Small Group Book Discussions in 6th Grade

I've ditched reading logs and book reports for my students long ago. I want them to focus on reading a book that they enjoy - for pleasure - and not worrying about stopping to write on post-its, or record how many pages they've read each night. My classroom (and life) was transformed when I read the book "The Book Whisperer" by Donalyn Miller.

I begin the school year with whole class book discussion each Wednesday. We sit in a circle, each student having a chance to talk about the book they are reading. They choose their own books, and if they do a good job talking about their book, others will ask to borrow it afterwards. I just act as facilitator, keeping the students on task, and reminding them about proper manners when someone is speaking.

Usually around the last marking period of the year, I will try to break them into small groups to embark on their own discussions. It's been modeled, so they know what is expected of them. They will be given a set of questions to guide them that generically work for all book types. Usually, a natural leader will emerge to take on the task of facilitator, making sure the group stays on task, and that the pace continues. My role then becomes one of outside observer - making sure that everyone is participating, and that questions asked are appropriate.

Each week I will make up the groups of 5-7 students in order to ensure those more subdued students aren't overwhelmed by larger personalities. I want everyone to feel comfortable to participate in the discussion about the books they've chosen to read. I made 5 different discussion guide sheets just to keep it interesting (A-E). Each student, besides participating in the discussion, will have one question to respond to on paper about their book.  Even if they are not finished with their book, they can still be an active member of the group.   

If you are interested in the master files of the discussion sheets, just email me and I'll happily send them your way.  (susankotch@gmail.com)




Mythology Trading Cards Make A Great Project in 6th Grade!

My 6th graders love mythology.  They love the stories, the family trees, and know the difference between a cerberus and a chimaera.  So, when we wrapped up our unit on myths and fables, and to lighten their load during state testing time, I gave them a project to create a set of 9 trading cards. The set would highlight 8 mythological characters, and they would create one about themselves.

I have some students I would consider very talented artists.  But there was something about this assignment that really seemed to click with all of them. Perhaps it was the fact that they didn't feel overwhelmed by a huge creative project because the cards were the size of trading cards. Perhaps they just knew the subject matter and felt confident. Either way, they did an excellent job on this assignment.

Supply List:

  • A package of 200 blank trading cards (less than $10 on Amazon)
  • A package of trading card album pages (about $6 for a pack of 25 on Amazon)
  • 1 box of thin tipped sharpies
  • I already had a few sets of colored sharpies
  • Access to mythology books and handouts to use as reference
  • A binder to house the finished products

I always have a lot of reference material for any topic we tackle in class.  I've accumulated quite a stack of Mythlopedia books on different mythological characters which contain a lot of pictures, descriptions, and details about the Titans, the Olympians, the women and beasts and everything else. They are great for students. I also added a lot of graphic novels featuring Poseidon, Zeus, Medusa, and others.  Graphic novels are engaging for all students. Even readers who struggle will grab one and devour it. I can't keep them on the shelves!

Each student was given a trading card album page and 9 cards. The card in the middle would feature the artist (the student), and the others would be characters in mythology. On the back of each card, students were to include important information about that character - family tree, powers, etc.  The other requirement was the cards had to look like they are part of a set - they should have some thread that ties them together, such as a border, or color, or font style.

As you can see, the results were wonderful!






#lowtech #notech One-Pagers Make Fun Assessments

There is nothing I enjoy more than learning from other teachers. Teachers by nature are most giving of all people, and love to pass along their best tried and true lessons to others.

While in search of new, creative ways to engage students of all ages in Language Arts, I stumbled upon a wonderful Facebook Group called “2ndaryELA”. The group is made up of Middle School and High School English Language Arts teachers who generously share their experiences (positive and negative)  and lessons with others.  This is where I first learned about an activity called a “One Pager”.  The appeal to me is it gives those students who are visual and creative a way to show what they know. Being a visual person myself, I jumped all over this activity.  I also love that it is low-tech/no-tech!  Sometimes our best ideas don’t require technology, but paper and colored pencils.

An advantage to this activity is it can be applicable across just about any discipline.  Math or science concepts, periods of history, drama, music - no matter what you want to assess, you can use this to do it.

The idea is to use one sheet of paper (we used 8.5x11) to relay a concept (or two or three) using illustrations, color, artistic fonts, or other media.  The first time I introduced it was in a fifth grade classroom where they’ve  just completed the novel “Rules” by Cynthia Lord.  I visit the class twice a week on rotation to introduce writing workshop and literacy instruction.

My rubric for this assignment was simple: the One-Pager must include 2 questions and answers, at least one full-sentence theme statement, one song title related to the theme of the story and an explanation of why it was chosen, 2 important quotes from the book explained,  at least one relevant illustration, and the title and author of the book. I also added that the whole paper should be utilized. The student either met, or didn’t meet each requirement. 

