Building a Virtual Classroom Community – Team Shields

Building classroom community is essential for creating a risk free environment for students and building their capacity to learn from and support each other in learning. I teach fifth grade, and friendships are incredibly important at this developmental stage. A sense of community is even more essential during virtual learning because kids need to depend on each other during independent learning time and, more than ever, they need to feel connections with their peers. To help my students build relationships and friendships, I am being intentional about daily opportunities to work in break out rooms on Zoom, and I am pre-assigning the students so that they are with the same kids each day. To help them find connections, we did this activity in our first full week of class. Be sure to check out my video post for a demo!

The idea is simple. Students began by playing a virtual game of Would you Rather, (check out this post for more on how we do that during in person instruction and download these free Would you Rather cards to teach vocabulary related to Powers of Ten on TPT!)

Students met in break out rooms with their team, and began by adding their names using Word Art (my video post on YouTube shows you how to do that!). Then, the team worked through the slides together, each student giving their individual answer to the question. As they worked, they looked for connections – questions where all students shared the same answer. I found that students also engaged in chatting about school, and found connections to things that weren’t on the slides (like one group shared their excitement that we would be studying constellations. We previewed the year with this Escape Room, so they know what is coming!) Click here to download the slides for free – they are editable to add your own touch!

After the teams had worked through the slides (it took about 10 minutes), they returned to the main Zoom Room and shared out some of the connections they had discovered. This helped other teams learn about the groups and also solidified the idea that we are all connected. I purchased lovely shield clip art on TPT from Glitter Meets Glue, so to end the first lesson, each team chose 1 -3 shields that they liked. Before the next lesson, I popped the shields in their slides.

For the second lesson, each team made a final choice about which shield they wanted to decorate. Then they created a team name, and added that with Word Art. Next, they revisited their connection points, thinking of images that would symbolize their connection points. For example, my students overwhelmingly prefer living in the country to the city. Some groups chose country animals (cows and bears….), others chose nature (trees and rolling fields). It was so fantastic to see the different ways they symbolically represented the same concept. They popped the images into their shields, creating a representation of their team.

Because we are all a class, I copied the shields into one Publisher document to create a new header for our Google Classroom. The kids were so excited to see their shields “hanging” up in our Classroom, and they made great connections with the other kids on their team. We will keep these same teams for about a month, and then get new teams to build more connections. Check back for our next cool Classroom Community idea!

For other posts on how to build classroom community, check out:

  1. Launching the Virtual Classroom – Escape Room!
  2. We are all connected – Building a Virtual Community with art
  3. Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community
  4. Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – Strategies for building trust
  5. Winning Week 1 – Day One
  6. Winning Week 1 – Day Two

Launching the virtual Classroom – Escape Room!

So, week one of virtual instruction in in the books. We are doing a soft start so it’s more like Day One is in the books! Even though I’m not with my kids in person, I still have the same goals for the first day – launch academics, make connections and surprise them so they want to come back for more! Here is how I accomplished that virtually.

I wanted to really catch the students’ attention right away and launch some academics. I also wanted to surprise them. So, I decided to start with a digital Escape Room through the year (click the link to get a copy of the Escape Room I created. Edit and use it if you would like to!). Escape Rooms are so engaging because the story carries students through an adventure. The codes and puzzles bring a level of mystery and challenge that is also very engaging.

I created a story line that gave students a preview of the content we are going to study together. That helped accomplish my goal to launch academics. I decided to use Google Slides instead of Forms because I wanted to get the kids used to working with Slides because we will use them a lot in our virtual classroom . I structured the Escape Room with some of the codes that we will use in other Escape Rooms so that I could introduce them as well.

Here are a few of the slides in the Escape Room. You can download your own copy and modify it to fit your content! And if you like this type of activity, be sure to check out some of the digital Escape Rooms I have on TPT!

As we worked through the first challenge together, I was able to reinforce the content we will be learning and also begin to build connections with the kiddos. For the second code, I sent them to breakout rooms. We will use the same breakout groups for several weeks. This was their first time in the groups, and working on the second code helped them begin to get to know each other. We will build those connections over the next weeks with more opportunities to work with the same group.

For homework, each student clicked on one of the links to watch a video or read an article. Then they left a comment on the Graffiti Wall. That gave them practice with inserting a text box – an essential skill that they will use a lot this year and also gave me insights into what they are looking forward to.

This activity worked so well that I will use it again next year! The kids were definitely hooked and I accomplished my three goals – we launched academics, built connections, and did something surprising!

We are all Connected – Building a Virtual Community

It is so important to build a sense of community even though we are not together in the same classroom right now. This summer I spent a lot of time brainstorming and thinking about how to do that. One of the best projects so far has been this art project.

Before school started, we passed out Chromebooks and school supplies to the kids, and I used that opportunity to give each student a copy of this art project which I purchased on TPT. I also included a self-addressed, stamped envelope and asked the kids to follow the directions, and then mail the art project back to school. About half of the students reported that they mailed it on the second day of class, so you know they were excited!

Once I received the art project back, it was very easy to assemble them and laminate them. Since we are not in school, I wanted to put the project on display somewhere the kids could see it. So, I found a local coffee shop with a big wall facing our main street. They were super gracious (thank you Moe’s!), and let me hang up the artwork.

This project was such a great way to start the school year. The kids were excited to share themselves with each other, and the opportunity to share this message with our community was really meaningful to the kids. The project also gave them a sense that we are a team and that we do big things, together. Plus, they think they are famous now! The response from the parents and community has been really positive, too. I think the message really resonates with the adults during these difficult times. It did take some time to assemble and laminate the project, but I think it was well worth the time because the payoff has been huge. I feel like we are well on our way to building a vibrant, connected, virtual community.

Launching the Digital Writing Notebooks

Today I launched the Digital Writing Notebooks in my virtual Zoom classroom. I am super excited that we will have a place to gather our stories and share them with each other, even though we are not physically together. As with all plans, some things went exactly as I had hoped and other didn’t. Here’s what happened.

We started our Zoom Room (this is number 5 of the year) with greetings, chit chatting about our lives as readers, talking about how we are growing stamina as readers and nurturing our reading lives… After a few minutes of that, I told the kids that we were going to get something really special – Digital Writing Journals. Predictably, some students cheered and others did not. (If you want to read about the crazy way I usually present the Writing Journals, check out this blog post.) Usually I present the students with their journals after a super silly routine, and then I tell them they can write about anything they want. Most write about their crazy fifth grade teacher who throws tissue paper around the classroom!

I didn’t have that opportunity today, but I still wanted to build excitement, ownership, and I wanted them to write! So, we began by watching a video about how to split your screen, an essential tech skill that they would need for the next part of the lesson. They then went to a break out room to work together to split their screen. The direction was to help each other so that everyone came back to the main room with a split screen – half showing Zoom and half showing our Google Classroom. Most students were able to do that successfully in 5 min.

Then we needed a Brain Break, so we played Strike a Pose. Basically, I call out silly poses (Superhero! Queen/King of the World! Monkey in a tree!) and they move into the pose quickly. It’s a good way to get their brains back on and ready for learning.

After our Brain Break, we all went to the Google Classroom and opened the Digital Writing Journals. That’s when the ohs and ahs started. The kids were excited by how cute the pages were and the idea that they got to customize the covers. I walked them through the journals and then asked them to open the one they wanted to make their own. I showed them the link to the video, and tonight for homework they are customizing. Our goal during class was to write!

So, we tried our first Quick Write! I gave them a prompt of a book or series that they love. We found the first “page” of our Digital Writing Journal, I set the timer and they began to write! I was worried that the typing would slow them down, and for some kids I think that was true. But I had one kid who typed 48 words, so clearly the opposite is true for some kids! Phew!

Then I showed the kids how to insert a horizontal line in Google Slides, count their words and insert a text box. The whole thing took longer on Zoom than in the regular classroom because of learning the tech, so we were only able to do one Quick Write. BUT, the kids were excited, their writing is pretty good, and all of the benefits of Quick Writes (see this blog post for more on that) seem possible through this digital resource. I think using Quick Writes regularly will help students increase their writing fluency, their typing proficiency, and when we get ready for some in depth writing instruction, they will have a place to go back to and try out ideas. I think this is going to be a very successful distance learning adventure!

Check out the other posts in this series about building a digital writing community.

  1. Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community
  2. Get ’em to love writing!
  3. A Strong Virtual Writing Community Writes to Learn
  4. 5 Strategies for Building Trust in the (Virtual) Writing Community

A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Have you ever heard a student say, “I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down?” (or had that idea yourself)? That statement is a powerful example of why writing to learn is necessary. Until we can communicate our thoughts and understandings, they remain nebulous and wispy. Through writing, students explore and consolidate their own thinking, deepening their understanding and retention.

For a quick, two-page pdf on writing to learn, check out this handout from the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Today, I’d like to talk about one strategy that I have used very successfully in the past that gives students opportunities to write to learn and also increases writing fluency – QuickWrites.

Using QuickWrites in Face-to-Face Instruction

During face-to-face instruction, I use QuickWrites 2-3 days a week. The whole protocol takes about 10 minutes of instruction time. Students get out their writing notebooks and open to a new page. They label the page with the date, and “QuickWrite 1”. I then post one concept, idea or vocabulary word on the board, set the timer for one-minute, and the kids begin to write. It’s important to stress that spelling, punctuation etc. are not important at this stage. After one-minute, I ask them to draw a line to show how far they wrote, and reread what they wrote. They have two-minutes to reread. During this time they circle any errors they might have made and can make small revisions and edits. They also count the words they wrote during the initial one-minute period and write that number in the margin. I then start the timer again, give them a new topic or idea, and the process starts over. We go through the process three times – just 10 minutes! The final step is for students to graph the number of words from their most fluent QuickWrite of the day.

This quick protocol gives you a big payoff!

  1. QuickWrites give students a low-risk opportunity to write to learn. – During that one-minute time, students are free to write anything they know about the term or topic. As they write, they often discover that they know more than they thought they did! QuickWrites are especially helpful in solidifying information when they are used in the middle of a unit because students have some information to write about.
  2. QuickWrites help students get over the fear of the page. – Students may stare at the page, and write very few, or even zero, words. Over time, students get more confident because they are only writing for one-minute. That confidence translates to decreased fear of writing in general.
  3. QuickWrites warm up the students’ writing brain. – The first QuickWrite of the day generally has the fewest words, and the last QuickWrite of the day generally has the most. QuickWrites are a great exercise to do at the beginning of a Writing Workshop where you want students to make good progress on a writing assignment. I find that when students warm up with a QuickWrite, they make more progress on their assignments than on the days we don’t warm up with a QuickWrite.
  4. QuickWrites increase writing fluency. – Over time, students will find they can write more words in one-minute. The graph is a simple way to track writing fluency, and it really boosts student’s confidence. Most students start at 5-7 words a minute and grow to 15-30 words a minute by the end of the year.
  5. QuickWrites provide a solution to that age-old whine, “I have nothing to write about!” – Most of the time students do not write everything they have to say in one-minute. Often they have to stop in the middle of a sentence, or even in the middle of a word! When a student is stuck for a writing idea, send them to their QuickWrites. I guarantee they will find an idea they want to finish.
  6. QuickWrites improve students’ willingness, and ability, to revise and edit. – Because the protocol builds in instant revision and editing, students will build that habit. Authors very seldom write a complete novel before going back to edit and revise. Instead, they add, change and delete as they go. QuickWrites strengthen that same muscle for our students.
  7. They solidify understanding about key concepts, ideas and vocabulary words. – QuickWrites are a great way for students to explore their understanding about a topic. They are not graded – no, not ever! So there is little risk to a student in expressing an idea. I do skim read the QuickWrites unless a student asks me not to, and that helps me know if a student’s idea is underdeveloped and needs more development.

These three QuickWrites are from the same student, early in the school year. The first topic was Harry Potter, the second was the vocabulary word “denominator” and the third was the topic “pets”. The horizontal line shows how far she wrote in one-minute (7 words, 11 words and 20 words). You can see that at some point in time later, she added to all three entries. The third QuickWrite about pets was the genesis for a narrative that she wrote and published later in the year.

