Getting into Goals – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Today, my students set their first reading goal of the year. I can hear your gasps. It’s October 15! One tenth of the year has gone by, goal-less! What were you thinking (I can hear you ask.)?

No, I did not fall and hit my head, nor was I abducted by aliens for the first month of school. One of the things I’ve learned over my many years of setting goals with kids is the importance of going slow to go fast. We have been very busy building reading stamina, getting to know each other as mathematicians and increasing our writing fluency. And we have gathered data. All of that work came together today to help my students write thoughtful, achievable and important goals in reading.

Here’s what happened in my classroom today. I hope that some of this vignette is useful to you, so I’ll be pretty detailed, and also let you in on my teacher moves.

As the kids came back from recess, I asked them to grab their data binders and a pencil and gather on the rug. During the first month of school we had already organized the tabs in the binders and students had tracked their reading with the Weekly Reading Record and their Quick Writes with the Writing Fluency Graph. Today, my goal was to have students look at the data they had already gathered and use that to inform their goal. Starting with the data helps students know their strengths and challenges, so they are more likely to write achievable and meaningful goals.

As the students gathered, I showed them a copy of the Book Shelf Recording form from my Student Data Binder resource (grab it on TPT today!) Immediately they connected it to the class bulletin board where we have been collecting book spines all month. Yippee! I’m always delighted when my students make connections. Makes me look like I know what I’m doing. 🙂 (I created our class bulletin board using the spines from this so-cute bulletin board resource by Lotts of Learning.)

I let the kids know that they were going to be creating their own personal Book Shelves to record their reading for the year, and I gave them copies, including the My Bookshelf Key. Then, the magic started to happen. Kids were moving around the room, checking the bulletin board, checking their reading logs on EPIC books, looking through their data binders at their Weekly Reading Records. Conversations sprung up.

“Is Ada Twist, Scientist a Science Fiction book?”

“What about Loser? It is Realistic Fiction?”

“Where would I put this book about Theodore Roosevelt?”

All the work we have done with genre was coming together in the focused buzz from every corner of the room and kids were talking about BOOKS!

Then I asked them to leave the data binders behind but bring their brain to the rug. And I said, “Has anyone ever talked to you about setting goals?” Of course, they all nodded and some kids piped up with examples from school and sports.

So, then I asked, “And, did the goals work? Did you improve?” This time the responses were mixed. Some kids said yes, and others said no.

Finally, I asked them what they knew about New Year’s Resolutions. One of my boys explained what they were, and then another boy blurted out, “But most people don’t keep them! My mom always says she is going to start going to the gym, and she never does!” I promise I didn’t ask him to say that, but it was too, too perfect!

“Well, they say a goal without a plan is just a wish,” I replied. “So, today, we are going to learn how to set meaningful goals and achieve them!” I then asked them what they thought might make a good goal area for Reading. They came up with this list:

  1. Number of books read in a year
  2. Speed
  3. Trying new Genre/Wide Reading
  4. Minutes spent reading

Not one kid said they thought they should make a goal about their reading level. Of course they didn’t! Reading levels are for teachers, not kids! (For more on that, be sure to check out this blog post.) Then we had a conversation about how many books they read last year. Five books seemed to be the general consensus. I told them that smart people who studied education had learned that about 40 books is the right number to help a student be ready for the next grade level. I was very clear. Thirty-five books is good, sixty is also good. And if they only read 5 last year, then 10 as also good! The goal should be based on their data, including number of books read last year and number of books read so far this year.

Next, we focused on genre. One girl said she thought she could read 5 books in each genre category. There are 15 categories, so we did some math and decided that was too much! She decided to read one book from each genre category, and then choose two favorite genre to read more widely. She then broke the goal down by month, and decided that in the month of October she would read at least three different genre.

Finally, we talked about a goal based on minutes. The kids agreed that would be easy to track on the Weekly Reading Record. As for fluency, no one wanted to set a goal around that because we decided that you might reach a maximum speed and not be able to go any faster, no matter how much you practiced. The last 15 minutes before lunch, you could have heard a pin drop in my classroom. Kids were moving their pencils, flipping the pages of their data binder and THINKING!

The students are really taking their goals seriously, and I couldn’t be more proud of them! I said at the beginning of this blog post that it’s important to go slow to go fast. We certainly have rolled out the goal setting slowly. Next week I will continue to move slowly through the data tracking process, and we will revisit the goals at least once a week. In November, my students will take their data binders home for their first student-led conference. It will probably be January before they are setting and tracking goals in all the academic areas. I have learned over many years of experimenting with goal setting that the slower I go in the beginning, the more ownership the kids develop and the faster they will go in the end.

I hope this post has helped you think about a few things to try in your classroom. Goal setting is so powerful, and if you roll it out carefully and thoughtfully, your kids will soar.

Happy teaching!

Connect with Content – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

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

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

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

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

Why Digital Escape Rooms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching!

Miss Rumphius’ Writing Territories

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

Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?

Student: I don’t know.

Teacher: Did you do anything fun this weekend?

Student: No.

Teacher: Have you ever gone somewhere special?

Student: My grandma’s house.

Teacher: Great! Write about that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching!

Susan

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

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

Close Reading

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

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

Vocabulary

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

Engagement

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

Loving Language

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

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

Poetry Breaks

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

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

Happy teaching

Susan

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

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

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

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

Writing Meaningful Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Data

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

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

How often to change the goals

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching!

Susan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Word Walls to Teach Tier 2 Vocabulary – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

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

Getting Started

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

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

What do you include on a Word Wall?

If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. I explain the three tiers in that post – something that you really need to understand to help your Word Wall be most effective. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.

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

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

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

Adding Words to the Word Wall

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

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

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

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

Student: Mountain?

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

Student: Hill?

Teacher: Right!

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Pencils Moving on the Page – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Yesterday’s blog post featured a somewhat unusual idea for launching Writer’s Workshop. After the initial flurry of writing about the crazy dancing teacher, some students struggle to find their next idea. That’s where today’s idea comes in handy.

Manfish, by Jennifer Berne is a marvelous picture book about Jacques Cousteau. He was a true Renaissance Man – inventor, environmentalist, explorer, cinematographer…. The book beautifully traces his life and his development of his many talents. It’s a perfect opening to inspire students to identify their own talents and interests.

This free lesson plan on TPT walks you through how to use the book to introduce the idea of Writing Territories to your students and then help them brainstorm to find their own writing territories. The detailed lesson plan includes a brainstorming sheet for students. I have students paste those in the front of their writing journals so they can easily revisit them throughout the year. The free download also includes a checklist that will help you keep track of student progress.

The real power of this lesson actually comes after the lesson. Once students have brainstormed their writing territories, the revisiting is key. The first revisit happens in a writing conference with me. During that conference I am working to get to know my students, so I do more listening than talking. I also often try to help the students narrow their topics down.

This is a copy of one of my student’s brainstorm after half of a year. She started with the first 5-6 ideas. As the year continued, we revisited this from time and she added to her brainstorm.

When I met with this girl during our first conference of the year, we started by looking at her Writing Territories sheet. I noticed that she had listed her family as one of her territories. That is a very general topic, so I asked her to be more specific. We discussed each member of her family and analyzed which ones she felt she could write about. She said that her little sister and her dog would both be funny to write about, so I had her add them to her list. By narrowing her topic down she had a better chance of writing a well organized story. Later in the year, she narrowed even further by identifying her Writing Territory as “11 year old girls with annoying little sisters”. Not long after she wrote a pretty funny story about her youngest sister. Narrowing the focus during a brainstorm can often set a story or essay on the right path, even before the writer begins.

This student also added ideas during the year. She loved Science, so she added the solar system, and then narrowed even further to Saturn. One of her best pieces of writing for the year was her informational piece about the journey of the Cassini spacecraft and its study of Saturn.

To help get students to add to their list, we try to make it a living document. I show mine and add to it frequently, and I ask the students to open their notebooks and begin a Workshop by reading their list. I also say things like, “Oh, what an interesting idea. Why don’t you go add that to your Writing Territories list?” Even if it’s math class, I try to encourage the students to find their own voices and their own ideas and add them to the list.

I hope this lesson helps you and your students find topics to write about. Grab the free lesson plan on TPT today!

Launching Writing Workshop – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

This idea is a guaranteed winner – I promise!

Every year, on the first day of school, my students come back from lunch to see a mysterious box, covered with a cloth. Then music starts to play. I usually use 2001, A Space Odyssey because it is SO dramatic! As the music crescendos, I whip the cloth off the box. It is wrapped, so I rip that off too! Of course, I’m not saying anything while the music plays, but I’m dancing around in a goofy, ridiculous way. All the kid’s eyes are glued to me and not a few jaws are dropped as I rip open the box and start throwing tissue paper around the room.

The Writing Journals are revealed!

Finally, at the most dramatic moment in the song, I reach in, my mouth wide with awe and delight, and I reveal – a writing journal!

I then proceed to bestow them upon the fortunate students in Room 205. After my craziness, as you might imagine, every student has something to write about. So, when the music dies and the hubbub quiets, we have our first writing session of the year.

