October 26, 2016

Favorite Beginning of the Year Foundation Lessons

When it comes to teaching reading and writing to middle school students, it's overwhelming to know where to start with what to teach them.  Below I'm going to recap a few of my favorite lessons to teach within the first two months of the school year.

Lesson One: Selecting Independent Reading Material

The way I run Reading Workshop rests on doing a daily reading minilesson following the gradual release of responsibility (modeling, have-a-go, application, share).  During that application time, students are expected to apply the concept from the minilesson for the day to their independent reading book.  If students are "fake reading" and have no idea what's going on in their book or flat out don't have an independent reading book, how are they supposed to complete the minilesson?

One common mistake we make at the beginning of the school year is that we jump right into content without laying down a foundation for reading.  In order to create a reading culture in your classroom, here are a few things to try:

1.  Have a minilesson focused solely on selecting engaging independent reading material.  This year, I did the minilesson application on Google Classroom.  Students explored sites like "Good Reads" and "What Should I Read Next" and wrote down book titles that interested them.  We also started a collaborative class Google Doc where each student added a book recommendation.  In the past, I have let students just go down to the library to pull any random book off the shelf as their next IR book and hope for the best.  Why am I not surprised when that same student comes up to me three days later and says they're going to abandon their current independent reading book....again.  Now, before I will even sign a pass to the library, students have to show me their "Book I Want to Read" list in their Reader's Notebook with the book they intend to checkout.  If students don't have a specific book in mind, I ask them to go to Google Classroom and spend a little time on the websites previously mentioned looking for a specific idea.

Lesson Two: Establish What Independent Reading and Writing Looks Like

In order for students to become better readers and writers, they must have time to read and write.  If you don't give them that time during class, the world of sports, friends, and technology is going to take over after school.  The reading and writing more than likely is not going to happen as consistently as we would want it to.  Independent reading and writing can't happen in your class is clear expectations aren't set collaboratively, practiced, reflected on, and reinforced daily.  Trust me, it is a battle you want to fight and win because not only do students need this time to become better readers and writers, I need this time with them to be holding reading and writing conferences and guided reading and guided writing small groups.  Some of my students will learn when I am teaching a whole class minilesson, but where I am truly going to make a difference is during small group and individualized instruction.  If this instruction can never happen because I have to play reading and writing police, then this is a tragic loss of prime instructional time for my students.  Taking the time to make sure independent reading and writing expectations are crystal clear is never a waste of time.

Lesson Three: Teach Students How to Be Sentence Stalkers

The foundation of how I run Word Study in my classroom, which encompasses grammar, writing conventions, vocabulary, spelling, etc. is through the sentence stalking of sentences from our current interactive read aloud.  I don't waste a day of school before I have students learn how to be sentence stalkers.  Word Study is on the board when students walk into class, so it's the first thing they do every single day.  Teaching students how to look at the writer's craft of what goes into writing a sentence can impact students in how they read and how they write.

Lesson Four: Citing Textual Evidence and Quality Reading Response

The first type of writing I have my students do is in response to their reading.  We call this type of writing "Writing about Reading."  These responses at the beginning of the year tend to be filled with vague ideas not supported with what's actually going on in the book.  This year, my team of 8th grade LA teachers and I bit the bullet and taught how to add in and cite textual evidence extremely early on in the school year.  We specifically focused on how to introduce textual evidence, how to cite it correctly, and how to explain the ideas.  I don't regret it one bit, not even a little.  Teaching this writing skill right away saved me from seemingly endless hours of reading Writing about Reading responses with vague references to reading.  Now that we're writing a research paper in Writing Workshop, it's also pretty awesome that students are connecting adding in textual evidence to adding in specific research.

The above picture is a shared writing that I did with my reading intervention group in response to the book, Crow Call, by Lois Lowry.  Getting the opportunity to work with six students consistently in a small group on specific skills they need as readers and writers is a true gift!

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August 23, 2016

5 Tips for Your Classroom Library

A classroom library is the heart of any classroom not just for elementary teachers, but for middle school teachers, too!  Below you will find some tips in how to set up, maintain, and use your classroom library across the school year.

