Category Archives: Reading

Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 1

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!

All links are to Amazon.

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

The 1619 Project; Born on the Water

by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

Teaching Points

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.

Your Legacy; A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History

by Schele Williams

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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!

Teaching Points

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.

The Untold Story of the Black Regiment: Fighting in the Revolutionary War (What You Didn't Know About the American Revolut...

The Untold Story of the Black Regiment; Fighting in the Revolutionary War

by Michael Burgan

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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.

Teaching Points

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.

My Name is James Madison Hemings

by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

Teaching Points

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.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

by Deborah Hopkinson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

Teaching Points

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.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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.

Teaching Points

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!

“Within moments of the bus arriving at Jack’s stop, a crowd of angry white people surrounded Jack, yelling at him to know his place, calling him names.”

The Unted States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

This resource on TPT has Lesson Plans and Student Sheets to help students summarize and practice language skills. Check it out today!

Happy teaching!

More blog posts to check out:

  1. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – Part 2 of this blog post
  2. A Girl Like Me – This blog post features strageties for using this powerful, 7-minute film to help students understand the hidden cost of segregation.
  3. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post explores a powerful book for fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s great for 3-6 grade readers.
  4. Five Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – This is my all-time favorite list of books, and includes another Jacqueline Woodson title – The Other Side.

Making a Spiral Thinking Strip

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:

  1. Recording math fact families
  2. Sequencing
  3. Gathering text evidence
  4. Making words with prefixes or suffixes
  5. and many more ideas!

Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for a video demonstration of how to make the Spiral Thinking Strip!

Materials

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.

Directions

  1. Fold the piece of paper in half 4 times to make 16 sections.
  2. Open the paper completely. You should see four rows and four columns.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

How to Video

Summarizing with a Spiral Thinking Strip

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.

As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary.

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:

  1. Synthesizing events
  2. Identifying important events
  3. 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!

  1. They only take one piece of paper.
  2. Students think they are fun, and teachers do too!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Loser? It is Realistic Fiction?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching!

Using Digital Escape Rooms to Connect with Content

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

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

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

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

Why Digital Escape Rooms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching!