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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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!
Players in Pigtails – This is a marvelous historical fiction book about the All Women’s baseball league featured in the movie a League of Their Own. It’s a delightful picture book to share with students!
We are about half way through our focus on Matter in Science, and I am feeling pretty good about how things are going. I can tell that my students are beginning to understand the important concepts of the unit because they are using the key vocabulary in their speaking and writing, which means they “own” those words. As you know, if a student has a word for the concept, they likely also have the concept! In this blog post, I’m going to take you through some of the bends in the unit that have gotten my kiddos to this point.
What are the Three Tiers?
The three tiers are a way of thinking about the function of language as you choose vocabulary words to teach your students. Beck and McKeown outlined the tiers in their book “Bringing Words to Life”. For more in depth information on that, be sure to check out this blog post. One important thing to remember is that learning the vocabulary words involves learning to use the words, but not necessarily how to spell them. That is a different goal and different words should be chosen for spelling instruction.
Definition of each Tier
Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.
Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.
Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught.
Words to Teach
So, the bulk of vocabulary instruction should be Tier Two and Tier Three words, with the majority of time spent on Tier Two Words. The best time to teach Tier Three words is right before a student needs them. For example, if a word is going to be useful in a science lab or a non-fiction text, teach it that day, right before students need it. Word Cards are awesome for that! With our Matter unit, we spent two days on property of matter stations. Many of the target vocabulary words are Tier Three, so I put the Matter Word Cards on the whiteboard and introduced them and also put them at the property of matter stations. By the end of the two days, the kids were using the vocabulary pretty comfortably in their conversation and lab books.
Examples of Tier Two Words
You may be wondering which of the words in the pictures are Tier Two, and which ones are Tier Three. Because I was introducing lab stations, most of the words pictured are Tier Three. In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, and dilute. Interestingly, several of the Tier Two words fall into that category because they are used in cooking, making them more common, and increasing the likelihood that they will be found in a written text.
Examples of Tier Three Words
In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation. I’m sure you noticed that most of these words are specific to Science, and rarely found outside of a Science text. These words are essential for students to learn so that they can unlock key Science content. Direct vocabulary instruction is the way to teach these words.
Now that we’ve defined the words to teach and categorized them, let’s dive into instructional strategies for helping students LEARN them! This part of the blog is going to focus on the ways I’ve been teaching Tier Two words because you’ve already seen how I weave Tier Three instruction into the Science labs, introducing the key vocabulary as the students need it.
First, I used some of the images from the Matter Word Cards to plant seeds of curiosity about the content and vocabulary with a Gallery Walk. This picture is one of the stations, involving several photos, some with text, and students responded with their Noticings and Wonderings. Some of the target vocabulary began to emerge, but not much, so this activity served an an informal assessment, helping me know that direct vocabulary instruction was going to be essential in helping students master the content of the unit.
Next, students read “Everything Matters”. This article contains the foundational knowledge about States of Matter that students should have learned in third grade. To make sure that the foundation is strong, we used a Close Reading Protocol. The directions for the Close Reading protocol are included in the resource, but I did add explicit vocabulary instruction after the first read. I asked students to find, and highlight, these words in the text: mass, volume, substance, molecules, material, conditions, exist, density, compressed, states. We then used the context to predict the meaning of each word. Finally, I showed the students the Word Cards with the definitions and images on them, and we compared the definition with their prediction. Students completed the Comic Strip Performance Task from the resource, which gave them a great opportunity to use some of the words authentically in their writing!
Another strategy I use frequently is making Flapbooks in their Science notebooks. Students fold a page of the notebook in half, and then cut to the fold, making a flap. On the front of the flap, they write the word. Then I ask them if they have heard it before. Next, I ask them to predict the part of speech. Finally, I show them the definition and picture on the Word Card. Students copy the definition inside the flap. Later, they will make their own drawing on the other side of the flap to show their understanding of the word.
Additional Practice Strategies
I hope this has given you some ideas to try in your own classroom. As students learn the words, it’s important that they continue to practice them in a variety of contexts. Games such as Vocabulary Dominoes or I Have, Who Has? are fun ways to practice the target vocabulary. Crossword Puzzles and Word Searches are also fun ways to engage students with target vocabulary. And whole class games like Hot Seat can be a fun way to focus students on vocabulary too (the directions for that are in the resource!). And of course, frequent opportunities to read the words, hear the words and use the words orally and in writing are key!
