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.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Building Content Area Reading Experiences

I'm delighted to be presenting about content area reading experiences at Shippensburg tomorrow! Well, I admit that I'm not delighted about driving "over the mountain" on the first day of hunting season...but I know that it will be enjoyable to talk about content area reading.

Content Area Reading Presentation
You can find the link to the presentation here. Because I do periodically clean out my folders on Google Drive, you may want to save a copy to your own Drive if you think you'll refer back to this later.

Other content area reading posts
Anticipation Guides: Read more about one of my favorite content area reading strategies.

Nominalizations: No one ever talks about these word constructions, and in my mind, that's a shame. Nominalizations really wreak havoc with the reading comprehension of learners, and understanding their role in text helps students as readers and writers.

Animal Adaptations Synthesis: A reflection about an activity that I led with fourth graders.

Previewing Content with Phenology: How to find out what vocabulary words your learners already know.

Concept Maps: How to develop knowledge with students by making concept maps

Friday, November 23, 2018

Sixth Grade Classroom Management: Grouping Tips

   Sometimes the trouble with teaching for 20+ years is the curse of knowledge. I have tried so many different techniques and noticed so many different results that I get to feeling paralyzed by choices!  I've also learned that some strategies are great for winning the battle, but losing the war--they work really well in the short term, but leave me with greater challenges in the long term.

    But last month, I learned that sometimes techniques that I discarded a decade ago are worth a closer look.

Table Competitions

    Enter Star Table. In the research compilation library of my mind, assigning points to different tables as a competition has as many entries in the "Con" column as it does in the "Pro" column. In the short-term, it is highly effective, as groups will quickly learn how to manage their behaviors to earn points. In the long-term, well, are the students really shaping up to improve as learners, or are they just performing to win points? Because of these issues, I really had abandoned table incentive schemes ten years ago.

Star Table for Cleaning

    In October, I added a "Star Table" incentive, but it was only for cleaning up under the tables and putting up chairs at the end of the day. For these small chores, I feel that a tangible incentive is both helpful and necessary. Each day I'd assign points to table based on what their desks looked like at the end of the day, and at the end of the week the Star Table got to "spin for dollars" with my wheel of fortune and the classroom economy. It was pretty simple, actually, and got the classroom cleaned up with a minimum of fuss.

Group Norms

    But Star Tables were on my mind when I rearranged tables for the month of November. To build a better climate, I started the new groups by having students create group norms for their table. (I picked up this idea from a NASA STEM workshop, and as a teaching tip, is the one of the BEST little tricks I've ever learned.) The idea is that students have a dialogue with each other to dream up what they want for themselves. When issues arise, it's easy for a leader to refer students back to the group norms to address problems.

    Group norms are also great for finding out what you value as a teacher, because to a degree the norms that students create tend to echo what they hear a lot of in the classroom. (I know this from working with group norms in after school clubs, in which we have a mix of students from different classes.) If the group norms come out anemic or weak, that can be hard to face, because it means that somehow my messaging as a teacher is not coming through.

 November's norms were an interesting assortment! Notice in this one the students in the group took turns writing the norms, which I hadn't expressly suggested. They also used a nice numbered list format--again, not something that I had directed them to do!

What do these norms say about our classroom? I was really happy to see #1, but I can see the impact of Star Table right there in #3: "Stay clean." I especially love #4: "Have a sense of humor but not to much."

    In this next set, I really liked that they started with kindness and respect. Once again, though, I could see the influence of Star Table.

    As I'm writing this, I wonder if maybe I should have backed off from Star Table. However, in the first week of November, I made a different choice. I looked at these norms and realized that my casually implemented Star Table was a powerful force in the classroom. What if I could harness that force to achieve more good? What if I kept points throughout the day, for things beyond cleaning?

Star Table Throughout the Day

    For the rest of November, I created a chart on the dry erase board each day, and put up points for tables throughout various classes. As I recreated the chart every day I could never help but reflect on how this method of management has gone wrong for me in the past. As I wrote the table names each day I berated myself for employing such a meaningless technique.

    Once I defeated my anxiety each day, I added or subtracted points as issues arose. Because I prefer to be the Generous Benefactor instead of the Evil Deductress, I was often quite generous in the giving of points. Each table could earn 3 points for every session, and I would add an X or a star in the box as needed. I have to admit, sometimes adding that X felt satisfying, like when it was five minutes into independent reading time and AN ENTIRE TABLE had digressed to a conversation about Fortnite.

    Of course I never gave or took away points for academic work, like getting answers right or wrong. Instead, I looked for things like having out assigned tasks, being ready for the next part of class, showing kindness to one another, and walking through the hallway quietly. (Ugh, like 50% of my classroom management stress comes from trying to keep my class quiet in the hallways!)

    When there were issues that involved only one student, I addressed them with that one student instead of marking down the whole table. I know from experience that taking points off a table for the behavior of one student is the pathway to ruin!

    What was different with this year's implementation of Star Tables? First of all, this was the first time that I explicitly linked them to the group norms that students created. Another innovation was to give minutes to our entire class's Preferred Activity Time if all four tables earned all of the points for a class. This helped to provide an incentive to benefit everyone instead of focusing on the competitive aspect.
    I just finished Week 3, and it was still working harmoniously in the background. Working to the point at which I can just pick up my dry erase marker and frown at the board for a moment to encourage a class to get started! Instead of taking too much time to implement, this method has really allowed me to spend more time working with students and less time giving directions.

Lessons Learned

    The curse of knowledge can be a huge obstacle for those of us in our third and fourth decades of teaching. However, by pairing new tricks with old techniques, we can dust off some strategies and make them work again.

Warnings, Side Effects, and Contraindications

Thinking about Star Tables for your classroom? Consider these warnings:

  • De-emphasize the competitive aspect to build cooperation in your room.
  • Start with a robust set of group norms to guide how tables will behave.
  • If one table is significantly behind the others, make adjustments to the seating chart.
  • Do not punish the entire group for the misdeeds of one. Instead, let that one student earn points or minutes for the whole class.
  • You will be much happier if you are generous with points.
  • This works best for short periods of time, especially the period of November-January. Eventually every management scheme gets stale!
  • Encourage group members to help each other: "In one minute I'll be checking to see how tables are doing. Does everyone have their ____ and ____ ready to go?"
  • Try random point awards: "I'll be pulling popsicle sticks at random times through that work session. If I pull your name and you're on task, your table will get a point."
  • Pair up Star Tables with Preferred Activity Time:


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Preparing for Text-Dependent Analysis

In Pennsylvania, text-dependent analysis is a big deal.  Teachers in schools all over the state have probably worked with their text-dependent analysis (TDA) data this fall.

