Archive of ‘Language Arts’ category

“Screen Time” for Elementary Students

I recently attended a seminar entitled “Screens: Success or Sabotage for Schools? A Discussion of Children, Screens, and Learning Confirmation” hosted by our local CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency). The speaker, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, is affiliated with UW Madison, Department of Pediatrics, and UW School of Medicine & Public Health.

As a Literacy Coach for grades 4K – 5, I was excited to engage in a conversation about Screen Usage and learning for our littlest learners, especially in this time of remote “virtual” learning and a Covid-19 world.

I went in with my educator hat on, expected a deep conversation about tablets, apps, and digital learning, but I was surprised to find that I was wearing my parenting hat more often through the conversation. I do believe the presentation was geared toward ages 0-5, and yet I had several important takeaways that will impact how I view digital learning in the school environment.

Perhaps my most important takeaway was learning about the Orienting Response, a term coined by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. In short, OR is a human reflex or response to changes in the environment. For example, if the door to your room suddenly opened, you would engage in OR and be compelled to look. Our youngest children, ages 0-24, may seem like they are enjoying watching digital media, but they are likely in a stunned state of Orienting Response, reacting to rapid changes that compel them to look, but make little sense and do nothing to advance their growth or development.

Other takeaways I made that will impact my work coaching elementary literacy are understanding why digital media is more appropriate in later elementary grades (3-4-5) than early elementary (K-1-2), and a better understanding of appropriate content for young learners – slow pacing, modeling human thoughts and conversation, encouraging language development, and helping children make sense of the world around us.

Research-based findings and historical data:

Dr. Navsaria shared several important statistics to help contextualize screen media use by age, demographic, purpose, and other metrics. I learned the following (based on 2011-2017 data):

  • What kinds of screens? Children (ages 0-8) are using mobile devices more than TV / DVD.
  • What are children doing online? In order of prevalence: Watching videos / Youtube, Playing games, Using apps, Watching TV/movies, Reading books.
  • Why are devices being used during parent/child time? In short, to occupy children or parents (2013 data). In order of prevalence devices are being used…while parents/children are running errands together, while parent is doing chores, to occupy parent while child plays, to occupy child when parent is at a meeting, class, or other activity.
  • Parents care. Lower income families have higher screen media usage, however all parents (across racial and economic demographics) strongly agree that time should be limited/lowered.

Common Concerns about Screen Time and small children:

  • Is screen time bad for the eyes? Research doesn’t really support that screen usage damages eyes. Sorry! Personally, I do notice that children don’t blink as much while on screens, so there might be a drying effect, but no long term damage like our parents always warned us about.
  • Is screen time detrimental to development? Screen time displaces both creative play and sleep. It interferes with human interaction (this includes co-viewing – even when parent and child are viewing the media together, they aren’t necessarily interacting). Remember that interactions are what drive development. Screen usage, even when just on in the background, results in decreased child-directed language.
  • Does screen time cause ADD/ADHD? In ages 0-3, excessive screen time can raise the risk of inattention later in life. The good news? This affect can be counteracted by quality cognitive stimulation. The key factor is the content of the screen time programming. Consider the following 3 general categories of content: “Educational” content (good) “Entertainment” content (neutral), and “Violent” (negative). Also consider the pacing of the program (ex: rapid scene changes, flashes). Programs like Mr. Rogers that are slow, long scenes, and show conversation and human interaction are considered a gold standard as both educational and slow paced. Programs like Power Rangers with violence and rapid paced scene changes are worth avoiding.

But aren’t some programs “good” for kids?

  • The term “educational” isn’t protected. Anyone can create a product and call it educational or enriching. There are no metrics for this. Prime example: Baby Einstein.
  • Some programs (e.g. Sesame Street) have benefits: improved social skills, school readiness. The program structure allows for flexibility and repetition, which leads to increased attention. BUT keep in mind that it’s aimed at the average 4-year-old. Young children (under 18-30 months) learn better from live persons than from video. Not sure why, but that is what research shows. After 18-30 months, children start to pay more attention to screens and the language.

What about e-readers and e-books?

  • Print is print, regardless of how you consume it. HOWEVER… there are a few things to consider when selecting high-quality e-books for children. Dr. Navsaria encourages making sure the books have high-quality illustrations. He also cautions against e-books with many “enhancements”, or embedded multimodal elements, which can distract from comprehension (e.g. embedded videos, definitions, captions, pop-ups, etc.).

So should we try to discourage screen time with children under 8 years old?

