Thursday, July 30, 2020

Reading Survey for Students

This year will pose so many challenges for classroom teachers! Whether we are teaching remotely or (gulp) face to face, one of the more pleasant challenges will be how to get books in the hands of readers.

One of my favorite methods is to talk briefly with a student and then offer three books: one that is very similar to their previously read books; one that is similar, but in a different genre; and one that is a stretch book for the student.

Sadly, I can't use this method in the upcoming school year. So I decided to create a Google Form to help me learn about my students! 

This form includes three sections. Because it is a Google Form, you can always feel free to add your own questions! In a future post, I'll add some details about how to interpret results and how to match books to responses.

Genre Questions

I've noticed that the shift in state standards means that students aren't as familiar with the names of reading genres anymore. The questions in this section ask about the characteristics of genres instead of using the genre names themselves. Students may not say that they like reading biographies--but if they say that they enjoy books about real people and places, a biography might be a good choice for them!

Format Questions

Some students have very pronounced opinions about the style and format of the books they read. I included questions about graphic novels, picture books, and point of view in this section. 

Reading Attitude Questions

How do kids feel about reading? These questions help me to gain some insight into which kids are going to need some more helpful nudges...and which kids just need me to get out of their way!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Classroom Libraries and COVID

The coming school year will be different from any other. As teachers prepare physical and virtual classrooms for the start of the year, many questions loom.

One of my favorite rituals for a new school year is preparing my classroom library. I love selecting new books, organizing the space, and thinking about what my new students will like best. But what will this year bring? 

A lot of questions, that's what! I've been thinking about these questions for the last few weeks (much to the annoyance of my family, especially on a beach vacation!) While I don't have definitive answers, I hope that my thought processes may be helpful to others who are dealing with these same issues.

What about the classroom library space?

Usually I devote about 20 square feet of my classroom to the classroom library. This year, I can't afford that space. With trying to maintain 3 feet between 24 students, I need to use the physical location of the classroom library for student seating.

And this is fine, because the usual social activities of the classroom library (browsing, chatting, sitting on soft furniture) are not safe right now. Better to not even introduce the classroom library than to put strict limits on how it can be used. 

This is one time when moving classrooms is going to help me! My books are already packed (and half are at my house), so it won't be hard for me to adjust my space. If I had carpets and soft furniture in my classroom library, I would probably bring them home or put them into storage for the year. 

Where will books go?

In my classroom....I'm not sure yet. New classroom, right? I'll have the books on the shelves (where else could they go?), but I may cover the shelves with tablecloths as we do during standardized testing to help reinforce the idea that kids can't be taking and replacing books at will. (Sad but necessary!) I will be pulling the most popular, best books to prepare to hand out to students.

How can I help kids to select books?

When everyone needs books at once, it's always been easier to get the decentralize the books. Usually, I pull out my top 100 books into bins for the first two weeks of the year. Then, I put one bin at each table to allow for easy student browsing. My goal is to get every kid into a book within the first two days of school, and I'm usually successful!

This method won't work for the 2020 school year! Once a book is touched by a student, I will have to set it aside for at least a week (see guidance here). This means that I'll have to use other methods for students to sample books. I'm going to have to be  more firm with keeping a lid on the "flitting" habits that students have early in the school year. Once a student selects a book, that book will be out of circulation for at least two weeks (one week to read, one week for quarantine)...so I need to help students make thoughtful choices instead of just grabbing a book at random.

Book trailers: Trailers are highly effective and motivating for students! I'm already starting a

First chapter reads: For books that don't have strong trailers, reading a portion or a section aloud can help to build student interest. I'm going to count on the document camera to help me out here! This is especially useful to help readers gauge the difficulty of a book.

Book survey: This Google Form (Book Survey) can help you to collect information about student preferences.

What should I do with returned books?

Ugh. This is the hardest question of all, isn't it? Right now, I'm thinking about going with a one-week quarantine for books and using a two crate system. In the first week, I'll have one return bin out; at the end of the week, I'll put it aside (or probably cover it) and pull out the second bin. Once that week is over, I'll replace the books from the first week and put aside the second bin. (This might change if I get different guidance from the school or state guiding me toward a longer quarantine period for materials.)

