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Tania K. Cowling is a former teacher, a published book author, and award winning freelance writer. 

writer, former teacher
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Fun Valentine's Day Ideas for Teachers


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Fun Valentine's Day Ideas for Teachers

From decorations to activities to sweet treats, these Valentine's ideas will capture your heart. 


We all know kids love holidays. But not every child gets excited about celebrating Valentine's Day. My elementary students were never into the gushy, romantic symbols, but when I got them engaged in the day—drawing and cutting out hearts and playing games—they were eager to participate. With the following Valentine's Day ideas for teachers, you can really get your students into the spirit of the holiday.

Classroom Decorations

Connected Heart Garland

While the heart garland craft is nothing new, I've added an engaging twist to it in my classroom. Start by passing out large sheets of construction paper in shades of red, pink, white, and lavender, and then show your students how to make connected hearts. As the kids are working, hold a discussion about the word "connected." Ask these questions: Who do you feel connected to? Who are your best friends? Which family members do you particularly like to spend time with? (Don't forget about the family pets!) Then have your students write their answers on the hearts of their garland. Before the day is over, connect all the strands together to make one long banner to hang around the room and across windows.


Teaching degrees in Elementary Education

Digital Photo Booth Bulletin Board

Why not use the popular trend of taking photos with props to create a fun and unique bulletin board for Valentine's Day? Have your students invite a friend or two to take photos with. Provide a box of props like funny glasses, feather boas, hats, or little signs. After the kids get decked out with the props, have a helper snap a digital photo or let your students use a selfie stick. My students loved this project, and it was hard to get them to stop! Print the pictures, arrange them on a classroom bulletin board, and use a catchy title such as "Funny Friends Are Filled with Love."

Rebus Love Letters

Have your students write a Valentine's Day riddle using the rebus concept, where symbols and pictures are used in place of words. Just set out markers, old magazines, scissors, glue, and construction paper, and your students will be ready to start brainstorming. Once they have a symbol for each word or syllable, they can join the parts together with plus (+) signs. Randomly place these papers around the room and see how many rebus puzzles your class can solve.

Games and Activities

Clothespin Heart Relay

String some twine across a couple chairs or bookcases. Each team will have a clothes basket, red felt hearts (at least two per child), and clothespins. When you say go, the first player takes a heart from the basket and runs to the clothesline to hang it up with a clothespin. Then he or she runs back to the team and tags the next player. This process continues until all the hearts from the basket are hung on the line, and the team that empties their basket first wins the game. Your class will have fun, and they'll also get a mini workout.

Conversation Heart Hunt

Another favorite game of mine involves searching for candy conversation hearts. Hide them around your classroom and send your class on a quest. Award players one point for each pink or orange heart they collect, two points for each yellow or blue heart, and three points for each green or white heart. As a bonus, players who find matching phrases earn 10 points for each pair. Add up the points and whoever has the highest score wins.

Valentine's Day Treats

Even though candy is the name of the game on Valentine's Day, there are a lot of other treat options to consider. For instance, consider trying:

  • Fruit bouquet: Place strawberries, blueberries, banana slices, and pineapple chunks on skewers, and then place them in a vase as a colorful and tasty bouquet.
  • Love cookies: Cut them with X and O cookie cutters.
  • Heart Rice Krispies treats: Mold them into abstract heart shapes before the marshmallow hardens.
  • Sandwiches: Use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make a small sandwich plate fun for the holiday.

These Valentine's Day ideas for teachers are perfect for allowing your class to enjoy the fun vibe this holiday offers. A day full of decorations, fun activities, and treats will leave your kids eagerly looking forward to next year. Happy Valentine's Day!

What Are the Best (and Worst) Teacher Gifts to Give?



Spread the word about these gift ideas that will leave teachers totally stoked!