Often, when I am teaching a specific skill, I ask the kids to return to a QuickWrite and do a quick revision to add in the new skill. For example, when we were learning about using transition phrases like “for instance” to strengthen informational text, this student returned to her entry about the denominator and added an example. QuickWrites are a valuable place to try out a new skill. Now that you have a picture of QuickWrites in the regular classroom, let’s explore ideas for using QuickWrites in the virtual classroom.

QuickWrites in the Virtual Classroom

This year I will be using digital writing notebooks for the first time. I still want all the benefits of QuickWrites, even though I won’t be starting the year face to face with students. Here’s what I’m going to try. (You can find my Digital Writing Notebooks on TPT, and free videos to implement them on my You Tube Channel.)

One of our first writing lessons will be setting up our digital notebooks. I have created a Google Slides document with the basic layout, including a Table of Contents. The students will have some creativity to decorate the “covers” and Table of Contents using clip art (I will share my collection with them using Wakelet). One of the things I love about going digital is that we will be able to add slides easily and keep everything organized. Usually the QuickWrites are scattered wherever in their journal. This year, we will put all of the QuickWrite slides at the beginning of the Slides document. Students will be able to add more slides as needed.

To begin with, we will use QuickWrites in Zoom Rooms (for the update on how this lesson actually went, click here!). I think it is worthwhile to spend some time teaching the kids about how to do this. After our initial Zoom Room to customize the Writing Journals, I will ask students to split their screen with their Writing Journal taking up a little more than half of the screen and the Zoom Room on the other portion. I will set a timer, give them a topic, and they will begin typing. After 1 minute they will stop and insert a horizontal line. They will count their words and insert a comment, and highlight any errors, then the process will begin again.

Once students have the process down, I will create a Menu with an embedded timer and 9 topics. Students will do 6 QuickWrite Activities individually each week. For accountability, we will start Zoom Rooms by having them share something from a Quick Write (in a Breakout Room) that they may want to add to during the lesson or that they enjoyed writing.

As with all things Distance Learning, this is going to be a big experiment. Will I get all of the benefits from regular QuickWrites if the students are doing them individually? I don’t know! I am expecting that their typing fluency will be different from their writing fluency, and I think that digital QuickWrites will have an additional benefit of improving typing skills. But, as always, if something isn’t working, I will tweak it until it does. Stay tuned for updates on how this all plays out. And if you give it a try, let me know!

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – Get ’em to love writing!

If you’ve been following this series, you know that we are exploring how to build a strong writing community whether you have face to face instruction time or virtual instruction or some blend of both. The first post in the series outlined four principles that I’m focusing on as I work to build a virtual community for my students this year:

  1. A strong writing community helps students love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

We started with building trust because, without that, we will never achieve a strong writing community. Today I’d like to focus on how to help students love writing. In my physical classroom, I have generally worked to achieve this by:

  1. Modeling enthusiasm for writing.
  2. Giving students choices within the writing workshop.
  3. Giving students plenty of time to write.

Let’s explore each of those ideas to see how to make it work in a physical classroom or a virtual one.

  1. Model enthusiasm for writing. – OK. I hear you. You don’t like to write. It’s painful, it’s arduous, it’s just no fun! Got it! It turns out, I do like to write. I have always liked to write. A blank page feels full of possibility to me, and I can’t wait to see what will emerge. I like the struggle to find the right word or turn of phrase….. You get the picture. But here’s the secret. Fake it until you make it! Here’s an example. I have never liked math. In fact, I have spent many hours openly loathing it. But I know I can’t show that to my students because they will borrow that hatred from me and make it their own. So, when I’m introducing a deep, thought-provoking rich task, I rub my hands together, smile with glee, and say, “Oh man. This is a great one! We are going to have so much fun with this!” Perhaps I overdo it a bit because in their end of the year reflections, most of my students told next year’s class that I love math as much as coffee (clearly, not true!) But, a strange thing happened as I pretended. I actually grew to like math. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite things to teach. All through pretending…..
  • In a physical classroom, this is easy to do. When we decorate our writing notebooks, I flip through and exclaim in excitement over the blank pages. And then I stop, dramatically, and say, “Wait, I’ve got an idea. I have to get it down right now. Can you guys go do some writing and give me some quiet time to get this figured out?” The kids always say yes, and then I start writing, apparently so involved in my writing that I don’t notice them sitting there on the rug, then slowly trickling back to their seats and getting to work. They think they are working quietly so I can write, which is hilarious! And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have an idea. I fake it!
  • In a virtual classroom, I think it will be more difficult, but still possible. Certainly I can model enthusiasm, but how to show them that excitement? Well, I actually think I could do the same thing with some modifications. This year my students will create a digital writer’s notebook (check out these posts on how we will do that using Google or PowerPoint). So, as we get that pulled together, I will stop, dramatically, and then say, “Wait, I totally have to write something down. Can you guys do some writing too? Don’t leave the Zoom Room. Let’s just write for a few minutes, and then we’ll finish this up. I just can’t let this idea get away!” The difference is, I will have to have an idea because my digital notebook will be right on the screen for them to see. I think I will keep it short – maybe 5 minutes – and I might play some music. And to hold them accountable, I will send them to a break out room after 5 minutes to share what they wrote. I don’t usually do that in a physical classroom because I can see whether they are writing or not and hold them accountable that way. But, I think this modification will do the same thing.

2. Give students choices. – This is key, and I don’t see many changes whether I have a physical classroom or a virtual one. Teachers always want to know how to accomplish this when you have standards and report cards and other requirements to meet. Very simply, I give kids choices on what they work on each day and on what they turn in for a final grade. For example, I usually begin the year teaching lessons on strong narrative writing. Over and over I remind the students that they must turn in at least one narrative piece for a grade this trimester, and I remind them that the lessons I’m teaching will help them make their narratives stronger. 95% of the class will choose to work on narrative writing while I’m teaching about it. In fact, as we workshop, most students will write a couple of narratives before settling on one to really refine. I set up periodic check points where they turn their work in for feedback, but not a grade and I also give them feedback during conferences. I actually think that will be easier with digital notebooks (although I won’t be doing one-on-one conferences with students virtually). No more hauling notebooks home every night to give feedback – all I need is my computer. Yeah! As I close the unit on narratives, we talk about presentation and publishing. Most students have a narrative that they feel is good enough to turn in and get graded, but it is their choice. If they feel like they wrote an amazing poem, they can turn that in for a grade, as long as they remember that they must turn in one narrative before the end of the trimester. Then I choose another mode and we move on. I also do on-demand “assessments” in the mode that I need for the report card, so I usually have plenty of grades by the time the trimester ends. I think all of this will be streamlined in a virtual classroom. Finally, something that is easier to do virtually!

3. Give students plenty of time to write. – This is usually no problem in a physical classroom. We have time carved into every day for writing. Usually my mini-lesson lasts 15 minutes, and students have 30 minutes to write. How to make that work virtually… Hm. This is my best thought, based on experimenting last spring during distance learning. Flipping the writing workshop. I use a lot of mentor texts in my mini lessons. I have started to video tape myself reading the mentor texts and scanned in the text so students can follow along. I’m making narrated slideshows for the kids to watch BEFORE our Zoom Room. Then, during the Zoom Room, we can talk briefly about the mentor text and I can stress the teaching point again. Then, I’m going to play some nice music and ask the kids to write during the Zoom Room, and I will write too. After 15 minutes of writing, I will send them to a breakout room where, as a group, they will complete a short Google doc reflection about how each student did with accomplishing the goal of the lesson. Again, we have to build in accountability for the work, and I’m hoping this strategy gets everyone started on the writing, and that many of them will continue writing after the Zoom Room. The goal should be 30 – 45 minutes of writing a day, and we will hopefully build up to that.

So, will all of this result in students loving to write? Well, I think so, but I don’t know so. I know that it has worked in a physical classroom. But starting with virtual is going to be a whole, grand experiment! As always, I will put these ideas into practice, and tweak them and throw out the things that don’t work and try new things until I get it right. That’s what we teachers do!

I hope that you will leave comments about things that you try so we can all learn from each other. Be sure to follow me to get the rest of the posts in this series, and I will also update this post as I refine and get better at this. Stay tuned!

For a related post, be sure to check out Launching the Digital Writing Journals! And if you like them, you can purchase the Digital Writing Journals on TPT (they come with free instructional videos for students which you can see on my You Tube Channel!)

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom

Across the country we are all gearing up for what promises to be a crazy year. A continuing global pandemic, distance learning, face to face instruction, elections… It’s a lot. As I think and plan for the year to come, I am going back to bedrock. By planting my feet on a few simple, time tested principles, I think my students and I will make it through the storm swirling around us.

Why writing, you may ask? Why not focus on math or reading? Well, in the words of the National Writing Project, “writing is a gateway for success in academia, the new workplace, and the global economy, as well as for our collective success as a participatory democracy.” Phew! That’s a pretty high bar! Pretty much every teacher I know has complained about kids’ inability to communicate their thinking in writing. So clearly, it’s important for school and for life beyond school.

With the probability of distance learning looming, building a writing community seems more difficult than ever. Usually I have the luxury of seeing my students every day and of building the community face to face (for a two-part series on how I usually start the year, read Winning Week 1 – Day 1 and 2.) This year, I’m not planning on that. I think all, or part, of our classroom time will be spent digitally. So here are the principles that hold true whether we are together or not. In the rest of this series, I will unpack how I plan to put these into practice face to face OR digitally.

  1. A strong writing community helps kids learn to love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

Over the next three weeks, I will devote this blog to unpacking each of these ideas and giving you practical ways to implement them in your own classroom, whether you are face to face or distance learning. If you don’t already follow me, be sure to so you get each new update in your email!

Winning Week One – Day 1

There have been millions of texts written on how to launch a school year successfully. Really. Google it. Millions!

So, why do I feel the need to write my own? Well, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I don’t exactly follow the rules. In fact, we don’t even talk about the rules on the first day. Yep, we don’t talk about the rules. In the many, many years I’ve been doing this, I find that the vast majority of students are well behaved on Day 1. They are trying to impress you. After all, you are going to be a big part of their life this year, and they know that a good first impression is important. I think we should learn that from our students, and worry more about making a good first impression on them. Here’s how I try to do that.

First, I greet every student at the door with a smile, a high five, a hug…. Whatever they need. I will do that every morning for the rest of the year and it’s best to set that expectation early. Also, many kids are nervous, and your smile goes a long way toward making them feel welcome and bringing down the affective filter a bit.

When they walk into the classroom, they encounter desks with no name tags, but lots of books stacked on them. I ask them to choose a spot where they can learn well, choose a book and start to read. My first act as their teacher is to express confidence that they know themselves as learners and are going to be able to manage their own behavior. I do the same thing whether it’s a kindergarten class or a fifth grade class. Then, I let them know the most important thing we will do this year – read. We will start every day with the most important skill – reading. Now they know what I value, and they will automatically value it because I do.

That first independent reading time is full of opportunity. I notice what kind of book they choose. I see who immediately starts reading and never looks up from the page. I learn which students need to talk about a book to process it. I get a sense of the stamina of the class. After about 15 minutes, I know so much about my students. Then, I tell them that if they have found a wonderful book that they would like to continue reading, they should keep it, and I show them the check out procedures and where to keep their books. If not, no worries. Just put the book back in the pile.

Now it’s time for the first group activity of the year. School has been in session for less than an hour, and I want them to know that we work together. It is their group task to sort the books into groups that go together. I store books in my classroom in a variety of ways – by author, by genre, by topic…. Every year the system changes slightly because the kids come up with it. After all, the system has to work for them. This is our first stab at figuring that out. I make labels and use velcro to attach them to the tubs, so it’s really easy to change labels. Students will likely work for about 30 minutes on creating the system. In that time, as a class, we will probably categorize about 200 books. This is the beginning of a process that will take us several days, but in the end, the kids will be independently able to find, check out, and return books. And that saves me time all year! For step-by-step about how to do this in your own classroom, click here!