For the first Writer’s Workshop, I keep it short. Kids have likely lost their writing stamina over the summer, and I’m interested in having them enjoy the time and get something on the page. We go through all the steps though.

  1. It is quiet when we write so that everyone can do their best thinking.
  2. You can write wherever you want to in the room. Just make sure you choose a good learning spot for yourself.
  3. When we finish one piece, we start another.
  4. Sharing is always encouraged, and always optional.

I like to begin our Writer’s Workshop together in this dramatic fashion for a few reasons.

  1. Kids always have a story to share with their families on the first day of school.
  2. I like to confound their expectations and surprise them as much as possible in the first week of school. Fifth grade is like no other class they’ve experienced.
  3. Writing is exciting to me, and I want it to be exciting to my students.
  4. It’s just fun, and fun is always a good thing!

If you are thinking of going digital this year, check out my Customizable, Digital Writing Journals. I use a notebook AND a digital journal in my classroom.

If you want a little taste of how this looks in my classroom, check out the video. I hope you find some inspiration to dress up your own Writer’s Workshop this year. You can do it, I know you can!

Happy teaching!

Twelve quotes to inspire students to make friends with a book

Books have been great friends of mine for my entire life. They have helped me through times of sorrow and grief, they have taught me the skills to master challenges, they have helped me escape to new worlds when this one was a little too much to take. Books are constant and continual friends for me.

So, it is probably not a surprise to you that I want my students to have books that are friends as well. When I first mention the idea, some of my students roll their eyes. They are fifth graders, after all, and eye rolling is a skill they excel at and practice often. But, as the year rolls on, I notice many students quietly making friends with a book. Activities like Bring-a-Book-to-School Day help, and so do Quote Marks.

Quote Marks are simply book marks with encouraging, and sometimes funny, sayings on them. I generally post the quotes in the Book Nook, sometimes sticking them in surprising places for students to find as they peruse the shelves (for example, the quote from Diane Duane goes on the wall behind her tub of books). I put the same quotes on book marks and let students choose the ones they like. I also use the quote posters as Quick Write prompts to really get kids thinking about the quote. Many of the quotes express the author’s view of books as friends, so they reinforce that I’m not the only one crazy enough to think that!

I’ve put together some of my favorite Quote Marks as a resource on TPT. Click here to grab it!

These are the quotes I’ve used in the resource in case you prefer to make your own.

“If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”

J.K. Rowling

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman

“Reading one book is like eating one potato chip.”

Diane Duane

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket

“…books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

Roald Dahl

“It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.”

Catherynne M. Valente

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

Fran Leibowitz

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles W. Eliot

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”

Jhumpa Lahiri

“Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people – people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

E.B. White

“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.”

Paul Sweeney

For more tips on how I use this in my classroom, check out this video. Thanks for stopping by today, and Happy Teaching!

Finding the Time – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

It’s mid-August and many of you are already back in school. We are not back yet, but yesterday I opened my planner for the first time. I love the feeling of that empty planner – so much potential! So much learning! So much time!

And yet, I know in January, I will be feeling just the opposite. I will wonder where the time has gone and if I have spent it well. So today’s post is not about a literacy strategy. It’s all about you, and the decisions you make that have a major impact on your student’s achievement. Today, we are going to talk about the schedule.

There are many things out of our control as teachers. For example, this year, my school is piloting a new math curriculum and a new SEL curriculum. I can’t control that. The PE and library schedule is out of my control. Recess scheduling and pull-out schedules are also out of my control. When you think about the time in the day, much of it is out of my control. But, always, I can find some time everyday when ALL (yes, all!) of my students are with me for Independent Reading. I found the time when I taught kindergarten and I find the time now that I’m teaching fifth grade. I made that decision twenty-one years ago when I first read Fountas and Pinnell’s Guiding Readers and Writers and I’ve never changed my mind. I’ve changed just about everything in my practice since then, so why is this a constant for me? Because it is the single most important thing I do to raise reading achievement, build critical thinking skills and provide emotional support for my students. Don’t believe me? Here is the research.

Raising Reading Achievement through…. Reading

It seems like a no-brainer. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice it. Just this afternoon I had a conversation with my daughter about strategies she can use to improve as a basketball player. We talked about dribbling and layups and reading books about basketball strategy. Not once did I suggest that she do a few worksheets about basketball. That would be a pretty ludicrous idea. And yet, how much time do students actually spend practicing reading each day?

Researchers have been asking that question for decades. Just how long should students read each day? Should they read in school or at home? Should the teacher read while they are reading? There are hundreds of studies that support the importance of daily reading. Here are links to just a few:

  • This study found that 15 minutes of daily reading had a positive effect on students’ reading comprehension ability, word recognition skills and fluency.
  • This study found that 15 minutes is the magic number to begin seeing accelerated reading growth due to independent, daily reading.
  • This study found a correlation between reading at school and improved comprehension, but no correlation between reading at home and improved comprehension.

So, enough research. There are hundreds of studies that you can Google if you want to know more. But I think it’s a good moment to unpack this with a real-life example.

One of the biggest influencers on my practice as a reading teacher was a young girl named Amy. Amy was 8 years old and spoke another language at home until she came to school at age 5. I was privileged to be her 3rd grade teacher. At the beginning of the year she was reading at a second grade level, which wasn’t bad considering she had only been speaking English for three years. She was in my lowest Guided Reading Group, reading books at levels J and K. Third graders typically read levels M, N, O and P. And I had a high reading group that was reading “The Whipping Boy” by Sid Fleischman, which is a level R. I noticed that Amy had chosen to sit really close to the Guided Reading table, and that she had checked out a copy of “The Whipping Boy” from our school library. After a few days, I could see that she was really interested in the book and our conversation, so I invited her to join us. I was convinced that she needed to be instructed at her Instructional level, though, so I asked her to continue in her low reading group AND participate in the higher level group. A few weeks after we finished “The Whipping Boy”, I assessed Amy’s reading level again. To my utter shock, she had grown from a level J to a level N! I couldn’t believe it, so I had a colleague re-assess her. Same thing! That’s when I realized Amy’s motivation and interest in the book had done what no amount of direct instruction could do – caused her ability to grow more than a year in a few weeks. And she never went backwards. For the rest of the year, she kept up with my gifted students in the higher reading group, and in fourth grade, she even surpassed some of them.

Obviously, Amy is a very special student. Few students have the motivation to do what she did. But Amy taught me that motivation is more important than home life, economic status, language skills or current reading ability. And I have seen that pattern emerge time and time again since Amy first helped me see it. When students become motivated to read, their achievement goes up.

And how do we increase motivation to read? By giving students time to read, and to be read to. But, there are some essential components that make the reading time more effective. First, students must be allowed to choose their own books. Choice is key in human motivation. But, teachers need to be ready to step in to help match students with books (see my posts about Book Ballots and Book Talks for strategies on how to do that!) Second, students should read a wide variety of texts. Build a classroom library that exposes students to newspapers, magazines, books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, literary fiction…. When students read widely, they become more curious and hungry to read more. My Book Bingo can be a fun way to encourage choice and reading of different genre. Finally, students will be more motivated to read if they set goals around their reading. I like to have students set goals about how much reading they will do and what type of reading they will do. More on that in a future blog post.

Increasing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading

Back in 2004, I read Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Marzano. It’s a terrific read and I highly recommend it if you want to learn more. One of the key ideas in the book is that students today lack background knowledge about all sorts of things. They can’t find Mexico on a map; they don’t know when (or why) the War of 1812 was fought; they think that milk comes from cartons, not cows. If that was true in 2004, it is even more true now. According to a study cited in this blog, during the 2015-16 school year, a survey of 9.9 million students found that 54% of students read fewer than 15 minutes a day. Marzano found that the best way for students to build background knowledge was through wide reading. If students are reading less than 15 minutes a day, they are not building background knowledge. And background knowledge is key for critical thinking.

Take, for example, the critical thinking skill of formulating a hypothesis in science. In order to formulate a reasonable hypothesis, you have to have some background knowledge. Last year, I asked my students to formulate a hypothesis about fish dying in a lake in the Adirondacks. I gave them data on wind patterns and pollution from factories in Detroit. I assumed that they would know that pollution kills fish. So, I was surprised when one of my students hypothesized that the pollution was not causing the fish to die. Luckily, I pushed them to explain their thinking. This particular student had a freshwater fish tank and had observed algae-eating fish, and they hypothesized that the fish in the Adirondack lake would eat the pollution, just like the algae-eating fish. Their hypothesis was based on background knowledge from their small corner of the world. In this case, limited background knowledge really hindered their ability to formulate a reasonable hypothesis.

Providing Emotional Support through Reading

I learned what it meant to be a normal, teenage girl, growing up with the awareness that my life could end with any knock at the door by reading Anne Frank’s diaries. I experienced the thrill of saving my brother from death at the hands of the White Witch by reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I thrilled to the noise of the crowd as the Black Stallion surged across the finish line, and I felt as though the victory was mine. I felt less lonely during the pandemic by reading “The Pillars of the Earth”, an historical fiction book about plague times. Book have helped me become more empathetic, more courageous and more confident. Books have given me solace in times of trouble and eased my pain in moments of sorrow. This year more than ever, we need to tap into the healing power of books so that our students can emerge from these difficult times and find their own healing and their own voice.