Whether it's the holiday season or the end of the year, teachers can expect tokens of appreciation. The fact is, gifts are symbolic and convey meaning; they become memories. So, I decided to ask some of my teacher colleagues and friends what they really like to receive as gifts. Do these favored teacher gifts ring true to you? (And if you're a parent, perhaps you'll get some inspiration!)

Master's degree in educational leadership

Personal Notes of Thanks

As a teacher, I loved a handwritten note from a student, and so does my friend Paul G. out in California. We're happy to know that we've made a positive impact on a child's life, so a simple "thank you" goes a long way. Angela T., who taught an adult photography class in Iowa, loved personal notes that talked about what her students learned. All the teachers I talked to felt that personal notes were meaningful and truly appreciated. Sending a copy to the administration isn't a bad thing either!

Store-Bought Gifts

Count how many apple-motif items you already have—could you really use another? Hopefully parents will consider another theme! Receiving a thermal, stainless-steel mug or container is on trend these days. They come in a rainbow of colors and prints, and they're great at keeping hot coffee warm for hours or water cold. Monogrammed stationary/sticky notes are thoughtful gifts because teachers are always writing notes (hopefully good ones). Potted green plants are nice to display on an instructor's desk. Does the teacher like sports? Something emblazoned with a local sports logo would be a hit—maybe a printed computer mouse pad.

Homemade Gifts

Many teachers enjoy gifts made by their students. I received one from my kindergarten class one year. The room mother helped the children make a personal DVD with recordings where they talked about what they liked about me and the special things I taught. You never know what comes from the mouths of babes, but this gift was a treasure.

Gift Cards

Gift cards ranked high on the list of appreciated gifts. Just think of all the times you've spent your own money on supplies. Janelle C., a New York teacher, said that a gift card for an office supply store can yield extra art supplies, pencils, construction paper, and more for the classroom. On the other hand, Ashley S., down in Florida, loves coffee, so a small gift card for a local coffee shop is top of the list for this teacher.

Other places to get gift cards are restaurants (lunch), bookstores, a nail salon, or even a movie theater. There's a world of gift cards these days, making for perfect teacher appreciation gifts from the kiddos.

Gifts that Should Be Avoided

Not every gift idea is a winner. For example, most teachers would rather leave the beauty products to themselves. The colors and scents are personal and much better left to the individual—the same goes for clothing and jewelry. And while some parents are excellent bakers, bringing in sweet treats can be a dangerous thing (and I don't mean extra calories). The last thing you would want is a food allergy to be triggered by what was supposed to be a thoughtful gift.

From preschool to high school, students usually give teacher gifts to educators that show how much they're truly appreciated. Molly L., a private school educator in Georgia, mentioned how her school secretary compiles a list of teachers' favorite things each year and emails it to the parents. If only all schools did this! But, in all honesty, the practice of giving teaches our youth the wonderful feeling of sharing during the holidays and brightens holiday spirit. There's no better gift than that.

So, what was the best teacher gift you've received? Leave a comment below!

V Is for Volunteer: Community Service Projects for Kids


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Box of toys for toy drive

Whether it's the holiday season or not, these activities will teach your students the spirit of giving. 


Instill the value of community service projects in your students by encouraging them to give to and help others. There are many ways to do this in the classroom and at home.

During the holidays, this was a popular theme in my classroom, but students should understand that the value of volunteering can be year-round. Through projects, show the kids how they can gain an immeasurable feeling of satisfaction knowing that they helped someone or something.

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Start with a Special Bulletin Board

I liked having bulletin boards in my classroom to emphasize our themes, and this was a great place to promote community service projects.

We started by creating a "Hands Up for Humanity" bulletin board for our volunteer lessons. On background paper, we drew a tree trunk and limbs. This was painted brown. With a sheet of green construction paper given to each child—you can alter the color if you want a fall or spring tree—my students traced and cut out their hands. As I discussed the many ways a person can volunteer or help a charity, each student selected one way they'd like to help others and wrote this idea on their paper hand. We attached all the hands to the branches of our painted tree. It became a tree of love, compassion, and caring for one another. Then, as a class, we tried to complete as many of the ideas as possible. Some community service projects called for help from parents and were done at home.

