Curriculum Night? Download our Welcome Back to School Parent Packet for several important customizable letters and forms.

meet teacher paperwork

2. Post directions & agenda for the night: Write specific directions for parents to read as they come into the classroom. Make sure they know they must fill out transportation form, room parent slip and student information card. Plus it gives them something to do (other than staring at you) while waiting for the presentation to start. Many parents must attend more than one Meet the Teacher on the same night. Help these parents by posting an agenda (with times) for the night so they can determine the best time to quietly exit and go to next session.


3. Serve refreshments: It is polite to serve refreshments for guests in your home and the same etiquette applies in the classroom. I purchase inexpensive cookies (from Target or Walmart) and place on serving trays. Add decorative napkins and flowers as a finishing touch.


4. Provide engaging activities for students: At the beginning of the night, I need to address just the parents and don’t want students talking or running around the room.  While parents are completing necessary paperwork, I gather students (and their siblings) and bring them to the carpet area where I give them a word search, pencil and white board. I explain directions and set expectations for their behavior. I also pass out lollipops to eat–this keeps their mouths busy while I am addressing parents. Be sure to put a garbage can there as well or you will have wrappers and sticks all over the room.

word search

word search meet teacher

After I speak to parents, I give the kids a scavenger hunt with 9 boxes of items to find in class. I glue small, round stickers to each scavenger sheet; students place a sticker on the box after the item is found. When students are finished, they get to help themselves to refreshments (I set a limit on number of cookies or you will have a couple that will try to take the whole tray–trust me, I’ve learned from experience)

5. Create suggested supplies visual: Each year students come in with random bags of supplies and rarely want to share them with the rest of the classroom. To alleviate this problem this year, I listed specific supplies I wanted to students to bring and then created a visual of what the supplies should look like. I simply purchased a medium-sized pencil case and glued the requested supplies inside and showed it during the presentation, reminding parents to unwrap items and place inside case as shown. This year all the students brought their prepared pencil cases just as I had shown and it was a HUGE time-saver! They simply put inside their desks and we were able to move on to other procedures.

suggested supplies

6. Make a Giving Tree: Parents love to donate supplies at the beginning of the year, so write down each item on an apple and post on a Giving Tree. Remind parents to pick an apple or two before they leave for the night. They return the apple with donations during the first week of school.


giving tree

giving tree 2

Most importantly, remember to smile, breathe and believe in yourself! You’ve got this!

jake at meet teacher

Jennifer’s Summer Story


Wow!  This summer is flying by so fast.  My boys attend a school with a modified year-round school schedule so that means that their first day of school is right around the corner on July 21st! Although I worked managing Teacher Development Coaches at a summer Pre-Service Training for new teachers throughout the entire month on of June, I still had a chance to squeeze in some summer fun with my family.

We had an incredible time visiting the Grand Canyon for the very first time.  The boys were amazed at its grandeur…and I was freaked out each time they got close to the edge!  We went on an exciting jeep tour and learned a lot about the history of the Grand Canyon.

Alec and Jake
Alec and Jake

Before we left, the boys picked out some cool souvenirs; a bow and arrow for Jake and a dream catcher and pocket knife for Alec.  We also bought an awesome book called Whose Tail on the Trail at the Grand Canyon? .  The author, Midji Stephenson, signed a copy for us too! We had so much fun reading the book when we got home as we had to guess which tail was on the trail as we turned each page.  The book has beautiful illustrations and fun rhymes.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon.

Whose Tail on the Trail at Grand Canyon?
Whose Tail on the Trail at Grand Canyon?

Now that we are back from vacation and gearing up for school, I realized that I needed to start getting the boys back on a routine and provide some structure into their days because they have been acting like wild animals  Alec and Jake helped me put together the following visual schedule for our remaining two weeks of summer break.  We have it posted on the fridge and I see them referring to it throughout the day.   I wish I put this in place earlier in the summer!  Children crave structure and routines.  Using a visual schedule and daily routines are great ways to support this for all children.

Summer Visual Schedule
Summer Visual Schedule

A great resource for putting strong routines, procedures, and transitions in place for the beginning of the school year can be found here.


