Saturday, November 28, 2015

Getting Merry With December Journal Prompts

Journal writing is how we start our day in homeschool.  Just like when I was in the classroom, I use journal writing as a brain warm-up for the ELA block. I have used journals in numerous forms over the last 20+ years.  You can read about how I use journals and the research behind journal writing here.

I finished my latest monthly set of writing prompts for journals a month or so ago.  These December prompts feature special days in December such as Read a New Book Month, Christmas Card Day, Violin Day, and National Brownie Day as well as Christmas and a prompt for students to write about what holiday they celebrate.  There are enough prompts for each school day in December!

These prompts are very versatile and can be used in many different ways.  In previous years, I have printed the cover pages and glued to the outside of a folder.  The December prompts have two covers pages from which to choose:  an elf and a snowman.

There is a color version as well!

Then, I printed all the prompts and placed in the folder.  Or, you can staple all the prompts together.  And just like that, you have a whole month of journal or writing center writing!

Some teachers like to use the prompts in a writing center or for Quick Writes. This prompt resource was created for more informal writing, as the student does not go through all the steps in the writing process.  I do not grade the writing, but I have students share their writing with the class. It is a "safe" place for students to take risks (e.g., using dialogue in a story), flex their creative writing muscles, and to enjoy responding to fun prompts.It is also used to help develop writing stamina which then transfers to Writing Workshop. 

 The way I use these prompts for journal writing is more relaxed than our Writer's Workshop block.  However, many times this year, my son has asked to work on a journal writing to take through the writing process to a final copy.  That is exactly what I was hoping for:  that the daily journal writing would spark interest and passion in writing and that the journal would be used as a tool for Writer's Workshop.

Something else that I do this year is to always give my son the choice of which prompt he wants to do as well as giving him a "freewrite" option where he gets to choose the day's topic.  When we started at the beginning of the year, we had a "Freewrite Friday".  As the year has progressed, he has become more confident with his writing, and asks to write more and more freewrites. Of course, this may not work in your classroom depending on how you use the prompts.  An idea is to have several prompts available and allow students to choose one when using in a writing center. Choice is such a powerful motivator!  Students will write with more passion when they can choose a topic that interests them!  At the beginning of the year, it was too overwhelming for my son to choose a topic. So, the journal prompts really helped to scaffold his writing.  I supplied the topic and he concentrated on writing a response to the prompt.

This year, I'm doing something different.  I printed the prompts at 85% and they are glued in the journal composition book.  They are just the right size!

On some of the prompts there is room to write and draw!  All the prompts are done in black and white to save ink and to have students color when/if they have time. Some times my son will start by coloring for a minute or so as he thinks about what he wants to write.  Of course, I had to help him with time management so he didn't spend the entire writing time coloring!

I also included (10) stationery sheets done in color. I use these for final copies that the students complete.

Something else that I forgot to mention above is that we have been working on writing stamina in both journal writing and in Writer's Workshop.  My son now writes for five minutes with the journal writing.  I set a timer and when the timer goes off, he shares his writing with me.  I also encourage him to reflect on what was easy, difficult, and whether he enjoyed the topic and we can work through any difficulties he had and brainstorm solutions.  The next day, he can decide if he is going to add more to the previous day's writing.

I can't say enough about how much the journal writing has helped my 3rd grader to blossom into a more confident writer that is now enjoying writing!  I saw the same thing when I was in the classroom. 

You can click here to see the listing of prompts if you are interested.

Do you use journals in your classroom or at home?  Please share in comments how you use a journal!

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nonfiction Book Report Alternative: Making a Flip Book

I have never been a fan of the traditional book reports from way back when I was in school. You know the ones: write an essay, write a paragraph, chapter summaries, write answers to questions, etc. They can be very dry and let's face it, boring.  Instead, I am very vigilant about hooking readers and helping to sustain and increase their love for reading. Even before I read Kelly Gallagher's book, Readicide, I was very much aware of how we as teachers can kill a love of reading by assigning a barrage of worksheets and assignments to complete during and after reading.  It's something that I am very passionate about and have been over the course of my 26 year career. 

 Now that I am a homeschool mom to a 3rd grader whose love for reading is precarious at best, I have to be careful not to kill his new-found affinity for reading. However, just as I stated in the picture at the top of this post, I still have to hold him accountable for his reading, including his independent reading, our instructional reading, and the read-alouds I do everyday.  Just like when I was in the classroom, I allow him to have choice (within reason) and alter the ways in which we interact with a book as well as allowing for different ways for him to demonstrate his understanding. 