I always spend time working on library management at the start of the school year. This year, I'll have to add directions about how to return books safely and why students shouldn't share books. It will be an adjustment, as will everything this year!

Shouldn't we be worried about bigger issues?

Yes! There are so many issues surrounding the restarting of school. I'm so anxious, all the time! However, making plans helps me to soften the anxiety and focus on what I can control.

Getting books into the hands of kids has always been one of my main goals. This year, I have to expand my thinking to plan how to do this safely. What changes will you be making to your classroom library?


Thursday, May 7, 2020

Reading Activities for Distance Learning

Reading activities for distance learning should be more than just glowing worksheets! In fact, distance learning offers us some fascinating affordances in terms of what kinds of activities we can create for our learners.

Read along activities

Having students read along with a text can be a great way to build automaticity with new texts. In this reading selection, I have chunked the text so that students can pause to read along.  This kind of shared reading would also work well for distance tutoring sessions.



A printable version of this reading selection can be found here.

Adding videos to reading selections

Sometimes a short video can do wonders for building background knowledge. When I create digital reading activities, I like to add links to short videos. For example, in this text about oysters and the Chesapeake, I added a time lapse of oysters feeding. This visual imagery helps readers to visualize the way that oysters filter water--a key idea in the text that they are reading.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Informational-Text-for-Distance-Learning-Oysters-and-the-Chesapeake-5531162

Questions on the same page as the reading selection

For students who aren't used to working digitally, managing multiple tabs can add an extra layer of difficulty. Putting questions and activities on the same page as a set of Google Slides can make it easier to go back to the text.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Monarch-Life-Cycle-A-Distance-Learning-Text-5493640


I'm working on making some digital reading activities. Many of them will be free until June 30. Feel free to try one out! And if you do...leave a message to let me know how it worked out!

Monarch Life Cycle: Distance Learning
Informational Text for Distance Learning: Oysters and the Chesapeake
Tulips Through Time: Paired Passages for Distance Learning
Groundwater: Resources for Google Classroom
Weather Sayings: Paired Passages for Google Classroom


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reading and Writing Handbook

Papers can quickly become overwhelming in the ELA classroom! I've learned that if I don't have a plan for where students will put their papers and when these papers will become obsolete, folders quickly fill up with extraneous pages. No one can find anything!

For easy classroom organization, I provide my students with a one-inch binder. This binder becomes a place to store ongoing ELA work as well as to keep texts and resources. However, this hasn't always worked perfectly. Despite my exhortations to "Clip papers at the back of your binders!", sometimes papers just don't end up where I had intended.

For the past two years, I've been planning to create a Reading and Writing Handbook--a one-stop shop of resource pages for students to keep at the front of their binders. After months of planning and thinking, I finally put together 30 pages of my favorite resources for students!

My goal is to be able to say, "Let's turn to page___" and discuss whatever is on that page. Sometimes the pages will be for instruction; sometimes I'll just put the page number on the board as a reference. If your students are like mine, they probably ask again and again for the definition of theme. Now I can just say, "Remember, if you'd like to review what theme means, turn to page 13 in your Reading and Writing Handbook."

I'm really excited to try out this handbook and see how it works in the classroom! If you have any questions or would like to see a resource added, please let me know. I'd love to hear what works and what is needed in other schools.





Monday, August 5, 2019

Classroom Jobs for Sixth Grade

      When I first moved from middle school to elementary school, I debated whether or not to have classroom jobs. Aren't assigned jobs a little too childish for sixth graders? Would they roll their eyes at the very idea?
      I quickly learned two important lessons:

  • Sixth graders enjoy having jobs, and
  • Classroom work has to get done!

     But what jobs to have? And how to select them? Over the years, I've asked myself this question again and again, finally settling on a pretty easy and manageable system that requires very little of my input through the year.

The job chart

I used library pockets on a big piece of poster board. Students write their names on the top of an index card, and then I or someone else chooses cards at random and students place their cards in the pocket of their choice.

I have enough jobs for half the class. If I have too many jobs, then there are too many jobs that simply just don't have enough to do. With student input, we also double up on some jobs as we see fit.