Back to School Teacher Toolbox:  Routines, Procedures and Transitions
Back to School Teacher Toolbox: Routines, Procedures and Transitions


Ready to Research



We are nearing the end of the year (seriously summer can’t come soon enough) and my students are growing more hyper and less productive by the minute.  In an effort to increase engagement and keep my sanity, I channeled their love of animals into a cumulative animal research unit. Follow these steps to implement this project in your room; download the complete unit here.

1. Create a research bulletin board: I created a research bulletin board with the text features poster set from Really Good Stuff. I enlarged an American black bear printout from as my primary resource. I laminated 8 different colors of paper and hung up next to the bear printout; each color represents a different topic (i.e. anatomy, habitat, diet, etc.). I model how to record key words for each topic on corresponding card.

Research bulletin board_WEB

2. Select leveled nonfiction animal books: Look for books rich with text features (headings, captions, photographs, etc.) are best. I highly recommend selecting sets of these books for guided reading groups; this is a great way to teach children how to ask questions and effectively use text features to find answers in the text. National Geographic Kids and offer a wide range of quality, engaging options.

Research books_WEB

3. Help children find research sources: I let each student pick animal to research (this promotes ownership and engagement) and print an animal printout from These printouts are easy to read and all include a diagram and headings. I send home a letter asking parents to send in supplemental research and colored photographs to use in report (I remind parents to preview first to avoid mating details and photos.)

During our research unit, I follow these steps:

1. Read a variety of animal nonfiction books, pointing out different features of nonfiction text and their purpose(s). I also use sets of leveled nonfiction texts during guided reading groups; students ask questions about the animal and use learned text features to find answers in the text.

2. Each student picks an animal and completes a KWL chart (included in the downloadable unit).

3. Explain the report process and review the rubric with them (included in the downloadable unit).

4. Model completing research with the American black bear printout from Each day I pick one topic to research (diet, anatomy, habitat, locomotion, etc.). If the topic is diet, model finding diet in the text. Write key words on that color-coded card. I organize the key words with bullets. They should fit all key words on one card; remind them not to copy whole sentences. If there is a word that students do not know, I have them highlight the word; these words will go into their glossaries.

Animal report 9_WEB

5. Create an animal research report outline. First model how to write an interesting beginning (usually a question or interesting fact) along with a transition sentence. Model how to write a main idea and key fords for the supporting sentences. Students also write the heading above each main ideas so that it is ready for them when they draft. This outline can be completed during small group time.

Animal report  10_WEB

6. Draft, edit, revise and publish report (drafting paper, table of contents and glossary are all included in the downloadable unit). Review elements of the rubric frequently and how to score each report using the rubric so students are familiar with expectations.

Animal report 4_WEB


Animal report 5_WEB

Animal report 6_WEB

7. Share reports with class. Students can practice presenting to a partner or small-group before presenting to the whole class. This activity meets several listening and speaking Common Core State Standards. I put completed reports in the class library so students can read during silent reading time.

We’d love to hear any research project ideas you have!






Giving Back is a Hoot!


Making learning fun brings me great joy.  Some of my best teaching memories are when I saw things finally “click” for struggling students.  Knowing how hard they work to sometimes make even the simplest connections makes these little successes even better!

Working with students with special needs has been such a rewarding vocation and I am so lucky to have helped so many wonderful students.  I also have a special place in my heart for children who are sick or injured and need to stay in the hospital for an extended period of time.

When my oldest son Alec was in kindergarten, he had a complication during his recovery from a tonsillectomy.  He was rushed to the hospital in ambulance and spent two days in the hospital recovering because he had lost so much blood.  It was a very scary time for us but we were very fortunate that he fully recovered so quickly.  Other children, however, need to spend weeks, even months in the hospital.  As a mother, my heart broke for those children and families.  Our brief stint in the hospital was difficult, but I couldn’t even imagine the challenges and heartache others went through.  I knew I wanted to help, but at the time I wasn’t quite sure how.

Alec in kindergarten.
Alec in kindergarten.

Recently it dawned on me that I could help make learning fun for the children who attend the hospital school by donating several sets of our Hoo is Ready for School? flash cards.  Early learning is critical to future academic success and I knew that our flash cards could help young students learn the alphabet and important phonemic awareness skills even while in the hospital.  Parents and teachers could use our materials to provide essential practice in an engaging game-like format.