Now that the kids have learned that I expect them to make good choices and keep things organized (and remember, I have not said that to them at all. I have just shown them my expectations), I want them to know that I am interested in getting to know them, and in sharing myself with them. So, we play Two Truths and a Lie. I start with two true statements about myself and one lie. The class tries to guess which is the lie. They almost never do….. 🙂 Then I give them their own sheet to fill out, which you can download for free on my TPT store. Over the next few days, we work our way through what they have written and find out who is good at lying (just kidding, we find out all kinds of cool stuff!). We usually do 4-5 per day, so it will take us that first week to read everyone’s.

At some point in the day, and every day for the first week, I want to surprise them. While they are at recess or lunch, I set up a little surprise. On my stool I set a box. It is wrapped, and just to be extra mysterious, I cover it with cloth. I choose some really dramatic music to play. The theme from “2001, a Space Odyssey” is a great choice. As the students file in, I start the music. Even if I stream from You Tube, I don’t turn on the video. I want all eyes on me, and that’s not usually too difficult because I start dancing. Yep. And I’m no dancer. Mostly they watch because I’m so bad. As I dance around, I throw the cloth off the box, then rip off the paper and toss it too. Trust me, the kids are totally transfixed. Clearly, something in this box is pretty special! Inside the box we discover – layers of tissue paper! As I toss those around the room, all eyes are upon me. Then, as the music builds to a dramatic finale (you may want to practice your timing!), I gasp with joy, and then triumphantly hold up – a writing journal! As I bestow (no, I do not pass these out, I bestow them, as befits a great treasure!) the writing journals upon each fortunate student, they can’t wait to get started. Trust me. Every student has something to write about – the crazy teacher in room 205! (By the way, in their end-of-year reflections, this is always someone’s favorite day of fifth grade. The crazy teacher throwing tissue paper even beats out the field trips!)

The Writing Journals are revealed!
The Writing Journals are revealed!

After we write, I give them their first homework assignment of the year. Take those journals home and decorate the cover with at least five things that they love. I show mine, which has pictures of my kids on the cover, graffiti art about favorite books, places I’ve traveled recently, music symbols, and other things that I love. The kids have a week to get their cover decorated, and when they bring them back, we have our first writing conference. They tell me why they chose the things on their cover, and I get to know them a bit more. We also have built in topics to write about! I cover each journal with clear Contact Paper to make sure the pictures etc. don’t fall off during the year. For an update on how I’m doing this digitally, click here!

You are probably wondering about math. Of course I do math on the first day! My goal with math on the first day is always to awaken their curiosity and build the idea that math is creative and we have to be flexible. This year, I used a lesson from Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, Grade 5. Her first lesson on using numbers and symbols flexibly is just what I want to start the year right. We first watched a brief video from her website, You Cubed, about the importance of struggle in math. Then, I asked the students to look at images of squares grouped in different ways. This was our first Number Talk, and so I guided students through our procedures. Again, I’m not talking about the rules, but I’m setting expectations, and because it’s the first day, students are willing to go with it. Seriously. They do. This activity showed students that there is more than one way to solve a math problem, and the images lower the affective filter and make it approachable for all students. Not bad for day one!

Once in my 25 years of starting this way I had a student misbehave in a pretty disruptive way. Other students talk or goof off. It does happen. I don’t mean to imply that students are perfect robots on Day 1. Of course they aren’t! I gather data on the behaviors they will default to and that helps me plan when behavior focused mini-lessons I should teach, which rules we are likely to need and when students are likely to need more attention from me than others. Day 1 is key for gathering data to inform my practice. Most misbehavior on the first day can be handled with a Pull-Aside – a quiet, private chat with the student where you let them know that they need to reset.

For me, this is a pretty perfect first day. We have gotten to know each other, and we have worked together to create the most important learning space – the Book Nook. We have collaborated at least twice, but also had quiet, independent reading and writing time. We have engaged in interesting reading, writing and math work, and the teacher did something just a little crazy! When I do this well, students leave the classroom at the end of the day tired, smiling, and curious. On day two, they show up eager to see what will come next. Hopefully, they will still be wondering that on day 179!

Keep reading about Day 2 to find out how I keep the learning, and excitement, going!

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Encounter by Jane Yolen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book feels especially timely because Columbus has been folded into the ongoing conversations that we are having about race. The other day I overheard a fellow teacher explaining that she understood why we were pulling down the statues of Confederate soldiers, but why pull down statues of Columbus? If you (or your students, or your students’ parents) are wondering the same thing, this is the book for you.

The arrival of Columbus in the Americas led to the Columbian exchange, which caused the genocide of the indigenous people. I know that word genocide is harsh, but I looked it up in the dictionary. It is the correct word for “the deliberate killing of a group of people”. This book uses the scant facts we know about the Taino people (mostly from Columbus since the Taino people are extinct) and the author’s imagination to paint a picture of the beginning of that extinction.

I have loved this book since the first time I read it. Told from the point of view of a Taino boy, (the Taino were the indigenous people who first encountered Columbus), it is a new look at some old history. Definitely, put it on the top shelf! The words are lyrical and there is a rhythm, and a feeling of music, to many of them. David Shannon created absolutely marvelous illustrations that connect you to the long-gone Taino culture. Which brings us to our first teaching point.

  1. How illustrations enhance the mood or tone of a story – The final illustration is very powerful. It shows the narrator, now an old man. At first you notice his posture and the setting. As you look more closely, you notice that parts of the setting show through him, as if he is transparent, and his feet fade into nothingness. This is definitely a magic-paper worthy illustration! (What! You don’t know about magic paper? Read on!) Put the illustration under the doc camera and ask students to start with what they notice. No inferences yet, please. As they share the things they notice, hold a piece of white paper (cardstock if you have it) about a foot out from the projection and it will be magnified. Ta da! Magic paper! After students have noticed, I would ask them to turn and talk to share their wonders. Again, no inferences yet. Just questions. Finally, I would ask, “Why did the illustrator draw the final illustration this way? What is he trying to say?” Then, using their observations as evidence, and their questions to guide them, they will make some inferences about this. Along the way, you will probably have a very rich conversation about tone and mood!

2. Point of view/perspective – This is a great text to talk about different perspectives. I like to contrast the boy’s view of the explorers with Columbus’ own writings about the Taino people. His journals are readily available online, and at the bottom of this post I’ve put the excerpt that you can use. It is from his first meeting with the Taino, and there are clear comparisons between what he actually said and what the narrator of Encounter says. Some fascinating conversations can be had!

3. Symbolism – On the first page the narrator dreams of large winged white birds that descend upon the village. The illustration helps even the most concrete thinker understand that the ships are the birds. It is a great symbol to explore, and it carries the narrative.

This book is a really great addition if you are looking to bring new perspectives to your tired, old explorer unit. I recommend it for students in grades 3 – 6. Younger than that will miss some of the nuance, but it is a great book to bring that Age of Discovery unit alive.

Be sure to check out some of my other recent posts about great resources to use with kids to help them understand other perspectives.

Intersection Allies

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Intersection Allies

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had the wonderful good fortune to spend the first part of this week at a virtual conference called “Be About it: Unpacking White Privilege, Bias and Anti-Racist Instruction”. It was a powerful conference and I’m feeling even more inspired to be part of the solution. The concept of intersectionality came up frequently from many presenters. Which lead me to dig through the mountain of books I’ve purchased during the quarantine to find “Intersection Allies”. I purchased the book a few months ago, intending to use it with my fifth graders. Things (like distance learning) got in the way, but I’ve dusted it off, and I still think it is an absolutely marvelous book. I can’t wait to share it with my students!

The book is written in charming verse. Each page features a different child, each with a unique situation that might set them apart. One is in a wheelchair, another is a recent immigrant who must translate for her mother. One of the most moving illustrations shows a young girl participating in a Black Lives Matter protest. The rhymes help move the rhythm of the book along and help build a feeling in the reader that what unites us is more important than what divides us. The premise of intersectionality is expressed beautifully about half way through the book by these words.

Race, religion, citizenship, class, and ability:

Each of these intersects to form identity.

Age, gender, size, and skin color, too,

Can make living life different for a friend than for you.

Intersection Allies, by Johnson, Council, and Choi

I think this book has a powerful message that is expressed in simple terms. Little kids can understand big messages, so I think this would be a wonderful book for 2nd – 5th grade classrooms. Older students might think the illustrations are a bit young, and the book is probably too long for most 1st graders.

Here are some possible teaching points.

  1. Authors write to express an idea. This book is perfectly set up to help students discover the theme. In fact, it is expressed, twice, in large print. The final page of the book says, “Where there’s room for some, we make room for all. Friends can be allies no matter how small!” This book lays out plenty of evidence to support a central message or theme of inclusion.
  2. Understanding characters can help us understand ourselves. Each page features a different character. There is rich opportunity for analyzing characters and, in turn, shedding a light on ourselves. Invite students to connect with a character and to explore that connection. They will have to dive deeper than outward characteristics to do so, but that is exactly the point!
  3. Point of view – This is a really interesting part of the book. It is written in first person, but each page has a different narrator, and then there are pages, like the quote above, which address the reader in second person. Tracking the narrator is part of the complexity of the book for young readers, but the illustrations are super helpful with that. You could have a great discussion with kids about using the illustrations to help you comprehend this piece of the text.
  4. Authors use a predictable structure when they write. I would teach this structure as a compare/contrast structure. Several of the characters actively compare themselves with another character. For example, one character introduces herself this way. “My name is Adilah, and just like Kate, what I wear inspires endless debate.” Again, I think this ties in beautifully with the idea of using characters in books to better understand others, and ourselves.

This is absolutely a top shelf book for me. I think the language is beautiful and the ideas are inspiring. If we all spent a little more time “making room”, what a difference we would make! The simple message will inspire your students as well, and before you know it, we’ll have made the world a better place, together!

Here is a free character analysis to help you use Intersection Allies in the classroom.

Be sure to check out my other posts on great resources to use in creating a more just and equitable classroom.

Three books that will hook intermediate readers, and won’t make you cringe!

Sometimes, as an intermediate teacher, it feels as though my biggest challenge is getting kids to read, not because I tell them to, but because they want to. Somehow, in an age of YouTube and XBox, kids are spending less time curled up on their beds reading and more time curled up on the couch with a device.

Besides the obvious academic benefits of reading, books fill a basic human need for stories. Think of the lessons you learned from reading Little Women or Tom Sawyer. Think of the times you felt sad or angry, and a book made you laugh and forget your troubles for awhile. Think of the connections you feel when you discover another reader who enjoyed the same story. Stories are an essential part of our humanity.

So, how to get them to put down the device and pick up a book? Here are three titles that I’ve found hook reluctant fourth and fifth graders. Not only do they get pulled into these stories, but each of these stories leads on to another story. Like following bread crumbs in the forest, pretty soon they’ll arrive in I-Love-To-Read-Land!

The links take you to Amazon, not because I get a kick-back, just because that’s where I normally shop. Feel free to buy anywhere you want, or better yet, get them from the public library!

Jacky Ha-Ha

by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Jacky Ha-Ha will hook readers because it is both funny and poignant. The book is set in the past, during Desert Storm, and Jacky’s mother is fighting in Iraq. Her father is left to raise seven girls, yep, seven! Jacky is in the middle of the pack. She has a stutter, so when she was asked her name in kindergarten, instead of Jacky Hart, she said, “Jacky Ha-ha-ha-ha.” A nickname was born. She decided to embrace it, and became the class clown. That’s where the funny comes into the book. Kids will love the crazy pranks she pulls – climbing to the top of a Ferris Wheel, making strange Slushies for her friends (mustard, anyone?), skipping school to go to Atlantic City and be a street performer for a day…. There are just enough crazy antics to keep a kid hooked.

