Archive of ‘Language Arts’ category

Zoo Animals

Do you ever get the urge to be creative? I know some people are just creative all the time, but I like to think that I’m a healthy mix of practical and creative. Unfortunately, the creative side doesn’t get as much face time as I would like. The result is that every once in a while, I get the ‘creativity bug’ and I go on a major binge. I’ll stay up late painting a mural, spend all afternoon knitting a hat, or find a new Pinterest project to occupy my weekend. A lot of these projects sit unfinished (shhh… let’s not talk about that…)

Well this weekend, I just felt like drawing. I love to draw. So I sat down and started drawing zoo animals. (I really desperately can’t wait to have my own kids so I can decorate their nursery!) Well after a while, I had a pretty great collection going! I made 25 total. Here are some samples, and some ideas of how I would use this in an elementary classroom, if I had one. These would be some really fun activities to do before a field trip to the zoo!

Zoo Animals

Zoo Animals (c) Kristen Dembroski


Camel - Zoo Animals (c) Kristen DembroskiIn Art, explore different art materials to create texture and shading.
Or, create a cool graphic design!

Lion - Zoo Animals (c) Kristen Dembroski

In Science, label the parts of the animal. Draw the animals habitat.
Write details in or around the animal about the lifestyle and eating habits. Hippo - Zoo Animals (c) Kristen Dembroski

In Language Arts, write a story or poem inside or around the animal.
Use the animal as an illustration in your own book.
Do a research project on the animal and use the printable as a note-taking sheet.

For Math, take a poll to see which animal is the class favorite. Use the animal printouts to make a giant bar graph. Use multiple printouts to represent proportions and ratios (ex. 1 lion to ever 5 elephants).

For Social Studies, research the current topics around an animal. Is it frequently in the news? Being used to help society in some way? Endangered? Create a large mural with several habitats, and allow students to place each animal correctly.

In Foreign Language, use the printables as posters with the target words (ex: name of animal).

For your classroom, determine each student’s favorite animal, write his/her name on the animal, and place it on the desk as a name plate.

There are TONS of ideas! I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section. If you’d like to download the Zoo Animals printable templates, click here! Thanks, and Happy Teaching!

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Books I Read This Summer

Being a middle school Language Arts teacher means reading LOTS of adolescent fiction. I do my best to stay on top of what is current and popular amongst my particular demographic of students. That way, I am able to make book recommendations to students and parents.

Even though we do SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) for at least 45 minutes each week, it’s still difficult to find the time to read all of the books I want to read during the school year. I am able to read (and enjoy!) many more books during the summer by spending countless lazy hours suntanning in the backyard with the dog. My other favorite activity is to download the audio version and listen while I run. I have an account with Audible (through Amazon), and I also download a free YA book each week from

This summer, I was able to read 7 books on my list:

Adolescent Fiction Books (c) Kristen Dembroski

1. Divergent by Veronica Roth

In this science-fiction dystopia, humans are divided into 6 groups or ‘factions’: Erudite (intelligent), Amity (peaceful), Abnegation (selfless), Dauntless (brave), and Candor (honest). Once a person reaches the year of his/her sixteenth birthday, he/she must take a test to determine which faction to join permanently; this may mean leaving their own family. Beatrice Prior takes the screening exam, purported to determine one’s aptitude for a particular faction, yet the results come back… inconclusive. Since Beatrice is intelligent, selfless, AND brave, she must choose a faction for herself. But this means deciding who she really is inside – a tough journey for all teens. Beatrice, or Tris as she is known amongst her new faction, is definitely an underdog that you will root for.
This novel is filled with romance, violence, secrets, mystery, suspense, conspiracy, technology – it’s got it all! I would recommend it to any student, male or female, who likes a futuristic adventure! It is also being made into a movie, which I know increases its appeal to many students.

2. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Having read Divergent, I simply had to keep going with Insurgent. Tris continues to find herself – no, put herself – in harms way as she works to protect the ones she loves. She is the perfect combination of brave, selfless, and intelligent, but she is becoming reckless with her erratic, unilateral decisions. Throughout the novel, Tris is in constant peril and struggles with loneliness, grief, doubt, and identity. There are definitely some shocking, compelling scenes that took me by surprise. I enjoy Veronica Roth’s ability to give descriptive detail as well as paint a realistic picture of the characters’ inner turmoil.
What a shocker of an ending! I can’t wait to read Allegiant. I’ve already pre-ordered it 🙂

3. Born at Midnight by C. C. Hunter

The protagonist, Kylie Galen, is a teen struggling through a rocky time; her parents are divorcing, her friends are engaging in illegal activities, and her boyfriend doesn’t have honest intentions. While grappling with these issues, she is caught attending a party where drugs and alcohol are present. Her mother, exasperated and looking for help, sends her to a camp for troubled teens at the recommendation of Kylie’s therapist. Reluctantly, Kylie heads off to camp for the summer, expecting the worst. She soon discovers, however, that the camp is one for teens with supernatural abilities. Despite her plans of a quick summer of keeping to herself, Kylie makes some true friends, finds romance, and begins to search for the truth behind her own unique abilities.
I would not be able to recommend this book to my 8th grade students. Not only because it would likely not be found in our middle school library, but also because some parents would object to the topics of drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex.

4. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder is not your average Cinderella story. In this futuristic science fiction novel, humans, androids, and cyborgs co-exist. There is no glitter, singing rodents, or fairy godmothers. Cinder is described as a homely girl with mousy, stringy hair, no curves, and robotic appendages. She is extremely gifted and slaves away at the family mechanic shop, the only source of income for her step-mother and two step-sisters. One day, Prince Kai, heir to the throne of New Beijing, comes to visit the renowned mechanic Cinder for help fixing a broken android. Their paths now crossed, Cinder and Kai will soon find themselves in a dangerous and forbidden human-cyborg romance. Furthermore, their society is threatened by the brutal Lunar society who wish to engage in an intergalactic power battle. Cinder’s mysterious past is the key to saving the future.
This is a fun read for anyone into romance, steampunk science fiction, suspense, and new twists on a classic. It is a fun mental challenge to compare and contrast the various Cinderella stories I have read and try to anticipate what will happen next – except you won’t expect the twists and turns of this story!

5. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by Siobhan Dowd

I had no idea when I picked up this book that it would affect me so deeply. Based on a quick flip-though, it appears to be a children’s book with pictures and prose-like text. Don’t be fooled. This book deals with some heavy issues of grief, loss, and inner turmoil. The main character, Connor O’Malley, is a teen boy learning to be independent in the face of his mother’s battle with cancer. To add insult to injury, he is mercilessly teased by bullies at school. Every night, Connor has the same nightmare filled with spinning, darkness, and screaming, One evening, at 12:07, a nightmarish monster comes to life and marches straight up to Connor demanding the one thing Connor is afraid of most… the truth.
I would recommend this to my students who are willing to read something more emotionally demanding. This book really forces you to face your own monsters – fears – and I think it is an excellent soon-to-be classic young adult book. It is a very quick read, probably one or two evenings. The pictures are absolutely breathtaking.

6. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

I fell in love with Cashore’s Graceling last year, and I was very excited to read the other two books in the series. I loved that Katsa made a reappearance in Bitterblue. This book takes place 8 years after Graceling, and Bitterblue is now Queen of Monsea. The realm of Graceling, Bitterblue, and Fire is one in which some are born with special skills or ‘graces.’ These special skills could range from telepathy and sword-fighting to a photographic memory. The beginning of Bitterblue is very slow, carefully laying the groundwork and establishing the setting. Queen Bitterblue is completely sheltered in the castle, mired with boring paperwork, longing for an adventure beyond the castle walls. At night, she begins sneaking out in disguise, assuming a new identity, and getting herself into trouble. She meets new friends that help her to see the evil legacy that her father, King Leck, left behind.
I would recommend this to students who enjoy longer books (547 pages!) love puzzles, strong female leads, and a touch of romance.

7. Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is by far my favorite in Cashore’s series. Fire, who’s hair is the colors of flame, has an irresistibly beautiful appearance. Humans are stunned by her beauty, but fear and hate her for her ability to control minds. The fierce monsters of the realm are attracted to her blood and hunt her. Because of her special abilities, the royal family summons Fire to their castle to help King Nash defend against the traitors who would have his throne. Because of the awful, unspeakable deeds of her late father, Fire is loathed by Nash’s son, Prince Brigan. It turns out that relationships that start as one of pure hatred, then grow into respect and much more, are the steamiest of romances. This is a gripping love story, intertwined in a fantasy adventure. My biggest criticism is that Fire, for a strong female heroine, definitely has some ridiculous and annoying weaknesses. It becomes nauseating how many times the author mentions that Fire has her period and is defenseless against the blood-thirsty monsters. Fire and Prince Brigan also have a more mature, adult relationship. The slow burn is excruciating at points; you just want Fire and Brigan to be happy together!


As you can probably tell from my list, I really enjoy reading YA literature. I gravitate toward fantasy, science fiction, and strong female leads (a la the Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins). I really owe it to my male students to catch up on more novels with male leads – that was my project last summer when I read Bruiser by Neil Shusterman, Peak by Roland Smith, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

So what will I read next? Here is a list of YA book recommendations I have received from students:

1. The Host by Stephanie Meyer
2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
3. Matched by Allie Condie
4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
5. The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
6. The Unidentified by Rae Mariz

You can follow me on GoodReads –> Click the widget on the right 🙂


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Reading Graffiti Bulletin Board

I set up a new interactive bulletin board today that I am very excited to start in the fall! The idea came from the ‘Life is Better Messy Anyway‘ blog. The Reading Graffiti Board is an interactive board in which each student can post one quote per book that they read. This encourages them to make very thoughtful decisions about THE BEST quote from their book, since they must choose only one. I can see a lot of my students getting very excited to write on the wall deface the classroom. 8th graders think they are so bad 😉

I am also looking forward to using this opportunity to teach my students how to correctly quote a source. I will require the following:

  • Copy the sentence(s) exactly as they are found in the book
  • Put “quotes” around the entire sentence/passage
  • Cite the author and the title of the book

I bought 2 silver sharpies, which I will be keeping in my desk. Students will have to have their quote pre-approved first, and I think this will help eliminate any possible shenanigans. If time permits within the class period, I’d love to invite students to read their quotes out loud and share why they chose it as the best quote. I will encourage students to choose quotes that are though-provoking, dramatic, interesting, and rich with word choice and imagery.

In addition to encouraging students to reflect and share their own reading, I hope this is an inspiration to other students who are looking for the next good book to read. I can just see students crowding around the board, reading a really juicy quote, and thinking, “Hey – I’d love to read that!”

To set the example, I started by adding the very first quote. It is from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

Reading Graffiti Board (c) Kristen Dembroski

Reading Graffiti Board (c) Kristen Dembroski

If you are interested in the Reading Graffiti banner, you can download it for free here:

Reading Graffiti Banner <— Click to download

I will be sure to post updates as the wall begins to fill up! Can’t wait!


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Blackout Poetry

Have you heard of Blackout Poetry? This is a really simple, effective, fun way to introduce poetry. EVERYone can do this. As I tell my students, you don’t have to create something from scratch – the something is already there. It’s up to you to liberate the poetry from page – find the secret message and reveal it.

Laura Randazzo, one of my favorite sellers on TpT, created a FREE Blackout Poetry product that my students have classroom tested and approved. We began by watching the free Prezi that she created. If you aren’t familiar with Prezi (nickname for Presentation), it’s basically like an online Powerpoint, but way more fun. You don’t need any special equipment – just Internet access. This Prezi walks you through the process of creating Blackout Poetry.

