Saturday, February 16, 2019

How to craft a text-dependent analysis prompt

 Text-dependent analysis essays! From the moment that I first saw these forms of writing on our state tests I have both dreaded and admired them. On the positive side, text-dependent analysis essays inspire students to analyze texts and think more deeply. On the negative side, sometimes I feel like these essays have eaten all other forms of writing in Pennsylvania. 

    However I'm feeling today, these are tough forms of writing for students to undertake. This year, I've tried to focus more on creating a classroom that builds the deep thinking needed to analyze texts. This means that I need to create plenty of text-dependent analysis questions based on the texts that we are reading.

    Some may try to mystify the process to make it look like creating your own questions is beyond the capability of an ordinary classroom teacher. But don't believe it! With a little bit of thinking and the right kind of knowledge, you can create your own text-dependent analysis questions.

One text or several?

     This is the first question to answer for yourself. Do you want students to analyze elements within one text, or analyze connections between texts? 
     It may seem as if working with one text is easier. From a writing standpoint, using a single text will make transitions easier. However, from an analysis standpoint, sometimes it's easier for students to work with two very different texts. It's been my experience that readers will generate ideas more readily and have stronger conversations when working with multiple texts.

Choose strong texts

     Whether you are working with one text or two, be sure to use strong texts with lots to analyze. (This is one of my issues with the endless weekly assessments in the Wonders program: they are all focused on staff-written short texts that meet a certain word count and Lexile criteria, and don't offer much variety or depth.)

Two elements

     This is the key to writing a strong analysis prompt! PSSA text-dependent analysis guides state that the tested questions will always have two textual elements for students to link together. Sometimes these textual elements will be stated; sometimes they will be unstated. (Oh, joy!)
     Here are some guidelines for starting your own questions. Not every question works for every text, of course. It's best to read the text you want to use and think, "What would be fun to talk about?" This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list, of course, but a set of ideas to get you thinking.

Narrative element starters

  • Analyze how the events of the plot reveal the theme.
  • Analyze how the character's actions convey the character's traits.
  • Explain how the use of figurative language enhances the reader's understanding of the imagery.
  • Analyze how the use of stage directions impact the reader's understanding of the events.
  • Analyze how the character's actions impact the unfolding of the plot.
  • Explain how the author's choice of setting affects the events of the plot.
  • Analyze how the narration of the story would be different if the story were told from a different point of view.
  • Explain how the word choice creates a mood within the reader.

Expository element starters

  • Analyze how the text structure conveys the main ideas of the selection.
  • Explain how the author's word choice shows the author's point of view toward the topic.
  • Analyze how the text features help readers to understand the main ideas.
  • Analyze how the inclusion of firsthand accounts affects the reader's understanding of the main ideas of the text.

Talk time

     After I create a few analysis prompts for my students, I copy them and have students meet in small groups to discuss them. "You don't have to write an analysis essay," I tell them. "Instead, I want you to take great notes: write down text evidence, make connections, show your thinking!"
     Over the course of the year, I've seen an improvement in students' willingness to grapple with these conversations. It's hard! As I listen in, I've noticed that some groups focus on just one of the elements and forget to make the connection to the other one. I ask a few questions of these groups to get them thinking and help them to see how to make connections. 
     Taking the time to write these questions and elicit these conversations is well worth the effort! What prompts have you found helpful in your classroom?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Introducing a Poetry Unit

This week I started teaching my poetry unit, which is both exciting and scary! It's exciting because I love poetry, and I love the chance to immerse my students in poems. It's scary because each year is so different from the last and I never know how students will react.

Prepare or find a poetry collection

To immerse students in poems, it's good to have a collection of poetry that they can refer back to, again and again. I have one put together in Figurative Language PowerPoint and Activities. This year, I added two sonnets (available here) to my existing collection.

