Saturday, April 21, 2018

Articles of the Week May Be For You


Are you looking for a routine to incorporate into your ELA block next year?  Articles of the Week may be for you and the last month of school is the perfect opportunity to give them a try.


I discovered Articles of the Week while reading Kelly Gallagher’s book Deep Reading.  I knew this concept was a strategy I could use in my social studies classroom because the best social studies instruction is a balance of content instruction and reading strategy instruction.  Unfortunately, social studies is a subject that often gets placed on the back burner as teachers strive to catch students up in reading and math.  Well-meaning teachers are actually hurting students.  In "Why American Students Haven't Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years," Natalie Wexler summarizes the implications of current research on the subject: "The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next."

Articles of the Week give students an opportunity to work with informational texts daily.   The daily exercises students complete are designed not only to improve students' comprehension of the text, but also to aid them in retaining that information.  For teachers who teach both ELA and Social Studies, they accomplish two goals at once!

My Articles of the Week are used for a variety of purposes, including:
·  Increasing comprehension and retention of content related texts.
·  Add rigor and depth to content related reading.
·   Require students to actively engage in learning content presented.
·  Make challenging texts more accessible.
·  Improve thinking through written responses.

The procedure for Articles of the week is simple.  Students read the article on Monday and answer comprehension questions.  On Tuesday, they read another short related article and edit it for grammar mistakes.  On Wednesday, they answer questions related to finding evidence in the text.  On Thursday, the focus is on main idea and summarizing.  Finally, on Friday, students must write a short response using the A.C.E. strategy.  An A.C.E. helper is available to help students with the short response.  

AOWs are a vital part of my classroom.  I encourage you to give them a try in your classroom. Articles of the Week are a great routine to incorporate a variety of literacy skills across the content areas.

P.S. I am working on Articles of the Week for Tennessee's new Science Standards that go into effect next school year.  


Thursday, February 8, 2018

We Are Teachers of Thinking!



Thinking is invisible.  Thank goodness, right?  Sometimes, the thoughts that are inside my head belong there, tucked deep where no one can see them.  This does create a problem, though. When considering our students, we can't see their thinking.  Even worse, we can't know by looking at them if they have the tools to think about what they are learning. Unfortunately, many don't. 

Attention: I want you to stop reading for just a moment and ask yourself this question: What do you do to help your students to be thinkers?

If you have a large list, kudos.  Please, tell us in the comments below what you do.  If your list is small, then the good news is, you have the power to change that.  You have the power to change your students' lives and help them to be thinkers!        


Education has a thinking problem.  It's not all our fault.  As educators, we understand the pressure to teach standards.  We have to prepare students for the end-of-the-year state assessments, right?  We all know, if our students don't perform well, we will be judged by our administrators and colleagues as "that teacher" who just can't cut it.  As a result, sometimes our classrooms become places that are teacher-centered and focus on work completion by students.  In the process, we forgot that we aren't just teaching standards.  We are doing something so much more important.  We are teaching thinking.  

I spend a lot of time contemplating thinking.  Does Colton understand the connections between WWI and WWII?  Can Aidan analyze both sides of the Confederate monument controversy objectively?  Is Lily reflecting on the paradox that there are all these rules for poetry that you don't even have to follow if you don't want to!? Ultimately, the question I ponder every day is how do I help my student be better thinkers?  And it has made all the difference.

I heard a teacher once complain that "these kids today can't think."  She went on to talk about how Playstations, Xboxes, cell phones, and iPads were the bane of education.  She blamed them for her students' lack of ability to think.  I was itching to ask her what she had done in her classroom to help her students be thinkers.  Had she asked questions to help them make connections to other learning? Had she included engaging discussions and writing activities that would make students' thinking visible? Had she thought about how she could get her students to be better thinkers?

We need to flip our priority.  Instead of teaching the standards to help our students think, we need to teach our students to think so they can master the standards.  This change in priority will affect every facet of our classrooms from the activities we plan, to the discussions that occur, to the products our students produce.



