The Knowledge Gap – a Book Review

Click to jump right to these sections in this post.

What is the Knowledge Gap?

Many years ago, I sat in a meeting with my fourth grade colleagues and we analyzed the scores from the previous years’ standardized test. To everyone’s surprise, my class had far surpassed the other classes on the fiction reading portion of the text. When we anaylzed it even further, we realized that my classes’ high scores were mostly attributable to one passage – an excerpt from Gary Soto’s The Skirt. When my colleagues asked how I had achieved such high scores, I was at a loss. I didn’t know. Now I know.

In her book, The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler explores the importance of background knowledge and vocabulary in comprehension. My experience with that standardized test mirrors some of the education research that she cites in the book. First, Gary Soto is a poet that I admire, and my students and I had read and analyzed some of the poems in his book, A Fire in My Hands. That experience probably gave them familiarity with his themes, symbolism and style, which helped them understand the text on the test. Second, because I speak Spanish, Hispanic students were generally put into my classroom. The Skirt is written in English, but the main character is from Mexico, and the text is sprinkled with Spanish words. My students had the relevant Spanish vocabulary to understand that text. Even my English speakers, because of their exposure to his poetry, had strategies for using context to decipher Spanish words. Even though many of my students’ reading levels were below grade level, their background knowledge and vocabulary compensated, and resulted in high comprehension of that text, and therefore, higher scores on the test.

Early in the book (Chapter 2), Natalie Wexler cites two studies that directly relate to my experience. One, The Baseball Study by Recht and Leslie, showed that middle school students with high knowledge of baseball, but a low reading level had higher comprehension of a baseball text than students with a high reading level but a low knowledge of baseball. Click here to read the study, published in 1988 in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Natalie Wexler also cites a study of preschoolers’ comprehension. In this study, published in 2014 in Reading Psychology, scientists found no difference between the comprehension of students from low socio-economic familes and students from wealthier families when background knowledge and vocabulary were the same. The two studies, when taken together, form the backbone of Nataile Wexler’s thesis – we are creating the achievement gap by focusing too much time on reading instruction that does not include knowlege building. In other words, the knowledge gap IS the achievement gap.

The Knowledge Gap IS the Achievement Gap.

But what about Reading Strategy Instruction?

Most of us have spent years learning about reading strategies and how to teach them in the hopes that a thorough grounding in reading strategies would result in higher comprehension. We have seen studies that show strategy instruction boosts scores on comprehension tests. So, where does that fit into this picture? Wexler addresses this question in Chapter 3. According to Daniel Willingham, one of the cognitive psychologists she cites frequently, strategies help students understand that the goal of reading is comprehension, not decoding. Strategy instruction can also remind students to check for understanding. So, strategy instruction can be beneficial, but it is not sufficient. According to Willingham and Wexler, elementary schools today have gotten the balance wrong. We are spending too much time on strategy instruction, and not enough time building vocabulary and background knowledge.

“Nearly all teachers have come to see comprehension not as something that arises naturally with sufficient information, as cognitive scientists have concluded, but rather as a set of strategies that need to be taught explicitly. Many dedicated and well-intentioned teachers have worked their tails off trying to teach reading, but because they’ve been given the wrong information about how to do it, or in some cases none at all, the results have been disastrous, both for their students and for society as a whole.”

Natalie Wexler in The Knowledge Gap, chapter 3

This great video from Daniel Willingham illustrates that point beautifully.

Does The Knowledge Gap correlate with Science of Reading?

The short answer is, yes, totally. The Knowledge Gap is based on scientific research done by cognitive psychologists like Daniel Willingham as well as instructional research done by education professionals like Timothy Shanahan. In my last blog post, I let you know that one of my filters is making sure that any changes I make in my classroom are based on brain research AND research on effective instruction. This book definitely draws on a wide variety of scientific research as Wexler explores her thesis.

The Science of Reading is a broad effort to bring together science and instruction. It is often equated with systematic phonics, and that is a component of reading instruction that has been well validated through a lot of research. But there is research that shows that sytematic phonics isn’t enough. In The Knowledge Gap, Wexler explores how knowledge and vocabulary are critical to comprehension. In chapter 4 she endorses sytematic phonics, but argues that it isn’t sufficient.

“Reading, it is generally agreed, is all about making meaning. Cognitive scientists would say that decoding – the part of reading for which phonemic awareness and phonics skills are essential – is a necessary stepping-stone in the process of making meaning from written text…. It’s true that some children will learn to read without systematic phonics instruction – probably somewhere between half and a third, according to reading experts. But all children can benefit from it, and many won’t learn to decode well without it.”

-The Knowledge Gap, chapter 4

So, What Does This Mean for My Classroom?

The last part of the book focuses on Wexler’s thoughts on reform. This is where the book fell down for me. The recommendations are fairly generic. She has a high regard for curricula like Core Knowledge and Engage NY, both open source and availabe for free. She would like to see fewer district initiatives and more sustained focus on system-wide shifts over time toward content-rich curricula. She recommends close reading of text and anlytical writing. And she mentions an effort in Lousiana to require certain texts each year, and then base the state test on those texts, ensuring that all Lousiana students share a common curriculum. All of these are interesting ideas, but not particularly useful when I face my kindergarteners tomorrow.

Of course, Wexler is an education journalist. Her degrees are in history and the law, not instruction. So it’s probably reasonable for her to use her journalist expertise to gather all of the sources together in one book, and then allow education experts to turn those insights into classroom practice. She is the co-author of The Writing Revolution, which is currently waiting for me on my bedside table, and seems like it will be more practical than theoretical.

Who Should Read This Book?

I recommend this book for every elementary teacher and administrator who wants to understand how to raise reading achievement in their school. I think the book is especially important for primary teachers. Most primary classrooms in the United States spend the majority of the day teaching reading (62% of the day according to some estimates), and it seems to be working just fine. When primary teachers give reading tests like the DRA and BAS, most students do well. But, without a focus on building knowledge in the primary grades, comprehension slows down and reading achievement decreases in upper grades. That’s when the cracks start to appear. But because the kids are out of our classrooms by that point, we primary teachers don’t notice the change.

I’ve spent the past 4 years teaching fifth grade, and this year I moved to kindergarten, in part because I wanted to figure out why reading achievement shifted so dramatically from primary grades to intermediate grades in my school. I think this is a huge part of the reason, so as a primary teacher, I am working to bring systematic phonics AND content learning to my kindergarteners. I think any primary teacher who reads The Knowledge Gap will be ready to come along on that journey with me, as we work to help our readers succeed today AND tomorrow.

I give The Knowledge Gap five stars, and it’s on the top shelf of my book case. I have already reread many parts of the book, and I am sure that I will be reaching for it often as I figure out how to shift my classroom and help my students become proficient readers.

What IS Science of Reading, part 2

In last week’s blog post, I explored that question through my own experience as a teacher who remembers the first Reading Wars. As the Reading Wars heat up again, I think that was a worthwhile place to start. One of the lessons I learned as a survivor of the first Reading Wars is that reading instruction is complex and nuanced. I’m going to continue to look at the current debate through that lens. In this blog post we are going to flesh out our definition of Science of Reading and start to think about how it looks in the classroom.

Click to jump directly to these sections of the blog post.

So, what is Science of Reading?

I’ve been falling down many, many rabbit holes over the past few months, trying to get a concrete definition that answers that question. The best definition I’ve found is this one from Maria Murray, one of the founders of The Reading League. The Reading League seems to be the driving force behind bringing Science of Reading into the forefront of education, in part because of their partnership with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

The science of reading is a body of empirical research derived from multiple disciplines—cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and education. Taken together, the findings from thousands of research studies over the last 40 years have reached a consensus on how the brain learns to read and write, and why some students struggle. The science of reading provides knowledge about the most effective ways to assess and teach reading so we can prevent most reading difficulties, and remediate them when they occur. The science of reading informs instructional approaches that best advantage all learners in all areas of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, spelling, and language comprehension)

Maria Murray in the American Educator, Summer 2020 edition

What I love about this definition is that it focuses on two things – empirically valid research AND all areas of reading. The first time a teacher colleague mentioned Science of Reading to me, she told me it was systematic phonics instruction. And I heard that over and over. Many teacher blogs that I have read over the past few months equate Science of Reading with phonics. And that is certainly part of it. But, in my reading of this definition, systematic phonics instruction is one fifth of the definition of successful reading instruction.

It’s also important to note that Maria Murray’s definition includes education research, and specifically calls out “effective ways to assess and teach reading”. That part of the definition is missing from much of the research that I have been reading lately, and the lack is addressed beautifully in a blog post by Timothy Shanahan. He makes the point that just understanding the way the brain works is not enough. We have to know which instructional methodologies are effective in helping kids’ brains learn the complex skills of reading. Knowledge of the brain does not necessarily equate to knowledge of effective instruction.

I’m reminded of a training I attended about 15 years ago for a computerized reading program that my district was adopting. It was wildly expensive, and we were all hopeful that it would help solve problems for our struggling readers. We were really kind of desperate – struggling with low scores, low morale, and no clear direction forward. So, I went to this training with hope in my heart. The trainer began the training by showing us brain scans of kids using the program, and comparing them to brain scans of kids who were not using the program. The trainer told us that the brain scans were scientific evidence that the computer progam worked. I was starting to feel skeptical. Did those brightly colored scans actually show competent readers at work? What about the brain scans equaled proficient reading? But, I was the only skeptic, and our staff enthusiastically bought into the program. We started putting our highest needs kids on the program for an hour a day, often taking them out of math, science and social studies instruction to make that happen. Kids sat at those computers performing repetitive tasks meant to train their brains. It’s quite possible that those tasks were causing their brains to light up and look like the brain scans we had seen in the training. It’s quite possible that proficient readers’ brains light up in those same ways. But those tasks did not help our students learn to read. Scores plummeted, and after a painful year, the expensive program went away.

That’s why we have to bring a healthy skepticism to anyone who tells us their program is based on Science of Reading. We need to be able to see the research, and then make sure that it is based on strong science of the brain AND research into effective instruction.

Science of Reading and the National Reading Panel

If you have been in education as long as I have, you probably remember the National Reading Panel report that came out in 2000. If not, here is a brief overview. In 1997, Congress wanted a report on the state of scientifically valid research about effective reading instruction. So, they convened a panel of 14 experts (Timothy Shanahan was one). The experts represented scientists, reading teachers, administrator, parents and professors, and they also gathered insights and information from the general public in several town hall meetings. For three years they met to review the available research and draw conclusions about what effective reading instruction looks like. Their conclusions are generally summed up as the Five Pillars of Reading Instruction.

The Five Pillars of reading instruction as identified by the National Reading Panel in 2000 are:

  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

You probably notice a strong correlation between the five pillars and the definition of Science of Reading from Maria Murray. And that makes perfect sense. Although Science is always growing and expanding, it is logical that an analysis of scientifically valid reading instruction in 2000 would have crossover with the same analysis 20 years later. As a teacher in the classroom, trying to use research based, effective instruction, those crossover areas seem to me to be especially fruitful avenues of exploration. In other words, if research from 20 years ago has been strenghthed and confirmed by more recent research, I can feel comfortable using that research in my classroom. And you can too!

The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View of Reading has come up in source after source. Basically, the Simple View of Reading states that reading copmrehension depends on two things: word recognition and language comprehension. This approach to reading is well studied and replicated over time (to read one study, published by the NIH, click here). And I think we can all agree that reading comprehension is the goal of effective reading instruction. As a teacher in the trenches, I can appreciate a simple definition that translates easily into instructional goals.

Word Recognition

Word recognition is a pretty complex set of brain processes, and of course, we want word recognition to be automatic and accurate. Building those neural pathways involves developing proficient phonemic awareness, knowledge of letters and their sounds, and understanding of syllables and other meaningful word parts such as prefixes and suffixes. (For more information, check out this study from the Journal of Scientific Studies of Reading.) What’s interesting is that teachers have observed all of these processes in proficient readers for years, leading us to focus instruction on sight words, a practice that may not be backed up by science. The good news is that all of these processes have research based instructional strategies that will help us build those neural pathways in our students’ brains. More on that in future posts. 🙂

Language Comprehension

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that vocabulary and background knowledge or content are frequent topics for me, so this aspect of the Simple View of Reading is right up my alley! Language Comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, complex sentence patterns, and recognition of text devices such as symbolism, similes, and imagery. The Simple View of Reading also acknowledges that metacognitive skills such as monitoring comprehension are important aspects of reading instruction.  

From Theory to the Classroom

If you, like me, have spent years developing a balanced approach to literacy instruction, this should be good news. Contrary to popular opinion, the work you have been doing has NOT been harming children. You did the best you could with what you had, and much of the instruction you have used may follow best practices based on science, even if you were not aware of the science.

In future blog posts, we will explore each topic in depth, and build an understanding of what science can tell us, and what science cannot yet tell us. We will keep in mind that the science needs to cover both the brain processes and instructional practices. The first Reading Wars taught me that reading instruction is complex and nuanced. The Simple View of Reading may be our target, but our road has some bends and bumps in it, and the map is not completely filled in. So pack your skepticism, lace up your boots and let’s take the next step on our journey of discovering the Science of Reading.

For more on this topic, be sure to check out these blog posts:

  1. What is Science of Reading, Anyway – part 1
  2. Why Teach Vocabulary? There is Already Plenty to Teach….

What IS Science of Reading Anyway?

Click to jump right to these sections:

  1. What is Balanced Literacy, Really?
  2. So, Balanced Literacy Might Not be Enough?
  3. Is Science of Reading the Answer?

