Sweetheart Cakes for Mom

I love traditions.  Several years back, the first grade team at my school started a sweet (VERY sweet, as you can see) tradition for Mother's Day.  And it was all with the help of our favorite grocery store... Publix.  Every year, the lovely ladies from the bakery bring us more than 100 baked and boxed heart-shaped cakes for the kids to decorate for their mothers or guardians.

You can probably guess how exciting this is for the children!  Not only does each child get their own cake, but the bakers bring tubes of icing, bags of frosting, and candied embellishments so the kids can be as creative as they want.  The kids are in Heaven... and it smells like sugar.

Look at these cakes above.  I pray their moms like sugar!

I know Publix is only located in the southeast (U.S.), but you might check with your local grocery store or bakery to see if they'll do something similar with your children. It's such a fun event and the kids are so proud to take their own personalized sweetheart cake home to their mom.

What a love this little boy is.  His mom is one of our Publix bakers.  Can you tell he knows a thing or two about not over-decorating?  

Happy teaching!  :)


Writing and Sharing Our How-To Books

This is a piggyback-post to an earlier one:  Getting Ready to Write How-To Books.  I finally did the software updates on my computer and some of the applications changed.  I usually hate when that happens, but this time Apple added something to my dock called "Photos" and pictures I thought I had lost were suddenly available!! Honestly, it felt a little like Christmas.  And when I looked through the photos, I found pictures I had taken of the children's work during our study of How-To books.  Woo hoo!  So I thought I'd share a few.

The one about going scalloping is too cute.  Wait 'til you see it.  I still laugh every time I read it.

First though, I thought I'd show you one of the early lessons in the unit.  (See the picture above.)  We had already begun our inquiry and become familiar with the format of How-To books and we were talking about how writers of How-To books have to know their topic well and think carefully about the steps, visualizing each one so they're sure they don't leave out anything important.  We also discussed how important it is to be specific with details whenever giving directions so the reader knows exactly what to do.  

Something I usually do when beginning a unit is ask all the children to try something with me.  By having everyone do the same exercise, it lays a common foundation that anchors the rest of the unit.  So I told the children something I knew how to do well was draw a fish.  The papers in the photo above are the end result of that lesson.  I did my thinking aloud and the children listened as I was intentional about visualizing, acting out, and rehearsing my ideas before writing them down.  I also referred back to some of our mentor texts, sharing how those authors had more than a few steps, so I probably needed to slow down and make sure I didn't put all my directions in just 1 or 2 steps.  When I was finished, they all felt empowered and completely confident they could do the same, so I asked them to think of something simple they could draw well and gave a few examples to nudge their thinking:

• a flower
• a football
• a tree
• a bed
• a swingset

It took 2 days for them to work through this first exercise and after that we spent time making our own personal lists of things we knew how to do well.  These lists fueled the rest of the unit as kids kept working, learning, conferring, revising, and sharing draft after draft with their peers.

You know, as teachers, I know we're not supposed to have "favorites," but I have to tell you Sean's How-To book about scalloping is my favorite.  I wish you knew this kid... he's such a muffin.  The way he gets excited about everything is probably why I like his book so much.  He took this topic very seriously and shares it as if he's being interviewed by ESPN.

It made me want to go scalloping.  And I don't even like seafood.

Sean's Draft:

Text:  Have you ever eat a scallop?  They are delicious!  Let's go to the grass flats and go scalloping!  

(He elevated his book by including an introduction.)  

Text:  • a snorkel  • goggles  • a net

Text:  Step 1 - Go to the grass flats in your boat.  It needs to be four feet or three feet.  That is shallow.  And you are not allowed to go scalloping in Manatee County.  

(Look at the words he decided to make bold.)

Text:  Step 2 - Find a scallop and dive down and get it, but hold your breath.  A scallop looks like this.

Text:  Step 3 - Come back to the surface for air and put your scallop in the net and start scalloping again and again.  And when your net is full of scallops, then you go to your boat and put all your scallops in the bucket of water.

Text:  Step 4 - Go to the spring and play.  Your parents will clean the scallops for you and if your parents do not know how to clean a scallop, call 721-.....

(This cracks me up... he gives out his parents' phone number!  Well, we did learn that authors of How-To books give helpful tips.)

Text:  Step 5 - Go home and put your scallops in the refrigerator and when you want to eat them, you can flavor them!

(During the sharing session, he told us all about how his mom cooks them in garlic butter.  Clearly, Sean is an expert on scalloping.  Aren't all kids?)

Time to Share

If you've seen some of my other posts, you know we love sharing in Trina Deboree's classroom.  Her kids are super sweet and they serve as our audience for our final published pieces.  For this unit, I invited each child to bring in one artifact that was relevant to their book.