Teacher Tip: I warned them the day before our lesson to bring dark markers to class (and I rustled up as many as I could find in my teacher stash as well) as well as scissors (in case they wanted to trim their poem).

To prepare for this lesson, I chose several dozen of my favorite classroom novels. I hauled my pile to the copy room, opened each book up to a random page, and copied it. That way, we aren’t destroying any books. Since my students sit in groups in my classroom, I placed a pile of copied pages at each table group and asked them to pick a page that ‘spoke to them.’ Warning: advise your students NOT to read the page. This will put an unshakable idea into their head about what the page should be about. BIG mistake! It’s best to just skim the words, like scanning the food in your refrigerator, for a basic idea of what you want. There was a lot of discussion and paper-passing, but my students settled on their final decisions within a few minutes.

After we watched the Prezi, I asked my students to start with a pencil and look for a special word (anchor word) from which they could build a message. “But Mrs. D., what should the message be about?” Great question. I asked them to think about themes we have learned through our novels and short stories throughout the year. Think about universal messages about life, truths, or observations about humanity. That seemed to be a great place to start for the vast majority of my students. The more advanced poets didn’t need as much direction and just dug right in.

Once they had a potential poem sketched out in pencil, I directed them to try out their poem on a classmate. Ask for a reaction and feedback. Make any necessary revisions, then finally go for the marker and start blacking out what isn’t needed.

As an extension for some students, I invited them to insert a blackout image that complimented the poem. As you can see in the sample images below, the students rose to the challenge!

The beautiful results were then displayed for the remainder of the poetry unit 🙂

Blackout Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski

Blackout Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski          Blackout Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski          Blackout Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski


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DVD Project Reader Response

A real challenge in middle school is getting an increasingly large group of apathetic students excited about reading. I don’t mean to say ALL of my students – I definitely have some voracious readers – but there is always a hefty, vocal group that seems proud to proclaim indignantly, “I don’t read.” Well, harumpf. What’s a teacher to do with that kind of attitude? I understand that as an English Language Arts teacher, it is my job to get students excited about reading. Confetti, cartwheels, iPhone giveaways – whatever it takes! Okay not really. I’m not a performer, I’m not rich, and I don’t work miracles. I do my best to give students authentic, fun, motivating reasons to pick up a book (aaaaaand actually read/finish it). Of course I have to give a nod to my favorite teacher-author, Kelly Gallagher, who writes about just this topic in his book Reading Reasons. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

One of the ways I try to motivate students to read is through my DVD Case / Movie Poster project. It is a project with reading, writing, language, expression, and art – a great way to hit multiple Common Core standards at once. This project has lots of elements that get kids excited: technology, critical thinking, creative writing, photography/images, and the critical elements of publication and display. Here is a glimpse of the final project, which is explained in more detail below:

DVD Project (c) Kristen Dembroski

DVD Project (c) Kristen Dembroski

You are looking at the display cases in the front lobby of our middle school. Each and every student got a chance to have their final DVD case (or movie poster) on display for the entire school. In addition, my students got some one-on-one time with 6th and 7th graders to share their project. They read their summary and review quotes on the back, explained the layout and image choices, and answered any questions their audience had – all in hopes of inspiring the student to go and read the book for themselves.

Here is a closer look at a DVD project:

DVD Project Graceling (c) Kristen Dembroski

And a collage of my students’ work:

Student DVD Projects (c) Kristen Dembroski

Students begin by selecting an interesting book (can either be a novel or a biography) that is at their appropriate reading level. I introduce this project about 6-8 weeks ahead of time to get students enough warning to finish the book.

After reading the book, students will write what I call a ‘Review Quote’ (a book teaser summary that discusses the theme/message) to promote the book. To do this, we look at the backs of many books, even visit and to get a feel for the rich language of a teaser/review.