“As for comprehension, the most important factor in determining whether readers can understand a text is how much relevant vocabulary or background knowledge they have.”

The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler

That quote has been ringing in my ears for the past few weeks. Like many of you, I have been learning about Science of Reading. I listened to the Sold a Story podcast with dismay. When I finished the podcast, I dusted off my bruised heart, and then asked myself, “What now? Do I make drastic changes to the literacy program in my kindergarten classroom? Am I hurting kids with my balanced literacy approach?”

Here’s the thing, I’ve been teaching long enough that I can remember the heated Reading Wars. When I entered the profession in 1995, teachers were still asking themselves which was better, Phonics or Whole Language? And then, in 1996, my aunt, a Reading Recovery Teacher, sent me “Guided Reading, Good First Teaching for All Children” by Fountas and Pinnell. And I had my answer. We should teach both.

That was my first exposure to the idea of balanced literacy. Fountas and Pinnell did spend more time talking about comprehension than decoding, but Word Work was intended as part of the lesson. As a young teacher, I had methods courses on phonics in college, but the world of reading strategies was new to me. I immediately resonated with it. It matched my own experience as a reader, and it felt really good. I felt like the Word Work was easy to teach, so I was grateful for their insights into engaging students in authentic text, and helping them develop comprehension, and along the way, to fall in love with reading.

What is Balanced Literacy, Really?

Balanced Literacy is taking a beating right now, and so are Fountas and Pinnell. In a recent blog post, Fountas and Pinnell said, “… in 1996 we used the word “balanced” as an adjective when describing a high-quality language and literacy environment that would include both small-group and whole-group differentiated instruction that included the various types of reading and writing, letter and word work, oral language, observation, assessment, homeschool connections, all supported by good teaching.”

I spent many years working to become proficient at all the things included in that quote. I learned how to take running records and how to understand MSV. I learned what to do when a student did not use ALL of the cues (including visual letter cues) to read accurately, and I learned how to improve oral language so that reading comprehension would also grow. I learned how to manage whole class and small group instruction in every grade, K-5, and I improved my skills as a writing teacher. I opened my classroom as a lab and invited other teachers to observe my practice and reflect on it with me – a process that helped me as much as it did them. I trained teachers in many of the things that I was learning.

And I had decent scores on state tests. I live in Washington state, and our first high-stakes test was called the WASL. I was there when they rolled it out, and my kids did OK. Then we had the MSP, and finally the SBAC. My kids always do fine. I’ve spent my entire career teaching in schools with high poverty rates and usually many multi-language learners, and my kids made good growth each year. But, despite my best efforts, I never reached my goal of 100% of students at standard on the test….

So, Balanced Literacy might not be enough…..?

In my quest to help all students reach the standard, I did what I always do. I read, I researched, and I learned. I tried new things in my classroom. And in 2004 I read this book, “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement”. If you know Marzano’s work, you know that he approaches a question by studying ALL the available research around it – his conclusions are based on meta-analysis. That means hundreds, or even thousands of research studies. Better him than me!

In this book Marzano makes the case that academic achievement will increase when kids know stuff. In other words, background knowledge, also called schema, is key to helping kids comprehend and achieve at high levels. During the past 20 years, as school systems struggled to meet the demands of the high stakes tests, they have reduced and eliminated instruction in any subject that isn’t tested. So, it is normal for students to spend an entire year in an elementary classroom learning only reading, writing and math. If a student is lucky, science might get a little time. But the bulk of instruction time is spent on reading and math.

Since many published reading curricula focus on fiction, the majority of time is not even spent reading content. So students are not building background knowledge, which means they are not gaining the skills and vocabulary that they need to comprehend. Marzano made the case for building background knowledge in 2004. Natalie Wexler is making that case in The Knowledge Gap right now.

Is Science of Reading the Answer?

Well, yes and no. It is important to pay attention to what cognitive science tells us about reading development. But we can’t be simplistic and cherry pick the science. It is tempting to pay attention to the Science of Reading that is quantifiable. It is easy to assign certain phonetic skills to kindergarten, others to first grade etc. Systems love that kind of clarity, and I suspect, that’s why Science of Reading is becoming synonymous with systematic phonics.

But it’s not going to be enough. If the pendulum swings back to an all-phonics approach, we are going to face the same problems we faced in the 1990’s when kids could fluently decode any text, but they didn’t have any idea what the text was about. Right now, we need to take a good look at ALL of the Science of Reading – everything. There is a growing bank of cognitive research around what really works to help ALL students become good readers. The short answer is not a simple list of phonics skills to teach, it is much more complext than that.

Come on this journey with me as I dive into the Science of Reading. Together let’s explore what cognitive science says about reading proficiency. Let’s learn how phonics is part of the puzzle, and figure out which phonics skills should be taught when. Let’s understand the importance of vocabulary and background knowledge in fostering comprehension, and let’s figure out which reading strategies lead students to greater success as readers, not just in elemenary school but in life.

Cognitive Science has answers for us, and together we can bring reading success to ALL of our students by bringing the science to our classrooms. This is going to be a lot of fun!

Ready for Part 2? Click here for the next post in this blog series.

What IS Science of Reading?

Why Teach Vocabulary?

Let’s face it. Instructional time is precious. There is never enough time to teach the content students didn’t quite master last year, to teach the skills and standards they need to master this year, and to maybe throw in a little something, just for fun. So, why “waste” time intentionally teaching vocabulary?

This post will….

  1. Explain the importance of teaching vocabulary explicitly
  2. Help you understand which words to teach
  3. Give practical tips for teaching vocabulary in any content

Why is teaching vocabulary important?

First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing. There are actually four different ways a student can master a given vocabulary term: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening and speaking are both oral language, and reading and writing are both written language. Children begin to develop oral language skills long before they come to school, but for most students, written language skills begin to develop around the time they enter school. Generally speaking, a student’s largest vocabulary is listening. Students can understand words before they can use them in their own speaking, but the two are connected. In the same way, most students have a larger reading vocabulary than written vocabulary, but the two support each other. More on that in later posts.

Later we’ll get into specific strategies for improving language skills in the four areas. For now, the reasons for teaching vocabulary explicitly mostly overlap.

  1. Knowing the correct word helps students express themselves clearly and be understood – in both speaking and writing. Have you ever witnessed a two-year old’s temper tantrum? Likely, they are expressing their frustration in the only way they know how. They have an idea in their head but they don’t have the word. Then, an adult caregiver comes along and asks, “Would you like me to read this book to you?” The two-year-old calms down, and repeats, “Read.” Now they have the word they need and the frustration passes. Older students may not have temper tantrums, but they still feel frustration when they can’t make themselves understood. Vocabulary instruction helps them have the words to express their ideas and knowledge. Vocabulary = Being Understood
  2. The reverse is also true. When we teach complex concepts (like equivalent fractions), explicit teaching of the term leads to greater understanding of the concept. When students understand that equivalent is similar to, but different from, equal, they begin to grasp the nuances of equivalent fractions. Vocabulary – Greater Understanding
  3. Explicit vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension. That has been well documented in study after study. And it makes common sense. Obviously, students cannot comprehend a text if they do not know the meaning of key words. It has also been well documented that students LEARN new vocabulary through consistent reading. Wide reading = Higher Vocabulary, and Higher Vocabulary = Wide Reading.

Vocabulary = Being Understood
Vocabulary = Greater Understanding
Vocabulary = Wide Reading
Wide Reading = Vocabulary

What to teach?

So, the Oxford English Dictionary defines about 600,000 words. But, that’s not all of the words in English. Some estimates say there are over a million words in English, and it’s ever growing. Do you remember a time you didn’t know the word meme? I do. It was invented after I was born, but I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was out of the mouth of my 14 year old son – probably in 2020. English is a living language – one of the beautiful things about it.

This causes a problem for teachers. Even if we stick with the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and forget all the new words being created, we could never hope to teach them all. The good news is, we don’t have to. In 2002, Beck, Kucan and McKeown published Bringing Words to Life. In the book, they explained that teachers should focus on teaching Tier Two words. Check out these blog posts for more in depth information on Tier Two words.

For now, here is a quick overview.

Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.

Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category.  Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught as needed.

There are about 7,000 Tier Two word families. If you teach a word from each word family, and help students make connections to the other words in the word family, the whole process becomes more manageable. 7,000 divided by 13 years of schooling is 538.46 word families a year. Still lofty, but doable. And as you unlock the meanings of words, remember, you are also opening the door so your students will comprehend text better. And that means they will read more. And that means they will learn more vocabulary from the texts that they read….. And just like that, you have a literate child!

From Theory to Practice

Now we’ve come full circle. You understand why explicit vocabulary instruction is important, but I’m sure you’re asking yourself the question we started with. Where do I find the time?

The answer is simple. Consistent, easy routines that you weave throughout your day, in multiple content areas, will help you explicitly teach the vocabulary your students need to know. This FREE e-book gives you details on 10 EASY to implement strategies. Click the image to grab it for FREE today!

Grab the book and then implement these strategies in your classroom today!

To increase oral language, use these routines:

  1. Capture the Word
  2. Fist of Five
  3. Examples and Non-Examples
  4. Hot Seat

To increase written language, use these routines:

  1. Interactive Notebooks
  2. Capture the Word
  3. Word Wonder
  4. Word Detective
  5. Catergories
  6. Tic-Tac-Toe
  7. Pictionary

These simple routines take little to no prep, and can be implemented in math class, science class, social studies…. Grab the FREE e-book today and give it a try!

Click the image to grab the FREE e-book!

Just click to grab it now!

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Flash Freebie alert! – Twelve Days of Giveaways!

One of my favorite holiday traditions is giving away a resource on my TPT store. This is my third year of doing it – just my little way of saying thank you to other hard working teachers! This year, I have a problem – I can’t decide which resource to give away! So, I’ve decided to give away twelve resources one a day for twelve days! I’ve chosen a good variety of Math, Reading, Vocabulary and Escape Room resources – something for everyone (and not a single Partridge in a Pear Tree – hee hee!)

I’m giving away twelve resources in twelve days – plus a bonus sale on Day 13!

I’m sure you want to know how to get your hands on all these free resources. Several will be revealed here on this blog and others only on Instagram or TPT. Here is what to do to get them all!

  1. Follow me on my blog (if you don’t already!) – Just enter your email on the side of the screen
  2. Follow me on Instagram – instagram.com/mscottonscorner/
  3. Follow me on TPT – Just click here to do that!
  4. Share this blog post with your teacher friends so they get in on all the goodness. Sharing is caring!

And if you love the FREE resources, leave me a review on TPT so that other teachers know what you loved!

Which Resources Will Be FREE and included in the sale?

Click the image to put these resources in your cart today! Then, wait for the day they go on sale to checkout, and get them for FREE! Remember, each resource is free for 24 hours, and each resource will be announced on this blog, TPT OR Instagram!

These are 11 of the resources. There will be one mystery resource so stay tuned! Get these in your cart today, and watch for the first one to be free on December 1! And if you missed them, the are all on sale for one bonus day – today!

I hope this gift helps you get through the holiday season with your sanity intact, and your kids learn something along the way. Have a wonderful holiday – you deserve it!

Happy Teaching!

Susan

Flash Freebie #9 – Escape from Santa’s Workshop

Today’s FLASH FREEBIE is a digital Escape Room about decimals – Escape from Santa’s Workshop.  It is FREE for 24 hours! Grab it on TPT right now before the price goes back up! And be sure to follow me on TPT and Instagram to get all 12 FREEBIES in December!

Your students will love frolicking through the North Pole, solving decimal problems and laughing along the way. There are riddles, codes and rhymes along with some rigorous decimal problems. The decimal concepts covered are plotting decimals on a number line, comparing decimals, rounding decimals and writing decimals in expanded notation. The Form is completely self-grading, so just assign it through your Google Classroom or other LMS, and sit back and watch the fun!

There are still 3 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And there will be a bonus 13th day, so stay tuned!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

FLASH FREEBIE #6 – The Legend of the Poinsettia

Today’s FLASH FREEBIE is the The Legend of the Poinsettia – a traditional tale from Mexico! It is FREE for 24 hours! Grab it on TPT right now before the price goes back up! And be sure to follow me on TPT and Instagram to get all 12 FREEBIES in December!

This resource includes a heartwarming story from Mexico about a gift from the heart. The text is written at a fourth grade level, making it accessible for most intermediate students. They will love this charming tale! The resource also comes with text dependent questions to help students practice inference and summarizing, and a Synonym Craftivity to build vocabulary!

There are still 6 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

FLASH FREEBIE #5 – Gryla and the Yule Lads

This charming tale from Iceland is the fifth FLASH FREEBIE of 12! It is FREE for 24 hours! Grab it on TPT right now before the price goes back up! And be sure to follow me on TPT and Instagram to get all 12 FREEBIES in December!

This resource includes a charming fiction tale from Iceland. Gryla and the Yule Lads are traditional characters from Iceland – they play tricks as they roam the land, leaving gifts for good children and rotten potatoes for naughty ones! The resource also comes with summarizing practice using the Somebody Wanted But So Then format (SWBST). There are teaching supports to help the students summarize the story. The resource also includes 12 Winter Idiom Task Cards with a fun riddle for figurative language practice.

Low prep – just print and teach!

There are still 7 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

Christmas Down Under – FLASH FREEBIE #4

The fourth FLASH FREEBIE is Christmas Down Under. It is FREE for 24 hours! Grab it on TPT right now before the price goes back up! And be sure to follow me on TPT and Instagram to get all 12 FREEBIES in December!