Teaching thinking has to be intentional.  It has to be something we mean to do.  Today's post is the first in a four-part series about intentionally teaching thinking.  The remaining posts will include:
  • Essential Questions Drive Thinking
  • Discussion Models To Promote Thinking
  • Visible Thinking Through Writing
I hope you join me on this journey as we think about thinking.




This is the first installment of a four-part series on teaching thinking in the classroom.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Dynamic Duo: Writing and Social Studies

Duos are familiar to us.  Batman and Robin. Burger and Fries.  Bonnie and Clyde.  Peanut Butter and Jelly.  

Certain things just go together.  This is not just true of foods and people.  It's also true of the subjects we teach.  

Writing and social studies are like Mac and Cheese; it makes sense to pair them and when you do, you get something good!  Writing improves thinking and facilitates learning.  What teacher wouldn't want that?  When students write they explore, clarify, justify, reason, explain, and internalize.  

After five years of integrating writing and social studies, I can attest to its success.  The wonderful part is the options are endless for integrating writing and social studies effectively.  

Here are my top five favorites.

1. Short Response Writing

My work routine, or protocol, is to have students respond to reading by writing.  Writing is the only way I can truly know if they understand.  A multiple choice activity will not conclusively tell me if they comprehend the material I want them to understand.  Week one of each school year, I explicitly teach A.C.E. to students.  From that week on, they are always required to respond to discussion questions in A.C.E. format.  The helper is provided to them for support, but the majority of students no longer require it after a few months.  It becomes how they are conditioned to write.


2. Essay Writing

In grades 3-12, students are expected to master writing explanatory, opinion/argumentative, and narrative essays.  The prompt that directs their writing typically will ask for a response to two texts.  This is the perfect situation to integrate social studies and get the most bang for your buck!  Whether we are studying the courageous feats of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, the heartbreaking events of the Holocaust, or the inspiring speeches of George W. Bush and Ronald Regan, my ELA writing activities always tie to what we are currently learning.  

I once had a teacher tell me she wanted to develop writing assignments that integrated with her social studies, but she couldn't find any texts.  I told her, they were all around.  They are in the magazines in your your school library, the books your students are reading, and the primary sources that are included in your state standards.  Here are some of the texts I use when creating writing tasks for my students:
  • informational texts I've gathered from Scholastic magazines, like Scope, Storyworks, or Action   
  • fictional excerpts from books that are popular with my students, like Grandmere's Story in Wonder or excerpts from Refugee and I Survived the Nazi Invasion  
  • primary sources of the famous speeches of Sojourner Truth, Chief Joseph, and Martin Luther King Jr.  

3. Historical Poems

When my students came to me, they hated poetry.  They considered it something only smart people read, not students in a fifth grade classroom.  After introducing them to poets like Kwame Alexander, Jaqueline Woodson, and Nikki Grimes, they think otherwise.  Now, not only are they reading poetry, but they are creating it.  

Recently, a poetry assignment required my students to write a poem about a historical figure.  After they wrote their poems, they published them on Padlet.  This activity has become a class favorite.


4. Biopoems

Since my students have grown to love poetry, I had to search for
other poetry assignments to keep it fresh.  Biopoems are perfect.  They allow students to reflect on the material they've learned in social stuides and put it in poetic form.  I use the format in this picture.  The pattern enables the student to synthesize what they've learned about a person, place, thing, concept, or event.  This lets me know if they understand what it is I want them to know.


5. RAFTing Activities

To spice up your normal writing routine, try this strategy.  RAFT is an acronym that stands for role, audience, form, and topic.  RAFT allow teachers to create writing prompts that situates a student in the writing task.  They must look at an event in a nontraditional way.  They have to apply what they've learned about that person and then "become" them.  Not only does this show if they understand important details about their person's part in history, it's fun!




















Those are some of my favorite ways to integrate writing and social studies.  I am always on the lookout for other awesome ideas.  What are some ways you integrate in your classroom?  

Friday, December 8, 2017

Pop-Up Debates and Writing

I love my PLN on Twitter.  I pick up so many useful strategies and ideas. The first time I heard about Pop-Up Debates was in a tweet by David Stuart Jr. about his blog post.  This discussion strategy immediately appealed to me because it incorporated the use of interesting texts in an activity that utilized thinking, listening, and speaking.  Being a writing teacher, I adapted his standard procedure to incorporate writing.  I believe this to be one of the best new strategies I've tried this year.