Resources You Will Love
Check out these resources to help your own students master Matter! Just click!
Be sure to check out these blog posts for more resources and insights to grow your Vocabulary instruction!
This is the second part of this post – I just couldn’t get it all to fit in one reasonable length post! It’s so wonderful to be part of the education world in a time when authors are really coming through with so many amazing picture books! Be sure to check out the first six books here!
The first post featured books that dealt with the beginning of slavery, the Civil War and into the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. This post will feature books that focus on the more recent past, from the 1930’s to the present day. This part of the list shifts from strict history to books that use the words of black authors to share black experiences with students. Let’s dive in!
There is a good reason this book has been in print since 1996 – it’s completely fabulous! Brian Pinkney chose a scratchboard technique for the illustrations that enhances the simplicity of Hughes’ poetry. If you don’t know Langston Hughes, here is the title poem from the book (it is in the public domain).
The Dream Keeper
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the World.
by Langson Hughes
As he does in this poem, Langston Hughes wrote repeatedly about the American Dream – it’s fragility and his longing to make that dream a reality for all people, regardless of color. He has a simple, approachable style that makes him perfect for intermediate students. Students in 4th – 6th grades will easily understand all of the vocabulary, making these perfect for teaching poetic techniques like symbolism, personification and metaphor.
Some of my students’ favorite poems from the book include:
Mother to Son
The Dream Keeper
These poems plus a biography of Hughes and tons of great instuctional materials and Students Sheets are included in Poetry Break – Langston Hughes. Check it out on TPT now! This video features a demonstration of the final lesson in the unit.
Even though this book was not written by Maya Angelou, you can hear her voice on every page. The book tells her story. If you’ve read her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you know the story is not a happy one. Hegedus handles the tragedies of Angelou’s life with compassion and nuance, making this an appropriate book for upper intermediate students – grades 5-7. The bold and colorful illustrations are also full of symbolism and nuance. This is a sophisticated picture book that is powerful for teaching deep analysis of text, illustrations, and mood. And the story is riveting.
Upper grade Reading Standards call for students to analyze visual elements to understand meaning and tone, and this is a perfect book for that. This illustration found on pages 7-8 of the text is especially powerful. The author writes about the “seesaw of the south”, and the illustrator has chosen to make Maya’s Momma Henderson the balance point of the seesaw. And then we see Maya, alone, at the bottom of the seesaw, and a group of white girls in the bucket at the top – clearly defying the law of gravity. This is a powerful illustration of discrimination and of the delicate balancing act that it took for Momma Henderson, and thousands of others, to survive in the segregated south. The book is full of illustrations with a deeper, symbolic meaning that provide a great opportunity for students to practice deep analysis of a text.
For older grade students, it is really powerful to follow this up by having them read Maya Angleou’s poem, Still I Rise. The poem reads like an anthem, and will help students hear Maya’s voice. After reading this picture book of her life, they will easily understand the theme of the poem. One caution, there is a stanza that mentions sexiness. Angelou was a passionate advocate for women, so that is something that she celebrates. If you feel like that is not appropriate for your students, I suggest having students read the first three stanzas and the last two stanzas, and being careful to let them know that it is an excerpt of her longer, really wonderful poem. Here is the first stanza.
“This Is the Rope” is a simple and beautiful story about a rope that begins with a grandmother in South Carolina and ends with a grand-daughter in Brooklyn. The story has a lovely message about the memories that are carried in our things and also about new beginnings. The family leaves the south during the Great Migration when many black families went north looking for a better life. The rope is a jump rope, and then it ties their belongings to the top of the car. It plays a small role in many events, eventually ending up as a tattered jump rope once again. This is wonderful book for grades 2 – 4.
I like to use this book to teach theme. The rope weaves in and out of the families’ everyday lives, always part of memories – big and small. Because the same idea is repeated, there is plenty of text evidence to support the idea that the author is talking about the importance of holding fast to memories while moving forward into new experiences. In the author’s note, Woodson writes, “The rope we brought to this ‘new country’ was Hope.” Once students realize that the rope symbolizes hope, they are usually able to infer the theme.