This resource includes a non-fiction text that briefly explains some of the traditions of Christmas in Australia. It also includes a text of the lyrics to a favorite Australian Christmas Carol, Six White Boomers. I’ve turned the lyrics into a fun Mad Lib for extra parts of speech practice! The resource also comes with text dependent questions to help students practice inference and summarizing.

There are still 8 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

FLASH FREEBIE #3 – The Hanukkah Candle – Get it now!

The third FLASH FREEBIE is The Hanukkah Candle. It is FREE for 24 hours! Grab it on TPT right now before the price goes back up! And be sure to follow me on TPT and Instagram to get all 12 FREEBIES in December!

This resource includes two texts – a non-fiction text that briefly explains the history of Hanukkah and a fiction story of a Hanukkah miracle. The story will warm the hearts of your students, and the non-fiction text increases their comprehension by improving their background knowledge. The resource also comes with text dependent questions to help students practice inference and summarizing, and Word Search for vocabulary fun!

Check out the video below for more information!

There are still 9 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

FLASH FREEBIE #2 is FREE for a few more hours!

Did you grab it yet? Be sure to follow MsCottonsCorner on Instagram so you find out about ALL of the Flash Freebies the moment they are FREE! Today’s teaching resource is still FREE for a few more hours! Grab it today!

Hint: Santa Claus is Coming to Town! And you need to teach parts of speech, so you here you go!

There are still 10 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

Did you get the first FLASH FREEBIE?

Just a quick reminder that the Twelve Days of Giveaways has started! There’s still time to find MsCottonsCorner on Instagram and get the link to the first FLASH FREEBIE! (Hint: Winter is coming! On December 21 to be exact. You may want to teach about that….. )

The first resource will be totally FREE for just a few more hours!

There are still 11 MORE FREEBIES in the month of December! Watch for more postings about them on this blog and at MsCottonsCorner on Instagram! And one brand new resource will be revealed in my TPT store. Follow me all three places to ensure that you don’t miss a thing!

And don’t forget to tell your teacher friends. Sharing is caring!

Happy December!

Susan

Teaching Gratitude with Gratitude Stones

This time of year it’s easy to feel grateful. Crisp fall weather, kids who have settled into school routines and begun to learn, pumpkin pie….. These are just a few of the things on my gratitude list this year. And, as always, I was looking for a way to teach that to my students when I found this delightful book, “Gratitude is my Superpower” by Alicia Ortego. The books uses rhyme to tell the story of Betsy and her turtle, Mr. T. Betsy is worried about her pet, so her mom takes her to the garden, and gives her a stone. Betsy learns to use her Gratitude stone to turn her worry into gratitude, and then, she passes it on to another worried child.

I read the story to my kindergarten kiddos today, and it really resonated with them. Many of them connect with feeling worried and sad and disappointed, all emotions that Betsy experiences in the book. To help reinforce the concept of gratitude, today, we made gratitude stones of our own!

Introducing the book

When I introduced the book, we clapped out the word gratitude, and learned that it had three syllables. Then we acted it out by putting our hands on our hearts, and then gesturing out to the world, because gratitude is something that comes from your heart and moves into the world! As we read the book, there are several natural stopping spots where we discussed what Betsy is grateful for, and then I invited the students to share their own ideas. Finally, we made our own gratitude stones to keep for awhile, and then to give away.

Making Gratitude Stones in YOUR classroom!

This was a truly wonderful lesson – one of those moments that resonates with kids and gets them excited about learning and growing. As we worked, the kids naturally fell into conversation about thing they are grateful for. As they worked, I also practiced gratitude words and phases with them, like “Thank you” and “I’m grateful for….” And the best part was, the kids spontaneously thanked the cafeteria workers when we went to lunch a few minutes later! If you’d like to do this with your kids, here is how I did it!

Grab these supplies:

  1. Foam brushes
  2. Small stones
  3. Mod Podge

I put the kiddos to work on a math task that they can do independently, then called 3-4 students back to the STEAM table to work. Each one chose the rock that fit their hand the best, and I used a sharpie marker to write their name on the bottom.

After students choose the “Just Right” rock for them, they decorated with a few stickers. Some students wanted me to write the word “Gratitude” on the rock, so I used the Sharpie to do that.

Students applied the Mod Podge with the brushes. A thin, even layer works best. Students used their fingers to smooth out any wrinkles in the stickers.

The rocks were dry after about an hour, and they are so cute! The kids love them! Check out these pictures, and then give it a try!

Nab Some Non-Fiction – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

In yesterday’s post I reviewed five essential fiction picture books for starting the school year right. The CCSS calls for equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction in the intermediate grades, and that means picture books too. So today, we will dive into five essential non-fiction books for starting the year right. These are books that I have used multiple times and they each offer a different insight for the beginning of the school year. Again, the links are to Barnes and Noble or Amazon in case you need to add any to your classroom library.

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau (Jacques Cousteau Book for Kids, Children's Ocean Book, Underwater Picture Book for Kids)

Manfish by Jennifer Berne

This is a truly marvelous book about an amazing pioneer. I read this story to students every year to launch my Writer’s Workshop. To get the FREE lesson plan, click here!

The book follows the life story of Jacques Cousteau. Not only was he an intrepid pioneer exploring the sea, he also had deep interest and knowledge in inventing, writing and film making. The writing is lyrical and the illustrations are vibrant. You will love this wonderful biography and your students will be inspired by him too.

The Mary Celeste by Jane Yolen

This book by the same author as Encounter is a beautifully written account of a true story – the disappearance of the Mary Celeste in 1872. The mystery has NEVER been solved, and students will have a blast keeping track of the clues and trying to solve the mystery. The last 2 pages of the book give 6 popular theories, but no one knows which one, if any, are correct.

When I read this book, I ask students to try to solve the mystery. It is an illuminating peek into their inference skills. Plus, it’s such a terrific read and it will fly off the shelves as students puzzle over the illustrations and continue to try and solve the mystery.

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History
Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It

Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak

This book is full of charming illustrations and amazing facts about the human brain. It clearly explains how the brain grows and changes over time, and how mistakes are an important part of that. This is a perfect book to launch a growth mindset classroom. Your students will be stretching their brains in no time!

A Second is a Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins

This is a delightful book about time and perfect for launching the beginning of your time together. The book begins with all the things that you can do in a second and continues through a minute, and hour and so on until you reach a full year. And, it rhymes! If any of your students are still working to sort out time, this is great for them. But I like to read it and then do a little dreaming together. After reading the book together, we work through the Hopes and Fears protocol as we think about the year we will spend together. I learn a lot about my students, they learn about each other, and most importantly, the students start to feel some ownership in our classroom.

Unstoppable by Art Coulson

This is a biography about Jim Thorpe, an unstoppable Native American athlete. This story will really grab your athletes, and all of your students will resonate with the story of the underdog defeating the favorite. Many students will also resonate with Jim Thorpe, a young man who didn’t find school engaging. As I read, I watch the body language and listen carefully during turn and talks. The book and our discussion often open a window into how my students are feeling about school. At the beginning of the year, that information helps me build relationships with my students.

There are so many amazing picture book biographies in addition to the two I’ve mentioned here. Bringing non-fiction picture books into your classroom will help you meet your standards and expose students to new content, different perspectives and interesting ideas. And, you can do it in about 10 minutes!

Five Fiction Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Why use picture books in the intermediate classroom? Won’t the kids think they are babyish? Well, that might have been true once (although I could make the case that it was NEVER true), but in recent years, authors have been putting out some amazing picture books aimed at older readers, and even for adults. A high quality picture book has sturdy paper, brilliantly colored illustrations and engaging text. I use picture books in my classroom all year long. Here is why:

  • I can read them in about 10 minutes!
  • They are easy to reread. I often read a picture book for one purpose, and then revisit it for another purpose.
  • The pictures help carry the meaning of the story and provide important scaffolding for ELLs and students with low language skills.
  • Students love to reread them. A picture book doesn’t feel like a major commitment. Even in fifth grade, some students feel overwhelmed by reading chapter book after chapter book. High quality picture books can fill a gap and give students a little rest while still keeping them reading!
  • Students need to be exposed to a wide range of non-fiction, and picture books are a great way to bring that into the classroom. Over the 25 years I’ve been an educator, content standards have narrowed considerably, and it is causing students to be less engaged in school. I don’t blame them! Picture books are a great way to widen their horizons and help them find topics and content that interests them. I meet required reading and writing standards AND engage students in interesting content at the same time.

Following is a list of my favorite fiction books for starting the school year. Be sure to check out tomorrow’s post to get the list of my favorite non-fiction picture books for back to school. I will read all of these books to my fifth graders in the first month of school. There is a lot of junk out there, but I promise, these will all be great reads in your classroom too! Links are to Barnes and Noble in case you need to add any to your classroom library.

Odd Velvet

Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb

This book was published in 1998, and I have probably read it to a group of students every year since it was published. There is plenty here for all ages.

The main character, Velvet, is odd. It’s not just her name, it’s everything about her. She doesn’t have fancy clothes or a big box of crayons, and she doesn’t even like talking dolls! Then, using just eight crayons, Velvet wins an art contest, and the kids begin to see her with new eyes.

This is a lovely story for the beginning of the year because it is a story of learning to accept those who are different from ourselves. As you are building your classroom community, it’s a terrific message to send.

I use this book to launch my Graffiti Wall every year because the language is so marvelous. Be sure to check out the blog post and video where I explain how to do that!

Enemy Pie by Derek Munsun

It’s shaping up to be the worst summer ever. Jeremy Ross has just moved into the neighborhood, and he is public enemy number one! When the protagonist (who is not named) explains this to his dad, dad instantly gets it and helps hatch a plan – to invite Jeremy Ross over and feed him enemy pie. Dad makes the pie, and all the boy has to do is spend one day being nice to his enemy. As the boys spend a fun day on the trampoline and in the tree house, the protagonist realizes that Jeremy isn’t so bad after all, and he warns him not to eat the pie – the act of a true friend!

Enemy Pie (Reading Rainbow Book, Children's Book about Kindness, Kids Books about Learning)

This is a wonderful book to share with kids at the beginning of the year and talk about friendship. What makes a good friend? How can making assumptions about someone stop us from noticing their good qualities? Your kids will love the fun illustrations (by the same illustrator as Odd Velvet!) and you will love the way the discussion moves your classroom community forward.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein

Chances are, you will have at least one perfectionist in your class this year – one student who is afraid to take risks because they might fail. Chances are, it will be one of your highest performing students. This book is for that student.

Beatrice Bottomwell is known far and wide for never making mistakes. She never forgets her homework, she always makes a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the perfect amount of jelly, and she has won the city talent show three years in a row. She has fans waiting to greet her as she heads to school each morning. When she slips and falls carrying the eggs for a muffin recipe, she catches the eggs before they break. She is perfect! But she can’t stop thinking about her Almost Mistake. And she is so afraid of making a mistake that she won’t join her friends as they play on the frozen pond after school.

The night of the school talent show comes again, and everyone, including Beatrice, expects that she will win. But, her juggling act goes awry, and Beatrice finds herself standing on stage, covered in water, and trying to figure out how to handle the situation. That’s when the book becomes so perfect for the perfectionist. Beatrice laughs. And the audience laughs with her. What a wonderful way to handle utter humiliation!

This book is a really great model for handling life’s difficulties, whether students are perfectionists or not. Again, read this early in the year and have conversations about handling failure. If you make failure fine for your students, risk taking will be much more likely in your classroom.

The Other Side

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

This book is told in first person by a young, black girl. As you can see in the cover art, she lives on one side of a fence, and a little white girl lives on the other. Both girls are warned not to go on the other side of the fence because it is dangerous. Eventually, the girls realize that there is no rule about sitting on top of the fence, and in that middle ground, they meet and become friends.

Woodson has such a lovely way with words, so you could easily read this book just for the language. But, it is also a great book to read and discuss the artificial barriers that keep people apart. You can easily bridge to the artificial barriers that likely exist in your own classroom: race, class, language, economic status, cool kids… I have always found that bringing up those issues early in the year before too many problems arise is the best strategy for preventing them from sidetracking your classroom community. This book will help your students find their own middle ground.

Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind by Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley

This is the book I use to introduce my Reader’s Interest Survey. Be sure to check out the blog post about how I do that, and grab the Reader’s Interest Survey on TPT!

Miss Malarkey is determined to find each student a book they will love before the end of the year. The main character is pretty sure she will fail. After all, he hates reading. Maybe you’ve met a student like that….

One by one, his friends and classmates all get bit by the reading bug. But the main character remains completely unimpressed by books. Undeterred, Miss Malarkey keeps trying as he comes up with one reason after another to dislike her picks.

I think you can see why I love this book for the beginning of the year. I tell my students that I am just like Miss Malarkey. I am going to get to know them really well (starting with the Reader’s Interest Survey) and I am going to help them find books that they love. This book opens that door and starts to build our relationship around books.

As June rolls around, Miss Malarkey has gotten to know each of her students, especially the main character, very well. That knowledge of her students helps her find the perfect book for him. She gives him one, final book, hoping to hook him, and she does!

Using picture books in the intermediate classroom opens so many doors and helps you accomplish so many standards! I hope that these books, and the others that you will discover on your own, help you have a more literate classroom this year!

More Ways to Use Picture Books in YOUR Classroom!