It was our sincere pleasure to donate several sets of flash cards to two local hospitals; Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Cardon Children’s Medical Center.  Thank you to Christine Birnbaum (pictured with us above), Child Life Specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, for taking time out of her busy day to tell us about the wonderful programs and services available to children there.  We are thrilled that we are able to give back to our community and spark the joy of learning in children who especially need a little happiness and fun in their lives.

Hoo is Ready for School? flash cards
Hoo is Ready for School? flash cards




Emmy Equating Earthworm Is Here!

Emmy Equating Earthworm here.
I help you write a variety of equations without any fear.
Horizontally or vertically, it doesn’t matter the direction,
I will help you solve each one to numerical perfection.



Emmy Equating Earthworm  is our newest animal in our Problem-Solving Pond: A Common Core Math Strategy Unit. The Problem-Solving Pond was created to help teachers overcome Common Core math challenges and employ problem-solving strategies with confidence and fidelity. Emmy’s unit is perfect for general education, special education, RTI and math intervention. Read more about Emmy’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

WHAT is an equation? Students write an equation, or number sentence to solve a story problem or show their work after using another method (e.g., drawing a picture, using manipulatives, making a table, etc.).  Solving equations is the very beginning of being able to do algebra. The basic idea behind solving equations is to be able to find the missing number.  Students can use a variety of strategies to solve equations, including traditional algorithms. Traditional algorithms involve repeating a series of steps over and over as in carrying in addition and borrowing in regrouping.

Emmy Equating Earthworm

WHY are equations important? Traditional algorithms have been the core of many elementary mathematics programs for years as educators focused on quick, precise calculations and paper-pencil drill. Math instruction has drastically changed the last few years with the implementation of Common Core State Standards and the heavy emphasis on science and math instruction. Students are now required to solve real-world math problems using a variety of strategies while explaining thinking and justifying solutions.

Traditional algorithms, or equations, are still acceptable to use as secondary strategies to double-check work and to summarize the mathematics behind the problem-solving process.

Emmy Equating Earthworm3

HOW do I teach equations? The first major step is to teach students how to find a missing number. This means that students need to be familiar with their basic facts first. Practice a variety of ways to find the missing number using many different equations.  Next, teach addition and subtraction without regrouping; once proficiency is demonstrated, introduce regrouping.

WHEN should I introduce equations? Basic equations and number sentences should be introduced when you begin teaching the problem solving process.  This is also an ideal strategy for proficient mathematicians who have a strong number sense foundation, fluency with basic facts, and are able to quickly conceptualize a problem and use a traditional algorithm to solve.  It is most effective to introduce traditional algorithms after students are able to regroup numbers using place value manipulatives. It is critical that students understand and can articulate the regrouping process before using a traditional algorithm.

Helpful hints:

Model writing equations and number sentences. Regularly model using think-alouds to demonstrate how equations are used as part of the problem-solving process.  Be explicit in your models to show students how equations can also be used to check their work after using a different strategy to solve the problem.

Provide place value and equation building practice.  Students need a strong place value foundation to use traditional algorithms effectively.  Provide regular practice through center games and kinesthetic activities. Simple games such as “Race to 100” where students roll dice and add numbers using place value manipulatives are engaging and effective.  Incorporate equation building activities into weekly center rotations as well.

Equation games

Equation building

Use visual support.  Use the following Subtraction Poem to reinforce regrouping.  Place value and regrouping posters are also helpful tools to post while students are using the traditional algorithm method.


Subtraction poem 2(emmy)




Presenting Brian Breaking Badger

Hi, I’m Brian Breaking Badger, and I love to break numbers apart.
Separating place value is considered my art!
I break numbers into ones and tens with my teeth,
Then I work with the place value underneath.
I’ll add or subtract the tens, then the ones.
Before you know it, the problem’s all done!