This is a moving tribute to all of the people who worked, across time, to ensure that a 100 year old woman could vote for the first black president of the United States. The title character was inspired by a real woman, but the author has used her walk up the hill to her polling place to symbolize the long journey towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lillian is joined by the memories of her ancestors as their lives move from enslavement to freedom, from voting under the 15th Amendment to discrimination under Jim Crow. As she continues trudging up the hill, she remembers John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their march becomes her march. She “hears” Lyndon Johnson’s words as he signed the Voting Rights Act, and finally, finally, she votes.
This is another book with powerful symbols in it. The entire book is an extended metaphor, exploring the challenges that Black Americans have faced in the voting booth. Throughout the book, Lillian climbs the hill and the struggle for voting rights unfolds.
This is a wonderful book for upper grade students, grades 5-7. It helps them understand the history of the Voting Rights Act, and its impact today, and its erosion. In addition to the great history, students will increase reading comprehension by exploring the literary device of extended metaphor. There is one illustration of a man begin sold without clothes, so if you think your students will be worried by that illustration, you might choose not to show that page when you read aloud. Or, you could have a mature conversation about the reality of being enslaved. The illustration is tasteful and not explicit, but it is something you will want to think about before reading this book aloud.
I wanted to end this blog post with two books that are pure celebrations! The first is Brown Sugar Babe. This book begs to be read aloud! It’s a poem to the beauty of all things brown. In the beginning, a little brown-skinned girl says, “I’m pink.” Her mama then spends the rest of the poem celebrating the beauty of brown all around us. This is a lovely book for students in grades 2-5. They will easily connect with the positive message and the love between the mother and the child.
This book is chock-full of metaphors. “Brown is a plum spurting sweetness on our tongues.” “Brown tastes like pancakes and syrup and caramel and spice…” Almost every page has a metaphor on it, making this a perfect book for figurative language. I actually use this book as part of a poetry unit that I teach in the spring, not during Black History month. I read Hailstones and Halibut Bones to my students along with this book. That book also features poems written with metaphors and exploring our feelings about colors. My students then use their understanding of metaphors to write their own color poem. It’s a quick unit, only about a week or so, but helps students really understand figurative language and use it consistenly in their own writing.
The final book is Kwame Alexander’s celebration of spirit and grit and persistence. This is a powerful poem, especially if students have some background knowledge. Woven throughout the poem are references to people who have survived, and the art that helped them overcome. For example, one page reads, “This is for the unafraid, the audacious ones, who carried the red, white and Weary Blues on the battlefield to save an imperfect Union.” The line is wonderful on its face, but becomes more meaningful if students realize that Weary Blues was Langston Hughes’ first book of poetry. There are other references to Hughes, who must be an inspiration for Alexander. This poem certainly connects in many ways with Hughes’ themes of hope and the American Dream.
I use this poem to teach prefixes and to practice compare and contrast. For me, the poem is a perfect follow up after I teach this Langston Hughes unit to my students. We compare and contrast Alexander’s poem with Mother to Son (scroll up to see the video for info on how I teach that poem). I read Alexander’s book out loud to the students and we discuss his theme of overcoming. Then I like to show this video of Alexander reading it to a group of school age teens. I love bringing in the author’s voice. After the students have heard the poem twice, I ask them to complete a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the two poems, and then use that Venn diagram to write a compare and contrast paragraph.
If your students are not familiar with Langston Hughes, there are still plenty of wonderful things you can teach with this book. Alexander ties the poem together with many words that begin with the prefix un (unafraid, undefeated, unforgettable, unflappable, undeniable…) Give students a copy of the text, or project it, and ask them to record all of the words with the prefix. I like to ask students to choose 3-5 words from our class list. They fold a piece of paper in half the hot dog way to create two columns. In one column, they write the word, and in the other, they illustrate it. Then, I have students fold the papers the other way, so the word faces them and the illustration faces outward. Then I give students a star sticky note and ask them to grab a pencil. Students move around the classroom, showing their illustrations ONLY to other students. The other student has to use the illustration to guess the word. If they guess correctly, both students mark a star on their stickies, and then move on to another student. This activity gives students lots of practice using target vocabulary and thinking about the meaning of the word. And, they think it’s fun!
