Sunday, August 21, 2016

First Day of School Schedule: Sixth Grade

    This is the week in which I have to take a sketchbook filled with notes, ideas, and sketches and turn it into a cohesive plan--yikes!
    One of my most important tasks for the Sunday before school starts is to get a good schedule for the first day. I teach sixth grade in an elementary school, and I will have a mostly self-contained class this year. For the first day, I keep the first two stages of group dynamics firmly in mind:

My main goal for the first day is to form a friendly, productive group. There will also be some norming involved as kids test our group.  I want to keep a fast pace with lots of different kinds of activities throughout the day. Over the course of these activities discussions of rules and expectations will naturally arise. Students won't have to sit down and listen to a long lecture on rules--instead, they'll be actively involved in creating our group expectations for the entire day.

Here is my tentative schedule for the first day. What do you think?

First day of school for sixth grade from Emily Kissner

    You'll notice that the day is chunked into blocks. This is because there are always unexpected things that happen on the first day, and thinking in terms of shorter time blocks makes it easier to be flexible. Also, if an activity flops (and they sometimes do!) I can move on and tweak my other times from there.

    What does your first day schedule look like?

    If you want to purchase UV beads for your students, check out this link to Educational Innovations. They also have a blog post describing how the beads work. One bag of 250 beads is plenty to provide beads for a class.
    TpT Sale: I was on vacation for the first one, but I have a sale set up for the bonus sale on August 22! You can check out my store here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Classroom Library Tip: Decentralize!

Right now Pinterest is filled with pictures of gorgeous classroom libraries and book spaces. As I was sitting up my classroom this year, I corrected a small mistake that I made last year. Instead of keeping all my books together, I split up my library!

Why a decentralized library? It's easy--more kids can browse at once. My fiction books are displayed at the front of the room, using the book baskets that I made last year. But I moved the nonfiction books and my graphic novel collection to the back, closer to my science and math areas.

I decided to make this change in response to my reluctant readers from last year. Many of them would not bring books to class each day, and as a result I would have 6-8 kids browsing for books at the same time. In close quarters, this led to lots of non-book related chatting!

I've had decentralized libraries before, and I've always liked how these lead to smaller groups for browsing, better book talk, and a smoother classroom experience. If your classroom lends itself to this arrangement, give it a try!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summary and Analysis Freebie

I have 3,000 followers over on TeachersPayTeachers! To celebrate, I've posted a brand new freebie for the start of the school year.

This resource is created as a start of year summarizing and analysis activity. First, students complete repeated readings of an original text; then, they work through a scaffolded summary and a textual analysis.

To create this activity, I started with the question, "What would I like to have to teach?" Then I created it! I'm especially pleased with the scaffolded summary--I think this will really help start of year learners to understand how to summarize complex text.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sea Turtle Release

    I love teaching because I love learning, and getting out to experience new things is a thrill for me. So when I read that the National Aquarium would be releasing sea turtles at Assateague, I knew that we had to arrange our week to attend!
My kids check out the sea turtle models before the release.
    I never learned about sea turtles as a student. In fact, I don't remember learning much about animals at all--unless you count the sixth grade teacher who made us write notecards about all of the animal groups, working up from sponges. (We never made it past cephalopods.)
    Today's students need to learn about sea turtles. Not only are they important in their own right, but sea turtles are so interesting and engaging that they get student attention for larger conversations about ecology, our oceans, and pollution.

Seeing the Release

    Staff from the National Aquarium set up the area for the sea turtle release at one of my favorite places, Assateague National Seashore. (You can find text structure materials that I wrote about Assateague here.) My youngest was so excited to attend--in his words, "I've never seen a wild sea turtle!"
    The day was cloudy and threatened rain, but that didn't stop a crowd from gathering. Two green sea turtles that had been rehabilitated by the National Aquarium and ten Kemps ridley turtles from the New England Aquarium were set to be released.
    Staff members brought around the turtles for onlookers to see. Everyone got great views! My son was amazed by his chance to see the sea turtles up close.
    The turtles were placed down by the surf. Most ambled right in, while a few seemed hesitant. (That water was cold--I'd hesitate too!)      For the rest of the day I thought about the sea turtles, out in the vast ocean, and wondered what they were doing. I wonder what they're doing now.
    Even though the weather was cold and rain fell as we were leaving the beach, it was a perfect beach day.
     See for yourself how students can become engaged in learning about text structure and sea turtles with this Sea Turtles Expository Text Mini-Unit.
    Student-friendly videos about sea turtles can be found on this YouTube playlist.
    What are you doing to explore and learn this summer?


After the release we went birding along the Life of the Marsh Trail

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Worthwhile Worksheets

     On Twitter, it's very popular for consultants to exhort people to get rid of worksheets. "Kids don't learn anything from a worksheet!" is a popular saying, and it gets retweeted. Again and again.