Despite her best attempts to keep everyone at a distance, two adults step in and help turn her around. The drama teacher, Ms. O’Mara, and the assistant principal, Mrs. Turner. They decide that Jacky can work off 20 detentions by performing in the school play. And then they enter her in the American Legion Speech Contest! With her stutter, Jacky is sure that she will fail. And that’s where the poignant comes in. Without spoiling the ending, let me just say that kids will laugh a lot, cry a little, and be asking you for more!

To my surprise, this was a top shelf book for me because I really fell in love with this character. Jackie is complex and relatable at the same time, and many intermediate readers move on from this book to devour other James Patterson books.

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Full disclosure, I didn’t love this book. It is a graphic novel, and I don’t love that genre. But many of my students do. This book appeals to many kids, and especially to girls who are struggling to read fourth and fifth grade level texts. At this age, saving face is important, and this book looks like an appropriate level for intermediate readers, so that is a big draw for some kids. The story is appealing because the main character has typical kid problems, sort of. The story begins when when the family has to move to because the main character’s little sister is sick, and they need to be in a better climate. That means, the main character, Catrina, has to leave her friends behind and start over. That is a problem that resonates with many students. Another draw is the secondary story of Catrina and her family reconnecting with their Hispanic roots. That story-line adds complexity to the book, and helps elevate it in my opinion. That’s where the Ghosts come into the story. These are friendly ghosts for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Finally, the author does a really good job of building tension and suspense because it seems as though the book will end with the younger sister’s death. No spoilers here, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I find that this book, and others by Raina Telgemeier are often confidence boosters. After reading these books, students are often ready for a classic fourth grade level text like Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great. This book doesn’t quite make the top shelf for me, but still, it’s a great read for many intermediate readers. I’d pair this book with a girl who struggles to read, but wants to keep up appearances. Raina Telgemeier has written several books, all of which will be quick reads, even for struggling readers, and build credibility with other readers.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale is a tongue-in-cheek examination of history. This is the first story in the series. The premise is that the author, Nathan Hale, is the first American spy, and he is going to be hung by the British for treason. In this title, Hale tells his own tale – of his unlucky days at Yale, his unlucky days as an officer in the American army, and his unlucky career as a spy, leading to the gallows. And then, Hale is swallowed by a US History book! When he is spit out, he knows all there is to know about US History, and the tales begin. To stall his execution, he starts to tell true stories from history. The hang man and the British officer keep putting off his execution as long as he tells them another story.

The set up is pretty simple, but the text is not. Full of smart, funny, and accurate depictions of history, the text will draw the reader in, and the pictures (it is a graphic novel) actually add to the interest. The meaning is carried by the text, but the illustrations add nuance and information. One great example of that comes in a book later in the series, Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. This tale focuses on World War I, and to help kids keep track of the countries on either side of the conflict, Hale draws them as different animals. It’s subtle and helpful all at the same time!

Kids who read this series end up laughing so much they hardly realize that they are learning history at the same time! This is a top shelf book for me. I’ve known so many reluctant readers, especially boys, who got hooked on this series and then went on to read other history books with greater understanding and enjoyment. Plus, “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood” was the first graphic novel I read that I actually enjoyed! Give it a try – you may find yourself enjoying it too!

Next Reads:

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Like most people, I have found these last few months to have their ups and downs. A world-wide pandemic, civil unrest, police brutality…. As teachers, even when we are reeling from difficulties in our world, we have an additional burden – helping our students make sense of the times in ways that don’t indoctrinate, but educate. I am going to spend some time in this blog highlighting some of the really great resources I’ve been finding to help you do that. If you didn’t catch it, check out my blog post from a few days ago about Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow ( a perfect book for intermediate classroom libraries!)

Everyone probably learned about Brown v. Board of Education in college. In case that’s many years ago for you (as it is for me!), Brown was the landmark Supreme Court case that reversed over 50 years of segregation in our schools. What you may not have learned was that a key turning point in the case was the data presented by two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They had spent years studying the effects of segregation using dolls to judge children’s perceptions.

In 2006, a seventeen-year-old named Kiri Davis decided to recreate their study to find out how children’s views have changed in the last 80 years. Just as the Clarks had done, Davis got two dolls, identical but for the color of their skin. Then she asked students which doll they would like to play with… which doll was the nice doll… which doll was the bad doll. The questions mirrored those asked in the 1940’s by the Clarks, and so did the results. 15 out of 21 children preferred the white doll and thought that the black doll was bad.

Davis then made a film, weaving her experiment into testimony by several lovely black girls. A Girl Like Me is a quiet reminder that nothing has really changed. These beautiful black girls calmly cut through the shouting and slogans you see on the news today, and tell about their experience.

I think the film, which is only 7 minutes long, is a great option to show in upper intermediate and middle school classrooms. It does not point fingers or lay blame, it merely presents facts, and would be a great conversation starter. Most importantly, it places discrimination and racial struggle squarely in the present, not in the comfortable past.

Here are some possible teaching points for using the film in class:

  1. Theme – the film lays out a clear and easy trail to follow, leading to the theme of identity. This is a key theme in lots of middle grade literature.
  2. Scientific Process – Because Kiri Davis recreates the study of the 1940’s, there are lessons about setting up valid studies, communicating your process clearly so that the study can be verified by others, controls and variables.
  3. And of course, there are so many ways to tie this into the ongoing struggle for civil rights that African Americans have been engaged in for over 400 years. For a free resource that gives an overview of the civil rights movement from 1619 to the 1960’s, check out these BOOM Cards on The Civil Rights Movement.
  4. Powerful language – There is one use of the n-word in the film. That moment will likely shock many viewers but is a great opportunity to discuss the power that words have and how we should choose our words carefully.

I highly encourage you to show this film, A Girl Like Me (not to be confused with the Lifetime movie of the same name!) to your students and pause for some meaningful conversation. It may take some courage. But it may be one of those moments that changes minds and hearts. And that is worth 7 minutes of your time.

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

“The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight.”

“And like it or not, you’re in it.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

With those words, Steve Sheinkin closes his gripping account of the making of the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union’s attempts to steal the bomb, which eventually led to the Cold War. There’s a reason this book was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newberry Honor Book. Sheinkin’s spare yet descriptive prose introduces readers to the real people, real problems and real solutions that led to the end of World War II and launched the world into the Atomic Age.

As a student of history, I had no idea how far ranging the process of building the bomb was. From saboteurs in Norway to scientists and spies from all parts of the world, this really was a team effort. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, who features prominently in the book, scientists overcame one dramatic obstacle after another. Meanwhile, spies raced around the world preventing the Germans from completing their bomb, but unaware of the Soviet plans to steal it. At its heart, this book has many elements of a good old-fashioned spy novel, mixed with a fair bit of science and a lot of history. All of those elements combined to make this a top shelf book for me – my highest rating!

Because its not a topic that is typically studied in school, I think many intermediate grade readers will struggle to understand this book because they lack background knowledge. Another qualitative consideration is the number of characters. Although Sheinkin provides lots of supports to students, often reminding readers of pertinent details about the characters, for example, there are many players in this complex story. At times, it is difficult to track the minor characters. The Lexile level of the text is about 1000 which puts this text at the high end of 5th grade, and firmly in the grades 6-8 text complexity band.

I have had a few advanced 5th grade readers with a strong interest in this topic read and love this book. I think more typically it will fit in a middle school classroom library because of the qualitative demands of the text. Keep this book on hand for any reader who loves a good spy novel, is interested in World War II, or has a strong interest in science. All three topics weave together in this text to make it a great read guaranteed to capture the interest of even the most jaded middle school reader!

I couldn’t put this book down, and devoured it in two days! I can’t close this review without encouraging all my teacher friends to read this book too. I suggest putting on your running shoes, grabbing this book and hopping on the treadmill. You won’t know if your heart is racing because of the exercise or the book! I guarantee that you will work out a little faster than usual – so that’s a win win!

http://stevesheinkin.com/books/bomb/

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It is no secret that I don’t always appreciate graphic novels. So it may surprise you to learn that “Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow” is a top shelf book for me – my highest rating. This graphic novel really delivers. Like one of Satchel Paige’s fastballs, it’s by you before you know it, and you think about it long after he’s retired from the mound.

The illustrations use only three colors, and immediately evoke a feeling of scarcity and suppression that help the reader connect with what it must have felt like to live under Jim Crow. The story is compelling. Told from the point of view of a sharecropper, Emmet Wilson, the story opens with a baseball game where Emmet plays against Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. The authors do a beautiful job of building the suspense in the game, only to end the scene with Emmet getting a hit off Paige, but also sustaining a career-ending injury.

As the story continues, Emmet ekes out a living for his family under the restrictions of Jim Crow. Baseball weaves in and out of the story, a not-so-subtle reminder of Emmet’s glory days and of the system built to ensure that African Americans see little glory. Even Satchel Paige, the most highly paid athlete in the world at the time, lives in a system where a white man won’t shake his hand after a good hit.

This book is a perfect fit for the reader who devoured the Nathan Hale history graphic novels and is looking for their next read. Like the Nathan Hale series, this is history told through smart text and engaging graphics. As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking about one fifth grade boy in particular. I think this will get him out of his Nathan Hale rut and hopefully lead him into biographies.

It’s also a great read for any baseball fan, so grab a copy for fans of Mike Lupica and Matt Christopher books. The baseball scenes in “Satchel Paige” are essential to the story, so this is a great bridge from sports books into non-fiction. I can see this being one of the books that travels through a classroom, igniting conversation and anticipation as the kids wait their turn to read it.

Put this on the top shelf and watch it fly off. Perfect for 4th and 5th grade fans of the Nathan Hale books and for baseball fans of all ages!

A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Engaging Digital Lessons

In the past two years I’ve been teaching online as well as in a brick and mortar school. I have learned that some things that work really well in class don’t translate very well to online learning. For example, in my class we use Task Cards as a way to move around the room and build in discussion and collaboration. But online, Task Cards don’t work the same way. So, how do you keep the learning substantive and keep the engagement high?

Just the other day, a parent emailed me after a one-hour introduction to Democracy class. She said, “Great class. I wasn’t sure if my eleven-year-old would enjoy it or not (she gets bored easily) but she was riveted to the screen the entire time. When the class was finished, she said she thought it was really interesting. That gets a thumbs up from me!” Here’s how to achieve that in your own virtual lesson.

Personalize the lesson – This is very hard to do. Keep in mind that I didn’t know that student before the class, and I may never see them again. Even in the classes I am teaching virtually to my brick and mortar students, it is hard to have that personal touch. I can’t look at them or use proximity. But you can build in personal touches to virtual lessons. I begin each Introduction to Democracy class with a map where we put an arrow to represent each student. About 10 minutes into the class, we revisit the map, this time in context of learning about representation from their own state. Within the first ten minutes I have made the information personal to the students twice and that helps to engage them.

I have another online class where I teach 4- and 5-year-olds to read color words. For that class, I embed their name into everything. Students love rhymes, so we begin with a color rhyme. Instead of saying the name of the color, I change it to a student’s name. At the end of the rhyme, a student’s name pops up on the screen. They love this, and right away they are engaged in reading their own name and the name of the other students in the class.

You can find this editable PowerPoint on TPT. I just change the poem to include the kids’ names. And find a free related practice page, also on TPT.

Names are powerful. When I see a student looking away from the camera or their body language signal dis-engagement, just as I do in my brick-and-mortar classroom, I ask them a question. I think it’s important to help them feel comfortable – remember, this is not a risk-free environment for them, so I always say, “Tom, I’d like you to take this next question.” Then I give a little information and ask them a question related to it. The purpose of the question is to re-engage the student, so it can be simple. Usually the student answers, I give them a high five or thumbs up, and we move on.

Be Positive – If you are using a presentation tool like Zoom, there are built in reactions. But if you are new to this, don’t dive into the deep end. A physical high five (right into your camera) or thumbs up works great. Also, your tone is extra important. Chances are, you are small on the screen, so your facial expressions carry less weight than your tone. Before I taught anything online, I opened my video camera and video-taped myself teaching a bit of the lesson. I’m so glad I did! Turns out my serious, I-love-this-content face and tone didn’t sound or look great on a video. So, I put a sticky note on my computer and I practiced until I remembered to smile – a lot! Another side benefit, it slows down my pacing.

