Saturday, January 30, 2016

Argumentative Essay Readers Theatre

I love using readers theatre scripts to introduce key concepts. Kids find scripts engaging and interesting; the script format leads to high engagement; and kids have a real reason to pronounce and use key vocabulary.

Writing these scripts makes me feel like I'm a writer on a 50s-era variety show. What madcap situation should I use? How can I put characters in an interesting situation? I work under some serious constraints, too. I have to make sure that the roles are fairly even, or squabbling will ensue. I have to make sure that key vocabulary is repeated by more than one character. And whatever situation I develop must come to a conclusion in two or possibly three pages.

This week I wrote a new script about argumentative essays. Like most of the scripts that I write, this one was born from necessity--I wanted an engaging way to introduce the parts of an essay. My goal was for students to be able to annotate an argumentative essay and mark the parts. This got me thinking about what the parts of an essay would be like, personality-wise, which led to the script.

It's silly, it's ridiculous, but it got the job done. After reading the script students were able to go into an argumentative essay (I used these) and mark the parts. The script also led to some great questions, like these:

-Can the counterclaim come in the introductory paragraph? (Yes, definitely!)
-Do argumentative texts have more than one claim? (Indeed! Why did the script have only one Claim?)
-Why is Conclusion so sleepy? (Why, indeed?)

Bringing the parts of an essay to life can be fun. Try it out! The script is free and can be downloaded here.

Other Readers Theatre Scripts

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Summarizing Narratives

    For many students, summarizing a narrative is far easier than summarizing nonfiction. Narratives are organized in time order, the way that we experience life. The underlying structure of the narrative summary is already built in to our daily experiences. 
    But this doesn't mean that summarizing narratives is easy. Easier, yes, but not at all easy. In fact, students often struggle with many parts of summarizing a narrative. Here is what I look at when I assess student summaries. These are arranged in priority order--to me, it's important to work on comprehension before dealing with writing a summary in present tense.

Comprehension: Did students understand the story? It seems obvious, but many teachers miss the fact that a failure to summarize is based in a failure to comprehend. A great way to explore this with your class is to have them summarize an easy story. With the comprehension weight lifted from their shoulders, students can focus more on the process of summarizing. If you listen to students as they collaborate, you may hear some great metacognitive statements. 

When students are summarizing a narrative that is at or beyond their reading level, they will need more support and structure. Consider giving them the introductory sentence for the summary, a list of words to include, or a scaffolded summary. (Scaffolded summaries can be found in Daily Warm-Up Activities for Narrative Texts.)

Important events: Very capable students often write the longest summaries. "But everything is important!" a student argued. And she's not wrong. When students can really comprehend how all of the events in a story fit together, they want to include all of those fascinating events.

Of course, a summary needs to be shorter than the original text! I  use the question "Which event does not contribute to the outcome of the story?" to help students choose which events to leave out. 

For example, as my students were reading the drama "Perfectly Happy", (available here) many wanted to include all of the trades that the main character made. Looking at examples of how different students left out events or collapsed the list of events helped students to figure out what needs to be included in the summary.

When I realized that students were having trouble with choosing important events to include in their summaries, I taught a series of lessons about how to plan the narrative summary. Students used sketchnoting to take notes--and went back to their notes for the next assignment!

Paraphrasing dialogue: Once students have understood the story and can explain which events are most important, they sometimes fall into the habit of including key dialogue in a summary. I especially see this with stories in which important events unfold through dialogue. (Right now I even have a sign hanging in my classroom: Do not include dialogue in a summary!) 

In my Summarizing Stories bundle, I have some activities that focus on helping students to paraphrase dialogue. You can also show some dialogue from the story, or, to make it even more engaging, from a video. How can students paraphrase this dialogue? 

Using present tense: Many of my students are now working on this aspect of summarizing. After four weeks of summarizing narratives, they have a good handle on the basics and are working on the finer points. Encouraging students to use present tense in their summaries will lead them to more success in high school--and helps them to consider the role of verb tense in their writing. It's a great example of how writing and grammar work together.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Close Reading Tip: Connect Images to Text Evidence

    I just love this quick routine for building student skill with finding text evidence. Yesterday, as we were reading the classic "The Land of Counterpane" by Robert Louis Stevenson, I showed students classic illustrations of the poem. Here is one of my favorites, a 1907 illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith.

   Not only does the illustration help to give students crucial context for the poem, but it gives us a quick, engaging task for finding text evidence. "Can anyone find a line in the poem that connects to this image?"

