A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Have you ever heard a student say, “I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down?” (or had that idea yourself)? That statement is a powerful example of why writing to learn is necessary. Until we can communicate our thoughts and understandings, they remain nebulous and wispy. Through writing, students explore and consolidate their own thinking, deepening their understanding and retention.

For a quick, two-page pdf on writing to learn, check out this handout from the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Today, I’d like to talk about one strategy that I have used very successfully in the past that gives students opportunities to write to learn and also increases writing fluency – QuickWrites.

Using QuickWrites in Face-to-Face Instruction

During face-to-face instruction, I use QuickWrites 2-3 days a week. The whole protocol takes about 10 minutes of instruction time. Students get out their writing notebooks and open to a new page. They label the page with the date, and “QuickWrite 1”. I then post one concept, idea or vocabulary word on the board, set the timer for one-minute, and the kids begin to write. It’s important to stress that spelling, punctuation etc. are not important at this stage. After one-minute, I ask them to draw a line to show how far they wrote, and reread what they wrote. They have two-minutes to reread. During this time they circle any errors they might have made and can make small revisions and edits. They also count the words they wrote during the initial one-minute period and write that number in the margin. I then start the timer again, give them a new topic or idea, and the process starts over. We go through the process three times – just 10 minutes! The final step is for students to graph the number of words from their most fluent QuickWrite of the day.

This quick protocol gives you a big payoff!

  1. QuickWrites give students a low-risk opportunity to write to learn. – During that one-minute time, students are free to write anything they know about the term or topic. As they write, they often discover that they know more than they thought they did! QuickWrites are especially helpful in solidifying information when they are used in the middle of a unit because students have some information to write about.
  2. QuickWrites help students get over the fear of the page. – Students may stare at the page, and write very few, or even zero, words. Over time, students get more confident because they are only writing for one-minute. That confidence translates to decreased fear of writing in general.
  3. QuickWrites warm up the students’ writing brain. – The first QuickWrite of the day generally has the fewest words, and the last QuickWrite of the day generally has the most. QuickWrites are a great exercise to do at the beginning of a Writing Workshop where you want students to make good progress on a writing assignment. I find that when students warm up with a QuickWrite, they make more progress on their assignments than on the days we don’t warm up with a QuickWrite.
  4. QuickWrites increase writing fluency. – Over time, students will find they can write more words in one-minute. The graph is a simple way to track writing fluency, and it really boosts student’s confidence. Most students start at 5-7 words a minute and grow to 15-30 words a minute by the end of the year.
  5. QuickWrites provide a solution to that age-old whine, “I have nothing to write about!” – Most of the time students do not write everything they have to say in one-minute. Often they have to stop in the middle of a sentence, or even in the middle of a word! When a student is stuck for a writing idea, send them to their QuickWrites. I guarantee they will find an idea they want to finish.
  6. QuickWrites improve students’ willingness, and ability, to revise and edit. – Because the protocol builds in instant revision and editing, students will build that habit. Authors very seldom write a complete novel before going back to edit and revise. Instead, they add, change and delete as they go. QuickWrites strengthen that same muscle for our students.
  7. They solidify understanding about key concepts, ideas and vocabulary words. – QuickWrites are a great way for students to explore their understanding about a topic. They are not graded – no, not ever! So there is little risk to a student in expressing an idea. I do skim read the QuickWrites unless a student asks me not to, and that helps me know if a student’s idea is underdeveloped and needs more development.

These three QuickWrites are from the same student, early in the school year. The first topic was Harry Potter, the second was the vocabulary word “denominator” and the third was the topic “pets”. The horizontal line shows how far she wrote in one-minute (7 words, 11 words and 20 words). You can see that at some point in time later, she added to all three entries. The third QuickWrite about pets was the genesis for a narrative that she wrote and published later in the year.

Often, when I am teaching a specific skill, I ask the kids to return to a QuickWrite and do a quick revision to add in the new skill. For example, when we were learning about using transition phrases like “for instance” to strengthen informational text, this student returned to her entry about the denominator and added an example. QuickWrites are a valuable place to try out a new skill. Now that you have a picture of QuickWrites in the regular classroom, let’s explore ideas for using QuickWrites in the virtual classroom.