  1. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post talks about how to use this book to hook fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s a great gateway book that leads to more reading!
  2. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – This blog post has so many teaching points, including a full video demonstration of one of the lessons, that I needed two posts to cover it all. Check out both parts here!
  3. Players in Pigtails – This is a marvelous historical fiction book about the All Women’s baseball league featured in the movie a League of Their Own. It’s a delightful picture book to share with students!

Tiered Vocabulary Instruction – Properties of Matter

We are about half way through our focus on Matter in Science, and I am feeling pretty good about how things are going. I can tell that my students are beginning to understand the important concepts of the unit because they are using the key vocabulary in their speaking and writing, which means they “own” those words. As you know, if a student has a word for the concept, they likely also have the concept! In this blog post, I’m going to take you through some of the bends in the unit that have gotten my kiddos to this point.

What are the Three Tiers?

The three tiers are a way of thinking about the function of language as you choose vocabulary words to teach your students. Beck and McKeown outlined the tiers in their book “Bringing Words to Life”. For more in depth information on that, be sure to check out this blog post. One important thing to remember is that learning the vocabulary words involves learning to use the words, but not necessarily how to spell them. That is a different goal and different words should be chosen for spelling instruction.

Definition of each Tier

Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.

Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category.  Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught.

Words to Teach

So, the bulk of vocabulary instruction should be Tier Two and Tier Three words, with the majority of time spent on Tier Two Words. The best time to teach Tier Three words is right before a student needs them. For example, if a word is going to be useful in a science lab or a non-fiction text, teach it that day, right before students need it. Word Cards are awesome for that! With our Matter unit, we spent two days on property of matter stations. Many of the target vocabulary words are Tier Three, so I put the Matter Word Cards on the whiteboard and introduced them and also put them at the property of matter stations. By the end of the two days, the kids were using the vocabulary pretty comfortably in their conversation and lab books.

Examples of Tier Two Words

You may be wondering which of the words in the pictures are Tier Two, and which ones are Tier Three. Because I was introducing lab stations, most of the words pictured are Tier Three. In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, and dilute. Interestingly, several of the Tier Two words fall into that category because they are used in cooking, making them more common, and increasing the likelihood that they will be found in a written text.

Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, , mineral, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, dilute

Examples of Tier Three Words

In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation. I’m sure you noticed that most of these words are specific to Science, and rarely found outside of a Science text. These words are essential for students to learn so that they can unlock key Science content. Direct vocabulary instruction is the way to teach these words.

Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation

Instructional Strategies

Now that we’ve defined the words to teach and categorized them, let’s dive into instructional strategies for helping students LEARN them! This part of the blog is going to focus on the ways I’ve been teaching Tier Two words because you’ve already seen how I weave Tier Three instruction into the Science labs, introducing the key vocabulary as the students need it.

First, I used some of the images from the Matter Word Cards to plant seeds of curiosity about the content and vocabulary with a Gallery Walk. This picture is one of the stations, involving several photos, some with text, and students responded with their Noticings and Wonderings. Some of the target vocabulary began to emerge, but not much, so this activity served an an informal assessment, helping me know that direct vocabulary instruction was going to be essential in helping students master the content of the unit.

Next, students read “Everything Matters”. This article contains the foundational knowledge about States of Matter that students should have learned in third grade. To make sure that the foundation is strong, we used a Close Reading Protocol. The directions for the Close Reading protocol are included in the resource, but I did add explicit vocabulary instruction after the first read. I asked students to find, and highlight, these words in the text: mass, volume, substance, molecules, material, conditions, exist, density, compressed, states. We then used the context to predict the meaning of each word. Finally, I showed the students the Word Cards with the definitions and images on them, and we compared the definition with their prediction. Students completed the Comic Strip Performance Task from the resource, which gave them a great opportunity to use some of the words authentically in their writing!

Another strategy I use frequently is making Flapbooks in their Science notebooks. Students fold a page of the notebook in half, and then cut to the fold, making a flap. On the front of the flap, they write the word. Then I ask them if they have heard it before. Next, I ask them to predict the part of speech. Finally, I show them the definition and picture on the Word Card. Students copy the definition inside the flap. Later, they will make their own drawing on the other side of the flap to show their understanding of the word.

Additional Practice Strategies

I hope this has given you some ideas to try in your own classroom. As students learn the words, it’s important that they continue to practice them in a variety of contexts. Games such as Vocabulary Dominoes or I Have, Who Has? are fun ways to practice the target vocabulary. Crossword Puzzles and Word Searches are also fun ways to engage students with target vocabulary. And whole class games like Hot Seat can be a fun way to focus students on vocabulary too (the directions for that are in the resource!). And of course, frequent opportunities to read the words, hear the words and use the words orally and in writing are key!

Resources You Will Love

Check out these resources to help your own students master Matter! Just click!

Be sure to check out these blog posts for more resources and insights to grow your Vocabulary instruction!

  1. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers
  2. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How Can We Teach Them All?
  3. Using Word Walls to Teach Tier Two Vocabulary
  4. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – What Does the CCSS Say?
  5. Wander Words

Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 2

This is the second part of this post – I just couldn’t get it all to fit in one reasonable length post! It’s so wonderful to be part of the education world in a time when authors are really coming through with so many amazing picture books! Be sure to check out the first six books here!

The first post featured books that dealt with the beginning of slavery, the Civil War and into the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. This post will feature books that focus on the more recent past, from the 1930’s to the present day. This part of the list shifts from strict history to books that use the words of black authors to share black experiences with students. Let’s dive in!

The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems

by Langston Hughes

Rating: 5 out of 5.

There is a good reason this book has been in print since 1996 – it’s completely fabulous! Brian Pinkney chose a scratchboard technique for the illustrations that enhances the simplicity of Hughes’ poetry. If you don’t know Langston Hughes, here is the title poem from the book (it is in the public domain).

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,

You dreamers,

Bring me all of your

Heart melodies

That I may wrap them

In a blue cloud-cloth

Away from the too-rough fingers

Of the World.

by Langson Hughes

Teaching Points

As he does in this poem, Langston Hughes wrote repeatedly about the American Dream – it’s fragility and his longing to make that dream a reality for all people, regardless of color. He has a simple, approachable style that makes him perfect for intermediate students. Students in 4th – 6th grades will easily understand all of the vocabulary, making these perfect for teaching poetic techniques like symbolism, personification and metaphor.

Some of my students’ favorite poems from the book include:

  1. Mother to Son
  2. Youth
  3. The Dream Keeper
  4. Poem
  5. Shadow

These poems plus a biography of Hughes and tons of great instuctional materials and Students Sheets are included in Poetry Break – Langston Hughes. Check it out on TPT now! This video features a demonstration of the final lesson in the unit.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou

by Bethany Hegedus

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Even though this book was not written by Maya Angelou, you can hear her voice on every page. The book tells her story. If you’ve read her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you know the story is not a happy one. Hegedus handles the tragedies of Angelou’s life with compassion and nuance, making this an appropriate book for upper intermediate students – grades 5-7. The bold and colorful illustrations are also full of symbolism and nuance. This is a sophisticated picture book that is powerful for teaching deep analysis of text, illustrations, and mood. And the story is riveting.

Teaching Points

Upper grade Reading Standards call for students to analyze visual elements to understand meaning and tone, and this is a perfect book for that. This illustration found on pages 7-8 of the text is especially powerful. The author writes about the “seesaw of the south”, and the illustrator has chosen to make Maya’s Momma Henderson the balance point of the seesaw. And then we see Maya, alone, at the bottom of the seesaw, and a group of white girls in the bucket at the top – clearly defying the law of gravity. This is a powerful illustration of discrimination and of the delicate balancing act that it took for Momma Henderson, and thousands of others, to survive in the segregated south. The book is full of illustrations with a deeper, symbolic meaning that provide a great opportunity for students to practice deep analysis of a text.

For older grade students, it is really powerful to follow this up by having them read Maya Angleou’s poem, Still I Rise. The poem reads like an anthem, and will help students hear Maya’s voice. After reading this picture book of her life, they will easily understand the theme of the poem. One caution, there is a stanza that mentions sexiness. Angelou was a passionate advocate for women, so that is something that she celebrates. If you feel like that is not appropriate for your students, I suggest having students read the first three stanzas and the last two stanzas, and being careful to let them know that it is an excerpt of her longer, really wonderful poem. Here is the first stanza.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Maya Angelou

This Is the Rope

by Jacqueline Woodson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“This Is the Rope” is a simple and beautiful story about a rope that begins with a grandmother in South Carolina and ends with a grand-daughter in Brooklyn. The story has a lovely message about the memories that are carried in our things and also about new beginnings. The family leaves the south during the Great Migration when many black families went north looking for a better life. The rope is a jump rope, and then it ties their belongings to the top of the car. It plays a small role in many events, eventually ending up as a tattered jump rope once again. This is wonderful book for grades 2 – 4.

Teaching Points

I like to use this book to teach theme. The rope weaves in and out of the families’ everyday lives, always part of memories – big and small. Because the same idea is repeated, there is plenty of text evidence to support the idea that the author is talking about the importance of holding fast to memories while moving forward into new experiences. In the author’s note, Woodson writes, “The rope we brought to this ‘new country’ was Hope.” Once students realize that the rope symbolizes hope, they are usually able to infer the theme.

Lillian’s Right to Vote

by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a moving tribute to all of the people who worked, across time, to ensure that a 100 year old woman could vote for the first black president of the United States. The title character was inspired by a real woman, but the author has used her walk up the hill to her polling place to symbolize the long journey towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lillian is joined by the memories of her ancestors as their lives move from enslavement to freedom, from voting under the 15th Amendment to discrimination under Jim Crow. As she continues trudging up the hill, she remembers John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their march becomes her march. She “hears” Lyndon Johnson’s words as he signed the Voting Rights Act, and finally, finally, she votes.

Teaching Points

This is another book with powerful symbols in it. The entire book is an extended metaphor, exploring the challenges that Black Americans have faced in the voting booth. Throughout the book, Lillian climbs the hill and the struggle for voting rights unfolds.

“But as Lillian continues, and the hill gets steeper – my, but that hill is steep – she sees what happens just twenty years later: right here in Alabama, there’s her grandpa Isaac at the courthouse, being charged a poll tax to vote…”

from Lillian’s Right to Vote

This is a wonderful book for upper grade students, grades 5-7. It helps them understand the history of the Voting Rights Act, and its impact today, and its erosion. In addition to the great history, students will increase reading comprehension by exploring the literary device of extended metaphor. There is one illustration of a man begin sold without clothes, so if you think your students will be worried by that illustration, you might choose not to show that page when you read aloud. Or, you could have a mature conversation about the reality of being enslaved. The illustration is tasteful and not explicit, but it is something you will want to think about before reading this book aloud.

Brown Sugar Babe

by Charlotte Watson Sherman

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I wanted to end this blog post with two books that are pure celebrations! The first is Brown Sugar Babe. This book begs to be read aloud! It’s a poem to the beauty of all things brown. In the beginning, a little brown-skinned girl says, “I’m pink.” Her mama then spends the rest of the poem celebrating the beauty of brown all around us. This is a lovely book for students in grades 2-5. They will easily connect with the positive message and the love between the mother and the child.

Teaching Points

This book is chock-full of metaphors. “Brown is a plum spurting sweetness on our tongues.” “Brown tastes like pancakes and syrup and caramel and spice…” Almost every page has a metaphor on it, making this a perfect book for figurative language. I actually use this book as part of a poetry unit that I teach in the spring, not during Black History month. I read Hailstones and Halibut Bones to my students along with this book. That book also features poems written with metaphors and exploring our feelings about colors. My students then use their understanding of metaphors to write their own color poem. It’s a quick unit, only about a week or so, but helps students really understand figurative language and use it consistenly in their own writing.

The Undefeated

by Kwame Alexander

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The final book is Kwame Alexander’s celebration of spirit and grit and persistence. This is a powerful poem, especially if students have some background knowledge. Woven throughout the poem are references to people who have survived, and the art that helped them overcome. For example, one page reads, “This is for the unafraid, the audacious ones, who carried the red, white and Weary Blues on the battlefield to save an imperfect Union.” The line is wonderful on its face, but becomes more meaningful if students realize that Weary Blues was Langston Hughes’ first book of poetry. There are other references to Hughes, who must be an inspiration for Alexander. This poem certainly connects in many ways with Hughes’ themes of hope and the American Dream.

Teaching Points

I use this poem to teach prefixes and to practice compare and contrast. For me, the poem is a perfect follow up after I teach this Langston Hughes unit to my students. We compare and contrast Alexander’s poem with Mother to Son (scroll up to see the video for info on how I teach that poem). I read Alexander’s book out loud to the students and we discuss his theme of overcoming. Then I like to show this video of Alexander reading it to a group of school age teens. I love bringing in the author’s voice. After the students have heard the poem twice, I ask them to complete a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the two poems, and then use that Venn diagram to write a compare and contrast paragraph.

If your students are not familiar with Langston Hughes, there are still plenty of wonderful things you can teach with this book. Alexander ties the poem together with many words that begin with the prefix un (unafraid, undefeated, unforgettable, unflappable, undeniable…) Give students a copy of the text, or project it, and ask them to record all of the words with the prefix. I like to ask students to choose 3-5 words from our class list. They fold a piece of paper in half the hot dog way to create two columns. In one column, they write the word, and in the other, they illustrate it. Then, I have students fold the papers the other way, so the word faces them and the illustration faces outward. Then I give students a star sticky note and ask them to grab a pencil. Students move around the classroom, showing their illustrations ONLY to other students. The other student has to use the illustration to guess the word. If they guess correctly, both students mark a star on their stickies, and then move on to another student. This activity gives students lots of practice using target vocabulary and thinking about the meaning of the word. And, they think it’s fun!

