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!
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!
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”. For more on the three tiers, be sure to check out my post on the subject! 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!
As promised, I’m going to dive into the research and resources that I have found to be most useful in building a robust vocabulary for students. We’re going to start with the Common Core State Standards.
What? The standards are a resource? You bet! If you haven’t spent time with the Appendices, I totally recommend you do. They give a great overview of key research and important ideas in each subject, and can really point you in the right direction. Achieve the Core is a great resource for unlocking the standards and what they really expect.
Just in case you don’t have time to read what the ELA Appendix says about Vocabulary, here is a brief summary (but you really should pour a cup of coffee and read it sometime!)
The stance of the standards towards vocabulary is that “the importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.” The appendix references several researchers, including Beck, McKeown and Kucan who wrote the essential book on vocabulary instruction, Bringing Words to Life, and have been instrumental in unlocking effective and engaging vocabulary instruction for teachers for many years. According to their work, and quoted in the Appendix, “Key to students’ vocabulary development is building rich and flexible word knowledge. Students need plentiful opportunities to use and respond to the words they learn through playful informal talk, discussion, reading or being read to and responding to what is read.”
The appendix briefly traces the development of language, beginning with oral language. According to the document, initially students acquire vocabulary through oral conversation that is rich in context. However, by grade 4 or 5, students are no longer learning vocabulary through conversation because they have mastered the majority of words that come up in conversation, even in academic conversation.
The appendix asserts that written language contains a far greater array of words, however, it lacks interactivity and context that aids students in acquiring language. Therefore, inherent in the standards is the idea that purposeful, ongoing instruction in vocabulary is necessary. Research shows that students need to grasp about 95% of the words that they read to comprehend a text, yet only 5-15% of new words are retained the first time a student reads them. Thus, the focus on playful talk and discussion to support reading.
Finally, the appendix references Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s work in categorizing words into three tiers. These three tiers help teachers know which words to prioritize in vocabulary instruction. For more on that topic, see my post Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers!
The College and Career Readiness Standards, from which all of our K-12 standards are derived, have 4 standards devoted to language acquisition in the Language portion of the document (CCRR.L.3, CCRR.L.4, CCRR.L.5. and CCRR.L.6), one standard in the Reading portion of the standards (CCRR.R.4). As you can see, the heavy emphasis on vocabulary instruction in the standards really cannot be overstated. We’ll keep exploring this topic together in future posts and unlock how to make that a reality in your classroom!
“The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight.”
“And like it or not, you’re in it.”
With those words, Steve Sheinkin closes his gripping account of the making of the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union’s attempts to steal the bomb, which eventually led to the Cold War. There’s a reason this book was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newberry Honor Book. Sheinkin’s spare yet descriptive prose introduces readers to the real people, real problems and real solutions that led to the end of World War II and launched the world into the Atomic Age.
As a student of history, I had no idea how far ranging the process of building the bomb was. From saboteurs in Norway to scientists and spies from all parts of the world, this really was a team effort. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, who features prominently in the book, scientists overcame one dramatic obstacle after another. Meanwhile, spies raced around the world preventing the Germans from completing their bomb, but unaware of the Soviet plans to steal it. At its heart, this book has many elements of a good old-fashioned spy novel, mixed with a fair bit of science and a lot of history.
Because its not a topic that is typically studied in school, I think many intermediate grade readers will struggle to understand this book because they lack background knowledge. Another qualitative consideration is the number of characters. Although Sheinkin provides lots of supports to students, often reminding readers of pertinent details about the characters, for example, there are many players in this complex story. At times, it is difficult to track the minor characters. The Lexile level of the text is about 1000 which puts this text at the high end of 5th grade, and firmly in the grades 6-8 text complexity band.
I have had a few advanced 5th grade readers with a strong interest in this topic read and love this book. I think more typically it will fit in a middle school classroom library because of the qualitative demands of the text. Keep this book on hand for any reader who loves a good spy novel, is interested in World War II, or has a strong interest in science. All three topics weave together in this text to make it a great read guaranteed to capture the interest of even the most jaded middle school reader!
I couldn’t put this book down, and devoured it in two days! I can’t close this review without encouraging all my teacher friends to read this book too. I suggest putting on your running shoes, grabbing this book and hopping on the treadmill. You won’t know if your heart is racing because of the exercise or the book! I guarantee that you will work out a little faster than usual – so that’s a win win!
