Author Archives: scotton23

Poetry Slam

One of my favorite fluency exercises is called Poetry Slam. It gives students a chance to read lots of great poetry AND practice their fluency at the same time. And kids love it, especially boys. Yep, boys love poetry. Here’s how to implement Poetry Slam in your classroom.

First, find a poem you love. Rhyme helps, but isn’t necessary. This year, I started with It Couldn’t Be Done by Edgar Guest. This is a great poem for teaching about perseverance and grit, so it was a terrific way to start off the school year. I read the poem to the kids, and then I spent some time teaching the kids about the poem. We talked about the stanzas, the rhyme scheme and the theme. This free Poetry Glossary might be a useful tool as you do that.

I then had the kids read the poem chorally. We generated a list of criteria for fluent reading. I then asked each student to take their copy of the poem and read it to the wall. This is a protocol I have the students use often. They spread around the room, facing the wall, and read. They don’t have to read loudly because the wall bounces their voices back to them, and they can hear themselves reading. Afterwards, I ask the students to reflect on their own fluency, and they write a goal for themselves on the bottom of the poem.

Then, I issue the challenge. How many times can you read this poem in the next two days? Five? Ten? Twenty? Every person that they read the poem to signs the back of the poem. They can get more than one signature from each person.

The next day, we read the poem again and talk about it further. Sometimes I have the students respond to the poem on the second day. They might answer questions or work with vocabulary. And, I energize them about getting more signatures! Usually, by that point in time, some kids have 3-4 signatures. A good poetry slam is ten signatures. I know that by the next day, someone will have fifteen or twenty.

This is such a fun activity, and it takes hardly any time. Many kids are highly motivated to practice, and they spend time reading at home, to their bus driver, to the cafeteria ladies…. Anyone who will listen. Little brothers and sisters are usually especially supportive, and it helps them hear some great poetry too!

STEM adventure!

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

Students built background knowledge with a Gallery Walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Info-Gap Math Routine

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

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

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

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

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

The other card looks something like this:

Ahh, that’s what we were missing!

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

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

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

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

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

Did you download the freebie already? 🙂

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

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!

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

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.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

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!

Next Reads:

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! The Three-Tiers

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

Tier One

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

Tier Two

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

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

Mark Twain

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

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

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

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

Tier Three

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

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

Would You Rather?

A photo of a classroom poster

For years, my kids and I have played the game “Would You Rather”? Would you rather eat a cockroach or swim with sharks? Would you rather climb Mt. Everest or live on the moon? We have whiled away many a car ride exploring the wacky side of life.

And then one day I thought, I should do this at school. To practice vocabulary terms!

We were working on Powers of Ten prefixes at the time, so I sat down to see if I could create cards with challenges related to that unit. I don’t know who had more fun – me while I was creating the cards or the kids while they were reading them!

I’ve used Would You Rather cards several different ways, but my hands down favorite is a Chalk Talk. All you need is some butcher paper and one copy of each of the Would you Rather cards. Cut out the cards and tape one to the top of a piece of butcher paper. Then, spread the eight pieces of butcher paper around the room – hang them on walls, lay them on tables, whatever you can do to create enough space for 3-4 students to crowd around.

Each student will need a marker. I tell them that they’ll have about 15 minutes to rotate from poster to poster. At each poster, they are free to write a response to the Would You Rather challenge OR they can respond to what another student wrote OR they can do both. I ask them to make sure that there are no more than 4 students at a poster at one time. And I tell them that they must be SILENT! The power of this game is that they can’t talk. It forces them to use the target vocabulary in writing, and to justify the thinking. That forces them to think about the meaning of the word. The kids love it, and they will often go back to a poster several times, adding to their original thinking and reading the responses that other students have written. And every time they do, they are practicing that target vocabulary again!

After about 15 minutes, I give them a two-minute warning so that they have time for one last response or revisit. Then, I have them sit down, and I go to each poster, reading a few of the responses from each. That gives them an opportunity to respond verbally, and we have a discussion for about 15 more minutes. By the end of that time, I guarantee they are using the vocabulary more confidently than at the beginning of the activity.

Please download my free, Would You Rather cards, and give it a try! Let me know how it goes.

Building a Community of Readers – the Sticky Note data activity

My main goal as a reading teacher is to inspire a love of reading in my students. If I can do that successfully, the rest will take care of itself. Voracious readers become competent readers, although the reverse is not always true. If you haven’t read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, you should. She’s a master at helping kids love reading.

As a teacher, the only daily homework I require is 20 minutes of reading a night. I’ve tried every type of reading log imaginable – daily slips with daily reinforcement at school, weekly logs, monthly logs, points systems, computerized tests…. You name it, I’ve tried it! And guess what? The kids who read at home in September are still reading at home in June, and the kids who weren’t reading in September were seldom motivated to read by any system I could impose.

So, I don’t use reading logs anymore. Instead, I’ve implemented some simple activities to build motivation and interest in reading. One of those is the Sticky Note data activity. I use it a lot, especially at the beginning of the year.

It’s pretty simple. Students will walk into class and find a blank sticky note on their desks. They know that we will start our day, every day, with at least 30 minutes of Independent Reading. As they filter in the door, I ask them to write the title of the book they read at home on a sticky, and not to put their name on the sticky. This is NOT about embarrassing kids, so it’s anonymous. If they didn’t read at home, they write Nothing on the sticky.

After their Independent Reading time, I call them to the rug and ask them to put their sticky on the board. We then organize the sticky notes, usually by genre at the beginning of the year since I’m working to build their understanding of different genre. We then have a data talk about their sticky notes. Sometimes, I turn it into a math activity and ask them to organize the data in a graph or line plot. Sometimes I ask them to create questions that can be asked and answered using the data. And sometimes we just discuss our noticings and questions.

This super simple, quick activity is motivating to many students. Don’t use it every day, once or twice a week is better. That gives students time to finish books so the data changes.

You can also vary the question. Other things I might have them write on their sticky are:

  • Where did you read at home last night (or this morning)?
  • When was the last time you read at home?
  • Who do you like to read with at home?
  • Are you reading fiction or non-fiction at home right now?
  • How long did you read at home last night (or this morning)?

Once the data is organized, I snap a quick picture of the board, and I send it to parents. Key to helping students read at home is getting parents on board, and a picture is worth 1,000 words!

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