In short…. No. This is a losing battle. There will always be a need for digital media and screen time. Instead of discouraging use, encourage selecting appropriate high-quality content (educational, non violent, slow-paced, conversational, purposeful) and co-viewing – view the media with your child and discuss it with them, during or after, to enhance cognitive development. Encourage conversation and child-led language opportunities. Incorporate what you learn from media into child-led play time and interactions. Help your child make sense of their world.

Final recommendations from Dr. Navrasia and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics):

Avoid screen time before 18-24 months of age. Ages 2-5, limit to 1 hour daily. Keep some environments screen free (bedtime, mealtimes, playtimes) and avoid screens 1 hour before bed.

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WSRA 2019

I had the honor of attending the annual WSRA convention for my 5th year. If you’d like to refer back to any of my previous WSRA posts, here they are! I look forward to this very well-organized, professional event year after year because of the amazing, nationally-known speakers that are featured as well as the careful cultivation of trending topics and research in education and literacy. Oh, and all the great friends I get to meet up with year after year!

“Bringing Strategies to Life: Conferring with Individuals and Groups” by Jennifer Serravallo

The first session I attended was offered by Jennifer Serravallo and focused on Conferring. I was very interested to attend this session to enhance my ability to support the educators in my district as we continue to refine our literacy workshop model and our work with Teacher’s College.

After making a strong case for conferring with students (which has a high impact on learning through providing individual feedback, building student teacher relationships, and goal-setting opportunities), Serravallo helped us delve into the steps for establishing a conferring culture in your classroom.

Step 1: Choose a Student Goal

Begin by consulting the “Hierarchy of reading goals” (below). Face-to-face with a student and his/her book bin, work your way down the list with a student, interview style, until you determine where the student needs the most support. Stop at the first level where you notice a need for instruction.

There are several other assessment sources you can reference to set a goal for a student. For engagement: Is the student excited, passionate, and overall engaged with their texts? Observe them during independent reading – what is their time on task? Stamina? For fluency: Take an informal running record and note miscues, rate, inflection, etc. For genre-specific skills, consult the learning progressions of your instruction / curriculum. Additionally, invite students to fill out this form below, which allows them to reflect and self-report on areas they believe they need to advance.

While working to identify a goal for a student, consider engaging in a goal-setting conference, as per the following steps:

Goal Setting Conference Structure

  • Guided Inquiry – Help the student name a goal (that you already have in mind)
  • Teach – Offer a strategy to practice the goal
  • Coach – Provide feedback and support as the student practices
  • Link – Leave the student with a visual, physical reminder (artifact) of the goal and strategy). This could be a sticky note, copy of an anchor chart, model, graphic organizer, etc.

Below are some Prompts to Use Doing Guided Inquiry to empower students and engage them in their own learning and goal-setting:

  • What do you think you’re doing well as a reader?
  • What do you think you might need to work on?
  • What do you notice about your work?
  • Can you think fo ways that I can help you grow as a reader?
  • Look at __ compare it to what you’re doing as a reader.

Step 2: Look for & Reinforce Strengths

Provide “Helpful Compliments” – Notice and name what they are doing. Focus on effort, not ability.

Step 3: Identify and name the students’ strengths.

Resist the urge to focus on deficits! Often, students aren’t even aware of their strengths until we point them out for them. Naming their strengths and skills helps build them up!

Step 4: Think of the Progression of Skills

For example, consider the skill of “adopting new vocabulary” and how students progress through the list below as they master a new word. They don’t jump from “not knowing” to “master” in one fell swoop; it’s a progression! Resist the urge to jump straight to the grade level goal or standard.

  • Get the gist of the word
  • Understand the simple definition
  • Use local context to explain
  • Use larger context to explain
  • Consider author’s craft, tone, connotation vs denotation

Research Decide Compliment Teach Conference

Putting all the above together, we land at the R-D-C-T model of conferring. When we confer with students, we engage in the following steps (yes, all within about 5ish minutes!)

  • Research: Ask questions, have student read aloud, look at artifacts, etc.
  • Decide: Find a compliment and next step that connect
  • Compliment: What, why, concrete example of a student’s strengths
  • Teach: Name the strategy and teach, model, explain (step by step, how to)
  • Coach / Active Involvement – student reads/thinks/talks as the teacher offers feedback
  • Link: Repeat the teaching point

Step 5: Group for Efficiency

Develop a strong system of note-taking and management. Group students with similar needs to create strategy groups. Jennifer Serravallo explains that she meets with every student in her class face to face at least twice a week, either through individual conferring and/or strategy groups. This is a great goal!

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WSRA 2018!

If you’ve been following my blog, you know just HOW much I look forward to attending the WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association each year in February in Milwaukee, WI. I find it so uplifting, invigorating, and reaffirming to rub elbows with the top experts in our field, attend sessions that expand my thinking, and be surrounded by such passionate, knowledgeable educators. Then I always come back to my blog to share the cutting-edge research and educational materials I discover. See my previous posts below if you’re curious!