I hope that you have found a book or three to add to your classroom library. 🙂 This is a theme that I have writing about for years, so, if you missed these blog posts, check them out now for more resources and insights to grow your teaching!
With so many amazing picture books out there, it was hard to narrow it down to a manageable list! These are the first six books of the 12 that my students and I love every year. Check back in a few days for the rest of the list!
This list is roughly in chronological order, and I give suggestions for teaching points for each book. Reading the books in order would give students a solid understanding of Black History in America, but of course, some of the books connect to content, and might best be taught within a unit (for example, on the Revolutionary War). However you bring these books to your classroom, you will be glad that you did. Enjoy!
This book was not at all what I expected. I loved The 1619 Project for adults, and I was expecting essays and history, like the adult book. Instead, I got informational poetry. Poetry! That fills my heart and my mind! The book is appropriate for students in grades 5-8.
The book opens with a girl who has been given a class assignment. In clear, easy-to-understand free verse, the authors set up a situation that any kids can connect with – how to complete a class assignment when you have no idea where to begin. Each poem builds on the previous ones, slowly telling the story of The First Africans, their kidnap, but also their culture and resistance throughout history. The illustrations add a depth to the poetry, and help students understand that the dark times of history can include joy, resilience and power by the people living them.
This non-fiction leveled text tells the history of the First African’s arrival in Jamestown, and makes a great companion to this picture book.
This is a great book to use for teaching free verse, one of the most approachable forms of poetry. Throughout the book, you can find examples of imagery, symbolism and metaphors – key aspects of successful free verse. Towards the end of the book, the poem “Legacy” is a beautiful example of irony. The second and third stanzas are excellent examples, and will help your students understand and recognize irony in other poetry.
This story tells the history of Black Americans from their arrival in 1619 to the present. It highlights cultural, scientific and historic accomplishments from history, and awakens students’ interest in further research. The text is highly accessible and the book is appropriate for students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are bold and powerful, just like the text, and key character traits are highlighted throughout the book. When I read this book to my students, they applauded, and then had so many, many questions!
This is a perfect book for teaching character traits. Words like “ingenuity”, “grace”, and “dignity” are reinforced several times throughout the book. After we read the book, I wrote the key words on the board, and we briefly discussed the meaning of each word and it’s part of speech (most are nouns). Then, students looked up a word of their choice in the dictionary to find the adjective form of the word. That formed the basis for a writing assignment about a Civil Rights Activist of their choice. For the texts that I gave students for their research on activists, click here.
This book is a terrific way to introduce the Revolutionary War. It is a chapter book, but with only 59 pages, it is an easy read-aloud to get through in about 3 sessions. If you teach the Revolution in 4th or 5th grade, this is a great book to bring in at the beginning of your unit. The author has included a basic overview of the war, including key battles and causes of the Revolution. There are also all the great text features that you expect in a non-fiction book. I usually have the document camera on when I read this aloud so that students can see the illustrations, captions, headings and sidebars.
In my classroom, I read this non-fiction book to my students at the end of our unit on Colonial America and right before we begin learning about the Revolution. It builds some important background knowledge and also gives an untold perspective on the war, raising the question, “If the founders valued their own freedom so deeply, why didn’t they free the slaves when they set up the new country?” That is a powerful lens to set up at the beginning of a unit on the Revolutionary War, and helps my students have a more nuanced view of the conflict. The book traces the entire war from the perspective of the black soldiers and patriots. I follow up by having my students read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. The two books together help students understand the Revolution from many angles.
This is a beautiful book, and would work well with students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are gentle water colors and the text is poignant and moving. Told in first person from the perspective of an enslaved boy, the book weaves a story of a complicated father-son relationship. At the end, the narrator reveals that his father was Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, including some he fathered. The story is true, and told in a matter of fact way that keeps the book approachable. Because the book is narrated in first person, the reader asks the same questions that James asks – questions like, “How can I be both his slave and his son?” As in life, the book does not have answers, so students must grapple with the contradiction of a man who brought freedom to many while enslaving his children. It’s a truth that we all have to face at some time, and this book is a perfect way to ease into that conversation with students.