QuickWrites in the Virtual Classroom

This year I will be using digital writing notebooks for the first time. I still want all the benefits of QuickWrites, even though I won’t be starting the year face to face with students. Here’s what I’m going to try. (You can find my Digital Writing Notebooks on TPT, and free videos to implement them on my You Tube Channel.)

One of our first writing lessons will be setting up our digital notebooks. I have created a Google Slides document with the basic layout, including a Table of Contents. The students will have some creativity to decorate the “covers” and Table of Contents using clip art (I will share my collection with them using Wakelet). One of the things I love about going digital is that we will be able to add slides easily and keep everything organized. Usually the QuickWrites are scattered wherever in their journal. This year, we will put all of the QuickWrite slides at the beginning of the Slides document. Students will be able to add more slides as needed.

To begin with, we will use QuickWrites in Zoom Rooms (for the update on how this lesson actually went, click here!). I think it is worthwhile to spend some time teaching the kids about how to do this. After our initial Zoom Room to customize the Writing Journals, I will ask students to split their screen with their Writing Journal taking up a little more than half of the screen and the Zoom Room on the other portion. I will set a timer, give them a topic, and they will begin typing. After 1 minute they will stop and insert a horizontal line. They will count their words and insert a comment, and highlight any errors, then the process will begin again.

Once students have the process down, I will create a Menu with an embedded timer and 9 topics. Students will do 6 QuickWrite Activities individually each week. For accountability, we will start Zoom Rooms by having them share something from a Quick Write (in a Breakout Room) that they may want to add to during the lesson or that they enjoyed writing.

As with all things Distance Learning, this is going to be a big experiment. Will I get all of the benefits from regular QuickWrites if the students are doing them individually? I don’t know! I am expecting that their typing fluency will be different from their writing fluency, and I think that digital QuickWrites will have an additional benefit of improving typing skills. But, as always, if something isn’t working, I will tweak it until it does. Stay tuned for updates on how this all plays out. And if you give it a try, let me know!

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – Get ’em to love writing!

If you’ve been following this series, you know that we are exploring how to build a strong writing community whether you have face to face instruction time or virtual instruction or some blend of both. The first post in the series outlined four principles that I’m focusing on as I work to build a virtual community for my students this year:

  1. A strong writing community helps students love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

We started with building trust because, without that, we will never achieve a strong writing community. Today I’d like to focus on how to help students love writing. In my physical classroom, I have generally worked to achieve this by:

  1. Modeling enthusiasm for writing.
  2. Giving students choices within the writing workshop.
  3. Giving students plenty of time to write.

Let’s explore each of those ideas to see how to make it work in a physical classroom or a virtual one.

  1. Model enthusiasm for writing. – OK. I hear you. You don’t like to write. It’s painful, it’s arduous, it’s just no fun! Got it! It turns out, I do like to write. I have always liked to write. A blank page feels full of possibility to me, and I can’t wait to see what will emerge. I like the struggle to find the right word or turn of phrase….. You get the picture. But here’s the secret. Fake it until you make it! Here’s an example. I have never liked math. In fact, I have spent many hours openly loathing it. But I know I can’t show that to my students because they will borrow that hatred from me and make it their own. So, when I’m introducing a deep, thought-provoking rich task, I rub my hands together, smile with glee, and say, “Oh man. This is a great one! We are going to have so much fun with this!” Perhaps I overdo it a bit because in their end of the year reflections, most of my students told next year’s class that I love math as much as coffee (clearly, not true!) But, a strange thing happened as I pretended. I actually grew to like math. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite things to teach. All through pretending…..
  • In a physical classroom, this is easy to do. When we decorate our writing notebooks, I flip through and exclaim in excitement over the blank pages. And then I stop, dramatically, and say, “Wait, I’ve got an idea. I have to get it down right now. Can you guys go do some writing and give me some quiet time to get this figured out?” The kids always say yes, and then I start writing, apparently so involved in my writing that I don’t notice them sitting there on the rug, then slowly trickling back to their seats and getting to work. They think they are working quietly so I can write, which is hilarious! And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have an idea. I fake it!
  • In a virtual classroom, I think it will be more difficult, but still possible. Certainly I can model enthusiasm, but how to show them that excitement? Well, I actually think I could do the same thing with some modifications. This year my students will create a digital writer’s notebook (check out these posts on how we will do that using Google or PowerPoint). So, as we get that pulled together, I will stop, dramatically, and then say, “Wait, I totally have to write something down. Can you guys do some writing too? Don’t leave the Zoom Room. Let’s just write for a few minutes, and then we’ll finish this up. I just can’t let this idea get away!” The difference is, I will have to have an idea because my digital notebook will be right on the screen for them to see. I think I will keep it short – maybe 5 minutes – and I might play some music. And to hold them accountable, I will send them to a break out room after 5 minutes to share what they wrote. I don’t usually do that in a physical classroom because I can see whether they are writing or not and hold them accountable that way. But, I think this modification will do the same thing.

