Archive of ‘Language Arts’ category

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?

Objectives

  • 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.    

Standards

  • 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?”

Activities

  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.

Accommodations

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.

Extensions

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.

Reflection

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.

Included:
* 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 http://www.storylineonline.net/

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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New Research in Literacy

This past weekend, I attended the Cardinal Stritch Fall Literacy Conference. It was a short but powerful conference with JoAnn Caldwell as they keynote speaker (heard of the QRI? Yeah that’s her!). I’ll keep this short and sweet, but here are some key takeaways I have from the conference:

  1. Students SHOULD read frustration level texts.
    And all this time, we thought we should be giving students texts at their instructional level. There are some inherent flaws in that arrangement, though. If we don’t model strategies and comprehension with frustration level texts, how will they ever progress? Secondly, if we are giving them only instruction level texts (which are below grade level for intervention students), then they will never catch up to grade level, and we aren’t using the same level of cognitively demanding material. Grade level material will have more complex sentence structure, vocabulary, content, and depth. THAT is what our students need.
  2. Interventions need to focus on TRANSFERRING skills to the classroom. 
    It seems a simple enough concept, but how often do we actually acknowledge or work on this skill? What students learn in intervention should directly tie into the classroom learning. They should be reading a text at a similar level (but perhaps on a different topic), and we should focus on what Dr. Caldwell calls ‘concept free’ questions, or questions that aren’t directly tied to the topic at hand (ex: What is the theme of this story? How did the author organize this text?) I think LLI or Leveled Literacy Instruction does a great job of modeling these skills.
  3. Students can’t just jump in to a Close Reading.
    They need to get the gist of the story first. They need to recognize and acknowledge the topic, textual features, linguistic features, organization of the text, etc.
  4. Intertextual connections is a critical skill we often gloss over in school. 
    This means making connections BETWEEN two or more texts. How do they overlap? Agree? Differ? This is a skill that must be explicitly modeled and taught.
  5. There’s a new reading comprehension assessment, and you’re gonna want to buy it. 
    Have you ever given the QRI and thought, “This is such a wonderful tool, but it is so time consuming and laborious to give one on one. I wish I could give it to my whole class at once.” Well, you might like to know about JoAnn Caldwell’s newest tool, the CARA: Content Area Reading Assessment. It is an assessment of reading comprehension across the disciplines. At each grade level, there are 3 literature, 3 science, and 3 social studies passages. Yes, that means you can do a beginning of the year, mid-year, and summative assessment (Hello, SLO!). It is aligned to the common core, and it could serve as a wonderful modeling tool for teachers looking for assistance writing standards based questions from text.

The conference also had a panel discussing the major differences between the QRI-5 and the QRI-6. I own both, and I teach and use both, so this was very informative for me. I certainly can’t do the panel justice by replicating their wonderful Q&A, but I’ll summarize some key points I want to remember:

  • There is a new kind of passage called the Inferential Diagnostic Level passage. The passage type we are familiar with, Level Diagnostic, are still there as well. However this new kind of passage is designed to be read orally or silently in chunks. The reader pauses to respond orally or in writing to intermittent inference questions. The reader is allowed to look back at the text right away. Passages are a bit longer than we are used to, and readers provide a more concise summary at the end.
  • Level diagnostic passages from level 6 and up are no longer labeled as just ‘narrative’ and ‘expository,’ but now also include the discipline (i.e. science, literature, social studies, etc.). I asked Dr. Caldwell if that meant we had to give multiple expository selections to diagnose a student’s level, and she said no – either science or social studies would be fine. However, she also clarified that she might lean toward science, since it is markedly different from literature.
  • Self-corrections during the miscue analysis do NOT count.
  • To make room for the new passages, 11 ‘oldies but goodies’ had to go on a permanent vacation. I’ll miss “Pele” and “Octopus” most of all! ::sniff::
  • The prior knowledge questions now have sample responses to help with scoring.
  • There is no longer a prediction question prior to reading.
  • There is now an Oral Reading Prosody Scale adopted from NAEP.
  • The retelling section is shorter with fewer points – many shorter ideas were combined.

