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:
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
So, have you done a read aloud with middle school students? How did it go? What did you do? Was it well received?
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.
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!
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::
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
Junk food in school
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!
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.
At the beginning of the semester, I decided that I needed a reading bulletin board to celebrate catching my students reading. I wanted to fill my room with positive images of students filling their hearts and their brains. The initial blank board looked like this:
The hashtag at the top reads #wmsreads. Note: This was never posted on actual social media – this is for my classroom use only.
I added about 2 – 3 photos each week. The students REALLY looked forward to seeing their pictures appear on the wall! I began by catching candids, but after a while, students came up with their own ideas and asked to pose for pictures. By the end, students were taking their own pictures and submitting them to me for approval and printing.
All in all, it was a very fun activity, and it helped spread a positive message about reading being ‘cool’ 😉
Here is the final product. And wouldn’t you know, the very DAY that I finish the board, Instagram went and changed their logo on me? Oh well, I like this one and I will keep it up for a long time!
I have a Teacher Challenge for you. Yes you! When is the last time you used manipulatives in your classroom? If you don’t teach elementary math or science, then you probably rarely use them. But the students LOVE them, and they increase their engagement, communication, and learning! That is why I am challenging you to find a way to use manipulatives in your next unit of learning.
A manipulative is a physical tool for teaching. They are things that we can physically touch, rearrange, alter, and, well… manipulate. Manipulatives can include blocks, money, puzzles, or any tool that you give your student to use to explore a concept or skill.
I love using manipulatives because the students love DOING. They are engaging with learning through listening, speaking, and movement all at once. Students can explore tough concepts and find new ways to express their learning besides traditional reading and writing. This is a great way to differentiate for various student populations as well.
Let me share some examples of how i used manipulatives recently in my 7th grade Language Arts classroom. During a novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, I wanted my students to practice vocabulary words as well as demonstrate their reading comprehension in some non-traditional ways.
Character Ranking Manipulative
This activity is designed to (formatively) assess Reading Comprehension and engage students in a deeper discussion of the novel. I had my students get in partners and cut out tiles with all of the main characters’ names on them. Then, I gave them various tasks for reordering the character tiles based on their knowledge of the character. For example, I had them rank/rearrange based on the following traits:
youngest to oldest
least to most authority
least to most likable
unintelligent to intelligent
ignorant to wise
shy to outgoing
deceptive to honest
happiest to saddest
I wasn’t looking for any one right answer (except for #1!), but rather wanted to encourage my students to discuss, challenge one another, and delve deeper into their understanding of the characters and their roles in the novel. I’m always shocked at the wonderful ideas and interpretations they share with the class. It also provided a great opportunity for teaching various concepts such as authority, wisdom, ignorance, and deception.
We did a fair amount of vocabulary instruction in class, so this activity was simply for reviewing. I created a blank pyramid (you can buy one here in my TpT store if you’d like), and filled it in with the words/definitions we have been studying. Then, in partners, I had my students cut them apart, mix them up, and attempt to recreate the pyramid. We did this for several days, attempting to get faster each day. They started requesting this activity because they enjoyed it so much!
A few tips on using manipulatives:
I keep a bucket of scissors in my classroom for this purpose
You only really need one set per class, but you can also have one set per student so they can take it home and practice on their own
Save all your business envelopes from the spam you get in your mail. They are FREE and great for storing your manipulatives!
Tomorrow is Dr. Seuss’s birthday AND Read Across America Day! We have big plans to celebrate in 7th grade.
Today, we read a biography about Dr. Seuss and answered some text-based questions. I purchased this activity from BusyBeeInGradeThre. I added an additional activity for my students – highlighting with a purpose. I gave them 3 different colored highlighters and 3 different reading purposes, and I asked them to highlight accordingly. This really made them think about their purpose, rather than just painting the entire page, which is NOT useful! (IF this is the kind of activity that interests you, here is another product that hits this goal)
Then, I made a Dr. Seuss themed bookmark for my students, which they cut out and colored. (Want your own? Download for free here: Dr. Seuss Bookmark).