This year was no exception. Such careful planning and TLC go into making this conference the best in the nation. And this year, something extra special – I got to be a presenter! Proposals need to be submitted almost a year in advance, so I had no way of knowing that my idea for “Fake News” would grow to be such a popular, trending topic by 2018. But I was thrilled at the high level of attendance and participation at my session. Educators from middle and secondary classrooms expressed to me a heightened need for media literacy and critical consuming awareness and education in their classrooms. They hailed from social studies, language arts, journalism, english, and history classes across the state. I’m so thrilled that we, as educators, see ourselves at the front line in preparing and equipping students to be the critical citizens that can intelligently shape their own futures. Presentation Link

Of course, I also had the honor of attending the keynote and several other sessions that day.

Our 2018 Keynote speaker was Alfie Kohn, an author, lecturer, and expert on education, parenting, and human behavior. He was so incredibly engaging and humorous – a great way to start the day! His presentation, entitled “How to Destroy Children’s Interest in Reading” was a perfect summary of classroom teacher’s frustrations and instincts regarding encouraging and maintaining a student’s love of reading.

Alfie had 8 was to certainly kill a child’s joy of reading:

  1. Quantify reading. Tell them how much or how long to read
  2. Force students to analyze, summarize, and otherwise digest their reading.
  3. Make reading a solitary activity. include copious amounts of independent homework.
  4. The teacher decides everything about the reading process. What a student reads, where s/he reads it, with whom, when, and under what circumstances.
  5. Frame everything as test prep.
  6. Make everything about reading strategies and phonics practice instead of just enjoying the experience.
  7. Force students to read at their own level and practice a narrow band of skills, regardless of what they find interesting.
  8. Give them a reward for reading. When you offer rewards, you change what, how, and why a student chooses to read.

Next, I had the privilege of attending a session held by none other than Jan Richardson herself! This presentation was entitled “Moving Forward with Guided Word Study.” Let me tell you, it’s a once in a lifetime experience to see an intervention or curriculum demonstrated by the creator, herself. She had many videos of her working directly with students, which she still does today. She clearly explained word study and its correlation to reading at each level, A and up, and demonstrated what it should contain and look like. The fear here is that teachers don’t always spend time on Word Study, seeing it as optional, and instead focus on reading comprehension and strategies.

Jan reminded us that sight word study should be part of Word Study at least through level I (2nd grade-ish), and that the goal is not to memorize words, but rather to learn to look at and recognize words. I loved the following process she used with a group of 1st graders.

  1. She chose the word ‘here’ from a reading they just completed (connected, not random word choice, and a focus after authentic exposure.
  2. She showed them several permutations of the word ‘here’ and asked them which letter(s) were missing. h-re, he-e, -ere, etc.
  3. Next, she gave them magnetic letters and asked them “mix and fix” or shuffle the letters and reset them several times.
  4. Third, she asked them to write the word with their finger on the table, then on the whiteboard (kinesthetic, tactile). They practiced writing it several time, mixing in some previously known words in between.

This activity reallllllly made me want to get some magnetic letters and a tray! It was so concise, scripted, engaging, and hit on so many different learning styles. And again, to her point, it wasn’t about memorizing the word ‘here,’ but rather about learning to manipulate and recognize the word several different ways.

Jan reminded us that Word Study should be multifaceted and contain:

  1. Picture sorts to learn the sounds
  2. Making words to learn to apply the sounds to reading
  3. Sound boxes (aka Elkonin Boxes) to learn to apply the sounds to writing.

All three of these components are important!

She also introduced us to a new method of analytic phonics that is remarkably different in essential ways from Words Their Way. If you are familiar with WTW, you may often hear the complaint that students learn to visually recognize the patterns but don’t always master “hearing” the patterns. Jan’s answer to this is an auditory approach to analytic phonics. For example, if she were teaching students the “ick” and “ike” pattern, she would have them write down “sick” and “like” on either half of the page. From there on, every word would be dictated orally, and students would add them to the correct side of the page by listening and spelling by analogy. I loved this!

So those were my 2018 WSRA adventures. If you attended or have questions / comments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!




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Fluency Practice That Actually Works

This year, I administer a decoding intervention to students in Tier 2 & 3 reading interventions. We work on decoding, spelling, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. Our goal is to read more quickly and accurately over time (fluency). This is an essential prerequisite for comprehension, because students who struggle to read fluently often lack the cognitive resources to dedicate to comprehending, which is the ultimate goal of reading.