The steps I took:

I did a quick slide presentation to review the idea of themes and quotes, then talked a little bit  about what “relevant illustrations” meant.

Then, a few quick brainstorming ideas were recorded on the board to get them thinking about how they might present their work.

My sample "Rules" One-Pager

I also did my own One-Pager to show them what I was looking for. I showed them how each element was represented in the rubric. I told them again how each will look different because we all connect differently to the book. I reminded them that we don’t have to be artists to create One-Pagers.

Then, we were off and running.

The results were incredible. The teachers loved the idea as well, and went on to incorporate them in other subject areas. I’m adding some of our creations below, but just google “One Pagers”, and check out Pinterest for other applications for them. Here are some "Rules" and "Frindle" One-Pagers:



I recently presented the idea of "One-Pagers" at an Edcamp which was geared toward incorporating technology and tech-based assessments into the classroom. I strongly believe that #notech/#lowtech teaching can be just as effective and engaging as tech-based teaching, and this activity is a perfect example. Sometimes a piece of paper, some colored pencils or markers and a student's imagination is all you need to show that learning happens.  Besides, you can't hang a computer in the school's hallways. 🙂


The Importance of Joining a PLN (Personal Learning Network)

I'd have to say that one of the greatest things I've done for myself as both a teacher, and a writer, has been joining a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Being able to converse regularly with like-minded professionals has really inspired me to become a better writer, teacher, and learner.

I've found my Teacher PLNs on Twitter.  Yes, folks, it's not just for chasing the Kardashians. There are actually well-educated and very dedicated teachers on Twitter every day sharing ideas, teaching philosophies, lesson plans, insight, and not to mention opportunities for jobs!  I've learned more from my "tweachers" than attending any other professional development through my own district.  One of the things I most love is that ideas are exchanged in 140 characters or less, and the pace is very dynamic. Unlike traditional learning where one person talks and others just try to absorb, Twitter allows for a pure learning experience where ideas are exchanged rapidly and succinctly, and this dynamic allows for much more information to flow in a more natural way. It's like having a conversation at a cocktail party!

One of my PLNs meet at 5:30am each weekday (#bfc530).  I attend with a cup of coffee, and wearing my pajamas. A question is thrown out to all, and we have 15 minutes to discuss it before everyone needs to move on to begin their work day.  It's a great way to engage, get your head into "school mode", and feel energized to give students your best.

On the weekends, #satchat at 7:30am on Saturdays, and #sunchat at 9:00am on Sundays, keeps the topics flowing.  These half-hour chats give a bit more time to explore different topics and engage with teachers more in-depth.  The teachers on the chats live and teach all over the globe, and exchanging ideas and philosophies with them is so inspiring. I feel as close to them as I do the teachers I see daily in my own faculty room!

On Twitter, you can find chats for all disciplines, from Language Arts and Writing to Classroom Management and Field Trips. Hashtags make it easy to find the chats, and following these wonderful educators ensures that your stream of tweets will be filled with wonderful ideas and inspiration 24/7.

One of the teachers I've been conversing with is a Canadian transplant who opened a school in the Dominican Republic over 25 years ago, Carla Meyrink.  She wanted her own children to have more than the DR public school system would offer, so she decided to do it herself. Her school has grown into a wonderful community of caring teachers who bring hope and love to the students who attend. On a recent trip there, I was able to meet her in person, and it felt as if I'd known her for years. Her school is a true success story, and gives the students of the DR so much love, support and opportunity!  If you want to truly be inspired, follow her (@carlameyrink).  Her blog is filled with great information and insight. Truly a wonderful educator and role model.

I've also found a great group of Language Arts teachers on Facebook (Yes, Facebook is more than just seeing what restaurant your neighbor is eating at tonight).  There is a wonderful group to follow called "2ndaryELA" which is over 8000 members strong, sharing everything from book recommendations to writing activities and classroom ideas.  This world-wide group discusses all types of topics, and if you need anything, they're willing and able to help you find it.

As a writer, I've found just as much support. Both Twitter and Facebook are filled with author, editor and illustrator groups willing to lend support to any project. Stuck on a word, a scene, a character?  Just put the word out and they are there to make suggestions, point to resources, or help with a rewrite.

It's been said we've lost the art of face to face communication due to the digital age. I don't see it that way, though. I see it as an opportunity to expand our communication with those we would never have the chance to meet, or exchange ideas with. We lived in a bubble in the past, but now, we have access to so many more people with great ideas, so many new resources, so many more opportunities due to this digital age.

The best part, though, is when the curtain is lifted and you meet these folks face to face at conferences, or chance meetings. There is nothing like shaking the hand or giving a hug to someone you've conversed with for years. Looking into their eyes and seeing how alike you are and realizing that had it not been for joining that PLN, you never would have known this amazing person?  Cool, huh?

