Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Assessments for the Start of the Year

     Another school year has begun! At the start of the year I am always eager to find out as much about my new readers as I can. I know that I need to hit the ground running if I want to move my readers and help them grow. At the same time, I don't want to burden kids with too many assessments. My goal is to keep things light and fun.

The Read-Aloud Test
    This is as easy as it gets. Read aloud an an interesting text with very few pictures. Watch how kids react.
    It's that simple! Well--not really. The book selection is the key part. With one group of readers I'm reading aloud Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children. If you have never met the Tollins, this book is well worth it. It has a very dry, British feel to the humor and is wonderful for helping me gauge the reactions of my readers. Which kids are laughing? Which are staring at the wall? Which readers look shocked at the treatment of fairies?
    In my other class I am reading aloud Toys Go Out. I've written about this book before, and I still love starting with it. This book is excellent for helping students to understand how readers build mental models. (It's funny, too.)

"What was the last book that you read that you liked?"
    I ask this question as I am trying to match books to readers in the first few days of reading class. Sometimes kids speak confidently about books and series. Sometimes they will describe a book that will help me to choose the next book to give them. And sometimes they will look at the floor and mumble a bit. Each of these is an important thing for me to know about a reader! By watching how readers interact with books, I can get a good sense in the first few days of which readers will need more targeted help.

Visualizing Assessment
    Fourth graders are good at using picture clues. So good, in fact, that I really need to pull away picture clues early on to see what they can do with simple text. A visualizing assessment is a wonderful tool for this.
    I tell readers: "I really want to know what is going on in your head as you read. Because I can't see inside, I'd like to you to do your best to draw a picture of what you visualize as you read. It doesn't have to be perfect, and I'm not looking at your artwork, so feel free to add labels if you want to."

 Another visualizing assessment in my book The Forest and the Trees: Helping Readers Identify Details in Texts and Tests. I've found that it's helpful to have several different versions to use throughout the year.

QRI Word Reading
    I learn so much about readers when I administer the QRI (Qualitative Reading Inventory). In the first few frantic days of school, I don't really have time to sit down and give a QRI my full attention. But I can give the first part of the assessment--the word reading part! This gives me some very early information that I can use to help students with book selection, and helps me to pull the right selections to use with students.
    I never do the QRI with all students. However, it's very helpful for students who seem to be struggling or seem to reading well above grade level. I love to sit down and really listen to these students read.

These quick assessments help me to find out some basic information about the readers in my room, early in the school year. They help to get me through the first few weeks of slow going as we look at routines and procedures. These assessments are a nice balance to my other main job of the first few weeks--getting books to readers! What assessments do you like to use early in the school year?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Phenology of the Classroom

A vernal pool at Caledonia State Park, June and July
If you follow my Twitter feed, you'll probably notice lots of pictures of flowers, many with #phenology. I'm incredibly lucky to live in a place where two gorgeous state parks are within a 20-minute drive--and one of those state parks is on the way to a larger town where we do a lot of our shopping. So I get to walk a great deal on the same paths and see the same places day after day, week after week.

And yet they're not the same places. Even within one season a location can change a great deal. Year to year, I can see the same patterns unfold in different ways. This is the joy of phenology! Cardinal flowers that were in one location are a few feet away the next year. Mushrooms sprout after a wet August but remain hidden in a dry one. Garlic mustard invades a few more feet each year. A new stream erosion prevention barrier has been built--does it work? I could walk these paths a thousand times and still see new things.

When school begins, I take this same sense of phenology back to the classroom. Each week with a new class is like rediscovering an old trail in new seasons. Just as I know to look for blooming skunk cabbage as an early sign of spring, I also know to look for very early signs of class cohesiveness. In the first week someone will have an idea that goes beyond my imagination--an idea that takes the class in a new direction. This is as miraculous as that first spring flower.
A skunk cabbage flower wouldn't fit in August. Some routines that work
well in May just don't work at the beginning of the year.

In the later weeks, I see the same kinds of patterns unfold. Sharing becomes a treasured routine in the classroom, but each group of students shares in a different way. Each class has certain favorite classroom spots, favored clean-up songs, favored ways of tweaking our classroom routines. Seeing these patterns emerge is as delightful as watching spring come to a forest. Not quite as restful, though--because in the classroom I am always a participant, not an observer!

Walking the paths near my house helped me to see how the seasons naturally unfold. As you begin your school year, I invite you to try out the lens of phenology. How does your classroom ecosystem develop? What differences do you see as similar patterns build? If you see a negative event happen--the same kind of thing that happens every year--how can you intervene to change it?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Back to School Books

This year, I have resolved to step away from the fancy border. Instead of buying beautiful classroom supplies or trying to make everything match, I'm buying more books...