Every week, I administer the AIMSWeb R-CBM probe, a 60-second running record that records students’ CWPM (Correct Words Per Minute) and errors, to each of my students. The hope is that through our weekly word study, students will show evidence of their learning by being able to read more quickly and accurately. However, I’ve always felt I was doing a pretty inadequate job with improving my students’ fluency. We practice reading out loud in class every day, but our gains in fluency are slow and hard earned. Most of my students’ AIMSWeb graphs are nearly flat, like the picture shown below, meaning very little growth is evidenced.

And yet, I see their growth in so many other ways every day. I see it in their confidence, their decoding abilities, vocabulary knowledge, and spelling – none of which is measured by AIMSWeb. But the question remains – how can I improve their fluency so that it is reflected in their scores? 

I don’t know why I thought just reading more and more often would help my students. I had no systematic, direct approach; I just relied on sheer volume. We read interesting new texts every day and forged our way through the tough words together; and there was negligible improvement. I needed to find a way to speed up our progress.

I recently learned about a few fluency concepts that sounded really exciting and easy to incorporate into my curriculum, and I dove right in. Important concepts for improving fluency:

  1. Students need to read the same text multiple times (repeated oral readings)
  2. Students need to analyze and improve on their own miscues.
  3. Students need to understand why fluency is an important skill worth improving.

It seems simple enough, and yet why didn’t I think of it sooner?

I began by choosing very short, leveled passages for us to work on. I work with groups of 4 students, and this activity should only be done individually (you don’t want students to hear each other, which will impact their own readings).

Next, I created a worksheet that allowed students to see and improve on their own miscues, keep track of their progress, and set goals for future improvement.

Here is my copy of the worksheet, which I put in a sheet protector so I could write on it with dry erase marker for each student.

Each of my students got their own copy of the worksheet, which they used to track their progress.

As you can see, this student clearly progressed between her Cold Read and her Warm Read. In the first read, she made 4 errors. We took the time to go over them, decode the words, discuss their meaning if necessary (especially with ‘turnstile’), and then I gave her individual work time to practice or reflect. On her second, warm read, she made only 1 error AND read faster! *NOTE: she did not repeat any of her initial miscues! In the end, I asked her to note any words that she felt were tricky for her and worth future practice. She chose ‘amid,’ which we have now decoded and made into a flash card. All of this took about 5-6 minutes total.

EACH and EVERY one of my students today said they *liked* this activity, and they felt it really helped. They asked me to please keep doing it, and to pick another interesting passage for tomorrow. They eagerly took on the challenge, enjoyed competing with themselves, and were thrilled to see their own progress. Yes – ACTUAL noticeable progress. I’m so glad we are incorporating this into our daily word study routine!

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Spelling with Sand

Have you had an experience with multimodal writing/spelling? There are so many great ideas out there on Pinterest, from writing in shaving cream to making impressions in bags of paint. The beauty of this idea is that it is a) engaging for students b) gross motor skills (no worrying about holding a pencil) c) kinesthetic and multimodal (do, say, hear) d) easily replicated over and over until mastery e) memorable. Students can get in a lot of fun practice with language rules without the exhaustion and monotony of pencil/paper.

This practice is typically done in elementary schools, but I say NAY! Our middle school students deserve some fun as well! And since we were reading a book called The Cay in which (SPOILER) the 2 main characters are stranded on a deserted island and must write “HELP” in the sand to flag an airplane – well this gave me the idea that we could do our word work in the sand as well!

Our word study focus for this lesson was on the tch/ch rule. To begin with, we reviewed all of the short vowel sounds, making them in the sand and saying them repeatedly to brush up. A-apple, E-edge, I-itch, O-octopus, U-up.

After this practice, we learned the tch/ch rule – that the final ‘tch’ sound only occurs after a short vowel. We practiced with the word ‘batch’ – do you hear a short vowel? Yes I hear a-apple. That means that the /ch/ sound must be made by a -tch at the end.

We continued with several other words for practice:

  • lunch
  • teach
  • fetch
  • match
  • screech
  • itch
  • notch
  • splotch
  • snitch
  • notch

I didn’t so much care if they correctly spelled ‘teach’ with an ea and ‘screech’ with an ee, just that they recognized that the ending needed to be ‘ch’ instead of ‘tch.’

As you might expect, playing in the sand was a huge motivator, and at times distracting. In between words, I asked students to put their hands in the air. Once they were done spelling a word, I held up the cue card for them to cross check their spelling.

Overall, this lesson was a big hit. It was on theme, engaging, and appropriate for our word study sequence. The next lesson will be similar, on the ‘dge/ge’ ending (‘dge’ only occurs after a short vowel).