First, let's think about all of the skills that students have to combine to write a successful text-dependent analysis essay:

Reading skills
-identifying text elements
-selecting strong text details
-analyzing components of the text
-switching between "micro-level" or local processing of text and "macro-level" or big picture processing

Writing skills
-creating a thesis statement
-using an introduction and conclusion
-linking ideas with transitions
-weaving in text evidence
-using appropriate conventions

The issue with TDA essays, however, is that your efforts in one area from the above list do not lead to instant improvement. As with summarizing, it's like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole--as soon as you deal with one issue, another one pops up.

But we must not despair...nor must we fall into the trap of sacrificing high-quality instruction for the sake of one assessment. Again, as with summarizing, there are good teaching moves that can improve a TDA as well as being worthwhile in the greater sense, beyond the requirements of school and state.

Return to reading stances

I think it's time to shift the reading discussion back toward the idea of "envisionments" as described by Judith Langer. As she writes, "Envisionment building is an act of becoming – where questions, insights, and understandings develop as the reading progresses, while understandings that were once held are subject to modification, reinterpretation, and even dismissal."

I just love this thinking about envisionments. The texts we share in the classroom aren't just what's printed on the next page in the reading series; in the minds of our students, they become so much more.

Anyone who taught in Maryland in the early 2000s remembers building questions around the stances of Global Understanding, Developing Interpretation, Personal Connection, and Critical Stance. And guess what? These ways of looking at a text lead students very well into the kinds of thinking needed for a TDA.

With the tumult surrounding the arrival of the Common Core, the stances and envisionments were dropped at the school level.  I have lots of cynical ideas about why and how this happened, but do you know what? The stances make sense and bring up the level of classroom discourse!

Have students practice connecting text elements

In Pennsylvania, the TDA always has students connecting two different elements of the text. For example, students might have to show how the character traits relate to the theme. In expository text, students may need to show how the organization of the text conveys the key ideas.

This is a very global way of thinking about a text that requires flexibility in student thinking. This year, I'm going to focus more on having students discuss these elements in low-stakes classroom conversations. We might even have these discussions before our district-mandated weekly assessment tests (Shh, don't tell!)

My reasoning is this: If students don't get to thoughtful analysis and comprehension at the discussion level, they'll never get there in writing. Grading 20 well-structured but empty analysis essays is a thankless task. Students won't put effort into the writing portion of the task unless they care about what they're writing about! Engaging in group discussions and meaningful conversations is a proven way to get kids to care.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

First Day of School Activities: From Low Risk to High Risk

    Many years ago I went to an in-service presentation about Lions Quest, the character education program funded by the Lions Clubs. Although many parts of the presentation have faded from my memory with time, the presenter had a piece of advice that I still consider every August:

"When planning group-building activities, always remember to start with low risk activities. Don't ask participants to share too much at once."

   The idea is simple, but deeply meaningful. We must be careful to structure our group building so that students aren't asked to share too much before they are comfortable doing so. 
     Over the course of our two-day session, the presenter practiced what she preached. The very first grouping activity was based on something that we had for breakfast that morning, with prescribed choices offered. Pretty low risk, right? Revealing that I had eaten cereal for breakfast did not give away too much of myself in an awkward new group. It wasn't until the very last activity of the last day that we did an activity called "Rare Birds", in which we shared something about ourselves that made us stand out from the crowd.

First day = low risk activities

    Keeping this principle in mind, I make sure that my first day activities are low risk. This is not the time for sharing important truths or deep ideas. While we are coming together as a class, I make sure that our first activities do not put students on the spot.

    I am a pretty reserved and quiet person myself. In new groups, I much prefer to sit back and watch what's going on before I contribute. Many students feel the same way....and my first day activities need to reflect this.

     There will be plenty of opportunities for students to get to know each other on a deeper level. Right now, I want to help everyone to feel comfortable. And this means not asking questions that will make students feel distressed. We keep our conversations rather light and superficial on the first morning of the first day. 

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What books in the classroom look interesting to you?
  • Which classroom plant is your favorite?
  • What part of the classroom do you like to sit in?

    I also like quick and easy games, such as:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Start the Reading Year: Lesson Plans for those First Days of School

There are very few times when I will reuse lesson plans. In fact, sometimes I write plans that I don't even use an hour later! I'm always working on building new things and trying out new ways to teach.

However, there are times when a trusty set of plans is helpful. For me, the beginning of the school year is one of those times. I need the comfort of what's tried and true!

As I was looking through my files to clean up some items and improve them, I came across these lesson plans. I first wrote them in 2011 and have slowly added to them over the years, but hadn't used them since my move to sixth grade.

When I read them I felt my anxiety about the first few days of school just decrease. I can do this! (I've done it before!) I added some new features, like the Reading Interview and the Double Entry Journal, and now all I have to do is make some photocopies and my first few days of reading class are planned.

Here is a sample snippet of the first lesson and activity. What lesson plans do you use over and over again?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Setting up a classroom for collaboration

    It's that time of year again...when pictures of perfect classrooms start to show up on Pinterest and Instagram! It's also the time when anxious and perfectionist teachers start to feel very, very badly about themselves.

    But setting up collaborative classroom actually means learning to let go. It means that as teachers, we can let go of key routines and processes that should be in the hands of students. It means that we can let go of perfectly pretty bulletin boards and having every square inch of the room filled with themed posters. It's actually quite freeing!

Materials stored and labeled for student use

    I am so lucky to have a classroom with lots of drawer space. I make this usable for students by labeling the drawers and providing students with free access to them. It always takes some time in the first weeks of school for students to become used to this!
    Of course there are some materials that I don't like to leave out, tragedy of the commons and all, and these I simply store in a higher cupboard.
    Do the drawers ever get cluttered and messy? Of course! Around December, a few enterprising students always undertake the task of organizing the marker drawer or fixing up the colored pencil drawer. It's just one more way to put tasks in the hands of students.