Tip One: Organize with Book Bins by Genre, Author, and Topic

The days of a classroom library meaning taking a bunch of books and sticking them on a shelf are over.  It's time to invest in some plastic bins and organize books into categories.  The categories I use in my classroom library are mostly by genre, but I also use author and topics.  Here are some ideas of book bin titles below.

-Realistic Fiction
-Historical Fiction
-Science Fiction
-Popular Authors (Gary Paulson, Walter Dean Myers, Kate DiCamillo, etc.)
-Books in a Series
-Sports Realistic Fiction
-Adventure/Survival Realistic Fiction
-Mystery Realistic Fiction
-Dog Realistic Fiction

Organizing by categories will help students quickly and easily find the bin that suites their interests and be able to access a book they want to read.  We all have those students that grab the first book they see from a library stacked with books with no order.  This way, students like that who may still grab a book quickly will probably grab from a bin from a genre they will read.  A quick organization tip to keep the library organized this way is to write the category name on the inside front cover or use different colored stickers to represent different genres for easy book return to the correct bin.

Tip Two: Have Students Interact with the Classroom Library

Half the battle of being a teacher is remembering to do all of the simple ideas stored up in your mind from Pinterest, reading education blogs, watching other teachers teach, etc.  One simple idea for getting students to interact with the classroom library is to give a different group of 2-3 students 5 minutes at the beginning of independent reading time each day to browse the classroom library.  My students have their "Books I Want to Read" list in their Reader's Notebooks, so they can take their Reader's Notebooks back to the classroom library and jot down book titles they're interested in reading next as they browse.  I have students do this even when they have a current independent reading book.  I want my students to be continuous readers who move fluently from one independent reading book to the next.  By giving them time to consider books they want to read in the future, this ensures we will avoid the in-between books lull that is associated with off-task behaviors during independent reading time.

Tip Three: Avoid Levels

There are so many reading assessments out there: F&P Benchmark Assessment, DRA, QRI, Lexile, STAR, MAPS, etc.  We need these assessments to strategically plan our reading minilessons and guided reading lessons so that we can move students forward as readers.  However, we do not need this information to put a label on students.  There are so many factors that go into if students are going to be successful with their independent reading book choices: motivation, background knowledge of topic, familiarity with genre, support at home, and the list goes on and on.  As teachers, we get levels to help us know where to instruct students and gain knowledge about their strengths and weaknesses as readers.  It is meant to be a teaching tool.  It was never meant to be a label for students so that they can only pick out of certain book bins in the classroom library, or a way they can compare their reading abilities to other students in the classroom.  Restricting students to read only at or near their level is not only dangerous for students with a lower reading level, but it's also dangerous for students with a higher reading level.  As teachers, if we're doing what we're supposed to be doing through our reading instruction, independent reading is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to how students are developing as readers.  At different points throughout the school year, they should also be listening to books during interactive read aloud, being instructed at their level during guided reading, conferenced with about their independent reading books during reading conferences, and discussing grade level texts with small groups of students during literature circles.  If we're providing all of these contexts for reading instruction for our students, we do not need to worry if our highest readers are sometimes picking "easy" books or our lowest readers are sometimes picking "hard" books.

You know that story of the baby elephant who was always anchored into the ground with a stake and chain since he was little?  The one who grew to be a big, powerful creature and still thought a stake and chain would prevent him from being able to move.  Essentially, that is what we're doing to our students if we're telling them they can only read books from a certain level or a certain Lexile range.  Students are believing that's who they are as readers and settling for that.

Tip Four: Student Book Recommendations

Last school year, I started opening the floor up at the beginning of our reading minilessons for any students that wanted to quickly talk about a book they would recommend to the class.  It was extremely informal with students standing up, showing the book, and saying why they would recommend it.  I had always been the one to give book recommendations or show book trailers (which I still do).  What I noticed though when I sat back and observed was that students really took to what other students recommended.   Making book recommendations casual and fun showed other students that being a reader and liking books is what we do in this classroom.  It's not uncool to like to read.  I had certain students that gave more book recommendations than others across the year and some that never took up the opportunity, but I was astounded at the number of different 7th grade students in my classroom who stood up in front of their peers to give at least one book recommendation across the year.