And the research backs up my experience. There is a type of therapy called bibliotherapy that uses reading and books to help people heal. One study of 96 students with mild depression found that bibliotherapy was an effective strategy in treating their depression. Other studies have also found that reading is helpful in decreasing anxiety and depression. If you’ve ever experienced the calm of a classroom full of students, all on task, all quietly reading, you can easily understand how that experience helps people find inner peace.

But how do I find the time?

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that quiet, choice reading time is an essential part of every classroom, everyday. And now, we find ourselves back at that schedule. Where do we find the time?

First, you have to ask yourself a hard question. “What can I take out of the schedule?” Here are a few suggestions that you might consider taking off your plate. Only you know what will work best for your students, but removing one or more of these might give you the time you need for effective reading practice every day.

  1. Worksheets – As I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t have someone work on their basketball skills by completing worksheets. Why use them for reading improvement when you could simply have the kids read?
  2. Accelerated Reader or other test-based motivation program – When was the last time you read a book because you hoped to take a test on it? According to the What Works Clearinghouse, there are two valid studies about AR. One found a very small gain in comprehension. The other found no gain in comprehension. Neither found an improvement in fluency. So, if you use AR, it should be a very small part of your literacy block. It hasn’t been proven effective enough to take center stage.
  3. Weekly spelling lists – Again, there is ample research that weekly lists do not improve spelling ability. We DO need to teach how language works, but this approach is not effective.
  4. Rote language activities – Activities like copying definitions from the dictionary, coloring posters about idioms or figurative language, grammar packets…. Ask yourself if your students will grow more with time reading or time spent on rote tasks.
  5. Handwriting practice – How useful will this be to your students? I could make the case that students should be exposed to cursive, but I don’t think it merits a lot of instructional time. Where do you fall in this debate?

As you really start analyzing your schedule, you may find moments that you can grab for Independent Reading. If you commit to finding the time, you will find it. Start by finding 15 minutes a day, and stick with it. Don’t let anything interfere with it. Then, make it 20 minutes a day, and really commit. Before you know it, you will have found 30 minutes a day. That’s when you will start to see it really making a difference.

So, this year, once again, I figured out a schedule that includes our math pilot, our SEL pilot (during SS time

0 and at least 30 minutes of reading time each day. I am still agonizing over what to take off the plate and what to include. And in January, I will probably ask myself where the time has gone. If all goes well, by January I can tell myself that about 45 hours of the time went to purposeful, student-centered, choice reading. And then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that something is going well, and I will dive back in. I wish the same to you, teacher friend!

This is my schedule for this coming school year.

Book Bingo – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Let’s talk genre. What is it? Why should we teach it? How does it help kids read better anyway?

Genre is a French word that means a kind or category. The English word gender comes from the same root. The word genre (plural genres) is generally used for artistic works. Music has different genres, and so does literature.

That’s all pretty interesting, but why spend precious time teaching about different genres? Well, as a teacher, part of my job is to unlock the different academic disciplines for my students. I want them to think like historians and scientists and artists. Genres unlock the organizing principles of the discipline of literature. As students learn about genres, they come to a deeper understanding of how texts work. And that leads to deeper comprehension.

The first thing to teach is some basic vocabulary. All books fit into the main categories of fiction and non-fiction. Please don’t teach your students that fiction is stories and non-fiction is facts. Instead, teach them that fiction comes from the writer’s imagination, although it can be based in reality. Non-fiction is literature that focuses on real people and real events and reports them factually. However, a good non-fiction writer can weave a story into the facts that can make it just as compelling as the craziest fantasy story!

Fiction comes from the writer’s imagination. Non-fiction focuses on real people and real events and reports them factually.

I begin teaching genre on the first day of school. For more about that, read this blog post on how I get students engaged with books right away, and every day. Once students have some familiarity with genres, we play Book Bingo with the whole class. Feel free to use your own Book Bingo, or check out this one on TPT. The first time we play, I use the included Caller Cards to name the genre for students to mark. That builds familiarity with the different genres and helps students grow their vocabulary.

The second time we play Book Bingo with the whole class, I don’t use the Calling Cards. Instead, before we play, I go to my Book Nook and grab one book to represent each genre. As we play, I place the book under the document camera and students use clues from the cover, the blurb, and even the inside of the book to infer the genre. The resource on TPT includes this Recording Sheet so that you can keep track of the books you have shown your students and easily know if they have a Bingo!

The second version of the game has several benefits. First, students are using the characteristics of the genre to make inferences. That is great critical thinking! Second, you are introducing students to 25 books from your classroom library, and they often find one they want to read. After we finish playing, I leave the books on the chalk tray for a few days, and most of them disappear into the hands of my students!

It is great to have students identifying books by their genre, but it’s not enough. I also want students to read widely across different genre. Wide reading is essential for building background knowledge. So, the next activity I use is an Independent Book Bingo card. Each student has their own Bingo Card and Recording sheet, and their goal is to Read-a-Bingo. Once they have read a book, the record the title and genre and cross it off. Five in a row is a Bingo!

The first time I use the Bingo cards as an independent activity, I ask the students to read five picture books. That lowers the affective filter and helps all students feel successful. Reading five picture books across different genres is also a great way to introduce the genres to students. A high quality picture book is not a huge commitment, and is a great way to build background knowledge and also to expose students and help them learn which genre they really enjoy.

Book Bingo is a fun way to bring genre to life in your classroom. This video post gives you a few more tips on bringing it to your classroom. Happy teaching!

Book Pass – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a more Literate Classroom

Book Pass is a really simple idea to hook kids on books, and it’s perfect for launching your Book Clubs or for having kids do a Book Project. By the end of 15 minutes, every student in your class will have a book to read. But better than that, they will likely have one or two more that they would LIKE to read. And helping readers build a reading plan and live a reading life is one of our greatest privileges as teachers. Read on for the simple how-to!

For a Book Pass, all you need is one book per student and about 15 minutes. I use this strategy to launch Book Clubs, so I gather multiple copies of each title – usually I offer 5 choices for a Book Club. So, I need about 5 copies of each book. Arrange the books in a circle on the floor, putting the books in a repeating pattern. You want the books to be organized so that students will see each book but not preview a book more than once.

The students sit behind the books and begin by previewing the book in front of them. Remind them that good readers preview a book by looking at the cover, reading the blurb and opening the book and reading an excerpt. Set a timer for two minutes. In that two minutes the students are quietly perusing the book and asking themselves one question. “Is this a good book for me?”

Once the two minutes are up, students pass the book to their right. Then, they take their new book, and spend 2 minutes with it. Keep to a two minute timer. I’ve found that it is long enough for a student to get a good sense about a book but not so long that they get bored and start talking. 🙂

After 10 minutes, every student in your class has previewed 5 books. I then collect the books and pass out a sticky note to each student. On the sticky note they write their name and their top three choices, in order. Within a few minutes, I can sort through the sticky notes and most often can get a student their first or second choice of book. Just like that, we are ready to get started with Book Clubs!

If you would prefer to use a Book Pass to launch a Book Project, it works pretty much the same way. If you limit the choices for a Book Project and use a Book Pass to launch the projects, you get a couple of benefits.

  1. You don’t have to read 27 different books – just 5 or 6!
  2. Kids who are reading the same book can meet to talk and share ideas.
  3. Students will get excited about reading the books their friends are reading.

After the project or Book Club cycle has finished, I always make the copies available to the whole class. Intermediate students are a little like lemmings – if their friends are reading it, they are happy to go along and read it too.

Book Pass is a really simple strategy that helps your students find a book to read – you will hook them on at least one book, and maybe more! Try this strategy every month or so to expose your students to new books and keep them reading!

The Book Nook – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Every year my students walk in on the first day of school and are confronted with piles of books on their tables. And empty tubs. I put my students to work organizing the Book Nook (what I call my classroom library) on the first day, and for several days after that. Here’s why:

  • If the students come up with an organizing system, they will understand how to find the type of book that they like.
  • If the students organize the books in the first few weeks of school, they will be able to maintain that organization for the rest of the year.
  • Giving this task to students helps them feel ownership in the classroom, and especially, in the books.
  • This task is one of the best ways I know to teach kids about genre – something that is a pretty bedrock literacy understanding. For more ideas about that, check out this blog post!
  • This is a great strategy for Getting Kids Thinking About Books and also for Selling them on books!

This literacy strategy takes about 30 minutes on the first day, and then 10 minutes a day until all of the books are organized. The first day, students walk into the classroom (usually after recess) to find approximately 20 books on each of their table groups. My group size is 4-5 students, so that’s 4-5 books for students.

First, we gather on the rug to talk about what we are going to do with the books. I tell the students that they are responsible for figuring out how to organize the books in a way that will make them easy to find and easy to keep organized all year. Then I ask them, “What ideas do you have about how we could organize the books?” Often, no one answers. Sometimes, someone volunteers a way they have seen another classroom library organized. If they do give me an idea, I respond, “What do you all think? Will that help you find books and keep them organized?” I don’t endorse any system of organization because I want this to belong to the kids. Using a question focuses them on the criteria for success and builds that sense of ownership.