A smile is worth 1,000 words!

Translate what you know about instruction to the screen – I begin by thinking about the old 10 and 2 rule. For every 10 minutes of a presentation, the kids talk for 2 minutes. Since I use PowerPoint and Google Slides as the bones of my presentations, I needed to translate that into slides. Think in terms of 2-4-8. One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

If you do the math, that means every fourth slide it’s the kids’ turn. When I create a presentation, I try to build in a response every four slides. Again, if you are comfortable using the tools in the tech, that can be pretty easy. Ask a question like, “If you think that a representative democracy is a better system than a direct democracy, use the thumbs up tool. If you think a direct democracy is better, use the applause tool.” Offering a choice works as long as you hold every student accountable. But the tech isn’t the only way to hold everyone accountable.

I ask students to fold an index card in half. They write A on the first section, B on the second, flip the card over and write C and D on the sections on the back. Every few slides I slip in a multiple choice question and students show the letter of the answer they choose. It helps me formatively assess, but more importantly, every child has to engage. Again, holding them accountable is key.

Harness the power of the technology – An image can often carry more meaning than your words. Be sure to embed images in interesting ways. I love this blog post on where to find free images and how to manipulate them in interesting ways. And kids love bells and whistles. I know the prevailing wisdom is to keep it simple, but I think interesting transitions, colorful and interesting fonts and animations, used strategically, engage students.

And don’t under estimate the power of video and music. It is certainly possible to overuse them. But a quick, 3-minute video embedded into an hour-long lesson can provide a great break for kids, and engage them in the content in a new way.

Tell a Story – I recently created a series of online classes to teach grammar. Not the most interesting content for most students, but entirely necessary. I wove a story of a search for Missing Mayan Medallions throughout the story. For five days those kids logged on and we spent an hour traveling through Guatemala and Mexico, learning about parts of speech and types of sentences. They completed 20 pages of grammar practice, all embedded in the story. And their motivation was high because along the way they found 24 missing medallions.

Humans love stories. Our brains are hard-wired for them. Use short stories, anecdotes, and longer stories to keep kids engaged for longer periods of time.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the transition from classroom teaching to online learning. You can do this. Start small.

  1. Personalize the lesson.
  2. Be positive.
  3. Translate what you know about instruction to the screen.
  4. Harness the power of the technology.
  5. Tell a story.

Start small, and remember, your students love you. Taking a risk and trying something new is a powerful model for them, and they will give you grace.

You got this!

Be sure to check out my other blog posts on digital learning.

Digital Tools for Distance Learning – Google Forms

Eight Things I’ve Learned about Virtual Teaching in the Past Two Years

Happy teaching!

ID 29899410 © Sabina Pensek | Dreamstime.com

Fraction-a-Day

UPDATED with a Distance Learning version!

As a fifth-grade teacher, I’m becoming more and more convinced that fractions are the hill students die on. This conviction comes from my experience as a teacher, and also as a student. A little flash to the past….

Over 30 years ago I entered fourth-grade feeling pretty good about math. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, and I thought math was just fine. Then, I hit fractions. I didn’t have a strong understanding of what fractions were, and from that time on, I felt like a math fraud. I went on to advanced math classes and I made A’s and B’s, but inside, I knew. I was a FAKE! People thought I understood math, but I didn’t. I memorized it.

When I got to college, I pushed my math methods class to the final semester before student teaching, avoiding it until it had to be faced. Our professor introduced us to the idea of using manipulatives to understand mathematical concepts. One day he asked us to multiply fractions by folding paper. Dutifully, I followed the instructions, and then, I dropped my paper and gasped. All of a sudden I understood why fractions got smaller when you multiplied and larger when you divided. It was a pivotal moment for me as a human and as a teacher.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since I sat in a fourth-grade classroom in the 80’s. Students still struggle with the concept of a fraction. This blog post from NCTM suggests that they still struggle with it in Algebra class in middle and high school. Here is one strategy I’m using to help my fifth graders scale that mountain.

Fraction-a-Day helps students build fluency with fractions.

To help you navigate to the different parts of the multi-day exploration, use these links.

Fraction-a-Day Introduction

I begin math instruction with a Week of Inspirational Math from Jo Boaler, and then I launch into this fraction series. It is a great way to set the stage for the learning we will do and to build protocols like Expert Groups and Centers.

I introduce Fraction-a-Day with a model (included in the resource!). I model 2/3 because it is a familiar fraction to many students, then I ask all of the students to complete the page for 3/4, another familiar fraction. Over the next few days I ask students to complete a page as a warm-up for math, and we go over them together. I give them just 5 minutes to work. While they work, I rotate around the room and recruit student teachers to present different parts on the document camera so that the students have an opportunity to practice speaking about fractions and using correct vocabulary. I collect outstanding examples of each fraction and save them for a later lesson. After 3-4 days of guided practice, the students are ready for more independent practice.

Expert Groups Protocol

That’s when I pop the video in the Google Classroom and we use our Expert Groups protocol. (Click the link to find the video on my You Tube channel – FREE!) The video is just over 10 minutes. For this lesson I choose 5 different fractions that I want the students to focus on. By now they are familiar with the routine. As they watch the video, students complete the fraction they’ve been given independently. After 15 minutes, everyone should be ready to meet in their Preparation Groups.

Students meet in Preparation Groups with students who have practiced the SAME fraction. The purpose of this group is for students to compare their work with each other and make sure that everyone in the group becomes an expert on that fraction. Students generally have good conversations about the different ways they represented the fraction visually and check each other’s division – usually the toughest thing for students at this point.

Once everyone in the group is confident, I regroup the students in Expert Groups. The Expert Groups consist of one student from each Preparation Group. That means, everyone has a different fraction. Now the experts take turns presenting their fraction to the other students in the group. The listeners ask clarifying questions and offer feedback. This handout is included in the resource to guide students through the protocol.

This protocol builds students’ ability to understand and talk about fractions!

As the students finish up their Expert Group presentations, I ask them to put their fractions in order. This gives them another opportunity to practice talking about fractions as they compare the five fractions in their Expert Group. I collect one stellar example of each fraction to use on our class number line.

Number line

By now students have completed 3-4 Fraction-a-Day pages independently and they have completed 5 more within their Expert Groups. At this point if students are feeling very comfortable with the routine and the concepts, I want the activity to become more independent. I choose another 15 fractions to put in a Math Center. For four days, my students rotate through this center (and others, like my Unit Fraction Puzzles and Pirate’s Gold) completing a few Fraction-a-Day pages. I let them know that I am looking for high quality examples for our Number Line. As the week goes on, I collect a few each day until I have 25 – 30 fractions (it’s important to have one for each student).

Then, usually on Friday, I pass out one fraction to each student. I don’t give them one they completed so they have an experience with a new fraction. Our class task is to put all of those fractions in order! This human number line generally stretches around most of the classroom. All of the fractions in this resource are less than one, although there are many fractions that are equivalent to one. Students have to have conversations about size and equivalence in order to do this task, and it is generally 15 minutes of buzzing work and activity! Once we have it organized, I ask each student to announce their fraction, and we make any necessary adjustments. We also have to decide what to do with equivalent fractions. Do they stand side by side or in a column? I ask students to tape their fraction on the wall where they are standing.

Then, I give groups of students a large piece of butcher paper and ask them to create their own number line. Again, they have to wrestle with how to order the fractions and what to do with equivalent fractions. This is also a good time to talk about Anchor Fractions like 1/2, 1/3 and 3/4.

Finally, following the Guided Release model, I ask students to create an individual number line in their journals with their favorite fractions.

Fraction Friday

By now we are usually about three weeks into the school year, and I’ve built some routines and protocols, so we are ready to launch the math from the our district curriculum. It does NOT begin with fractions, but I think they are so important that we continue with this practice every Friday. The warm-up for our math lesson is for everyone to complete the same Fraction-a-Day page. They have 5 minutes, and then we do something fun, like Stand up, Hands up or Snowball to go over it. It only takes 8 minutes or so, but it keeps the fractions fresh in students’ minds. My hope is that none of my students will feel like frauds (as I did for many years) because they will have LOTS of opportunities to build understanding of fractions.

UPDATED – Distance Learning Lesson

So, we are implementing Distance Learning right now, just as I was getting back to fractions for the year. I’ve decided to dust this off and use it in a new way!

Each week I’m uploading 5 Fraction-a-Day pages into my Google Classroom. I ask the students to choose one and complete the work for their favorite fraction of the week. Then, in 2 min. or less, they present their fraction to the class on Flipgrid. My students ADORE Flipgrid, so some of them are doing all of the fractions each week! Since we’ve done all of the fractions less than one, I’m adding in some fractions that are greater than one. Check back soon and I’ll have those on TPT too!

In the meantime, please enjoy the FREE video for this lesson and check out the resource on TPT.

Digital Tools for Distance Learning – Google Forms

Today I want to start a new series about tools that work well for digital learning. There are tons of blog posts out there that will give you tips and tricks for using digital tools. I’m definitely a novice there. What I’d like to add to the conversation is how the tools can be used to deliver effective and engaging instruction.

First, I have been teaching online in addition to teaching in a brick and mortar classroom for the past two years. And in that time, I’ve definitely learned a lot about engaging kids long distance. For more tips and advice about how to get started with distance learning, check out my post, Eight Things I’ve Learned about Virtual Teaching in the Past Two Years.

Today I want to dive into Google Forms. This is a free tool to anyone who has a gmail account, which is also free. Google has put a lot of effort into creating tools that allow people to communicate and work together virtually. Forms was originally meant as a survey tool. But savvy educators realized it could be used for teaching. It is very easy to create multiple choice, short answer, long answer, and other types of questions.

So, clearly Google forms is a great tool for a quiz. Under the Settings, you can set up three different types of Forms – Presentation, General and Quiz.

I almost always set things up as a Quiz. One of my favorite benefits of Quizzes is auto-grading. As soon as the students submit their answers, they receive their score. Additionally, you can provide general feedback for them. I usually set it up so that the feedback is targeted towards common errors. For example, I’ve just created a resource for my students to practice Order of Operations (FREE on TPT!). One typical mistake they make is not expressing ordered pairs as a pair, or reversing the order of the pair. So, I targeted the feedback towards those errors. This image shows what a student would see after they submit their work. Their answer is highlighted in red because it is incorrect. The correct answers are shown and the feedback points out a likely cause of the error.

What I love about this is that it puts the responsibility firmly where it belongs – with the student. Certainly, they might just skip the feedback – I know some students will be tempted to do that. But most won’t. Most students are genuinely interested in learning, and this gives them the power to take charge of that learning, to notice what they know and what they don’t, and to figure out how to do better next time. And it happens immediately, when the students’ interest in their progress is the strongest. Even at my best, (and I’m not great at grading papers in a timely manner!) I can’t give feedback to every student that quickly.

Another thing I love about Google Forms is how easy it is to embed a video. For distance learning, that is a key strategy for engaging kids and also for teaching. It allows me to be with them in their living room for a moment. Sometimes the videos I embed are created by me, and sometimes I find them on the internet. Check back in a few days for my next post about how I create short videos to teach my students.

Last week I gave my students a Pizza Fractions lesson on equivalent fractions. I started the lesson with this scenario:

After students had a chance to do some thinking and enter a short answer, I provided this video with the teaching point. (Click here to watch the video on You Tube.)

Because the video is embedded into the Google Form, the students DO NOT go to You Tube. I really love that. You and I both know once they go to You Tube, we’ll never get them back. The video is a short, mini-lesson on equivalent fractions that I made using an app called Explain Everything.

Besides quizzes and teaching, Google Forms is great for Escape Rooms – something my kids are really loving right now! With not a lot of effort, you can set up a scenario, embed questions, and even videos and photos, and students are off on a learning adventure! I’ve just finished an Escape Room on Order of Operations for my kids for this week. Here is the scenario:

I think my students will be highly motivated to work through some Order of Operations problems as they try to get into the Escape Pod!

