One of my favorite reading genres to study with students is the mystery genre. Students are naturally very curious, and they quickly become hooked on the hunt for details that could break open the case. Students love the challenge of engaging their deductive reasoning skills in order to solve the mystery before the main character. There is also a lot of fun mystery vocabulary and lingo to learn, and they become experts at taking notes and studying the patterns of the genre.
So what could be more fun than bringing the genre to life by staging our very own classroom mystery? I love a fully immersive experience, and it’s certainly something our students will never forget! If you are teaching a mystery unit, this is an opportunity with your students that you won’t want to miss!
Every year, I engage in a coaching cycle with the 3rd grade team in my building during our Mystery Genre unit. There are two 3rd grade classes, and each class has adopted a cow as part of the Discovery Dairy program. In addition to 2 real life cows that live on the farm, the classrooms also have stuffed cow mascots, which have become very dear to the students. Because “Oreo” and “Peanut Butter” are so beloved and constantly watched over, I knew they were the perfect victims for my staged mystery. With the team’s permission, I set a plan into motion to kidnap the classroom cows!
I did a little internet sleuthing and came across the incredible and hilarious duo at The Rigorous Owl. In their blog post, they share how they staged a real life mystery and forensics unit for their 4th grade students. I immediately went to Teachers Pay Teachers to buy their Detective and Mystery Unit Bundle. This product has a ton of ideas, and I pared it down to a more manageable mini-unit to do with our 3rd graders. My first step was to get the students very curious and suspicious by creating this bulletin board in our common space. I combined the names of the 2 classroom teachers to create the “Price Detective Agency.” All of the art below is from the Rigorous Owl, with the addition of some caution tape I requested from the custodians. The students could not stop talking about it and asking questions. I knew we had gotten their attention.
Next, I secretly surveyed the other staff members in our school to see who would be willing to play the part of the kidnapper. It had to be someone that all the 3rd graders would recognize and interact with, someone who could keep a secret and a straight face, and someone who would be game for some extra fun. In my first year doing this activity, the guidance counselor agreed to be our bad guy, and the second year, it was our art teacher.
I asked the ‘kidnapper’ if I could borrow a few artifacts that could be left behind as clues at the scene. They needed to be items that were small, connected to the staff member in some way, but not incredibly obvious (like a whistle for the Phy-Ed teacher). The ‘kidnapper’ MUST leave behind something with their handwriting on it. For the guidance counselor, she left behind some fidgets, a post-it note with her handwriting, and a roster. For the art teacher, he left behind some craft supplies and a copy of the specialists’ schedule with his handwriting on it. I also left a partial fingerprint at the scene (from The Rigorous Owl materials), which we would later analyze against our final suspects’ full fingerprints (I’ll explain that later).
Once I’d set up the bulletin board and prepped the kidnapper for their role, it was time to kidnap the cows. I cross checked the schedules for a time when the students would be out of the room (recess, lunch) and when the kidnapper had an opportunity in their schedules. When we analyzed the timeline and alibis later, this was key. I went in, stole the cows, left behind the clues, and then waited for the students to return. They did not disappoint! It was mayhem when they returned to find their beloved mascots……. gone!
As soon as possible, I debriefed with the class. We cataloged all of the evidence we’d collected and we created a timeline of events. That way, we knew exactly when the cows went missing, which we could analyze later. I invited the students to create a ‘Missing Poster’ and ‘Evidence Locker’ to advertise around the school. I created the Missing Poster worksheet on my own, and the Evidence Locker is from the Rigorous Owl materials. I explained that we were all detectives on the case, and I would be their lead detective.
Each student was very excited to create their own super sleuth detective name and badge (Rigorous Owl materials). And of course our mystery case needed a name, just like our books. This one was creatively dubbed “The Mystery of the Missing Cows.” I explained that we would analyze our evidence as a class, and the students could send me on missions to collect information and answers to their questions. We also had a ‘Tip Line’ to receive anonymous tips.
In our detective briefings, I suggested we begin with a staff directly that lists all of the names of adults in the building. Using evidence and deductive reasoning, we slowly whittled down the list over a series of days (about 6 15-minute meetings spread out over 2 weeks). I promised them that when they had the list of suspects narrowed to 4 or fewer staff members, I would go out and collect the suspects’ handwriting and finger prints for analysis (the fingerprint activity is part of the Rigorous Owl materials).
