Author Archives: scotton23

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!

Winning Week One – Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Community of readers – 5 Reasons to use a Reader’s Interest Survey

Start the year right with a quick survey to get to know your readers. The key to reading achievement is – reading! Read on to find out why spending 15 minutes on a Reader’s Interest Survey is a great investment of your time!

  1. To choose great read alouds for your class.  There are so many wonderful books out there.  Throughout the year you will want to strive for a mix of new genre and new authors along with a few favorites.  The survey results will help you get the mix just right!
  2. To match individual readers with that just right book to motivate them!  We know that motivated readers read, and that key to motivation is student choice and voice. A survey will help you listen to your students and guide you to start with titles they already love, and then stretch them to new titles, new genre and new authors.
  3. To buy books for your classroom library, and make sure you’ll get titles they’ll read!  Choice is an essential component of motivating readers, especially struggling readers.  The Reading Interest Survey will help you make wise choices on how to spend your hard-earned money. You don’t want to clean up at the end of the year and find books that have never had the cover cracked!
  4. To plan Literature Circles and Book Groups that will help your students love reading and learn the skills they need.  The survey results will help you match students with other students, building a community in your classroom and growing the reading conversation!
  5. To get to know your students and grow your relationship with them.  Strong relationships are key to building a vibrant classroom community and managing student behavior.  A Reading Interest Survey will help you have great conversations with your students.

A few minutes at the beginning of the year can save you time and money. You don’t need to spend weeks on reading conferences to get to know your students’ likes and dislikes. A quick Reader’s Interest Survey will help you gather information quickly and get those kids reading!

Click here to purchase my Reader’s Interest Survey on TPT.

Ten great quotes to inspire young writers – and make them laugh!

I love to use quotes in my writing class. Often they make us laugh, and a good giggle can break writer’s block any day! Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

  1. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies. Don’t use no double negatives. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
    – William Safire
  2. When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am a grown up they call me a writer.
    – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  3. If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.
    – Kingsley Amis
  4. Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
    – Gene Fowler
  5. If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers. 
    – Doug Larson
  6. I get a lot of letters from people. They say: “I want to be a writer. What should I do?” I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it. 
    – Ruth Rendell
  7. A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. – Mark Twain
  8. Write what you know.
    Mark Twain
  9. Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. Mark Twain

©CLIPART BY LIDIA BARBOSA

Winning Week One – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 the pile and get to know each other a bit. We usually do 4-5 per day, so it will take us that first week to get through everyone.

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 204!

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.

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’ll first watch a brief video from her website, You Cubed, about the importance of struggle in math. Then, I ask the students to look at images of squares grouped in different ways. This is our first Number Talk, and so I will guide 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. I record their thinking about how many squares are in each image using pictures and numbers. Students then work with partners to do the same with different images. My goal is for students to understand that there is more than one way to solve a math problem, and these images are perfect for that. Also, by using images, I lower the affective filter. Students who have anxiety about math will generally feel perfectly comfortable giving this a try.

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

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

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

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How can we teach them all?

Well, the simple answer to that question is, we can’t. But what we can do is teach students the important words that they must know and teach them how to teach themselves all the other amazing words that they will encounter as they become literate speakers, readers and writers.

The best resource I’ve ever encountered for robust vocabulary instruction is Bringing Words to Life by Beck and McKeown. I read the first edition years ago when I was teaching at a school with a significant number of ELLs, and read the second edition last summer. Even if you’ve read the first edition, I recommend picking up the second. Both are a quick, fun read, and there is enough new material in the second edition to make it worth perusing.

So, why is this the best thing I’ve ever read about vocabulary acquisition? Well, because Beck and McKeown do a beautiful job of giving you a compelling case for why direct instruction in vocabulary is necessary in the first chapter and the second chapter helps you know which words to spend your time on. They categorize words into three Tiers, and suggest focusing instruction on the words in Tier Two, which they describe as “words (that) are likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of texts and in the written and oral language of mature language users”. The rest of the book talks about the practicalities of instruction – and hits things that both your students and your administrators will love! To get a flavor of their work, check out this pdf of a chapter from another of their books, Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2004.

My favorite chapter is on differentiation – something that I’m always working to do better. Their approach is directly embedded in Response to Intervention, or RTI and also suits my teaching style because the instructional strategies focus on giving students time to talk about the words in different contexts, to build nuanced understanding of word meanings and to give students opportunities to apply the words.

One strategy that I love for building background knowledge and vocabulary came from Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. He suggests wide reading on a topic because it will build both background knowledge and vocabulary. I’ve found that it can be difficult to find text sets that build naturally upon one another without being too repetitive or too boring. With careful vetting, it can be done. Since I enjoy writing, I’ve started writing text sets to build knowledge for my students. This link will take you to my TPT store where you can check out text sets covering Core Content like Democracy, and also things that are interesting to kids like Earthquakes and The Vikings. I purposefully structure the text set to build understanding of 12 – 15 key vocabulary terms using strategies borrowed largely from Beck and McKeown’s book, and I tie the terms together and build content knowledge with four texts per topic. Hopefully, the lesson plans will make this easy for you and fun for your students!

Building academic vocabulary is key for reading success, which in turn is key for all academic success. I try to teach my students about 500 words a year, but more importantly, I try to teach them how to teach themselves so the word learning continues. Leave a comment to let me know how you teach vocabulary. What works for you? What doesn’t work? I’d love to hear from you!

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