I hope that you have found a book or three to add to your classroom library. 🙂 This is a theme that I have writing about for years, so, if you missed these blog posts, check them out now for more resources and insights to grow your teaching!

Happy teaching!

More blog posts to check out:

  1. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – Just in case you missed the first part of this two-part blog post!
  2. A Girl Like Me – This blog post features strageties for using this powerful, 7-minute film to help students understand the hidden cost of segregation.
  3. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post explores a powerful book for fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s great for 3-6 grade readers.
  4. Five Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – This is my all-time favorite list of books, and includes another Jacqueline Woodson title – The Other Side.

Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 1

With so many amazing picture books out there, it was hard to narrow it down to a manageable list! These are the first six books of the 12 that my students and I love every year. Check back in a few days for the rest of the list!

This list is roughly in chronological order, and I give suggestions for teaching points for each book. Reading the books in order would give students a solid understanding of Black History in America, but of course, some of the books connect to content, and might best be taught within a unit (for example, on the Revolutionary War). However you bring these books to your classroom, you will be glad that you did. Enjoy!

All links are to Amazon.

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

The 1619 Project; Born on the Water

by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This book was not at all what I expected. I loved The 1619 Project for adults, and I was expecting essays and history, like the adult book. Instead, I got informational poetry. Poetry! That fills my heart and my mind! The book is appropriate for students in grades 5-8.

The book opens with a girl who has been given a class assignment. In clear, easy-to-understand free verse, the authors set up a situation that any kids can connect with – how to complete a class assignment when you have no idea where to begin. Each poem builds on the previous ones, slowly telling the story of The First Africans, their kidnap, but also their culture and resistance throughout history. The illustrations add a depth to the poetry, and help students understand that the dark times of history can include joy, resilience and power by the people living them.

This non-fiction leveled text tells the history of the First African’s arrival in Jamestown, and makes a great companion to this picture book.

Teaching Points

This is a great book to use for teaching free verse, one of the most approachable forms of poetry. Throughout the book, you can find examples of imagery, symbolism and metaphors – key aspects of successful free verse. Towards the end of the book, the poem “Legacy” is a beautiful example of irony. The second and third stanzas are excellent examples, and will help your students understand and recognize irony in other poetry.

Your Legacy; A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History

by Schele Williams

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This story tells the history of Black Americans from their arrival in 1619 to the present. It highlights cultural, scientific and historic accomplishments from history, and awakens students’ interest in further research. The text is highly accessible and the book is appropriate for students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are bold and powerful, just like the text, and key character traits are highlighted throughout the book. When I read this book to my students, they applauded, and then had so many, many questions!

Teaching Points

This is a perfect book for teaching character traits. Words like “ingenuity”, “grace”, and “dignity” are reinforced several times throughout the book. After we read the book, I wrote the key words on the board, and we briefly discussed the meaning of each word and it’s part of speech (most are nouns). Then, students looked up a word of their choice in the dictionary to find the adjective form of the word. That formed the basis for a writing assignment about a Civil Rights Activist of their choice. For the texts that I gave students for their research on activists, click here.

The Untold Story of the Black Regiment: Fighting in the Revolutionary War (What You Didn't Know About the American Revolut...

The Untold Story of the Black Regiment; Fighting in the Revolutionary War

by Michael Burgan

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This book is a terrific way to introduce the Revolutionary War. It is a chapter book, but with only 59 pages, it is an easy read-aloud to get through in about 3 sessions. If you teach the Revolution in 4th or 5th grade, this is a great book to bring in at the beginning of your unit. The author has included a basic overview of the war, including key battles and causes of the Revolution. There are also all the great text features that you expect in a non-fiction book. I usually have the document camera on when I read this aloud so that students can see the illustrations, captions, headings and sidebars.

Teaching Points

In my classroom, I read this non-fiction book to my students at the end of our unit on Colonial America and right before we begin learning about the Revolution. It builds some important background knowledge and also gives an untold perspective on the war, raising the question, “If the founders valued their own freedom so deeply, why didn’t they free the slaves when they set up the new country?” That is a powerful lens to set up at the beginning of a unit on the Revolutionary War, and helps my students have a more nuanced view of the conflict. The book traces the entire war from the perspective of the black soldiers and patriots. I follow up by having my students read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. The two books together help students understand the Revolution from many angles.

My Name is James Madison Hemings

by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a beautiful book, and would work well with students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are gentle water colors and the text is poignant and moving. Told in first person from the perspective of an enslaved boy, the book weaves a story of a complicated father-son relationship. At the end, the narrator reveals that his father was Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, including some he fathered. The story is true, and told in a matter of fact way that keeps the book approachable. Because the book is narrated in first person, the reader asks the same questions that James asks – questions like, “How can I be both his slave and his son?” As in life, the book does not have answers, so students must grapple with the contradiction of a man who brought freedom to many while enslaving his children. It’s a truth that we all have to face at some time, and this book is a perfect way to ease into that conversation with students.

Teaching Points

I like to use this story to teach point of view in narrative writing. There is a paragraph about half way through the book where James is watching the other slaves work and thinking about his father’s promise that some day he will be free. With my class, I first read that paragraph as it was written. Then, we rewrite the paragraph together in third person and read the new version. The students and I analyze both versions, side by side, to better understand how the choice of narrator can affect a narrative. It’s a powerful lesson and helps my students think about first and third person narrators in their own writing.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

by Deborah Hopkinson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a beautiful book that tells the story of a determined young woman, Sweet Clara. She begins the story as a field hand, grueling work that only the strongest survive. At night she learns to sew, and eventually becomes a seamstress in the Big House. There, she learns about the Underground Railroad and begins to gather information about the route to the Ohio River, the beginning of the Underground Railroad. She pieces the information together into a quilt, and finally, she and her familiy make it to freedom.

Teaching Points

One of the things I love about the story is the voice. The author tells the story in first person, and the voice is all Sweet Clara’s. You get a sense of who she is – her intelligence, her strength, her point of view – just by the words the author puts in her mouth. If you are going to read this aloud, definitely practice. You will want to correct the grammar as you read but if you do, your will miss much of the voice. Through Sweet Clara’s voice, we really come to know her, making this is perfect book to teach character analysis.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Most sports fans, and students of history, know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black player in Major League Baseball. But this book tells the lesser known story of how Jackie Robinson took on segregation in the US Military – and won! The author has a factual, yet engaging style that makes this a really great read aloud. Students will also enjoy the colorful illustrations as they get to know Jackie as a person of dignity and integrity. This is a powerful book for students in grades 3-6.

Teaching Points

The book is well written and organized chronologically, so we first meet Jackie as a student and an outstanding athlete. The text organization makes this a perfect book to practice summarizing. Be sure to check out this resource for support with that! I also like to teach language with this, specifically, prepositional phrases. Situating grammar within a text helps students see how to use grammar to make their own writing more descriptive and/or powerful. In this text, there are many really great passages that illustrate how to effectively use prepositional phrases. Check out this power-packed sentence, which includes 6 prepositional phrases!

“Within moments of the bus arriving at Jack’s stop, a crowd of angry white people surrounded Jack, yelling at him to know his place, calling him names.”

The Unted States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

This resource on TPT has Lesson Plans and Student Sheets to help students summarize and practice language skills. Check it out today!

Happy teaching!

More blog posts to check out:

  1. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – Part 2 of this blog post
  2. A Girl Like Me – This blog post features strageties for using this powerful, 7-minute film to help students understand the hidden cost of segregation.
  3. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post explores a powerful book for fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s great for 3-6 grade readers.
  4. Five Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – This is my all-time favorite list of books, and includes another Jacqueline Woodson title – The Other Side.

Lesson Plan – Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

As we celebrate the holiday in honor of Dr. King and move into Black History month in February, I want to share one of my favorite resources for teaching the Civil Rights Movement with you. As an extra bonus, these BOOM Cards are digital, so you can use them no matter your teaching situation! Here is how I used these BOOM Cards this year in person, AND how I modified the lesson last year for remote learning. Whatever your teaching situation, I’ve got you covered!

Make sure to check out the FREE resources linked at the bottom of the post!

In Person Instruction

Activate Background Knowledge:

I begin the lesson by asking students, “What are Civil Rights? Who has Civil Rights? Do you?” This question activates students’ background knowledge and also their curiosity. In truth, the phrase Civil Rights is used so frequently that it has kind of lost its meaning. So, we have a brief discussion about Civil Rights.

This year, one of my students gave a great example. He said that Civil Rights are the rights that people have but that he doesn’t have as many civil rights as adults because he is a child. He used driving as an example. My class had a great discussion about the rights, and responsibilities, of being a driver. We then talked about other examples of people who had, or did not have, Civil Rights. They mentioned voting rights, rights to an education, and the right to choose your own job.

Objective:

After we activate background knowledge and curiousity about Civil Rights, I give students the objective for the lesson. Along with this main objective, they will also have the opportunity to practice inferring and deepen their understanding of key vocabulary.

After completing these digital task cards, students will be able to summarize key events from the Civil Rights Movement and place them in order on a timeline.

Teaching the Content:

For this lesson, I ask each student to log into the BOOM Cards on their own computer, but sit in groups of three. As the lesson progresses, we will bounce back and forth from whole class to small group to independent work.

The task cards begin with the arrival of the first Africans on the White Lion. (If you want a more detailed resource about that, be sure to check out this resource – The First Africans; a leveled reading passage with comprehension questions.) I ask my students to read the text on the first task card to themselves. Then, in their group, I ask them to discuss what they see in the image on the Task Card. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

The next two Task Cards talk about the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow laws. I teach students how to read Emancipation Proclamation, and then ask them to read the next two cards in their group. As a class, we discuss the mearning of the word segregation, and the students answer the question on the task card independently.

The next three task cards deal with desegregating the military, schools, and busses. Students read these task cards in their groups, and then we discuss boycotts. I begin the discussion by asking students, “Do you think a boycott can be successful at changing something in society?” It’s a good discussion because the text evidence is all about the Supreme Court making the changes, and so students are divided on whether or not they think the boycotts were effective.

-Lesson Break-

This is usually a good place to break the lesson up. One of the things I love about BOOM Cards is that they automatically save a student’s progress. I think it is more powerful to spread this content over two days than to cram it all into one day. The kids need time to process this information, and they usually come back on the second day even more eager to learn the next part of the story.

If you break the lesson up, begin the second day by projecting the task cards your students have already read. I gather the students on the rug WITHOUT their computers and we go through the first task cards together. This helps remind them of what they already know, and also gives ELLs and struggling readers a chance to revisit key vocabulary and ideas.

The next card teaches students about the sit-ins at the Woolworths counters. We discuss what it means to be denied service and then I ask, “Do you think a sit-in will be effective?” Just like with the boycotts, students are usually mixed on their views.

The next card is about the Children’s Crusade, and in my experience, is the card that students have the strongest reaction too. For that reason, I always read that task card aloud to them. After I read the card, I turn to the next card and we analyze the photo of the Children’s Crusade as a class. Together, these two task cards really are the meat of the resource. Once we have discussed the photo, students usually have no trouble making an inference about the photographer’s purpose in taking the photo.

At this point in the lesson, it is time to release students to work independently on the rest of the task cards. I always try to gradually release responsibility to the students, and this is a good place to get them to work independently. They will answer a question about the March on Washington, organize key events on a timeline and fill in the blank to answer vocabulary questions.

Remote Learning

The basic flow of the lesson is the same, whether or not I teach in person or remotely. However, these digital tools help the lesson go better remotely.

Activate Background Knowledge:

I use a Jamboard for this. I asked each student to respond to one of the Jamboards. Engaging students remotely is very difficult. By giving them a choice (which question do you want to respond to?) and requiring their participation, I was able to hook the students. We then briefly discussed and organized their responses to group similar ideas.

Objective:

This doesn’t change for remote learning.

Teaching the Content:

For remote learning, I did not break the lesson up over two days. I began the lesson by reading the first 3 slides to the kids and working through them as a whole group. I then sent them to Breakout Rooms to work on the rest of the slides as a group of three – again, gradually releasing resposibility to the students. I checked in on the groups often to help keep them on track. And then I ask each student to complete, in addition to the BOOM Cards, a padlet answering the question, “Which event from the BOOM Cards do you think was most important in increasing Civil Rights for African Americans? Why was it important?”

I hope that this lesson plan helps you see ways to use these BOOM Cards in your classroom, no matter what your teaching situation is. If you have never used BOOM Cards, you can get a free trial here. Start with these FREE BOOM Cards about the Women’s Suffrage Movement from my TPT store, and if you love them, grab the Civil Rights Movement BOOM Cards. I think you will find that they are a versatile tool for your classroom, no matter your teaching situation.

Happy Teaching!

Click the pictures below for Easy-to-Use resources for teaching Civil Rights.

Click the pictures below for FREE Civil Rights resources!

Making a Spiral Thinking Strip

Making a Spiral Thinking Strip is easy! This craftivity will make a small book with 16 pages. It’s perfect for summarizing a chapter book (see this blog post on using it to summarize Bridge to Terabithia for more info on that!)

Spiral Thinking Strips are also great for:

  1. Recording math fact families
  2. Sequencing
  3. Gathering text evidence
  4. Making words with prefixes or suffixes
  5. and many more ideas!

Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for a video demonstration of how to make the Spiral Thinking Strip!