I truly enjoyed this conference, and plan to promote and attend again next year. I made a lot of wonderful new connections, and learned some invaluable concepts to enhance my classroom and university level instruction. And, I got to present my own research as well!

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Read Alouds in Middle School

Have you ever considered doing a read aloud with middle school students? This is an immensely popular practice in elementary schools, but I had never heard of it being done in my 6th – 8th grade building. Since I am providing reading interventions for students with learning disabilities and dyslexia this year, I decided why not give it a try? These are students who are highly intelligent, but for whom reading is laborious. If I could read an engaging text out loud to them, they could finally relax and simply enjoy being swept away in a story!

My first step in each of my 3 intervention classes was to pitch a pile of books and have my students vote on a favorite. Here were our selections:

Middle School Read Aloud choices

  • 6th grade: Choose Your Own Adventure, and Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
  • 7th grade: Sounder by William Armstrong
  • 8th grade: Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

After we selected our books, I selected goals for each grade level. These goals would guide our reading and discussion every day. Below are our learning goals for each grade level:

  • 6th grade: Read 15 mins daily. Ask questions. Discover new vocabulary terms. Rediscover a joy for reading.
  • 7th grade: Read 15 mins daily. Develop background knowledge. Summarize each chapter by writing a new chapter title. Rediscover a joy for reading.
  • 8th grade: Read 20 mins daily. Track character relationships, personality traits, and details. Rediscover a joy for reading.

Then, we just began reading! I told my students to find a comfy place in the room and relax. Many closed their eyes. I have beanbags, lounge chairs, and office chairs for the students to choose from. Each day, we read for our allotted amount of time, pausing once per page to discuss or add notes to the board. My students never had to do more than simply listen or talk – no writing or assignments involved. I wanted this to eliminate any burdensome activities and simply focus on what we enjoy most. Here is how each grade level went:

6th grade

My students had never heard of “Choose Your Own Adventure”, so I felt a social obligation to expose them. I had ordered quite a few of these for 75 cents each off of half.com, and we chose to start with Terror in Australia. The students – most of whom have been self- or peer-branded as ‘poor readers’ – really, honestly enjoyed this experience. They got to pretend they were the main character and make choices that impact the outcome of the book. Whenever we came to a decision, we democratically voted and flipped to the correct page to continue our adventure. When the students didn’t like how quickly the story ended, they requested that I go back to the beginning and make some different choices to steer us toward an alternate ending. This second round WAS much more fun, since we had a better idea of what was going on. Students even noticed how the two timelines of the simultaneous stories somewhat overlapped.

We finished this book in 3 days, so we then moved on to Scary Stories. I let the students select 2-3 stories a day, and we turned off the lights and sat in a circle as if we were telling ghost stories at overnight camp. They couldn’t get enough! Even though, as we agreed, the stories were cheesy and not that scary at all, they were still really fun.

For both of these books, vocabulary was a major factor in our conversations. We had to build background knowledge on so many things. What’s an undertaker? Why do cars need high beams? Who are aborigine people? Lots to discuss.

7th grade

This class selected to read Sounder. It is a short book, however the Lexile level is over 900L. I did not steer them away from this book because, as I reasoned, we were going to slog through it together and discuss it as we went. We needed to activate (and fill in) quite a bit of background knowledge as we progressed through the book. First, we had to set the stage of the post-slavery South, with sharecropping and extreme racism. In fact, it wasn’t much better than slavery for so many. What really confused my students was how much the main character coveted books and wanted to read. We had a great discussion about how reading is power, and why that knowledge would be a game-changer for the main character (and anyone, really). We came across many vocabulary words as we read that prompted discussion. Occasionally, perhaps once per chapter, I would choose a very difficult sentence to break apart and analyze with the students. Here is an example from page 89:

“Feeling defeat in the midst of his glee because the boy had not run but stood still and defiant, sucking the blood from his bruised fingers, the guard stopped laughing and yelled at him…”

First, we would have to define defeat, glee, and defiant. Then, we’d have to discuss… WHO is feeling defeat? Who has bruised fingers? Then, WHY would the guard feel this way? Why would the boy act this way? These are text-based questions that are worth our time to stop and analyze.