After a few minutes of discussion, I send them to their tables. I have chosen the books for each table purposefully. In each stack, there are different connections that students can make, and some books that may not fit together at all. I am deliberate in the books that I give to each group because I want to foster discussion and critical analysis of the books. How do these books fit together? Which books don’t belong?

For instance, if students found this book stack on their tables, they would probably notice that “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Witches” are both by Roald Dahl, and suggest book tubs organized by author. They would also notice that this stack has a significant number of historical fiction books: “Sarah, Plain and Tall”, “Across Five Aprils”, “Sounder”, “Our Strange New Land”, “Sophia’s War”, and “Big, Bad Ironclad” could all fit in a tub labeled historical fiction. But, “Ghosts” and “Big, Bad Ironclad” are both graphic novels, so maybe that should be a tub too. Once they noticed that, I would ask them, “Where should you put the books so that you can find them and keep them organized? Which label will be more helpful? Is “Big, Bad Ironclad” mostly a graphic novel or mostly historical fiction?” That question causes kids to critically analyze themselves as readers AND the book!

Once a group has found several books that belong together, I give them an index card and a tub. Someone in the group is responsible for making the label for the tub, which I attach with clear Contact Paper or book rings, depending on the style of tub. I don’t expect them to finish the label in the 30 minutes because I want it to be high quality. The student just keeps the index card with them until it is finished, and then we attach it together.

Of course, there will be books on the table that the students don’t fit into any tub. Before we complete the work for the day, I ask the groups to leave the tubs on their tables, with any books that belong in the tubs. Books that don’t belong should be laying face up on the table. Then, one student from the group stays at the table to explain the group’s thinking to the other kids in the class. Groups rotate around the room. As they do, students start to notice that a book from one table might fit into a tub on another. In this example, “Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls” would fit nicely in the Adventure Tub on another table. When students make those connections, I encourage them to take the book and add it to a tub.

To finish up, students bring the books that are organized to the Book Nook, and place any books that are not yet organized in a tub by my desk. There are always several kids who discover a book that they would like to read, and of course, they can borrow that for Independent Reading! The next day, we continue the process. I have a lot of books in my classroom library, so this generally takes us about 3 weeks. On average, the kids organize about 100 books a day.

This strategy definitely is a bigger time investment than some of the other strategies we’ve been learning about, but it really gets kids Thinking (with a capital T) about books AND it hooks kids and builds motivation. It is well worth your time! Plus, you get the added benefit of gaining time back because you won’t have much work to do to keep your classroom library organized. The kids will do it because they know how!

For more easy-to-implement ideas, be sure to check out the other blog and video posts in 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom. Happy teaching!

Image by Annata78 on Deposit Photos.

Book Chats – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Today I want to talk to you about a really fun idea for connecting readers. Book Chats is a perfect activity for Back to School, and I use it when I want to strengthen connections and make new ones – for example, in January after the long break. To make this a no prep activity, grab my Book Chat resource from TPT. Just print and go or use on Easel!

The idea is simple – two readers interview each other about their interests and reading preferences, and then they choose books for each other! This is a powerful literacy strategy because:

  • Students make connections and talk about books!
  • It builds the idea that students should help each other find books that they will love. I’ve noticed that, weeks later, some partners are still bringing each other books!
  • As students are choosing books for each other, they often find books for themselves.

You will want to give yourself a little more than 10 minutes for this idea (I know, but still, it’s pretty quick!). I do this over two days, about 15 minutes each day. Spreading it out helps keep my Book Nook from getting too congested and it helps me fit it into a quick moment during the day. Here are the steps. Feel free to click each step if you want to read practical tips for bringing this to your classroom.

Students interview each other.

I usually spread this over two days. So, Day One, the first person interviews their partner and then goes Book Shopping. They try to put two or three books in their “shopping cart” for their partner. They present the books to their partner and explain why they think it’s a suitable book for their partner. You can purchase my Book Chats resource on TPT and use my Student Sheets, or create your own!

Students use what they have learned about each to choose 2-3 books that their partner will enjoy.

This can be tricky for some students and easy for others. One pitfall is the student who wants recommend every book. That student is having trouble discerning, and they may need your help narrowing things down for their partner, and maybe for themselves as well. Lots of unmotivated readers actually suffer from reading too many of the wrong books.

The shopper presents the books to their partner and tells them why they think they are a good fit.

This is the heart of the activity. As students are presenting to each other, you will hear a buzz of excitement in the room. Kids are discovering new books and new friends, and it’s a good moment to be a teacher!

The shopper is responsible for putting away any books their partner does not want to read.

Be sure to have the shoppers do the re-shelving. In theory, they removed the books from the shelves and should put them back!

And that’s it! It should take about 30 minutes total for kids to connect over books, but the connections they make to each other will last far longer. With a small commitment of time, your students will make some new connections and find new books to love. Grab your copy today and use it tomorrow!

Watch the video for more tips and a clip of me modeling the strategy with a fifth grader.

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

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

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

Manfish by Jennifer Berne

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

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

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History

The Mary Celeste by Jane Yolen

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

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

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It

Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak

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

A Second is a Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins

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

Unstoppable by Art Coulson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odd Velvet

Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb

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

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

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

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

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

Enemy Pie by Derek Munsun

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

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

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Side

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graffiti Wall – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Graffiti Walls are a fun way to connect readers and get them buzzing about books in writing! This is another idea that I’ve implemented from Donalyn Miller. If you haven’t read her books, I highly recommend “The Book Whisperer”. You will come away feeling like you’ve made a new teacher bestie!

The idea is simple. First, you have to decide if you want a physical Graffiti Wall or a digital one. If you have a physical bulletin board, make sure it is easily accessible to kids and that you can store Sharpie markers nearby. The benefit of a physical wall is kids love to use the special markers (and you have to make sure they understand the markers are ONLY for the Graffiti Wall!) It is also really good to have the wall right there where kids can see it every day and be inspired by their friends’ quotes. However, it is pretty easy to fill the Graffiti Wall up, and I have never been good at changing the paper, which means my students run out of room on the Wall and then the momentum slows down while they wait for me to put new butcher paper.

The benefit of a Digital Graffiti Wall is that you never have to change the background. I used a Google Slide last year, and this year I am considering going digital with Padlet. More on that later (and be sure to watch the video!) The down side of a digital Wall is that you have to project it each day or somehow remind students that it is there, so it can lose its spontaneity.

Once you have chosen digital or physical, launching it with your class is critical. If you just tell them it’s a Graffiti Wall, you are likely to get lots of junk – little drawings, quotes that don’t make sense, crossing out and a big mess!

I launch the Graffiti Wall slowly, over several short lessons. First, I read a picture book that I think my students will love. One of my favorite books for Back to School is Odd Velvet. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend that you grab it! It is a simple picture book, and takes just about 10 minutes to read. I have used it in classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade, and students always understand the message – Be Yourself. It’s a great message to send at the beginning of the school year. What makes it perfect for launching a Graffiti Wall is that it is chock full of lovely language that makes great quotes.

“…my father told me that, on the day I was born, the sun was just rising over the mountains, and outside it looked as though the world had been covered with a blanket of smooth, soft, lavender velvet.”

Odd Velvet

“Sure enough, with just her eight crayons, Velvet had drawn the most beautiful apple the children had ever seen.”

Odd Velvet

“Velvet was different. But maybe she wasn’t so odd after all.”

Odd Velvet

After I read the book, I put these three quotes on the board and ask the students which quote they think would be the most powerful to write on the Graffiti Wall. The first quote is powerful because of the poetic language. The second quote is powerful because it is the turning point in the book. The final quote is powerful because it is the message of the book. We talk about why each quote is powerful. Then, I tell the kids that any of those quotes would be great on the Graffiti Wall. Any of those three are reasons why they might write a quote on the Graffiti Wall. Together, we choose one and I have a student write it on the wall.

The next day, we review the three reasons you might include a quote on the Wall.

  • Poetic language
  • An important moment in the book
  • A quote that tells the message/theme

For the second lesson, I ask the students to think of other reasons they might include a quote. They brainstorm a bit, and then I ask them to grab a partner and a picture book and see if they can find a good quote for the Wall. They usually come up with ideas like:

  • Amazing facts from non-fiction
  • Funny sayings or events
  • A quote that would convince another reader to pick up the book
  • Something surprising (that doesn’t give away the ending)

After a few minutes we usually have some quotes. But BEFORE I let anyone wrote a quote on the Wall, we have a class conversation about length. Some kids can’t narrow it down, and want to write half of the novel on the Wall. As a class, we set some limits – usually landing from 20 – 30 words. Then, I give a few kids some markers, and they write quotes from the picture books that they read on the Wall. After two days of about 10 minutes each, we usually have 5-7 quotes on the wall.

The next day, before Independent Reading, I give each student a sticky note. I ask them to write one quote (but not their name) from their Independent Reading book on the sticky note. At the end of class, I gather the notes and stick them under the document camera. Because I am displaying them publicly and we will discuss the quotes as a class, I let the kids be anonymous. The students read the quotes on the doc camera (and there will likely be 12 – 15 quotes). We classify each quote – one pile for the quotes with poetic language, another pile for quotes about surprising events, etc. Then, I give feedback on a few of the quotes. Generally, students forget to include the title of the book on the sticky note, so I give that feedback. I might also need to remind students that spelling and handwriting are important. If someone can’t read your quote, they are not likely to read the book! Finally, I leave the sticky notes on the document camera, but I let the kids know that, if they want to, they can grab their sticky note from the doc camera and copy it onto the Graffiti Wall. Most of the kids choose to do that.