    But is it accurate? After all, what is a worksheet? Consultants don't generally define the term. However, they seem to indicate that that is printed and copied for students with parts to fill in is a worksheet.

    And is a worksheet always bad?

    Condemning all worksheets for the classroom practices of a very few does not lead to productive classroom conversations. Instead, teachers should consider WHY a worksheet is being used and WHAT makes a worksheet worthwhile.

Worksheets for examples

    As a writing teacher, I like to show kids written examples of what we're learning about. These written examples are especially helpful when kids are absent or when a co-teacher stops by. If I am writing down my examples for planning anyway, it just makes more sense to print them on a page. That way, all students have equal access.
    Consider the "Creating a Main Idea" worksheet to the right. This page helps students to see how to weave a topic and details together into a main idea. Could I do a lesson like this without a worksheet? Sure, but then kids would be stuck with copying from the board. How would that be an improvement?

Worksheets for scaffolding

    Worksheets also can be helpful for scaffolding. In intermediate grades, I like to use worksheets with writing frames to help students learn the patterns of academic writing. For kids who struggle with transcription and composition, a writing frame is a lifesaver.

Worksheets for deeper thinking

    Worksheets do not preclude higher level thinking. In fact, a worksheet can lead to some great discussions! I
made this page for students to work on after reading a text about diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular animals. The students have to use clues about different animals, combine the clues with what they have learned in the text, and draw a conclusion about whether the animals are diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular. It leads to fantastic conversations and students flipping back to the text to justify their conclusions.

Why not to use a worksheet
    To be fair, most people railing against worksheets are probably discussing worksheets that pose decontextualized problems with no relation to classroom instruction. But by saying that ALL worksheets are bad, these writers are casually dismissing a wide range of worthwhile instructional activities.
    The question should not be, "Should I use a worksheet?"
    Instead, the question for worksheets--and any resource--should be, "Does this resource support the goals of my instruction?"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Getting Started with Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Three years ago I had only the most rudimentary of graphic novel collections in my classroom. Now, I have enough so that 50% of my class is reading graphic novels at any one time.

Building this collection has been fun, especially because my own kids love graphic novels. Our weekend routines now include visiting new comic book stores, where my husband and youngest son look for the comics they follow, my older son browses the tabletop games, and I scan the graphic novels.

I spend a lot of my own money. Thanks for your TeachersPayTeachers purchases, everyone--they help to support my classroom graphic novel collection! But I wouldn't buy the books if I didn't see how much these books are appreciated by my students and how graphic novels lead to increased interest in reading. Now that I'm teaching sixth grade, I'm very much aware of how my students are at the edge of a reading cliff. Some of them are going to get to a point at which they don't read for pleasure anymore.

Every day, we start class with ten minutes of silent reading time. I've spent this time talking with kids, watching them choose books, and sometimes tearing out my hair when they don't return books. If you're looking to build a collection for your classroom, here are some great books to try.

For kids who don't know if they'll like graphic novels

Rapunzel's Revenge was one of the first graphic novels that I ever truly read, and it remains a great choice for middle grade readers. It's one that gets equal attention from boys and girls. The steampunk style is very appealing, as is a Rapunzel who can use her long braids as lassos.

The story structure and layout is also very forgiving for readers who aren't as familiar with graphic novel format, making this and its sequel, Calamity Jack, great books to recommend to kids who are ready to try graphic novels, but aren't sure what to think. (Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale)

For kids who love fantasy and adventure

I bought the first five books of  Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series from a Scholastic book order, sight unseen, for my younger son's birthday. Best $35 I ever spent! These books have been well-loved, passed around, and yes, replaced a few times! Books 6 and 7 came out to much excitement, and I know that readers are already looking forward to Book 8.

When I show readers who have loved Amulet the Zita the Spacegirl series, I
get one of two reactions. Some kids take the book right away, drawn in by the bright artwork. Others tilt their heads to the side and give the book a funny look, as if unsure. It has a girl on the cover! "There are also giant robots and spaceships," I say, and usually this is enough to draw the kids in. This series was a great fit for fourth grade but a tad on the young side for sixth.

The next installment in the Cleopatra in Space series is being eagerly awaited by many of my students. (Isn't it awesome that there are so many graphic novels with such great female characters?) Readers who have enjoyed Amulet will snap this one right up. Interestingly enough, I don't think this has ever been turned down when I have suggested it--which is pretty amazing, as I face rejection an awful lot.

For kids who like dark stories

In sixth grade, just as in fourth, there are kids who want to read darker stories. These kids want books that probe the shadows and send a delicious shiver down their spines. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book has been adapted into an amazing two-volume graphic novel, and wow does it deliver!