WHAT is breaking apart? Students use place value knowledge to decompose or break each number apart into hundreds, tens and ones.  Depending on the problem, students will either add or subtract each place value (first hundreds, then tens, and finally ones).  Students will then add or subtract all numbers to solve the problem. Read more about Brian’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

Break apart badger work sample (2)

WHY is breaking apart important?  When students use the breaking apart strategy, they are decomposing numbers by place value. This help helps strengthen mental computation, builds number sense and solidifies foundational place value skills. It also serves as an efficient method to double-check solutions as students.

HOW do I teach breaking apart? Teach breaking in isolation first so that students become familiar with the process of decomposing numbers. After proficiency is demonstrated, students can apply this strategy with story problems.

WHEN should I use breaking apart? This is an ideal strategy for developing mathematicians who have a solid place value and number sense foundation. It is most effective to introduce the breaking apart strategy after students are proficient with the hopping strategy since hopping requires place value identification and decomposition skills.

Helpful Hints:

Provide place value and expanded notation practice. Students need a strong place value foundation to decompose or break apart numbers.  Provide regular practice through center games and kinesthetic activities. Simple games such as “Race to 100” where students roll dice and add numbers using place value manipulatives are engaging and effective.  This game is the perfect addition to weekly math centers.


Race to 100


Place value practice

Act out the problem.  Increase students’ understanding of the mathematical context by acting out the story problem.  Students also love to show their badger fangs when they break apart the numbers.

Jake with Brian Break Apart Badger teeth (2)

5 Secrets to Successful Test Prep

Just the mention of standardized testing causes major anxiety for both students and teachers.  These 5 secrets of successful test prep, along with our complete Standardized Test Prep Unit, will alleviate angst, strengthen skills, promote self-awareness and build confidence.

Create an engaging test prep theme. After spring break, my class is transformed into Test Prep Troops. I decorate the classroom with camouflage flair including a special sign on door and camouflage test prep bulletin board that displays learned test taking strategies.  We learn a Test Prep Chant (to the tune of traditional military cadence) that we perform before each practice session. Students also use special camo pencils and wear personalized dog tags during testing. These inexpensive camouflage items can be found at your local party store.

Test Prep Troops

Test prep door


Test prep camo

Dog tags

Teach specific test taking strategies. Before I start test prep, I select the strategies I want to teach and the order in which to teach them.  Since my second grade students are new test takers, I start with Bubbling Basics and have them practice making neat, bubbled answers on a bubble sheet.  Listen and Learn is the second strategy I introduce because students have to listen carefully as most of the Stanford 10 standardized test is read-aloud. We play Simon Says and other games that focus on following directions to practice this skill.  The rest of the strategies are taught while completing specific test prep practice. Be a Determined Detective and The Key is in the Question are perfect strategies to teach during reading comprehension practice passages. Show Your Solutions and Significant Signs are ideal for math computation practice. I post the strategies in a prominent place in the classroom and refer to them during test prep time.  Download our complete Standardized Test Prep Unit here.

Test Taking Tips

Encourage reluctant test takers.  Testing can cause major anxiety for students; relieve this pressure with Tina Turtle, Troubled Test Taker.  Introduce Tina with her rhyming poem; discuss her anxious feelings and help the class make connections to their own testing experiences.  Explain that students have one important job— to teach Tina the test-taking strategies and tools needed for success.  Each student gets a copy of Tina with blank scales; they are blank because she is lacking testing strategies. Students will teach Tina new strategies and record them on her scales; by the time Tina takes the test, her scales will be covered with strategies. Together Tina and the class will become confident, prepared test takers.


Store test prep in an important place. Create special test prep folders to house strategies and practice tests. Simply use 2 pocket folders with prongs; label one pocket “Reading” and one pocket “Math”.  Put Tina and her poem in a plastic sleeve inside the folder; students can refer to her poem and fill out her scales during each practice session. Glue the Test Prep Chant and Test Taking Tips on the front and back of each folder.

Inside folder

Inside folder 2

Include motivational rewards.  Since my class is the Test Prep Troops, I give a special ration at the end of each session. This can be a Smartie (for smart students), pencils, stickers, etc. Pick a reward that your students will enjoy; parents can help donate these items as well.


Say Hello to Hailey Hopping Hare

I’m Hailey the Hopping Hare, I’m the skip-counting master.
This is a skill that helps to count things faster;
Learn to count up or down by a number other than one.
Quick like a bunny, you soon will be done.
Keep in mind that skip counting is repeated addition.
Moving swiftly through problems is my main mission.