Here are just a few of the best teachers and writers I've ever met, thanks to my PLN!:







Guest Author Blog: Traci Sanders

I'm pleased to hand over my blog today to my friend Traci Sanders, award-winning author and creator of the Readers Review Room, an on-line review site for authors, which provides fantastic indie books for lovers of reading.  Traci is a multi-genre, multi-award-winning author of ten published titles, with contributions to three anthologies. An avid blogger and supporter of Indie authors, she writes parenting, children's, romance, and nonfiction guides.

Her ultimate goal is to provide great stories and quality content for dedicated readers, whether through her own writing or editing works by other authors.  Here, she provides one of her writing tips from her newest release, "Living the Write Life".  Without further ado, here is Traci's Tip:


The following tip can be found in Living The Write Life, now available in digital and paperback format.



Have any of you who are authors noticed that your circle of friends grew smaller once you published your book(s)? I’m not only talking about the friends who still haven’t reviewed, much less read, your books. I’m referring to the ones who seemed to have disappeared once you began even talking about your books.


Don’t feel alone. It happens to many authors.


In fact, it happens to many people in general, for several reasons:

  • Some people feel threatened when their friends aren’t on the same “level” (socially, financially, or career-wise) as they are.
  • Some people back off because they are afraid you will ask them to read/review your book and they are afraid of being honest with you if they end up not liking it. In other words, they don’t want to be put in an awkward position.
  • Some people feel threatened by anyone who has goals.
  • Some people are selfish and only want their friends to be happy if they are happy. (It’s the same with the friends who only want you to be single when they are single.)
  • Some people aren’t interested in anything to do with reading or writing. Yes. They do exist. (Breathe. Breathe.)


Many authors enjoy talking about all things related to books and writing. However, their friends and family do not.


Sure, they may be supportive and buy—and if the planets align, maybe even review—our books. But this doesn’t mean that they will ever be as invested in the process as we authors are. It’s not their passion. They don’t lose sleep over a certain line of a story. They aren’t tormented by the fate of characters. Even if they are avid readers, it doesn’t mean they care about the writing process as much as authors do.


So how do we deal with the ones we love, who don’t love what we do?

  • Don’t bring up the subject of your writing or anything related to writing unless asked. And even then, learn to gauge if the person asking is truly interested in learning about it, or if he/she is simply being polite.
  • If you do mention your writing, be sure to talk about other topics as well.
  • Ask your friends/loved ones about their lives. Remember, whatever is going on in their lives is just as important to them as your writing is to you.
  • Don’t ask your friends/loved ones to read or review your books. If they offer, great. Otherwise, leave that to avid readers who will appreciate your work.
  • Don’t try to coerce your friends/loved ones into reading your book by giving them free copies, thinking you are doing them a favor. If they are truly interested, they will ask you how to buy a copy to support you.
  • Don’t hold it against them if they don’t want to read or even talk about your books. Keep in mind that they knew you before you began publishing, and that person is who they built a relationship with, not the author you became. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk about things in your life that don’t involve them.
  • Remember to balance your time between your writing and your friends/loved ones. It’s hard. As authors, we get an idea in our heads and want to run with it, damned the rest of the world when we’re in the writing zone. But as humans, we can’t do that too often or we will burn some bridges we don’t want to burn. Make time for your spouse, other than getting him/her to read your latest synopsis. Make time for your children. Yes, it’s great for them to see you going for your dreams and goals, but don’t make them feel as if they aren’t as special or important to you as your writing. No matter what book I publish, writing award I win, or celebrity status I ever reach, my ultimate achievement in life is being a great mom to my children, and wife to my husband. They will always come first.
  • Don’t correct your friends/loved ones’ grammar on social media or in person, unless you have that kind of relationship with him or her. No one likes a know-it-all. Whether they are being lazy or simply naive, it’s not your place to judge them or correct them.
  • Don’t forget to thank your closest family and friends who do support your writing journey, whether it’s your spouse who cares for the kids so you can write, your best friend who reads your worst crap before you rewrite it, or your children who learn to wait “just a few more minutes” to eat dinner because you are trying to wrap up a chapter. Just because they don’t materially participate in your writing, doesn’t mean they don’t play a huge role in your process. Thank them in your books, and in person.
  • Don’t buy books for your friends/loved ones who you know don’t enjoy reading, thinking you will convince them how great it is. Or worse, buy them books you know they won’t enjoy so they will give the books to you. That’s just wrong. (smile)


It’s hard for us authors to remember sometimes that there are people in this vast world who don’t enjoy and appreciate the written word as much as we do. When I hear someone say, “I simply don’t enjoy reading,” I want to claw my eyes out. But it’s not my place to force it on them or judge them for their lack of interest.


So, keep your relationships with those you love by remembering what brought you together in life in the first place. Focus on that and let them know you cherish their presence in your life … even if they don’t enjoy all the same things you do.



Traci Sanders

Award-winning author of parenting, children's, and romance titles

Why Read?

