Author Archives: anniemaldonado

About anniemaldonado

Special education teacher for amazing children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Wife to a handsome, wonderful teacher-to-be and mommy of a beautiful rescued mutt. I have a passion for education, but my biggest devotion is Christ.

DIY Children Ornaments


Every year, I have my students make ornaments to decorate the classroom Christmas tree. On the last day of school before Christmas break, I pack all of the ornaments for each child and send them home as a gift for the parents.

This year, the students enjoyed creating a few different ‘classroommade’ Christmas decorations. Some were used as ornaments to hang on the tree while others were used to decorate our classroom walls. All decorations encourage fine motor development and creativity!


So far we’ve created two ornaments for our Christmas tree. Below you will find the materials needed, the steps involved, and the skills practiced for each.

Knotted Christmas Tree


  • Tree twigs (medium size)*
  • Various ribbons
  • String
  • Decorative item for tree topper (we used snowflake scrap-booking stickers)
  • Hot glue gun and glue sticks
  • Scissors

*No trees were harmed in the process of creating our ornaments; dead twigs were picked up from the ground.


  1. Collect medium size twigs and have children choose one. [This itself could be turned into a nature scavenge hunt activity.]
  2. Have children cut out 3 to 10 pieces of ribbon with predetermined lengths. Also have students cut out a piece of string to be used to hang the ornament to the tree. Or have these already cut out and ready for children to tie on twigs. The fewer the amount of ribbon pieces, the easier the activity will be for the children. Think of your child’s ability when deciding.
  3. Have children tie the ribbon pieces to the twigs. Children may create patterns for added practice with this skill.
  4. Have children choose their tree topper and glue it or stick it to the twig.
  5. Help children to hot glue their string to either side of the top of the twig. (Hot glue in this step will ensure a lasting ‘hanging’ ornament.)
  6. Finally, let glue dry for a few minutes and enjoy hanging your homemade/classroommade ornament on the tree.


  • Fine Motor
    • Cutting
    • Gluing
    • Tying
  • Math
    • Pattern making
  • Creativity!

Magnetic Work Display Clippers

Clipper Ornament Sample 2

Students truly enjoyed this project! Redirections to complete the project were very minimal and they wanted ‘more’ when the coloring was finished.


  • Clothespins
  • Christmas erasers
  • Small Magnets
  • Markers


  1. Have children choose their eraser. [I found the erasers at our local Dollar Store!]
  2. Have children color their clothespins (hopefully to match their eraser).
  3. Help children to hot glue their erasers to one side of their clothespin.
  4. Help children to glue or stick magnets to the other side of their clothespins. [We ended up needing three small magnets per clothespin. Place clothespin on magnetic surface to ensure the amount of magnets glued will be enough to hold up your ornament.]
  5. Write child’s name and year on the side or back of the clothespin.
  6. Finally, clip your beautiful ornament to the Christmas tree or stick on the refrigerator to display works of art.


  • Fine Motor
    • Coloring
    • Gluing
    • Pencil Grasp
  • Creativity!


These were very fun and easy to make! My students and parents will definitely enjoy the ornaments. These will also serve as beautiful memories of their first grade. Are you willing to give it a try? Share your homemade ornaments!



It Feels Like Christmas in our Classroom!

It Feels Like Christmas in our Classroom!

Christmas season is here! And while so much is happening in our classroom… lessons to teach, classwork to complete, reevaluations to schedule, strategies to implement, data to record, etc., etc., etc…. there is always time to join in the holiday fun and make memories while we deck the [walls] 🙂

So here is a collection of some of the things we do in our classroom during Christmas time. Many ideas have been taken from Pinterest, while others have been a compilation of ideas that Ms. Crystal (my wonderful paraprofessional) and I have put together over the years (whether individually or collectively).