The final way I use Google Forms is for reflection. I am constantly working to help students reflect on their own behavior and learning. Google forms has this great feature called a Checkbox Grid. You can use that to help students tap into their own thinking. I’ve used it in several ways – for self-reflection on Habits of Mind during a project, to help students form an opinion about a topic and to give them help reflecting on their own behavior in class. Here is part of the tool I use to have students reflect on their Growth/Fixed Mindset (FREE on TPT!).

After students complete the self-reflection tool, I receive their responses, and then I have an individual conference with each one. This gives them a chance to reflect first, and also gives me a chance to think about the shape of the conference before we have it.

In this time when many of us are exploring distance learning, Google Forms can be a great way to create quizzes, to embed learning, and to help students self-reflect. There is a lot of power in this tool, and it’s intuitive and simple to use. Leave a comment about how you’ve used this tool or a question about something you’d like to know. Let’s get the dialogue started!

Click here to find these, and other Google apps products on TPT.

8 Things I’ve learned about virtual teaching in the past two years

In addition to being a brick and mortar teacher, I also create and teach classes online. It’s a great side gig for lots of reasons – I get to make additional income by doing what I love, I get to share my interests that fall outside of the standard curriculum, I get to teach in my slippers….

Now, my school is closed for the next few weeks, and I’m having to put that skill to use for all of my students. Many teacher friends are reaching out to me to ask for some advice, so here are the tips I’ve been sharing with them.

  1. Think about the big picture. – Just as we do every day, it’s important to teach kids in a consistent, holistic way. If your inbox is like mine, every company I’ve ever come in contact with is offering me free resources right now. I’m grateful, but if it’s overwhelming to me, it will overwhelm my kids. Think of the big picture, and then choose wisely, just as you do in your classroom every day.
  2. Use the power of the technology to engage students. – It can be difficult to keep students engaged electronically. I’ve found that their attention span is about half of what it is in my classroom. They don’t have anyone to turn and talk with, there is no teacher using proximity…. So, think in short bursts. I put together hour-long PowerPoints and keep the kids’ attention by embedding videos, songs, questions, color, new fonts, pictures…. When you can’t give them the evil eye, interesting technology can be almost as effective! For more about that, check out this blog post on using Google Forms.
  3. Try something new. – It is always a great idea to model learning for our students. In the past week I have been experimenting with an app called Explain Everything. This app is a digital whiteboard that captures whatever is on my screen, and also captures voice over. By careful layering, I am beginning to create short videos to teach my students. They know that I am learning this, and that encourages them to try new things too.
  4. Meet them where they are at. – After I created my first video using Explain Everything, I posted it to You Tube. Even before I had sent my students the link, they found it! They are all over the digital world, and they are very excited when we enter their territory. Check out my first video about equivalent fractions.
  5. Don’t forget the Social-emotional aspect of learning. – In these times, people need each other more than ever. Two days ago I posted an optional Reading Response assignment in my Google Classroom. Using Flipgrid, the students were supposed to give a brief summary of a book they are reading independently. In two days, my students have already spent 10 hours recording videos, watching each other’s videos and responding. They are hungry to connect with each other right now, and technology like Flipgrid and Google Hangouts can meet the need. If you don’t have a Flipgrid account, they are free and easy to open.
  6. Support your parents. – Even during normal times, as a virtual teacher I rely on parents to support the students. Parents are very stressed out right now and hoping that you, the expert, can solve at least one of their problems for them. Be available, and let them know the best ways to contact you. If you send work for students to do at home, send the answer keys so that parents know what you are looking for and can steer their child in the right direction. (If the Answer Key is part of the pdf, use free services like I Love PDF to split the resource that you have downloaded or created so that the Answer Key is separate.) Understand that parents generally don’t feel qualified to teach their children, and it is daunting for them!
  7. Find your village. – One of the most difficult things about this is teaching in isolation. I learned early in my virtual teaching career that teaching from home is much more lonely than teaching in a brick and mortar school. Schedule digital hangouts with your friends, text and call, and most importantly, share! Celebrate your successes! Bemoan your failures. And pick each other up and try again. Together, we can do this! To help with this, I will be uploading at least two free resources for distance learning every week for the next 6 weeks. Check my freebies page and follow my blog so you are notified about each new upload. The freebies for distance learning will include things like this “I Can Write Colors” practice page for K-1 students and resources for upper elementary students like this non-fiction article, “Chocolate – the sweet history of the world’s favorite flavor.”
  8. Take care of yourself. – You know how there is always one more project to plan, one more set of papers to grade, one more cool set of task cards to laminate…. Well, online teaching is no different. Once you jump in, your creative juices will start flowing, you’ll head down a rabbit track, and 3 hours will go by! Set healthy limits, and get up to move around periodically. Exercise, and spend time in the sun. You will be more creative and energetic about tackling this if you do it wisely.

This is a whole new paradigm for many of us, and for our students and parents. But if there is one thing I know, it is this. We can do this! We have done hard things in the past and we got this!

Keep calm and teach on!

UPDATE

I’ve just added some new freebies to my TPT page. Check out this Google Forms on 5th Grade Order of Operations.

Decimals and Dollars is a free Google forms lesson with an embedded video so instruction and practice are combined!

Wander Words

As you know, teaching vocabulary is near and and dear to my heart. And I love to do it in a playful way whenever possible. I’m always trying to figure out a fun way to engage my students in word play, and Wander Words is the newest craze in my classroom.

Wander Words is pretty simple. The word “wanders” around, and students have to decode it. The word can start anywhere, and can travel horizontally or vertically in any direction. Each word comes with a sentence to give context. For example:

Everyone knows that Ms. Cotton’s favorite cookie is a _________.

Students would connect the letters to spell Snickerdoodle.

I’ve been using these cards in my classroom to help students step up their writing by using more scholarly transitions, and they are having a blast!

This is a really fun activity that exposes students to lots of Tier 2 words. I’ve created sets of task cards, with and without QR codes, that give students practice with lots of great scholarly words. My March 2020 freebie is a great set of these cards to practice scholarly transitions for writing. Be sure to download them today!

You can get other Wander Words Task Cards in my TPT store. Click to go straight there!

Cookies and Catapults – a STEM Valentine’s Day adventure

As I wrote about last month, I’m really working hard to improve STEM in my classroom. I’ve created posters to teach the engineering design principles that students need to learn (download for free in my TPT store!), and we are working to incorporate them every chance I get. Valentine’s Day seemed like a perfect opportunity.

Before we go too far, I have to admit that the cookies had nothing to do with the STEM activity. It has been my tradition for 25 years to bake heart cookies for my students on Valentine’s Day, and I really liked the alliteration of cookies and catapults. So, full disclosure, this blog post will focus on catapults!

First, I decided to teach my students how to build catapults rather than have them explore and design themselves. There is a benefit to having them experiment and figure things out, and that’s exactly what we did in the First Americans Shelter Design Challenge. For this activity I wanted my students to focus on controlling variables and collecting data over multiple trials. For that reason, I used the catapult plans I found at DevonCollier.com. Each group needed 9 large popsicle sticks, several rubber bands, and a handful of candy hearts and a handful of Hershey’s kisses. I got the supplies ready that morning and after lunch, the building began!

The question we decided to answer was “Which would fly farther, a Hershey’s Kiss or a candy heart?” The students worked in partners to build the catapults, then we grabbed our measuring tapes and went outside to collect data. Each pair was responsible for collecting data for three trials for each type of candy. They collected their data on a data collection sheet, and then we went back inside to put our data together and find an average. You can download the Valentine’s Day Catapult data sheet for free below the pictures! They had to do some great math because they converted centimeters to meters, and then added and divided to find the average.

The students put their data together on a class data collection sheet, and then they had an answer to their question! Most importantly, they had a blast while practicing some key math and science content in a real-world experience. And they ate candy! What’s not to love?

Thank you to Sonya DeHart for designing the border I used on the Data Collection Sheet and to A Primary Kind of Life for creating the font on the Data Collection Sheet. Check out these talented teachers!

STEM adventure!

I am really fortunate to have a principal who supports me in attending a national or regional conference every year. This year, my whole team got to go to the regional NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) conference, and I was really inspired to jump into STEM! I had dabbled before, but the conference helped me see how to take the next step. What I really wanted was something that tied to my required curriculum, and also intentionally taught my students about Engineering Design Principles. I was looking for something more than an opportunity for kids to play around with cardboard and gadgets. Here’s what we did.

Students built background knowledge with a Gallery Walk.

I decided to incorporate required social studies standards about Native Americans, required math standards about subtracting and multiplying decimals and required science content about climates. We began with a Gallery walk including maps and pictures of traditional Native American Homes. Students worked in teams of 4 to look at a group of 2-3 pictures and record things they notice and things they wondered. After a few minutes they rotated to a new group of pictures. We also read an article about the First Americans to arrive that focused on the land bridge theory and the ways different cultures adapted to different climates. I wrote the text at three different levels so that all of my learners could access the information. We used a close reading protocol , so spent three days working with the vocabulary and ideas in the text. You can get the text and the Gallery walk maps and pictures in my TPT store here.

After my fifth graders had developed an understanding that people have adapted to different environments by using the available resources, we learned about the Engineering Design Process. We had gone through it before, but I created these posters so that my students could begin to internalize the steps. (The posters are free on TPT!) Then I put my students in groups of three. (I use an Excel spreadsheet to randomize the groups.) Each group randomly chose a climate card and a lifestyle card. The climate cards match the standard climates (Mediterranean, Tropical, Tundra, Arid, Temperate). They have two choices for lifestyles: permanent and nomadic. The challenge is to build a shelter that matches the climate and the lifestyle. So, a group might be building a permanent shelter for an arid climate, or a temporary shelter for a Mediterranean climate.

After we had explored the challenge together, each group got additional research materials: a short description of the climate including some of the natural resources, an analysis of each available building material’s Pros and Cons, and a list of the cost of each resource. The cost varies by climate because some resources are more difficult to get in different climates. The groups took a day to take notes from their research materials.

Then I guided students through the Engineering Design Process using the Student Guide. They completed the first few steps together, and then I met in a five minute conference with each group. The conference is essential! I used that as an opportunity to make sure that each student was involved in the planning process and understood the essential content about the climate.

Many groups had designed a traditional native home based on what they had learned about, and had not taken into account the climate and/or the lifestyle. For example, one group had chosen the tundra with a nomadic lifestyle. They initially planned to build a tepee, which was great for a nomadic lifestyle but a tepee in the tundra is not a suitable match! By meeting with that group, I was able to ask questions that helped them uncover that difficulty and they changed their design. Flexibility is a key attribute that I try to teach my students any chance I get!

Then, it was time to build! I gave students one hour to create their shelters. The next day I gave them one hour to test their design and improve it. All of the groups improved their design, so I felt really good about that! The final day of the project we invited parents and key staff (like my principal – always good to let him know that his PD dollars paid off!) to come to our presentations. Two students presented while one student from each group rotated to see the other groups. Then we switched, so after 3 rotations, everyone had seen the other projects. Each student left feedback for the other projects and then the projects went home.

Each student turned in an individual reflection, budget and self-assessment of their Habits of Mind, which I used to grade the project. I did grade the actual shelter, although you could. I focused my grading and feedback on the individual analysis of the features of the building and the individual student’s assessment of the design.

My students really loved this project, and so did my parents and my principal. I loved the way we brought together essential content and Habits of Mind like flexibility, innovation and problem solving. I purchased or found these materials for this project: clay, pipe cleaners, styrofoam, cardboard, hemp string, leather remnants and glue. My total cost for the class was under $20.00. All of the resources you need to complete this project are available at my TPT store. If you try this project or have suggestions for how to improve it, please leave comments.

Info-Gap Math Routine

I am really excited about Info-Gap Math Activities right now! If you’ve never tried an Info-Gap, read on, and be sure to download the freebie!

The purpose of an Info-Gap is to get kids talking about math. They ask questions, they clarify, they think about what they need to know. Those skills are so important in math class, and they mirror the way math comes to us in the real world. Sometimes you have context, but not enough information. Sometimes you have lots of information, but no context, so you aren’t sure what to do with it. That’s what the Info-Gap helps kids learn to grapple with.