Another bulletin board idea is to create a large flowerpot in the center of your wall board. The children can write their ideas on their paper hands, as above, and add green stems and leaves to create flowers. Adhere the numerous flowers to the inside of the flowerpot and title this board "Helping Hands Make Us Grow."

Community Service Ideas

Beautify the Community

  • Clean up litter around the school property and playground.
  • Plant flowers or bulbs around the school.
  • If your school has extra land, plant a garden and share the harvest with a shelter. Encourage students who live in houses with yards to do the same at home.

Initiate Collections and Drives

  • Collect grocery coupons to give to a local food bank.
  • Plan a food drive. Collect canned goods to donate to a local food bank.
  • Start a recycling program in your classroom. Collect all plastic, paper, and cans from lunch.
  • Make "I Care" kits by filling plastic sandwich bags with combs, toothbrushes, shampoo, etc., for homeless people and soldiers. Students can bring in donations from home.
  • Donate to a clothing drive. Parents and children can clean out their dressers and closets by giving away outgrown shirts, pants, shoes, coats, and mittens.
  • Bring in a new toy for the Toys for Tots program.
  • Collect dog food, treats, and comfy quilts to donate to animal shelters.
  • Parents and children can bake cookies—especially during the holiday season—and distribute them to shelters, the elderly, or other needy community members.

Spend Time with Disadvantaged Community Members

  • Make cheerful cards to send/take to nursing homes and hospitals. Think about sending these cards to the military as well.
  • Present a program to entertain the elderly at nursing homes.
  • Older students can help tutor younger children with their studies.
  • Read books to students who are visually impaired.
  • Start a buddy system where students can help children with special needs at your school.

The possibilities of community service projects are endless, and all can help others. What finer lesson could there be?






Easy Five Minute Games to Make the Most of Free Time


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Kindergarten Class Game

Don't let your class get bored before the bell rings! Use these quick activities instead. 


If you have five minutes to spare before lunch, recess, or the end of the day, what do you do with the class? As a teacher of primary-aged students, I filled these pockets of time with five minute games and activities. They also saved my life when I was a substitute teacher. Here are a few of my favorite activities for trying to make the most of every minute.

Exploring Cultures in Your Classroom: Activities to Try



Cultures in the classroom

 Expose your students to different countries and cultures with these simple and fun activities. 


As educators, it's our duty to explain to our students that everyone has roots in other countries. But trying to explain the melting-pot concept to elementary-age children can be tough! My colleagues and I decided to add an entire multicultural theme to our curriculum in order to embrace diversity. Here are a few of my favorite activities for studying cultures in your classroom in a way that's educational and fun.

Say Hello

I like to begin every morning with a multicultural greeting to my students. Every month, I choose a simple phrase from a new language and greet my class with it. Repeating these phrases for the month is a fun way for students to learn a bit of a foreign language.

  • September: "Hello" (English)
  • October: "Buenos dias" (Spanish)
  • November: "Bonjour" (French)
  • December: "Shalom" (Hebrew)
  • January: "Jambo" (Swahili)
  • February: "Huanying" (Chinese)
  • March: "Guten tag" (German)
  • April: "Konnichiwa" (Japanese)
  • May: "G'Day mate" (Australian English)
  • June: "Goed dag" (Dutch)

Teaching degrees from WGU

Travel around the World

Make daily use of a globe or flat map to help your class realize how big the world is. Take inspiration from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and invite your class on a pretend trip to several places on the planet. Discuss the various landforms you'd have to travel across in order to reach each destination, and build a thematic unit around every country "visited." Because Around the World in Eighty Days is a long, advanced book, it may not be the most appropriate story for younger children, but your school's librarian can suggest a variety of age-appropriate travel books for your class. The important part is to get your students curious about exploring the world and its many cultures.