Simultaneously, we continued to engage in the mystery novel read aloud with accountable talk as a class. We studied a mystery book together, plotted our evidence, took notes, created theories, and learned mystery lingo. All the while, I was careful to point out the connections across our book and our real life classroom mystery.
To solve our Mystery of the Missing Cows, students sent me on missions to find out things like which staff members were absent or out of the building on the day in question, to survey staff with specific questions and collect their alibis, to determine which staff members had specific items in their classrooms, and so on. The kidnapper’s alibi typically stood out because it didn’t cover the entire time period in question, or it wasn’t very confident (“I think I was in…”), or they were by themselves and their alibi couldn’t be verified.
We also got anonymous tips in our Tip Line when it seemed like the students needed a nudge. For example, a staff member (aka me in disguise) wrote something like, “I think I saw a male teacher leaving your room…” or “Mrs. W. never showed up to our Second Step lesson on Thursday” or “When I asked so-and-so about it, they got really red and quiet…”).
Every day we took stock of our clues and data to determine next steps. Once we had the list of suspects narrowed to 3 or 4 names, I made a final forensic analysis worksheet that contained the suspects’ handwriting samples I had collected and full fingerprints (from the Rigorous Owl materials). The students cross checked these with the partial fingerprint and handwriting left at the scene.
Based on the forensics, the students were able to name their final suspect, and they were ready to rescue Oreo and Peanut Butter. But the learning did not end here! Each student completed a graphic organizer in which they named the final suspect and provided 3 reasons / evidence to support their claim (starting to sound like a persuasive writing assignment? You’re right!). Then, in strategic small groups or partnerships, the students wrote a persuasive letter to our school’s acting authority, the principal, appealing for help to recover their beloved Oreo and Peanut Butter and bring the culprit to justice.
After careful consideration of the documentation and after interviewing the class, the principal agreed to go to the kidnapper’s room, provide a District Court Application for a Search Warrant (from Rigorous Owl materials), search for and recover the missing cows, and finally to read the culprit their Miranda Rights (Rigorous Owl). Then, I ‘booked’ them, took their mugshot, and posted it on our Mystery Bulletin Board. CASE CLOSED!
There’s just one last step to bring this unit to a close; the students deserved an explanation and some closure from the kidnapper. This explanation would also serve as the kidnapper’s motive. For the guidance counselor, she explained that she needed to borrow the cows in order to teach a Second Step Guidance lesson for the younger students. For the Art Teacher, he explained that he wanted to add it to his soft sculpture collection for a project with another grade. Both teachers explained that they didn’t mean to steal the cows, just to borrow them, and that they were sorry they forgot to ask first or return them. Finally, we “made it right” by bringing in an apology treat, which also served to celebrate closing our case. In the end, the 3rd graders got that this was all in good fun, that no one meant any harm, and that it was all just a big ruse. No cows were harmed!
I hope you enjoyed reading about our annual Mystery of the Missing Cows! I would love to hear how you bring the mystery genre to life, and any tips or tricks you have for enjoying this exciting genre study.
I had the honor of attending the annual WSRA convention for my 5th year. If you’d like to refer back to any of my previous WSRA posts, here they are! I look forward to this very well-organized, professional event year after year because of the amazing, nationally-known speakers that are featured as well as the careful cultivation of trending topics and research in education and literacy. Oh, and all the great friends I get to meet up with year after year!
“Bringing Strategies to Life: Conferring with Individuals and Groups” by Jennifer Serravallo
The first session I attended was offered by Jennifer Serravallo and focused on Conferring. I was very interested to attend this session to enhance my ability to support the educators in my district as we continue to refine our literacy workshop model and our work with Teacher’s College.
After making a strong case for conferring with students (which has a high impact on learning through providing individual feedback, building student teacher relationships, and goal-setting opportunities), Serravallo helped us delve into the steps for establishing a conferring culture in your classroom.
Step 1: Choose a Student Goal
Begin by consulting the “Hierarchy of reading goals” (below). Face-to-face with a student and his/her book bin, work your way down the list with a student, interview style, until you determine where the student needs the most support. Stop at the first level where you notice a need for instruction.
There are several other assessment sources you can reference to set a goal for a student. For engagement: Is the student excited, passionate, and overall engaged with their texts? Observe them during independent reading – what is their time on task? Stamina? For fluency: Take an informal running record and note miscues, rate, inflection, etc. For genre-specific skills, consult the learning progressions of your instruction / curriculum. Additionally, invite students to fill out this form below, which allows them to reflect and self-report on areas they believe they need to advance.