2. Give students choices. – This is key, and I don’t see many changes whether I have a physical classroom or a virtual one. Teachers always want to know how to accomplish this when you have standards and report cards and other requirements to meet. Very simply, I give kids choices on what they work on each day and on what they turn in for a final grade. For example, I usually begin the year teaching lessons on strong narrative writing. Over and over I remind the students that they must turn in at least one narrative piece for a grade this trimester, and I remind them that the lessons I’m teaching will help them make their narratives stronger. 95% of the class will choose to work on narrative writing while I’m teaching about it. In fact, as we workshop, most students will write a couple of narratives before settling on one to really refine. I set up periodic check points where they turn their work in for feedback, but not a grade and I also give them feedback during conferences. I actually think that will be easier with digital notebooks (although I won’t be doing one-on-one conferences with students virtually). No more hauling notebooks home every night to give feedback – all I need is my computer. Yeah! As I close the unit on narratives, we talk about presentation and publishing. Most students have a narrative that they feel is good enough to turn in and get graded, but it is their choice. If they feel like they wrote an amazing poem, they can turn that in for a grade, as long as they remember that they must turn in one narrative before the end of the trimester. Then I choose another mode and we move on. I also do on-demand “assessments” in the mode that I need for the report card, so I usually have plenty of grades by the time the trimester ends. I think all of this will be streamlined in a virtual classroom. Finally, something that is easier to do virtually!

3. Give students plenty of time to write. – This is usually no problem in a physical classroom. We have time carved into every day for writing. Usually my mini-lesson lasts 15 minutes, and students have 30 minutes to write. How to make that work virtually… Hm. This is my best thought, based on experimenting last spring during distance learning. Flipping the writing workshop. I use a lot of mentor texts in my mini lessons. I have started to video tape myself reading the mentor texts and scanned in the text so students can follow along. I’m making narrated slideshows for the kids to watch BEFORE our Zoom Room. Then, during the Zoom Room, we can talk briefly about the mentor text and I can stress the teaching point again. Then, I’m going to play some nice music and ask the kids to write during the Zoom Room, and I will write too. After 15 minutes of writing, I will send them to a breakout room where, as a group, they will complete a short Google doc reflection about how each student did with accomplishing the goal of the lesson. Again, we have to build in accountability for the work, and I’m hoping this strategy gets everyone started on the writing, and that many of them will continue writing after the Zoom Room. The goal should be 30 – 45 minutes of writing a day, and we will hopefully build up to that.

So, will all of this result in students loving to write? Well, I think so, but I don’t know so. I know that it has worked in a physical classroom. But starting with virtual is going to be a whole, grand experiment! As always, I will put these ideas into practice, and tweak them and throw out the things that don’t work and try new things until I get it right. That’s what we teachers do!

I hope that you will leave comments about things that you try so we can all learn from each other. Be sure to follow me to get the rest of the posts in this series, and I will also update this post as I refine and get better at this. Stay tuned!

For a related post, be sure to check out Launching the Digital Writing Journals! And if you like them, you can purchase the Digital Writing Journals on TPT (they come with free instructional videos for students which you can see on my You Tube Channel!)

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – 5 Strategies for Building Trust

Writing is a risky endeavor. Through writing we expose our deepest thoughts, feelings and experiences to the scrutiny of others. Along the way errors, omissions and mistakes are easy to make. Failure is almost inevitable. Ask any writer – it’s never as amazing on the page as it is in our mind.