Indulge in Different Cuisines

To encourage cultural awareness and experimentation with food, consider serving different kinds of breads as a snack in your classroom. This is an easy beginning to global food study. As you munch on croissants, pitas, tortillas, matzo, and dark breads, have a class discussion about who eats these breads and the countries where they're most popular. Next, have parents assist you in putting together a globally influenced potluck lunch. Have students bring a food or dessert that represents their heritage. As you engage in this feast, discuss where each dish originated. After the potluck, collect the recipes from each family, compile them, and send a multicultural cookbook home with each child.

Make Diverse Art

Introduce your students to other cultures through hands-on, creative activities. Using my own Greek heritage for inspiration, I taught my class how to make worry beads. The Greek people traditionally used worry beads as a relaxation technique to diffuse their concerns; when they had a problem, they reached for their string of beads, placed it behind their back, and counted the beads two by two. To make our own worry beads, we took about 24 inches of yarn and folded it in half. Then we tied up five pieces of yarn (about four inches long) to make a fringe at the halfway mark on the long strand. Beginning at one end, students strung different colored plastic beads for about five inches, then tied the beads off with a knot. This process was repeated on the other side, and we finished by tying together the long strand to make a continuous loop.

My class also made tissue-paper flowers to honor Mexican culture. These flowers are traditionally used to decorate streets, houses, and churches during festivals and holidays. For this craft, each student needs tissue paper in a variety of colors and a green pipe cleaner. Have your class draw round scalloped flower shapes in different sizes on the paper. After cutting them out, have them stack the flowers from largest to smallest and help them punch a hole in the center. Then thread the pipe cleaner through the holes and twist it to form a stem. To give the flowers a natural look, fluff all the layers.

These are just a few ways to learn about cultures in your classroom. You can use specific holidays, music, games, and dances as inspiration for your lessons. Leverage your experience, research, and imagination to think of other authentic ways to introduce children to the magical diversity of our world's population.

Teaching Safety Lessons with the Help of Storybooks


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Kid on skateboard

You can engage kids in different safety topics with these fun storybook titles. 


Over the years, I've found that using age-appropriate storybooks can help primary students understand safety. The combination of words and illustrations catches their attention, and they often lead to wonderful discussions. I like to break up my safety lessons into categories and present teachable moments on a weekly or monthly basis.

Playground Safety

Each year, approximately 200,000 children in the U.S. are treated for playground-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students ages 5 to 9 are most likely to be hurt, and incidents typically involve slides and climbing equipment.

I love the book Please Play Safe! Penguin's Guide to Playground Safety by Margery Cuyler. The story revolves around a menagerie of colorful animals that teach children the correct way to use slides, monkey bars, seesaws, jump ropes, balls, sandboxes, and more. This book also teaches proper playground behavior, such as waiting for a turn, staying clear of the swings, and not throwing sand.

Bicycle and Traffic Safety

Whether a child is riding a bicycle to school or just cruising around the block at home, bike rides can lead to minor injuries, like a scrape on the knee, or more serious injuries that involve the head. Wearing a bike helmet can reduce the risk of a serious injury, but how many children wear them consistently? Students who are reluctant to wear helmets may relate to Franklin's Bicycle Helmet by Eva Moore. Franklin the turtle buys himself a new bike helmet but gets embarrassed when some of his friends make fun of it, so he hides it. His friend, Rabbit, comes along, and they talk about bike safety together. Franklin realizes that he shouldn't succumb to peer pressure and makes the right decision for protection.

What do your kids know about street safety? In the book Look Left, Look Right, Look Left Again by Ginger Pate, Wally Waddlewater needs to learn how to cross the street safely in order to reach the mailbox. He wants to mail a birthday card to his grandmother, but he needs to cross a number of streets in town. After reading this book, my little learners practiced crossing a pretend street that I made in the classroom with masking tape.