     If you haven't yet heard my speech on the importance of reading, it's time. I am a BIG proponent of making sure students are reading to improve their skills and comprehensionincrease their vocabularymake life connections, and enjoy the pleasures of getting lost in an adventure or traveling to another place or time without ever leaving their seat!  Reading is a skill that will benefit us in any job market and any profession.  And, reading makes us better writers! You wouldn't try to play a sport without watching it a few times to see what the game looks like, right? Well, when we read, we are training our brain to see what good writing looks like.  And, reading for pleasure is a hobby we'll enjoy for the rest of our lives.
     Reading also builds a student's "background knowledge", or schema. This is important so that students can connect concepts to experiences, words and events that are already part of their "mental filing cabinet".  A large part of reading comprehension is due to a student being able to relate to, or understand a concept by digging into that filing cabinet. Students with limited background information to draw on may struggle with making the connections needed to fully comprehend a passage they've read. The quickest way to build that background knowledge is not by experiencing it, but by reading about it.
     What many people may not realize is that reading fiction (novels, children's books, classic literature) teaches empathy. According to Keith Oatley, Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Toronto, engaging with stories about people "can improve empathy." He says when we read about other people, we begin to "imagine ourselves in their position (what the kids in school call "making connections"), which enables us to better understand people." How does this happen? "It is because readers are experiencing a lot of situations in a short amount of time as they read, far more than if we spent our lives waiting for those situations to come to us." So, bottom line is that reading is good for more than just academics.
     According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language has over one million wordsBut a typical adult will have a usable vocabulary of only 10,000 to 20,000 words. That leaves a lot of words in our language that aren't being used.   Exposing young children to new words helps them to not only learn the word, but to see the word in action, specifically how the word is used. That's a great thing, especially as our students will be exposed to "higher level" words through standardized testing.
     Remember that reading and reading comprehension spans all subjects - even math!  Imagine struggling to read through a math word problem and not understanding what math calculations need to be done to solve it.  Many students struggle with the literacy of math, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary associated with it. These domain-specific words should continue to be used daily so that they become a part of the student's vernacular.
An easy way to look at vocabulary taught in school is to bucket it into the groupings outlined in the Common Core curriculum:
  • Tier 1 words are basic words that commonly appear in spoken language. These would be common words in our vocabulary. Students are already familiar with these words. For example, "house", "they", and "equal".
  • Tier 2 words are high frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas. These would be words such as "establish" , "obtain",and "verify". As you can tell, these words would be extemely useful for students to be able to use and understand, as they woud be used in many different subject areas ("cross-curricular").
  • Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are domain-specific.These would be words associated with a particular content area, such as medical terms, music terms, or words associated with a particular occupation.  For example, "mitosis" in science, "civil" in social studies, "personification" in language arts.
     In the classroom, the focus on vocabulary in the middle grades and middle school will be on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, to help the students expand their understanding of these higher-level words. One way is through repetition. Using the word when speaking will help the student begin to associate the word with it's domain and usage. At home, a way to help students is to review these Tier 2 and Tier 3 words and use them in discussions.  Using the words in conversation will help students understand both meaning and usage. An easy way to see the words in action is by reading different types of material. Both fiction and non-fiction will expose the students to many Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.
 I truly believe that reading is the answer to succeeding in school and in life!

Motivation Cards

Whenever I come across a new way to motivate students, I hold onto it like a lost treasure. I haven't yet found the silver bullet of motivation that works for all students, but I've found something discreet that works for me across multiple age groups.

One day, I wrote a note on a 7th grade student's paper commending him for being such an active participant in a previous day's discussion. The note was so well-received by this student ("I'm going to put this on the refrigerator tonight so my Dad will see it!") that it got me thinking about I should really be giving more positive reinforcement to students for all those wonderful things they do throughout the day, and make sure that the message gets home to parents as well.  Having lived through the teenage years of dinner-time-talking (grunts, groans, eye-rolling and a lot of "I don't know"s), I wanted to come up with a way for information to flow home once in a while. Parents love hearing those message from teachers, but middle school students aren't very good at delivering them.

I decided to get business cards made up with a simple message that I could attach to a paper, or toss on a student's desk during the course of the class without much fuss.  While there are many places to have business cards made, I found great deals through an online company called Vistaprint.  I had 500 cards made for under $10. Here is what they looked like:

The 7th and 8th graders enjoyed getting them tossed onto their desk during our class discussions. It made me want to expand my idea to other areas. I began commending them for taking out a book and reading, for keeping their journals up to date, and even for kind acts that I caught them doing.  When I took on a new role that brought me into classrooms of younger students as well for writing lessons, I tried them out. They were a hit there, too.


Now I have all types of cards that I carry with me, to use no matter what the occasion.  When I walk into a second grade classroom, I'll see the kids taking their pleasure reading books out in hopes I'll give them a card for being caught reading.  They seem to collect them now, and I'm fine with that. I'll continue to get different cards made up, and I'll continue to hand them out for as long as they work....