Would you try sand spelling with middle or high school students?

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I’m a Newsela Certified Educator

Did you know that Newsela offers professional development opportunities? A plethora of useful tutorials can be accessed through their PD Resources page. I recently completed the training and assessments required to become a Newsela Certified Educator – oh yeah! If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, here is their run-down. The benefits include:

  • A certificate for completion of 5 hours of professional development and training.
  • An official certification badge to share on professional platforms.
  • The ability to represent Newsela at conferences, training sessions, and lesson plan collaboration.

The 5 hour time estimate is actually pretty accurate, because even though I breezed through the tutorials and quizzes, I spent a long time on the final assessment. The final step is to create a lesson plan that incorporates Newsela PRO features such as a text set, annotations, etc. I am pretty proud of the product I created! Just for fun, I am going to link it below. You know what a fan I am of the novel Spite Fences, so I created this lesson plan as an introductory activity about barriers in society for the novel unit.

Lesson: Barriers in our Society

Teachers: Mrs. Dembroski

Subject: Humanities (ELA and SS)

Grade: 8

Featured Newsela Article: Beyond Barbie: New toys show girls a path toward science and math

Essential Question: What are the ‘fences’ or barriers in our society, and how can we begin to overcome them?


  • Students will understand that there are invisible barriers in our society that influence our lives.
  • Students will be able to read for a purpose and highlight evidence.
  • Students will be able to make connections between text selections.
  • Students will be able to cite evidence to support their inferences about a text.    


  • RI.8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • RI.8.3 Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events.
  • W.8.2.B Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

Assessment – Create a concept web of the barriers in our society and evidence of those barriers as discussed and cited from the Newsela text set articles.

  • 3 (Meets) – Student has included at least 4 accurate barriers in society and appropriate textual evidence that connects to and supports the barriers.
  • 2 (Progressing) – Student has included at least 4 accurate barriers in society and has included some textual evidence that connects to the barriers.
  • 1 (Limited) – Student has not included a minimum of 4 accurate barriers in society and/or the textual evidence is missing or does not support the barriers.

Outline / Schedule

Day 1 – Novel book walk, introduce “barriers” activity, and model with first article in small and

           whole group

Day 2 – Individual work – students read, annotate, and respond to prompts for 3 articles in the

           text set

Day 3 – Discussion, begin concept web, adding evidence from articles.  

Day 4 – Complete concept web, adding evidence. Submit for assessment grade.

Text Set: Barriers in Society / “Spite Fences – Trudy Krisher

  1. Growing up multiracial in Seattle
  2. Inventors and Scientists: Neil deGrasse Tyson
  3. Giving kids with special needs a sporting chance to form friendships
  4. Beyond Barbie: New toys show girls a path toward science and math
  5. With a new arm, a young war victim finds her artistic talent
  6. Defense chief tanks military’s last barrier to women in combat
  7. For these police in Kansas City, child hunger is Public Enemy Number 1
  8. Working-class neighborhood feels division of Olympics
  9. Polarity is no shield against school bullies
  10. U.S. says transgender students get to use restrooms they choose
  11. What are civil rights?
  12. En pointe and on top of world: Ballerina, film star breaks color barrier
  13. Law states that California students must learn about LGBTQ history

Lesson Plan

Background – Before reading our novel “Spite Fences” by Trudy Krisher, we will do a book walk and discuss the front and back cover, especially the picture of a fence on the front. We will discuss how a fence is a symbol for division. Fences are physical things in our world that divide us, but there are also ‘invisible’ fences that create barriers in our world, influencing how we behave, what we do, and who we (think we can) become.

Learning Goal – The goal of our Newsela experience is to gain some background knowledge on some of the barriers that exist in our society today. Our essential question is, “What are the ‘fences’ or barriers in our society, and how can we begin to overcome them?”


  1. We will begin by reading one article together as a model: Beyond Barbie: New toys show girls a path toward science and math. Students will be seated in groups of 3-4, and will be instructed to read the article out loud to their small group.

Annotation instructions:  

Highlight in blue evidence that indicates what problems toymakers noticed and tried to solve by reinventing their dolls.

Discussion Afterward, they will discuss the following 2 prompts:

  1. What problem are toymakers trying to solve by reinventing dolls and changing their appearances?
  2. What barrier(s) in society does this article show you?
  3. How does this barrier affect what people think they can do and/or who they think they can become?

Then, we will come together as a class and discuss our responses. I will model and guide students in understanding that gender expectations are a major barrier in our society, and they can impact what careers or interests people choose.

  1. Next, students will be instructed to work individually and select 3 more articles from the text set. Each article will have the same 2 writing prompts, as indicated below.
  1. What barrier(s) in society does this article show you?
  2. How does this barrier affect what people think they can do and/or who they think they can become?