In an Info-Gap problem, each student has a card which they do not show to the other student. One card might look like this:

As you can imagine, the student is generally full of questions like, “How much do the puzzles cost?” and “What kind of puzzles were they?” and “Where is this toy store?”

Some of the questions will be pertinent, and some won’t. The first few times students try this routine, they will go off on tangents. That’s great! Knowing what not to ask is almost as important as knowing what you should ask!

The other card looks something like this:

Ahh, that’s what we were missing!

As you can see, this card contains all the information that the other student needs, and even some that they don’t! Since the students cannot see each other’s cards, they have to ask each other questions to find out what the other person knows. The freebie has a sample conversation that you can use to model it for your students.

Once students agree that they both understand the problem, they work together to solve it. Then, they switch roles and try another. I always do Info-Gaps in pairs so that both students practice each part.

Once the kids learn the routine, you will find that they are asking the right questions most of the time, clarifying their thinking, and building their precise math vocabulary. This routine not only helps students master content, it also helps them:

  1. MP1 – Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. MP2 – Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. MP6 – Attend to precision.

The Mathematical Practice Standards are built in to this protocol. I have seen real growth in my students’ understanding of how to approach word problems, logical reasoning skills and communication (both listening and asking questions!) because of this routine. Give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments section!

Did you download the freebie already? 🙂

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! The Three-Tiers

In 1987, Beck and colleagues introduced the idea of a three-tier system to guide teachers as they chose words to explicitly teach. Their purpose was to help teachers understand which words should receive the most explicit instruction. As they built the tiered system, they focused on the function of words in language. Basals and reading programs often have different goals when choosing words for explicit instruction. It’s important to note that Beck and McKeown’s work focuses on the function and meaning of the words, not the spelling or reading difficulty. As a teacher, you might choose to intentionally pre-teach a difficult word or a spelling pattern. That goal differs from the goals of vocabulary instruction, which include building familiarity with words and capacity to use a word in speaking and writing.

Tier One

According to “Bringing Words to Life“, Tier One words are “typically found in oral language”. These are words like dog, warm, run, talk, tired, party, look and swim. Because these are common in everyday speech, children are exposed to these words in a variety of contexts and with great frequency. This familiarity means that for a native speaker, these words rarely need to be taught. Keep in mind that we are focusing on students’ ability to use these words in their speaking and writing. You may want to explicitly teach how to spell these words, but that is a separate focus from building the capacity to use a word.

Tier Two

The second tier is where teachers should spend the majority of their instructional time. In this tier we find words that cross many domains and are used by mature language users. In my classroom we call these “scholarly words”. Tier Two words include words like circumstances, contradict, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect. One hallmark of Tier Two words is that they are seldom used in conversation, but are frequently found in written text. That means that students will seldom encounter these words in daily life. However, knowledge of these words can enhance a student’s ability to read grade level texts and also to express themselves exactly and precisely in their written work. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Mark Twain

You are probably wondering how many Tier Two words there are and which ones to focus on. Good question! Beck and McKeown helpfully analyze a study from Nagy and Anderson (1984) that focused on words in printed school English for third through ninth graders. They found that:

  • Good readers in this age range typically read about one million words per year.
  • There are about 88,500 word families in printed school English. A word family is a group of related words, for example introduce, introduced, introduction and reintroduce.
  • About half of these word families are extremely rare, meaning that even a voracious reader may encounter them only once in their lifetime.
  • About 15,000 word families would likely be encountered at least once every 10 years. Those are the words that Beck and McKeown have designated as Tier One and Tier Two words.
  • Approximately 8,000 of those word families fall in Tier One, so students will likely learn those words through repeated exposure and multiple contexts without explicit instruction.

So, that leaves us with about 7,000 word families to teach. If we start in kindergarten with a goal of teaching those words by ninth grade, that averages out to about 700 words. No problem! Right?

Well, not exactly. I’ve been at this for a long time, and in my best years I am able to get in about 500 words that I’ve taught explicitly. And if I’m perfectly honest, just because I’ve taught them explicitly, it doesn’t meant that my students have learned them. I would love to think differently, but that just isn’t realistic. Beck and McKeown suggest that if just 400 words are taught explicitly each year, that would have a significant affect on students’ ability to comprehend text at their grade level. In fact, they have research to prove that it does! That is a bit easier, but still a lofty goal! We’ll cover strategies to meet that goal in future blog posts.

Tier Three

Tier Three words are domain specific or extremely rare. These are the words that students need to understand science, social studies and math concepts. Think of words like quotient, epidermis and filibuster. These words generally don’t cross domains, so Beck and McKeown suggest teaching them in context. When a student encounters a Tier Three word, that is moment to teach it. The other type of Tier Three word is a very rare word, such as abecedarian. Quite possibly you’ve never encountered that word, and it’s likely your students won’t either. (Interestingly, an abecedarain is a novice learner.) Because these words don’t have great utility in the majority of texts, teachers should not spend a significant amount of instructional time on them. In my experience, that’s where we spend the majority of our vocabulary instruction time – just the reverse of what we should be doing!

So, how to reverse that trend and still find time to eat dinner with your family? My blog post, “Words, Words Wonderful Words! – Strategies to engage your students” will give you some of my tried and true ideas. And, Bringing Words to Life has lots more great ideas. Get the book! It’s really worth it!

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! What does the CCSS say?

As promised, I’m going to dive into the research and resources that I have found to be most useful in building a robust vocabulary for students. We’re going to start with the Common Core State Standards.

What? The standards are a resource? You bet! If you haven’t spent time with the Appendices, I totally recommend you do. They give a great overview of key research and important ideas in each subject, and can really point you in the right direction. Achieve the Core is a great resource for unlocking the standards and what they really expect.

Just in case you don’t have time to read what the ELA Appendix says about Vocabulary, here is a brief summary (but you really should pour a cup of coffee and read it sometime!)

The stance of the standards towards vocabulary is that “the importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.” The appendix references several researchers, including Beck, McKeown and Kucan who wrote the essential book on vocabulary instruction, Bringing Words to Life, and have been instrumental in unlocking effective and engaging vocabulary instruction for teachers for many years. According to their work, and quoted in the Appendix, “Key to students’ vocabulary development is building rich and flexible word knowledge. Students need plentiful opportunities to use and respond to the words they learn through playful informal talk, discussion, reading or being read to and responding to what is read.”

The appendix briefly traces the development of language, beginning with oral language. According to the document, initially students acquire vocabulary through oral conversation that is rich in context. However, by grade 4 or 5, students are no longer learning vocabulary through conversation because they have mastered the majority of words that come up in conversation, even in academic conversation.

The appendix asserts that written language contains a far greater array of words, however, it lacks interactivity and context that aids students in acquiring language. Therefore, inherent in the standards is the idea that purposeful, ongoing instruction in vocabulary is necessary. Research shows that students need to grasp about 95% of the words that they read to comprehend a text, yet only 5-15% of new words are retained the first time a student reads them. Thus, the focus on playful talk and discussion to support reading.

Finally, the appendix references Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s work in categorizing words into three tiers. These three tiers help teachers know which words to prioritize in vocabulary instruction. For more on that topic, see my post Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers!

The College and Career Readiness Standards, from which all of our K-12 standards are derived, have 4 standards devoted to language acquisition in the Language portion of the document (CCRR.L.3, CCRR.L.4, CCRR.L.5. and CCRR.L.6), one standard in the Reading portion of the standards (CCRR.R.4). As you can see, the heavy emphasis on vocabulary instruction in the standards really cannot be overstated. We’ll keep exploring this topic together in future posts and unlock how to make that a reality in your classroom!

Happy teaching!

No more prepping, no more plans. Summer reading – oh, so grand!

Ah! Summer, with its tall, frosty drinks, loungy chairs, and good reads. If you’re like me, you’ve been stockpiling books since Christmas, just waiting for long, easy afternoons to dive in. By now I have a pretty good stack of kid books, teacher books, and one or two just-for-fun books by my bed. Here are ten of the books that are waiting for me. I’d love to hear what’s on your summer reading list!

Links are to Amazon. I don’t get a kickback or anything, but I like Amazon! Feel free to buy wherever you like, or get them from your local library!

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie- Let’s start with fun. Every few years I go on an Agatha Christie binge, and this summer I’m heading for one. I’ll start with my favorite sleuth, Hercule Poirot, and my favorite mystery – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I just can’t get enough of that dapper Belgian who famously solves cases using “Order and Method, Hastings! Order and method!” Perhaps I can channel my inner Poirot and bring some order and method to my closets this summer…. Hm…..
  2. Mindset Mathematics: Visualizing and Investigating Big Ideas, Grade 5 by Jo Boaler- In my classroom, we believe in the Power of Yet, and I spend a lot of time on Youcubed, Jo Boaler’s website. So, a book that brings together Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler seems like a gift. Plus, my principal let it slip that he’s reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler, and I’ve got to keep up with him! She’s written a book about the big ideas at every grade level from 3rd grade to 8th grade. She’s likely got you covered!
  3. Differentiation and the Brain by Carol Ann Tomlinson- I first read Carol Ann Tomlinson’s amazing work in 1999, and I keep coming back to her. I can’t wait to find out more about the connection between brain research (a longstanding interest of mine) and differentiation. I imagine this book will revitalize my teaching for next year.
  4. A Framework for K-12 Science Education by the National Research Council- I’ve been dipping my toe in this book since November, but this summer I’m looking forward to a good, long dive! So far, it’s completely wonderful, and I am really excited to have the time to spend with it. I imagine I will spend most of the summer really digesting this book and pulling out all of the information I need to bring Science alive in my classroom.
  5. Big, Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale- I have to admit, I keep trying, unsuccessfully, to understand the appeal of graphic novels. My students devour them, and so, I keep on trying. My son assures me that, with my love of history, this book will grab me. We’ll see.
  6. Americanized – Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi – I want to be ready for the current issues dredged up by the election next year, and I suspect immigration will be one of them. This book looks like a great read for my advanced readers, and I think it will be very timely. Plus, it’s supposed to be hilarious, and I do love a funny book!
  7. Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: a Practical Guide for Teachers by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen – I don’t know these authors at all, but my book clubs this year have been, well, lackluster is probably a kind adjective. If this book can help me revitalize things for next year, that would be amazing!
  8. Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – This has actually been on my reading list for years, and it just keeps slipping down the pile. We briefly studied the Manhattan Project this year, and one of my students stumbled on this book. He thinks I will love it, and frankly, so do I. Update: I finished reading Bomb. Loved it!!!! Click here to read my review.
  9. The Birth of Black American: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown by Tim Hashaw – I actually just started this one, and it’s really great. It’s not an easy summer read – I’m taking it one chapter at a time, with some lighter reading in between chapters. but, I’m learning so much that I didn’t know, and I can’t wait to get back and teach history next year. We can really get beyond the textbook next year.
  10. Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder – This book was published the year I student-taught, and it was required reading for us that year. Tracy Kidder followed Mrs. Zajac and her class for a year, and this true story resonated with me immediately. Every August I return to this wise, poignant classic, and it puts me in the right frame of mind to start another year. Each time I learn something new from Mrs. Zajac and the students in her care. I hope it will do the same for you.

Those are a few of the books I’m planning to read this summer. I’d love to hear what you’re reading. I’m always on the prowl for a good read, so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Happy Reading!

Changing the Orientation of One Google Slide

Maybe you have been doing what I have been doing lately – a crash course into all things Google! If so, I can’t wait to share this tip that I just learned!

Often when I create Google Slides for my students, I need some of them to be portrait orientation and others to be landscape. Because Google Slides is meant as a presentation platform, that just isn’t possible. But, we teachers need it to be so much more! We need kids to drag and drop, underline, insert, and interact with the slides. AND we need the slides to go the way we need them to go. Here’s how I’ve solved that problem.

First, since my students need to interact with the slides, they know NOT to use the slides in Present mode. When I’m teaching them, I DO use present mode. This work around WILL NOT work in Present mode, but it is awesome for students.