Putting together a poetry collection can be as simple as gathering poems that you want to teach! By adding poems with similar themes, you can invite natural comparisons. Some of my favorites that are in the public domain include:
-The Wind, Robert Louis Stevenson
-Who Has Seen the Wind? Christina Rossetti
-The Moon's the North Wind's Cookie, Vachel Lindsay
-Perhaps You'd Like to Buy a Flower? Emily Dickinson
-Where Go the Boats? Robert Louis Stevenson
-Paper Boats, Rabindranath Tagore

In addition to the poetry collection (mostly made up of public domain poems), I also have shelves full of diverse poetry, picture books that I've picked up from prowling used book sales and the reduced price sections at discount bookstores. These poems give students windows into worlds beyond.

Find out what students already know

It's important to get an idea of what experiences students are bringing with them to the poetry experience. This year, I learned about their prior experiences with a carousel activity. I made six small posters with topics:
-Famous Poets
-Figurative Language
-How I Feel About Poetry
-Poems I Know
-Speaker in Poetry
-Poetic Structure

Then, students moved from poster to poster in small groups. Let me tell you, I learned so much from watching students and listening to their conversations! From the "Figurative Language" poster I observed that students can generate names of some kinds of figurative language, but that there is some confusion between figurative language and other literary devices. From the "Poets We Know" poster I saw that students couldn't really generate a list of poets, but that my name was on there. :)

Use visuals

Animated and illustrated versions of poems are so engaging! On the first day, we looked at "Ozymandias" and watched this amazing version.

Then we talked about what the poem might mean. First conversations with big poems need to be open and nonthreatening, focused less on getting right answers and more on talking about what big ideas might be lurking beneath the words. Don't worry if you don't know what meanings are lurking beneath the words! It can be a joint voyage of discovery.

On a less dramatic note, I also shared this poem that I read aloud. We talked about how the poem makes us feel calm and peaceful...a great entry into deeper discussions of tone and mood.

Give students the words to discuss

Great conversations need lots of words! This Poetry Help Sheet (available in Comparing Texts 2) is a quick and easy tool for students to use to have discussions. As an end to our second day of poetry,
students read the help sheet and used words from the page to talk about one of the poems in their collection. What is so important is that students are in control of choosing the poems and deciding how to talk about them.

Of course students had questions about these words and topics, which led to even more interesting conversations...for example, what does whimsical mean, anyway?

First experiences with poetry can make all the difference in whether students enjoy poems or look at poetry as a chore. By making your first lessons open-ended and engaging, you can help students love poetry!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Paper Airplanes and STEM: Getting Started

 Looking for a fun lesson set that incorporates STEM, writing, reading, and data collection? Try a paper airplane challenge! I'm on my third iteration of this project, and each time it just gets better and better. It's a perfect way to get rid of the winter blues and do something fun and filled with learning.

The challenge

     This year, I set up the challenge like this: Aeronautics216 is looking for a paper gliders that can travel 15 meters indoors AND outdoors. Teams are asked to submit three airplanes for testing.
     ...that's it. I don't even set up a huge competition or offer a prize, because the actual activity is so engaging and awesome that it doesn't need anything else to prop it up.

Groups and Budget

     I used a Google form to get input from students as I set up the groups, assigning students to be lead engineer, graphic designer, writer, accountant, and materials manager. Groups of 4 and 5 work best, especially at a time of year when absences are frequent. If two people are missing from a group of 5 the remaining stude
nts can get on with the work. Two missing from a group of 3 leaves a pretty lonely student!
    In my first two attempts at this project, I wanted groups to have plenty of money. This time, their margins are pretty slim. I also used actual bills this time instead of just paper accounts by printing out $100 and $500 bills from Classroom Economy.
     Students may use as much recycled paper as they want for prototypes, but they must purchase the paper for submission planes at the price of $500/sheet. They also have to pay for extra testing sessions, marker rental, storage, and so forth. You can find the complete budget here.
     Most students don't realize at first just how far 15 meters is. They read it as "15 feet" and it only slowly dawns on them that the task is a lot harder than they thought.