Tip Five: Highlight "Hot Commodity" Books

In 1973 Johnny Carson caused a toilet paper shortage simply by joking about it and reading a newspaper clipping on the radio about it.  This, in turn, caused the media to pick up this story and cause an actual toilet paper shortage because of hoarding and panic when in fact, there was never a real toilet paper shortage in the first place.  The reason I bring up this proud moment in America's history is because I'm encouraging you to create a "toilet paper shortage" of sorts in your classroom through advertising hot commodity books.  Check out the picture below to see the four new bins I'm trying out on top of my classroom library this school year.  There is a bin for books new to our library, a bin of my book recommendations, a bin for books students recommend, and a bin for books students or I give book talks on.  These bins will create the attitude of books that are in high demand, which is exactly what I want my students to feel.  I want them to be as excited about the next book that they're going to read as they are about a new video game coming out.

As a last special note, if you're a content-area classroom teacher, it's time to start thinking about having a classroom library, too.  Slowly work on collecting picture books, nonfiction books, and novels that deal with content you talk about in your classroom.  Also, start collecting the most popular middle school novels and books you love that are your favorite so that you have books available whenever needed.

I hope these tips have been helpful for you.  Let me know below about what tips you're excited to try out in your classroom library this school year!
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August 21, 2016

Poetry Workshop

You know that collective sigh, the one that choruses around the room when you enthusiastically announce, "Class, the next unit we'll be entering into is poetry!"  If poetry is taught the right way, students should be cheering at the thought of a Poetry Workshop day.  Below I will outline the "why" of Poetry Workshop along with tips and tricks that I have picked up to make any poetry unit a raging success in your middle school classroom.

If you like what you read below and want to implement a Poetry Workshop in your classroom, make sure you check out the Poetry Workshop resource available in my TpT store.  This resource will walk you through every single step of implementing Poetry Workshop in your classroom, along with the assembly of a student Poetry Workshop binder that can be utilized across the entire school year.  Lesson plans, graphic organizers, grading rubrics, and so much more awaits you in this comprehensive resource.

Why Use Poetry Workshop?

*It’s a change of pace.  We immerse students so heavily into Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop day after day.  It’s nice to have the option to mix things up a bit with Poetry Workshop.  It is also a great transition between units.  For instance, maybe you’ve just completed a three-week persuasive writing unit and you’re about to head into a round of literature circles.  Take a day or two hiatus in between to do Poetry Workshop once the Poetry Workshop Kick-Off lessons are completed.  Poetry Workshop can serve as a natural transition between the big, heavy units throughout the whole school year.

*It will reach unexpected students.  You may have a pretty good idea right away of who in your class excels at writing or can already read college-level material, but you may be surprised at which students soar while writing poetry.  Poetry Workshop is a great way to hook in students who struggle or are unmotivated when it comes to reading and writing because it appears to be a manageable chunk.  The thought of writing a five-paragraph essay or reading a 300-page book scares them half to death, but reading or writing a poem may not seem as scary.

*It’s a great way to teach literary elements on a smaller scale.  Sometimes it’s too daunting for students to come up with the theme of an entire book, but starting out teaching theme through poetry is the perfect scaffold before teaching theme in relation to a novel.  The concept of theme will transfer perfectly between a poem and a book, but more students will understand the concept if you start teaching it through a poem all students understand and can easily read and reread.  The same goes for teaching figurative language.  Poetry is the perfect pathway to finding examples of figurative language and teaching them how to identify and use it.  Point of view is also a great lens to look at poems through and teach students about through poetry.

*It gets students to appreciate words and how words can evoke images.  Poets have a gift for saying a lot with only a few words.  It’s important that we’re teaching students how to be impactful writers in few words and make every word count.  A poet keeps his/her audience in mind and thinks about what emotions he/she would like the reader to feel.  Teaching-wise poetry allows so many pathways into teaching students about word choice, organization, sensory images, and audience awareness.

*Poetry removes the need for perfect capitalization and punctuation.  The poet gets to structure his/her poem how he/she wants to, and there is an art in playing around with punctuation and capitalization while writing a poem.  Releasing this pressure of having to write “right” will allow students to write freely and openly.