Tomorrow will be a full Free Reading Day. We have checked out a big, plush room in the building (usually used for teacher meetings), and I invited students to bring in snacks, pillows, and blankets. We are just going to lounge around and read ALL HOUR! Yippeee!!
What are your big plans for Read Across America Day? Can’t wait!
I was so fortunate to be allowed to spend a day at the 2016 WSRA convention this year. It was incredibly energizing and inspiring! I feel that every teacher should attempt to make it to a convention at least once a year to be reenergized and infused with exciting new ideas to try in the classroom. I got to meet several famous authors and researchers, and I felt like a total fangirl. I also came back with a plethora of ideas to share with my colleagues.
I’ll get straight to the point and share with you my top 5 take-aways from the day.
I need to buy these books ASAP
Limit Teacher Talk to 1/3 of your instructional time
In an excellent session by Cris Tovani, she explained her Student Engagement Model and how she limits her Teacher Talk to only 1/3 of the time. The remaining time is students ‘doing’ – practicing, exploring, and producing. That’s difficult for the die-hard lecturers amongst us, but it is a necessary shift for so many critical reasons!
Breaking the Vocabulary Code
One of my favorite sessions by far was “Scaffolding Complex Text to Maximize Student Learning” by Mecca Sadler and Natalie Bourn. I got so many excellent ideas for incorporating more deep-thinking vocabulary activities into my lessons.
A few ideas I want to try immediately are the Vocabulary Triangle and the Image Explanation
For the Vocabulary Triangle, you invite students to place a different vocabulary word they are working on at each of the triangle points (tell them to choose the hardest word, the easiest word, and a medium word). Then, on the connecting lines, they need to write a sentence that explains how the two words are related.
For the Image Explanation, you present students with an interesting image and ask them which of their vocabulary words it is related to. THIS IMAGE REPRESENTS ____ BECAUSE _____ There is no one right answer, and you can discover evidence of their processing by listening to the connections they make. For example, let’s say my students are working on the following words:
And then I present them with this image:
You can see how they could use nearly any of our vocabulary words to complete the idea “This image represents ____ because ____.” I can’t wait to try this idea out! The presenters said this activity would also make a great assessment tool as well. Real life application!
So long, Venn Diagrams
From the same presentation by Sadler and Bourn, I learned about using a Y shape instead of a Venn Diagram for comparing and contrasting. The legs at the top can be for contrasting two items, and the stem at the bottom is for comparing what they have in common. The added bonus of this shape is it reminds us to ask, “why?” at the end. As in, why did the author(s) make the choices they made? I plan to use this idea next week to compare several dystopian fiction stories that my students read.
There you have my highlights of the convention! Not to mention seeing a lot of wonderful friends and colleagues. I look forward to the 2017 Convention!
Ah, the dreaded student presentations. Not for you, the teacher – You are so excited to see the fruition of students’ hard work. You can’t wait to see all of the wonderful ideas and revelations and evidence of learning. The students, on the other hand, are simply waiting to ‘get it over with.’ And when they are not presenting, they are sitting there, totally checked out, waiting for these hours, nay days, of presentations to just end already.
I know that many of you have excellent, tried-and-true methods for livening up presentations and engaging the audience: note-taking, exit slips, peer assessment, question response, etc. For this blog post, I’d just like to share one new tool with you – Today’s Meet.
Todays Meet is incredibly easy to use. I can even set up a ‘chat room’ on the fly, right there in class. I simply tell my students the web address / url, and when they arrive there, they log in with an appropriate nickname (First Name + Last Initial, for instance).