I do not assign lengthy packets for him to complete at the end of each book he reads. What I don't want to do is to kill the reader with 50+ pages to complete analyzing and dissecting every part of the story/book. Nor will I assign a plethora of questions for every chapter. Instead, I have a focus, what used to be called "teaching points" for each text he reads- whether it is a chapter book, picture book, a short reading passage, a nonfiction book, a content-area reading, poem, etc.  My first priority is to make sure he can demonstrate a deep understanding of the text (not necessarily all of the text). Sometimes I can accomplish that with having him write a response or two.  I realize that I am in the minority here and that many of you may disagree or may have your hands tied as to what and how you teach. But, this is what has worked for my students in general over the last 20+ years and is working in homeschool.

For this blog post, I chose to focus on nonfiction because just like other boys his age, my son loves to read nonfiction that interests him.  So, for the last month or so, he has been reading a lot of nonfiction for independent reading.  He is enjoying the "Who Was..." series and just finished Who Was Milton Hershey? ( a perfect choice to conclude our chocolate unit!). I also chose to focus on "book report" options for independent reading in htis blog post because this is our focus in homeschool ELA for this 2nd marking period. 

Remember the teaching points I referenced earlier?  When determining what after reading activity I want my son to focus on, I think about two things.  First, I think about why I want him to complete an after reading activity.  Is it to showcase his learning?  Demonstrate his understanding of the reading?  Have him extend his reading and learning by interacting with the text at a deeper level?  Second, I think about what the natural teaching points of the text are.  What aspects of the text are just "begging to be explained, shared, or discussed?". And just like in the classroom, believe it or not, time is a factor too when homeschooling. How much time can I allot to this activity?

Based on the answers to the above questions, I present a menu of activities from which my son will choose one. I do not assign an activity for each book he reads independently.  Sometimes he reads just for the pure enjoyment of reading. At his current rate of reading (2) books a week, it would not be feasible for him to be completing activities for each book he reads. At other times, I determine the after reading activity. Sometimes, we have a brief, informal discussion and at other times, he completes a more involved project, which I can integrate with other content areas and most likely with "specials" such as art.

A few of the activities that my son enjoys...

Nonfiction Book Report Alternatives
  • Discussion of what was learned, new information vs information that was in his schema, interesting information, questions he still has, why he did or did not enjoy the book.
  • Completion of a graphic organizer- Click here for free organizers.  I especially like the 3-2-1 Strategy. Also, check out the organizers on the Florida Center for Reading Research site.
  • PowerPoint, Glog, or Prezi presentation
  • Art project related to the text
  • Completing a foldable or interactive notebook type activity that can be glued into his reader's notebook

I found this Make a Flip Book tool from the Read.Write.Think website. See here for an overview of this online tool and lesson plans that use the Flip Book. Students can type and print, or you can choose the template you want and print.  Then students can draw (or use clip art like I did since I am artistically challenged!). You can also choose how many tabs you want.  I chose (6) for my example, but my son is only doing (4) since we are crunched for time. This flip book is so easy to make!  Once you print, there are lines where you cut and lines for where to staple. It's so easy that even I could do it!

I created a sheet to complete (in the picture below) before using the online tool.  I used the book featured in the picture below as my model/example.  As a side note, this book makes such an interesting read-aloud for Thanksgiving!

Click the picture below if you want to use this 2 page form I created to be completed before using the online flip book tool.

Graphics by Graphics From the Pond and KG Fonts

The completed flip book....

Inside the book...  I glued and then later colored the clip art. At the top, I wrote the topic/main idea of the book I read.

Here is an example of how you can print a page and then write information on the page instead of typing.

My son loved the idea of creating this flip book because he could do some typing and drawing. He chose this activity and is still working on his product. I loved it because it allowed him to really think about his reading and learning, it was something he was interested in, it integrated art which really motivates him, and it is FREE!

What nonfiction book report alternatives have you used?  Have you tried out this Flip Book tool?  Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

I'm linking up with HoJo's Teaching Adventure.  Click the pic below to visit the linky for some fabulous ideas for your elementary classroom!

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How to Implement a Mystery Reader Program!

When my youngest son was in kindergarten, he loved the Mystery Reader program that his teacher implemented. With the room mom coordinating this weekly event, there was very little work that the classroom teacher had to do.  Now, I have never hosted such an event in my classroom, but I was so impressed with this series that it got me thinking:  if I were to use this in my classroom, how would I go about organizing it?  Let me preface my plan with this:  I was one of the mystery readers and the excitement of the students was incredible!  Each week, my son would ask me if it was Thursday yet because he knew that was Mystery Reader Day! The kids loved, loved this activity!