So, in three days, about 10 minutes a day, you have launched a Graffiti Wall. To maintain it over the course of the year, be sure to revisit it as a class periodically. If you notice that you are not getting many new quotes, give everyone a sticky note and ask them to contribute. Sometimes, kids just need the reminder.

Book Carousel – 30 days, 10 minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Today I want to teach you about a simple way to get to know your readers AND to sell books! I call this the Book Carousel.

The goals of the Book Carousel are to get books into kids’ hands and to learn about your readers. As your students participate, you are watching and taking mental notes. Pay attention to which kid chooses the first book they encounter, and then follow up. Did they choose that book because it’s a good fit book for them? Or because they just wanted to get the activity over and done with? Or because they have no idea how to find a good fit book? The next day, follow up with those students and ask them if they are enjoying the book or abandoning it. Then, ask them why. Be curious about your readers, and never judgmental.

Other students will walk around and around and around, and never choose a book. Again, pay attention to that. You will learn the most about your outliers. If a student can’t commit to a book after 4-5 rounds, stop the music and have a chat. What is making this hard for them? How can you help? Ten minutes with this activity will give you LOTS of insights into your readers, and help you plan for instruction and match kids to books. Here’s how.

  1. Begin by choosing a few more books than you have readers. If I have 25 students, I generally choose about 30 books. Make sure you choose a wide variety of genre, reading level and length. Include non-fiction!
  2. Lay them in a large circle on the floor. This is the Carousel. Space the books a few inches apart.
  3. Get some music ready! (I usually stream Disney songs from Amazon Prime Music. I know they are clean!)

4. That is all you have to prep! I often use this as a transition, but it works well pretty much anytime you have 10 minutes. Ask the kids to stand in a circle around the books (you see that I put the books facing outward so that they can easily read the title and see the cover. BUT, they don’t get to touch the books YET!

5. Tell the kids this is a bit like Musical Chairs. When the music starts, they will rotate in a circle. When the music stops, they will grab a book next to them and spend one minute with it. Remind them that good readers look at the title and the cover, and also read the blurb on the back and open the book. In their one minute, they should take a thorough look and ask themselves this important question, “Is this a Good Fit book for me?” You have the freedom to define Good Fit in the way that works best for you. Some teachers ask kids to give themselves the five-finger test or check a reading level. I do not. I define a Good Fit book as one the the student feels interested in reading. That’s it. Once I read Shanahan’s research on reading levels, and I met Amy (who I will tell you about another day!), I knew that I needed to move away from reading levels. But, you may have other district expectations or ideas, and that is OK!

After students spent one minute with a book, they have a decision to make. Is this the book for me?

That’s it!

6. If the student decides that this a Good Fit book for them, they take the book, go to their seat and start to read. When they finish the book, they are responsible for returning it to its spot in the Book Nook. If the student decides a book is NOT for them, they carefully place it back in the circle. When the music begins again, they rotate to a new spot, peruse a new book, and hopefully find a Good Fit!

Generally, a few kids choose books on the first round. As I mentioned previously, these are kids to be curious about. Why did they choose a book so quickly? Was it really that easy?

Most kids go around 3-4 times before finding a book they want to read. Here are few issues to think through before you try this activity.

  1. How will you handle the student who comes to you after the third round, and asks to get the book they perused in the first round? This is especially tricky if another student has chosen the book in the meantime.
  2. What will you do with the few students who cannot, or won’t choose a book? There will be some, especially at the beginning of the year when you don’t know your readers well. How will you handle that after the 5th or 6th round?
  3. Will you require each student to walk away with a book?

I do require each student to walk away with a book. I ask them to make a 15 minute commitment to the book, and then to put it back in the Book Nook if they find they don’t like it. If a student asks me for a book that they perused in a previous round, I let them grab it if it is available. If not, I give them a sticky and ask them to write their name on the sticky note so that the current possessor of the book will know who to pass the book on to when they finish with it. However, they still have to choose another book today! Finally, if a student can’t, or won’t, choose a book, I try to be curious about that. They must choose a book, and sometimes, by asking open-ended questions, together we can find a book. Sometimes, as we chat, I realize that the fault is mine and I didn’t give them a choice they would like. So, we expand the search into the Book Nook until we find a book. But everyone MUST have a book!

So, that’s Book Carousel. I use this strategy once a month or so. It is a great way to get books into kids’ hands and keep them motivated to read. You also learn a ton about your readers, especially the kids on the edges who choose books quickly, or don’t choose! Doing this multiple times a year helps you notice changes in your readers and keep up to date! It takes 10 minutes and it feels kind of like a party because of the music. I hope you find this a helpful strategy. Happy teaching!

Using Reader and WRiter Interest Surveys – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Today we are going to revisit an oldie, but goodie – Interest Surveys. You may be thinking, “Oh, sure. I can do that in a normal year. But this year? When there is so much learning to get done? I don’t really have time for that.” Or, maybe you are thinking, “Well, I have this curriculum that my district requires, so the kids don’t really choose books, so why waste time finding out what they like? They still have to read the required books, whether they like them or not!”

Well, both of those are fair points. This year, especially, with the disrupted learning due to Covid, we have so much catching up to do. And, if your district requires certain books, kids’ choices may not seem relevant.

My question back to you is this. “Is building relationships with your students important to you?” If you answered yes, read on! This is a great strategy for you! This strategy is a Getting to Know Your Readers strategy, and you will be amazed at how it moves the relationship with certain students. Just the fact that you want to get to know your kids as readers and writers will be important for some students. For some, that is not an identity that they own. For some students, this might be the first time anyone has given them that label – and that can be powerful. To say to a student, “I want to get to know you as a reader and writer,” is to give them that identity. What a gift!

If you have a curriculum that doesn’t allow student choice, you still need to know what your students enjoy reading and writing about. You can bring in read alouds that match their preferences, and buy new books for your classroom library according to their taste. You can tweak writing assignments to be more student friendly and to fit students’ writing territories (be sure to download this FREE lesson plan about discovering your students’ writing territories!) And you can bring in picture books and integrate with Science and Social Studies in ways that match your students’ interests.

I use the Readers’ and Writers’ Interest Surveys differently, so let’s start with Writing. For me, the purpose of the Writing Interest Survey is to get kids writing. My resource on TPT includes two versions of the survey. I generally give one about the second week of school. The first week of school kids usually have lots to write about because of the kooky way I give them their writing journals and because of the Writing Territories lesson. But, but Week 2, some kids have run out of ideas. That’s where the Interest Survey comes in.

As you can see in this portion of the Interest Survey, students simply connect with their emotions about different topics. There are two different surveys, and each includes 11 topics, so you find out what your students think about 22 different topics. When students connect with emotions, their writing becomes more powerful!

It takes students no more than 10 minutes to read through the topics and make their choices. But what you do next makes a huge difference! Don’t collect them. Instead, ask the students to put them in their writing binder or journal. When you have your first Writing Conference with your student, start by asking them to show you their Interest Survey and the writing they’ve been doing about the topics on the Survey. It will be the easiest conference you’ve ever had!

The second Writing Interest Survey is great to whip out mid-year, or whenever you notice that several students are running low on ides. Another great way I use these is to have students interview each other about each topic and find out what other students feel about specific topics. It can create some great connections and bonds in your classroom.

The last page of the Writer’s Survey is great for the end of the first week. I like to give these on Friday and spend the weekend reading through them. I get so much great information from these, and it helps me know my students’ strengths and weaknesses right away.

The Reader’s Interest Survey uses the same cute graphics to ask students to record their feelings about specific genre, and also asks students questions about their life as a reader. This is double-sided, and students generally need 15 – 20 minutes because of the fill-in-the-blank. But, the extra few minutes is worth it because of how well you will get to know your readers!

I collect the Readers’ Surveys and take them home to read through them. Then, I meet with each student to talk to them about their responses and learn more about them as readers. It is so much fun to spend that time with them in the beginning of the year. I start this the first week of school, and I usually conference with 4-5 students a day during those first few weeks.

So, there are two easy to use strategies that will help you Get to Know Your Readers. Be sure to check out the other blog posts in our series so far, and watch the video for more insights on using surveys in your classroom.

Happy teaching!

Getting into Goals – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom
Today, my students set their first reading goal of the year. I …
Connect with Content – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom
This blog post discusses the importance of bringing non-fiction text to your …

Bring a Book to School Day – 30 Minutes, 10 Days to a More Literate Classroom, Part 3

You’ve heard of Bring-Your-Kid-To-Work-Day, right? Well, this is pretty much the same thing, but kids are bringing books to school. The idea is a really simple way to connect readers around books.

This idea builds on yesterday’s idea of using Book Talks, and this is usually the first time kids do a Book Talk in my classroom. I generally use this idea about the 3rd or 4th week of school, and then once or twice more throughout the year.