I like to use this story to teach point of view in narrative writing. There is a paragraph about half way through the book where James is watching the other slaves work and thinking about his father’s promise that some day he will be free. With my class, I first read that paragraph as it was written. Then, we rewrite the paragraph together in third person and read the new version. The students and I analyze both versions, side by side, to better understand how the choice of narrator can affect a narrative. It’s a powerful lesson and helps my students think about first and third person narrators in their own writing.
This is a beautiful book that tells the story of a determined young woman, Sweet Clara. She begins the story as a field hand, grueling work that only the strongest survive. At night she learns to sew, and eventually becomes a seamstress in the Big House. There, she learns about the Underground Railroad and begins to gather information about the route to the Ohio River, the beginning of the Underground Railroad. She pieces the information together into a quilt, and finally, she and her familiy make it to freedom.
One of the things I love about the story is the voice. The author tells the story in first person, and the voice is all Sweet Clara’s. You get a sense of who she is – her intelligence, her strength, her point of view – just by the words the author puts in her mouth. If you are going to read this aloud, definitely practice. You will want to correct the grammar as you read but if you do, your will miss much of the voice. Through Sweet Clara’s voice, we really come to know her, making this is perfect book to teach character analysis.
Most sports fans, and students of history, know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black player in Major League Baseball. But this book tells the lesser known story of how Jackie Robinson took on segregation in the US Military – and won! The author has a factual, yet engaging style that makes this a really great read aloud. Students will also enjoy the colorful illustrations as they get to know Jackie as a person of dignity and integrity. This is a powerful book for students in grades 3-6.
The book is well written and organized chronologically, so we first meet Jackie as a student and an outstanding athlete. The text organization makes this a perfect book to practice summarizing. Be sure to check out this resource for support with that! I also like to teach language with this, specifically, prepositional phrases. Situating grammar within a text helps students see how to use grammar to make their own writing more descriptive and/or powerful. In this text, there are many really great passages that illustrate how to effectively use prepositional phrases. Check out this power-packed sentence, which includes 6 prepositional phrases!
This resource on TPT has Lesson Plans and Student Sheets to help students summarize and practice language skills. Check it out today!
As we celebrate the holiday in honor of Dr. King and move into Black History month in February, I want to share one of my favorite resources for teaching the Civil Rights Movement with you. As an extra bonus, these BOOM Cards are digital, so you can use them no matter your teaching situation! Here is how I used these BOOM Cards this year in person, AND how I modified the lesson last year for remote learning. Whatever your teaching situation, I’ve got you covered!
In Person Instruction
Activate Background Knowledge:
I begin the lesson by asking students, “What are Civil Rights? Who has Civil Rights? Do you?” This question activates students’ background knowledge and also their curiosity. In truth, the phrase Civil Rights is used so frequently that it has kind of lost its meaning. So, we have a brief discussion about Civil Rights.
This year, one of my students gave a great example. He said that Civil Rights are the rights that people have but that he doesn’t have as many civil rights as adults because he is a child. He used driving as an example. My class had a great discussion about the rights, and responsibilities, of being a driver. We then talked about other examples of people who had, or did not have, Civil Rights. They mentioned voting rights, rights to an education, and the right to choose your own job.
After we activate background knowledge and curiousity about Civil Rights, I give students the objective for the lesson. Along with this main objective, they will also have the opportunity to practice inferring and deepen their understanding of key vocabulary.
Teaching the Content:
For this lesson, I ask each student to log into the BOOM Cards on their own computer, but sit in groups of three. As the lesson progresses, we will bounce back and forth from whole class to small group to independent work.
The task cards begin with the arrival of the first Africans on the White Lion. (If you want a more detailed resource about that, be sure to check out this resource – The First Africans; a leveled reading passage with comprehension questions.) I ask my students to read the text on the first task card to themselves. Then, in their group, I ask them to discuss what they see in the image on the Task Card. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
The next two Task Cards talk about the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow laws. I teach students how to read Emancipation Proclamation, and then ask them to read the next two cards in their group. As a class, we discuss the mearning of the word segregation, and the students answer the question on the task card independently.
The next three task cards deal with desegregating the military, schools, and busses. Students read these task cards in their groups, and then we discuss boycotts. I begin the discussion by asking students, “Do you think a boycott can be successful at changing something in society?” It’s a good discussion because the text evidence is all about the Supreme Court making the changes, and so students are divided on whether or not they think the boycotts were effective.