So, many students have a deep seated fear and dislike of writing. Until you build a classroom community where the kids trust you AND the other students, you have no chance of addressing that problem.

Face to Face in a Physical Classroom

The best way to build a trusting classroom environment is to begin with yourself and trust your students. In a physical classroom, I usually demonstrate this on the first day with a crazy little dance. I make an absolute fool of myself, and in the process, I show that I trust my students. I trust that they will laugh WITH me and not AT me. I trust that they can manage a little craziness and get themselves back on track. I trust that they understand that I’m a human too. (You definitely want to read this blog post about it and see the pictures to really know what I mean!)

Students also need to trust each other. One way I build trust in a writing workshop is through Rainbow Revision. When students have a decent, working draft, I ask them to sit in a circle of 4-5 students. They pass their draft to the student sitting next to them. Each student has a different colored pencil. As they read, they underline up to 3 parts or passages that they like. Then they pass the paper to the next student. In the second round, some things are already underlined. The second student can choose to underline the same parts or different parts, but only 3 things. As the paper is passed from student to student, some things get underlined multiple times. When the writer receives their paper back, anything that is underlined multiple times is clearly working and doesn’t need revision. This builds their confidence that they have done something well, and also helps them trust the students who found such value in their paper. Writers now have something great to launch them into the next phase of their writing, and stronger connections in the community to help them do it!

In a Virtual Classroom

So, how can I accomplish this at a distance if the pandemic keeps us apart? Well, the principle still holds true. I need to build a trusting community so that we support each other as we grow as writers (and readers, and mathematicians, and historians, and scientists….)

So, I may not be able to do my crazy dance and then present students with a writing notebook. But I CAN take a risk and show that I trust them. And so can you. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Step out of your comfort zone. Sing. Dance. Lip Sync. And make a video to share with your students. For their first digital homework, I’m going to ask each student to upload a picture of their pet (or favorite stuffed animal) into a class Google doc. I will sing the song “Never Gonna Let You Down” by Colbie Callait which has a great inspirational message (and the video features rescue animals). I’ll use my audio track and their photos to make a slide show in We Video and post it in our Google Classroom at the end of the first week. This will be a risk for me (video editing! singing!) and also bring something they love into our Google Classroom. My goal is to model trust for my students and build connections as they ooh and aah over each other’s cute pets!
  2. Be Consistent – If you are consistent, students will know what to expect and that builds trust. If you are distance learning, that means setting a consistent schedule for Zoom or Google Meets, and then showing up a few minutes early so that the students can all have time to join the class. It means setting a consistent communication schedule for parents and students and being clear with directions and deadlines. And it means starting and ending virtual instruction sessions in a similar manner each time. I like to begin our Zoom Rooms by greeting each child by name, just as I do in the regular classroom. We spend a few minutes chatting while everyone joins. When I’m ready to begin instruction, I signal that by saying, “OK. Today we are going to be learning strategies that writers use to connect their ideas” (or whatever the target of the lesson is). And I wrap up each session by opening it up to questions, and then repeating key ideas and deadlines. It’s a predictable format and it helps students know what to expect – which is key for building trust.
  3. Share your Writing – This is essential, whether you are in a physical classroom or a virtual one. Students need to see that your writing is sometimes messy, sometimes really bad, and occasionally, pretty great! They need to know that it isn’t easy but that it’s worth working on. And your true writer’s notebook will help them see that. This year my students’ notebooks will be digital, so I’ve started building mine in Google docs. One of the really amazing things about this is the Version History. It will be really easy to show my students how many times I revise a piece by looking back at all of the versions.

Students also need to trust each other. This is going to be tricky if we are not together. Luckily, Rainbow Revision works digitally! Here’s how.

4. About two weeks into the school year I will ask each student to identify a piece of writing from their notebook (which will be digital this year!) and copy/paste it into a class Google doc. Before the activity, I will create a Google doc with a page for each student and a simple star graphic at the top of each page. The first student will read the text below theirs and underline 3 things that work for them. If another student wants to “like” the same passage, they will drag a star to that part of the text (or copy/paste it). Some passages may end up with only an underline, some passages may have several stars, and some passages may have nothing at all. In this way, writers will find out what is working for their reader and jump off to the next phase of writing with confidence and trust. Rainbow Revision revised!