Let me know if you have a great motivational tip. I'd love to hear about it!




Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

I had an opportunity to spend time celebrating Dr. Seuss Day with a class of second graders.  It's amazing how timeless Dr. Seuss books are - and how timely. We read The Lorax, which brings a strong message to light regarding how we all need to take care of our natural resources. The students are always entertained by his rhymes and whimsical drawings, but Dr. Seuss really hit a note with this particular group of second graders. They were not happy at all that the Onceler was cutting down all of the Truffula trees!  But most notably was the sadness expressed for the animals who would suffer because of it.  Empathy. For animals. Wow.

I had to pause when I realized it. They wrote letters to the Onceler stating why he should stop cutting the trees down. Over and over the sentences mentioned how the animals would be affected because  the trees provided food and shelter for them.  It was wonderful to see how the students connected to the characters and understood the importance of taking care of were we live, not just for us humans, but for the animals. A great message by Dr. Seuss!

After reading and writing, we took the time to crate a Lorax to accompany our writing.  A quick, easy project that nicely complemented our Dr. Seuss celebration.




Launching Our First Literacy Fair

Over the summer break, our district toyed with the idea of holding a Literacy Fair during the school year. Much like a Science Fair, the event would consist of each classroom (Grades Kindergarten through 8th) showing off their writing process and samples of their work.  Seemed pretty straightforward. Now we just had to break the news to the teachers that yet one more thing had been added to their plates. (Just what teachers want to hear when they come back to school on Day 1!)

The first thing we did was pull together a small core team of organizers. I was one, along with our Technology teacher, and our Spanish teacher. After some quick Google and Pinterest searches, we seemed confident that we'd be able to share some ideas with the teachers at all grade levels to help them understand what was being asked of them. (I have to say, I'm not sure how teachers survived in the years before Pinterest!) We began a Pinterest page of our own, asking teachers to share any ideas they came across to help each other out.

We did stress to the teachers that the display could easily focus on the great work that we knew would be happening in everyone's classroom, and didn't require the classrooms to do anything additional just for this event.  But, knowing how teachers are perfectionists who LOVE to show off their student's work, we expected that everyone would throw their heart and soul into it. And they did not disappoint.

We acquired funding to purchase enough tri-fold boards for each classroom to have at least one display. The boards were given to the classrooms about a month prior to the event.  We also began reaching out to educational corporations such as GoNoodle, National Geographic and Makey Makey to request donations to be used in some free raffles for those who attended the evening event.  Newsela, that great online resource of non-fiction and current event articles that one can gear towards different leveled readers, graciously donated a one-year subscription to their service which we raffled to our teaching staff.  That was a very welcomed gift.

I'd have to say that the teachers and classes really stepped up to the challenge of the displays. Because literacy plays a role in all subjects, it was wonderful to see that the Middle School Math, Social Studies and Science classrooms also had displays highlighting key domain-specific terminology.  There was a Spanish class display, and the Technology classes showed off their blogs and other technology driven literacy projects. Having chromebooks displaying the tech projects made that table display very interactive for parents and guests.

One other display that turned out to be very popular was the projection of GoNoodle onto a wall at the back of the gym. We set aside an area free of tables in hopes of showing the parents how the kids get a chance to clear their minds and transition using quick GoNoodle activities.  Amanda was able to keep many of the kids entertained, much to their parent's amusement, by playing the short stretching videos and silly songs that the kids enjoy during their school day. The best part of this display was watching the kindergarten kids up through 8th graders all doing the dances together.

The "Project Academically Talented" kids volunteered to do a "wax museum" display. You may have heard of this: kids dress up like their favorite characters and stand like wax figures. A small bell is placed on the floor in front of each display. When someone rings the bell, the characters go through a quick 10-15 second skit or speech about themselves, then freeze again. It's interactive, and the little kids get a kick out of seeing the older ones "acting".

We invited our local county library to host a table to promote their wonderful events and sign families up for library cards. They also brought along their mascot, Sparks, to pose for photos with the children in attendance.  A former student-author, who self-published two books on the history of the town, was also given a table to display and sign his books. Connecting back to the community is important, and we will be sure to always make sure we bring in community diplays in the future.

Our local teacher's union donated cookies which were a big hit (refreshments are welcome at any event!) with both the kids and the parents. We handed out bookmarks that featured a picture of our school mascot as well.

To help spread the word about our event, I printed small labels with the time, date, and "Come see our work on display" colorfully written on them.  The younger teachers put them in the student's homework planners the day before the event to remind parents to attend.

Well, I have to say that we never expected to see a line of families waiting at the door for us to open that night. For the weeks prior, we struggled with predictions of how many families we might see at the event. We were thrilled that night to see our expectations exceeded threefold!