*A lot of times when we think about teaching poetry we think about having every student write a haiku, an “All About Me” poem, a name poem, a limerick, and then we call it good.  Students publish a few poems, and we call it good for the year.  This is not what Poetry Workshop is.  Poetry Workshop gets students to read poems, analyze poems, consider techniques poets use that they would want to use, and write their own poems once they feel comfortable doing so.  Teach students what poetry really is.  As teachers, sometimes I think we’re afraid of poetry ourselves and then default into teaching poetry through a set of “form” poems.  We hate it and are uncomfortable with it, so these views get passed right down to students.  Let’s shift this attitude!  Poetry can be a beautiful thing that teachers and students alike have a positive attitude about.

Tips for Teaching with Poetry Workshop:

Tip One: Teach Poetry in Phases

I was first introduced to the idea of teaching poetry in phases when I read Fountas and Pinnell's book, Guiding Readers and Writers.  Here's how I've taken the idea of phases and broken them down to work for my middle school students.

Phase One: Collecting & Responding  Have students read through poetry books or poetry websites, reading as many poems as they can.  If they come upon a poem that they really enjoy or relate to, they can copy the poem down.  I also like to have my students respond to the poems they write down in Phase One using prompts from the anchor chart below.

Phase One exposes students to poetry in a non-threatening way.  Students think about the poetry they enjoy.  As they copy down poems, they also have to focus on how the poet structured the poem, what letters they capitalized, and how they punctuated it.

Phase Two: Mimicking Techniques  This is where it gets fun.  Students now take techniques they've noticed other poets use and mimic these techniques to create poems of their own.  Take a look at the anchor chart below to get an idea of the types of techniques students could mimic.

Phase Three: Original Poetry  Students can now create poetry of their own choosing.  Give them the green light to let their creative spirits fly.  Also discuss with them what they've learned from the first two phases that will help them as they create poetry.  Check out the anchor chart below to see ideas for what makes a good poem.

Tip Two: Whole Class Poetry Stalking

I teach grammar in my classroom through pulling mentor sentences from our class interactive read aloud and have students "sentence stalk" the sentences by noticing everything the author did to construct that sentence.  I transferred this concept into our poetry unit by having students notice everything they could about a particular poem as shown below.

What has been great about poetry stalking is we have realized together words to use to describe poet's techniques.  It has also been a great way to show that poetry has flexible rules for capitalization, punctuation, and poem structure.  Not all poets construct their poems the same, but it's fun to infer why poets make the choices they do while writing poems.  Check out this website for a great list of poems to use with middle school students while sentence stalking.

Tip Three: Use Poetry Interactive Read Alouds

There are so many great books out there written in verse.  As you kick-off Poetry Workshop for the year with a poetry unit, consider doing a read aloud with one of the amazing book choices below to complement the work students are doing in Poetry Workshop.

Tip Four: Teach New Types of Poetry

Mix is up with your students by showing them poems different types of poems.  Three of my favorites are below.

Book Spine Poems: Give book boxes from your classroom library to students and have them create a book spine poem of their own.

Blackout Poems: Copy off pages from several different books and make photocopies, allow students to select one, and then have them black out the words they don't want leaving the words they'd like to use to create a poem.

Sandwich Poems: Students take the first and the last line from a poem they copied down during Collecting & Responding and write a poem filling in the middle.

Tip Five: Make Everyone a Poet

Show your students that everyone is and can be a poet, even you.  Model the work you complete alongside your students during Poetry Workshop.  Also, make sure you give plenty of time to have students share what they're doing in Poetry Workshop with one another.

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July 7, 2016

Six Reasons to Use Mentor Sentences to Build Student Writers

My first year of teaching I was handed grammar worksheets of concepts I was supposed to "cover" with my students.  As I paged through the worksheets I felt panic swell up in my chest because I didn't know what half of the words meant.  Was I not qualified for my position?  Was I going to fail my students by not being able to pass on grammar knowledge that I so obviously didn't possess?  My teaching journey for how to teach grammar has evolved a lot since that first day.  My first two years I found the answer keys, and I played along, and I taught all of the concepts I was supposed to teach.  However, it felt incredibly disconnected from what I was doing in the reading and writing aspect of teaching, where I was comfortable.  Slowly this evolved to forgetting grammar even existed and sweeping it under the rug.  I figured that I was a decent writer and didn't know any of this stuff, so why should my students have to know it?