School Bus Safety

Because many children are transported by the school bus every day, teachers should make sure to cover bus safety. Do your students know bus rules, such as waiting for the bus to stop before getting out of their seat, never walking behind a bus, and using handrails when boarding or exiting the bus? Robin Pulver's Axle Annie and the Speed Grump is a lighthearted tale that sends a big message in terms of bus safety. Annie is the school bus driver, and she's determined to keep her young riders safe on the road—particularly from Rush Hotfoot, who defies all the safety rules of the road. Annie's bus adventures lead to great class discussions about this mode of transportation. The story also engages listeners to learn about the safety equipment on a school bus like hazard lights and stop sign arms.

Fire Safety

You and your students have likely participated in fire drills: Everyone marches out of the classroom to your designated outdoor location, all is OK, and then you go back indoors. But do your students really know what to do if a fire broke out in your classroom?

In Margery Cuyler's book, Stop Drop and Roll, young Jessica is worried she won't remember all the safety rules she was taught. Will she be able to discuss escape plans, smoke alarms, and the most important rule about what to do if your clothes catch fire? This story presents a cute story about how Jessica extinguishes her fire safety fears.

These are only a few of the many safety lessons I conducted in my classroom. You can teach your class about water safety, playing safely with pets, and how to handle a true emergency by calling 911. Storybooks lead to great discussions and activities that will get your primary students thinking about the "what ifs" and what to do. Because young kids learn by repetition, be aware that you may have to read and revisit these books a few times.

4 First Day of School Ideas for Kindergarten Teachers


The first day of school can be exciting and stressful. It's a big adjustment for kindergartners, some of whom have never been in school before. Other little learners may have a rough start adjusting from their preschool teacher and classroom to a new instructor and environment. Since the beginning of school is so important for bonding, I've put together a list of a few of my favorite first day of school ideas. These icebreakers get everyone acquainted and start the new school year on a positive note.



Engage and Excite Your Students with These 3 Summer Crafts for Kids


For most teachers out there, the school year is over. But there are some schools that are open all year, like the private school where I worked. In the elementary grades, summer school mostly focused on skills, but we also offered summer camp activities. So, if you're teaching over the summer like I did, give your students a break from the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) and engage them with some summer crafts for kids. Here are a few of my favorites.

    Crazy about Critters: National Pet Week Classroom Activities


    Kids are crazy about critters, and with the 35th anniversary of National Pet Week taking place the week of May 7-13, it's the perfect time to teach your class about animals. I like to use students' own pets as a starting point and build a curriculum unit from there. Here are some of my favorite activities for celebrating National Pet Week in the classroom.

    Talk about Pets

    Start by encouraging your primary students to talk about their pets during a sharing session. What do they like the most about their pet, and since pets aren't perfect, what do they dislike? What's the funniest thing their pets have ever done? If there are students without pets, what animal would they love to have as a pet?

    If you're teaching a history lesson, talk about presidential pets. Did you know that almost all of our U.S. presidents have owned pets? George Washington was the proud owner of numerous dogs during his stay, and his wife Martha doted on their very talkative green parrot. Abraham Lincoln had a dog and a pig. His son Tad had ponies that were given full reign at the White House, and a turkey also became part of the family when Tad grew attached to the bird that was intended for Christmas dinner.

    Create Pet Journals

    Make booklets for students to write in every day of National Pet Week. Use rubber stamps or specialty stationary to give the cover pages a special pawprint border. I had students bring in a picture of their pet(s) to add to the cover, along with the pet's name. With my help, the class spent a few minutes each day writing a couple sentences about the characteristics of their pet dog, cat, bird, or other critter. Other days, they added their own drawings.