Annotation instructions: Highlight in blue any evidence you find of barriers in society mentioned in the article.

  1. Once students have completed their reading and writing prompts, we will come together as a class and make a giant web of all the barriers in society we have noticed through reading Newsela articles (gender, race, ability, identity, financial status, etc.). I will model and guide students in adding evidence from their Newsela articles to the web. Their individual webs will be turned in for an assessment grade. This activity will set us up for further discussion throughout our novel unit of how we can begin to address and break down those barriers.


Though this is an individual assignment, some students (emergent readers) will be encouraged to work in pairs. Others (emergent writers) will be offered the opportunity to verbally discuss their writing prompt responses with the teacher instead of typing them up. Finally, others will have assistance from a paraprofessional with all aspects of the task, and may work with the para in groups of 1 – 4.


As an extension, I will encourage stronger readers to read more than 3 articles, and/or to find additional articles throughout Newsela that address the barriers in society. I’d also invite them to highlight in a second color (pink) how people have attempted to address these barriers.


This assignment will help students in learning about barriers in society that may affect them or others in their lives. We all confront barriers at some point, but we don’t often think about the barriers that impact others. This activity will help students learn to think beyond themselves. It will also set us up for our novel unit and for exploring ways to overcome those barriers. We will return to the articles after we have finished the novel unit to make a new concept web of ideas, solutions, and inspiration for overcoming barriers in society. We will also brainstorm action steps we can begin in our own community for beginning to break down those barriers and make our world a more inclusive space. We will also connect this learning to the main characters in Spite Fences (Maggie Pugh, George Hardy, Zeke), who pushed against and fought to break down barriers in her own world.

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Dystopian Genre Literature Circles Reading / Writing Unit

Hello everyone! I’ve got a great new unit to share with you, posted on Teachers Pay Teachers. It is a Dystopian Fiction unit, which will fit into your curriculum nicely as Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. As a Literature Circle unit, everyone will begin by reading the same anchor / mentor text (I suggest “The Giver,”), then each student can select his/her own second novel from the selection provided. This self-directed unit was designed for my Gifted & Talented 7th graders, so I think this unit would be a great fit for grades 7+. The goal is to independently explore the Dystopian Science Fiction genre, then come together to discover and discuss the genre features.

This 5-6 week unit combines Reading and Writing Workshop into a Literature Circle Genre Study of Dystopian Fiction and hits on a wide array of reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards.

This unit has been classroom tested and student approved! My students really loved this unit, largely because dystopian / science fiction is of major interest to them, and because they got to pursue their own reading selection and reading style. This unit helped us to discover how literature can be used as a critique on society and a metaphor for our deepest fears and dreams.

* Detailed Lesson Plans
* Independent Reading Checkpoints
* Cooperative Genre Study Activity (Dystopian Fiction Formula)
* 2 Essay Options including:
* Model Essays
* Scaffolding
* Rubrics
* Optional / Alternative assignment: Book Trailer

Click here if you want to download the lesson plans for free as a product preview!

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WSRA 2017

I picked up all these great new books at the WSRA exhibition center!

I had the privilege of attending the WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association again this year. I wish each and every teacher could have this experience!

Keynote: From the Cocoon to the Butterfly: How Readers, Writers, and Good Citizens Are Made, Not Born

The convention began with an invigorating keynote address by none other than the famous children’s author Mem Fox. She honored us with a passionate and joyful reading of several of her children’s books, including Possum Magic, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Whoever You Are, Tough Boris, and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. A common thread throughout her presentation was that children deserve to be read to (yes, all ages, even the bigs!), and they deserve to hear the glorious language of real writing. She is saddened to think that children believe basal readers are real books (no wonder they say they hate reading!). She called basal readers “loathsome rubbish” and “banal words dragging themselves in single file across an arid page.” HA! 

More important than selecting a book at a student’s current reading level is selecting a book at a student’s interest level. Mem encourages teachers to lift their students up by exposing them to beautiful language and books that have a ‘reward’ – students deserve literature that inspires them to laugh, cry, think, and wonder. “Great art communicates before it is understood” – T.S. Elliott.

She shared with us an interesting anecdote about a time she was working on publishing a book through Scholastic. Her language had read, “I adore you.” and the publisher asked her to change the word ‘adore’ to ‘love,’ which is more common and readily recognized by students. But what a mistake that would be! Give students new and beautiful words to consume. They may not understand them right away, but they can by the end of the book or through repeated exposure. And this is how students learn! We need to use language to give students wings.