5. One more idea for building trust between students is establishing a Virtual Compliment Jar. Create a simple Google Form asking for the student’s name, the name of the student they would like to compliment and the compliment. Every morning I post a virtual Morning Message in my Google Classroom and incorporate the compliment. It looks something like this:

Morning Message with an anonymous compliment for Brock

Although our classrooms may be dramatically different this year, I absolutely believe and know that we can build a strong community of writers. It starts with trust, and even if we are not together, I know we can create vibrant learning communities with our students.

This series will continue with Building a (Virtual) Writing Community – Get kids to love writing!

Be sure to check out the other posts of this series.

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom.

A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Launching the Digital Writing Notebooks

Get ’em to love Writing!

And follow me so you get the whole series over the next few weeks!

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom

Across the country we are all gearing up for what promises to be a crazy year. A continuing global pandemic, distance learning, face to face instruction, elections… It’s a lot. As I think and plan for the year to come, I am going back to bedrock. By planting my feet on a few simple, time tested principles, I think my students and I will make it through the storm swirling around us.

Why writing, you may ask? Why not focus on math or reading? Well, in the words of the National Writing Project, “writing is a gateway for success in academia, the new workplace, and the global economy, as well as for our collective success as a participatory democracy.” Phew! That’s a pretty high bar! Pretty much every teacher I know has complained about kids’ inability to communicate their thinking in writing. So clearly, it’s important for school and for life beyond school.

With the probability of distance learning looming, building a writing community seems more difficult than ever. Usually I have the luxury of seeing my students every day and of building the community face to face (for a two-part series on how I usually start the year, read Winning Week 1 – Day 1 and 2.) This year, I’m not planning on that. I think all, or part, of our classroom time will be spent digitally. So here are the principles that hold true whether we are together or not. In the rest of this series, I will unpack how I plan to put these into practice face to face OR digitally.

  1. A strong writing community helps kids learn to love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

Over the next three weeks, I will devote this blog to unpacking each of these ideas and giving you practical ways to implement them in your own classroom, whether you are face to face or distance learning. If you don’t already follow me, be sure to so you get each new update in your email!

Winning Week One – Day 2

This post focuses on how I begin the year in a physical classroom. Be sure to check out my series on starting the year with distance learning. New posts will be coming out every week about how I will do that this year!

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.

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 in person. Or, check out this blog post about how I did that during distance learning.

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! For step-by-step about how to do this in your own classroom, click here!

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 what they have written and find out who is good at lying (just kidding, we find out all kinds of cool stuff!). We usually do 4-5 per day, so it will take us that first week to read everyone’s.

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 205! (By the way, in their end-of-year reflections, this is always someone’s favorite day of fifth grade. The crazy teacher throwing tissue paper even beats out the field trips!)

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. For an update on how I’m doing this digitally, click here!

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 first watched a brief video from her website, You Cubed, about the importance of struggle in math. Then, I asked the students to look at images of squares grouped in different ways. This was our first Number Talk, and so I guided 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. This activity showed students that there is more than one way to solve a math problem, and the images lower the affective filter and make it approachable for all students. Not bad for day one!

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 which behavior focused mini-lessons I should teach, which rules we are likely to need and which 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

Encounter by Jane Yolen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book feels especially timely because Columbus has been folded into the ongoing conversations that we are having about race. The other day I overheard a fellow teacher explaining that she understood why we were pulling down the statues of Confederate soldiers, but why pull down statues of Columbus? If you (or your students, or your students’ parents) are wondering the same thing, this is the book for you.

The arrival of Columbus in the Americas led to the Columbian exchange, which caused the genocide of the indigenous people. I know that word genocide is harsh, but I looked it up in the dictionary. It is the correct word for “the deliberate killing of a group of people”. This book uses the scant facts we know about the Taino people (mostly from Columbus since the Taino people are extinct) and the author’s imagination to paint a picture of the beginning of that extinction.

I have loved this book since the first time I read it. Told from the point of view of a Taino boy, (the Taino were the indigenous people who first encountered Columbus), it is a new look at some old history. Definitely, put it on the top shelf! The words are lyrical and there is a rhythm, and a feeling of music, to many of them. David Shannon created absolutely marvelous illustrations that connect you to the long-gone Taino culture. Which brings us to our first teaching point.