What is a Mystery Reader Program?
A read-aloud activity where guest readers visit the classroom to share a favorite book.  The identity of the reader is kept a secret until the reader enters the classroom on the scheduled day. The reader can bring along props, a simple craft, or a snack that is related to the book.  Or, the guest reader can simply visit the classroom and read aloud.

Why Implement a Mystery Reader Program?
Because it is FUN for the kids, the classroom teacher, and the guest reader!  We all know the benefits of reading aloud to our students.  Changing things up a bit and inviting guest readers into the classroom adds variety, exposes students to other readers whose style will obviously be different than the classroom teacher, builds excitement for reading, as the kids do not know who the reader will be, and models for students that adults other than teachers read!

How Does It Work?
I am a firm believer in the K.I.S.S. principle:  Keep It Super Simple.  Here's how it worked in my son's classroom.  The room mom coordinated the program for the entire year.  She used Sign Up Genius to schedule guest readers for the school  year.  The classroom teacher dedicated each Thursday afternoon from 2:30-3:00 as Mystery Reader Day. An email was sent to all parents with a link to the Sign Up Genius site.  Parents could volunteer themselves or schedule a grandparent, family friend, older sibling, neighbor, etc. The benefit of using Sign Up Genius is that it is paperless, it is easy to see who has volunteered, it is FREE, and the volunteer receives an automatic email reminder about the day they are scheduled to be a mystery reader.  The only disadvantage of using this website to schedule your readers is that not all parents will have Internet access.

 No worries, for you can post a sign up sheet outside your classroom and/or send home a paper copy.  I would also add, that I would send an email to the school faculty and staff  inviting them to volunteer as well.  This would include inviting other teachers, the administration, secretaries, the guidance counselor, custodians, and even older students!  Click here for a FREE, sample letter you can send home to parents, post outside your classroom, or place in faculty/staff mailboxes.
** Graphics used in the letter:  My Cute Graphics, Kathy Law, Kevin and Amanda, A Cupcake for the Teacher

The only thing left for you or your room parent to do is to schedule the guest readers and to make sure that readers share a new book, so you do not have any repeats.

A few days before the mystery reader arrives, have students practice their inferencing skills by trying to guess the identity of the reader using the clues they provided.  Click the picture below to download an inferencing handout (I like to project the document onto my interactive white board) I created and a poster you can display on Mystery Reader Day.

  Afterwards, you could have students write a thank you letter to the mystery reader and discuss whether students' predictions were correct.

The sky is the limit with this fun activity that promotes reading for fun and provides good role models for kids!


Do you use a Mystery Reader program in your classroom? Share ideas as to what has been successful!

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sneaky Poetry

We just wrapped up our chocolate unit where we read several chapter books, nonfiction articles, and read some poetry about chocolate.  Such a yummy and engaging unit for all of us!  As I was wandering around the Internet, I found a "recipe" for Sneaky Poetry. This short poem makes use of a formula for writing a five line descriptive poem about any topic.  Each line of the poem gives clues that "sneak up" on the topic, which is disclosed at the end. I took the idea and added my own spin on it!

I had our topic be about chocolate- any type or kind.  I shared my poem that I wrote about a Snickers Bar.  After a review of adjectives, we brainstormed topics and took a closer look at the formula.

Each line describes the topic and the topic is written on the last line.  It is fun, creative, and an excellent activity for your reluctant writers since the writing process is heavily scaffolded and there is a formula to follow.  Plus, it is a short poem that won't overwhelm them.

My son wanted to type his final copy and was pretty pleased with the end result.  I was thrilled that he felt successful and proud of his writing!

There are so many variations of how you could use Sneaky Poetry.  Students could choose a book, a character, a holiday, or a content related topic from science or social studies.  Since this was such a success, I wanted to share this with you!  I have uploaded the direction sheet with my example, the formula, and brainstorming sheet as well as drafting and final copy papers.  Click here to download this FREEBIE in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Parent-Teacher Conferences: 6 Things Parents Want You to Know

For longer that I really want to admit to, I have been a teacher and a parent.  Yes, I am that old!  I have had over 20 years experience of being on both sides of the proverbial desk. And yet despite that experience, I still get a little bit nervous about attending my child's first parent-teacher conference of the year. And I know that I am not alone, as I have heard many other parents express the same thing.