Ornament Making

We have our students create their own ornaments to decorate the classroom tree. There is nothing better than bragging about how my students made their own ornaments 😉 Plus, for our Family Christmas Activity, these go home with our kiddos so that they can be displayed in their own home. {More info on the ornaments we’ve made coming soon…}

Christmas Artwork Displays

Creating Christmas art is the best! Better than lights and red + green pre-made decorations, is student-made work. These help to create the Christmas atmosphere in the classroom while displaying colorful student-made artwork. (Notice the ‘light it up blue’ light bulbs had to make an entrance in December!) {More info on the artwork we’ve made coming soon…}

Christmas Group Effort Decorations

Every year there are special Christmas displays that require group effort. This year, we created student mistletoe[s] which hang from the ceiling above each corresponding child, a wreath using student hand-print cutouts, and stockings made out of paper which students had to lace with yarn (displayed above from left to right, respectively). {More info on the collective decorations coming soon…}

Teacher-Made Displays

I am absolutely in love with this chimney made completely from paper that Ms. Crystal made years ago. She has kept it for many years and it has adorned our classroom the last two years. Last year, it was displayed on the wall under the “Student Work” board. This year, for lack of space, we were ‘forced’ to think outside the box and placed it on our big book furniture. What an excellent idea it was! It gives this paper display more dimension and adds character to our small classroom. Of course the Christmas lights hidden behind the chimney fire also help to give it life 🙂

Christmas Pictures

Utilizing the our Christmas tree and chimney, we created our very own Christmas photo shoot display! This is new this year. We plan to print these out and gift them to the parents. Aren’t they adorable?!

There is always something due or things that MUST be done. However, we should never forget to take the time and create with out students and children. Their [unique] artwork and [super cute] pictures are memories that you can turn to year after year. Years pass, children grow, seasons change, but the memories you create with your little ones will last a lifetime! 🙂

The Beginning… My Beginning

The Beginning… My Beginning

It’s only fair that I explain how Annie from Gradeschool Brains became a teacher and why she started a blog.

Working with students with Autism is what I know I have been called to do! Some days are better than others. Some days, I can’t wait to research strategies and interventions I can use with my little ones. I go nuts creating multiple projects on so that I can receive the materials that will enable me to better teach them. Some days, I spend hours choosing the right book or worksheet or activity to expand on the topic for the day. Some days, I can’t believe I’ve reached my dream of educating these fascinating, unique and mysterious students! …Other days, however, I wonder if I should change careers! It’s a fulfilling field but it is also quite tiring and draining. I go home and crash!

So how exactly did I end up here?

It all started with one single video in an education class in college. I had just changed majors from Architecture to… undecided? Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do from there. Education was sort of my go to option since I had been volunteering as a Sunday School teacher for my church for many years. I figured I had some experience and it was something that I liked and that came naturally. But I still wasn’t sure what field of education to pursue. Then my professor from my “Teaching Multicultural Students” class showed a video I will never forget. THE video that changed my life for the better and led me to my calling in life. I still don’t remember what the video was called. It was the story of the family of a child who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The parents spent a great deal of time and resources trying to get as many therapies as possible for their son- their first born. In the video, they expressed their frustrations and fears. They conveyed their challenges and joys. And just when they were coming to terms with the condition, they gave birth to twin boys who are also diagnosed with Autism/Developmental Delay before the age of 2. Yep! Not one, not two, but three children with Autism! They spent their life savings, they gave up other dreams, they dove into making life better and education more accessible for their sons. One of the many therapies that they were funding for their children was Applied Behavior Analysis. I was sold!!! From that day on, I looked up everything there was to know about Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis with gazelle intensity. Seven years of college, two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s later, I am in the field I envisioned my entire adult life.

But why exactly am I in the field?

Resources, resources, resources! The parents in the video lacked the resources necessary initially to help their little ones. As a special education teacher, not only do I get the opportunity to work first-hand with individuals with autism, but I also get to work with the families. I get to guide them and point them in the right direction. I get to provide support and hope that everything WILL be okay. That very part of my job is what makes my calling so enjoyable! And the reason why I am still around. My life’s work will always be providing resources and hope to families. For this very reason, I also started the Gradeschool Brains blog. I want to reach out to families and educators everywhere. Networking can often be the best resource, and is also free of charge!

Are you also beautifully entangled in the field of autism? How exactly did you end up here? What is YOUR beginning? Share in the comments below.

Our Classroom Rules


This year, I wanted to truly review our classroom rules daily. In order to get my students’ d r i f t i n g attention, I decided to use 3D visuals.  


I went ahead and used multiple Mr. Potato body parts as visuals for each rule (I stuck them to the vertical surface using sticky putty). I saw a few versions of this on Pinterest. After seeing a couple of ideas, I was able to add my own twist.