Pop-Up Debate Norms
Before you begin anything new, you must set norms. I have three norms:
  1. Every student must speak at least one time, at most two times. We will use popsicle sticks to keep up with this.
  2. To speak, simply stand up and speak. The first person to do so has the floor; when more than one person stands up, cordially and smoothly yield the floor. The teacher doesn’t serve as “Who gets to speak” referee.  On a side note, one of my classes needed a little help "yielding" the floor.  They are stubborn.  If no one sits down within 30 seconds, they all must sit down and loose the opportunity to speak next.  Turn-taking is not easy for all students.
  3. For the sake of keeping the debate as lively as possible, the teacher may, at any point in the debate, call upon students who haven’t spoken yet or open the floor up to all students, even those who have already maxed out their speaking turns.


Pop-Up Debate Steps 
The debates are easy to prepare.  The hardest part is finding an interesting article that will spur discussion.  Find a 1-3 page article of a debatable issue.  The length depends on how much time you have to devote to the debate.  It's best if the article includes evidence for both sides.  I've started a google drive that includes some articles that are perfect for grades 5-12.  Many have different lexile levels for one article.  Also, New York Times has a post linking 100 different debatable topics.

Follow these steps for easy Pop-Up Debate implementation:

  1. Introduce the Pop-Up Debate to your students.  The powerpoint I use is in the google drive
  2. Students vote for what they believe about the topic.  This week our topic was: Should countries be able to ban the wearing of a veil in public places.
  3. Give students the article to read.  I encourage my students to "read with their pencil" or "mark up" their text, locating evidence to support their opinion.   
  4. After they've read the text, they write a short response in their journals to organize their thinking.  I use a short response format called A.C.E. Our students use this framework for all short response writing.
  5. Once they've organized their thinking, they are ready to debate.  All students receive 1+ popsicle sticks.  To speak, they must "pop-up" to talk.  Every time they make a claim, they must give me a stick.  This ensures all students participate and no one dominates the conversation.  The number of sticks a student receives depends on the amount of time you wish to spend on the debate.  I typically use two, however if I want a quick discussion, I will use one. 
  6. The teacher acts as mediator, only getting involved when necessary.  The majority of the discussion takes place between the students.  
  7. When we are finished, students get out their journals.  They write a short response, in A.C.E. format, about one of two topics:
    1. They explain what they have learned during the debate.  
    2. They expand on the opinion they already wrote.  This is their chance to say points they didn't get a chance to verbalize during the debate. 
  8. Finally, students may vote again on the issue.  In my class, if they change their mind they go and move their name from one side to the other.
  9. After the debate is over, I select a few students to create a poster of our debate.  They include the text, steps, best quotes from the debate, and some pictures.  I plan to display all our Pop-Ups in the hall to encourage other teachers to try this strategy.

Pop-Up debates allow students to read an article, process the information, and debate the topic using evidence.  This strategy encourages students to use evidence when discussing important topics and allows all students to verbalize their thinking. It is the perfect strategy to reinforce multiple ELA standards.







Friday, December 1, 2017

Picture Books for Narrative Writing



I can remember when I taught littles. I would get so excited when I got a new picture book to share with my students.  We would go to the carpet and I would animatedly read  Officer Buckle and Gloria or Knuffle Bunny.  The voices were my favorite.  My own four children had me read Elmer a thousand times because I would pretend to be Elmer and the other elephants as I told the story about this colorful creature who finally decided to be himself.  Now, I teach fifth grade and I still use picture books as often as possible.