As I prepare to attend my middle son's conference next week, I started thinking about what parents, whether or not they are also teachers, want teachers to know.  

6 Tips For a Great Conference: A Parent's Point of View

1.  Parents are sometimes a little anxious about sitting down to chat with the teacher even if our child is doing well academically and socially.  As a parent to a child that struggled in elementary school with social and behavior issues, my anxiousness was magnified.  As a way to break the ice, share with us three positives about our child at the beginning of the conference.  

2.  If you are able to, send home a pre-conference question sheet the week or so before the conference.  Designate a place for parents to ask questions and to share concerns about the curriculum or the child's progress, or to share issues at home that may affect the child's attitude, behavior, or learning at school. This response sheet will help you plan the meeting to address the parent concerns.  In addition, if you run out of time, you will have a written update from the parent that notifies you of important changes. Parents want teachers to know that sometimes we get overwhelmed and forget to share information with you or we forget to ask specific questions during the actual conference.  It doesn't have to be fancy and can consist of a small list of open-ended questions.

3. Of course every parent wants to hear the good stuff about their kids, but they also want to know the negative stuff and they don't want it sugar-coated.  At least this parent doesn't want it sugar-coated. Sure, some of us may get defensive, but behind that initial reaction is a parent that wants to know what we can do at home to help our child be successful at school.  If I have a child that is excelling in all areas, give me ideas of what I can do at home to challenge him.

4.  We do value your assignments and expectations, but sometimes life gets in the way. We forget to sign the reader's log, sign the progress report, or complete the field trip slip.  And they aren't excuses... for many of us, we are doing the best that we can under our circumstances. Other times, we are allowing our child to take responsibility and face natural consequences if the work is not completed. But, but please do not take away my child's or any child's recess as a consequence and punishment. As the mother to three boys, I can tell you that this only creates more problems in the classroom if my active little one is not able to take a break that his brain and body needs. As a teacher, I was an advocate for this as well.  Have them stay after school, miss part of a fun activity, contact me at home, or give them a zero on the assignment.

5.  Show us samples of work that has been completed in class.  I realize and completely understand why some work (especially writing) cannot be sent home.  Select a few pieces that showcase their work across the content areas including written projects, journals, and group work.

6.  And lastly, we want you to know that we respect you and are often times in complete awe as to how you do what you do- all with a smile on your face and having what appears to be the patience of Job.  And most likely, we will forget to tell you, but that doesn't mean that we are unappreciative. This parent has made it a priority this year to encourage my son's teacher and to tell him what an amazing job I think he is doing.  And because I will most likely forget to tell him next week at our conference, I will send him a handwritten note or an email.

I'm linking up with HoJo's Teaching Adventures.  Click the pic below to visit her site to find more elementary blog posts and helpful resources!

Do you have additional tips to share?  Please leave a comment!

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Using In November as a Mentor Text for Pattern Poetry

One of the many things that I like about using mentor texts is that I can often use one book and get more "bang for my buck" by relating it to both reading and writing in the same lesson.  I integrate reading and writing on most days because the lines between the two are often blurred in the "real world". We read for pleasure, but we also read as a writer and write as a reader.  A few weeks ago, I was teaching a mini-lesson on using imagery and descriptive language in writing. We were learning how using imagery that creates, paints a picture in the reader's mind makes our own writing more interesting and makes what we read more fun and enjoyable. I used Cynthia Rylant's In November as a mentor text.

After we read the story once and enjoyed and soaked in Rylant's beautiful poetic description of November, we then went back to take a close look at the sensory imagery she used.  We  found examples and recorded them on this graphic organizer:

Then, I gave the challenge of having us write a poem { not a story or a paragraph} of our favorite season or month. We used another copy of the same organizer to brainstorm specific images about our topic.  I chose autumn and my son chose the month of January (his birthday month!) as the topics of our poems.

Next, was drafting time.  I created a structured form {see above}for writing the first draft.  The form of the poem is really like a "list poem" and uses Rylant's In November as a model for my take on a pattern poetry task.

I shared my final copy as a model and as an example (I also worked along side my son as I always do with writing, going through each step of the writing process).

And below is my 8 year old's final copy which he wanted to type and use a fancy border!  He was very proud of his writing, which was really a stretch for him to use such descriptive images!

If you would like the printables for this lesson, click the pic below to download them from my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

I'm linking up with HoJo's Teaching Adventures.  Click the pic below to visit her site to find more elementary resources!