I added the mustache on the top left corner (“Mustache you to follow the classroom rules”). I also changed the typical “quiet mouths” to “talking mouths”– with my students with autism, I need to constantly prompt the use of words. The first week, I only had the first 5 rules and then couldn’t believe I left out the one my students typically have the most trouble with- SITTING (“bottom in chair”). 

I really love our classroom rules! This particular display has been the most successful in getting student attention and in having them refer back to it when rules are broken. 

To My Sunday School Class…

To My Sunday School Class…

I remember my anxiety levels and the nervousness that would take over me when I first started learning English at the age of 12. I was terrible at public speaking; hated the thought of a crowd with their staring eyes burning holes through me. The idea of being a target of their unknown, cruel and judgmental thoughts, horrified me! And then one day, my pastor asked me to help teach Sunday School! Me! Plain Jane teaching a group of googly-eyed, 5 to 12 year olds when I, myself, was only 16. Or perhaps, more like Plain Juana- I was on my 4th year of English speaking experience and my accent was not the best, to put it nicely.

At first, I began simply helping the person who was originally in charge, then it became a co-teaching effort until I was finally on my own. Thinking back now, 10 years later, this was the genesis of my teaching career. This is how I slowly fell in love with the one thing that terrified me and made me lose sleep at night.

When I started taking classes at the College of Education in Florida International University (Go Panthers!)- my Sunday school students became my guinea pigs. I began implementing strategies I had learned during the week. I began creating teacher-made materials to bring up the level of interest in my lessons. I even spent hours on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings on the floor of my room planning for my once-a-week chance to be a teacher, even if my chance was only for a couple of hours. I remember doing so much with them! And then, I became a public school teacher.

I don’t mean the latter in any negative way. I still teach Sunday school once a week. I am perhaps not as enthusiastic as I once was. I may be a little more tired, a little less creative, and a lot more to-the-point. But I love teaching! Aside from their parents, I am perhaps the first teacher at least half of my students ever had. And so, they are my children; my very first students!

Although I teach them about the Word and often advice them in real life situations, I am not sure that I have ever clearly stated how much I truly appreciate and love them. Childhood is such a crucial stage in life. I have read that often times the personality a child will have as an adult is fully developed by the age of 5. Honestly, I can’t attest to the veridity of this statement or to it coming from a trustworthy source; but I can’t help but wonder how much love, dedication and guidance, or lack thereof, make or break a child. I remember when I was in Sunday school, myself, how my teachers and youth pastors reached out to me and my peers and how much their words of encouragement meant for us. It is also not easy being a teenager in today’s day and age. I realized how much more open and straight forward I have to be about how much their lives matter, not just to God but to me.

As we began getting ready to return back to school this past week, I wanted to do something special for them. I had run across a couple of ‘candy messages’ on the Internet, but I never knew when to bring that idea out. After much deliberation, I figured this was the perfect opportunity. I went to the Dollar Store (yeah, best teacher-salary friendly store ever) and bought a couple of candies that could be used to write such messages. I currently have students ranging in ages 7 to 16! So, I figured incorporating a couple of funny-but-perhaps-not-totally-pew-appropriate language would be the way to reach out to them.

In the end, this was the message I came up with:

“My lovely Nerds, this message is for you! I know Reese’s is over and is time to go to school! I’ll make this message short and sweet so you don’t lose your cool. I just wanted to give you some advice because I love your guts, go give the best of you and Crush some homework butt! Sometimes you’ll be quick to think that you’re Air Heads and you’re Goobers. But don’t let people think you’re that! You do more than pick your boogers… Despite the Snickers you think you might get this new school year, remember if you work Extra hard, you’ll be sure to lose ALL fear. It doesn’t matter how many Sour Patch-es you may go through …even twenty! If you place the Lord above all else, you’ll see the Good & Plenty. GO and CONQUER the world my little Smarties. Mounds of Kisses, Annie.

I hope this post encourages someone out there to take the time to tell someone they love how appreciated they are. No matter how creatively, or plainly, your message is delivered, it will one day make a huge difference in the life of your little ones. So go and spread the Mounds of love.