Flight Rules

     An important rule that keeps this from devolving into chaos: Planes can't be tested at school until the official testing day.
     I had to fine groups $200 for breaking this rule on the first day, and it was remarkably effective. Since that initial problem, I've had no issues.
     Kids ask, "Can we take them home and test them there?" What they're really asking, of course, is "Can I do extra homework?" But I don't tell them this, and I say reluctantly that sure, if their parents are okay with it, they can make and test planes at home.

Working in groups

     In the first two sessions, students work pretty intensively on creating group names, logos, and airplane prototypes. Everyone knows how to build the standard airplane, but those are unlikely to fly 15 meters. So students use the sets of directions that I have available to try to build other versions.
     I make the video directions more costly than the printed directions because I want students to feel that struggle of reading procedural text. Airplane directions are a great equalizer, because some students who are great readers have trouble with the folding, while other students who may struggle with reading find the layout and structure of airplane directions to be a piece of cake.
     You can find plenty of paper airplane directions online, although the best source that we've found is the Klutz Paper Airplane Book.
     When there are issues in groups, I offer my (paid) services as mediator. I also give ratings sheets so that group members may rate each other on cooperation and responsibility. Once this happens, groups tend to pull together. (I admit that dealing with the inner workings of groups is my least favorite part of this activity, and that I treat it as my own area for personal growth!)

Initial testing

     Before the first testing session, groups need to make their own data collection sheets. Most of my students haven't made tables before, so I showed them this video from GCF LearnFree about creating tables in Google Docs. (Why tables instead of spreadsheets? Students are handwriting information into printed sheets, so I thought the table would give them more options.)
     I had two students who were finished with other tasks set up our testing zone in the hallway by marking out meters with masking tape. Two groups tested at a time, following a strict protocol that meant that the hallway was clear before airplanes flew. Groups had 6 minutes for testing, which seems like a short time but was adequate if they got straight to work and didn't play around.
     I recommended that groups have at least 5 planes for testing, but of course some groups did not. That's part of the process! Most of the planes went only 5-6 meters. The best performing plane went 13 meters.
     Looks like the groups will have to do some rethinking when we return to school next week! I'm hoping that they think to ask the group with the farthest flying airplane which model they used (the Hammer) and build more prototypes along those lines.

Looking forward

     In the week to come, I'll collect the data from initial testing so that we can practice finding landmarks of data like mean, median, range, and mode. This will help students to contextualize their results. Students will be busy building for their second round of testing!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What to do with a classroom bird feeder

Choosing Feeders

    For the widest variety of birds, think about your levels. Some birds like to eat from the ground, others from hanging feeders, others from suet, and still others from elevated trays. Of course, your classroom location will determine which birds visit your feeder. When I was on the playground side of my school I was visited by very different birds than we see on the forest side.
    I decided to start small with the free feeder from BirdSleuth (offered occasionally). Over the past five years, I've added more and more! It's important to choose something that is easy to clean, inexpensive, and sturdy.
     Trays: A plastic tray is a great starting point because it's easy to clean and easy to replace. Because I have a heating unit right outside my window, I have the perfect spot to place a tray of sunflower seeds. (I buy the 40 lb. bags at Tractor Supply, which last about 2 months for $20)
     My students love the juncos, cardinals, chickadees, and finches that come to the tray. We sometimes put out unsalted peanuts, which attracts my class's favorite: the blue jay.
     Tube feeders: These are cheap and attract a nice variety of finches. Last year, though, we had record rainfall, and I did find that mold sometimes grew in the nyjer seed.
     Suet feeders: Suet is inexpensive and attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches, which are fun to watch. If you are not near a forest, you may find that starlings come to get your suet, which is also interesting.
     Peanut butter: In the years that I don't have any students with allergies, I purchase peanut butter to put outside as well. You can see the feeder in the photo above, but honestly it's easy enough to just smear peanut butter on some branches or put it on some wired pine cones. The Carolina wrens love it! Plus, it's way cheaper than many other kinds of seed.
     Feeder cam: No place for a feeder? No problem! The Ontario FeederWatch and the Cornell Birds Feeder are great to display for students.
    Feeder cleaning: Whatever kind of feeder you use, be sure to clean it frequently so that you are not inadvertently spreading disease.