Ah! Summer, with its tall, frosty drinks, loungy chairs, and good reads. If you’re like me, you’ve been stockpiling books since Christmas, just waiting for long, easy afternoons to dive in. By now I have a pretty good stack of kid books, teacher books, and one or two just-for-fun books by my bed. Here are ten of the books that are waiting for me. I’d love to hear what’s on your summer reading list!
Links are to Amazon. I don’t get a kickback or anything, but I like Amazon! Feel free to buy wherever you like, or get them from your local library!
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie- Let’s start with fun. Every few years I go on an Agatha Christie binge, and this summer I’m heading for one. I’ll start with my favorite sleuth, Hercule Poirot, and my favorite mystery – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I just can’t get enough of that dapper Belgian who famously solves cases using “Order and Method, Hastings! Order and method!” Perhaps I can channel my inner Poirot and bring some order and method to my closets this summer…. Hm…..
Differentiation and the Brain by Carol Ann Tomlinson- I first read Carol Ann Tomlinson’s amazing work in 1999, and I keep coming back to her. I can’t wait to find out more about the connection between brain research (a longstanding interest of mine) and differentiation. I imagine this book will revitalize my teaching for next year.
A Framework for K-12 Science Education by the National Research Council- I’ve been dipping my toe in this book since November, but this summer I’m looking forward to a good, long dive! So far, it’s completely wonderful, and I am really excited to have the time to spend with it. I imagine I will spend most of the summer really digesting this book and pulling out all of the information I need to bring Science alive in my classroom.
Big, Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale- I have to admit, I keep trying, unsuccessfully, to understand the appeal of graphic novels. My students devour them, and so, I keep on trying. My son assures me that, with my love of history, this book will grab me. We’ll see.
Americanized – Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi – I want to be ready for the current issues dredged up by the election next year, and I suspect immigration will be one of them. This book looks like a great read for my advanced readers, and I think it will be very timely. Plus, it’s supposed to be hilarious, and I do love a funny book!
Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – This has actually been on my reading list for years, and it just keeps slipping down the pile. We briefly studied the Manhattan Project this year, and one of my students stumbled on this book. He thinks I will love it, and frankly, so do I. Update: I finished reading Bomb. Loved it!!!! Click here to read my review.
Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder – This book was published the year I student-taught, and it was required reading for us that year. Tracy Kidder followed Mrs. Zajac and her class for a year, and this true story resonated with me immediately. Every August I return to this wise, poignant classic, and it puts me in the right frame of mind to start another year. Each time I learn something new from Mrs. Zajac and the students in her care. I hope it will do the same for you.
Those are a few of the books I’m planning to read this summer. I’d love to hear what you’re reading. I’m always on the prowl for a good read, so, please share your thoughts in the comments.
Fifteen years ago, my dad told me that personalization was going to be the name of the game in education. As usual, he was right. What he calls personalization, we call differentiation. And it’s hard to do well. One of the things that I’ve struggled with is making differentiation easy for the teacher but not blatant to the student. We all know those students that shut down when they realize they are not at the same level as the others. That’s why I’ve started writing resources that look the same, but are at different Lexile levels. As Fountas and Pinnell have said repeatedly, a level is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label. Read their blog post for more on that. https://fpblog.fountasandpinnell.com/a-level-is-a-teacher-s-tool-not-a-child-s-label
My goal with these resources is that you will easily be able to teach essential and/or interesting content while simultaneously differentiating the reading level for your students. And, they will be practicing on-grade level comprehension standards at the same time. Give them a try, and let me know what you think. Also, what other topics would you like to see? I’m working on one about the Northwest Native Americans right now, and have a couple of other ideas, but I’d love to hear from you about what you need!
Click here to go to my TPT store where you can buy leveled texts. If you follow me on TPT, I will email you whenever I post freebies on my blog! In the meantime, please enjoy this freebie Biography about Neil Armstrong (only available here – on TPT, you have to pay!). There are three Lexile levels – 800, 900 and 1,000. In the Common Core State Standards grade bands, 800 is about the middle of fourth grade, 900 is about the middle of fifth grade and 1,000 is about the middle of sixth grade. I hope this helps you teach essential and interesting content and differentiate at the same time!