    Engage in Creative Writing

    Getting your students into fictional writing is a fun activity that helps to polish their creative skills. My kids needed encouragement, so I researched story starters to give them inspiration. Give your young learners ample time to write a fun, fictional story and then share it with the class. Here are a few fun titles you can use as prompts in your classroom:

    • Puppy Love
    • Polly Wants a Cracker
    • Tale of Two Kittens
    • World's Best Pet Trick
    • It's Raining Cats and Dogs
    • Green Eggs and Hamster
    • Funny Bunny

    Play Games

    • Guess Which Pet

    Invite each student to think of an unusual pet and ask them to write down three clues about the animal. Then instruct students to challenge their peers to guess the pet from the given clues. See who can stump the class!

    • Pet Hide and Seek

    Hide marbles, or another prop, around the classroom prior to playing the game. Divide the class into teams and have each team choose an animal name. Select a captain for each team who will hold a paper lunch bag. On signal, team members will search the room for marbles. When a player finds one, instead of picking it up, he or she must make the sound of the team animal (barking, meowing, etc) to alert the captain, and only the captain may pick up the marbles. After they're all found, the team with the most wins.

    Try these entertaining and educational activities to celebrate National Pet Week. Don't forget to talk about veterinarians and other community members who help pets and their owners, and you can even try to invite someone to speak to your class.

    Arbor Day Celebration: Tree-Related Activities for the Classroom


    As a tree-hugger and an educator, I made sure Arbor Day was a holiday included in my curriculum plans every year. If we educate students on the vital role of trees, they will hopefully educate their families and friends in turn. An Arbor Day celebration on the last Friday in April is the perfect time to begin.

    What Is Arbor Day?

    Founded by J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska man who loved nature and had a mission to fill his state with trees, Arbor day was first celebrated in the U.S. on April 10, 1872. But on April 22, 1885, the day was declared a legal holiday in Nebraska. The idea spread throughout the country, and to this day, people still plant trees on the last Friday in April.

    Taking Lessons Outdoors

    Since I taught school in Florida, the warm weather was perfect for having classes outdoors. There's nothing better than sitting on a blanket under a shady tree and listening to a story. Why not read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to your students? The solemn Lorax explains the importance of the truffula trees and the sad fact that many of our forests are disappearing.

    Take advantage of your outdoor time and get to know a real tree. With chalk or crayon pieces in hand, invite your young nature lovers to engage in tree rubbings. Place a sheet of white paper onto tree bark and gently rub the coloring material all over it. Observe the unique pattern the tree bark makes. Next, find an old tree stump. Look carefully at the rings, which tell a story of the tree's life. Rings that are close together show a period of lesser growth, which is likely due to a shortage of rain. When there's an abundance of moisture, the rings will be spaced farther apart, meaning the tree had a faster growth rate. Have your students count the rings to estimate the tree's age.

    Collect a variety of leaves to sort and compare them back inside the classroom. Classify the leaves by size, general shape, and color, and then compare them to photos in reference books to identify the type of tree they came from. You can even have your student botanists glue their leaves in booklets with the type of tree and date.

    Other Ways to Celebrate Arbor Day

    Several times throughout my years at this Florida school, our Arbor Day celebration was complete when we planted a small seedling at the school's playground (with permission). I would mark the tree with the year and then take a photograph of my class next to the tree. We'd visit the tree periodically to measure its growth, and as the kids moved on from grade to grade, they could visit their tree to remember our special Arbor Day planting. If your class is interested in planting a tree, you could start a fund-raising project (bake sale, penny jar, candy sales, etc.), and use the profits to buy your own seedling.

    Here are a few more Arbor Day ideas:

    • Have a forester visit your classroom and talk about trees.
    • Adopt a tree to care for.
    • Visit a nearby arboretum.
    • Hold an art contest where students make posters to urge residents to plant trees. These can then be hung around the community.

    It's important to teach students that they should never underestimate the value of trees in our world because they provide us with beauty and health. For every tree we lose, we should plant another. So consider continuing J. Sterling Morton's mission with your class this year!