Finally, I did find myself making a few text modifications as I read out loud, simply for clarity’s sake. I might switch the order of dialogue to make it clear who is speaking. For instance, instead of saying,

“Hello,” said the boy.”

I’d say:

The boy said, “Hello.”

In this way, it would be clear to the students who was speaking the dialogue right away. I’d also find myself defining words in context as I read. For example, I might add the part in parenthesis: “The men were stooped over white-washing (or painting white) the stones along the path.”

I was surprised at how much the students loved this book and requested it at the start of each day.

Since none of the chapters have titles, our reading activity was to name each chapter. This prompted a pointed discussion about summary and main idea, which was our goal. We couldn’t always pick our favorite title, so we recorded several for a chapter.

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8th Grade

My 8th graders voted to read Bruiser. We began by reading the back of the book and watching a student-made book trailer on youtube. This helped to pique their interest and lay the groundwork for a somewhat confusing plot. We also leafed through the book and discussed how it is organized – each character (Tennyson, Bronte, and Brewster) gets sections of the book to tell from their own perspective. This means that the point of view or perspective on events shifts throughout the story. We discussed the benefits and limitations of this unique form of story-telling.

I personally LOVE this book for a read aloud. It’s very fun to read and act out – the characters are very vibrant and realistic. Their sassiness is perfect for 8th grade. They are very intelligent characters, raised by literary professors, so they often speak in advanced vocabulary and make literary references that require brief explanations. Yet, at the heart of all the verbosity are characters with very relatable emotions and concerns.

We have been mapping out characters on the board as we read, adding details that we learn along the way.

bruiser-notes

The other activity I have really enjoyed doing is creating a 3D character map for Brewster. Since he’s sort of a mystery, this has been perfect to record our unfolding knowledge. I rescued this little white board guy from a rummage sale for 50 cents – he was part of a Pictionary Junior game. We haven’t heard many physical details about him yet, but we will add them as we learn more (especially the physical injuries he displays throughout the story).

white board character map man

 

So, have you done a read aloud with middle school students? How did it go? What did you do? Was it well received?

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Newsela

Have you heard of Newsela? Maybe you already use it in your classroom, or maybe you’ve heard me discuss how I have used it with my intervention classes. Whether you’re brand new to it, or you’ve been using it for years, you might like to take a look at this comprehensive online tutorial I created called “Using Newsela Like a Pro.”

This tutorial will show you how to use Newsela to target reading strategies through text annotation, writing prompts, guided text reading, reading with a purpose, and text sets.

Newsela Thumbnail

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Lucy Calkins Teacher’s College Writing Workshop

writing-workshop-chart

Well folks, I have officially been Lucy-Calk-i-fied. I am now a converted, true believer.

I spent my 2nd week of summer at a Writing Workshop retreat held in Verona, Wisconsin by Wisconsin Education Innovations. For 3 days, we learned about Mini-lessons, conferring with students, teaching points, positive language, student ownership, independence, assessment, and every single awesome thing you have every wanted for your students.

The best part is, nothing was incredibly new or earth-shattering. I didn’t hear a single buzz word or idea that I haven’t heard of (or even tried!) before. The Teacher’s College methods just happens to provide a very systematic scope and sequence, as well as a flexible structure to follow. Truly, they were all things I’ve already been doing in my classroom, but without consistency or structure.

I’ll never be a believer in canned programs, so I was glad to learn that this method has so much room for flexibility and personalization. When you say you are “doing Writing Workshop”, to me that means making a commitment to keep your teaching points brief and do-able (10 minutes or under), provide the students with most of the hour to work (40 minutes daily), to confer daily with students and give them immediate, positive, and doable feedback that they can work on right away, and to closely monitor student progress in order to personalize their education. I especially loved the positive language component of our workshop discussions.

Writing Workshop doesn’t mean everything is spelled out for us, and any monkey could teach this class. It will still take an incredibly amount of knowledge and teacher craft to design mini-lessons, choose reading materials for your particular students, know best literacy practices, guide students to become strong readers and writers, and pace your lessons appropriately.

The best analogy I can give you is that Writing Workshop provides you with the ‘kitchen’, but you need to know your patrons, choose the recipe, select the ingredients, and learn to wield the tools effectively.