Picture Books Aren't Just For K-3
I am not sure why, but many 5-8 teachers don't feel picture books have a place in their classrooms.  They couldn't be more wrong.  Picture books engage students.  They provide perfect opportunities to apply many of the literacy skills we aim for our students to master.  What better way to teach text structure in non-fiction books than to examine some students favorites, such as the Who Would Win? or the Who Wasseries?  Or identify the theme of Bad Case of the Stripes  or Fables

There are so many beautiful picture books available for teachers to use.  I use them for everything from identifying story elements to teaching text structures, themes, and mood.  Currently, my class is in the middle of a picture book study to identify what makes a great story as we prepare for our narratives.  They've rediscovered their love for their childhood favorites like Llama Llama Red Pajama, We're going on a Bear Hunt, and Jumanji.  They've been introduced to new picture books like They All Saw Cat, Ada Twist Scientist, and Whoosh!  While reading the picture books, they are learning moves that successful authors take.  Picture books have a place in every classroom.



Fractured Narrative Nursery Rhymes

My favorite stories are fractured fairy tales.  There's something special about taking a classic story that everyone is familiar with and turning it into something different.  When I read After the Fall: How Humpty Got Back Up AgainI knew it would be perfect for introducing narrative writing with my fifth-grade students.  Whether they admit it or not, they love opportunities to reminisce about things from when they were younger.  Nursery Rhymes are a perfect vehicle to use for narrative writing opportunities.

The Fractured Nursery Rhyme Lesson
My students loved this lesson.  It's so easy to prepare and provides a valuable opportunity for students to write a short narrative inspired by one of their favorite nursery rhymes.

  1. Display memorable nursery rhymes around your room before students arrive.  I tape them all over my room.
  2. Introduce the lesson by reading After the Fall: How Humpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat.  Discuss how the author uses the nursery rhyme to create his own story.  As a side note, every picture book provides an opportunity to talk about text structure and theme.
  3. Introduce an anchor chart with a narrative planning template you want your students to use when writing.  It's important to teach students to plan.  We use a basic four square to plan a narrative: Character/Setting, Introduction, Conflict/Climax, and Resolution.
  4. Complete the planning template for After the Fall with the students so they can have an example to refer to when planning their own narratives.  
  5. Discuss what makes a good story (we created an anchor chart
    from the mentor texts we read) before students begin writing.
  6. Pair students and allow them to choose a nursery rhyme from those displayed around the room.
  7. Have students plan their fractured nursery rhyme.
  8. Have students write their fractured fractured nursery rhyme.
  9. It is important to give students time to share their stories.  Use the author's chair to give students the opportunity to share what they've written.

Remember, picture books are perfect for any classroom.  Denying their value takes away a perfect resource that has the power to engage even the most disinterested student in an upper level lesson.  All it takes is a little creativity and access to beautiful picture books.  Happy reading!  Happy writing! 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Choice Motivates Students to Become Writers

Control. Yes, I struggle with the desire to control my classroom, my students, my environment...  I'm the educational expert, right?  Why shouldn't everyone do exactly what I think is best? Now, with many years of teaching under my belt, I understand that if I seek to control every aspect of my classroom, I will lose my students. 

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan.  When Dumbledore said "It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are," I cheered not just because
it is a memorable quote, but because it is the driving force behind everything I do in my classroom.  Choice is the cornerstone on which my Writer's Workshop is built.  What you choose to write about says something about you.  I know it's true for me. That's why I choose to blog.  I want the same to be true for my students.

The Engaged Writer
I've heard countless discussions on engagement: how can we engage our students? There are endless stacks of books written on the topic by experts in the field.  Countless journal articles explain how teachers can capture their students' attention.  Let me save you some time.  In teaching students writing, the answer is simple: choice.  If we want our students to be engaged in writing, then we must allow them to choose what they write about.  Have students write an opinion piece on whether or not Confederate monuments should be removed or an explanatory essay on the Take a Knee movement.  Give students' voice a platform to be heard through their writing and watch their engagement soar.   

Choice in Writer's Workshop
As a teacher, I consider my students when designing independent writing projects for my Writer's Workshop.  When I design projects, I think about their interests and hobbies, controversial topics in the news, and current events that are important to them.  As a result, students write with passion because they care about what they are writing.  They are writing about topics that matter to them.  I offer four to six independent projects for each unit of study.  

For instance, when we studied non-fiction opinion writing, I offered four choices.  These were my most recent choices: 


  1. Should Pokemon Go Be Banned?
  2. Should Girls Be Allowed in Boy Scouts?
  3. Are Self-Driving Cars a Good Idea?
  4. Who is the Better Quarterback: Newton or Manning?


