Sunday, August 19, 2018

First Day of School Activities: From Low Risk to High Risk

    Many years ago I went to an in-service presentation about Lions Quest, the character education program funded by the Lions Clubs. Although many parts of the presentation have faded from my memory with time, the presenter had a piece of advice that I still consider every August:

"When planning group-building activities, always remember to start with low risk activities. Don't ask participants to share too much at once."

   The idea is simple, but deeply meaningful. We must be careful to structure our group building so that students aren't asked to share too much before they are comfortable doing so. 
     Over the course of our two-day session, the presenter practiced what she preached. The very first grouping activity was based on something that we had for breakfast that morning, with prescribed choices offered. Pretty low risk, right? Revealing that I had eaten cereal for breakfast did not give away too much of myself in an awkward new group. It wasn't until the very last activity of the last day that we did an activity called "Rare Birds", in which we shared something about ourselves that made us stand out from the crowd.

First day = low risk activities

    Keeping this principle in mind, I make sure that my first day activities are low risk. This is not the time for sharing important truths or deep ideas. While we are coming together as a class, I make sure that our first activities do not put students on the spot.

    I am a pretty reserved and quiet person myself. In new groups, I much prefer to sit back and watch what's going on before I contribute. Many students feel the same way....and my first day activities need to reflect this.

     There will be plenty of opportunities for students to get to know each other on a deeper level. Right now, I want to help everyone to feel comfortable. And this means not asking questions that will make students feel distressed. We keep our conversations rather light and superficial on the first morning of the first day. 

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What books in the classroom look interesting to you?
  • Which classroom plant is your favorite?
  • What part of the classroom do you like to sit in?

    I also like quick and easy games, such as:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Start the Reading Year: Lesson Plans for those First Days of School

There are very few times when I will reuse lesson plans. In fact, sometimes I write plans that I don't even use an hour later! I'm always working on building new things and trying out new ways to teach.

However, there are times when a trusty set of plans is helpful. For me, the beginning of the school year is one of those times. I need the comfort of what's tried and true!

As I was looking through my files to clean up some items and improve them, I came across these lesson plans. I first wrote them in 2011 and have slowly added to them over the years, but hadn't used them since my move to sixth grade.

When I read them I felt my anxiety about the first few days of school just decrease. I can do this! (I've done it before!) I added some new features, like the Reading Interview and the Double Entry Journal, and now all I have to do is make some photocopies and my first few days of reading class are planned.

Here is a sample snippet of the first lesson and activity. What lesson plans do you use over and over again?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Setting up a classroom for collaboration

    It's that time of year again...when pictures of perfect classrooms start to show up on Pinterest and Instagram! It's also the time when anxious and perfectionist teachers start to feel very, very badly about themselves.

    But setting up collaborative classroom actually means learning to let go. It means that as teachers, we can let go of key routines and processes that should be in the hands of students. It means that we can let go of perfectly pretty bulletin boards and having every square inch of the room filled with themed posters. It's actually quite freeing!

Materials stored and labeled for student use

    I am so lucky to have a classroom with lots of drawer space. I make this usable for students by labeling the drawers and providing students with free access to them. It always takes some time in the first weeks of school for students to become used to this!
    Of course there are some materials that I don't like to leave out, tragedy of the commons and all, and these I simply store in a higher cupboard.
    Do the drawers ever get cluttered and messy? Of course! Around December, a few enterprising students always undertake the task of organizing the marker drawer or fixing up the colored pencil drawer. It's just one more way to put tasks in the hands of students.

Browsable book bins

    These are so helpful for students to be able to find and return books on their own. In the first days of school, I put the bins around the room to facilitate browsing. I love how flexible this system can be!

Student-led routines

    Instead of a moon phase bulletin board, I have a place on my board for "Today's Phase" and "Next Phase". The student astronomer will be in charge of checking out the phases and placing the posters accordingly.
   In addition to the moon phases, I also have a dry-erase board set up for the meteorologist to fill in each day. Planning for these routines before the start of school helps them to have a place in the physical arrangement of the classroom.

Leave some things un-done

    My recess games cabinet is a bit messy right now, but that's okay with me! On one of the first three days of school I like to spend an hour getting everything out so that kids can see what the options are. Then, students decide how to organize the cabinet so that the games and materials they like the best are the most accessible. Students are much more likely to keep up with an organizational scheme that they have created.




Monday, July 30, 2018

Choosing books for a classroom library

Building a classroom library has been the task of my career. From a number of sources--school hand-me-downs, used book sales, online purchases, book clubs, and favorite bookstores on vacations, I've put together a library that I hope is inviting and interesting.

What do I buy when I'm confronted by shelves and shelves of books? Here are my guiding principles:

Poetry collections

These show up all the time at quality used book sales and discount booksellers. I've purchased enough so that I can put a poetry book in every student's hand when I teach poetry. This is so helpful! We can talk about characteristics of poems--"Some have short lines, and some have long lines" or "Some poems have formal rhyme schemes, while others do not"--and kids can page through their books and find examples right there! Then they trade books around and look for more.