This is usually a good place to break the lesson up. One of the things I love about BOOM Cards is that they automatically save a student’s progress. I think it is more powerful to spread this content over two days than to cram it all into one day. The kids need time to process this information, and they usually come back on the second day even more eager to learn the next part of the story.
If you break the lesson up, begin the second day by projecting the task cards your students have already read. I gather the students on the rug WITHOUT their computers and we go through the first task cards together. This helps remind them of what they already know, and also gives ELLs and struggling readers a chance to revisit key vocabulary and ideas.
The next card teaches students about the sit-ins at the Woolworths counters. We discuss what it means to be denied service and then I ask, “Do you think a sit-in will be effective?” Just like with the boycotts, students are usually mixed on their views.
The next card is about the Children’s Crusade, and in my opinion, is the card that students have the strongest reaction too. For that reason, I always read that task card aloud to them. After I read the card, I turn to the next card and we analyze the photo of the Children’s Crusade as a class. Together, these two task cards really are the meat of the resource. Once we have discussed the photo, students usually have no trouble making an inference about the photographer’s purpose in taking the photo.
At this point in the lesson, it is time to release students to work independently on the rest of the task cards. I always try to gradually release responsibility to the students, and this is a good place to get them to work independently. They will answer a question about the March on Washington, organize key events on a timeline and fill in the blank to answer vocabulary questions.
The basic flow of the lesson is the same, whether or not I teach in person or remotely. However, these digital tools help the lesson go better remotely.
Activate Background Knowledge:
I use a Jamboard for this. I asked each student to respond to one of the Jamboards. Engaging students remotely is very difficult. By giving them a choice (which question do you want to respond to?) and requiring their participation, I was able to hook the students. We then briefly discussed and organized their responses to group similar ideas.
This doesn’t change for remote learning.
Teaching the Content:
For remote learning, I did not break the lesson up over two days. I began the lesson by reading the first 3 slides to the kids and working through them as a whole group. I then sent them to Breakout Rooms to work on the rest of the slides as a group of three – again, gradually releasing resposibility to the students. I checked in on the groups often to help keep them on track. And then I ask each student to complete, in addition to the BOOM Cards, a padlet answering the question, “Which event from the BOOM Cards do you think was most important in increasing Civil Rights for African Americans? Why was it important?”
I hope that this lesson plan helps you see ways to use these BOOM Cards in your classroom, no matter what your teaching situation is. If you have never used BOOM Cards, you can get a free trial here. Start with these FREE BOOM Cards about the Women’s Suffrage Movement from my TPT store, and if you love them, grab the Civil Rights Movement BOOM Cards. I think you will find that they are a versatile tool for your classroom, no matter your teaching situation.
Making a Spiral Thinking Strip is easy! This craftivity will make a small book with 16 pages. It’s perfect for summarizing a chapter book (see this blog post on using it to summarize Bridge to Terabithia for more info on that!)
Spiral Thinking Stips are also great for:
Recording math fact families
Gathering text evidence
Making words with prefixes or suffixes
and many more ideas!
To make a Spiral Thinking Strip, all you need is a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. In this example, I used a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of printer paper. You can use a larger size if you want, and the size of your “pages” will be larger. It is most helpful to use thin paper because of all the folding.
Fold the piece of paper in half 4 times to make 16 sections.
Open the paper completely. You should see four rows and four columns.
Place your scissors at the fold which separates the final column from the third column. Cut on the fold until you have cut 3/4 of the paper. Do not cut past the fold that marks the top row.
Turn your scissors. Cut down the fold between the top row and the second row. Stop when you get to the first column. Do not cut all the way to the edge!
Turn your scissors. Continue cutting, creating a spiral by cutting each fold until you get one space away from the edge or a cut. Then turn and cut inward again.
Once your have your spiral, fold back and forth, like a fan, until you reach the final rectangle. And now you have a Spiral Thinking Strip!
I have found these little “books” to be a versatile and fun foldable for students. Give it a try and leave a comment to let us know how you used it in your classroom!