   Suddenly students had a real reason to go back into the text, and they loved scanning the illustration for tiny details. They eagerly plunged back into the text to find the lines that connect directly to the image.

    A quick image search yielded other illustrations, as this poem has been heavily anthologized. We looked at the similarities and differences, always going back to the text--how does this connect to specific lines in the poem? Because we were also working with a companion expository text (found in my Comparing Texts 2 bundle), our next step was to broaden our comparison to see if sentences from the expository text could be connected to the poem. And they could!

   Matching images to texts is highly motivating for readers, and it's fun to do. Even better, though, it builds connections for learners. What are your favorites for this kind of activity?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Toys in the Upper Grades

    I've been teaching for about 18 years now, and my classroom has changed dramatically over that time. Basically I've slowly been bringing items from my house into my room. It started with basic school supplies, like a stapler that works instead of the school ones that jam with every other staple. Then I moved on to bringing in books, steadily bringing in book after book into my room. (Strangely enough, the shelves at home are still always full. Go figure!)
    As my children at home have gotten older, I've started bringing more and more toys into the classroom. And they are so wonderful and useful that I've even started buying toys! No matter what I am teaching, toys work wonderfully. Here are some examples...

Stuffed toys: Role play and retelling

   Stuffed toys are easy to acquire, and lend themselves to many uses. At the bare minimum, stuffed toys are great to have for students to access freely through the day. Even in sixth grade I have some kids who deal with Monday by getting a favorite stuffed animal to sit with them during class. How awesome is that? 
    But stuffed animals have other uses, too. When modeling a literature circle or a classroom routine, stuffed animals are great for playing the negative roles. I never have students play these parts, as I don't want to encourage the negative behavior. But stuffed animals are great for this because they grab student attention and are so cute. 
    Stuffed animals are also helpful for retelling. They don't mind being tasked with multiple roles, and using a stuffed animal can help a student work out "who did what to whom".

K'Nex: Physics

    I first started buying K'Nex for my own two boys. They offer an interesting building system that provides different affordances than Lego. They are also (fairly) inexpensive to purchase with the 40% off any item coupons that Michaels and A.C. Moore occasionally offer. 
    After I saw how much my own kids like K'Nex, I found the education sets that K'Nex offers. They are great! Topics like Bridges, Force and Motion, and Simple Machines are fun to teach with the K'Nex sets. Kids like having the chance to follow the directions or create their own items.
    For our current Force and Motion unit, kids are using both the stuffed animals and K'Nex vehicles to investigate the importance of seatbelts. 


    I first brought Marbleworks into the classroom to be something to occupy my oldest son before and after school. Back when I first started teaching in elementary school, my oldest son was a kindergartener, and keeping him entertained in the hour I spent working before and after school was an important consideration!
    Slowly Marbleworks became an indoor recess toy, and then I saw its value for learning activities. Marbleworks is great for introducing inquiry and testable questions--just give kids a timer and say, "What could you do with this?" 
    Right now, Marbleworks is a toy that kids can use in science as we work on forces and motion. Where does the marble have the most potential energy? What could we do to increase the amount of time it takes the marble to get to the bottom? 
    I also like to use Marbleworks to bring out cooperation and teamwork in kids. This is such an engaging toy that kids can usually work together well to put together a great set. Sometimes, when groups of friends aren't getting along, I'll actually assign them to play Marbleworks, on the condition that they cooperate. Then we can talk about their experiences: "What worked well? What can you use in other situations?"

These are just a few of the toys that I have in my classroom. No matter what I bring in, I seem to be able to find a relevant use for it! My classroom certainly is neat and clutter-free, but kids do find it engaging. What toys are your favorites for the classroom?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Unsolicited Advice about Homework

No one has asked, "Hey Emily, what do you think about homework?" But I'm going to tell you what I think anyway. I've worked for eighteen years in three different grade levels across three different schools in different communities, so I've gained some insight into what works and what doesn't.

My views on homework have been deepened by the experiences of my own children. We've suffered through some poorly designed assignments and ill-conceived packets, but we've also enjoyed carefully crafted homework. (Thanks for the great reading packets and extensions, Nicole!)

First of all, I don't have much patience with the homework/no homework dichotomy. I think that it distracts attention away from the real issue--what do you want kids to do, and why? Teachers need to think of the "work" of school holistically, not just as home and school assignments.

Too often, teachers just assign homework because it is expected, or because they didn't get through everything during class time. Some teachers even seem to think that completion of a chapter means that every problem has been completed, regardless of whether a student masters the concept on page 2 or page 102.