Session 1: Dyslexia: Definition, the Research Base, Perspectives, and Points of Contention by Donna Scanlon

This session was very eye-opening, especially since my school is in its first year of recognizing and addressing the needs of students with dyslexia. We previously only offered comprehension intervention, and this past year we have adopted a program that we are using with small groups and 1-on-1.

Dr. Scanlon shared several interesting conclusions that she has drawn from her reading and research. Most eye-opening to me was that Scanlon would like to retire (or at least redefine) the term ‘dyslexia’ as a lack of response to intensified, appropriately targeted instruction. Let’s break that down. Within research, the terms ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading disability’ are often used interchangeably. Research has projected that approximately 20% of the population has dyslexia, which has been traditionally defined as a phonological processing disorder. As we know, the purpose of reading intervention is to help these students improve their reading abilities and bring them up to grade level. Theoretically, intervention should be effective for the majority of this 20%. If a student is able to improve his/her reading abilities and function productively in the classroom, what is the purpose in labeling them as having dyslexia? We should reserve the term ‘dyslexia’ for the few students with reading difficulties who do not respond to effective reading intervention. Overusing the term ‘dyslexia’ is not only non-inclusive and may serve little purpose or benefit to the student, but it can destroy a student’s motivation and their willingness to do a task (reading) they are told is a challenge for them.

So let’s talk about effective reading interventions…
Scanlon had several important criticisms of the one-size-fits-all Orton Gillingham based reading interventions that are widely used by school districts to address the needs of students with significant reading difficulties. Many of these programs teach phonics and phonemic awareness in isolation. They prevent or discourage students from relying on contextual clues to decode words (a strategy that students with weak phonological processing skills often rely heavily upon), and yet this is an important strategy that students will need to use to be effective independent readers. There is also a lack of consistency across different teachers and different programs, and students may become turned upside down with different approaches and terms (ex: capital letters vs. upper case letters, naming conventions, or sequencing of sounds / skills).

Readers vary on a continuum of abilities and need different levels and types of support in becoming strong readers. What works for some doesn’t work for others. The traditional OG-based interventions are used as a one-size-fits-all approach, which can’t meet all the needs of all of our students. These methods can also be quite laborious and cumbersome, when we can simply teach students that there are – for example – 3 ‘a’ sounds (long, short, schwa), and if one doesn’t make sense, try one of the others! No need to overcomplicate things with so many rules and processes.

What Scanlon does recommend as effective is explicit instruction in phonological awareness coupled with reading strategies that help students to transfer these word attack skills to their reading in the classroom (she calls this method “Interactive Strategies Approach”). This method relies on the teacher’s knowledge and professional judgment to make thoughtful decisions about what students need. This method could include pre-teaching a word attack strategy that students will need in an upcoming independent read, so that he/she can immediately apply the target skill. It also involves explicit modeling and coaching as teachers guide students in working through difficult reading obstacles. Instruction should also focus on acquiring high frequency sight words and gaining automaticity in decoding. Overall, instruction must be responsive to student’s needs, and canned programs don’t cut it for everyone.

If you’re still reading (I know this part is detailed and dry), and you want to know something you can do right now to help every student in your class, Scanlon recommends hanging up this simple sign (but please note – letter reversals is not the defining characteristic of dyslexia, and many young students struggle with letter orientation).

Session 2: Dishing Up Dialogue: Discussion-Based Strategies for Student-Centered Learning by Suzanne Porath

I chose this session because I want to learn more about supporting my students in becoming stronger, more critical thinkers. I know that can’t happen readily in a lecture-based setting, and it’s so critically important that teachers allow students the time to process big ideas through collaborative discussion.

Porath began by defining dialogue as when people come together to construct meaning and seek to understand (not just respond to) one another. Dialogue requires follow-up. For many of us (adults AND students), dialogue has become about waiting for our turn to speak, and not taking the time to listen and understand – and that is a skill that we can model and help our students to acquire!

Do you use Lucy Calkin’s units in your classroom? If you do, you probably make the anchor charts for your classes. Consider – what if you actually invited students to help you make the anchor chart? What if you did the lesson backwards, and had the students deduce what it is you are highlighting in this lesson? That would certainly spur more discussion!

Porath also encourages you to really consider what you need students to write/record, and what you can simply have them discuss. That traditional assignment of reading a book, picking a character, and having them write up a personality trait with evidence – couldn’t we have more FUN by talking it out with a partner? And you know that traditional assignment where you read a book and have to answer a set of written discussion questions – couldn’t we invite the students to develop and answer their own discussion questions in small groups? All of this would help them to develop interpersonal, collaborative, and discussion-based skills of listening and responding thoughtfully.