Materials

To make a Spiral Thinking Strip, all you need is a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. In this example, I used a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of printer paper. You can use a larger size if you want, and the size of your “pages” will be larger. It is most helpful to use thin paper because of all the folding.

Directions

  1. Fold the piece of paper in half 4 times to make 16 sections.
  2. Open the paper completely. You should see four rows and four columns.
  3. Place your scissors at the fold which separates the final column from the third column. Cut on the fold until you have cut 3/4 of the paper. Do not cut past the fold that marks the top row.
  4. Turn your scissors. Cut down the fold between the top row and the second row. Stop when you get to the first column. Do not cut all the way to the edge!
  5. Turn your scissors. Continue cutting, creating a spiral by cutting each fold until you get one space away from the edge or a cut. Then turn and cut inward again.
  6. Once your have your spiral, fold back and forth, like a fan, until you reach the final rectangle. And now you have a Spiral Thinking Strip!

I have found these little “books” to be a versatile and fun foldable for students. Give it a try and leave a comment to let us know how you used it in your classroom!

How to Video

Summarizing with a Spiral Thinking Strip

Summarizing is so key for reading success. According to Hattie’s meta-analysis, summarizing has a .79 effect size on achievement, which is almost double the average! Clearly, summarizing is an important strategy to teach kids to improve their reading achievement!

What is summarizing?

Summarizing is the skill of giving a brief statement of the main points. An important part of summarizing is discerning what is important, and what is NOT! Sometimes students go on and on and on in their summaries. That’s actually a retelling, not a summary. Retelling is a much lower cognitive skill and basically involves short term memory. Summarizing is a much more difficult skill, and involves decision making about what should be included and what should be left out. A good summary should lead the reader to the theme of a fiction work. For more information about summarizing, I higly recommend Strategies at Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.

Classroom Example – Bridge to Terabithia

Right now we are reading Bridge to Terabithia in my classroom. My students are really responding to the realism in the book, and they are connecting personally to the main characters, Jess and Leslie. It is a subtle book, and the main characters have a really complex friendship. So, that makes it a perfect book to practice summarizing with. As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary. Each chapter has several events that students connect with. For example, in chapter 1, we meet Jesse’s family. He is the only boy, and he is surrounded by difficult sisters. Most students identify with Jess, but for different reasons. Some identify with him because of his mean older sisters, others because he does an outsized share of the chores, and still others sympathize because May Belle follows him everywhere. In addition to meeting his difficult family, in the first chapter, students find out Jesse’s deepest ambition – to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. Some students identify with that goal, or have the experience of working hard to achieve a goal themselves.

As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary.

Then, I tell students that we are going to write a one sentence summary of each chapter. One sentence! You can hear them gasp, can’t you?

This is where the power of summarizing lies. Students must first identify all of those important aspects of the first chapter. Then, they have to synthesize, or put them together. Finally, they have to craft a well written sentence. Together, we decided that a compound sentence was necessary. For the first part of the sentence, we synthesized all of the difficult aspects of Jesse’s home life to read “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life.” We then summarized his amibition with this sentence, “He dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.”

Then, we connected the two sentences to create this compound sentence, which summarizes the main aspects of the chapter nicely. “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life, and he dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.” Students record that sentences in their Spiral Thinking Strip, and then keep it to add on to each day.

In one lesson, students have practiced:

  1. Synthesizing events
  2. Identifying important events
  3. Writing Compound Sentences

And of course, many of them have fallen in love with a new book and a new author! Not bad for 20 minutes!

Why use a Spiral Thinking Strip?

Well, Spiral Thinking Strips are versatile and great for many reasons!

  1. They only take one piece of paper.
  2. Students think they are fun, and teachers do too!
  3. The small size of the “pages” limits students and helps them understand that summary statements need to pack a lot of information in a small space.
  4. When students finish, the “pages” are automatically sequenced, another key aspect of a strong summary.

This video shows the completed Spiral Thinking Strip from Bridge to Terabithia.

To learn how to make a Spiral Thinking Strip, check out this How-to blog post and video!

Spiral Thinking Strips are one instructional strategy that will help your students master the key strategy of summarizing. Give it a try in your classroom today, and leave a comment to let us know how it goes!

Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals with Students

Goal setting is an important strategy for motivating students and raising their achievement. Done correctly, it will empower your students, giving them ownership and voice over their learning. For more on how I set goals with students, check out these blog posts:

Getting into Goals

Goal Setting

In this blog post, I will go into detail about how to write S.M.A.R.T. goals with students. S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based. That simple recipe can result in very strong goals that will motivate your students!

First, feel free to download this free SMART Goal template from my TPT store. The template walks students through the acronym and gives a sample goal. Using the template for your first lesson makes setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals a piece of cake! And if you need Data Tracking and Goal Setting Sheets, check out this Student Data Binder, which includes more than 110 Students Sheets to bring goals and data tracking to your classroom!

S = Specific

The first part of the acronym stands for specific. I find that students often make goals like, “I want to be a better reader” or “I want to get a higher grade”. Neither of those goals are specific, and so, most likely, the student will fail. What, exactly, does a student need to do to improve in reading? Are they struggling to decode multi-syllabic words? Are they reading slowly and losing meaning? Do they need more practice with inferential thinking? To be effective, a goal should be very specific. That is the reason that I DON’T set goals in the first month of school. First, we have to gather data. Then, we use the data to pinpoint a Specific area for improvement.

M = Measurement

A goal must be measurable, or the student will not know if they’ve succeeded. Measurable does not always mean percentages, though. For example, in my classroom, students often set goals around reading new genre or a certain number of books. Those are very worthwhile goals, and likely to lead to improved reading achievement. And they are completely measurable, although not a percentage or a score. In Math, my students often set a goal around time spent practicing. For example, one student set a goal of doing Multiplication by Heart at least 20 times in the month of December. I can’t wait to get back to school and find out if she met her goal! If she did, she is sure to improve in her mastery of multiplication facts!

A = Achievable

I often find that students set really large, exciting goals. For example, this year one student said they wanted to read 100 chapter books. When I asked them how many books they read last year, they thought the number was 12 books. So, I asked them if they thought 100 was achievable. Together, we decided to see if they could read 10 books in October, and they did! The student felt excited, I felt excited, and in one month they read almost as many books as they had in an entire year. That is a win! By helping them find an achievable goal, I helped that student find success! (They went on to read 11 books in November!)

R = Relevant

A common mistake I see in this category is students making a goal around increasing their reading level. The truth is, that goal is not relevant to them. While you, the teacher, know that they need to increase their fluency and comprehension by practicing their inference skills in order to reach the next level, the student does not know that. Changing reading levels is a mystery to students (and probably to parents). As teachers, we go to college to learn that type of information, but the student does not have our advantage. So, the goal needs to be relevant to the student. This also ties into being Specific. Relevant goals for students center around discrete skills or tasks, like mastering the multiplication facts, using more dialogue in their narrative writing and reading more non-fiction texts.

T = Time-based

A goal has a start and stop time. Period. This is usually pretty easy for students to understand. In my classroom, we generally set monthly goals. I find that a month is a short enough time period that students will maintain their enthusiasm and focus on the goals. But, it is a long enough time period that students can see important growth. I think quarters or trimesters also work well for goal setting time periods.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals have been such a motivator for many of my students. Use the FREE Goal Setting Student Sheet and give them a try in your classroom. I think you’ll find that, when students set meaningful goals, they generally achieve them and learning happens!

This Student Data Binder includes over 110 Student Sheets for Data Tracking and Goal Setting!
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Practicing Vocabulary with Beat the Clock

One of my favorite strategies for practicing vocabulary is Beat the Clock. This is a simple game where students compete against the clock, and themselves, to complete vocabulary tasks. It is a versatile strategy that can be used with any content and in a variety of ways, and it’s great as a final review before a test. In this blog post I will detail two variations.

Beat the Clock – True/False

To prep for this version, create 15-20 True/False statements using the target vocabulary. This example comes from my Powers of Ten Prefix Unit.

I recommend trying it out and timing yourself to decide how much time to give the kids to complete the task. In this example, I was able to answer the questions in about 30 seconds, so I tripled that and gave the kids 90 seconds. Most kids are able to finish the task in that time, so they feel successful right away.

To play with students:

  1. Put students in pairs. One partner will try to “Beat the Clock” and the other will watch the timer.
  2. Partner A goes first, and completes the task. Partner B tells them how long it took to complete the task, and Partner A records their time in the upper corner.
  3. Then it’s Partner B’s turn to “Beat the Clock”. Once both partners have had a turn, show the class the correct answers. Then, the power of the strategy is in doing it all again!
  4. The second time around, I generally mix up the order of the statements or change the definitions slightly. Even so, students almost always improve their time or their accuracy on the second round.

Beat the Clock – Vocabulary Puzzles

To prep for this version of the activity, you need to create Vocabulary Puzzles, similar to these ones from my Powers of Ten Prefix Puzzle resource.

Again, before you give the task to students, time yourself doing the task. Then, double or triple your time for the kids.

  1. I like to do this one as a partner task as well, but this time, the partners are working together to complete the puzzles. There are 20 puzzles in this resource, and because the shapes help the students, it is not that difficult. I give my students 2 minutes to do this with their partner.
  2. Once the 2 minutes are up, I project the Answer Key, which is included in the resource. Then, I ask the kids to mix up their cards and pass their set on to another group. This ensures that the cards are mixed up. 🙂
  3. Once every group has a new set of prefix cards, we try again!

Beat the Clock is so effective because it’s simple to use and takes hardly any time! Your competitive kids will love it! Students who are less competitive generally don’t mind competing against the clock and themselves, so it can feel like a low risk to them.

Give Beat the Clock a try today – I think you, and your kiddos, will love it!

Five Great Ways to Use Task Cards

In my last post, I gave you some strategies for dusting off all those Google Slides you made/borrowed/bought during distance learning. Now that you are back in the classroom, they still have a place! But of course, being back in person means we have the opportunity to use Task Cards again, so this post will feature my favorite ways to use them.

Why use Task Cards?

Anytime you are planning to use a work sheet, ask yourself if you could use Task Cards instead. Task Cards give students the opportunity to move around the classroom, to collaborate, to spend time with a concept or breeze through more quickly. A worksheet is more static and less dynamic. So, if you can use Task Cards, you will most likely increase student engagement, and we all know that minds on means more learning!

I use Task Cards:

  1. To give students extra practice with a skill.
  2. To give students choice.
  3. To review before a test.
  4. To get kids using target vocabulary and communicating about Big Ideas!
  5. Anytime I want students to be engaged and on task!

So, here are some of the ways I like to use Task Cards in my classroom!

Walkabout

This is a simple way to use Task Cards and get kids moving. This strategy works great for math problems or vocabulary words. It’s perfect for these Wander Words Task Cards.

To use this strategy, simply tape the Task Cards around the room, and even out the door and down the hall. Space them a few feet apart. Then, give kids their Recording Sheet and set them loose. This strategy works great for collaboration. I often pair students up with two Recording Sheets and ask them to agree on the answers.

One thing that is great about this strategy is that the kids can go in any order, so there is no congestion. Another thing I love about this strategy is that there is built-in differentiation. I organize the Task Cards strategically, and then I start the students strategically. For example, I might put the Task Cards in order from simplest to most difficult. Then, I start students who are struggling with the first Task Card and more confident learners with the Task Cards in the middle. As students rotate, they are appropriately challenged.

Scavenger Hunt

A Scavenger Hunt can be a fun way to keep kids engaged. If the Task Cards don’t include a Scavenger Hunt, it is easy to add one. Simply find a riddle (check out a book in the library or the internet for TONS of riddles) and then put one letter of the answer on each Task Card. As students solve the problem, the answers to the questions spell out the answer to the riddle.

What’s great about this strategy is how fun it is – I love it when kids laugh in the classroom! Students do not need to solve the Task Cards in order, and it can be helpful to have them start at different places in the Scavenger Hunt so that they are not bottlenecked at one Task Card. This strategy works great with a partner, and it is self-checking! If students have the answer to the riddle, they have the correct solutions to the problems!

These Task Cards have a Scavenger Hunt all ready to use! You can get them as a printable, use them in EASEL, or grab the Google Slides version! Click to grab them on TPT.

Scoot

This is another fun way to get the kids to use the Task Cards.  Students feel like this is a game, and the Task Cards do the moving, which is fun for the kids. You will need to make several copies of the cards – enough so that each student will have one card. I really like Scoot as a test review the day before.

  1. Students sit in a large circle with their Recording Sheet on a clipboard.  You could also have them sit in table groups.
  2. They begin with one card and solve the problem. 
  3. Set a timer for two minutes.  At the end of the timer, the task card SCOOTS to the right, and students get two minutes to respond to a new challenge.
  4. This is a quick strategy, and sometimes students don’t finish in time, which can be frustrating for some students. Adjust the timer appropriately for your students and the task on the card.
  5. Students do not need to finish every card, so you can strategically arrange the cards to differentiate for your students.
  6. It is helpful to go over the correct answers so that students get immediate feedback.

These Task Cards give you a double whammy – learning important content and practicing prefixes at the same time! They work great for Scoot, or for your favorite Task Card strategy.

Relays

This is another great strategy for reviewing before the test. For this strategy, students work in pairs to solve problems. You will need enough copies of the Task Cards for each pair of students.