I know that this will be an event that we'll repeat next year, and we'll find ways to grow it.  Enjoy some pictures of our displays from our school's first Literacy Fair!


Working with Young Writers

One of the things I look forward to each year is my after-school Writing Club.  For 10 weeks, middle school students (aged 12-14) sign up to spend an hour after school with me just...writing.  Luckily, my district recognized that not all students are involved in sports so they agreed to allow me to host a club that focused on creativity and writing skills. It's not STEM, it's not homework, it's not chess.  It is just a keyboard, an idea, and a bag of pretzels.  We talk while we write. We talk about ideas, about characters, about showing and not telling, about really cool names for antagonists and protagonists, about plots and conflict and appropriate topics and inappropriate ones.  And we write. We laugh, too, and build relationships and trust.  We need to trust each other since we rely on one another to offer true constructive feedback on our writing pieces.

This is the fourth year we've had our Writing Club.  I'm hoping to expand it next year to include a second session for younger students who have reached out asking to participate. In that group, I'd focus more on writing skills as we write, as opposed to content.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on working with young writers. Feel free to comment!


Novel Study: My Experience with THE GIVER

Every year I revisit the novels I want to read with the 7th and 8th grade classes I teach. There are so many new novels out there that middle school students can relate to that cover topics that they are dealing with right now in their lives: bullying, relationships, family dysfunction (or their perception of it). All of these are legitimate in their lives, and allow for great text-to-self connections. But somehow I always gravitate back to THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.  Decades old now, but still a winner with the students once they realize how wonderful it is.

I admit, it's sometimes a hard sell as they make their way through the first few chapters. They don't get the idea of a community with so many rules and expectations. I point out to them, jokingly, that they think they have it bad in school with the rules we enforce, but the students can't seem to get past the idea that Jonas stays there. "Why doesn't he just leave?" "Why don't the people fight for more rights and choices?"  Because they can't. They don't know any better. And that in itself is a great lesson.

THE GIVER is a great kickoff to so many discussions about human rights, and current events. Why don't victims of domestic abuse flee? Why don't people move out of Communist countries? Why do women not leave Saudi Arabia and marry whom they choose? Why? Why?  Wow, once they get going, I wish I had more than 40 minutes a day with them to spend on the questions and comments they have about the world we live in.

By the time they get to the point in the book when Father decides that the smaller of the two identical twins is "no longer needed" in the community, they are so involved in the story that they complain when class is over and they need to move on. As a teacher of Language Arts, I live for those moments, and they are often few and far between. But every year when the next class reads THE GIVER, I am almost assured that I'll hear the same comments again from a different group of students.

We read the book as a class, and we jot down notes in our journals after each chapter. Capturing the nuances of what the characters are feeling and experiencing is key later when we write about our connections and understanding of what this community goes through. And then, we get to the ending. Or what the students refer to as the "lack of ending."

"What? That's it? Did he die? Did he find Elsewhere? Is Elsewhere Heaven? Is Gabriel dead?"  The questions come hard and fast, and I wish I could capture their faces as they look up from the page in disbelief that there are no hard and fast answers. It's up to interpretation, and they feel as it they've been duped. But we work on it, together, to establish different scenarios and possibilities to what might have happened. Another life lesson: experiences are not always cut and dried.

I applaud Lois Lowry for writing a book for Young Adults that covers topics such as Euthanasia, Corporal Punishment, Human Rights, Diversity, and everything else that appears in those pages. The book allows me to pull out some current news articles on the same topics, and the students get to have a taste of how close fiction can mimic real life. One of the themes that resonate with my students is "sacrificing for the greater good". I laugh when a student points out a school rule and explains it by saying "we sacrificed for the greater good." I hope they remember that when they become parents.
I think it's a good motto for today's kids to have. Something that we as adults should be teaching to our kids more often. And, at a younger age.


November Writing Challenge - K-8 (modified NaNoWriMo challenge)

If you haven't heard of it, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's a time for buckling down, setting some word count writing goals, and spitting out an entire novel in one month's time. While I admire anyone who can actually do this (and it would require almost 2000 words a day!) while holding down a full-time job, I think the idea behind it is too good to waste on just, you know, authors.  So, I've adapted the idea to implement a NaNoWriMo type of event in my school.

Since I'm wearing the hat of "writing coach" now, I feel it's my duty (much to the groans of my already over-worked and overwhelmed colleagues) to introduce great writing opportunities for them to use in their classrooms. The school is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, but with some adjustments, we've now got ourselves a November Writing Challenge.

The Kinders are working on their letters, so their goal per day is to work on certain letters. They'll track their progress on a chart that they'll display in the hallway. If they can practice 2 letters a day, for example,  we can probably have them writing their names legibly on papers by the time the holidays roll around!

First and second graders are working on sentence structure. They have goals to write (x) number of sentences per day. They'll keep track of what they write as a class (See? Throwing some math in there as well!) and will keep track of their number of sentences each day to see how many they write by the end of the month.