Next, the students will create either a DVD Case or a Movie Poster to promote the book through images as well as words. They really love this part, and I’m not just saying that. Rarely do I hit the money with a project where every single student is working, but this is it. And everyone is working at his/her own pace and area of expertise – artists, techies, writers; they all find their niche and even help one another.

On the day where I introduce the project, I bring in dozens of DVD covers and movie posters for students to view. We discuss similarities and conventions such as the size of the font, placement, purpose of images, etc.

After introducing the project, I wind up giving students 3-4 more days of in-class work time. Now that students have their own iPads, I may cut down this time and expect them to do more homework. On the 5th day, we do the printing and final touches, such as laminating the movie posters or putting the DVD covers in to the cases (I bought 100 from Amazon for about 25 cents each, totally worth it!). The 6th day is for presentations.

I am excited to do this project with the iPads this year, because students can actually go out and take their own photographs. Their goal is to match the mood of the book through color, layout, font, and images. They really do quite a bit of critical thinking with this project.

One of the only problems I have run into is that if their book has already been made into a movie, some students rely very heavily on the movie images. I had to make a rule outlawing this. The results were great, as this ultimately pushed students to be original and dig deeper into their own interpretation of the book.

Something that I learned last year, and will be repeating this year, is that some students like to make their own movie poster / DVD case from scratch, and others need a template to get started. Here is a template I created in Pages for the DVD Case. Students can ‘drag and drop’ their own images:

DVD Cover Template <—- Click to download

The final product can be displayed in your classroom, hallway displays, or as part of a gallery in which you promote the books to other students. The Library Media instructor at our school asked if she could display them in our Library, too!

If you want to purchase and download my DVD case / Movie Poster unit from TpT, the following items are included:
* Common Core Standards for grades 8-12 including English Language Arts and Literacy in All Subjects
* Suggestions for modifying and differentiating this lesson for students at all levels, from heavy support needed to extension ideas. 
* Essential Questions
* Rubric
* Project Description Student Handout
* Sample Writing ‘Review Quotes’ with “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry
* 2 Sample DVD Cases with “Peak” by Roland Smith, and “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore
* 1 Sample Movie Poster
* Word Spectrum – ‘interesting’ to ‘boring’ – 65 synonyms students can incorporate into their writing
* 5 Pages of detailed lesson plans and teacher tips including guided writing, peer review, modeling, small and whole group discussion. 

I loved teaching this unit and collaborating with our school’s Art and 21st Century teachers. We found that this unit hits on a LOT of Common Core Standards and curricular goals, which was a huge plus! By working together, we strengthened student learning and participation. Students have told me that this was their favorite project all year!


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10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling

So are you a fan of The Oatmeal? No, not oatmeal that you eat, but THE Oatmeal? He’s my favorite web comic. I own his book, which he autographed! What can I say, he just speaks to me. He’s ridiculous!

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 10.23.44 AM

He has this great post entitled Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling. The words are:

1. Lose/Loose
2. Weird
3. Their/They’re/There
4. Your/You’re
5. It’s/Its
6. Definitely
7. Effect/Affect
8. Weather/Whether
9. A lot
10. Then/Than

It’s true – people DO need to stop misspelling these words. It’s pretty very annoying.

Here’s a sample:

Weird not wierd - The Oatmeal

I know my 8th graders would find this absolutely stinking hilarious.

You can purchase the poster for $20, which he says is perfect for the classroom. So here’s my question: Would you post this in an 8th grade classroom?

There is a reference to alcohol, an alien that keeps ‘crapping,’ the word ‘crap,’ referring to misspellers as ‘a-hole,’ and hemorrhoids (but that’s just funny, right?).  I mean, good common sense says NO. Maybe this would pass as appropriate in a high school classroom, but 8th grade is just skirting the line?

I wonder if he would ever consider making a few revisions for our younger adolescents. I could see this having a really big impact on my students who would identify with the humor and forget that they were supposed to be learning something. This kind of humor is right up their alley.