Browsable book bins

    These are so helpful for students to be able to find and return books on their own. In the first days of school, I put the bins around the room to facilitate browsing. I love how flexible this system can be!

Student-led routines

    Instead of a moon phase bulletin board, I have a place on my board for "Today's Phase" and "Next Phase". The student astronomer will be in charge of checking out the phases and placing the posters accordingly.
   In addition to the moon phases, I also have a dry-erase board set up for the meteorologist to fill in each day. Planning for these routines before the start of school helps them to have a place in the physical arrangement of the classroom.

Leave some things un-done

    My recess games cabinet is a bit messy right now, but that's okay with me! On one of the first three days of school I like to spend an hour getting everything out so that kids can see what the options are. Then, students decide how to organize the cabinet so that the games and materials they like the best are the most accessible. Students are much more likely to keep up with an organizational scheme that they have created.




Monday, July 30, 2018

Choosing books for a classroom library

Building a classroom library has been the task of my career. From a number of sources--school hand-me-downs, used book sales, online purchases, book clubs, and favorite bookstores on vacations, I've put together a library that I hope is inviting and interesting.

What do I buy when I'm confronted by shelves and shelves of books? Here are my guiding principles:

Poetry collections

These show up all the time at quality used book sales and discount booksellers. I've purchased enough so that I can put a poetry book in every student's hand when I teach poetry. This is so helpful! We can talk about characteristics of poems--"Some have short lines, and some have long lines" or "Some poems have formal rhyme schemes, while others do not"--and kids can page through their books and find examples right there! Then they trade books around and look for more.

I keep my poetry books in a separate tub and only have them circulate occasionally, with a few book displays during the year. This prolongs their lives and keeps them in high demand!

Favorite authors and series

Over the years I've created book bins for a number of different authors and series, mostly for books that my students have requested or that my own children have read. I do prioritize filling in these series over starting new ones. And many of them are remarkably popular!

Books that go along with our reading series

Our series has some excellent story excerpts, so I'm working on purchasing the entire works as well as other books by the authors featured in the series. Larger used bookstores like 2nd and Charles are great sources for this.

My own kids' picks

I justify my spending on it as "Well, this is my hobby!" To be honest, many books started out as purchases for my two sons, now 19 and 13, and then made their way into my classroom. So when my youngest wants to buy Endling or Miles Morales at the independent bookstore at the beach, I'm inclined to say yes!

Nonfiction picture books

I really enjoy having nonfiction picture books to set out as book displays for each unit. As with the poetry books, I usually keep these in their own stackable tubs and put them out of general circulation.

Valuing diversity

I want my classroom library to be as rich and varied as the world itself! The books that I seek out and purchase new are often books that are selected to add a diversity of experiences and cultures to my classroom library. From Aru Shah and the End of Time to Pashmina to Witch Boy, these books often become the most requested.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Enhancing Grammar by Imitating Sentences

In 20 years of teaching, I've learned a thing or two about teaching grammar. Specifically, I've noticed:

  • Worksheets don't work!
  • Learners have trouble attaching meaning to grammar terms
  • What's taught in grammar class doesn't always show up in student writing

It's not all bad news, though. In fact, I've learned a fantastic technique for helping students to become better writers AND learn grammar at the same time. This technique is simple, easy to use, and easy to differentiate. What is it?

Imitating sentences

That's it. And this year, I really want to go back to this technique (I've been rather pressured to do the worksheet method over the last two years) to start the year.

Benefits of imitating sentences

  • Students learn how to identify the chunks of sentences: Sentence parts like subject, verb, and prepositional phrase become more concrete when students break sentences into meaningful chunks.
  • Students gain control over their writing: When imitating sentences, students learn how to merge content with form. They don't use a particular verb form because it's the first one they think of, but because it's the verb form that is used in that sentence.
  • Students try new forms: Sentence imitating is a great way to get kids noticing and using more sophisticated sentence forms. It's a powerful way to help students notice the beautiful portability of adverbs and adverbial phrases, the use of punctuation in a sentence, and the way that authors can use repetition for style and effect.

Getting started with imitating sentences

To read more about sentence imitating and sentence composing, visit this website by Don and Jenny Killgallon.

Here is an introductory PowerPoint that I made to share with my students. (The formatting problems resolve if you download...sorry! Slideshare doesn't like text boxes very much.)

You don't have to have fancy materials...all you need are some great sentences and a sense of adventure! Take sentences from your literature series, from a book that you are sharing, from the day's read aloud.

When I taught fourth grade, I put together a targeted sentence writing curriculum that went week by week through the Common Core grammar standards. It worked so well! Now I'm thinking that I'll have to come up with something similar for sixth grade...sigh...

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Adventures

I've had so much fun taking photos this summer! My students know that I take my camera everywhere, and often I'll start a Monday morning showing the pictures that I took over the weekend.

"You go on so many adventures," a student told me wistfully. At first I was surprised by this, because I didn't consider my trips to the local state parks adventures. I consider myself a pretty boring person, actually; adventure has never come knocking on my door. 

But then I thought about my pictures of frogs and snakes and snakes eating frogs and realized that maybe I'd been having adventures all along.

Some pictures from this summer's adventures:

A black and white warbler fledgling looks for bugs in an eastern hemlock tree. I was at the campground in Caledonia State Park when I took this, waiting for family to arrive. I heard what I first thought was a cardinal. Surprise! It was this little guy and its parent, softly keeping contact as they foraged for bugs.

"Love in a mist" is the name of this plant, and the seed pods are just so interesting. This picture was taken in the very un-adventurous trial garden at the local Ag Center, right across the street from a grocery store and community college. But we were wandering the garden on a rainy day, which always makes things seem a little more exciting.