...and not just any books. I live in an area with few bookstores, so my book purchases tend to focus on the ones that kids can't pick up at a big box store. I'm also trying to enlarge my graphic novel collection. So here are the books that I've bought in the last two weeks, or am planning to buy!

Fairy Tale Comics

I read a local library copy of this last year, so I was thrilled to find a copy of it in a comics bookstore at the beach. I just love to buy books in the real world, and a comics bookstore that has a selection of children's graphic novels is about the best thing ever.

I think that this book will take the title of the First Read-Aloud of the Year. Projected on the whiteboard, it will be the perfect tool for showing students how to interact with a graphic novel. Plus the short story format will be perfect for short reading sessions throughout the day...I think I'll call on kids to choose which story to read next from the Table of Contents.

Ubiquitous and Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman

I discovered these at a local store called Ollie's. Of course after my husband and I went out to dinner for our anniversary I wanted to go and browse for books. Now Ollie's may not look like a place to discover books (it is a store of overstocks), but they have a surprisingly nice selection.

These books include beautiful poems alongside illustrations and informational text. They will be perfect additions to my poetry collections. I think that I'll make a poster of "Night-Spider's Advice" from Dark Emperor because the poem is such a neat example of how a reader can extract double meanings from a poem.  But I also plan to read the poems aloud in the first weeks of school...again, letting kids choose which poems to hear.

Amulet #6 by Kazu Kibuishi

Last year we bought the Amulet series for my youngest son for his birthday. As you may remember, he went through a period as an acquisitional reader, when he just wanted to collect books but didn't really read them. Well, luckily the Bad Kitty series changed that, and he started to take off as a reader. I found Amulet as a next step for him.

The Amulet books were too good to keep at home, and while the kids know that most of their books usually end up in a classroom, I just couldn't appropriate a birthday present! Deep in the bowels of the Scholastic book clubs I found the whole set for bonus points, and they were worth every single one. I don't think I've ever had a series of books that found such a diverse group of readers. In fact, one of the most constantly asked questions was, "Who has Amulet #___?" (Runners-up were "Where is the tape?" and "Has anyone seen my coffee?")

"I'll see you on August 26," one of the most devoted Amulet fans said last year. "We'll be in school then, right? I'll come to your classroom so I can borrow the new book."

Hmm, I think I'd better get two copies of this one.

Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Like Amulet, Zita the Spacegirl has found a wide audience. I had it all year round and it was in pretty much constant demand. It has appeal for both girls and boys, which I really like. For some reason I didn't order the second and third in the series last year.

Over the summer I ordered the third (by mistake, instead of the second!) and took it on vacation. I thought that my youngest son had already read the first--but he hadn't! He went on and read the third, but hasn't really forgiven me for the mistake. Oh well.

I'm hoping to redeem myself by buying the second in the Zita series as well as Ben Hatke's new book, Julia's House for Lost Creatures. (You can see some gorgeous artwork from the book in this post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.)

In the long run, these books will be much better purchases than any kind of fancy border or cool organizational tool. What books are on your list for the start of the year?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Considering Reading Homework

I've always had mixed feelings about homework, but over the last few years I've gotten into a workable groove. In fact, reading homework has solved some thorny problems in my classroom.

For several years, I didn't give any reading homework at all. But parents actually asked me for something more. "I can say to go and read as much as I like, but when you give homework, he takes it seriously," a parent told me. I heard the same kinds of comments over the next few years--that many students liked a homework routine, and enjoyed doing something that connected home and school. As my own children started school, I started to see value in a meaningful, well-planned homework routine.

So I created a weekly homework assignment for students. I thought, "What do I want this to be?" and made a set of materials that combine fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary with engaging reading selections. At first I scrounged in best reading-teacher fashion to find texts from a variety of sources. This works in the short-term, but it was hard to find enough texts to be a long-term solution. So I commissioned myself to write my own. (The author side of me: "What? Four texts per month for nine months? That is 36 texts!" The teacher side of me: "Yup. Get writing.")

As I created the homework assignments, these were my guiding questions.

Does the homework provide some element of choice?
I love having choices! On my homework assignment, I make a table of nine options for independent reading each week. Kids could just read in their independent reading book each night, but there are also possibilities for writing, reading picture books aloud, or researching topics. (Kids especially love the "Follow directions to make something" option--some hit the recipe books and spend time cooking in the kitchen!)