Messenger: Takes the attendance folder in the morning, runs other errands as necessary
Technology Specialist: Moves the mobile lab in and out as needed, hands out and collects computers
Naturalist: Depending on what animals we have in the classroom, this person feeds the fish and handles other animal care
Recess Games Organizer: This person manages recess equipment for indoor and outdoor recess
Pencil Manager: Makes sure that there are sharpened pencils available and handles pencil sharpener care
Art Supply Manager: Hands out and organizes art supplies like colored pencils and markers
Astronomer: Changes the moon phase posters
Science Assistant: Helps with whatever science experiments are going on in a given week
Botanist: Waters the plants
Ornithologist: Refills the birdfeeders and makes sure that bird data is being kept
Manager: Makes sure that everyone is doing their jobs! The manager also substitutes for other jobs if students are absent
Distributor: Hands out papers
Closet Organizer: Student belongings are kept in a closets that quickly get messy! The closet organizer checks the closets and makes sure that things are kept neat
Mathematician: We find that we have many math tasks, including adding minutes for Preferred Activity Time, charting temperature data, and making a Calendar Math Schedule
Librarian: Puts up book displays, manages the book sign out binder

Be sure to leave an empty pocket or two to add jobs as needed!

Changing Jobs


I like to change jobs every week. Usually, we end up with Wednesday or Thursday as the rotation day. Because I pair this with my classroom economy, students get a salary for completing a job. (Last year I made the salary be $100, but this led to ridiculous inflation. I'm thinking I'll start at $25 this year.) The manager hands out the salaries by taking the index cards from the pockets to use as a reference. While this is happening, someone else is handing out the cards for the half of the class that hadn't had a class that week.

I have experimented with job applications, but I've found that they take too much time when I'm trying to run the classroom jobs in the background of our other classroom activities.

Besides, with an open job policy, students can try out all kinds of different jobs. Do students gravitate to certain favorites? Of course! However, by handing out the cards randomly, I try to control for this.

Class Culture


The jobs chart becomes an integral part of who we are as a class. One student, trying to read the chart from across the room, misread "Distributor" as "Disruptor". He thought it was hilarious that I would have Disruptor as a job! From then on, when students spoke out of turn everyone always chided them, "It's not your turn to be the Disruptor this week."

The job chart is also a chance for vocabulary building. It takes time for students to sort out Botanist vs. Ornithologist, but these are great real-world experiences for them.

Are there times when students don't do their assigned jobs? Yes, it happens. The Manager usually does a good job of reminding people what to do.

I find that this method of managing jobs leaves plenty of room for students to take over the system and turn it into their own. Some years they do, and the jobs morph into something amazing. Some years they don't, which is fine as well...every class is different.

What jobs do you have in your classrooms?

Monday, July 22, 2019

Reading Comprehension: The Qualitative Reading Assessment

If you're looking for a quick and easy reading assessment that yields a great deal of information, you can't go wrong with the QRI. Short for the Qualitative Reading Assessment, this assessment is my go-to for start of year assessment.

Because this is a commonly used text for professional classes, it's easy to pick up a used one for an affordable price. I'm still using the 5th Edition, although there is a more recent one available.


Because you get a spiral book, there is a bit of test set up required. However, it's all easy to manage with a school copy machine and some basic supplies.

The QRI consists of two parts: Word Lists and Comprehension Passages.

Word Lists

My co-teacher and I administer the word lists as soon as possible in the first few days of school. Like many other reading tests, students move through sets of words that get more and more difficult. For students with known past reading problems, I start at the Pre-Primer or Primer level. For students who are likely to be on grade level, I start at Level 2 or 3. Each list has 20 words, and I usually stop when students fall below a 14/20 or seem to be getting frustrated. Because I teach sixth grade, I rarely go past the Upper Middle School list.

As you can see in the photo, I give kids a copy of the words on the a word ring. Copied onto cardstock, the word lists are durable and last for years. I used a clipboard to lean on. If the weather is nice, we go outside! (Other students are doing independent reading during this time.)

After I've heard students read, I always give a bit of positive feedback about what I heard. "I liked hearing how you tried some tricky words," or "It was fun to hear you read a word list with
expression!"