 I think this bee is one of the cutest I've ever seen. It's on swamp milkweed, which smells amazing! I used to be afraid to get too close to bumblebees, but now I know they are so gentle I have nothing to fear. In fact, my two teens "boop" them on their noses. (I don't think the bees like this very much, though)

The last picture is of the view from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, one of my favorite spots. Last week we went on a tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. I've always loved visiting Harpers Ferry and always wanted to try a tubing trip. It was mellow and fun and the scent of sycamores was intoxicating.

What adventures have you been enjoying?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Summarizing Stories with a Shared Read-Aloud

Summarizing a story can be a difficult task for readers of all ages. Not only does the reader need to have a well-developed comprehension of the story, but he or she must also have a flexible vocabulary in order to collapse lists of events and paraphrase story details. (As a side note, I think that Webb really missed the boat in listing summarizing as a DOK 2; like many researchers who haven't studied the literature on summarizing, he discounts the executive skills required to produce a successful summary and conflates summarizing with retelling. But I digress.)

There are lots of ways to build the component skills of summarizing without forcing kids to write summaries every day. Here is a super-simple activity that requires very little prep!

1. Choose a text that all students can access, and that students have read before.

In these pictures, I chose "Nail Soup" from a PSSA item sampler. I liked this story because it was told mostly in dialogue, which makes it more challenging for students to read and summarize. There is also the question of the deceit in the story. This gives it a second layer of meaning and makes a reread a more interesting task.

We had already read this story and worked through the questions, so students came to the summarizing task with some level of familiarity. This is so important if you're working with summarizing! Students need practice with summarizing stories that are well-represented in their minds.

2. Model reading the text as a shared read. 

Make it interesting! I used voices for the dialogue, drew students' attention to the formatting, and paused to share commentary.

3. At each event, use a sticky note to summarize what just occurred.

This is what makes this a summarizing activity. I paused every now and again to ask students, "Is this important to a summary?" Our discussions were great! 

With sixth graders, I emphasized the use of the present tense in writing the summary. (I would probably skip this discussion with younger readers, though.) You could also hand out sticky notes so that students can write their own events. In my case, I wanted students to focus more on the conversation than in copying what I was writing.

4. Use the sticky notes to produce a group summary.

 I alternated colors in my summary to show that the different sentences came from different events. The word-smithing of the summary took center stage in this case, as it was later in the year and the kids were pretty solid with the basics of writing events.

I also bring up the issue of writing our own opinions in the summary. "Can I write, 'This was a great story!'? Why or why not?"

There are some who claim that a summary must be free of reader inferences. This is ridiculous! Readers have to make inferences and many of those inferences are key to story cohesion. In the case of this summary, calling the characters "clever" and "stingy" is perfectly reasonable, as they are referred to by those traits in the text. Other character traits might be a stretch. Talk about this with students!

Notice that the summary starts with what I call an "executive sentence" that encapsulates the whole essence of the story in one sentence. Readers who learn how to write this smooth introductory sentence are at an advantage.

If you've never done this before, I recommend that you try to summarize the story on your own before trying it with students. It's surprisingly difficult to summarize on the spot, especially as you're trying to manage the class and keep an eye on everything else that's going on!

Next steps

As students summarize stories on their own, many of them take the sticky note strategy to try on their own. I love to see that shared activities become part of a set of strategies that students can use flexibly on their own!


This Summary and Analysis set includes a story that is great for summarizing practice.

If you want to give your students an additional challenge, use this Summary and Analysis set to have them try summarizing a drama!

Aimed at younger readers, this set includes a variety of summarizing activities, including practice with collapsing lists of events and summarizing dialogue.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Setting Graphic Organizer: When does the story take place?

In a previous post, I wrote about how students often find it helpful to collect details about a setting in a setting graphic organizer. An organizer that cues students to consider details of time as well as place helps them to come to a more sophisticated understanding of setting.

Sometimes, though, students have trouble figuring out the time in which the story takes place. It took me a few years to realize that these students don't have a strong internal model for a timeline!

For these students, the graphic organizer below is helpful:

Download a copy here:

The idea of a "fairy tale time" or something off the timeline helps students to realize that some stories don't take place on our regular timeline.

In addition, a classroom timeline really helps students to place historical fiction stories. I adapted this one from TpT to hang up in my classroom, making sure to add events for stories that we would be reading over the school year--for example, adding the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea to go along with A Single Shard, and the year that "Ozymandias" was written to go along with our study of sonnets.

Helping students to conceptualize setting as place and time really adds to our classroom conversations!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Classroom Decorating: Full Moon Mini-Posters

    As I think about how to decorate my classroom for the new school year, I want to keep the focus on decorations that are educational as well as decorative. That's one reason why I like to keep a list of Atlantic hurricane names for the year--this serves as an ongoing resource to keep us thinking about hurricanes.

    I also like to keep the dates of the full moons visible all year long. Last year, I made a set of Full Moons mini-posters so that we could always see where we were in the moon cycle. A student illustrated small moons that we attached to each poster after the full moon passed. This was a lovely way to mark the passage of time through the year!

   Of course I didn't take any photos of my posters last year, but you can peek at them next to my hurricane name list to the right.

    Some concepts are best taught over a long period of time instead of in a single lesson. By watching the pattern of the full moon through the year, students learned more about how the cycle works.

    You can make your own posters fairly easily. It would be a great first day activity for students! If you would like a prepared set, my posters are available FREE from TpT:

Full Moon Mini-Posters

Monday, July 9, 2018

Description Texts for Teaching Text Structure

Summer means it's time to dust off the teaching units and make updates. One of my ongoing projects is to redo my old TpT products, especially working to turn them into easily printable PDFs.

The Description Texts for Teaching Text Structure set was originally made to feature articles and activities to help readers understand this important text structure. As I revised and updated, I added some of my favorite texts from other products, looking at building background knowledge and creating strong links to content areas. Of course I couldn't help but to update the formatting as well!

I ended up with over 100 pages including 13 articles, before and after reading activities, and answer keys. Once I got started I just couldn't stop.

Here are some of my favorite additions!

The Green Darner: This article is organized in question and answer format to describe an awesome migrating dragonfly. Originally featured in September Reading Homework, it is a friendly text for helping students to recognize key features of description. I loved researching it!