Is there flexibility for varied schedules?
I strongly believe that fourth graders shouldn't have more than 1 hour of homework per night (if that). I structure the reading assignment so that kids can do it over several nights. I find a Monday-Monday routine to be very family-friendly.

Can students do the assignment with a minimum of support?
Several years ago I received an email from a parent of a student several states away. This child had homework that was so taxing that the parent was emailing an unknown teacher (me) for help! I certainly don't want to put anyone in this situation, so I try to make the assignments straightforward. While individual questions may be difficult for students, I make it clear that it's no big deal--just do your best! Of course I never grade homework. 

Can I provide effective support for students in the classroom?
While many of the parents of students are wonderfully supportive, there are some students who get little home support. If this homework is worth doing, then I need to make sure that everyone does it--even those students who don't get homework done at home. I use arrival time, dismissal time, and other odd moments in the day to help students who have trouble completing assignments. Sometimes it's as simple as asking a sixth grade tutor to come and help a student each afternoon. For other students, I make sure that I listen in and offer support.

When an extra adult has time to volunteer in the classroom, helping students with the weekly packet is a perfect activity. It requires very little explanation from me and the kids are thrilled to get some more individual attention.

Often, working on reading homework is offered as a choice during quiet moments or when other activities are finished. Some students take advantage of this and choose to work on the homework with other students in the room, turning it into a social reading activity--which is great! I do have some students who like to do the work at home--"My mom does it with at night" or "I think my dad will like this text, so I'm going to read it to him."

Is this homework part of classroom instruction?
I think every teacher has assigned homework that then gets put aside, never to see the light of day. But this should be a rare occurrence! I've decided to dedicate Mondays to working with the homework texts, both in discussing last week's work and introducing a new passage.

This is a big time commitment, but I feel that it is worthwhile. Remember how I said that the homework solves a problem? In my case, the problem is the expository/narrative/drama/poetry problem. We might be studying narratives for two months, but I still want students to be exposed to other kinds of text. With the weekly passages, we can take little side trips to other kinds of text even while in the middle of a bigger unit. Kids especially enjoy the procedural passages...the "Fairy Bread" passage was listed as one of the highlights that students remembered at the end of the year.

I'm amazed at how often connections come up between homework passages and what we happen to be studying in class each week. At first I thought, "Oh! Lucky coincidence!", but now I know that there are connections everywhere. My weekly packets include five vocabulary words, many from my master word list. These words really pop up all around us!

A thoughtful plan
Whatever you decide to do with homework, it's important to consider your school and your community. What can you handle? What can your students handle? By thinking about these questions, and the questions above, you can create a homework routine that works well for everyone.

The packets
Several users are saying that they use them for small group instruction instead of homework--a great idea! Writing 36 unique texts that didn't all sound the same was quite a challenge, but was very rewarding throughout the year.

September Reading Homework
My favorite part of this packet is the procedural text--caramel apple floats are totally delicious! Also included is a folktale, an informational text, and a persuasive text. These are so helpful for introducing different kinds of text early in the year.

October Reading Homework
In October, I added the weekly open-ended responses to our routine. This was so important! This month's texts include an informational text about pumpkins, a narrative, an interview with a woolly bear caterpillar, and a text explaining idioms, adages, and puns. Can you guess which one the students liked best?

November Reading Homework
November includes an informational text about Veterans Day, two fables, and a text about Pilgrims. The fables were fun to read and discuss with students.

December Reading Homework
In December, I added "Focus on Complex Text"--an additional lesson to go along with each passage. Students were fascinated by the text about Pearl Harbor, and also liked the script.

January Reading Homework
This packet includes a poem, a procedural text about fairy bread, and two informational passages. Of course the fairy bread was the biggest hit from this month!

February Reading Homework
"Can we learn more about Greek myths?" was the question in my classroom, so I wrote "Theseus and the Minotaur" for them. (Wow, that is a tough myth to tell in one page and keep appropriate for elementary students!)

March Reading Homework
By March I had spring on the mind! The two frog poems in this packet were perfect to introduce our spring peeper investigation. Students also enjoyed debating the merits of Daylight Savings Time and learning about the vernal equinox.

April Reading Homework
At some point I learned that many of my students were not familiar with great blue herons, which are common in our area. I used the interview format to write about great blue herons for this month's texts. Also included is an informational text, a poem, and an introduction to persuasive text.

May Reading Homework
"We want more food texts!" the students said, so I wrote "Some More S'mores, Please!" and then we made the indoor s'mores in the classroom. How awesome! Later, while we read "Androcles and the Lion", we acted it out in class. Again, and again, and again, with different students taking different roles.