Middle grades, 3-5, are working on stories. They'll be tracking word count, and will try to reach personal goals. Since the students in these grade levels have writing binders, they'll have individual trackers to keep a word count per day. They also use chromebooks which allow for easy access to word count totals. The chart is just a November calendar that they'll keep in their binder, and they will write their own daily numbers on it. Some of the more confident writers will commit to a word count per day, and others will just simply track what they do. Either way, they are writing, and that is what counts.

Our Middle School students, grades 6-8, will be writing stories and tracking word count. One of our Common Core Writing Standards is to "write routinely over extended time frames". Well, here is a perfect opportunity for that.  I'm most excited about the 7th and 8th graders - they will be attempting to end the month with a long story that may reach novella length!

Oh, and the teachers? They aren't passive observers in all of this. In the middle of our main hallway will be a chart to track their progress as they write each day as well. Hey, we walk the talk in our school.  Good sports, all of us, allowing everyone to watch as we color in the squares indicating that we have or haven't been reaching our individual goals each day. (As if we don't have enough pressure grading papers on time, right? *wink*)

Each of the classrooms will celebrate on November 30. And they should. If we can get our students excited about writing, and they improve through this challenge, then the effort put into this event will have been well worth it.

Pictures will be posted of how we tracked, and how we did. Stay tuned!


#rockthedrop: Promoting Teen Reading

I love getting my colleagues involved in helping to get kids to read more. So when the annual #rockthedrop campaign rolls around, I put the call out to all teachers in the building to help out. No matter the subject area, reading is a vital component of learning. All teachers know this, so when the call goes out, everyone jumps at the chance to participate.

What is #rockthedrop?  It's an annual organized event that promotes teen reading. You can read about it here:

Operation Teen Book Drop

The "drop", through the help of readergirlz.com, is linked to the #rockthedrop hashtag and can be followed on twitter and instagram. The idea behind it is to leave a young adult book somewhere a young reader would find it. Plastered with a post-it that says "Take me! Free book!", the hope is that a young person will find it, read it, and give it a good home.  A bookmark provided as a free download file on  readergirlz.com asks the new owner of the book to tweet or instagram where they found it.

I love getting the students and teachers involved in events like this. I'm probably just as excited planning the event as any young reader is when they find a free book!  An added bonus is when one of us is lucky enough to witness a book being claimed by an unsuspecting young person who happens to stumble onto their new treasure.  We were lucky this year to hear that two teachers who participated witnessed their books being picked up. Boy, that made them feel good!

It's rare in life that we come across such simple ways to make others happy. Being able to get a good book into the hands of a kid who may grow to love reading because of this simple act is a gift in itself.  Getting students to join in on the giving is an even greater gift.  Teen Lit Day is in April - and #rockthedrop is publicized by readergirlz.com.  Be sure to mark your calendars and look for upcoming dates for future drops. You won't regret it!

Here are some of our drops from this year:

rock-the-drop-elizabeth-1  rock-the-drop-cecelia    rock-the-drop-bethann  rock-the-drop-7-kaitlynrock-the-drop-1 rock-the-drop-3rock-the-drop-5 rock-the-drop-beth-allen   rock-the-drop-bethann rock-the-drop-dorothy-tucker rock-the-drop-gina rock-the-drop-hoerster rock-the-drop-madge





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Writing with Senses - Descriptive Writing

One of the first things we try to drill into the heads of young writers is to "write using senses" - describe for the reader using sight, sound, smell, touch.  This is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to students how they can do that, and all it takes is a trip to the home improvement store's paint aisle.

I usually do this with middle school classes, but this past week I tried it in a 5th grade classroom and the kids loved it.


Bright colors are great for younger writers.



First, head out to your local paint store and browse the paint chips.  Look for some visually stimulating colors. With the 5th graders I went bright, but with the older kids I was able to mix it up.  You'll want to grab the single color chips that have names that the kids will be able to visualize.  For example, I was able to grab a  bright green chip called Amazon Parrot, and a gorgeous yellow called Warm Sunrise, among others.  You'll find many great names - Pacific Surf, Tropical Paradise, Cowboy Hat, Desert Oasis, Wet Riverbed, etc.

As I mentioned, for the older kids, I stuck with more muted colors which were named a bit differently, with names like Midnight Fog, Sea Spray, Thunderstorm, Harbor View, Gentle Moss.


Middle School kids can be challenged with more difficult names.




For the activity, you'll need a graphic organizer such as the one I've shown below. You'll review with them the importance of "creating a scene" when writing, of being so graphic that the reader feels as if he is right there with you in that moment. Also, read a great passage or two from a book that they can relate to, pointing out how the author uses different senses to help the reader get pulled into a scene.