I can learn so much from hearing kids read lists of words aloud! I do write down missed attempts at word solving because these attempts help me to see patterns of decoding and figure out the best ways to help students.

Because it's so early in the year, I keep the entire interaction upbeat, fun, and most of all, brief. We get through the word lists within 3 days.

Comprehension Passages

I've learned to really like the comprehension passages from the QRI. There are multiple options for each grade level labeled as narrative and expository, giving me a wide range of options from which to choose.

Where do I start students? Because I'm doing the QRI for my own purposes, I get to decide! My co-teacher and I usually look at the students' word list results and go with the student's instructional level. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. For a shy or timid student, we might choose a text at an independent level to build the child's confidence. I know that I can always go and pull another passage if I need to.

I keep passage copies in a file box and add more copies as needed. (This is a great copying task for a volunteer or a substitute!) Because I've switched grade levels a bit, my file box is a mish-mash of recycled folders. Oh well.

Each comprehension passage includes 6-8 comprehension questions, sorted as literal and inferential. I do a timed reading, prefacing it by saying, "I will have the timer going, but I'm much more interested in hearing your expression and your word-solving than in seeing how fast you can go." (I hate it when I go to listen to a student read and they take a big gulp of air before starting. That's so not the point!)

The QRI includes a retelling section. I'm often tempted to skip it, because it does take some time, but it's a useful tool to help students think about how much they remember from a selection. Also...well, as the author of a book called Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling, I feel that I shouldn't skip a retelling task!

My favorite part of the QRI is that I write down the student's answers, which means that I'm getting a clear picture of the student's reading and not their writing.

I also like to see the breakdown of student scores on inferential vs. literal questions. A student who does well on one but not the other will need some different instruction than a student who misses questions equally from both areas.

Sometimes a first assessment doesn't answer our questions about a student's reading. In this case, my co-teacher and I will often move up or down.

All in all, the QRI is my favorite start of year reading assessment! What's yours?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

ELA Test Prep: Picture Book Literature Circles

The week before state testing has a strange tension in the air. Students know that something different is coming, but aren't sure how to express their worry. Teachers fret by the copier, making packets of test prep and trying to figure out which standards haven't been covered.

This year I decided to take a different pathway. I knew that I wanted to review literary elements with students, especially theme. But what materials to use? On the one hand, I have years worth of state testing samplers. Some of them aren't terrible. On the other hand...I didn't become a teacher to use state testing samplers, if you know what I mean.

What about picture books? We have a lovely book room with lots of complex picture books. This book room has been rather quiet since our district adopted a reading series. I decided to gather some of my favorites and let the students pick which ones they'd like to read.

To add some accountability, I used a version of my literature circle materials for students to complete independently.

The results astonished me! Kids showed tremendous enthusiasm for their self-selected books. They sat and read together, working diligently on their packets and talking about their opinions. "Is there a way that we could figure out the specific year for the setting of The Memory Coat?" one group asked. In another group, the topic of whether Weslandia was a fantasy or realistic fiction led to a spirited discussion."Obviously it's fantasy, because he'd need a building permit for all of those structures. Especially in that neighborhood," said one civic-minded student.

Listening in on the students' conversations allowed me to provided just-in-time reteaching and reviewing. I was asked to explain again the difference between point of view in a narrative text and point of view in an expository text. "What's that word that starts with a c, that means how people feel about a word?" another student asked. (Connotation!) Another group had totally missed the details that lead to realizing that Nim and the War Effort takes place during World War 2, so I used the pictures and the text to demonstrate.

I also wanted to review the process of finding theme. This is so important for standardized testing, and so difficult for students to grasp. Students have used their Common Themes list all year long, but
I wanted them to revisit the different themes and practice supporting a theme with details from the text. So I showed them to how to make a Theme Graphic organizer, modeled writing a paragraph to express the theme of a story, and directed them to work with their groups to select a theme, find text evidence, and write a paragraph to support the theme.

It was amazing! The conversations were rich and complex, and students really went back to the text to find support. As a teacher, I could not have asked for anything more. We spent our last few days of instruction before tests doing real reading work that everyone loved.

As you think about last minute test preparation, consider using picture books! Not only will you find students engaged with rich stories, but you will also have the chance to hear student conversations and support students at the moment of need.