Then, as I was training to be a literacy coach at Lesley University four years into my teaching career, an Interactive Edit was modeled to me and my fellow literacy coaches in training.  Our professor put a beautiful sentence up on the board from a book we had all read called The Tiger Rising, and she asked us the ever-powerful question of, "What do you notice?"  At first, I thought it was a trick, and I was looking for the error that she must have sneakily inserted.  I think this was a natural reaction from my elementary school days of repetitive DOL year, after year, after year.  But then, I realized her question was genuine, and I let myself actually enjoy the sentence, think about it, analyze it, and imagine what Kate DiCamillo was thinking as she wrote it.  Once we started listing what we noticed, we couldn't stop: we noticed word choice, the type of sentence it was, what type of punctuation and capitalization it contained, we commented on which words were which parts of speech, on words with prefixes, suffixes, and Greek & Latin roots, we talked about words that had homophones, and what the sentence would have been like if a specific element had been changed.  All of a sudden, I had learned more about grammar in fifteen minutes of analyzing one sentence than I had my entire life.  Not to mention, the experience had been enjoyable to me as a learner.  That was the day I knew Interactive Edit would be part of how I taught grammar.  A missing piece to a Balanced Literacy framework I already loved.

Next, I started reading Jeff Anderson's book Mechanically Inclined where chapter two, "Moving from Correct-Alls to Mentor Texts" continued to evolve how I saw grammar instruction.  In the chapter opening it states, "Yet as far back as 1936, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) found that the formal teaching of grammar and mechanics had little effect on students' writing and, in fact, had deleterious effects when it displaced writing time.  Other teachers who know these methods don't work have fallen into haphazardly mentioning mechanics or, fearful of teaching grammar and mechanics out of context, teaching them only during the editing phase of the writing process" (15).  As I read that passage, I thought, "That's me!"  He also makes the point of, "With what we know about the brain absorbing information visually, is it a sane educational strategy to have kids stare at something so wrong for the first ten minutes of class every day?  Etching wrongness into my students' visual stores was not what I wanted" (16).  How profound is this thought?  Why are we using DOL to show kids how to do it wrong?  A sentence with ten errors is so far away from "real writing."  Instead, let's use mentor sentences from books students are reading and authors they respect to etch beautiful writing into their brains.  Anderson credits Vicki Spandel for the phrase, "sentence stalking" and talks in the chapter about how he became a sentence stalker, constantly reading for the purpose of finding worthy mentor sentences to use.  Although sentence stalking is the same as what I originally learned to be "interactive edit," I knew my students would love the term "sentence stalking."  This is where it all began, and I've never turned back from this form of teaching grammar since.

If you're wondering how to implement sentence stalking into your classroom, it's really quite simple:

Step One: Go through your class interactive read alouds or class novels all students in your class are exposed to and select sentences that will give your students a lot to talk about.  The sentences could focus in on something you're noticing students are struggling with in their writing, such as using correct homophones, for example.  That's a subtle way of reinforcing the proper use of homophones while also getting students to notice and analyze other pieces of the sentence as well.

Step Two:  Model to students how to "sentence stalk."  Begin with think alouds and give students a couple examples of what you notice about the sentence, and then have them turn to a partner and jot down three more things they notice together.  This is a great way to get the process started.

Step Three:  Once you're confident that students have become more proficient at sentence stalking, use it as a bell ringer activity and have the sentence up on the board as they're walking into class.  Students should know that it's the routine to grab their notebooks, jot the sentence down, and write down as many things as they notice about the sentence.

Step Four:  Continue to make the process interactive by having students share out what they notice in small groups or partners and then sharing out as a whole class.  Take time (one-two minutes) to quickly teach a new concept to students if something comes up in a sentence that students haven't noticed before.

Step Five:  Make anchor charts of common grammar concepts that come up.  A few of my favorites for the purpose of sentence stalking are below.  Another great option is to purchase the Student Writing Companion in my TpT store so students can have a quick reference to a variety of grammar concepts.

So now that I know what I know, I'm so excited to see what else I can learn and try with my students as I continue to tweak this teaching strategy.  Below are six reasons why I think using mentor sentences to sentence stalk is the way to go.

1.  Through mentor sentences, you can intrigue students and subconsciously get them interested in books.  A single sentence can cause students to wonder and predict what it means in the context of a story.