A Stinky Sign of Spring: I adore skunk cabbages as one of the first signs of spring in wet forests. When I put together the March set of homework packets, I included an article about these plants. I updated the formatting and added MORE skunk cabbage pictures because they are so amazing.

Canals: Okay, so understanding the role of canals in history and early transportation is so important, but year after year I find that kids just have no idea of what a canal is or what it is used for.

I wrote an article about canals that I used in Daily Warm-Up Activities for Nonfiction Test Preparation, but I wanted to add some prettier formatting. Now it's updated and ready to be used as an example of description/main idea and detail text structure.

Remember, if you previously purchased this set, you can download an updated version for free! I hope that these texts and activities help you to teach about this important text structure.

Free PowerPoint for teaching the description text structure

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Setting Graphic Organizer

As a reader, I love texts with rich, detailed settings. Talking about setting with readers leads to great conversations as we talk about:

-How does the setting contribute to the plot?
-Could this story have happened in a different setting?
-How do the characters interact with the setting?
-What is the mood created with the words describing the setting?
-How does the setting change over the course of the story?
-(For historical fiction) What details about the time period can you learn?

With older readers, it's hard at first to help them understand that setting includes both the time and place of the text. Students want to just name the first location mentioned in the story and be content with that as the setting. But often, it's more helpful to name a generalized location.

I like to use this setting graphic organizer to help students notice and collect setting details. It scaffolds students to think about both the time and the place, and helps students to think about how the details connect to the setting as a whole. It's marvelously adaptable because we can put in the time and the place first, and then look for details to support them. We can also find details first, and then use those details to infer the broader setting. (I wrote more extensively about making inferences about setting in The Forest AND the Trees)

Time and place setting from Emily Kissner

For classroom-ready activities dealing with story elements like setting, you might like:

Monday, July 2, 2018

Classroom Transitions Made Easy: The Power of the Clean-Up Song

Transitions. They can be a real pain, right? Whether you want to transition from one activity to another, bring everyone back to their seats for a reflection session, or just clean up from an incredibly messy activity, we need a clear way to show students that it's time to move on.

But the worst way to transition is to nag at students. "Get this cleaned up!" or "Be sure to look for paper scraps under your chairs!" or "I want this room spotless!"--ugh, I've heard so many rude and disrespectful things that teachers say again and again and again to try to manage the clean-up process.

The clean-up song, a trick that I learned from Responsive Classrooms, is a way to get kids actively involved in the transition without having to nag. In fact, once the process has been taught, I find myself saying nothing at all. Adults in the classroom are frequently amazed by how smoothly the students orchestrate the transition. I just smile and wave a hand and deflect the praise to how wonderful my students are.

Make a playlist of clean-up songs

I have a playlist with songs of 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, and 5 minutes. I deploy each one depending on how much we've made! After building our Mars rovers, believe me that I needed a 5 minute song. If kids are just scattered around the room, reading, though, we often only need 2 minutes to get back together.

It's important to choose a song that will comfortably allow enough time for clean up. The purpose is not to make students feel anxious or rushed. Instead, it's to provide a musical timer for the transition.

Some teachers say, "I'm going to let my students choose the songs!" Well, okay, but I need to choose songs for myself that I can handle listening to again and again and again. The transition period is often the most stressful part of the class, as students will drop things and spill things and ask a million questions, and if there's a song playing that grates on my nerves, it just makes things worse.

Teach the routine

I start with the clean-up song from the very first day of school. It goes along perfectly with introducing some awesome classroom supplies--like math templates and colored pencils--and, when it's time to clean up, introducing the song and explaining what it means.

"By the end of this song, we'll have everything cleaned up! What can we do to make this happen?"

I always emphasize that no one is done until everyone is done. That is, if you have cleaned up your area, help someone else!

After our first experience with the routine, we debrief and discuss the results. Did we accomplish the clean up in the amount of time? What could we do to improve? I write down our comments and display them again before the next transition.

I always start with just one song, and then slowly introduce the others. Being familiar with the clean-up song is important, because it causes students to pay attention to it and know when it is just about over.

Hold students accountable

I don't mean this in a disrespectful, "You're in trouble!" way. Instead, we're all accountable for keeping our classroom a pleasant place to be. Depending on how students respond, you can use these accountability measures:
-Reflection after the clean-up: With some groups, it's enough to say, "We didn't meet our goal. Why not?" and discuss it. Just the disappointment of not following through is enough.
-Preferred Activity Time: If you use this management tool from Fred Jones, the addition or subtraction of time from the bank is a super-easy way to add accountability.
-Time to sit before recess/another activity: I use this incredibly sparingly, not even once per school year, but it's effective and helps everyone understand the importance of working together. Whatever time we spend cleaning up after the song is over is taken from recess. Now, before you hate me for taking away recess, know that I never let the time progress past one minute for this, and I am always prompt with recess dismissal, never going past time for "one more thing." (In fact, I take kids out early at least once per week, just because we get everything finished and are ready to go!) We usually we clock in at 22 seconds or so late to recess, which is enough time to help kids understand that I am serious. Paired with my usual habit of taking kids out a minute or so early, this is very effective.

Don't intervene

Once the initial teaching period is done, I withdraw from the transition time. I'll answer the questions that inevitable come up, but I don't offer advice or nag. It's the students' job to get this done, and I need to show that I have confidence in them! (Sometimes the students specifically ask me to help with something and this is such awesome initiative that of course I do.)

Post clear directions for the end

I'm not sure why so many teachers are resistant to doing this. Want your classroom to go more smoothly? Put directions on the board. I have to teach kids to look at the board and read what is there.

Usually I write simple directions, like "Get out your science notebook and write three questions you have about hurricanes." Sometimes the directions tell students to move into the next part of class, like "Pull out your independent reading book" or "Be ready for Quizlet Live".

So that's it! A simple routine, a little of teaching at the start, and you too can amaze your colleagues and administrators by having kids clean up without saying anything at all.

So here are my favorite songs:

These first three songs are the ones that I've used for at least 10 years. That's right, ten+ years of transitions! I used to have these burned to a CD that I played from my bulky desktop. 

If I Had a Million Dollars: Bare Naked Ladies
At 4:26, this song is perfect for longer transitions. Plus, the lyrics are interesting and keep students listening. ("Mrs. Kissner, why is a green dress cruel?") I can tell you that after 15 years of using this as a clean-up song, I still don't mind it.