WHAT is hopping? Students use place value and number sense to add or subtract numbers. Students first start with the bigger number in the problem; this number is the starting point for hopping. Then they decompose or break apart the second number by place value (into 10’s and 1’s). Depending on the problem, students will either add or subtract, hopping first by 10’s and then by 1’s. Students label numbers above hops to help ensure solution is correct.  Read more about Hailey’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

Hopping example 2

WHY is hopping important?  When students use the hopping strategy, they are essentially skip-counting by 10’s and 1’s. This helps strengthen mental computation, builds number sense and solidifies foundational place value skills. It also serves as an efficient method for students to double-check solutions. Furthermore, hopping can easily be extended to larger numbers and multi-step problems because it tracks mathematical thinking and steps taken to complete problem.

HOW do I teach hopping? Teach hopping in isolation first so that students become familiar with the process of identifying larger number and decomposing smaller number by place value.  Use patterned, pre-labeled or open number lines until students can proficiently count and track hops (see examples). After proficiency is demonstrated, introduce an open number line where students determine the starting point then draw and label hops without support.

Hopping Lines 5s


Hopping Lines 10s


Open number line

WHEN should I use hopping? This is an ideal strategy for developing mathematicians who have a solid place value and number sense foundation. It is most effective to introduce the hopping strategy after students become proficient with the counting strategy. When larger numbers are used, students quickly realize that counting becomes inefficient and laborious. Hopping allows students to employ counting skills they are comfortable with, but increases rigor and mathematical practice.

Helpful hints:

Supply models and provide kinesthetic practice.  Select appropriate number lines according to students’ individual needs. Some students will easily grasp hopping and will be able to use the open number line while others will need the patterned number line to see and count the 10’s and 1’s. Make a large patterned number line for kinesthetic learners and have them physically hop the numbers. Students will not only love this activity, the multi-modal approach reinforces learning.

Kinesthetic number line 2

Make Hailey pointers. Cut out and laminate Hailey patterns and use a hot glue gun to adhere to craft sticks. Students can use a Hailey pointer to hop the numbers in each problem.

Hailey puppet

Practice skip-counting. Some students struggle with skip counting and could benefit from repeated practice. Chanting by 100’s, 10’s and 1’s while walking in line, calendar time, even clean-up time all serve as great practice opportunities. Be sure to vary starting points so to ensure that students aren’t just counting by multiples of 100’s, 10’s or 5’s. (For example start at 57 and count by 10’s, then switch and count by 1’s.)

Be flexible with students’ hopping methods.  Remember, the whole point of teaching strategies is to help students become fluid, flexible thinkers with deep conceptual understanding. While Hailey teaches students to start with bigger number and hop by 10’s and then 1’s, do not insist that students need to only hop this way. It is imperative to allow them to experiment and try multiple methods in order to find the most meaningful and efficient hopping method for themselves. Some hop to the nearest multiple of 10 and then continue hopping by 10’s, while others hop by all of the 10’s in one hop. Accept all methods if students solve problem correctly, explain method and apply across settings.

different ways to hop


Introducing Daphne Drawing Dragonfly

Hi, I’m Daphne the Drawing Dragonfly.
Draw a mathematical picture to give my strategy a try.
Read the problem and draw what’s going on;
Then write a number sentence for what you have drawn. 

Daphne Drawing Dragonfly is our newest animal in our Problem-Solving Pond: A Common Core Math Strategy Unit. The Problem-Solving Pond was created to help teachers overcome Common Core math challenges and employ problem-solving strategies with confidence and fidelity. Daphne’s unit is perfect for general education, special education, RTI and math intervention. Read more about Daphne’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

WHAT is drawing? Students make a visual representation of the story problem such as a picture, bar model, tens frame or array.

Jake bar model

WHY is drawing important? When students use the drawing strategy, they are making a concrete representation, strengthening understanding of the mathematical concepts.  Effective math classrooms include frequent use of pictorial representations to help students process and visualize mathematical concepts learned.