While working to identify a goal for a student, consider engaging in a goal-setting conference, as per the following steps:
Goal Setting Conference Structure
Guided Inquiry – Help the student name a goal (that you already have in mind)
Teach – Offer a strategy to practice the goal
Coach – Provide feedback and support as the student practices
Link – Leave the student with a visual, physical reminder (artifact) of the goal and strategy). This could be a sticky note, copy of an anchor chart, model, graphic organizer, etc.
Below are some Prompts to Use Doing Guided Inquiry to empower students and engage them in their own learning and goal-setting:
What do you think you’re doing well as a reader?
What do you think you might need to work on?
What do you notice about your work?
Can you think fo ways that I can help you grow as a reader?
Look at __ compare it to what you’re doing as a reader.
Step 2: Look for & Reinforce Strengths
Provide “Helpful Compliments” – Notice and name what they are doing. Focus on effort, not ability.
Step 3: Identify and name the students’ strengths.
Resist the urge to focus on deficits! Often, students aren’t even aware of their strengths until we point them out for them. Naming their strengths and skills helps build them up!
Step 4: Think of the Progression of Skills
For example, consider the skill of “adopting new vocabulary” and how students progress through the list below as they master a new word. They don’t jump from “not knowing” to “master” in one fell swoop; it’s a progression! Resist the urge to jump straight to the grade level goal or standard.
Get the gist of the word
Understand the simple definition
Use local context to explain
Use larger context to explain
Consider author’s craft, tone, connotation vs denotation
Research Decide Compliment Teach Conference
Putting all the above together, we land at the R-D-C-T model of conferring. When we confer with students, we engage in the following steps (yes, all within about 5ish minutes!)
Research: Ask questions, have student read aloud, look at artifacts, etc.
Decide: Find a compliment and next step that connect
Compliment: What, why, concrete example of a student’s strengths
Teach: Name the strategy and teach, model, explain (step by step, how to)
Coach / Active Involvement – student reads/thinks/talks as the teacher offers feedback
Link: Repeat the teaching point
Step 5: Group for Efficiency
Develop a strong system of note-taking and management. Group students with similar needs to create strategy groups. Jennifer Serravallo explains that she meets with every student in her class face to face at least twice a week, either through individual conferring and/or strategy groups. This is a great goal!
Wait… is it really October already? We’ve been back for a month already? It feels like we just started! I was very excited to return to work this fall after being out last spring on maternity leave. And boy, did we hit the ground running!
I am a SPED Literacy Coach, and I support about 15 staff members spread across 4 buildings. Part of my back to school fun involved traveling around, checking in with the teachers I support, and delivering treats 🙂
Sorry-not-sorry for the cheesy pun 😀 So grateful for Pinterest!
Our back to school PD this year had several foci, and I was thrilled to finally be getting ‘into the weeds’ with many of these topics. Trauma Sensitive Education. Word Study. Science Inquiry. College and Career Ready IEPs. EXCITING STUFF! All of it directly impacts student learning, which is incredible.
I hope you all have had a successful and smooth transition back to school, and that you are enjoying building relationships and getting to know your students. That, essentially, is the cornerstone to trauma sensitive education. I’m really enjoying meeting all the new students and reconnecting with the teachers I support to kick off an exciting new academic year!
How has back to school been for you? If you could summarize it in one word, or three, what would you say?
This update has been a long time coming, but I am finally done with my room! As a coach, I don’t get a ‘classroom,’ but I do get to place my office in the building’s book room. This is a room where we house our Calkins Units of Study books. Even if it is a glorified warehouse, it’s still “my” room, and it needed some flare. So, at long last, here is my office space!
And where are all these books, you might ask? Here they are!
See the post below for Before Pictures. That 70s yellow was just too sad for me, and I had to brighten it up with more white. I covered my desk in contact paper, covered the walls in white butcher paper, and added as many pops of color as I could. The wall is also covered in book jackets of my favorite elementary read aloud books. I hope you enjoy this fun makeover!
If you have a blog with before/after pics or brag pics of your classroom, I’d love to see! Please link in the comments below 🙂
Welcome back to school! For many traditional school year teachers in the U.S., this week is either professional development week or your first week back with students. I hope you are all surviving the transition and ready to get back to the critical, valuable, honorable calling of education.