He has some other great grammar tools including:
* How to use a semicolon – I see no problems with this one for the classroom
* The Three Most Common Uses of Irony – reference to smoking crack, virginity, ‘sh*t’  🙁
* When to use i.e. in a sentence – No problems with this one either
* How To Use An Apostrophe – No problems

What are your thoughts on using these webcomics as learning tools for adolescents? Please post in the comments below. 

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Art of Writing Conference 8/13

Last week, I was honored to participate in my 4th Art of Writing Conference. It is a truly amazing experience where young authors (and artists) from across the state meet at the Milwaukee Art Museum for a day of exploration and writing.

We begin the day by breaking up into small groups (I get the 7th and 8th graders, sweet!) and tour the MAM. We are allotted an hour to wander and reflect on the art. I usually have a group of about 10 students, so I let each student take a turn being the ‘leader,’ the lucky duck who gets to choose the piece of art we discuss next. They love leading us all over the museum. Our goal is to discuss the artist’s message while also looking for a way to connect personally to the piece. This is definitely my favorite part of the day. You would not believe what these young, promising students ‘see’ in the art. They have very profound and touching things to say. I never get tired of the museum tour because each group of students sees something different – even if it’s the same piece I’ve viewed with hundreds of students before them, I always hear something new. It makes me very hopeful for the future.

Later in the afternoon (after our favorite mid-morning donut break and pizza lunch) my young authors gather for a silent hour of writing. There are also young artists present at the conference who attempt to capture the art and magic of the day through sketches. The authors generate a first draft of their writing piece, which is a 500 word personal narrative inspired by a piece of artwork we viewed in the morning. We sit at a table in the middle of the gallery – what a gift to be able to write surrounded by world treasures! After another short break, we engage in peer revision, editing, and writing a final copy. Then, voila, their work is published in a few short months! I am very grateful for this opportunity to be inspired by the art, authors, and artists. I only wish that all of my students could partake in this experience!

If you’d like to learn more about the conference, please visit the Art of Writing Facebook page 

Milwaukee Art Museum (c) Kristen Dembroski

The Milwaukee Art Museum Calatrava – so gorgeous!

Art of Writing Conference Summer 2013 (c) Kristen Dembroski

My young authors enjoying a nutrition break in the Calatrava

Art of Writing Conference Summer 2013 (c) Kristen Dembroski

My young authors, writing their drafts in the museum

Milwaukee Art Museum (c) Kristen Dembroski

Mr. and Mrs. Pitch and Peach America – Reginald Baylor

Milwaukee Art Museum (c) Kristen Dembroski

Niagara by George Williams Jr

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Fingerprint Poetry

Fingerprint Poetry was an awesome way to start the year. It was an icebreaker, get-to-know-you activity, and a great transition back into writing after the summer off. Plus students get to write about their own favorite topic – themselves!

I was inspired with this idea when I noticed how my students never liked to write on straight lines. They love being artsy and letting their words flow like water. And what better way to personalize your writing than by making it on your own special fingerprint?

I first had them choose a finger and inspect it carefully. Were they a whorl? arch? loop? A lot of them had never really looked at their fingerprints up close, so they enjoyed this. .Then, they picked the fingerprint poetry template that best matched their own fingerprint.

I gave them 16 different options of what to write about, but ultimately tried to steer them towards a more ‘stream of consciousness’ type of writing or a ‘brain dump’ in which they fill the spaces with anything and everything they are thinking. It’s a very free flowing activity.

Next, I asked them to think about how they could use color, textures, and pictures to bring their fingerprint to life. They always impress me with their creativity! As you can see, the results were fantastic.

If you want to purchase this activity, which includes writing instructions and 3 fingerprint templates, click here and enjoy! Thanks!

Fingerprint Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski

Fingerprint Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski

Fingerprint Poetry (c) Kristen Dembroski



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