Gradeschool Brains’ “Brand Spankin’ New” Teachers Pay Teachers Store

Gradeschool Brains’ “Brand Spankin’ New” Teachers Pay Teachers Store

Get to Know Me Cover Pic

So I’ve joined the new movement! A few years back I went and created my pinterest account ( for which I am EXTREMELY grateful since I have been able to share resources with so many! Not too long after that, I started PreschoolBrains as a classroom website for my preschool parents. Once I started teaching first grade, I revamped it and created the great, the magnificent, the incomparable… and totally-in-need-of-work-since-I-am-still-new-to-this-blogging-scene Gradeschool Brains! I would venture to say I’ve come a long way considering how not-very-techie I am. But that is about to change! And so I am very excited for the new networks that I have joined and the many doors that continued to open throughout this past few years.

I have been creating things for my own classroom for a few years now. Last year, I came across Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT) and found some awesome resources. I told myself how great it would be to share my own creations with other teachers and set my heart out to do it… p r e t t y  s o o n. Soon came and went and nothing ever came of it- until this week when I finally made the time.

With the back to school craze taking over me (and many teachers… and parents!) I set out to look for resources as I do every year. Of course, I landed on a fellow teacher’s Teachers Pay Teachers account. The thought came back that I should probably start working on my own account. And lo and behold, here I am! For the past week, I have slept fewer hours than usual with excitement. I have many ideas for great units and products to post on my brand spankin’ new TPT store. It’ll also work as a great way to share my classroom visuals with parents (FREE of course 🙂 ).

Currently I am working on my own seasonal and back-to-school cliparts. (Yes! I made the little apple with the worm hanging out of it on the picture above… completely digital and from scratch. Whoever thought I had it in me 😉 ). I am very excited for the months ahead and truly look forward to sharing some of my new work with you guys. Let the new school year begin!!!

PS. Would you like to take a peek? I have posted my first free product! Go to Tell me what you think 😉

My Favorite Piece of Furniture

My Favorite Piece of Furniture

There is a piece of furniture in my house that is definitely my favorite. I keep it in my bedroom where I place my jewelry and hair accessories. It is such a unique and exceptional piece of furniture, however, that I would love to find something to replace its use in my bedroom, in an effort to move it to the living room where it can be showcased.  It’s a tall and narrow one-door cabinet with a set of 8 drawers. It is made of wood and it has a dark brown Mahogany color with the distinguishing carving of a flower on the cabinet. This piece is my favorite not only because it is appealing to the eye, but also because it was given to me by my parents. Two years ago, when I married my husband, we moved into a small apartment and had nothing to furnish it. Around the same time, my parents were moving to a new location and they came across the wooden set of drawers for which this post was written. My mom was cleaning out and getting rid of things in order to have fewer items in their new home. The things they were disposing of, they would offer to us so that we could have some furniture to begin organizing our first home. The Mahogany set of drawers was one of these such pieces of furniture.My Favorite Piece of Furniture

This year, my husband and I were blessed with the purchase of our first house where my favorite furniture is now located. My parents have been coming faithfully to our place almost every week to help us with anything that may need to be fixed around our fixer-upper. Just a coupe of days ago, during one of their ritualistic visits, I told my mom about my desire to move the set of drawers to my living room. I told her about how much I liked that particular piece of furniture and how I was not really sure why they would even want to get rid of it. Her response left me a bit confused, initially, and later made me open my eyes to the reality of being a parent. She said that they were not planning to get rid of it. That they in fact loved that piece of furniture very much but that because they knew I needed some furniture, they went ahead and offered me the one they really liked. This was new to me. For the past two years, I’ve thought that my parents simply got rid of the beautiful set of drawers and gave it to me. A furry of thoughts came to my mind with this new revelation- what else have they given to me just because, that they would have otherwise kept? For one, their time!

Mami & Papi

No amount of words can describe how thankful I am to my parents for everything they’ve done for me. Just as I’m sure– although I’m not a parent yet– that no amount of words can describe the love a parent has for a child. It may seem like such a simple concept: giving a piece of furniture; giving to others; giving the best; giving as an act of love; giving, giving, giving.The conversation I had with my mom that day may have seemed so worldly; almost ordinary. But I learned so much! Parenting is about giving your time, your best, your life, yourself for your little ones and your not-so-little ones.  I was immediately compelled to write a post on it. This blog is not only geared toward other fellow teachers but also toward parents. So this post in specific is to thank all of the parents who have given their children their best piece of furniture, and all of the parents who ever will. Thank you for spending a lifetime doing what you knew would be the best for your children. Thank you for giving them the best and for dreaming of giving them the most. Your children would not be who they are today if it wasn’t for you.