  1. How illustrations enhance the mood or tone of a story – The final illustration is very powerful. It shows the narrator, now an old man. At first you notice his posture and the setting. As you look more closely, you notice that parts of the setting show through him, as if he is transparent, and his feet fade into nothingness. This is definitely a magic-paper worthy illustration! (What! You don’t know about magic paper? Read on!) Put the illustration under the doc camera and ask students to start with what they notice. No inferences yet, please. As they share the things they notice, hold a piece of white paper (cardstock if you have it) about a foot out from the projection and it will be magnified. Ta da! Magic paper! After students have noticed, I would ask them to turn and talk to share their wonders. Again, no inferences yet. Just questions. Finally, I would ask, “Why did the illustrator draw the final illustration this way? What is he trying to say?” Then, using their observations as evidence, and their questions to guide them, they will make some inferences about this. Along the way, you will probably have a very rich conversation about tone and mood!

2. Point of view/perspective – This is a great text to talk about different perspectives. I like to contrast the boy’s view of the explorers with Columbus’ own writings about the Taino people. His journals are readily available online, and at the bottom of this post I’ve put the excerpt that you can use. It is from his first meeting with the Taino, and there are clear comparisons between what he actually said and what the narrator of Encounter says. Some fascinating conversations can be had!

3. Symbolism – On the first page the narrator dreams of large winged white birds that descend upon the village. The illustration helps even the most concrete thinker understand that the ships are the birds. It is a great symbol to explore, and it carries the narrative.

This book is a really great addition if you are looking to bring new perspectives to your tired, old explorer unit. I recommend it for students in grades 3 – 6. Younger than that will miss some of the nuance, but it is a great book to bring that Age of Discovery unit alive.

Be sure to check out some of my other recent posts about great resources to use with kids to help them understand other perspectives.

Intersection Allies

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Intersection Allies

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had the wonderful good fortune to spend the first part of this week at a virtual conference called “Be About it: Unpacking White Privilege, Bias and Anti-Racist Instruction”. It was a powerful conference and I’m feeling even more inspired to be part of the solution. The concept of intersectionality came up frequently from many presenters. Which lead me to dig through the mountain of books I’ve purchased during the quarantine to find “Intersection Allies”. I purchased the book a few months ago, intending to use it with my fifth graders. Things (like distance learning) got in the way, but I’ve dusted it off, and I still think it is an absolutely marvelous book. I can’t wait to share it with my students!

The book is written in charming verse. Each page features a different child, each with a unique situation that might set them apart. One is in a wheelchair, another is a recent immigrant who must translate for her mother. One of the most moving illustrations shows a young girl participating in a Black Lives Matter protest. The rhymes help move the rhythm of the book along and help build a feeling in the reader that what unites us is more important than what divides us. The premise of intersectionality is expressed beautifully about half way through the book by these words.

Race, religion, citizenship, class, and ability:

Each of these intersects to form identity.

Age, gender, size, and skin color, too,

Can make living life different for a friend than for you.

Intersection Allies, by Johnson, Council, and Choi

I think this book has a powerful message that is expressed in simple terms. Little kids can understand big messages, so I think this would be a wonderful book for 2nd – 5th grade classrooms. Older students might think the illustrations are a bit young, and the book is probably too long for most 1st graders.

Here are some possible teaching points.

  1. Authors write to express an idea. This book is perfectly set up to help students discover the theme. In fact, it is expressed, twice, in large print. The final page of the book says, “Where there’s room for some, we make room for all. Friends can be allies no matter how small!” This book lays out plenty of evidence to support a central message or theme of inclusion.
  2. Understanding characters can help us understand ourselves. Each page features a different character. There is rich opportunity for analyzing characters and, in turn, shedding a light on ourselves. Invite students to connect with a character and to explore that connection. They will have to dive deeper than outward characteristics to do so, but that is exactly the point!
  3. Point of view – This is a really interesting part of the book. It is written in first person, but each page has a different narrator, and then there are pages, like the quote above, which address the reader in second person. Tracking the narrator is part of the complexity of the book for young readers, but the illustrations are super helpful with that. You could have a great discussion with kids about using the illustrations to help you comprehend this piece of the text.
  4. Authors use a predictable structure when they write. I would teach this structure as a compare/contrast structure. Several of the characters actively compare themselves with another character. For example, one character introduces herself this way. “My name is Adilah, and just like Kate, what I wear inspires endless debate.” Again, I think this ties in beautifully with the idea of using characters in books to better understand others, and ourselves.