HOW do I teach drawing?Teach students to create neat, organized drawings with labels and numbers. Students will need to be taught the bar model and arrays, but it is best to let students create the pictorial representation that they see and works for them.

WHEN should I use drawing? This strategy is ideal for presenting a new mathematical operation.  Most teachers use this strategy with K-2 mathematicians, but this is also beneficial for older students as it works especially well with money, fractions, ratios and percentages. Drawing is a great way to double-check solutions because the visual representation increases understanding of the problem.

Helpful hints:

  • Create drawing guidelines. As a class, decide important components to include in a mathematical drawing. Possible components include:
    • Simple drawings
    • Appropriate spacing
    • Neat labels (words or numbers)
    • Easy to read

Guidelines for math pictures

  • Encourage students to use a variety of pictorial representations.  Often students will get in a “strategy rut”, relying on one strategy for many different kinds of story problems. While drawing is an effective strategy for most problems, the type of pictorial representation used depends on the type of story problem.

Types of Pictorial Representations2_Page_1


Meet Max Modeling Mouse

Greetings I’m Max the Modeling Mouse.
I solve problems by using things from my house.
Beans, cubes and counters are useful math gear;
Use them to model the problem so it’s clear.

Max Modeling Mouse is the first strategy animal in our Problem-Solving Pond: A Common Core Math Strategy Unit. The Problem-Solving Pond  was created to help teachers overcome Common Core math challenges and employ problem-solving strategies with confidence and fidelity.  Read more about Max’s strategy below or download the complete unit here.

WHAT is modeling?:  Students use manipulatives, counters or drawings to model, or represent the mathematics of the story problem.

WHY is modeling important?: By making a visual representation, students are able to see the situation presented in the problem.  Modeling is critical to student understanding as it allows students to see, feel and process math in a concrete way.

Jake Mouse

HOW do I teach modeling?:  Select appropriate manipulatives (beans, cubes, coins, place value rods) and make a visual model of story problem.  Write equation below the model to solidify understanding.

Alec Mouse

WHEN should I use modeling?:

This strategy is ideal for presenting a new mathematical operation.  Most teachers use this strategy with K-2 mathematicians, but this is also beneficial for older students as it works especially well with money, fractions, ratios and percentages. Modeling is a great way to double-check solutions because the visual representation increases understanding of the problem.

Helpful hints:

  • Create rules and expectations. Before introducing manipulatives, establish rules and expectations for use. Explain the mathematicial purpose of them as well as how and when to use them. Practice essential routines such as getting out manipulatives, freezing at teacher’s signal (with hands-off manipulatives) and cleaning up quickly and quietly.

Manipulative rules

  • Prepare manipulative bags. Count out specific manipulatives and store in individual Ziploc bags or small Tupperware containers so they are ready to use at any time.  These individual units can be stored in student desks or in a large container.

Manipulative bags

  • Store manipulatives in a common area. Purchase an inexpensive storage container with shelves and house manipulatives here. Label each shelf and include a picture or glue on an example for student reference.

Manipulative storage

  • Allow time for student exploration and play. Before students use the manipulatives as mathematicians, provide time for exploration and play. This will help students stay focused and use them correctly during math time.

Check out our other Problem-Solving Pond strategy animals coming soon:
–Drawing Dragonfly
–Tallying Toad
–Counting Crocodile
–Hopping Hare
–Tabling Turtle
–Break-Apart Badger
–Equating Earthworm
–Fact Fluency Fox

Math Animals with names


Meet Sally the Sounding Out Snake

“SSSSSSSalutations! I’m Sally the Sounding Out Snake,
Stretch each sound out and a new word you will make
Put them back together in a blend
And your reading will be on the mend.”

It is so exciting when beginning readers start to blend individual sounds together to form words.  I remember how thrilling it was when both of my boys started to read in pre-school.  I marked the day in their baby books along with their first words, first steps, and first bike ride without training wheels.

I used Sally the Sounding Out Snake’s poem and graphic organizer to teach them how to segment and blend words for reading and spelling. This tool made reading multisensory as they were able to engage the visual, auditory and tactile senses.  After seeing such success with my boys, we brought Sally into the classroom and created supplemental lesson plans, additional graphic organizers, worksheets, and flashcards.  Our students experienced the same success in the classroom.