I also explained how color is tied to emotion, and I read the text "My Blue is Happy" by Jessica Young. It goes through each color and shows how people can respond in different ways to each one. It's a great mentor text, and the illustrations are perfect for this activity. I also went around the room and asked each student what their "happy" color was. The responses varied, which further illustrated how color draws different emotions from each of us.

I drew an organizer on the board and then used the name from a paint chip (not revealing to them yet what they would soon be doing!) and asked them to help "visualize the scene using the name". After brainstorming a bit, I told them to now continue with a few words knowing that the name corresponded to a color - and I showed them my paint chip.  Harbor View - was the name and evoked great scenery of standing on a dock looking at sailboats. But the color was grey, so now we looked at it as a rainy, or foggy day, and that changed our descriptive words.


A sample brainstorming for "Harbor View"



I told them that writers can be inspired by anything - even paint chips - and that doing practice writing exercises will help authors  become better at their craft.  Then I distributed their own copy of the graphic organizer and followed that with one paint chip. They couldn't choose the chip.  It was dealt to them to give them a bit more of a challenge. They were told to write words and phrases inspired by both the color and name on the chip.


Just a simple graphic organizer will guide them.




Following a fifteen minute brain dump into our graphic organizers, during which everyone participated enthusiastically, the next task was to write a one-to-two paragraph "scene" based on what the color and chip brought to mind.

For example, for the grey Harbor View chip, it came out something like this:

"The early morning fog settled heavy onto the water as I walked to the end of the dock. The stillness of the air seemed peaceful, and allowed the mist to envelope me, swallow me up. The faint sounds of gulls and voices of fisherman, their yellow raincoats barely seen, were about the only sounds I heard. Fog horns interrupted my thoughts, and I watched as small boats and fishing vessels moved carefully about. The grey skies reflected my somber mood. A chill went through me, but the smell of the salt air still made me feel wonderful, and I continued to watch as the harbor's day went on despite the weather."

The students glued their paint chip right onto their graphic organizer and stored it in their Writer's Workshop binder as a reminder to write using senses.  The paragraphs they wrote became part of their writing portfolio.


This was definitely an activity that they enjoyed, and hopefully will try to do with other writing props.




Middle Schoolers Love Mythology!

If there is one thing I can count on with each new class that I get every year, it's that they will love mythology.  No doubt that they know more than I do about it, as the characters are all around them in video games, movies and books. They are the experts, so my 8th grade Mythology Project was designed to  allow them to show off their knowledge by making a book about a famous character in mythology, which we share with our 5th grade classrooms.

We start off by doing some vocabulary, which helps those students who aren't as knowledgeable about the gods and goddesses as others.  We cover myth, god, mortal, Mt. Olympus, demi god, Titans, Olympians, and talk about Greece's relationship to the sea. We talk about the Olympic gods and show how many of our businesses today use references to mythology in their business names (Oracle, Hercules Moving Company, Nike, etc.).  We talk about how myths were used to help explain those things that were not easily explained at the time, such as the rough oceans, volcanoes, and even love. (They all know who Cupid is, but did you know that Cupid shot lead arrows if he wanted to keep people from falling in love?)

After all of this fun exploration into the world of Greek and Roman mythology, we then started our project. By now, all of the students had their favorite characters, but we needed to make sure that we covered a wide range of characters since the books would be shared with the 5th graders to teach them about mythology. To keep it fair, we put all of the names of the acceptable characters on the board, and then  wrote each student's name on a popsicle stick. We picked a stick at random, and that student then chose the character they wanted. It was the most fair way we could find to match characters to students.

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The project was done on board books. I bought them from a company called Bare Books (barebooks.com), and they have a wide range of blank page books to choose from. I use their products often in class, especially when I want students to capture a comic or graphic novel story onto paper. I also use them with younger grade level students when I'm wearing my Basic Skills or Writing Coach hat to get students excited about showing off their writing. I have a closet shelf loaded up will all different styles and sizes of blank books. (That will be another blog, I'm sure.)

The pages in the book need to follow a guideline to ensure that each book contains pertinent information about the character:

The cover must include a drawing of the character (all pages must be hand-drawn and hand-written!)

Pages 1/2 - an overview and drawing of Mt. Olympus and its significance to mythology

Pages 3/4  - a family tree for that particular character

Pages 5/6 - What are the character's strengths/powers/symbols? (written and illustrated)

Remaining pages - a story in which the character appears that will help the reader understand the character's role in mythology (retold in their own words, not copied!)

The back cover includes a short biography of the student author, along with a photo.



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While the students work on their books in class and out of class, we continue to explore the world of mythology. We usually watch any of the Percy Jackson movies by Rick Riorden as many of the characters will appear in them. We'll also look at Greek word roots to find similarities in words we use today.








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When the books are completed, the 5th grade teachers use them for a day or two discussion to introduce mythology. The best part is when the books are returned with book reviews written by the 5th graders for the 8th grade authors. We all enjoy reading their feedback to us after they've read our books.



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