This set of graphic novels includes artwork from a number of illustrators, which can be jarring to readers at first. I am also sure to talk kids through the shocking events of the first chapter before handing over the book. If I still taught fourth grade, I'm not sure that I would have this book out--kids in my area seem to skew a bit young when it comes to these books and in my classroom I err on the side of caution. However, for kids who are used to graphic novels, this is intensely satisfying and has led some students to attempt the full novel.

For kids who loved Smile and Sisters

Wow, these book by Raina Telgemaier were the most popular in the library last year! It seems as if every student has read these books. This provides me with a perfect opportunity to follow up with other graphic novels about growing up.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm is another fun memoir for students. It has the bonus of introducing some key comic book details, too! This one gets mixed reactions from boys--some just don't think they can deal with carrying around the bright blue cover--but every student who has read it has enjoyed it.

And my favorite part of Sunny Side Up is that it leads readers toward Jennifer Holm's novels. Both Turtle in Paradise and Penny from Heaven are on the reserved list right now, which is a success to me.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is another popular memoir, as is El Deafo by Cece Bell. I've had to buy multiple copies of each to keep up with demand!

Another great memoir is The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. My students have a lot in character with the main character--we all live in (sometimes dreary) Pennsylvania towns, and comic book stores are few and far between. Interestingly, this book seems to take kids a little bit longer to read.

For kids who like nonfiction

There are lots of new graphic novel format nonfiction books coming out, and I can't wait to collect more. This year, I've focused on collecting Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. For some reason comic book stores don't carry these, but they are widely available at bookstores and through book orders.

These are so much fun to read! My high schooler even picks them up, and
really enjoyed Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood. The idea is that Nathan Hale (the spy, not the author) did not die during the Revolutionary War. Instead, he tells the executioner stories of history. You really just have to read it--there is a magical talking history book too!

Others in the series include Big Bad Ironclad and The Underground Abductor (sadly now missing from my classroom--sigh.) I just haven't been able to bring myself to buy Donner Dinner Party yet. Maybe next year.

For kids who love adventure

My youngest son found the Nnewts series by Doug TenNapel and was instantly hooked. This series has been popular with students who love animals--in some cases, it has been the first graphic novel that students have attempted. My students are most frustrated by the fact that #3 has not been released yet. They seem to think that authors should sit at the table and draw, draw, draw to get the books

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the books that readers have been enjoying this year. What graphic novels have your students enjoyed?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Comparing Texts: New Passages!

This year I've been working on new Article Response sets to use as ongoing practice and homework with sixth graders. They have worked wonderfully all year and I'm thrilled to share them.

All of the response sets are set up in a similar pattern: cover sheet, summarizing prompt, response prompt, and text. Each also has a comprehension quiz.

At the start of the year, I planned to send these home as homework. As the year has progressed I've changed my thinking! We start class with ten minutes of independent reading followed by ten minutes of working on the texts and responses. Some days I do a mini-lesson about summarizing or writing a response, while on other days students partner read. A two-week span for each packet gives us enough time to have thoughtful conversations without feeling pressured to produce.

"Damon and Pythias" and "The Two Travelers"

The latest two sets have been focused on comparing narratives. I think that comparing texts is such a meaningful, authentic purpose for close reading. When kids read two texts and spontaneously offer comparisons, I know that good things are happening!

This text set pairs a retelling of "Damon and Pythias" with a version of the fable by Aesop "The Two Travelers". Both of these stories examine the meaning of loyalty and friendship, but in very different ways! For students dealing with sixth grade drama, the concept of loyalty is fascinating to discuss.

We acted out both stories in class. Acting out stories helps readers to grasp the action and better understand the events. When it came time to summarize "Damon and Pythias", students really were able to consider which events were important to the outcome of the story and which were not! The fable "The Two Travelers" teaches a lesson about friendship through a non-example, and raises an interesting question for students--did the bear in the story really talk?

"Damon and Pythias" is also the basis for the 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. If you are working on comparing texts, this is a great opportunity to compare a story to a film.

"The Elves and the Shoemaker" and "The Magical Cyber Elf"

This text set has been perfect for reviewing key content for standardized testing! I started with thinking about the classic fairy tale "The Elves and the Shoemaker". How could this story be translated for modern times? Because I am currently up to my ears in yearbook work the modern story "The Magical Cyber Elf" came to mind.

There have been so many great concepts to review with this text set. We used "The Elves and the Shoemaker" to review the parts of a plot diagram and talk about theme. Then, we used "The Magical Cyber Elf" to discuss point of view and how a shifting point of view can influence the unfolding of events in a story. We had some great conversations about how the themes of the two stories are very similar, even though the settings and conflicts differ.

If you try these text sets, let me know what your students think!