Sally Snake 2

Your students can meet Sally too along with our other reading strategy animals in our complete Common Core Guided Reading Strategies Unit.

Individual supplemental Sally Sounding Out Snake units focus on a variety of one-syllable word combinations and are a great supplement to any general education, special education or intervention curriculum. This can be used during whole group, literacy centers, or as independent work.

Aligned with Common Core Literacy Standards in grades K-2, each unit includes the following activities and worksheets:

  • Differentiated lesson plans for sounding out words
  • Suggestions for use
  • 4 Graphic organizers for decoding and spelling
  • 7 Phonics worksheets for decoding and spelling
  • Word lists for one-syllable words (sorted by vowel type)
  • 32 Flashcards and activity ideas
  • Sounding Out Snake poster and puppet graphic
  • Decoding and Comprehension strategy poster
  • 4 Sentence writing worksheets with word banks and editing checklist
  • Customizable worksheets to allow for differentiation

Check out each “Common Core Phonics Activities for One-Syllable Words” unit below:

#1 CVC
#2 Digraphs
#3 Blends
#4 Double Letters f,l,s,z
#5 R-Controlled Vowels
#6 Silent e

Meet Charlie the Chunking Chipmunk

“What’s up? I’m Charlie the Chunking Chipmunk.
I help you break unknown words into small chunks.
Look for little words or sounds that you know,
Put them back together as a word and you’ll be the star of the show!”

Moving from decoding one syllable words to two and three syllable words can be very challenging for many students.  As students begin reading multi-syllabic words, it is important for them to know how to break words into units larger than individual sounds.  Charlie the Chunking Chipmunk gives students the skills and practice they need to become efficient at decoding longer words.

My students love when I bring out Charlie!  When using his strategy, they feel confident and encouraged to read “big” words in isolation and in context.  Our complete, 130 page, phonics unit includes activities, worksheets, and printables for the following syllable types: Closed, closed with blends, vowel-consonant-e, -le, open, r-controlled, digraphs and diphthongs. This unit is great for guided reading, intervention, independent review, reading centers and homework.

Aligned with Common Core Literacy Standards in grades K-3, this unit includes the following activities and worksheets:

  • Differentiated lesson plan for chunking multisyllabic words
  • Suggestions for use
  • Graphic organizers for two and three syllable words
  • Phonics worksheets for decoding two syllable words
  • Word lists for multisyllabic words with various syllable patterns
  • Flashcards and multi-sensory activity ideas
  • Chunking chipmunk poster and puppet graphic
  • Decoding and Comprehension strategy poster
  • Sentence writing worksheets with word banks and editing checklist
  • Customizable worksheets to allow for differentiation

Complete Unit Preview

Download here so you can introduce Charlie the Chunking Chipmunk to your students today!


Turn Your Students Into Mad Scientists

Science projects are the perfect way to promote inquiry-based thinking, teach critical Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and motivate the most reluctant learners. Science projects allow students to: participate in shared research and writing projects; gather information from provided sources to answer questions; participate in collaborative conversations; and describe the connection between a series of scientific ideas or concepts.


Follow these 5 easy steps and turn your students into mad scientists:

  1. Select an engaging project that aligns with CCSS. My second grade class loves insects and they are required to study life cycles. So I created a life cycle of a painted lady butterfly unit for them.Older students can choose their projects to increase engagement and ownership.
  2. Set up a science center in the classroom. I created a large bulletin board complete with science project question, hypotheses graph, calendar to track observations and a vocabulary graphic organizer. I also selected a wide variety of nonfiction text (correlated to my students’ current reading levels) to use during reading group and read-aloud time. During observations, students go to a small circular table to observe the caterpillars and record results in their science journals. Magnifying glasses, rulers, pencils and crayons are available at this table to assist with journaling.2014-01-11 23.01.330592014-01-11 23.02.42
  3. Encourage dramatic role play. Scientists wear lab coats while working, why shouldn’t the students? I borrowed 5 white dress shirts from my dad, the perfect sized “lab coat” for my second grade students, rolled the sleeves and hung up at the science center. While students work at this center, they are allowed to wear the “lab coats” and they absolutely love it. They really focus on their work and are very precise and detailed with daily journal entries. I take pictures and use them for the interactive bulletin board (see below) and put one copy on the inside of the each student’s journal.
  4. Create an interactive bulletin board. My students had several questions about caterpillars and butterflies and were eager to learn the answers. I used these questions to make a scientific bulletin board. First I made magnifying glasses using brown construction paper handles, green paper plates (from Target) and a white construction paper magnifying glass lens. We brainstormed and recorded a list of questions together and then I partnered students to record and answer questions. One student wrote the question on the handle of the magnifying glass, the other wrote the answer on the white magnifying lens and glued inside the green plate. I added their pictures on top and displayed on a prominent bulletin board.054
  5. 2014-01-11 23.47.22055Hold a science fair. When the experiment is over, students can make personalized invitations for families (and possibly other classes) to come learn about the scientific findings. During the science fair, students can share journals and science report as well as show specimens and other related projects. I always put out refreshments (cookies and juice) to create an inviting atmosphere.