I am starting this school year in a new district, in a new position. I am the Elementary Literacy Coach for Special Education in a district outside of Milwaukee, WI. There are a LOT of transitions for me! This is my first year in a role as a coach. I am so excited to be able to support teachers and help them with the ‘behind the scenes’ work that we all do. I will be helping teachers to better understand and address the literacy needs of their students. This is also a big transition for me to dive into the elementary world, since the vast majority of my teaching experience has been with middle / high school adolescents. I have so much to learn, which means a lot of potential to grow professionally (go growth mindset!).
I’d love to show you the BEFORE pictures of my new office. It’s not a classroom, since students will not use this room. I share this room with 2 other literacy coaches. It is also our book room for the elementary school at which I am housed (I serve all 4 schools in the district, but this is my home base). As such, I know I won’t be spending a TON of time here, but I do want to make it welcoming and inviting. I have a lot of work to do, but I am up for the challenge!
If you have any fun, exciting, new decorating ideas – PLEASE SHARE! I have a blank canvas inviting me. Stay tuned for AFTER pictures soon!
Okay that’s an exaggeration. I know we can’t really stop using AIMSWeb MAZE. For the time being, it is the best option we have, and there are no alternatives. But someone, PLEASE, make an alternative!
Let’s back up and do a quick overview of AIMSWeb MAZE, which you probably use in your school district if you have any kind of reading intervention program. AIMSWeb is a benchmarking and progress monitoring system used widely in schools across the nation. If a student is receiving an intervention, they are likely being monitored once a week with AIMSWeb to make sure they are on track and making gains. If they ARE making progress / gains, then this data is used to prove that the intervention is working. If they are NOT making progress / gains, then this data is used as evidence that the child may need a different (form of the) intervention.
Weekly data points are necessary to make sure everyone is staying on track. Think of it like weighing yourself every week you are on a diet. You don’t want to weigh yourself daily, because you will likely see too much variation. But on a weekly basis, you are more likely to see an accurate trend over time.
To track student progress in reading, AIMSWeb offers two types of progress monitoring tools. R-CBM tracks a student’s progress in reading fluency; the student reads out loud for 60 seconds, and we would record the number of correct words per minute (CWPM) and errors.
MAZE, on the other hand, is a tool used to measure comprehension. Comprehension is a much more complex construct than fluency. The following information is taken from the Pearson AIMSWeb Training workbook:
“Maze is a multiple-choice cloze task that students complete while reading silently. The first sentence of a 150-400 word passage is left intact. Thereafter, every 7th word is replaced with three words inside parenthesis. One of the words is the exact one from the original passage.”
The students in an intervention take one AIMSWeb MAZE probe ever week. They are given 3 minutes to circle as many correct responses as they can.
As the title of this post suggests, I am not a fan of MAZE. As part of my teacher education, I am trained to be skeptical of any assessment tool and analyze it for purpose, benefits, and limitations. When I see that a tool claims to assess comprehension, I am even more critical and skeptical. I know that comprehension is a complex, multifaceted construct that is nearly impossible to assess in multiple choice or scantron format. Comprehension should be a conversation, not an assessment. This isn’t a critique of just AIMSWeb, but of all tools that claim they can assess comprehension in just a few short, simple questions.
Unfortunately, I see only one benefit to MAZE: it is easy to score. The following are the limitations as I see them with the AIMSWeb MAZE assessment.
1. The format is confusing for students and negatively impacts their performance.
Putting the response choices within the sentence (as opposed to a question at the end of the sentence) interrupts the flow of reading. The student has to pause and consider all 3 options right then and there. If they choose the incorrect option, it will negatively impact how they comprehend the rest of the sentence or passage.
Consider the following: “Most mornings he just tapped a (all, bit, more) of food into the bowl…(6.26)” In this example, I’ve had students get confused and circle 2 answers (bit more) and read it that way, because the words occur together in line, and this made sense when the student read it out loud.
Now consider this example: “This is happening (in, to, for) you,” the fish proclaimed. (6.26).” In this excerpt, I personally think there are 2 options that make sense (to and for).
Some common and effective comprehension assessment questions include text-dependent questions, inferencing, close reading questions, questions about the text or author’s purpose. Never in the history of ever has Cloze Reading been considered an effective measure of comprehension. Cloze reading is a sentence-level, low level skill that does not require the reader to build a mental model and comprehend the meaning of the text.
3. Comprehension should never be timed.
MAZE allows 3 minutes. Imagine what our students could prove they know and understand if given a bit more time. Think of how many 504s, IEPs, and student plans you have read that have included ‘extended time’ as an accommodation.