When I launch the activity, I bring in a picture book that I loved as a child, Miss Suzy. This book is one of the earliest I can remember loving, and I share with the students why I loved that book when I was a child. I chose this book on purpose. It is not a flashy new book, it’s pretty battered and old looking, and something that I have owned for years. By bringing a book like that, I make it OK for kids who don’t have the latest, greatest books, and maybe only own a few books. Any book that they have a story about is fine to bring in. Be sure to check out the sample parent letter that I send home to explain this to parents.

This book, published in the 60’s, was a favorite of mine when I was about 5.

So, what kinds of books do kids bring in?

  1. Books they loved as a child.
  2. Books they love now.
  3. The last, really good book they read.
  4. The last, really terrible book they read.
  5. A book they hate.
  6. A book that they connect to.
  7. A book they would like to read but haven’t gotten to yet.
  8. Any book!

The point of this is for students to share stories about a book and build connections with each other. I once had a student bring in a family photo album. I thought that was great. She did a quick Book Talk about making the album with her mom, and lots of kids wanted to borrow her book.

Once the kids have brought in their books, divide them into small groups. Try to give students some choices about the groups so that they end up with other kids that they trust and can be vulnerable with. Because I only have 10 minutes a day for this, we usually need 2 days for everyone to give their Book Talks. Readers gather in groups of about 4, and two kids give a Book Talk each day. For this first Book Talk, I ask them to share the title, author and why they brought the book. Then, they ask, “Does anyone want to borrow my book?” If someone in the group wants to borrow the book, they have to sign the contract promising to bring it back in good condition. Some kids do not feel comfortable loaning their books, and that is OK. As long as they bring in a book and share a story, they have met the requirements of the task. That alone is going to help them build bridges to other readers.

This simple strategy is another way I get kids buzzing about books in my classroom. And, the more they buzz with each other, the more they start selling each other books – kind of doing my job for me! I encourage you to bring this fun day to your classroom! To help you get started, check out the FREE parent letter and student sheet on TPT. And be sure to watch this video for more tips on how to bring this to your classroom!

Book Talks – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom, Part 2

What if you could spend 7 minutes a day to get your kids to read 150 books in a year? Seems worth it, doesn’t it? Well, you can! That strategy is Book Talks!

In just 7 minutes a day, you can introduce one new book to your class. If even one reader reads it, that 150 books in a year (assuming you have some field trips, sub days and assemblies thrown in!) If that sounds good to you, read on for the Nitty Gritty!

Book Talks are a strategy that work with any grade level. I’ve used them in K – 5 classrooms, and they are excellent at one thing – convincing kids to read the book you are Talking. The research is actually mixed on whether they impact overall reading motivation. In my experience, they do, and here’s why.

When I Talk a book, multiple kids get excited about reading that book. It almost becomes a competition, and the book passes from reader to reader, like an electrical current in your classroom. That builds excitement and connects readers. I suppose a researcher would look for causation, and I can’t prove that. But I know, absolutely know, that Book Talks are an essential component of building my literacy classroom, and that kids who read become motivated to read more. So, I know that they work.

This FREE ebook explains exactly what Book Talks ARE and what they AREN’T. It also gives step by step instructions for how I implement them in my classroom. Click here to download Book Talks from TPT today!

Key things to remember:

1. Consistency

2. Invitational

3. No grades!

If you really want to motivate your readers, keep these things in mind.

  1. Consistency – Use them consistently in your classroom. Try to do it everyday. I know it can be hard to read that many books. In a perfect world, you need to be ready to do about 100 Book Talks in a year because your kids will do some. But even that is a lot of books! Check out my Book Talk One-Pagers to help you meet that goal!
  2. Invitational – Find the hook that invites your readers into the book, and then write down the names of every student who is interested in the book. At the end of each Book Talk, I ask, “Who would like to read this book?” That’s the invitation! Generally, about 10 kids raise their hands, and I write down their names on a sticky note and put that note inside the front cover of the book. Then, I give the book to one of the interested students. When they finish reading the book, they cross their name off the sticky and pass the book on to another student.
  3. No Grades – I know it it is tempting to make Book Talks an assignment and gather some grades. If you do, students will consider it to be an assignment, and the purpose change. Instead of passing on an amazing book to another reader, the goal becomes getting a good grade and pleasing the teacher. I don’t assign Book Talks, and I don’t keep track of who gives them. Some students never Talk a Book to the class, and that is OK.

These one-page book guides can help you Talk a book that you haven’t read, or just remember the important details about one that you have read!

I hope that these digital supports will help you bring Book Talks to your classroom. For more about Book Talks, check out my Bringing Book Talks to Your Classroom video.

Book Talks are one of the simplest, most effective strategies I know for selling books to readers. Give them a try. Soon, you will be looking forward to that moment when you have your readers gathered around you and you ask, “Who wants to read this book?”

Book Ballots – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom Part 1

“Oh, it’s Book Ballots! Quick. She’s going to start the timer! You read the blurb for Artemis Fowl and I’ll read Al Capone. Then we’ll talk and figure out what to vote for.”

That is not a bad conversation to overhear as the students file back in from lunch. Book Ballots is one of those strategies that takes just a few minutes, focuses students’ minds on books instead of lunch and recess, and gives you a wealth of knowledge about your readers. This is a great strategy for “Getting to Know Your Readers”, one of our 10 themes for building a more literate classroom. It also helps you “Sell Books” and “Connect Readers”. I love it when a strategy meets several goals! Here’s how it works.

This is what students see as they file into the classroom after recess.

  1. This makes a great transition. While the kids are at lunch, grab two books that you think will appeal to most of your readers. Set them on the chalk tray and draw a t-chart with the question, “Which book do you prefer?” Boom! You’re done prepping!
  2. As the kids file into the classroom, have them gather around the chalk tray. Set a timer for 5 minutes. (The first time you do the strategy, don’t set the timer because you will explain as you go along. But after that, limit this to 5 minutes.)
  3. Tell the kids they need to vote for which book they would prefer to read. They have to vote, and they can’t put their name in the middle. They have to commit to one book or the other. Students will start buzzing about the books and you’ll start listening.
  4. Here’s where you get to know your readers. In a short few minutes, you are going to get answers to questions like:
    • Which readers have a definite preference right away.
    • Who makes book decisions based on the cover.
    • Who grabs the book and makes a more thoughtful decision based on the blurb or reading a sample of the book.
    • Which genres students in your classroom gravitate towards.
    • Who chooses books based on what their friends are reading.
    • Which students have no idea how to choose a book and hang back.
  5. You will get answers to those questions by observing your students. With such a short time to choose, they will have to rely on their go-to strategy. Over time, students will learn strategies for choosing books by watching each other. You will see new students reaching to grab the book, and knots of students gathered around, listening while one student reads the blurbs. You’ll hear quick comparisons between the books, and notice that students start to pay attention to author and genre as a strategy for choosing books.
  6. As you can see in the photo, I have magnets with my students’ names on them that I use for this strategy. The magnets are also used for attendance and lunch count in the morning, so they do double duty! If you don’t have magnets, you could also have your students write their names on sticky notes or on the whiteboard. You could even just have them line up on the side of the room next to the book they prefer.
  7. When the timer goes off (and I have to admit, if the conversation is awesome, I have been guilty of pausing the timer on my phone. 🙂 ) I make sure every student has voted. Then, I “randomly” choose one student for each book and ask, “Would you like to read this book, or gift this book?” My students understand that “gifting” a book means they pass the book to another student who reads it and then has the responsibility of returning it to the Book Nook.

This simple strategy accomplishes a lot in a few short minutes. Two students walk away with a new book to read during Independent Reading time. Other students walk away with a book to add to their Wish List. You walk away with knowledge about your readers that helps you choose read alouds, match books to kids for Guided Reading/Book Clubs, purchase must have books for your Book Nook, and help kids find great books for Independent Reading. It really is an easy way to Get To Know Your Readers.

I use this strategy several times a week during the first month or two of school. As we get into the school year, I taper off and bring in other strategies (more on that in future blog and video posts!) By the winter time, I probably use this strategy once every week or even once every two weeks. It’s a good strategy to bring back if:

  • You’ve gotten some new students in your class and you want to know how they think about books.
  • There are books in your Classroom Library that you think your readers will love, and they aren’t finding them.
  • You notice some students are not finding books easily and you want to learn why.

For more simple strategies to Get To Know Your Readers, check out these posts:

  • Reader’s and Writer’s Surveys
  • Reading Conferences
  • Quick Reads

And be sure to check out this video which gives you more information on using Book Ballots in your classroom!

30 Days, 10 Minutes to a more Literate Classroom

I am launching a new video/blog series which will feature 30 quick and easy strategies for creating a more literate classroom. Each strategy takes no more than 10 minutes of class time and no more (but probably less) than 10 minutes of prep time. The strategies are aimed at intermediate grades. If you teach grades 3 – 6, I hope some of these strategies help you transform your classroom! If you teach primary or upper grades, some of the ideas will be applicable with a few modifications.