I keep my poetry books in a separate tub and only have them circulate occasionally, with a few book displays during the year. This prolongs their lives and keeps them in high demand!

Favorite authors and series

Over the years I've created book bins for a number of different authors and series, mostly for books that my students have requested or that my own children have read. I do prioritize filling in these series over starting new ones. And many of them are remarkably popular!

Books that go along with our reading series

Our series has some excellent story excerpts, so I'm working on purchasing the entire works as well as other books by the authors featured in the series. Larger used bookstores like 2nd and Charles are great sources for this.

My own kids' picks

I justify my spending on it as "Well, this is my hobby!" To be honest, many books started out as purchases for my two sons, now 19 and 13, and then made their way into my classroom. So when my youngest wants to buy Endling or Miles Morales at the independent bookstore at the beach, I'm inclined to say yes!

Nonfiction picture books

I really enjoy having nonfiction picture books to set out as book displays for each unit. As with the poetry books, I usually keep these in their own stackable tubs and put them out of general circulation.

Valuing diversity

I want my classroom library to be as rich and varied as the world itself! The books that I seek out and purchase new are often books that are selected to add a diversity of experiences and cultures to my classroom library. From Aru Shah and the End of Time to Pashmina to Witch Boy, these books often become the most requested.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Enhancing Grammar by Imitating Sentences

In 20 years of teaching, I've learned a thing or two about teaching grammar. Specifically, I've noticed:

  • Worksheets don't work!
  • Learners have trouble attaching meaning to grammar terms
  • What's taught in grammar class doesn't always show up in student writing

It's not all bad news, though. In fact, I've learned a fantastic technique for helping students to become better writers AND learn grammar at the same time. This technique is simple, easy to use, and easy to differentiate. What is it?

Imitating sentences

That's it. And this year, I really want to go back to this technique (I've been rather pressured to do the worksheet method over the last two years) to start the year.

Benefits of imitating sentences

  • Students learn how to identify the chunks of sentences: Sentence parts like subject, verb, and prepositional phrase become more concrete when students break sentences into meaningful chunks.
  • Students gain control over their writing: When imitating sentences, students learn how to merge content with form. They don't use a particular verb form because it's the first one they think of, but because it's the verb form that is used in that sentence.
  • Students try new forms: Sentence imitating is a great way to get kids noticing and using more sophisticated sentence forms. It's a powerful way to help students notice the beautiful portability of adverbs and adverbial phrases, the use of punctuation in a sentence, and the way that authors can use repetition for style and effect.

Getting started with imitating sentences

To read more about sentence imitating and sentence composing, visit this website by Don and Jenny Killgallon.

Here is an introductory PowerPoint that I made to share with my students. (The formatting problems resolve if you download...sorry! Slideshare doesn't like text boxes very much.)

You don't have to have fancy materials...all you need are some great sentences and a sense of adventure! Take sentences from your literature series, from a book that you are sharing, from the day's read aloud.

When I taught fourth grade, I put together a targeted sentence writing curriculum that went week by week through the Common Core grammar standards. It worked so well! Now I'm thinking that I'll have to come up with something similar for sixth grade...sigh...

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Adventures

I've had so much fun taking photos this summer! My students know that I take my camera everywhere, and often I'll start a Monday morning showing the pictures that I took over the weekend.

"You go on so many adventures," a student told me wistfully. At first I was surprised by this, because I didn't consider my trips to the local state parks adventures. I consider myself a pretty boring person, actually; adventure has never come knocking on my door. 

But then I thought about my pictures of frogs and snakes and snakes eating frogs and realized that maybe I'd been having adventures all along.

Some pictures from this summer's adventures:

A black and white warbler fledgling looks for bugs in an eastern hemlock tree. I was at the campground in Caledonia State Park when I took this, waiting for family to arrive. I heard what I first thought was a cardinal. Surprise! It was this little guy and its parent, softly keeping contact as they foraged for bugs.

"Love in a mist" is the name of this plant, and the seed pods are just so interesting. This picture was taken in the very un-adventurous trial garden at the local Ag Center, right across the street from a grocery store and community college. But we were wandering the garden on a rainy day, which always makes things seem a little more exciting.


 I think this bee is one of the cutest I've ever seen. It's on swamp milkweed, which smells amazing! I used to be afraid to get too close to bumblebees, but now I know they are so gentle I have nothing to fear. In fact, my two teens "boop" them on their noses. (I don't think the bees like this very much, though)

The last picture is of the view from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, one of my favorite spots. Last week we went on a tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. I've always loved visiting Harpers Ferry and always wanted to try a tubing trip. It was mellow and fun and the scent of sycamores was intoxicating.

What adventures have you been enjoying?