Paperless homework?
Several of these assignments are available on Frolyc as well! Keep checking as I'll be adding more over the next few weeks. If students have iPads at home, they can read the texts and do some of the activities on the iPad. Of course, these texts would also work for in-class instruction with school iPads.

-Adages, Idioms, and Puns (November)
-Daylight Savings Time (March)
-Happy Australia Day! (January)
-Remember Pearl Harbor (December) Note: This includes some more challenging questions than the paper homework activity, so it is listed as a grade 6. I have so much trouble pinning things down to a grade level because it really depends on the level of support that readers will get and the background knowledge they have!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Story Elements: Looking at Characters

This summer, as I've listened to the last of the Harry Potter series and started The Lost Hero with my family, I've enjoyed our conversations about the characters, the conflicts, and the setting. Each year, I try to replicate these kinds of conversations in my classroom.

Teaching story elements is a great way to begin. When kids can identify story elements, they can pick out the parts of the story that fit together and start to talk about them coherently. Who are the characters? What is the setting? What is the main problem in the story?

Of course, teaching story elements needs to go much deeper than simple identification. Filling out a story map quickly becomes a dull classroom routine without an inspiring conversation to go along with it. In fourth grade, I like to ask students provoking questions about characters. These questions stimulate our discussion and help students to see story elements as being more than just disassembling a story.

When we have these conversations, I can judge from student responses where to go next. Sometimes I do hear the sound of crickets. This tells me that I've tried to move too far too fast, and that kids need some time before we can have this particular conversation. Sometimes their responses remind me of a fabulous book that I just have to share--a character who is similar to one of their favorites, or a character who acts the opposite of what is expected.

Most importantly, these kinds of questions bring a spark of "what if?" to our classroom...a spark that lights up the room with the love of reading.

-My Story Elements PowerPoint is a classic that I do come back to, year after year.
-I wrote some fun Story Elements Readers Theatre scripts for my students to share. 
-You can try out the activity Camping Together for free over on Frolyc. Try it out if you have student iPads! (The story is also available in my Visualizing packet.)
-Analyzing Story Elements is finally ready. Four new stories with before reading pages, questions, and activities to help students understand and analyze story elements.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer Sale...

I've reached 1,500 followers over on TeachersPayTeachers! This is a big milestone for me and really means a lot. I have always felt a little hesitant to write and share my writing with the larger world. The writer-me wants to go into a dark corner and hide; the teacher-me says, "I need an article to teach this topic!" and I don't have a choice except to go and write.

To celebrate, I have 15 items on sale for 15% off. The sale lasts until Saturday. Here are some glimpses into the process and my favorite items.

Cause and Effect Activity and Texts: This is still one of my favorite units. When I had trouble finding suitable cause and effect texts for my students, I started writing my own. Over the years I have added multiple articles so that there are 9 altogether. My favorite is "Forgotten Fruits"--last summer I was able to track down and try a pawpaw for the first time!

These articles have been so much fun to write. Everywhere we go I look for more inspiration for interesting details that can become the basis of a cause and effect text.

Chronological Order Texts: When I wrote this, I wanted to have a collection of articles that reflect the varying nature of chronological order text. Sometimes chronological order is about an animal's life cycle, sometimes it is about a person's life, and sometimes it is about a historical event. Even procedural text is written in chronological order.

By far my favorite text to write in this packet was "Whoopie Wars". After all, I had to make whoopie pies to really understand the topic, right? But my research into the life of Dolley Madison was just as interesting, and making the fabric scrap Easter eggs for the procedural text was a favorite activity for my children.

Main Ideas and Details in Nonfiction Text: This unit has been revised and added to many times, probably because I learn new things every time I teach nonfiction. This year's addition: two new texts, one with the topic of skinks (item 24).  My students were fascinated by these common lizards.

The cover picture is from a hawk-watching spot north of me--isn't it gorgeous? I went hoping to catch some photos of hawks, not realizing how underpowered my poor little camera is for such a task. Still, it was a fun hike and my children enjoyed it.

Paraphrasing and Summarizing Lessons: The next time you read a professional book, take a moment to think about all of the things that the author had to leave out for space reasons! I had many items that didn't make it into my summarizing book, and those items formed the basis of this unit. I expanded the unit with more articles, including "Mysterious Mushrooms" and "SR-71". My husband, who teaches third grade, requested another airplane article, so I added "The A-10 Thunderbolt". He says the kids love it.