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Monday, October 12, 2015

More Reading and Writing, Less "Stuff"!

About a month or so ago, I started a series on my Facebook page called Nurturing Literacy as a way to promote best practices in literacy instruction. As well, I wanted to share reminders of how to foster a love of reading and writing in our students.  My most recent tip is pictured above and is really something that is at the core of my teaching philosophy. When I was a classroom teacher and later a reading specialist/literacy coach, I found that I had to be very intentional in making sure that one, I was not doing most of the talking most of the day and two, that during reading and writing blocks, and in content lessons that my students were doing actual, authentic reading and writing.

At least for me, I can get so caught up in pre-reading activities such as activating schema, building background information, and pre-teaching vocabulary, that there isn't that much time left for the students to actually read.  Again, I have to keep myself in check and be intentional in limiting before reading activities so that students have a large chunk of time to read.  Richard Allington confirms my beliefs:

The issue is less stuff vs. reading than it is a question of what sorts of and how much of stuff. When stuff dominates instructional time, warning flags should go up. This is true even when the activity, in some form, has been shown to be useful. Activating students' background knowledge before reading (Pearson & Fielding, 1991) and generating discussion after reading (Fall, Webb & Chudowsky, 2000) is useful. But three to five minutes of building background knowledge is probably enough; spending most of a 90 minute reading block on building background knowledge seems an unlikely strategy for improving reading proficiencies.  
(2002 Richard Allington,

And then there are during and after reading activities. My stance on this is that we should not drown students in questions to answer and worksheets to complete.  Personally, I cringe when I see a 100 page packet for students to complete during and after reading a chapter book or novel. After 25 years in education, I have found that this practice does not motivate students, does not foster a love for reading, and is really not necessary to have them answer a plethora of questions for each and every chapter. Time would be better spent having students answer a reader response question and then having them get back to reading.

Another article written by Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel states:

First, eliminate almost all worksheets and workbooks. Use the money saved to purchase books for classroom libraries; use the time saved for self-selected reading, self-selected writing, literary conversations, and read-alouds. 

 ( 2012 ASCD,-Every-Day.aspx)

Many renowned and seasoned teachers such as Nancie Atwell, Regie Routman, Donald Graves, Jeffrey Wilhelm, et al,as well as recent teacher-researchers such as Kelly Gallagher an Donalyn Miller all emphasize that it is critical that teachers create many opportunities for students to read and write throughout the day. I am very selective in the tasks and activities that my students complete.  Is this worksheet really necessary?  Should I continue to do DOL (Daily Oral Language) or have students read or write at the beginning of the day or class period? As for the latter, I did eliminate my DOL and instead had students writing in their journal (a part of their Writer's Notebook) for "bell ringer" work.  And fast finishers?  Instead of another worksheet or skill practice, I allow my students to do independent reading.  Again, these practices are not only supported by research, but also from my own personal experiences.  Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, makes a plea to teachers:

Readers need to read a lot before they become good readers.  This should be nonnegotiable. Unfortunately, I have found that schools have become such extremely busy places that authentic reading experiences are often buried under lectures, group work, films, worksheets, and test preparation.  ( Readicide, p. 58)

Of course, this does not mean that there is never a time and place for the occasional worksheet, craft, or explicit teaching.  One lesson that I have learned is that we need to teach with a sense of urgency, but even more importantly, we need to encourage, inspire, and motivate our students to grow as independent readers and writers. As I am creating a lesson plan, I ask myself two questions:  Is this best practice according to the research and my own action research? And, I ask myself if my plans will help to develop my students as motivated and independent readers, writers, and thinkers. What do my students need to be successful?  Do they need 1:1 explicit teaching and support?  Would it be best for them to be in a guided reading or writing group? What about test prep and CCSS alignment, curricular scope and sequence?  Well, let's just say that I often teach like a pirate! Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate, explains pirate teaching this way:

Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success.  They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends o the earth for that which they value (p. xii).

If you can show your admin that your teaching practices get results, then you will be supported even if you stray from the norm.  I am thankful for the trailblazers like Nancie Atwell, Donalyn Miller, Paul Solarz, and Dave Burgess, just to name a few.  Not only did they take a risk, step out of their comfort zones, and eliminate the fluff and stuff from their lesson plans, but they documented their learning and experiences, thus providing rich research from which we can learn.

The answer to the complicated questions and concerns about our nation's schools, students, and test data may be really simple: allow time, much more time in the classroom for students to read and write.

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