Steps to Provide Choice in Writer's Workshop
Providing our students with choice does require more time on the teachers part, but the pay-off is worth it.  Students will be writing for themselves.  They will be invested in their writing. 

Follow these steps to incorporate choice into your Writer's Workshop:

  1. Consider topics in which students are interested.  Their interest, hobbies, current events, and controversial topics will all inspire them to write.
  2. Find paired texts that relate to each topic that provide ample evidence for student writing.  The internet if full of exemplarily texts.
  3. Create prompts that provide the students with a clear task.  I base my prompts on the state examples for explanatory, opinion, and narrative essays.
  4. Set up an independent writing project table when students choose their next task.  
  5. Allow students to choose a project.  I have them sign up for their project so I can offer conferencing opportunities.
  6. After the projects have been chosen, I archive the choices for future choices.  In Writer's Workshop, students are never finished writing.  When they finish one essay, they choose another from the archives.
  7. After students have read their texts and begin to plan, I allow them to conference with peers who are writing on the same topic.  They discuss the texts, possible thesis statements, oraganization of their essay, and review evidence they are going to use to use in their essay. 
  8. As students write, conference with them using a rubric to discuss their writing. 
  9. Once completed, give students the opportunity to share what they've written.  
Choice has the power to engage even the most reluctant writers.  It draws them in.  Students know what they like.  Ask them about something that interests them, and they will talk to you forever about it.  Why not take advantage of that passion and apply it to their writing?  The student who is afforded choice will demonstrate internal motivation to become a writer.  Isn't this what we want for all our students? 





Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Painted Essay

       What student wouldn't like to paint in English class?   First-graders, fifth-graders, and high-schoolers alike will automatically be curious when you pull out the paints during your writing instruction. The PainteEssay provides students with a visual example of what good writing should look like and give you, the teacher, another opportunity to help students focus on what makes a successful essay.  

       Essay writing is difficult for many students, right?  Let's be honest, essay writing instruction is difficult for many teachers!  Modeling is a common practice in most classrooms.  However, when teaching writing this practice is often skipped. Writing is one of the most difficult skills for students to master.  For this reason, modeling should be a practice we don't skip.  Teachers need to model how to write an essay through an interactive class essay.  This class mentor essay provides support for students as they work on their own independent essay projects during Writer's Workshop.   After a class mentor essay is finished, students become writing artist and complete a PainteEssay.

What is a Painted Essay?

Fifth-grade students complete a Painted Essay during Writer's Workshop

       The Painted Essay is a strategy that was invented by Diana Leddy and is a featured component of effective writing instruction by the Vermont Writing Collaborative.  It is based on the idea that students are visual learners and need to "see" what an essay should look like.  I applied the ideas present in this strategy, and adapted it to fit the way my fifth-grade students are taught to write an explanatory and opinion essay.



The Classroom PainteEssay

       A PainteEssay will be a welcome addition to your writing instruction.  Follow these steps to complete one with your students:

  1. Complete an interactive class mentor essay with your students. My students and I create ours together as I type it.
  2. Make copies of your class mentor to use for the Painted Essay.
  3. Identify what colors you will use and what each color will represent.  My students use red, yellow, and blue.
  4. Prepare your paints.  Water colors are ideal.  I mix tempra paint with about a half a cup of water.  
  5. Have stations set up for students to paint their essays.
  6. Once we begin, I model the process using the document camera.  We complete one color at a time. I randomly call on students to tell us what to parts of our essay to paint.
    I model how to paint the essay as students complete their Painted Essay.
  7.  Once completed, I let the painted essays dry and return them to the students to use as a resource.  We take some time to identify the colors that we used at the beginning and end of each paragraphs, as well as the colors that make up the inside of each paragraphs.

       The Painted Essay is a valuable tool for both students and teachers.  It provides students with a concrete example of how to use a thesis statement, topic statements, evidence, and elaboration in their writing.  When paired with a class mentor, it provides teachers with a structure to "show" students what a successful essay looks like.