By the end of the workshop, I left with an excitement to get back to the classroom and try this out. I’m perhaps most excited about the daily conferences with students. This is what was missing in my curriculum. Conferring with students will allow me to personalize their education and differentiate for individual strengths and needs.

I also left the conference with a huge wish list of books. I just can’t decide which ones to buy first!

My current wish list:

  1. Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core
  2. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo 
  3. DIY Literacy Video Series by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts
  4. Falling In Love with Close Reading by Christopher Lehman & Kathleen Roberts
  5. Teaching Reading In Small Groups
  6. Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins
  7. Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson
  8. How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  9. Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo
  10. The Power of Grammar by Mary Ehrenworth
  11. Catching Up on Conventions by Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonn
  12. Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst 
  13. In The Best Interest of Students by Kelly Gallagher 

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Argumentative Writing

Well, we are down to the last 9 days of school. I know, oh do I know, how tempting it is to fill in those last few weeks with ‘fluff’ and ‘fun stuff.’ But I was having none of that this year. I wanted to end the year strong. I noticed that we had not made time for argumentative writing this year, and I know how critically important that is in 8th grade (and… life), so I developed a 9-week quick tour of the argumentative genre. Believe it or not, I think my students appreciate this. I am not having the mutiny I expected, and everyone seems fairly engaged and productive :: knocks on wood::

Argumentative Writing Informational Posters

I began by presenting a menu of options to each of my 4 classes and allowing them to choose their top 2 or 3 topics. I do have one advanced English class, and I gave them the option of “genetically modified babies,” which I did not offer to my other classes. Here were their options:

  • Cell phones in school
  • Physical Education class in school
  • Death penalty
  • Junk food in school
  • Gun laws
  • Changing the legal driving age
  • Legally assisted suicide

I had all topics pre-approved by the principal, and I did a few quick searched on my own to determine if there was enough credible and student-friendly material available on the internet for them. As you can see from the picture above, the top picks in each class were legally assisted suicide and cell phones in school.

The first step was teaching my students what evidence is (FEAST-ExO) and how to appropriately perform a google search to get some background information on their topic. I gave each small group a post it and asked them to post 5 indisputable facts about their topic that they found in their research. Then, I had each small group generate sub-questions that they still wondered about their topic, divvy up the questions to group members, and perform further research to add to the posters. This gave us a good foundation of knowledge about the topic before proceeding.

Following the internet research, I had the class generate a list of stakeholders in the topics and then assign each student to a stakeholder position (e.g. doctor, parent). They then created a mini profile on their stakeholder including name, age, occupation, stakes, etc. Their favorite part was drawing their stakeholder’s likeness 🙂

Our next steps were to investigate and practice writing claims, which culminated with them writing a claim for their own stakeholder based on his/her most logical position on the topic. Over the weekend, they gathered evidence their stakeholder would use to construct their argument.

This week, they will be engaging in an online threaded discussion on Google Classroom, posing as their stakeholder and defending their claim with credible and logical evidence. The final activity will be a collaborative one – they will work together to generate a solution or compromise for their topic. They will have to submit a detailed explanation of the compromise, including pros and cons.

Does this seem like a lot for a 13 year old? Not my 7th graders 🙂 They are doing fantastically. For some of my struggling students, I did offer assistance such as printed research for them to highlight and use. In general, though, I’ve been mostly hands-off and allowing them to explore this genre as independently as possible. I’ll be sure to report back once we have finished the unit to let you know how it went!


Update 6/3/16

We have now finished our Online Threaded Discussions, which went very well (done on Google Classroom). Having them do much of the legwork up front, researching and familiarizing themselves with the topic and evidence, was the most useful strategy. They came prepared to discuss! Below are some snapshots of their online discussions.

Topic: Physician Assisted Suicide

Topic: Physician Assisted Suicide

Topic: Changing the Legal Driving Age

Topic: Changing the Legal Driving Age

Topic: Genetically Engineered Babies

Topic: Genetically Engineered Babies


If you are interested in learning more about the activities we are doing this week, here are links to the products that I have modified to create this mini-unit: Internet Research, Argument Unit, and Argumentative Writing Instructional Workbook.

So how are you spending your last few weeks? I’d love to hear!

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