  1. Create the content you need. In my classroom we are working on grammar, so I’ve created this Grammar Adventure for my students. As you can see, most of the slides need to be Portrait orientation, but the brochure about Tikal really needs to be Landscape.

2. I created the slide in Portrait orientation by creating text boxes and images, and then rotating them.

3. Then I downloaded the brochure as a png. Making it a png means the content is locked and no one can edit it – not you and not your students.

4. Next, I created a new blank slide. I inserted the image of the brochure I had just downloaded. Don’t make it a background, insert it as an image. It will fill the entire slide. You are probably thinking, um, yeah, it looks just like it did a minute ago.

5. Now, the work around. Rotate the image. It will hang off the edges of the slide.

Rotate the image, making the orientation Landscape.

6. Go ahead and resize it to cover the entire slide. Now it will really hang off the edges!

The slide will fill more of the student’s screen. If they use Present mode, the edges will be cut off.

7. That’s it. If you want to see a video of this, check it out here!

For other great tech tips for you and for your students, be sure to follow me on You Tube. I regularly post tech tips and instructional videos.

And I have tons of awesome print and digital resources on TPT, including this resource, Grammar Agents – the Quest for the Missing Mayan Medallions! Follow me so you find out about all my newest resources and insights to grow your teaching.

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – 5 Strategies for Building Trust

Writing is a risky endeavor. Through writing we expose our deepest thoughts, feelings and experiences to the scrutiny of others. Along the way errors, omissions and mistakes are easy to make. Failure is almost inevitable. Ask any writer – it’s never as amazing on the page as it is in our mind.

So, many students have a deep seated fear and dislike of writing. Until you build a classroom community where the kids trust you AND the other students, you have no chance of addressing that problem.

Face to Face in a Physical Classroom

The best way to build a trusting classroom environment is to begin with yourself and trust your students. In a physical classroom, I usually demonstrate this on the first day with a crazy little dance. I make an absolute fool of myself, and in the process, I show that I trust my students. I trust that they will laugh WITH me and not AT me. I trust that they can manage a little craziness and get themselves back on track. I trust that they understand that I’m a human too. (You definitely want to read this blog post about it and see the pictures to really know what I mean!)

Students also need to trust each other. One way I build trust in a writing workshop is through Rainbow Revision. When students have a decent, working draft, I ask them to sit in a circle of 4-5 students. They pass their draft to the student sitting next to them. Each student has a different colored pencil. As they read, they underline up to 3 parts or passages that they like. Then they pass the paper to the next student. In the second round, some things are already underlined. The second student can choose to underline the same parts or different parts, but only 3 things. As the paper is passed from student to student, some things get underlined multiple times. When the writer receives their paper back, anything that is underlined multiple times is clearly working and doesn’t need revision. This builds their confidence that they have done something well, and also helps them trust the students who found such value in their paper. Writers now have something great to launch them into the next phase of their writing, and stronger connections in the community to help them do it!

In a Virtual Classroom

So, how can I accomplish this at a distance if the pandemic keeps us apart? Well, the principle still holds true. I need to build a trusting community so that we support each other as we grow as writers (and readers, and mathematicians, and historians, and scientists….)

So, I may not be able to do my crazy dance and then present students with a writing notebook. But I CAN take a risk and show that I trust them. And so can you. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Step out of your comfort zone. Sing. Dance. Lip Sync. And make a video to share with your students. For their first digital homework, I’m going to ask each student to upload a picture of their pet (or favorite stuffed animal) into a class Google doc. I will sing the song “Never Gonna Let You Down” by Colbie Callait which has a great inspirational message (and the video features rescue animals). I’ll use my audio track and their photos to make a slide show in We Video and post it in our Google Classroom at the end of the first week. This will be a risk for me (video editing! singing!) and also bring something they love into our Google Classroom. My goal is to model trust for my students and build connections as they ooh and aah over each other’s cute pets!
  2. Be Consistent – If you are consistent, students will know what to expect and that builds trust. If you are distance learning, that means setting a consistent schedule for Zoom or Google Meets, and then showing up a few minutes early so that the students can all have time to join the class. It means setting a consistent communication schedule for parents and students and being clear with directions and deadlines. And it means starting and ending virtual instruction sessions in a similar manner each time. I like to begin our Zoom Rooms by greeting each child by name, just as I do in the regular classroom. We spend a few minutes chatting while everyone joins. When I’m ready to begin instruction, I signal that by saying, “OK. Today we are going to be learning strategies that writers use to connect their ideas” (or whatever the target of the lesson is). And I wrap up each session by opening it up to questions, and then repeating key ideas and deadlines. It’s a predictable format and it helps students know what to expect – which is key for building trust.
  3. Share your Writing – This is essential, whether you are in a physical classroom or a virtual one. Students need to see that your writing is sometimes messy, sometimes really bad, and occasionally, pretty great! They need to know that it isn’t easy but that it’s worth working on. And your true writer’s notebook will help them see that. This year my students’ notebooks will be digital, so I’ve started building mine in Google docs. One of the really amazing things about this is the Version History. It will be really easy to show my students how many times I revise a piece by looking back at all of the versions.

Students also need to trust each other. This is going to be tricky if we are not together. Luckily, Rainbow Revision works digitally! Here’s how.

4. About two weeks into the school year I will ask each student to identify a piece of writing from their notebook (which will be digital this year!) and copy/paste it into a class Google doc. Before the activity, I will create a Google doc with a page for each student and a simple star graphic at the top of each page. The first student will read the text below theirs and underline 3 things that work for them. If another student wants to “like” the same passage, they will drag a star to that part of the text (or copy/paste it). Some passages may end up with only an underline, some passages may have several stars, and some passages may have nothing at all. In this way, writers will find out what is working for their reader and jump off to the next phase of writing with confidence and trust. Rainbow Revision revised!

5. One more idea for building trust between students is establishing a Virtual Compliment Jar. Create a simple Google Form asking for the student’s name, the name of the student they would like to compliment and the compliment. Every morning I post a virtual Morning Message in my Google Classroom and incorporate the compliment. It looks something like this:

Morning Message with an anonymous compliment for Brock

Although our classrooms may be dramatically different this year, I absolutely believe and know that we can build a strong community of writers. It starts with trust, and even if we are not together, I know we can create vibrant learning communities with our students.

This series will continue with Building a (Virtual) Writing Community – Get kids to love writing!

Be sure to check out the other posts of this series.

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom.

A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Launching the Digital Writing Notebooks

Get ’em to love Writing!

And follow me so you get the whole series over the next few weeks!

Winning Week One – Day 2

This post focuses on how I begin the year in a physical classroom. Be sure to check out my series on starting the year with distance learning. New posts will be coming out every week about how I will do that this year!

I start Day 2 as I will begin every day – standing outside the classroom, smiling at each child and telling them with my words and my actions that I am happy to see them. I’ll tell you a secret. I’m terrible with names. Always have been. So, on the first day of school I snap a quick picture of each student, and later that night I give myself a quiz until I know everyone’s name. I hang the pictures in the room somewhere, and I am able to greet each child by name as they enter the classroom on the second day.

On day 1, the kids and I began getting to know each other. I really can’t stress how important it is to build those relationships as quickly as you can. That’s one of the reasons I don’t worry about the rules on the first day – I’m focused on building relationships and helping kids know that school will be focused on academics. I think it’s important to show kids what you value on the first day, and every day.

On day two, we continue in the same way. The focus is on learning and relationships, and I bring in another goal – student voice. Here’s how I do that.

We begin with Independent Reading time. On the second day students again find piles of books on their desks. Many have a book from yesterday, and the ones who don’t go for a book dive in the pile. I rotate from group to group to help kids find a book, and we settle in for quiet reading. I haven’t told kids my expectations yet, but I model them in the way I praise kids who get settled quickly and quietly. We try for 15 minutes of quiet reading. Then we gather on the rug for a discussion. I say, “This year we will spend a lot of time reading. Right now, I’m getting to know you all as readers. I noticed that many of you chose adventure books. I also noticed that some of you chose mysteries. Two of you chose books by Gary Paulsen. I want to get to know you as readers even more. In this class we will often use Turn and Talks. When you Turn and Talk, make sure that you talk to a person near you, and that everyone has a partner. I will give you a signal to finish your conversation, and then count down from 5 to 0. Finish and look at me by the time I get to 0. Turn and tell your neighbor one thing that helps you focus on reading during Independent Reading time.”

As the students Turn and Talk, I listen in to gather information about them as readers. I have given them a few of the expectations of Turn and Talk, and we will continue to practice and adjust this procedure until it is a smooth routine. For now, I put my hand in the air and put my fingers down one by one as I say, “Finish your conversation in 5-4-3-2-1-0.” As everyone finishes, I give a thumbs up to the students who turn to make eye contact. I do not continue the conversation until ALL students have made eye contact. I don’t give a verbal reminder, I just wait. Invariably, they all figure it out eventually, maybe with the help of their neighbor! ALL means all. No excuses.

Then I say, “As you were talking, I heard some people talk about noise level, I heard other people talk about space, and some of you talked about finding the right book. Those are all great things to think about when trying to focus on reading during Independent Reading time. Let’s make a chart and record some of the things that help you as readers.” I deliberately set the stage for students to focus on those important ideas. It’s entirely possible that they didn’t mention some of those things. But I get those ideas into the conversation because they are going to be important in setting the right environment for reading success. I then randomly call on students, and ask them to share their idea or their partner’s. After a Turn and Talk I will always call on students randomly, and I want them to know that now. It’s part of their accountability for Turn and Talk time.

We work together to make an Anchor Chart about things that help us as readers. Those then become the expectations for Independent Reading time. This is pretty much the same process I will use for developing procedures for math, science and writing. Over the next few days we will follow these steps to collaboratively develop procedures for every academic situation:

  1. Students do an activity (writing in journals, a science experiment…), Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.
  2. We debrief the activity, and how we can help each other to do our best.
  3. We co-create an Anchor Chart.
  4. Most importantly, we revisit the Anchor Charts every time we do the activity, and modify them. These are living documents, and for the first few weeks we will add, delete and modify them. They will not be beautiful, but they will get the job done.

Building classroom routines using a structure like this keeps the focus right where I want it – on academics, on building relationships and on building students’ belief that they can, and should, manage their own behavior.

On Day 1, I focused on modeling my expectations and praising students for following them. On Day 2, I ask the students to set the expectations for themselves. Occasionally a student will try to derail this process. They will say something like, “I focus on reading best when there is loud rock music playing.” The best way to handle that is to put out an open-ended question to the class. Something like, “How would that be for the rest of you? Would you be able to focus and read if there were loud rock music on the speakers?” Other students will shake their head no, so then I say, “Well, that might be hard for some of us. We need to make sure that all students can do their best. What if we play quiet, classical music while we read?” Of course, don’t suggest something you are not willing to do. If you want it silent, suggest that. When we begin tracking reading stamina, if you need to, you can do a controlled experiment where one day you play loud rock music and the other day you play quiet classical music. Even stubborn students can’t argue with data (although they may try)!

Just as I did on Day 1, I will make sure that there are plenty of academics on Day 2. We will have a reading lesson, a writing lesson and a math lesson. I gathered data on their writing stamina after my crazy Intro to Writing on Day 1. I use that information to plan Day 2 and to set a goal for Writing Stamina. Sometimes, it’s just 10 minutes. If I have a lot of reluctant writers, I will provide a funny picture prompt or an inspirational quote. I usually give a Writer’s Interest Survey or a Reader’s Interest Survey to continue building relationships and help me use students’ interests to guide my instruction all year. We will continue to get to know each other by reading Two Truths and a Lie, which we began on Day 1. And students will continue to organize the Book Nook in a way that makes sense for them and that they can maintain all year long.

Day 2 is all about building students’ understanding that they are in charge of themselves. That is a pretty novel idea for many learners, and one that we will work on together all year long. I continue growing our relationships, setting the expectation that school is about learning, and building classroom routines and procedures.

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