The strategies are organized around 10 themes:

  • Get to Know Your Readers
  • Sell Books!
  • Bring in Picture Books
  • Connect Readers
  • Space and Time
  • Make Friends with a Book
  • Think About Books
  • Write!
  • Plan for Poetry
  • Scholarly Words

Each theme will have several strategies. If you are not already a follower, now is a great time to hit the follow button! You will get an email about each new strategy! Or, just click the hyperlinks to go directly to the blog post. The video posts are embedded in each video post, so one-stop-shopping!

As always, thanks for reading, and Happy Teaching!

Get to Know Your Readers

  1. Reader’s and Writer’s Interest Surveys
  2. Book Ballots Blog Post
  3. Reading Conferences
  4. The Book Carousel

Sell Books! (or, Channel Your Inner Gizmo Knife Guy!)

  1. Book Talks
  2. Infomercials
  3. Book Pass
  4. Shelf Talkers

Bring in Picture Books

  1. Book Bingo
  2. Fiction Picture Books to Start the Year Right
  3. Nab some Non-fiction!
  4. Five Fiction Picture Books to Start the Year Right

Connect Readers

  1. Graffiti Wall
  2. Book Chats
  3. Bring-a-Book-to-School-Day
  4. Author Trading Cards

Space and Time

  1. Schedule, Schmedule – Finding the Time
  2. Read-ins
  3. Creating a Book Nook
  4. Wise and Wacky Wordsmiths

Make Friends with a Book

  1. Quote-Marks
  2. Books on the Moon

Think About Books

  1. Thinking Strips
  2. Genre Sort
  3. Where Does This Book Go?

Write!

  1. Quick Writes
  2. A Writing Odyssey, 2021
  3. Writing Territories, Part 1
  4. Writing Territories, Part 2

Plan for Poetry

  1. Poetry Breaks
  2. Pause for Poetry

Scholarly Words

  1. Word Wanders
  2. Word Hunts

Players in Pigtails

Like the author, Shana Corey, I fell in love with the AAGPBL after watching the movie A League of Their Own. I was delighted to find this book and share that same intriguing story with my students! Now, I’m taking it down from the top shelf and dusting it off to share with you!

The book centers on the fictional character, Katie Casey, who is baseball mad. If you know the song Take Me Out to Ballgame, you might recognize that as a riff of the first line. The song was originally written in 1908, and of course, girls did not play professional baseball at that time. Shana Corey took that song, married it to the true history of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League, and created a simple but effective story. This book makes a terrific interactive read aloud because there is so much to talk about!

Probably my favorite part of the book is the language. During your interactive read aloud, you will find plenty of opportunities to discuss alliteration, juxtaposition, idioms, and really strong descriptive language. Take a look at this quote from the book.

She preferred sliding to sewing, batting to baking, and home runs to homecoming.

quote from Players in Pigtails

In this sentence, Corey uses alliteration with the repeated sounds of the letters s, b and h. She juxtaposes two ideas (like sliding and sewing) to help students learn about the main character. I am in awe of her ability to pack a lot into a fairly short sentence! As you read the book, you will find many more examples that you will want to analyze with your readers and writers.

This book is also really great for teaching character analysis to 2nd and 3rd graders. Both the illustrations and the text give us a strong idea of who Katie is. During your interactive read aloud, I recommend showing the illustrations under your document camera so that students can easily see them. When I read this, I always give students a chance to use the magic paper to highlight aspects of the illustrations that help us understand Katie’s character. For example, on page 7, the illustrator shows us that Katie’s room is full of books about chemistry, signed photographs of baseball players and high top sneakers. The text gives us even more clues about Katie’s character, and again, Corey uses alliteration to draw attention to these important characteristics.

Her clothing was crumpled. Her knitting was knotted. Her dancing was a disaster.

quote from Players in Pigtails

The book is also a terrific springboard for discussion about gender stereotypes. The text frequently asks, “What good is baseball to a girl?”, and at one point in the book, the baseball players are sent to charm school to become more ladylike (this is a true historical fact)! Be sure to read the Author’s Note so that students learn that gender stereotypes eventually led to the discontinuation of the AAGPBL. There are so many opportunities for rich conversations about how things have changed since the 1940’s, and how they have not!

This is definitely a top shelf book for me. I have used it in classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade, and found that it works well with all ages. By itself, the book is a terrific match for 2nd and 3rd grade standards. Check out Players in Pigtails Interactive Read Aloud Lesson Plan for everything you need for two days of meaningful instruction centered around this book. In my fifth grade classroom, this book is part of the mini-unit I teach on how baseball has been part of many important historical moments in American History. Check back for more on that in future blog posts.

Using Google Forms Escape Rooms

In the past year and a half, I have grown to love Google Forms. They are so versatile – you can include text, videos, photos… There are tons of different ways to ask questions, and they save me time because they are self-grading. What’s not to love? I use them for all the time. For more information on how to use them, be sure to check out this blog post.

One of the things I most enjoy creating with Google Forms is Escape Rooms. I used paper Escape Rooms in my classroom before discovering the digital version, and I will never go back! Escape Rooms are so fun and engaging for kids – they forget they are learning! The key advantage of Google Form Escape Rooms is no prep. With the paper version, you have to print, cut, laminate, assemble, distribute…. You get the idea. Once a digital Escape Room is created, there is NO PREP! Just assign it through your Google Classroom, put the kids in groups, and away they go! For more about assigning Google Forms in Google Classroom, check out this blog post.

Of course, an Escape Room is only as good as its content. My bestseller, Escape from the Lab uses texts and videos to teach students about the states of matter and to increase their comprehension skills of non-fiction text. It is a straightforward Escape Room that includes all of the information that students need to escape. Each section has a new lock, and the answers to the questions give students the code. I labeled this Escape Room B for Beginner because students do not need to solve difficult riddles and crack codes to be successful. Use this type of Escape Room if you haven’t done them with your students before or if you want the focus to be only content, and not include the extra layer of codes and ciphers. If students get the right answers to the questions, they will also have the codes and solutions for the riddles. These Escape Rooms are a similar challenge level – the content is on grade level, the codes are simple and all the information is clearly presented to the students.

If your students are more experienced with Escape Rooms, I just finished creating Escape from Ireland, an adventure about the stories of Ireland. It’s perfect for St. Patrick’s day! The focus is on reading comprehension, so students read embedded texts and answer questions about them. The Escape Room includes a biography of St. Patrick that you can download for free on TPT! It also includes a retelling of the Legend of Finn MacCool, a fictional story about the Leprechaun King and 3 short descriptions of famous castles in Ireland. When you put those texts together with the storyline of the Escape Room, kids will be doing a lot of reading! The codes and riddles require some background knowledge, so this is rated I for Intermediate. I have filled this Escape Room with high quality photographs of Ireland, interesting texts and opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving. Plus, there are leprechauns and magic! What’s not to love!

Another type of Escape Room adventure is the choose your own adventure style. This is by far the most complicated type of Escape Room to create. It is not straightforward because the students make decisions during the activity, and each decision leads down a different path. These are incredibly engaging for for the kids, and I find that they play them over and over because they can have a different outcome each time! Escape from Plymouth Colony and Adventure in the Chocolate Factory are both this type of Escape Room.

Want to learn how to create Escape Rooms like these? Become a follower! I keep writing blog posts and videos about tech and ELA! In the meantime, check out this free YouTube video on using Google Slides Task Cards with Whiteboard.fi.

Assigning a Google Form in Google Classroom

Google Forms have become one of my go-to strategies for distance learning. I embed instructional videos in Google Forms for asynchronous instruction (for more on that, check out this blog post) and I use them for formative and summative assessments. I also use them to create digital Escape Rooms, which my students love! (Check out this blog post for more on that!) With the help of Google Forms, BOOM Cards, and Whiteboard.fi, I have a fairly good idea of what my students can and can’t do, which helps me plan instruction.

This blog post will walk you through how to assign a Google Form in your Google Classroom. We’ll start with a video tutorial, but read on for screenshots and additional tips. In the video, I am assigning Deiondre’s Homework, a Google Form about decomposing fractions. The resource can be purchased on my TPT store, and includes 3 Google Forms and an embedded instructional video.

I hope the video was helpful. You can find more tech videos for students and teachers on my YouTube Channel.

Now, let’s walk through the process of assigning a Google Form in Google Classroom one more time. This time, I am going to assign a Google Form on Equivalent Fractions. You can also purchase this at Ms. Cotton’s Corner on TPT. The resource includes 3 Google Forms, one of which includes an embedded video.

Step 1 – In the Classworks tab of your Google Classroom, click create and choose assignment. You can also choose Quiz assignment if you prefer.

Step 2 – Create the assignment. Give it a title and description and set the points and due date. Then, Click Add, and choose Google Drive. When you purchase the resource from TPT, they will automatically create a folder called TPT Purchases. It will be there unless you have saved it in another folder.

Step 3 – Choose the Form that you want to assign from your Google Drive. I always Toggle Grade importing to the “On” position. Then, once the students complete the work, all I have to do is import the grades with one click. Easy breezy!

Step 4 – Use the Assign button in the upper right hand corner to finish the assignment. You can assign it immediately or schedule it for the future. I often schedule a week’s worth of assignments on the weekend. It is very easy to reschedule if I find that the kids need more or less time than I planned.