     Part of the fun of observing birds is learning their names. I like to use a classroom birds slideshow as a fun icebreaker at the start of the school year. Kids like practicing their identification skills with photos I've taken at the window. They're often amazed to find out how many different species we can see just from our classroom.
     The site is excellent for teaching students website navigation skills. I especially appreciate that it doesn't have external ads! With these webpages, you can teach all about digital text features, navigation, and browsing. There are great nonfiction texts there for the reading as well.
     Will your students make some identifications that sound silly at first? Absolutely! It's only through practice that students learn how to find the maps to see if a bird lives in their area, how to sift through the photos of similar birds, and how to connect bird behavior to different types of birds. Be patient and make the identification process a learning experience from start to finish.

Bird Observation Journal

     Once students get to be good at identification, I get out the bird observation journal. This is a place for students to record what they are seeing at the window. Kids may get up and look out the window, one or two at a time, as long as they write down what they see.
    Each year, students decide how they'd like to organize the journal. Sometimes students prefer to go by hour, while at other points students like to just write down what they see in a more casual way.
     There are occasionally discrepancies and problems with our data, which just means...we're doing science! When there are issues (wait, that wasn't a white-crowned sparrow, it was a white-throated sparrow!), we can discuss what these mean for our data and what to do next.


     The records in our observation journals then become data for future years! We can track when the juncos will arrive, when the white-throated sparrows will leave, and when the goldfinches will turn yellow. As I tell my's all because we noticed what was there and wrote stuff down.

Closing Thoughts

     I'm not sure when the process of knowing what lives around us and following the patterns of season and sky became unworthy of teaching. When I was in fifth grade, I told my teacher that I wanted to be a naturalist when I grew up. She said, "That's not a job."
     This is the kind of thinking that has brought us here--facing a future with insect populations in collapse, monarch butterflies disappearing, once familiar birds of field and forest now rare and unseen. You can't love what you don't notice. Taking the time to help students appreciate and love what surrounds us is worth the effort.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Understanding Narratives: Story Events

    Supporting all learners in a mixed ability classroom can be a daunting challenge. Over the years,
I've found that having the right materials makes a huge difference! When I'm teaching narratives, my go-to tool is a simple set of events from the story.
    These event cards are so useful! Differentiation is quick, easy, and meaningful, as event cards have so much potential for helping students to zoom in on a story and read closely.

Preparing Event Cards

    Event cards are simple to prepare. Just make a single-column table in Word and type the events from the story in order. Use the same number of lines for each cell to keep your final cards the same size. (I find that a 16-point Georgia with three lines per cell work well.) Remember that it's almost impossible to cut a single line cell!
    Depending on your students, you may want to make your events simple, or more detailed. Be sure to include a sentence to establish the setting and the characters.
    When I'm ready to use my cards, I photocopy them on some cardstock and trim the edges at the paper cutter. The kids can do the rest of the cutting! I store cards in envelopes or clear plastic bags in the hopes that I will find them again the next year. (Narrator's voice: She won't.) I never make enough for everyone in the class, because I want students to have to share! Groups of 2-3 are best to make sure that everyone gets to handle the events.


    At the most basic level, the event cards are great for helping students to sequence the events in a story. This week, students read a drama from our literature anthology. Putting events from the drama in order helped students to piece together the action.
    Here's where these cards are great for differentiation! It's fascinating to listen in on the conversations that students have. As they argue about which event comes before that one, they often can't resist going back to the text to prove their points.
    Groups finish this task at different times, of course, and so I always put an extension question on the board. In this case, it was: "Read through the event cards with your partner. How is this reading experience different from reading the story in the drama format?"