Download our CCSS science journal to start your new unit!

8 Magical Tips for Creating Word Wizards

“There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.”

–Harry S Truman

After being approached to teach the Spalding Method, I felt trepidation. While very impressed with the program’s research and philosophy, I was worried that my second-grade students would quickly become disengaged with the program’s repetition. I knew that I would need to spark enthusiasm and engagement or my instruction would be mediocre at best. Here are my “magic” tips for creating a successful, engaging phonics instruction block:

  1. Create a consistent schedule. Right after announcements and calendar, we complete oral and written phonogram review, followed by spelling dictation.  I selected this time because students are focused in the morning and it allows tardy students to make it to class without missing valuable instruction. Plus, it is a protected instructional time (i.e., no assemblies planned during this time). Since the schedule is consistent and predictable, students know what to expect and they become comfortable and secure with the consistency.
  2. Develop an instructional routine. Our Spalding phonics block involves 4 components: oral phonogram review, written phonogram review, guided spelling practice (see below) and spelling dictation (into spelling notebooks).  Establishing these procedures and practicing daily reinforces learned skills and promotes mastery. This repetition is critical for all learners, especially those with learning disabilities. Plus all students thrive on a consistent routine.
  3. Design practice forms and make copies for the year. Each phonics program requires some type of pencil/paper practice. Design (or modify) these forms and copy them for the entire year.  This saves hours of planning and prep time; using the same form is also beneficial for students.
  4. Give phonics instruction a special name. Phonics instruction is a valuable time, why not give it a specific meaningful name? Word Wizards is the name of our phonics block; I selected this name because students have a book of “spells” (a spelling notebook) and they learn specific rules to help them become spelling wizards.  It’s much more relevant and engaging than using the name of the program.
  5. Use props. A wizard wears a pointy hat and carries a magical wand so it’s only appropriate to include these during instruction. I purchased both props at Party City and glued foam phonograms on both. I wear the hat during instruction time (I find it keeps kids focused on me) and I use the wand as a pointer to point to specific words, phonograms or rules.

8516. Include active engagement. Every student loves white board practice, so why not customize for phonics instruction? Our class uses Sally Sounding Out Snake to help segment and blend one syllable words and Charlie Chunking Chipmunk to break apart multi-syllabic words. Create these double-sided boards and laminate them for daily practice. Read each animal’s accompanying poem to teach/review strategy and then use as a guided practice tool, just like a white board.

0317. Provide positive reinforcement. Be sure to provide plenty of praise and call students up to share their work. I select one Word Wizard each day; this is a student who demonstrated “magical” active participation, listening skills, attention to handwriting focus or other desired behaviors. The Word Wizard is selected at the end of the phonics block and given a special Word Wizard award. I reiterate reason(s) why the student was selected and show his/her work when appropriate. While it might seem like simple reward to us, students view it as a major accomplishment and cherish these colorful awards

8.Have fun! No matter how you plan your phonics instruction, be sure to have fun! Students need consistent daily instruction with opportunities for kinesthetic practice. Include these tips and you will soon see the magic!

Check out our Word Wizards Spalding & Phonics Support Kit at

Sign up for
blog updates

© 2020 – Astute Hoot. All rights reserved.