During student presentations, I require every student to post one thought, either a:
I like to have Todays Meet up and running on the projector screen behind the presenters, so we can all see what is going on. However, if this is not possible, I can also have it running on my laptop to the side. At the end of the presentation, the presenters can check the Todays Meet feed and choose 1 or 2 posts to respond to for the class. For more advanced or practiced students, one member of a presenting team could be fielding important questions on Todays Meet during the presentation as well.
Students have a directed purpose for listening
Students are engaged in the presentation
Students can record their questions or thoughts as soon as they think of them
Students can engage in a back-and-forth discussion in the chat room
You can print out the transcript
It requires modeling and instruction up front – be clear about expectations
While students are typing their question or thought, they may miss a bit of the presentation
You need to ‘Let Go!’ of your expectations of proper spelling and grammar
It’s another fun and efficient tool to use to keep the student audience engaged, to gather useful feedback for the presenters, and to keep students thinking about the content of the presentations. You may be pleasantly surprised at the thoughtful responses students pose to one another, showing yet another layer of learning!
I bet you can think of hundreds of ways to use this online tool to engage your students in deeper thinking and connecting. Book chats, anyone?
Before starting our next novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, my classes are investigating utopias to lay some groundwork for their thinking. First, I had them read about 3 real life utopias, including The Farm, Twin Oaks, and Acorn Community. They spent a class period reading and learning, then drawing conclusions about common features of successful utopias. Next, I had them think about what they would like to see in their very own utopia – what kinds of problems they would like to solve, and how they can build a successful, sustainable community.
For 3 days, they paired up and created their own personal utopias, complete with:
I let them create their utopia using any medium they wished (digital or physical), expressing themselves in any way they wished (verbally, in writing, in pictures, drawings, dioramas, etc.). They really enjoyed the freedom of choice and expression for this learning activity.
While they were working, I traveled around the room and did my best to listen and ask thoughtful questions. One group asked for my help when they became troubled about the idea of killing animals for meat, realizing it didn’t jive with their principles of non-violence and peace. I encouraged them to do additional research and see if they couldn’t find a solution for humane ways to kill animals. After quite some time searching, they concluded that there were no humane ways to slaughter animals, so they rebuilt their utopia into a vegetarian paradise. Another group felt that they wanted shortened school days so that children had more time to explore the outdoors and begin career training. They decided to get rid of science classes, which they felt were redundant. I began to question their need for medical professionals, food safety, agricultural engineering, and on and on and on…. and they quickly realized that science was a very important class that they needed to add back into their education plan.
Most of all, I loved watching my students think through problems on their own. This activity encouraged them to do some deep thinking and reflecting on what really matters in our current society, why things might be the way they are, and dream about what they would like to see differently for a better future. They also had to compromise and build off their partner’s ideas.
After 3 days of researching, planning, and creating, it was time to present their utopias to the class. I had the pleasure of watching over 40 presentations, and I noted some very uplifting and hopeful trends across all of the utopias. Overall, these ideas were repeated over and over again in the students’ visions for a perfect world:
nonviolence, no weapons
renewable energy and solar power
respect for nature
equality and respect for diversity
community service (both mandated for all citizens, and as a first-strike punishment)
Other trends that I found interesting and thought-provoking were the ideas of: government provided housing (everyone rents, no one ever owns), shortened school days/hours so that students could pursue career-related activities, regulated working hours (everyone works the same amount of hours per week, regardless of profession), and more support for apprenticing and on-job training starting in high school (trade schools?). Some disappointing trends I heard repeated were the ideas that social studies is a pointless subject and waste of time (guess we need to do a better job emphasizing the importance of this subject, especially in our democratic society!) and exiling members who disobey (nope, we can’t do that, sorry guys!).
Overall, this was a very enlightening activity, both for me and for the students. I believe it will help them better understand the world that Lois Lowry has created in “The Giver,” and better understand some important themes such as Sameness throughout the book. It could also lay the groundwork for some very interesting conversations in Social Studies about the concepts of Socialism and Communism!