Understanding Parts of a Plot

     Event cards are also perfect for talking about how a plot unfolds. This is an important standard for sixth grade, and one that requires lots of productive conversation.
     Using event cards is so much friendlier for students than filling out a plot diagram! A mistake in ordering doesn't mean tedious erasing and rewriting--instead, it's just a simple swap of the cards. Watching my students piece together the events of a story helped me to see how their understanding of plot is developing and how they see the different pieces come together.

Character Changes

     If students are having trouble talking about how characters change over the course of a plot, event cards can be helpful tools! Events provide anchors to help students recall the sequence and understand what happens when. Sometimes students who struggle to respond verbally can hold onto an event card and explain how the character changed in response to what occurs. For students with retrieval and executive functioning issues, having manipulatives for reading can be just the scaffold they need for higher order thinking.

Have you tried story event cards? What have you noticed with your learners?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Teaching Summarizing: If It's January, They Must Be Writing "About" Summaries

    Outside, the snow is falling, and our classroom feeder is attracting many beautiful birds. Students are learning to observe and ask questions about these birds, noticing the small differences in species and individuals.
    Inside, my co-teaching partner and I decided to do a formative assessment on expository summarizing. We used the bedbugs text from my Paraphrasing and Summarizing pack, which I like because it uses a main idea scoring tool instead of a rubric. Main idea scoring tools are a great way to quickly score many summaries without too much pain.
     We've been working on expository summarizing a little at a time over many weeks. Students have had scaffolded summaries (from this resource), modeled summaries, and main idea work. We felt confident that students would do well with this assessment.

What is an "about" summary?

     So imagine our surprise when we ended up with a pile full of "about" summaries! I really hadn't seen many of these so far this year, which made their sudden proliferation more surprising. If you're not sure of what an "about" summary looks like, take a look at the example on the right.
    "About" summaries hopscotch through a text, using chronological order transitions to show the reader's journey from topic to topic. You can see why it's called an "about" summary--the word appears over and over again. This kind of summary includes only topics and not main ideas.

What do these summaries mean?

     Over the last ten years, I've come to recognize "about" summaries as a key step on the way to summarizing skill. Notice that this kind of summary shows an awareness of the topics in a text, and the order in which they are presented. It's no surprise that these summaries often come from high-performing students. These readers are experimenting with ways to express ideas from a text in fewer words.

Next steps

     Students can't be allowed to stop at "about" summaries. This kind of thinking keeps them at the topic level, not looking for a text structure or deeper connections within a text. Here are some ideas to help students improve:
Choose the best summary tasks: After reading an expository text, have students choose from 3-4 sample summaries. Write one as an "about" summary. Then, discuss their choices. This is a great way to gently nudge students away from this style.
Text structure awareness: If students have to put information from a text into a graphic organizer that reflects the text structure of the text, then they are much more likely to write a strong summary. Help students to see that a successful summary should reflect the structure of the target text.
Continued work with summarizing: Yup, we need to keep working on it! Summarizing doesn't have to be a single week of instruction. Instead, spread it out over the course of the year so that students put summarizing and paraphrasing skills to work again and again.

News and notes

I've put up some new materials on TpT!

 Algebraic Expressions: This is a free (for now) PowerPoint that introduces algebraic expressions. I wanted some lovely pictures to enhance my math class.

I haven't made many math materials because I'm still relatively new to teaching sixth grade math (this is year 3!), but I'm looking forward to doing more.

A Look at Lightning: My husband, who teaches third grade, has been using the "Lightning Readers Theatre" script for years. This year, he asked if I could write a short text to go along with it. I added two levels of the text, plus some writing activities to make this an activity for both writing and science.

Comparing with Adjectives: This was another special request! Using the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives is so important for young writers. (I couldn't resist adding bird pictures.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas Tree Text Structures

If it's December, I must be pulling out my hair over text structure! It seems that every year around this time I get to wondering where I went wrong.

Earlier this week I remembered that I'd written a few little texts about Christmas trees several years back. A little formatting work and I made something that would be a nice text structure review. You can pick it up free over at TeachersPayTeachers: Christmas Tree Text Structures.