  1. Pair students, putting together one confident student and one that is still struggling to master the content. One student will be the coach and the other will be the “athlete”. The athlete has the pencil and the coach has the Task Card. The coach reads the Task Card to the athlete. The athlete has to solve the problem. The coach checks for accuracy, encourages the athlete and gives suggestions, but not the answer.
  2. Then, the athlete brings the problem to the teacher to check. If they have the right answer, the teacher gives them a new Task Card, and they become the coach for the other student. If they don’t have the right answer, the teacher asks them to to try again.
  3. Student keep switching back and forth until they’ve solved the problems and reviewed for the test.

These Task Cards also have a Scavenger Hunt, but they work great for a Relay! Students work together to solve word problems and tasks related to volume.

Small Group – Intervention and Extension

Task Cards work great when you are working with a small group. I used these Task Cards at the beginning of the year to review 4th grade place value concepts for my fifth graders. The 40 Task Cards provided plenty of variety and challenge for the different levels of my students.

If you have a good set of Task Cards with a good variety, you can easily use them for Small Groups. I sort the Task Cards in advance by challenge level. Then, I group my students according to their level. With some groups I use mostly the easier Task Cards, and with other groups I use the more difficult problems. A good set of Task Cards can easily give me a week’s worth of Small Group lesson plans!

These are my favorite ways to use Task Cards in my classroom. I hope you give one of these ideas a try and find that it helps engage your students and leads to learning!

Happy Teaching!

Susan

How to Use Google Slides in the Real Classroom

Google Slides are an extremely versatile tool, and probably saved my bacon during last year’s distance learning adventure. Maybe you feel the same, and now you are wondering, what do I do with all those Google Slides? The answer is, you use them, of course! You put blood, sweat, tears and money into creating or buying them, and they have a place in the Real Classroom! Here are four ways I am using them this year, with my real, live, in person students!

Task Cards

One thing teachers often forget is that you can print Google Slides and use them as Task Cards. And who doesn’t love a Task Card? It’s very easy to print. This 1-minute video walks you through it. I recommend using the Print Preview option so that you know what you are printing. Below the video, I’ve also included step-by step instructions.

Click here to grab the Holly-themed Volume Task Cards today!

Printing Google Slides as Task Cards

  1. Open your Google Slides.
  2. Click “File” and then “Print Settings and Preview”.
  3. Choose the print configuration you like. I prefer “Handout – 2 Slides Per Page” and “Portrait” orientation.
  4. Click “Print”.

Pass the Pencil

This is a fun game that you can play with the whole class. You will need one recording sheet for each pair of students, a timer and your computer and projector.

Prep Steps:

  • Copy one recording sheet for each pair of students.
  • Find a timer that you can set for 10-15 seconds. Choose a quicker time for multiple choice Task Cards or content that your students are comfortable with. Choose a longer time if there are steps to complete or the content is newer. For example, every year I use these Thanksgiving Order of Operations Cards with my students. Because they have to work out Order of Operations problems, I give them 15 seconds. This year, I may even give them 30 seconds since we are a little behind where we would usually be in November.
  • Put students in pairs. I group them strategically with one student who is confident in the content and one who is struggling.

Playing the Game

  1. Each pair of students has one recording sheet and one pencil, which they pass after each question. They are working together to get the highest team score possible.
  2. Project the first Task Card and read it to the students. Make sure you are in Present Mode so the students don’t see the thumbnails of the next problems. Then, start the timer.
  3. The pair of students work together to solve the first problem, but only ONE student gets to hold the pencil. The second student can “coach” them, but can’t write! Generally, the second student rereads the problem, gives pointers and hints and checks for accuracy.
  4. The first partner does the work and records the answer on the recording sheet. If a pair gets the correct answer in the time you have set, their team gets a point.
  5. Then, students “Pass the Pencil”. You project the second Task Card and read the problem to the students. Then, start the timer. Now the first partner is the “coach” and the second partner does the work.
  6. Play continues with each partner passing the pencil and doing half of the problems. The partnerships earn 1 point for each problem they solved correctly in the allotted time.
  7. At the end of the game, the team with the most points wins!

What makes the game so fun is the fast pace.  Both students have to look at the cards and solve the problems, even if only one of the partners writes the answer down.  This is a quick way to fit in some practice with a key concept or skill before lunch!

Using Google Slides with Menus

We all know that choice is an important motivator for kids, and grown up people too! Last year I discovered how easy it was to use Google Classroom to create digital Menus for students and I will never go back to paper! Some of the benefits of digital Menus:

  1. Motivation – They say variety is the spice of life, and menus give students plenty of variety! Students set goals and make choices, which is hugely motivating! Imagine a classroom where the kids ask for extra math time…. Yes, it does exist and Menus can help it be a reality in your classroom! (More on that in a future post!)
  2. Differentiation – You can easily put different leveled tasks and scaffolding when you go digital. For example, with my Gifted students I can offer a set of 6th Grade Google Slides, and for my struggling students, I can offer 4th Grade Google Slides. When I assign them using the Google Classroom, they don’t even have to know that there are different assignments.
  3. Fewer papers floating in the bottom of my teacher bag…. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about!

Small Groups – Intervention and Extension

We are all frantically trying to find ways to make up for missed instruction and learning time over the past two years. Google Slides can be a terrific way to help you differentiate your small group instruction to extend kids who are reading and intervene for kids who need more support. They are interactive and colorful, so there is built in engagement.

I often have my students join me for a small group with their Chromebook and a whiteboard. I assign the Google Slides to just that group of students in the Google Classroom. We use the whiteboards to work through the first few slides and then I leave them, in a group, to work together on the rest of the Google Slides. In 5-7 minutes I can get the group going and then leave them to practice while I move to the next group. That saves me time and still gives the students the practice they need to catch up!

Assigning Google Slides in Google Classroom

I buy and sell Google Slides on TPT, so these directions walk you through how to assign Google Slides you have purchased from TPT.

  1. Check out this blog post for step-by-step instructions and a video on assigning Google Forms in Google Classroom. The process is the same for Google Slides. 
  2. When you purchase Google Slides, TPT will automatically add it to a Google Drive folder called TPT Purchases.  Make sure you have logged in to TPT using the account where you want to save the resource.
  3. I recommend clicking on the Google Slides and Making a Copy.  Move the copy to the folder where you want it, and call it the Master Copy.  This will remind you NOT to delete slides from this copy.
  4. Then, make another copy, and feel free to delete slides to create the assignment you want.
  5. In the Google Classroom, Click “Create” and “Assignment”.

6. Fill in the details of the assignment, and then click the triangle icon in the bottom left corner. That will take you to your Google Drive and you can attach the slides.

Google Slides have so much utility and versatility! If you need to pick up a few, this link will take you to the Google Classroom page on my TPT site, and you can grab the resource highlighted in the video and other Google Slides and Forms.

Grab Google Slides and Forms here!

So, dust off those Google Slides and put them to use. I think you will find that they save you time and improve student learning.

Happy teaching!

Susan

Using Digital Escape Rooms to Connect with Content

It’s Monday morning, and I spent a few minutes this morning mulling over my weekend reading. Saturday morning found me, coffee in hand, perusing the New York Times for the latest news. Saturday I also reviewed some websites about fixing a running toilet and finished a mystery I’ve been working on this week. Sunday I spent some time reading about how to fix florescent lights, started reading a book on life for Colonial Women, researched a fix for a problem with my Google Classroom, read some lesson plans on teaching language skills and read the first few pages of a new mystery. You may be noticing a trend – three fourths of my weekend reading was non-fiction. Take a minute and think about your own life as a reader. How much non-fiction do you typically read compared to fiction? Most adults read more non-fiction, so I suspect you will find that to be true for yourself as well.

When I was reading those websites about fixing things in my house, I used lots of essential skills like skimming and scanning that don’t work well in fiction but are essential for non-fiction reading. I don’t have time to read an entire blog post that won’t answer my questions, so I skimmed the headings, scanned the text and found my answers. (If you’re wondering, the toilet is fixed and the electrician will be here Wednesday!). I used the Table of Contents to help me find the lesson plans that my students need, and the captions and photos helped me digest and understand the news in the newspaper. The CCSS call for equal reading of fiction and non-fiction, and even if your standards don’t include that requirement, it’s important that intermediate grades step up with non-fiction to prepare our students for a successful adult life.

I’ve written about the importance in other posts. Be sure to check out Nab Some Non-fiction – a post about 5 essential non-fiction picture books to start with and also some of my reviews of other great non-fiction texts (Click the Biblio-files tab for all the links!) And this post from the ASCD website clearly explains why non-fiction matters. Non-fiction reading not only helps students prepare for their adult life, it improves their reading comprehension, builds vocabulary, and increases grades in science and social studies classes. And still, most of us struggle to bring in enough non-fiction. My district adopted reading program includes only about 10% non-fiction, nowhere near the 50% required my state standards.

So, how do we fill the gap? How do we get kids jazzed about non-fiction, and hook them on content? One strategy I’ve used to bring more non-fiction text to my classroom is Digital Escape Rooms!

Why Digital Escape Rooms?

Well, first and foremost, Escape Rooms are fun! But why digital, you ask? Kids are already spending too much time on screens. Shouldn’t we move away from that every chance we get?

Well, yes and no. The first Escape Room I tried was a paper and pencil format. It took me approximately 2 hours to copy, cut, stuff the envelopes, place them around the room, gather the boxes, locks, etc., and get things set up. For me, that time commitment is not practical, so I turned to digital Escape Rooms. Kids get all the fun of an Escape Room and you have no prep. That’s right, no prep! Just assign through your Google Classroom (click here for a blog post with step by step instructions) or other LMS and then watch the fun! And, you get automatic results if you use a Google Form Escape Room. The digital format makes this a more practical option, which means you’ll use it frequently. Your students will be doing a lot of reading, and they will also gain practice with the riddles and ciphers embedded in Escape Rooms, helping them be more successful!

The amount of non-fiction text in a digital Escape Room can vary, so if that is your goal, make sure you check it out carefully. This digital Escape Room about the States of Matter includes an embedded non-fiction text that teaches the science content and then asks students to answer questions about the text to unlock the doors. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

This Google Form Escape Room contains both fiction and non-fiction texts in addition the story that carries students through the adventure. One fiction text is a traditional Irish myth about the formation of the Giant’s Causeway and the other is a retelling of a traditional tale about a leprechaun. The non-fiction text is a biography of St. Patrick. All of the texts include comprehension questions that help students move to the next section of the adventure. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

Adventure in the Chocolate Factory contains text and video about the history of chocolate, and the chemistry behind the making of the world’s favorite flavor. Again, the focus is on comprehension, and the questions help students focus on content. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

Digital Escape Rooms are an easy way to bring more non-fiction text into your classroom. I hope that you give one a try. I think you’ll love it, and so will your students! I’m always creating more Escape Rooms, so be sure to follow me on TPT and check back frequently to see what I’ve been cooking up!

Happy teaching!

Miss Rumphius’ Writing Territories

Have your students ever said to you, “But, I don’t know what to write!” If you’ve been teaching for a more than a day, I imagine you’ve heard that. And then you have gone through the arduous, painful process of helping them find an idea. It might sound something like this.

Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?

Student: I don’t know.

Teacher: Did you do anything fun this weekend?

Student: No.

Teacher: Have you ever gone somewhere special?

Student: My grandma’s house.

Teacher: Great! Write about that!

And then you get a minimal piece of writing because the student really doesn’t feel excited about grandma’s house and has nothing they feel like saying about it. Or, you get a blank page.

Well, if you’ve ever been there, you need to start talking to your students about their Writing Territories. A Writing Territory is something the student knows a lot about and is passionate about. I introduce the idea every year by reading “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne. This blog post and FREE download have more details about that first lesson.

Today, I want to talk about where you go next. In the first lesson, our goal was to inspire writers, to help them see that they have many areas of expertise, just like Jacques Cousteau, and that what they have to tell the world is important. That same goal carries over into this lesson. We are going to continue inspiring writers and helping them find their voice by connecting to what they love.

For the second lesson, I begin by reading Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This is a truly beautiful book about a woman who lives a life doing the things she loves. She travels, she makes friends, she lives by the sea… At the end of her life, she has one, unfulfilled goal – to make the world a more beautiful place. She isn’t sure how to do that until one day, inspiration strikes and she becomes the Lupine Lady.

The theme of the story will resonate with students differently than the the theme of Manfish. As I finish reading the book, I ask the students to consider how they make the world a more beautiful place. I tell them that I make the world beautiful by teaching , and I add that idea to my Writing Territories List. I also add in trips that I have taken and my favorite flower. Then, I ask students to return to their Writing Territory lists, and add to them.

It is important for students to revisit their Writing Territories lists often because they will learn and grow and develop new territories. It should be a messy, living document that you add to and elaborate frequently. One way to do that is to read a great book about someone who lives their passion, and then ask students to add to their lists. I often turn to books for inspiration in my own writing, and I want my students to do that same. (If you’d like a resource to help you do that, check out Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompts.)

Miss Rumphius is a beautiful book that I been reading to students for 20 years. It has inspired many great writing pieces for my students, and it will for yours too!

Happy teaching!

Susan

Five Ways to Use Poetry – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Poetry is perfect for accomplishing many of your literacy goals. One of the great things about poetry is how short it is. You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time! This blog post will feature 5 ways I use poetry in my classroom, with links to resources to help you do the same! (The FREEBIE is at the end, so read on!)

Close Reading

One good way to use poetry is for a close reading, especially if your students have not done them before. The purpose of a close reading is to teach students the skills they need to analyze a text deeply. Poetry is perfect for that because poems generally have a literal meaning that is readily apparent, but also a deeper meaning that emerges through close reading. Another reason poetry is terrific for a close reading is because the text is generally short, usually no more than a page. And finally, if a poem has rhythm and rhyme, it can make the text more accessible to students, and also more fun to reread. If your students hate the repeated readings required by close reading, try poetry!