Airplane texts are really hard for me to write as I don't have as much background knowledge about airplanes. Luckily, my older son is happy to show me around the Smithsonian Air and Space and the Udvar-Hazy Center and share his wisdom. Sometime soon I have to write about swept-wing aircraft--I never realized what an innovation they were until he told me about them.

Character Traits and Emotions: This unit includes resources that I started creating when I was working on The Forest and the Trees. My students loved writing dialogue to show different character traits! Over the years I've added more activities, stories, and a PowerPoint. I especially like teaching with "Thomas and the Teapot"--it was one of those stories that just writes itself. Even early in the school year this story can get kids talking and sharing their viewpoints.

Persuasive Writing Unit: This file was originally just a fact and opinion PowerPoint. Oh, how times have changed! I always seem to come to this in the spring when things are incredibly hectic, and I like having the lesson plans to look back to.

I wrote the text "Don't Release Your Pets!" after a real life incident at a creek. We were cleaning up from kayaking when a woman came by with two large fish that she was releasing into the creek. "We just don't want to have them anymore," she said cheerfully. I was kind of shocked and I realized that not everyone knows that releasing your pets into the ecosystem is a bad idea. (I ended up taking the fish home...) The topic turned out to be a good one for a persuasive text, and every year kids are intrigued by the anecdotes in the essay.

Visualizing: What a fun unit to teach! This was one of my first bundles, and I recently updated the formatting of the stories. The story "Boring, Boring, Boring" was written to show how different characters can have very different feelings about the same events. Every year I'm asked for a sequel...hmm...

Here are some of the other items on sale:

Reading Intervention

Ecosystems Informational Text Set

Under the Sea Nonfiction Text Set

Daily Sentence Writing, Part 1

Daily Sentence Writing, Part 2

Roman Readers Theatre


It is a pleasure to dream up new texts, format them, and share them for other teachers to use in their classrooms. Thank you so much for everything!

What's next? I'm working on some new stories and activities. I'd also like to put together a set of third grade homework materials. But most importantly, I'm going to try to keep from hiding in the corner. :)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Start the School Year with a Focus on Dialogue

In our curriculum, we start the school year with stories and story elements. I love this beginning as it helps us to talk about big ideas like theme and summarizing. But I also realize that, to help students figure out these big ideas, sometimes we need to focus on smaller details.

One of these small details is dialogue. In a story, dialogue can serve many purposes. Sometimes dialogue shows us insight into a character's personality or motives. Dialogue can also move the story forward and reveal information. Skipping over dialogue would lead to a fractured reading experience.

And yet...many young readers have great trouble in figuring out who is speaking in dialogue! The tiny clues to skilled readers use to match speaker to speech are invisible to many young readers. They don't notice the paragraph breaks or the empty white space at the end of lines. They can't track split dialogue. When speaker tags are not included, they have trouble following the back-and-forth of a typical conversation.

Figuring out who is speaking is a kind of text-based inference. Readers need to combine the clues in the text with their background knowledge of how text works. And this is hard! Even readers who are on and above grade-level can struggle with dialogue. 

1. Find out what kids can do with reading dialogue
I like to sit with kids as they are reading. Sometimes I listen to students read, and sometimes we read aloud together. During these conversations, I ask, "Who is speaking?" or "How do you know who is talking at this point?" These conversations help me to figure out the sub-conscious rules that students are or are not using to figure out who is speaking.

2. Model understanding who is speaking by displaying read-aloud text
With a document projector or overhead projector, show students the text that you are reading aloud. I like to make little sticky note tags or even little sketches of the characters to display at the same time. Then, I go back and forth to show who is speaking at each point. It's fun to engage students in this as well.

3. Label dialogue in text
This requires some colored pencils. Give students a copy of a short piece of text, and talk explicitly about the rules of dialogue. What does it mean when a new paragraph begins? How can we tell that a person is still speaking? Underline dialogue by different characters in different colors. 

You can extend the conversation by talking about what the dialogue reveals. Does it show us what characters are like? Reveal details of the plot? An example of this activity is included in the Literature Circle Materials below.

In the past I saved some of these lessons for later in the year. This year, though, I think that I will face them early on. Understanding the little rules of print and the conventions that authors follow will only help us as we begin our exploration of stories and narratives.

Some other lessons for teaching about text-based inferences and understanding dialogue can be found in my book The Forest and The Trees.

Character Traits and Emotions: Making Inferences: This unit includes an activity in which students write dialogue to show character traits.

Text-Based Inferences and More: This pack includes more resources for teaching text-based inferences.