And that’s it! Whether you are flipping the classroom, going paperless or teaching distance learning, Google Forms are an easy and effective way to provide instruction and assessment. Click below to purchase either of the resources featured in this blog post.

Deiondre’s Homework – Decomposing Fractions

Finding Equivalent Fractions

Using Google Forms for Asynchronous Learning

Maybe you don’t have this problem, but one challenge that I am facing is attendance during digital learning. For a whole host of reasons (technology snafus, motivation, family situations….) some kids struggle to attend our Zooms. And they tend to be the same kids who struggle academically. In my experience, one thing that motivates this population, and all of my students, is videos. The visual and auditory components are engaging, and if they are between 3-5 minutes, attention doesn’t lag. I’ve started pairing short videos with Google Forms as asynchronous learning so that all students, even those that don’t attend regularly, are receiving instruction. Pairing the video with a Google Form gives students an immediate opportunity to put what they’ve learned to use. When we return to in person instruction, I still think these will be invaluable tools to help remediate and extend students. I can see so many ways to easily differentiate by assigning students the video instruction and Google Forms that move them to the next stage.

In my TPT store, you can find many of the videos I’ve created with Google Forms. I’ve focused on upper elementary math, especially fractions so far. Be sure to check back because I’m always expanding this part of my store, mostly as I try to help my students regain lost ground. I teach fifth grade, so that’s why the content is mostly upper elementary. If this is something that you want to use often, I encourage you to look at this Growing Bundle focused on Fractions and save money!

In this blog post, I want to walk through one of the free resources on my TPT store so that you can get an understanding of how it works and whether this type of resource is a good choice for your classroom. The resource we will be exploring is Mixed Numbers and Fractions Greater than One (Improper Fractions). At the bottom of the blog post are links to many other similar resources that you might find helpful.

This resource includes a Google Form and an embedded video. If you’d like to preview the video, you can find it on my YouTube channel here.

When you download this free resource, TPT will automatically add it to your Google Drive. Make sure that you have signed in with the Google Drive where you want the file to be saved – usually your school account. If you are assigning the Google Form through Google Classroom or another district LMS like Seesaw, this is essential!

To preview the assignment and video, you will want to open the Google Form and view it as a student. The video does not play in the teacher view. To see the student view, click on the eye in the upper right hand corner, which I’ve circled in red in this image.

Once you are in the student view, you will be able to play the video. You can also give the Google Form a try and easily see what your students will experience. One of the things I love about Google Forms is the immediate feedback that students receive! And the teacher does too, so no grading!

Once a student completes the Google Form and submits their answer, they will be able to see their score immediately and also receive feedback about anything they missed. Learning theory tells us that just-in-time feedback is so important for learning, and Google Forms are one of the best tools I know for providing that just-in-time feedback. In this example, you can see that the student identified the fraction greater than one as 4/6, but the Google Form would accept either 7/6 or 1 1/6 as the correct answers.

One limitation on Google Forms is how exact the students have to be. Again, in this example, you can see that I’ve given exact instructions for leaving a space between the whole number and the fraction if students write a mixed number. Google Forms will count it incorrect if there is no space. As the teacher, you are able to modify the score if you need to. For example, if you don’t care about the space, you can easily go back and change the points.

To see the students’ results, and change the points if you want to, you will need to go to the Response View. Begin by clicking Responses, which is the top middle of the screen, circled in red in this image.

In this view you can easily see how your students are doing with this standard. Google breaks the data down into a class summary, which is fantastic for planning next stages for the whole class. Google also gives you question by question data and individual student data. To change points or grade a question, click “Question” in the center of the screen.

As you can see, in this example, 1 student left out the space, so that 1 1/6 looks like 11/6. If you would like to give that student credit, just click the green check mark and then save your changes with the red save button. Google Forms will automatically update the student’s score. If more than one student made that mistake, it will update all the scores with two clicks. Easy breezy!

I don’t have room in this blog post to go through all of the fantastic data that you get from Google Forms. Be sure to play around with it and explore. All this great data frees you from grading so you can do what you do best – plan for amazing instruction!

After you have analyzed your data in Google Forms, you may want it in a spreadsheet so that you can easily enter grades in a gradebook. That’s easy too! Let’s explore a few more options from Google Forms.

In the upper right hand corner, you will find a green icon that allows you to easily export your data as a spreadsheet. When you click the green icon, you will see this message, which allows you to merge the data with an existing spreadsheet or name it and create a new spreadsheet. The default name is the name of the Google Form.

Simply name the spreadsheet and then click create. That’s it!

Some other great features are embedded in the three dots to the right of the spreadsheet icon. When you click them, you get this menu. Again, you can download the responses from here. You can also set a time for the Google Form to stop accepting responses. This is really a great feature if you are using a Google Form as a quiz. Probably the feature I use most often is Delete All Responses. Once I have downloaded the data, I delete the responses so that the Form is clear and ready for the next class.

One final piece of troubleshooting advice. By default, the Form is set to receive responses. However, below the three dots you will see an option to toggle the Form’s ability to Accept Responses. If that is toggled to the off position, your students will not be able to complete the Form. That is probably the question I receive most often, so when you are having trouble, check to make sure your Form can Accept Responses! You will know it is toggled to “On” when it changes color.

I hope this post helps you know whether Google Forms are a good choice for your classroom. For more information on this topic, check these blog posts:

Here are just a few of my Google Forms with embedded videos for you to check out. As always, Happy Teaching!

Decomposing Fractions – Digitally!

My school continues with our digital learning adventure. Today I want to share with you a lesson I recently taught that went well. I’m happy to say, these are becoming more common as I get better at reaching my students through Zoom. This is a lesson I like so well that I will teach it again – in person!

First, what do I mean by decomposing fractions? I have to admit, when I moved back to fifth-grade after19 years at various other grade levels and educational roles, I did not know about decomposing fractions. Had never heard of it! Thankfully, my neighbor teacher was happy to fill me in.

Decomposing a number means breaking it into pieces. For example, in first grade students should have learned to break 10 into 2 and 2 and 3 and 3. Decomposing is important because mathematicians and scientists need to be able to think flexibly about quantities. This skill will be vital for student success in later grades. Even after students finish school, a person’s ability to do mental computation depends on decomposing numbers. With all the research on how fraction understanding predicts algebra success, decomposing is especially important with fractions.

This examples decomposes three thirds into unit fractions.

The first thing I did was create a video in Powtoons which reviewed this concept for my students. Decomposing fractions is a fourth grade standard, but learning was so disrupted last year that I wondered if they knew how to do it. Check out this preview of the video on my YouTube Channel (you can purchase the whole video, along with three Google Forms on TPT). I assigned the video through Edpuzzle, a free website that I use to help me track students’ progress through videos. For this assignment, I asked students to watch the video BEFORE class, and I paused the video on Edpuzzle to ask a question mid-way through. That data helped me know, even before I began teaching, that decomposing was not a skill the kids were comfortable with yet.

During  our Zoom, we used Whiteboard.fi to practice together.  This is another free website that I rely on frequently during math class because it allows me to see the students’ work, but they can’t see each other’s work.  I even use this website for assessment! These images show some of the fractions we decomposed during this Guided Practice portion of the lesson. On Whiteboard.fi, you can send an image to every student very easily. Feel free to download these images and use them if they are helpful!

Once the students understood the concept, I asked them to complete Deiondre’s Homework #1 for homework before our next class.  This is the first Google Form in my resource, which you can find on TPT. The resource includes 3 Google Forms. Deiondre’s Homework #1 includes the video which students had already watched. Because it is embedded in the Google Form, they don’t have to visit YouTube. Students watched the video individually and completed the Google Form asynchronously. I got the results immediately, which is one of my favorite characteristics of Google Forms! I then analyzed the results to plan instruction for the next class.

Luckily, decomposing came pretty easily for many of my fifth graders, even though I think it was a new idea with fractions. Their experience in lower grades with decomposing whole numbers transferred fairly easily. Based on my analysis, about 2/3 of the class had grasped the basic concept of decomposing fractions. They spent their class time completing these BOOM Cards in breakout rooms with a partner.

These BOOM Cards are for sale on TPT and the BOOM Card website. Grab a set now!

I worked in a small intervention group to practice decomposing some more, and then assigned that group Deiondre’s Homework #3. I chose #3 because that Google Form uses number lines and also emphasizes the unit fraction concept, which three of my students needed to practice.

Finally, I used Deiondre’s Homework #2 as a formative assessment.  Using some free tools, two of the resources from TPT store and three 45-minute Zoom sessions, my students all gained proficiency in this vital skill, which we will continue to build on as we dive more deeply into fractions. You may find that this instructional sequence works for you, or that you use all three for practice and a different formative assessment.  The resource is flexible enough to use in many ways!

I am working to digitize my Fraction-A-Day resource, and it should be done by the end of the week. I will be using that as a follow up to help my students continue to build a solid understanding of fractions.

I hope this lesson sequence is helpful to you and to your students.

Happy teaching!

Susan

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! Be sure to check out how I do that in person with this blog post. 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 in person. Or, check out this blog post about how I did that during distance learning.

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 which behavior focused mini-lessons I should teach, which rules we are likely to need and which 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.