Summarizing is so key for reading success. According to Hattie’s meta-analysis, summarizing has a .79 effect size on achievement, which is almost double the average! Clearly, summarizing is an important strategy to teach kids to improve their reading achievement!
What is summarizing?
Summarizing is the skill of giving a brief statement of the main points. An important part of summarizing is discerning what is important, and what is NOT! Sometimes students go on and on and on in their summaries. That’s actually a retelling, not a summary. Retelling is a much lower cognitive skill and basically involves short term memory. Summarizing is a much more difficult skill, and involves decision making about what should be included and what should be left out. A good summary should lead the reader to the theme of a fiction work. For more information about summarizing, I higly recommend Strategies at Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.
Classroom Example – Bridge to Terabithia
Right now we are reading Bridge to Terabithia in my classroom. My students are really responding to the realism in the book, and they are connecting personally to the main characters, Jess and Leslie. It is a subtle book, and the main characters have a really complex friendship. So, that makes it a perfect book to practice summarizing with. As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary. Each chapter has several events that students connect with. For example, in chapter 1, we meet Jesse’s family. He is the only boy, and he is surrounded by difficult sisters. Most students identify with Jess, but for different reasons. Some identify with him because of his mean older sisters, others because he does an outsized share of the chores, and still others sympathize because May Belle follows him everywhere. In addition to meeting his difficult family, in the first chapter, students find out Jesse’s deepest ambition – to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. Some students identify with that goal, or have the experience of working hard to achieve a goal themselves.
Then, I tell students that we are going to write a one sentence summary of each chapter. One sentence! You can hear them gasp, can’t you?
This is where the power of summarizing lies. Students must first identify all of those important aspects of the first chapter. Then, they have to synthesize, or put them together. Finally, they have to craft a well written sentence. Together, we decided that a compound sentence was necessary. For the first part of the sentence, we synthesized all of the difficult aspects of Jesse’s home life to read “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life.” We then summarized his amibition with this sentence, “He dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.”
Then, we connected the two sentences to create this compound sentence, which summarizes the main aspects of the chapter nicely. “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life, and he dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.” Students record that sentences in their Spiral Thinking Strip, and then keep it to add on to each day.
In one lesson, students have practiced:
Identifying important events
Writing Compound Sentences
And of course, many of them have fallen in love with a new book and a new author! Not bad for 20 minutes!
Why use a Spiral Thinking Strip?
Well, Spiral Thinking Strips are versatile and great for many reasons!
They only take one piece of paper.
Students think they are fun, and teachers do too!
The small size of the “pages” limits students and helps them understand that summary statements need to pack a lot of information in a small space.
When students finish, the “pages” are automatically sequenced, another key aspect of a strong summary.
This video shows the completed Spiral Thinking Strip from Bridge to Terabithia.
To learn how to make a Spiral Thinking Strip, check out this How-to blog post and video!
Spiral Thinking Strips are one instructional strategy that will help your students master the key strategy of summarizing. Give it a try in your classroom today, and leave a comment to let us know how it goes!
Goal setting is an important strategy for motivating students and raising their achievement. Done correctly, it will empower your students, giving them ownership and voice over their learning. For more on how I set goals with students, check out these blog posts:
In this blog post, I will go into detail about how to write S.M.A.R.T. goals with students. S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based. That simple recipe can result in very strong goals that will motivate your students!
First, feel free to download this free SMART Goal template from my TPT store. The template walks students through the acronym and gives a sample goal. Using the template for your first lesson makes setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals a piece of cake! And if you need Data Tracking and Goal Setting Sheets, check out this Student Data Binder, which includes more than 110 Students Sheets to bring goals and data tracking to your classroom!
S = Specific
The first part of the acronym stands for specific. I find that students often make goals like, “I want to be a better reader” or “I want to get a higher grade”. Neither of those goals are specific, and so, most likely, the student will fail. What, exactly, does a student need to do to improve in reading? Are they struggling to decode multi-syllabic words? Are they reading slowly and losing meaning? Do they need more practice with inferential thinking? To be effective, a goal should be very specific. That is the reason that I DON’T set goals in the first month of school. First, we have to gather data. Then, we use the data to pinpoint a Specific area for improvement.