2.  Sentences in real writing and real books are messy.  They don’t always fit a perfect mold like sentences on a grammar worksheet or workbook.  Students can memorize a predictable pattern on a grammar worksheet, but by using mentor sentences, students are going to internalize, transfer, and apply these grammar concepts in their own writing.

3.  Mentor sentences expose students to quality writing and inspire them to try out techniques used by their favorite authors in their writing.

4.  Instead of standing up in front of the class and lecturing about grammar rules and telling students, “It’s just the way it is” in reference to memorizing grammar rules, you can stand up in front of the class and say, “Let’s look at what R.J. Palacio, Kate DiCamillo, or Lois Lowry does in this sentence.”

5.  Looking at mentor sentences from several books/authors proves to students that grammar rules are applied in a similar fashion in order for writers to communicate effectively with readers.

6.  When we appreciate the way authors craft sentences together and take the time to study how and why they write, we, as writers, will intentionally and automatically think more like the authors we study.

If you think teaching grammar through mentor sentences is a road you'd like to go down on your grammar teaching journey, definitely check out the six week unit I have listed below to teach six different grammar rules.  It includes directions on exactly how to teach each lesson, student handouts, and even answer keys.

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June 22, 2016

Book Set Recommendations for Middle School Literature Circles

Call them what you may: literature circles, book clubs, literature study, etc., getting students in a small group of their peers to discuss a book that they're all reading is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding instructional contexts for teachers and students.  In middle school, where friends reign supreme and getting the opportunity to chat with your classmates is something most students would give anything for, literature circles are that tricky thing teachers put into the curriculum where students don't feel like they're doing much work, but they're doing a ton of learning.

In a past blog post I've written about how to set up and implement literature circles.  You can find that blog post here.  I also have a product in my Teachers Pay Teachers store that will give you every lesson, graphic organizer, and more that you need to set up literature circles in your classroom.  You can find this product by clicking here.

What I haven't blogged about or addressed in the past though in regards to literature circles is what books to use with your middle school students when doing literature circles.  Below you will find how I go about giving choice to students when rolling out a new literature circle, and some text sets around common threads that I would recommend.

Step One:  Pick a common thread.  The text set that you select should contain 5-6 books.  All of the books should have something in common so that regardless of which book each student is reading, you will still be able to continue with whole class reading minilessons that would apply to any of the books.  This common thread could be a specific genre, author, time period, topic, or theme.

Step Two: Expose students to the books  I like to expose students to 6 book choices and then select the 5 most popular books to ultimately use for the literature circles.  Sometimes I give book talks on each of the books, other times I show book trailers.  Another option is to put students into small groups of 6, give each group one copy of each of the book choices, and set the timer for 2-3 minutes for students to read, page through, and explore each of the book choices.

Step Three: Have students label their top choice with a 1 and their last choice with a 6.  From there, you will be able to sift through to see what the five most popular book choices were and put students into small groups.  I like having 5 small groups of literature circles so that I can meet with each group for their literature circle discussion one day each week.

Step Four: Distribute books and have students set up a reading plan with their small groups.

Step Five: Give students 2-3 days to begin reading their books, and then begin your weekly meetings with each literature circles group.

Below I have prepared five different sets of books that could potentially be used for middle school literature circles.

Set One: Books Turned Into Movies

This set of books all contains a book that has been turned into a movie.  After your class finishes reading their literature circle books, you can have students watch the movie version of their book and write a book to movie compare and contrast paper.

Set Two: First Book in a Series

One of the best ways to get your students to become readers is to hook them into a series where after they finish the first book, they can just pick up the next and keep going.  Using literature circles to introduce students to series they will love will create students addicted to reading.

Set Three: Understanding Each Other

In the world we live in today, it's more important than ever before for students to understand each other.  Differences should be embraced, and as a classroom teacher, you can make a difference when it comes to bullying and intolerance.  By engaging students in these life-changing books and having conversations in small groups, you will be amazed at the transformation in how your class treats one another.

Set Four: Coming of Age

Each book in this set holds a dear place in my heart.  The main characters in all of these books must overcome life circumstances and come out on the other side, changed forever.

Set Five: Poetry

If you want to do a quick literature study at the beginning of the year or want to squeeze in a short one at the end, then this text set of books written in verse is perfection.  This text set would also be the perfect complement to a poetry writing unit.

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