Stand: REM
This classic is just about 3 minutes, and kids tolerate it pretty well. It has a nice key change toward the end that signals to students that the song is almost over, and it's pretty awesome to watch as everyone's movements become a little faster at this point.

Istanbul: They Might Be Giants
This one is just 2:33 and starts off super quietly, but your kids will be dancing by the end. And hey, it teaches geography! And history! Kind of...

Some other favorites

These are songs that I've added recently or by student request.

Dirty Paws: Of Monsters and Men
I have this song on a different playlist of quiet songs, and a student asked for me to use it as a clean-up song. At 4:38, it's a great addition to the list.

Loch Lomond: Dan Zanes and Natalie Merchant
For some reason I ended up using this song a lot during math class at the end of the day. I just need something peaceful and quiet, and this is a beautiful adaptation of the classic song.

I've Got a Dream: Tangled Soundtrack
It's funny, it's surprising, it has a great sing along video, and I like it.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Sixth Grade Wonders: Quizlet Vocabulary and Spelling Links for Units 1 and 2

Even though Wonders does have some vocabulary practice activities, I still like to use Quizlet to introduce new words, review key vocabulary, and of course play Quizlet Live. Quizlet works seamlessly with both Google Classroom and Remind, two other applications that I use on a daily basis.

Over the past two years, I've made Quizlet sets for most of the units that I've taught, splitting up the spelling and the vocabulary. I've even added review words from previous sets to allow us to do Quizlet Live. This leads to a highly interactive and fun way to introduce new sets of spelling words. As students arrive in the morning, they are invited to preview the words; when the announcements are over, we start the day with Quizlet Live!

I'll be updating some of these over the weeks to come to get everything ready and in one place for the coming school year. If you use Quizlet for vocabulary and spelling, drop me a line to let me know!

Unit 1

Wonders Grade 6 Unit 1 Week 1 Spelling

Unit 1 Week 2 Spelling, regular list

Unit 1 Week 2 Spelling, Tier Two (beyond level words)

Unit 1 Week 3 Spelling, regular list

Unit 1 Week 3 Vocabulary

Unit 1 Week 4 Spelling

Unit 1 Week 4 Spelling, Tier Two (beyond level words)

Unit 1 Week 5 Vocabulary

Unit 1 Week 5 Spelling

Unit 2

Unit 2 Week 1 Vocabulary

Unit 2 Week 1 Spelling

Unit 2 Week 2 Vocabulary

Unit 2 Week 2 Spelling, regular list

Unit 2 Week 3 Vocabulary

Unit 2 Week 3 Spelling

Unit 2 Week 4 Vocabulary

Unit 2 Week 4 Spelling

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sixth Grade Science: Tracking Hurricanes with Students

Our sixth grade science curriculum has shifted to covering more of the middle level earth, space, and atmospheric science standards. Last year, I worked with this by adding a new science starter for the fall months: hurricane tracking.

Tracking these storms is important for the classroom in several ways. First, every time we track a storm, students build their geography skills, practicing using latitude and longitude to find a location. In addition, tracking storms adds a real-life current events component to science class. Students see firsthand how science techniques like collecting and analyzing data are important to everyone! I also like to use the technique of tracking storms because it helps students to work with a topic over a period of time. It's not just a one-day lesson, but an ongoing synthesis of data and ideas.

Preparing to track storms

I have several items in my classroom to help me track hurricanes. At the start of the school year last year, I made a list of the Atlantic basic hurricane names for the year. (Future lists) Next year, I think that I will add the Pacific basin as an extension for students who work quickly and would like an extra challenge.

In addition, I made a packet with about 10 copies of the Atlantic tracking chart, available from NOAA. You can find the tracking charts here:

Hurricane tracking charts

One thing that I always fix up when I make copies is to make the latitude and longitude markings a little larger, as sometimes kids say that they have trouble reading the tiny numbers.

I also include a Know-Wonder-Learn chart in my booklets, as well as a listing of hurricane intensity categories.

Daily routine

We quickly fall into a daily routine of hurricane tracking. I start the class by projecting the Active Tropical Cyclones page from the National Weather Service. Last year was an active year, so we had lots of storms to track!

I wrote the latitude and longitude of the day's storm or storms on the board, and students found those coordinates and marked them. Some liked to use multiple colors to mark storms, while others found a pencil to be sufficient. We put the date and the name of the storm in small writing next to the storm.

I kept track of the data on a chart in the classroom so that students who missed a day could quickly catch up.

The question of whether to track tropical disturbances comes up frequently. In most cases, I leave it up to the class. If a disturbance has less than a 30% chance of developing, then we usually don't mark it. But sometimes students want to record the information, especially if there aren't any other active storms that day.

As students become more independent with the routine and depending on our other activities for the day, sometimes they do visit the NHC website and record the information on their own. There are many other educational activities on the site for students to explore, and they enjoy bringing new information to share with the rest of the class.


Students quickly notice the difference in markings between a tropical disturbance, a tropical storm, and a hurricane. (Here's a reference if you're curious.)  They begin to use these different notations in their own tracking charts. With the document camera, I can project the hurricane charts of several students so that we can discuss what they have in common and what they may want to work on.

Students also start to notice that most of our Atlantic hurricanes start off the coast of Africa. This leads them to make hypotheses about the tracks of future storms. When some storms don't act in the ways that they expect, students begin to wonder about what other variables may be influencing them.

I always approach hurricane tracking with a questioning frame of mind. I'm not at all an expert in meteorology, but I've learned a lot from three years of hurricane tracking!

The emotional impact

There is definitely an emotional side to tracking storms. Located as we are in Pennsylvania, severe storms rarely reach us. However, students are still anxious about the impacts of storms.

It's tough to stand in front of the classroom and discuss with students whether a tropical disturbance will turn into the named storm Maria one week and then watch it wreak havoc the next. As I remind students, though, these things will happen whether we track them or not. Knowing about the storms and being a fully informed citizen helps to make severe weather less scary in the long run.