I sat down and made a flowchart to represent what I think about as I plan homework. Notice that I start with two different possible goals. Students can do homework to practice or review a concept, or to extend and deepen understanding. Each one of these goals brings up new questions to consider.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books for Students

I just love to get new books for the classroom to share with students. This fall, I've worked to expand my collection of graphic novels and ratchet up the difficulty level of my library to engage sixth grade readers. My sons are both comic book fans, so I spend lots of time in comic book shops browsing for new books.

Here are some of my favorites:

Roller Girl  by Victoria Jamieson
    I don't always have the opportunity to read with students during independent reading time. Too often I'm working on attendance, finding my papers for the day, or helping students write summaries for our weekly narrative homework. However, last week I just had to sit and finish Roller Girl while my students were reading. It didn't disappoint! If your students have loved Smile and Sisters, this book will be a perfect addition to the shelves.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novels
by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
     Okay, this one isn't in the book orders. A student who has been devouring graphic novels asked for something "spooky" and "mysterious". I knew that The Graveyard Book would be just the thing, and luckily my fifth-grader son is awesome and sometimes shares books from his personal collection. Once I saw how much students liked this, I knew I had to get my own copies for the classroom.
    At first, I thought that the value of graphic novel adaptations of novels was to make compelling stories accessible to students who may not have the skill or patience required to read the novel form. But now I see that, when done well, graphic novel adaptations can add a new layer of richness to an already rich text. Even a reader who has already read or plans to read the novel version can enjoy and learn from the graphic novel form.

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
Whale diarrhea. In space. This is often enough to get readers to pick up Space Dumplins! I like it because it shows a different view of space life than many other books, and its bright, bold colors make it stand out from other graphic novels. Its a thicker book than many other graphic novels, which makes some readers nervous at first, but once they glance through the pages they see that they want to take on the challenge.

...and my students don't know it yet, but they are also getting copies of Hatchet as a gift before our holiday break! Here is a little poem that I wrote to accompany the gift:

As you get ready for the break (or maybe you are already on it, in which case I am a little jealous!), I hope that you take some time to read and relax as well. Have a wonderful holiday!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Collecting and Analyzing Data in Science

The weird toys that grow when you put them in water make a great hands-on measurement activity. Here's how:

1. Get some growing objects! Here's a set from Oriental Trading that is WAY cheaper than the set that I purchased at a craft store. I got four holiday-themed items (penguin, snowman, Santa, tree), one per group in my classroom.

2. Introduce the students to the activity. I worked with small groups of students as the rest of the class did some volume measurement practice with this activity from Kate's Classroom Cafe. We discussed the activity and made some initial measurements, recording the length and mass of each item at the start of our activity.

Even though I know that the sixth graders have studied length and mass before, there were still some questions about how find the millimeters and how to record the length in centimeters with a decimal. This initial small group activity was the ideal way for me to figure out what kids can do and what I need to spend more time working on.

3. Submerge...

4. Record data day after day! You can make a data chart for students, or engage them in making their own. Because I knew that measurement was an issue, I had kids create their own charts with specific measurements. On some days, groups of students found the data; when time was an issue, I'd pull individual students to do the measurements for the class.

I love the Amazon Basics kitchen scale that I bought for the class this fall. The $12 price tag means I don't have to worry when kids take it to different places in the room or weigh sopping wet penguins on it.

5. Discuss the findings each day. I started the conversation with "What do you notice?" and encouraged the use of scientific vocabulary like increase, greater than, and less than. Kids noticed that the tree lagged behind the others in growth, while Santa stayed true to form (much to their amusement!) When students expressed doubt at the data, as with Santa's growth, I encouraged them to take the next step and do the measurements themselves.

6. Graph. This will be our big task next week. I'm going to have students figure out the intervals and build the graphs from scratch, which will take some time. However, it's definitely something that sixth graders should be able to do! (Plus they'll get to use the fancy markers, which they love.)

7. Analyze the data. The toys that I bought make an interesting claim: "Grow up to 300%". Stating whether this claim is accurate or not will be a great way to bring our work with measurement into the real world.

I've been excited to see this unfold in the classroom and watch as the students get better with measuring length and mass. It's added a fun dimension to the sometimes dry "Preparing for Science" unit.

News and Notes
As my own kids and I were talking about the gingerbread man during holiday decorating, I got an idea for a story. What were the ingredients that caused the gingerbread man to come to life? And could someone apply the scientific method to making their own living gingerbread? I took these ideas into a fantasy world that I've been playing around with and "Dancing Gingerbread" was born.