In my classroom, I like to begin the year with poems about school, and our first close reading is of Mary Had a Little Lamb. We read the entire poem, not just the part that is generally known, and we also read a non-fiction text that tells the story of how the famous poem was written. Check out the Poetry Break – Poems about School Resource on TPT!

Vocabulary

Poetry is also perfect for teaching vocabulary. Many Tier 2 words (check out this blog post for more information) can be encountered in poetry. In this example from my Limericks Poetry Break, the context of the poetry helps students learn two Tier 2 words – brute and resembled.

Engagement

The rhythm and rhyme of poetry makes it perfect for getting students up and moving, which can be really important for engaging students who may not love the quiet sitting that often accompanies reading – especially boys. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, in fact, making it perfect for Task Cards like these, also from my Poetry Break – Limericks resource.

Loving Language

Finally, poetry can help your students fall in love with language. Similes, figurative language, hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia…. These poetic devices help students find the beauty of English. And of course, these devices also show up in well written fiction and non-fiction, so learning to love the language and understand it through poetry increases student’s comprehension of other texts. For example, consider this poem, Sick by Shel Silverstein. This is a terrific example of hyperbole, and so fun for students. That poem is featured as a Poetry Break in Poems About School.

The alliteration and repetition in A Ring Upon her Finger by Christina Rossetti make this a great poem for easing in. If you, or your students, are nervous about poetry, give it a try with one of my print and teach units. These units include everything you need to help your student analyze poetry, write poetry, and learn to love poetry!

Poetry Breaks

I love fun and spontaneity in my classroom. One way I do that is with Poetry Breaks. A Poetry Break is exactly what is sounds like. I find a poem that I want to share with my students. Then, when they least expect it, I hold up the Poetry Break paddle, and read them a poem. We talk about it briefly, and then I reread the poem. Then, we return to our regularly scheduled lesson. Eventually, I give the paddle to a student and ask them to plan a Poetry Break. They LOVE it, and it gets them reading LOTS of poetry! Want to try it in your classroom? Download this FREEBIE which includes an overview of the strategy and a Poetry Break paddle of your own – everything you need to bring poetry to your classroom!

Take a Break for Poetry today! You’ll be glad you did!

Happy teaching

Susan

Goal-Setting – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

As I’m sure you know, goal setting and data tracking is an important strategy for raising student achievement. John Hattie found that student self efficacy (what I like to call ownership) resulted in a .92 change in achievement – well over the .4 hinge point that marks a successful educational initiative. And, goal setting leads directly to a feeling of self-efficacy, so it is well worth our time to teach students to write effective goals and to reflect on their growth. (For an overview of all of Hattie’s work, click here, and grab his book, Visible Learning, if you don’t have it already!)

In this blog post, we are going to focus on how to help students make meaningful goals in reading. We will discuss appropriate areas for goal setting, writing meaningful goals, how to track data, and how often to reflect and set new goals. If you want a resource that will help you do all of that, check out Student Data Binders. There are 110 Student Sheets in all the academic areas plus Leadership and Social Skills!

Grab this on TPT and get everything you need for ALL the academic and social areas!

Writing Meaningful Goals

The first word I want to focus on is meaningful. It has become quite a trend in education to have students track their reading level – AR, DRA, BAS…. Whichever system you use, you may be asking students to keep track of their reading level. You may have them set a goal around their reading level, you may have them make a beautiful graph of their growth….

If so, please STOP! Reading levels are not meaningful to students. When I was teaching 3rd grade in a building that was highly focused on data, we had a training on goal setting, and were encouraged to have our students set goals based on their reading levels. Something felt weird to me about it, but I believe in goal setting and I believe in using reading levels to drive instruction, so I went along with it and had all of my students set goals to improve their reading levels by at least 3 levels during the year.

My son went to kindergarten in the same district that year. I will never forget the day he came home with a paper from his teacher that said he was a Guiding Reading Level J. That is 2nd grade reading level, so I was understandably excited! He wasn’t. He was pretty disgusted by the whole thing because his teacher told him he could only read books out of a certain tub, which was mostly filled with Little Bear books. He was not a fan of Little Bear. He felt restricted by his reading level, and just wanted to read books about Cars (the movie, which he loved!)

As a teacher, I learned an important lesson that day. Reading levels are for teachers, not for kids, and not for parents. I finished the year with my 3rd grade students and their goals about reading levels. I bet you know what happened. Not much. Kids don’t know what it takes to move from a level M to a level N. So, the goals weren’t meaningful to the students, and little progress was made. My students certainly felt no ownership of their learning. It was almost like their goals were being done to them instead of with them – just like my son.

If you don’t believe me, trust the experts. Fountas and Pinnell have written and tweeted extensively on this in the Reading Teacher, EdWeek, their blog, and other places. They are pretty clear that reading levels are for teachers, not students or parents. The link to their blog includes some really helpful phrases to use with parents. Check it out!

So, that was a really long intro to goal setting. 🙂 If we aren’t having students set goals around reading level, what does that leave us? Well, what is meaningful to students and in their control? These are some areas that make meaningful goals for students.

  • Genre/Wide Reading
  • Number of books read
  • Fluency
  • Increasing reading stamina

As you get to know your students individually, you will probably find other areas, unique to each reader, that are meaningful and worthy of a goal. You, the teacher, bring your expertise and knowledge of what it takes for students to move to the next level. The student brings the interest and motivation. And in the space between, a meaningful goal will emerge.

“You, the teacher, bring your expertise and knowledge of what it takes for students to move to the next level. The student brings the interest and motivation. And in the space between, a meaningful goal will emerge.”

For example, you know that a student who cannot read a grade level text fluently is likely to struggle with decoding so significantly that they lose track of meaning and are unable to comprehend a text. You also know that strategies for increasing fluency include close reading practice decoding multi-syllabic words in context. So, together, you and the student might write a goal like this:

“By the end of October, I will increase my fluency from 84 words per minute on a fifth grade level text to 90 words per minute on a fifth grade level text. I will use my Menu time to complete the Multi-Syllable Words Task every week in October and I will reread our close readings one extra time each week.”

This goal is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based. And it is meaningful because it is entirely in the students’ control, and it will help them achieve. Just make sure that the idea comes from the student and that they feel excited to use their menu time to complete those tasks. If you impose the goal, you will find a far lower rate of growth than if the student chooses a goal that is important and fun for them. Choice is a key motivator, so give kids choices!

This Goal Setting Sheet is included in Student Data Binders, which you can grab on TPT!

Tracking Data

Once your students have meaningful goals, you will need to find a way for them to track their goals, and also the time for them to do that work. If students don’t reflect and track regularly, they will lose motivation and the goal will lose its power.

I have a weekly time on Fridays for students to reflect on their goals. Students grab their data binders and track their data from the week. These are some of the data tracking sheets that I use. One way I differentiate in my classroom is with student goals and data tracking. All students track their books read on either the Weekly or Monthly form (depending on which one helps them be successful). All students track projects and tests on the Standards-based form. The other forms are given to students only if they match their goals.

How often to change the goals

I have experimented with this a lot. Yearly goals are way too big for most students. They lose motivation and falter over time. Weekly goals take too much class time and are so small that they don’t result in much growth. Quarterly goals are not bad, but for me, monthly works the best.

First, a month is not a huge span of time. It’s long enough to create a lofty goal, but not so long that students lose motivation. Also, monthly goals can be seasonal. Frequently, students write goals in October around reading a certain number of spooky books. In February we talk a lot about kindness, students sometimes make goals around reading and recommending books to friends as an act of kindness. Monthly gives these fun options and helps keep the goals varied and interesting.

Second, if a student does not meet their goal, they get 10 chances each year to try again. When we set yearly goals, I found that students often realized in January that they could not meet their goal under any circumstances, and so they stopped trying. With monthly goals, students get a do-over every few weeks! That really fits the growth mindset that I try to help students build.

Finally, monthly goals give students lots of practice with goal setting and reflecting. By the end of the year, students will set 9 reading goals and 9 math goals in my classroom. They will set 8 writing goals and 8 leadership goals. And they will set 6 Science goals, 6 Vocabulary goals and 6 Social Studies goals. (As you probably noticed, I don’t have students set all the goals in the first month. We increase the number of goals as the year progresses.) My students will be pretty good at writing SMART goals by the end of fifth grade!

Goal setting and data tracking are important tools that help students take ownership in their learning and achieve at higher levels. I hope that this blog post has given you some ideas and that you bring goal setting to your classroom. My resource on TPT can be helpful, so grab that, or make your own, and give it a try!

Happy teaching!

Susan

SpeedWriting – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

You’ve heard of SpeedDating, right? Well, one day I thought to myself, why not try SpeedWriting? And my kids loved it! Here’s how it works.

The idea is that students are trying a variety of Writing Prompts to see which one(s) seem a good match for them. Once they’ve found a prompt that inspires them, they get to write about it!

I usually have 24 – 26 students, so I hang 12 Task Cards around the room. Each Task Card has a prompt on it for the students to write about. These are sample Task Cards from my Writing Prompt Resource – Make Friends with a Book. Grab them on TPT!

I separate the students so there are 2-3 students at each prompt. Each student has their Writing Notebook and a pencil. I start the timer for 1 minute if I have a class full of reluctant writers, and 2 minutes if they are more confident writers. The students write about the prompt until the timer goes off, and then they rotate to the next Task Card. The timer starts again and students write about a new prompt. Within a few minutes, students have rotated to 12 different Task Cards and written 12 different responses. After 12 minutes, I ask students to return to their seats and spend another 30 minutes writing. Sometimes these writing prompts turn into something that students work on over time, polish and publish, and sometimes it is just something they work on for a few minutes.

What is so great about this is students are exposed to lots of ideas at once, and almost always, there is one that really grabs them. In fact, they almost always find more than one prompt that they like to write about! Another benefit is that students build stamina and writing endurance, and they become more flexible writers and thinkers. Lots of great benefits! I use SpeedWriting once a month or so, and my kids look forward to it every time!

Please grab this free download to help you try SpeedWriting in your classroom. This one-pager walks through the steps, and it is included in 12 Book-Themed Writing Prompts on TPT. Check it out today!

QuickWrites – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

QuickWrites are a really easy strategy that gets kids writing and only take about 5 minutes a day! Interested? Read on!

Just as we want our students to become more fluent readers, we also want them to become more fluent writers. QuickWrites are an awesome way to make that happen. A QuickWrite is exactly what you think it is – something a student writes about for only a short amount of time. You give the students a prompt and set a timer. Their goal is to keep their pencil moving the entire time! Even if they are writing the same word over and over, that pencil keeps moving. Because they only write about the topic for one minute, it is more like a game than a long-term commitment. I’ve learned over the years that once students start the pencil, even if they write their name over and over and over again, eventually, the ideas will flow. This strategy will improve students’ ability to write on a topic and awaken their imagination and bring new ideas to their writing!

Because I know that choice is an important motivator for kids (well, for all humans, really….), I give my students one prompt, and one minute. Then, I give them another prompt, and another minute. Finally, I give them a third prompt, and one more minute. Within less than 5 minutes, my students have written something about three different prompts.

This is one of the prompts that I will give my students during our first QuickWrite of the year. (It’s part of my Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompt resource on TPT if you want to grab it.)

After my students work on three different QuickWrites, I ask them to go back and count how many words they wrote for each prompt during the one minute timing. They graph their highest number of words, and that is my writing lesson for the day. Students are free to continue writing on one, or more, of their QuickWrites or work on a writing project of their choosing for the rest of our writing time.

Download a FREE copy of my Writing Fluency Graph here! If you like it, be sure to check out my Student Data Binder resource on TPT for more goal setting, data tracking and student reflecting resources. There are over 110 Student sheets included, so something for everyone!

What I’ve learned is that using QuickWrites about once a week improves students’ ability to put pencil to paper and get the ideas flowing. Also, the QuickWrites are a bank of ideas. If a student gets stuck and can’t come up with an idea for an assignment, one thing I encourage them to do is return to their QuickWrites. Often, they find something there that they can adapt to meet the requirements of the assignment. And since they have already done some writing on that topic, it can feel easier for them to get started.

My QuickWrites resources include the prompts in 4 different formats so that you can use them with lined paper, primary paper, as a prompt that students glue into their journal (which is how I use them) and in a center. Another way to use the writing prompts is for SpeedWriting. This blog post gives you all the details and includes a free download to bring SpeedWriting to your classroom!

Check out Make Friends with a Book and my other Writing Prompts on TPT today and let’s launch a great writing year together! Happy teaching!

Using Word Walls for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, explicit vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical. This blog post will help you identify best practices for using Word Walls to improve vocabulary instruction in your classroom!

Getting Started

Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.

  1. The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart. For example, I recently taught a Science lab about Matter, and pulled these Word Wall cards out of the pocket chart as I introduced the lab. Then, students grabbed the Word Wall Cards and put them at the stations where they were testing for different properties of matter.
  2. Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
  3. Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
  4. Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.

What do you include on a Word Wall?

If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. That post explains the three tiers. What you need to know for today is that explicit instruction in Tier 2 words is a best practice for vocabulary instruction. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.

If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.

As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.

Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.

This Word Wall set includes both of these words, plus 30 other landforms. Check it out today!

Adding Words to the Word Wall

There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.

For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!

This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.

Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”

Student: Mountain?

Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.

Student: Hill?

Teacher: Right!

And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.

The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.

Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.

That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.

In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!