This is absolutely a top shelf book for me. I think the language is beautiful and the ideas are inspiring. If we all spent a little more time “making room”, what a difference we would make! The simple message will inspire your students as well, and before you know it, we’ll have made the world a better place, together!

Here is a free character analysis to help you use Intersection Allies in the classroom.

Be sure to check out my other posts on great resources to use in creating a more just and equitable classroom.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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!

To my surprise, this was a top shelf book for me because I really fell in love with this character. Jackie is complex and relatable at the same time, and many intermediate readers move on from this book to devour other James Patterson books.

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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. This book doesn’t quite make the top shelf for me, but still, it’s a great read for many intermediate readers. I’d pair this book with a girl who struggles to read, but wants to keep up appearances. Raina Telgemeier has written several books, all of which will be quick reads, even for struggling readers, and build credibility with other readers.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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! This is a top shelf book for me. I’ve known so many reluctant readers, especially boys, who got hooked on this series and then went on to read other history books with greater understanding and enjoyment. Plus, “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood” was the first graphic novel I read that I actually enjoyed! Give it a try – you may find yourself enjoying it too!

Next Reads:

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Like most people, I have found these last few months to have their ups and downs. A world-wide pandemic, civil unrest, police brutality…. As teachers, even when we are reeling from difficulties in our world, we have an additional burden – helping our students make sense of the times in ways that don’t indoctrinate, but educate. I am going to spend some time in this blog highlighting some of the really great resources I’ve been finding to help you do that. If you didn’t catch it, check out my blog post from a few days ago about Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow ( a perfect book for intermediate classroom libraries!)

Everyone probably learned about Brown v. Board of Education in college. In case that’s many years ago for you (as it is for me!), Brown was the landmark Supreme Court case that reversed over 50 years of segregation in our schools. What you may not have learned was that a key turning point in the case was the data presented by two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They had spent years studying the effects of segregation using dolls to judge children’s perceptions.

In 2006, a seventeen-year-old named Kiri Davis decided to recreate their study to find out how children’s views have changed in the last 80 years. Just as the Clarks had done, Davis got two dolls, identical but for the color of their skin. Then she asked students which doll they would like to play with… which doll was the nice doll… which doll was the bad doll. The questions mirrored those asked in the 1940’s by the Clarks, and so did the results. 15 out of 21 children preferred the white doll and thought that the black doll was bad.

Davis then made a film, weaving her experiment into testimony by several lovely black girls. A Girl Like Me is a quiet reminder that nothing has really changed. These beautiful black girls calmly cut through the shouting and slogans you see on the news today, and tell about their experience.

I think the film, which is only 7 minutes long, is a great option to show in upper intermediate and middle school classrooms. It does not point fingers or lay blame, it merely presents facts, and would be a great conversation starter. Most importantly, it places discrimination and racial struggle squarely in the present, not in the comfortable past.

Here are some possible teaching points for using the film in class:

  1. Theme – the film lays out a clear and easy trail to follow, leading to the theme of identity. This is a key theme in lots of middle grade literature.
  2. Scientific Process – Because Kiri Davis recreates the study of the 1940’s, there are lessons about setting up valid studies, communicating your process clearly so that the study can be verified by others, controls and variables.
  3. And of course, there are so many ways to tie this into the ongoing struggle for civil rights that African Americans have been engaged in for over 400 years. For a free resource that gives an overview of the civil rights movement from 1619 to the 1960’s, check out these BOOM Cards on The Civil Rights Movement.
  4. Powerful language – There is one use of the n-word in the film. That moment will likely shock many viewers but is a great opportunity to discuss the power that words have and how we should choose our words carefully.

I highly encourage you to show this film, A Girl Like Me (not to be confused with the Lifetime movie of the same name!) to your students and pause for some meaningful conversation. It may take some courage. But it may be one of those moments that changes minds and hearts. And that is worth 7 minutes of your time.

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