M = Measurement
A goal must be measurable, or the student will not know if they’ve succeeded. Measurable does not always mean percentages, though. For example, in my classroom, students often set goals around reading new genre or a certain number of books. Those are very worthwhile goals, and likely to lead to improved reading achievement. And they are completely measurable, although not a percentage or a score. In Math, my students often set a goal around time spent practicing. For example, one student set a goal of doing Multiplication by Heart at least 20 times in the month of December. I can’t wait to get back to school and find out if she met her goal! If she did, she is sure to improve in her mastery of multiplication facts!
A = Achievable
I often find that students set really large, exciting goals. For example, this year one student said they wanted to read 100 chapter books. When I asked them how many books they read last year, they thought the number was 12 books. So, I asked them if they thought 100 was achievable. Together, we decided to see if they could read 10 books in October, and they did! The student felt excited, I felt excited, and in one month they read almost as many books as they had in an entire year. That is a win! By helping them find an achievable goal, I helped that student find success! (They went on to read 11 books in November!)
R = Relevant
A common mistake I see in this category is students making a goal around increasing their reading level. The truth is, that goal is not relevant to them. While you, the teacher, know that they need to increase their fluency and comprehension by practicing their inference skills in order to reach the next level, the student does not know that. Changing reading levels is a mystery to students (and probably to parents). As teachers, we go to college to learn that type of information, but the student does not have our advantage. So, the goal needs to be relevant to the student. This also ties into being Specific. Relevant goals for students center around discrete skills or tasks, like mastering the multiplication facts, using more dialogue in their narrative writing and reading more non-fiction texts.
T = Time-based
A goal has a start and stop time. Period. This is usually pretty easy for students to understand. In my classroom, we generally set monthly goals. I find that a month is a short enough time period that students will maintain their enthusiasm and focus on the goals. But, it is a long enough time period that students can see important growth. I think quarters or trimesters also work well for goal setting time periods.
S.M.A.R.T. Goals have been such a motivator for many of my students. Use the FREE Goal Setting Student Sheet and give them a try in your classroom. I think you’ll find that, when students set meaningful goals, they generally achieve them and learning happens!
One of my favorite strategies for practicing vocabulary is Beat the Clock. This is a simple game where students compete against the clock, and themselves, to complete vocabulary tasks. It is a versatile strategy that can be used with any content and in a variety of ways, and it’s great as a final review before a test. In this blog post I will detail two variations.
Beat the Clock – True/False
To prep for this version, create 15-20 True/False statements using the target vocabulary. This example comes from my Powers of Ten Prefix Unit.
I recommend trying it out and timing yourself to decide how much time to give the kids to complete the task. In this example, I was able to answer the questions in about 30 seconds, so I tripled that and gave the kids 90 seconds. Most kids are able to finish the task in that time, so they feel successful right away.
To play with students:
Put students in pairs. One partner will try to “Beat the Clock” and the other will watch the timer.
Partner A goes first, and completes the task. Partner B tells them how long it took to complete the task, and Partner A records their time in the upper corner.
Then it’s Partner B’s turn to “Beat the Clock”. Once both partners have had a turn, show the class the correct answers. Then, the power of the strategy is in doing it all again!
The second time around, I generally mix up the order of the statements or change the definitions slightly. Even so, students almost always improve their time or their accuracy on the second round.
Beat the Clock – Vocabulary Puzzles
To prep for this version of the activity, you need to create Vocabulary Puzzles, similar to these ones from my Powers of Ten Prefix Puzzle resource.
Again, before you give the task to students, time yourself doing the task. Then, double or triple your time for the kids.
I like to do this one as a partner task as well, but this time, the partners are working together to complete the puzzles. There are 20 puzzles in this resource, and because the shapes help the students, it is not that difficult. I give my students 2 minutes to do this with their partner.
Once the 2 minutes are up, I project the Answer Key, which is included in the resource. Then, I ask the kids to mix up their cards and pass their set on to another group. This ensures that the cards are mixed up. 🙂
Once every group has a new set of prefix cards, we try again!
Beat the Clock is so effective because it’s simple to use and takes hardly any time! Your competitive kids will love it! Students who are less competitive generally don’t mind competing against the clock and themselves, so it can feel like a low risk to them.
Give Beat the Clock a try today – I think you, and your kiddos, will love it!