On days with no storms, we build background knowledge with videos and lessons. Here is a playlist of my favorites.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Building Vocabulary, Phonics, and Word Roots in Sixth Grade

I'm always working on introducing vocabulary words in new and interesting ways. To me, looking at words with readers is so important for building reading success. We talk about the words; we talk about how the words are used in the text; we talk about how the words relate to the overall meaning of the text; we talk about how we might use these same words, both in talking about the text and in creating our own ideas.

Sometimes I use speed drills to introduce new words. When I have some more time, however, I like to create a matching activity. This activity does take some preparation, but it pays off huge dividends in getting readers to focus on and talk about new words and how they fit into a bigger text.

1. Choose 8-10 interesting words from your next reading selection

I like to choose words based on several criteria. First, I look for high-utility academic words--some sources call these "Tier 2" words--that are likely to be found across multiple texts. Several years ago I took the original word list from Averil Coxhead's research and put it into a spreadsheet, with information about word roots and phonograms. You can access the sortable list here.

In the case of the example to the right, I used words from our basal curriculum.

2. Create syllable cards for each word.

Early in the school year, I use the QRI word reading test and noticed that my students had trouble decoding difficult multi-syllabic words. Showing students how to break words into syllables--divide and conquer, if you will!--helps them to approach new words with confidence.

I used Microsoft Word to create syllable cards for each word. To make the cards more manageable, I formatted them to overlap a bit to form the word, as you can see with "inscription" to the right. For struggling readers, you may want to paperclip the syllable cards together for each word; other readers may enjoy the challenge of sorting out 50 or so syllables.

3. Create definition cards for each word.

I used fairly simple definitions for the words, and formatted the table cells to make the cards all the same height.

4.  Take the sentences from the text that use each word and type them into your cards, leaving a line for each target word.

This step ensures that students work with putting the meaning of the words back into the text, an important step.

It's matching time!

I love report card envelopes for storing my reading manipulatives. When I did this particular activity with students, I arranged students in mixed ability groups with the plan that all students would be engaged in strong conversations. They were! I emphasized reading the definitions, words, and sentences aloud to each other. As I circulated to peek in at groups, I asked them questions like, "What do you think you're going to read about in this text?" and "How do ____ and _____ relate to each other?"

This isn't just a pre-reading activity, either. Students used the cards after reading the text as well to build automaticity and fluency. In this case, they could use the text to reinforce the meanings of the words, for example pointing to pictures of inscriptions in the text.

Differentiation with Etymology

A fourth set of cards including the word roots and etymology expands this activity. I introduced these to groups that needed some extra enrichment.

Although it is time-consuming to prepare, this activity yields big benefits in helping students to decode and use high-frequency academic words!

More with Academic Vocabulary

If you're looking for a structured approach to academic vocabulary, you might enjoy this reading intervention set!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Working with Wonders: Next Steps

In my previous post, I wrote about my first two years of experience with the Wonders reading program. Here, I'll discuss some of the strategies I've used to build on the strengths of the program and make it fit into my own classroom.

Working with small groups
I have a sweet situation for my ELA instruction, with 90 minutes of reading instruction in the morning plus 40 minutes after lunch for grammar and writing. I co-teach with a special educator, which is amazing! We start with about 20 minutes of independent reading as the day is getting started. Then, after a 15-20 minute minilesson, we break into small groups. Kelly takes her quarter of the class and I work with the rest of the group--18-24 readers, depending on the year and class size.

I break up this group into three smaller groups and rotate among them. To minimize transitions, I'm the one who physically moves for instruction, although the kids are free to work wherever they like when I am not with them, and they sure do like to move around!

What I do with the small groups depends on what we're working on at the time, what students seemed to be need help with, and what we really loved talking about.

My rotations usually involve some reading, some fluency work, word work, and comprehension questions. Which brings up the question...what do kids do when they're not with me?

The fluency passages that go with each week's instruction are usually pretty interesting, and sometimes groups work on these. I also intersperse some of my own Readers Theatre scripts, like Story Elements Readers Theatre or Text Structure Readers Theatre.

Comprehension questions for discussion
The Close Reading Companion by Wonders is meant to be a resource for teachers to help lead in-depth conversations of the texts. I have a colleague who loves it. Personally, I can never figure out what to put on those lines, and when I do know what should go on them, there's never enough room.

Instead, I've started making some of my own packets to go with the stories. In some of them I use a speed drill to practice key vocabulary; in others I write my own multiple choice questions, usually mirroring those in the Weekly Assessments. Here is an example of one of the packets that goes with "Into the Volcano" in Unit 1.

I don't just hand out these pages as worksheets. Instead, they guide student discussions, and we enjoy the conversations that we can have. But putting the important questions on paper helps immensely with co-teaching and when there is a substitute!

Spelling pages
As I wrote in a previous post, the spelling component of Wonders doesn't blow me away. I've found that making a page that includes the spelling words, vocabulary words, and some extra activities builds our learning.

These little additions make teaching with Wonders so much easier and more enjoyable! What changes have you made to your own reading programs?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Independent Reading Letter

    At my Independent Reading Workshop, many teachers were interested in adding accountability to independent reading. Often, I just walk around the room and check off on my clipboard the books that students are reading, and end it there.

   Once a month or so, I enjoy working with students to gain a deeper insight into their reading. This Independent Reading Letter assignment is a fun way to do this.

Here are some quick notes about using this assignment:

Complete these in the classroom! You will have much better results with this if you provide class time for the assignment. When I do it, I circulate to talk with students about what they are writing.

Keep these month to month: It's fun to keep the Independent Reading Letters that students create and look at them month to month. You can see incredible growth over the year! (On a more cynical side, if students are typing these, you might also want to keep them to make sure they are not copying and pasting month to month.)

Share with students: Students love sharing their letters with each other! One month you can mix it up by having students write their letters to one another.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Engaging Readers with Independent Reading

Today I got to present with the Adams County Teaching and Learning Conference! It was exciting to get together with fellow teachers for a day.

I presented on the topic of independent reading. Structured time for students to read during class has been an important piece of my instruction ever since I started teaching (waaay back in 1997!) I've never presented about it before, however. Why not? I never feel totally comfortable with how I implement independent reading. Each year I make small changes as I consider whether my classroom was too structured or not structured enough or whether I didn't hold students accountable or whether I sucked the joy out of reading.