4. MAZE doesn’t align to instruction.
If your intervention is guiding students with adopting and applying reading strategies, as so many good comprehension interventions do, then MAZE won’t give you any usable information to modify your instruction to meet student needs.
5. You don’t need to comprehend the passage to ‘pass’ MAZE
Students don’t actually have to comprehend the passage to answer the questions. If they have an adequate grasp of English syntax and grammar, then they can simply answer the questions by selecting the correct part of speech or most sensible option for that sentence or even phrase.
6. The distractors are not appropriately challenging.
AIMSWeb claims that, of the 3 response options, 1 is the correct answer, 1 is a near distractor (a word of the same ‘type’ or part of speech), and 1 is a far distractor (randomly selected, dissimilar part of speech).
Consider this example from 6.9: (Was, Jim, Day) stopped playing and ran to the (root, door, thus). Do you think ‘Day’ and ‘root’ were appropriately challenging near distractors? And, back to points 1 and 3 above, this tells me little to nothing about my students’ ability to comprehend the text, and gives me little to nothing to go on to adjust my instruction to help them improve their scores.
So in all, you can gather that I am not a very big fan of MAZE. And yet, it is a piece of data. ONE piece. We need to be triangulating student data and making sure to never make high stakes decisions based on solitary data points. Consider classroom evidence, Fountas & Pinnell benchmarking, MAP or STAR scores, and any other data points you can to obtain a whole picture on a student.
I’d love to hear what you think of AIMSWeb MAZE. I understand that many, many teachers and administrators love it. What are your thoughts on this tool – good, bad, or other?
Curious to learn more about dyslexia? I thought I knew what it was (switching b/d, right?) but I had a major education this summer. I created this 16 minute presentation as professional development for my colleagues. Enjoy!
I have this awesome whiteboard stop sign that I place outside of my classroom door. I try to greet my students each day / hour with a funny pun. It’s turned into a truly remarkable experience for everyone this year. My students will let me know if the joke isn’t funny, and this often turns into a teachable moment where I can share with them a finer point of the English language, or a colloquialism.
What’s great about middle school students is that many are finally starting to understand sarcasm and double meanings, along with symbolism and metaphor. I get to watch their brains develop right before me! It’s an incredible honor. When they truly get a joke and laugh, it’s a gift for both of us.
This experience has brought many new students to my door – students who aren’t even ‘mine’ – just to say hi, thanks for the joke, or share a joke that they’d like to see on the board. Many colleagues stop by and let me know that they miss the joke-of-the-day when I am too busy to make it happen. I love this new tradition! Here are my faves so far this school year (I’ll try to add more throughout the year):
Tomorrow, the students will arrive. Not all of them, just the 6th graders. We are trying a new thing this year – slow integration and transition. The rest of my students, 7th and 8th graders, will come on Friday.
I am so excited for this new school year! So much is new. I have a new room, a new position (Reading Specialist), a new student population (6-8th grade, not just one grade level), and a renewed sense of drive and purpose.
I’d love to show off my new room! Flexible seating was a major goal this year. Usually, I have 8 table groups for up to 33 students. But this year, I’ll be working with about 5 students at a time. To honor their different learning preferences, I created different seating options within the classroom for them to choose what works best.
Come on in – I’d love to give you the tour!
Building relationships is THE most important aspect of my teaching practice. I get to know my students, and I let them know that I love and appreciate them. Humor also helps.
Here is one flexible seating option in my room
Here is the second flexible seating option. I anticipate using this one the most with my groups of 4-5.
Here is a remake of my Instagram Reading Bulletin Board. It was such a big hit last year, I had to bring it back in the new room! By the end of the year, it will be filled with pictures of my awesome students being awesome 🙂
Here are our individual computer work stations. Each student has his/her own iPad, but as you can imagine, a desktop is preferable in some instances.
I am very proud of this new bulletin board: Fridge Worthy. Since my students (Tier 3 for Reading Interventions) need a major boost in confidence and a huge dose of love, I decided to incorporate this ‘praise board’ of sorts. They can post ANYthing they are proud of – it doesn’t have to be for reading. I’d like them to come into the room and have a feeling of pride and recognition.
Secondly, I have also posted my learning goals and targets for the year. I’ll have another set from which I will select the target(s) of the day and place them prominently on the front board. There aren’t many in my program, but they are all critical.
Oh, and you might have noticed that I chose a name for my new room: THE READING LAB. Zing. It’s gonna be a great year!
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.