To have an effective, productive, purposeful conversation, the following need to be in place:

  1. Build trust.
  2. Create a physical space that encourages interaction.
  3. Set expectations of respect.
  4. Model turn-taking
  5. Teach active listening strategies
  6. Provide scaffolding (sentence stems, anchor charts, templates, graphic organizers).

To model and practice these discussion skills, a fun idea could include listening and responding to a storybook read by a professional actor, presented on

And finally, discussion should have a purpose to move you forward as a person. It shouldn’t be a performance, but rather an experience. After a discussion, ask your students to reflect on whether the discussion changed them, challenged them, or confirmed their thinking (from Reading Nonfiction – Notice & Note Stances Signposts and Strategies).

Session 3: Sneaking in Social Studies: Fusing Social Studies and English Language Arts

I was very excited to attend this session, because next year our district is moving toward perosnalized learning and ‘blocks’ of classes to allow for more flexibility. An exciting organizational outcome of this will be combining English Language Arts and Social Studies into a “Humanities” block. Therefore, I wanted to learn as much about this concept as I could.

I had a few important takeaways from this session to share with my colleagues:

  1. Consider what we are already doing in ELA that is actually Social Studies based (ex: reading primary sources, engaging in debate, analyzing society and/or human environment interaction, etc.) – you are already heading in the right direction!
  2. Reorganize the curriculum around themes, not events
  3. Focus on essential questions (Wiggins & McTighe) to guide your curriculum
  4. Reconsider the materials you are already using, and consider making some swaps
  5. Adopt project-based learning strategies
  6. Sacrifice breadth for depth
  7. Delve into CER: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning
  8. Consider what you can afford to cut from your ELA and SS curriculum

A final takeaway that I treasure from this session is the concept that there is a wider spectrum than the traditional FACT vs OPINION dichotomy. Instead, consider

  • verifiable information (instead of facts. this information can be corroborated or proven true.)
  • inferences (instead of opinions. these are conclusions based on evidence and/or reasoning.)
  • judgments (are sensible conclusions or evaluations that are personal opinions.)
  • Example: My mom’s birthday is on Friday (verifiable information). She loved the cookies I made her last year (judgment). This year I’ll surprise her with dinner at 6pm, because she usually gets home from work at that time (inference).

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Fun School wide Reading Activity

Leading up to the holidays, I wanted to create a fun school wide reading activity to keep students engaged right up until break. It’s realllllllly tempting to want to reach for a fun movie to watch or other ‘fluff’ activities in the last few days, but I’ve found that more often than not, this backfires. You want them to watch a movie so you can quietly get some work done (and not have to take any of it home for the holidays!), but they are full of energy and antsy, or completely bored into a coma because they are watching movies in every.single.class.

I created this quick little video, as well as a google form, which was really easy to push out to students via email or google classroom. They simply have to watch the video, then submit their response in google forms.

This is the message I emailed out to my colleagues: “Reading activity for ALL grades and subjects – here is a link to a school-wide reading activity that will be available for the next 2 weeks. This could be a great option for students who are ‘done,’ for the To Do List workday, for a pinch-hit or sub day activity, etc. All are invited to participate in ANY class! No prep required, just share the link with students (via email or Google classroom)”

The video was really easy to make – I just used Quicktime to record an audio file (on my desktop as “incoming message”) of just me talking. Then I used Quicktime again to do a screen recording, in which I played the audio recording (to give it that cool tin can sound). Just be sure to have all the pictures and tabs loaded that you’ll need. The final unnecessary touch was importing into iMovie to add the explosion and color screen in the end. From iMovie, you can upload directly to youtube. The whole thing took me about an hour.

What I like about this activity is that it encourages students to do some self-directed research. They can spend as much or as little time on Newsela looking around as they need. They get to practice their citation skills (article title) and summary skills. They also have to provide a pretty thorough argument as to why the article they chose should be widely read by our entire student body. And, the article they chose could have a real impact at our school! There will be a Part Two of this activity, once we’ve selected the top 3 student submissions (this part is still in the works). Students will have a chance to promote their own topics of interest and engage the whole school in a grass roots kind of way. Yay reading with a purpose!

If you are looking for some other meaningful, engaging, and powerful activities to do leading up to Winter Break, I highly recommend this article by John Spencer. Students are craving something engaging and meaningful to get them through these long days before a much needed break!

I’d love to hear what you are doing in your classrooms in these next 2 weeks. Please let me know in the comments!


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I thought I knew what dyslexia was…

Curious to learn more about dyslexia? I thought I knew what it was (switching b/d, right?) but I had a major education this summer. I created this 16 minute presentation as professional development for my colleagues. Enjoy!


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