This level of existential discomfort, however, is vital to teaching reading. I think that the day I decide that everything is "just right" will be the day that I am done as a classroom teacher! I need to learn how to embrace that uncomfortable feeling and keep making small changes as I adjust to each new group of students.

Speaking of an uncomfortable feeling...I didn't have my Mac adapter to plug into the Promethean board, so I used the handy PC computer that was already connected and just signed into my Chrome account. No problem, right? Except that the computer RESTARTED twenty minutes into my presentation and took the entire session time to look for updates and finish. Ugh! Luckily I could talk forever about books and reading, but I don't think the participants were impressed.

Here is a link to the presentation, with some photos removed:

Here is a list of my favorite classroom books for independent reading!

Anyone else have a presentation fail to share?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Working with Wonders: Choices and Challenges

So two years ago my district adopted the Wonders reading anthology. I've been pretty quiet on here ever since then for several reasons:

  1. The process of adopting the anthology was pretty painful, and everything that I'd ever created for curriculum was cast aside, publicly and loudly. Ouch.
  2. The learning curve to assimilate all of the new materials was steep.
  3.  I like to really think deeply about a topic before writing about it. For like two years.

Everything I say here will be based on the sixth grade Wonders materials, which are the only ones to which I have access. I've done two (maybe three?) days of in-service work with the official trainers, and I've used the program for two years.

The Basics
The Wonders series is based on two different books: The Reading-Writing Workshop book, and the Literature Anthology. Each of six units has six "weeks" of curriculum written for it. Each week focuses on an essential question, and has several selections associated with it, often of differing genres.

The Reading-Writing Workshop selections are designed to be shared reads. These are uncredited texts that use the eight vocabulary words for the week, and often I find myself admiring these anonymous authors who managed to work the necessary words into an unrelated text. They range in quality from meh to surprisingly good.

The selections in the Literature Anthology are, naturally, the longer texts that hold the meat of the program. These include selections from novels such as Elijah of Buxton, A Single Shard, and Home of the Brave, as well as magazine articles and other nonfiction selections.

Reading lessons are included in the Reading-Writing Workshop book, and there are many close reading questions for the literature anthology selections in the teachers guide as well. Each week ends with a Weekly Assessment that consists of two uncredited selections, nine multiple choice questions that reflect the week's lessons to a degree, and one text-dependent analysis question requiring students to compare the two texts.

Of course there are scads of other resources that come along with the program, including leveled readers for guided reading, grammar worksheets and assessments, fluency reproducibles, diagnostic and placement tests, a close reading companion, an interactive version of the text for struggling readers, and then everything online as well, et cetera et cetera.

The Great
The best part of this program is the quality of the literature selected for the Literature Anthology. The sixth grade texts have a dizzying variety of form, style, and genre, and many are from well-known authors. The publishers didn't stint on the illustrations, either. For example, an excerpt from Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard is gorgeously illustrated in context-building paintings created especially for the series. Readers can't help but turn the pages to see what happens next! Nonfiction texts, like Into the Volcano, are accompanied by diagrams, maps, and sidebars.

It is easy to find an entire year's worth of instruction in the pages of the anthology. The texts are meaty enough to yield multiple interpretations, and the text pairings can lead to interesting comparisons.

The Good
The connections between the uncredited texts in the Reading-Writing Workshop and the texts in the Literature Anthology are pretty solid. The Reading-Writing Workshop texts are written to be accessible to most readers and used to introduce key concepts, and as a whole they are well-written and interesting. As with the Literature Anthology, the RWW texts are beautifully illustrated and formatted.

The Weekly Assessments are reasonably good as well, and give teachers far more than enough materials for ongoing assessment. The online testing system works well and makes grading much easier!

Vocabulary words are well-chosen. Last year, I had a classroom economy running, and "paid" students $50 to find vocabulary words in the context of their independent reading books. The incidence of the program vocabulary words in grade-level literature was astounding! This showed me that the words taught in the program are words that readers are likely to encounter and totally worth the time spent teaching them.

The Questionable
My biggest issue with the Wonders series is the issue of time. It is absolutely impossible to finish the program as described. For example, a 15-page story excerpt called "Roman Diary" is meant to be taught, read, and discussed in a single day of instruction. This is the norm, rather than the exception. Each of the amazing Literature Anthology texts is blocked for one day of instruction. My readers have varying reading rates, of course, and even with an incredibly generous reading block of 2 hours we can't make this work. I don't think I'd want to do it this way, either. Strong works of literature require time for the reader to consider and think about the author's choices; racing through them does no one any good. This is especially true for the upper grades, in which the goal of reading becomes slowing down and considering the author's choices.

Of course the facilitators at the workshops are quick to say, "Make it work for you!" at the same time that they talk about keeping pace and moving quickly through the program. It's telling that the online planning program will not allow you to make a lesson block longer than 6 days. Instead, to make your days line up correctly, you have to add "Non-teaching days"...even if those days are definitely going to be spent teaching! This sends a message to teachers, especially newer teachers who don't have as much confidence in their choices. It's easy for me to say, "I'm teaching this amazing text about the Great Chicago Fire, and we will work on it for four days because there is so much to explore here!" A first year teacher, however, might feel pressure to race through and miss those great connections.

Another small quibble has to do with the Benchmark tests. There are three Benchmarks to be given at intervals through the year. Like the Weekly Assessments, these are uncredited texts written for the program. I would like to see stronger texts for these tests, especially as there are so few of them!

The spelling and grammar segments are weak, with an emphasis on really dull worksheets. Given the strength of the other components, I'd have loved to see stronger lessons with more sentences and examples pulled from the included texts.

As students move through the series, I also notice that the program's emphasis on text-based essential questions--"What was life like for people in ancient civilizations?"--leads to a lack of knowledge about literature terms. Even though text structure is taught throughout each year, my students had trouble generating a list of text structures this year. Now that I'm aware of this issue, I can easily work to fix it.

Next Steps
In my next post I'll talk about what I've done to add to the program this year.

Have you adopted a basal series in the past few years? What was your experience like?