Of course, Sean brought in a snorkel. 

And demonstrated how to use it.  :)

As you're planning your unit, don't shortcut a formal (or semi-formal) sharing session at the end.  It gives the children a real purpose for writing and empowers them to be expert speakers.

Clockwise from Upper Left:

• How To Tie a Shoe
• How To Ride a Scooter
• How To Throw a Football
• How To Make a Goal (Soccer)

And, finally, make a special place in your classroom library to house their final books. Having them publicly displayed and available for others to read places a tremendous value on their effort and creates an identity as a community of writers.

If you need templates for your students' How-To books,
you can pick these up at this link:

Happy teaching!  :)

Getting Ready to Write How-To Books

Remember when you knew everything about teaching?  I do.  I had just graduated from college and I was ready to bring all my gifts and talents to the world of teaching. That summer before my first job, I would tell anyone who would listen all about Whole Language, Continuous Quality Improvement, Guided Reading, and a dozen other things I had read about in my education courses.

Um, reality check.

There's nothing like a week (or even just the first day) of brand-new-teacher hell to humble you into the truth that you have a LOT to learn... about everything!  It reminds me of a magnet my mom used to have on her refrigerator:  "Ask a teenager while they still know everything."  Ouch.

It wasn't long before the teacher in me began craving learning.  It's a fun thing to be a lifelong student and what better laboratory than a classroom full of energetic, curious children to make you question and refine your practices.  For me, one of those shifts in teaching was understanding the inquiry process.  It made sense in science, but as I began implementing it in my both my reading and writing workshops, I started realizing the difference it was making in the eventual success the children experienced.  And all I had to do was let the children make discoveries instead of telling them what I already knew...

...which is harder than it sounds,

...because I like to tell children everything I know.

The shift?  Now I create the conditions for children to collaboratively explore a topic and invite them to tell me what they know.  For example, right after the holidays, we begin our informational unit of study focusing on "How-To Books."  Years ago, I would've just jumped right in with all my carefully planned lessons showing the kids everything I knew about How-To books.  What's the problem with that?  Nothing terrible, I suppose, but I think there's a better way to do it.  And honestly, I think children tend to make quicker work of things that I may unnecessarily drag out over too many days.   

And I take it personally when kids are bored in my classroom.  If you tend to be a lecturer... and I'm not judging because Lord knows I'm one myself... give inquiry a go. I don't think you'll be disappointed.  It's like Toby Keith's country song, "A little less talk and a lot more action."  

But not that kind of action.  The listening kind.

One of the tricks to using the inquiry process during writing workshop is finding the right resources.  It's critical that I find books the children can actually read and understand, otherwise the only thing they're discovering is frustration.  Luckily, my reading series has several age-appropriate How-To (or procedural) titles in the set.  I also borrowed a few more from my colleagues so I'd have a well-rounded set of samples for the kids to work from.  In launching the writing unit, I kept the children in their student teams, gave each team one How-To book, and posed the question for inquiry:  What do we notice about How-To books?  With the question in their heads and Post-It notes in their hands, they began flipping through the pages, discussing their ideas, and jotting down their observations.  One of my main goals during this time of inquiry is to see if the kids can identify features that make How-To books unique.  If they can recognize and name these, they'll be better prepared to write their own How-To books.  To help children move past blah-blah observations like...

• It has an author.
• It has page numbers.

...nudge with questions like:

• Why do you think the author wrote this book?
• What do you notice about the first few pages?
• How is this book different from a fictional story?
• What purpose do the pictures have?
• What does the author do to help the reader understand?

Even these questions are a little bit leading, so I only ask them if a team seems stuck and needs a little guidance moving forward.  Otherwise, stick with your first question, What do we notice about How-To books?, and see what they come up with. They're amazingly good at discovering exactly what I want to teach them anyway. Take a look:

• it shows you how to make a volcano
• has pictures
• has steps
• it shows you what you need
• it has what you will need

• they are using objects
• they are teaching you how to make things
• there are steps in the book
• there are details in the book
• there are pictures in the book
• it seems that the steps have to be in order  

• it seems the book introductions
• instead of using one, two, three, you can use first, second, third

• uses words instead of numbers
• bold words
• they tell us what to do

Once teams were done discussing and taking notes, we met on the floor and asked each group to share their observations.  This was so productive as the kids began to see common threads across all the titles.  I just sat back and let them teach each other:

"Hey, that's just like our book.  See?"
• "Our book had steps, too.  But this author used next and then instead of numbers."
• "The author doesn't just tell us what to do.  The pictures show us what to do."
• "We think the bold words are important.  They go with the thing he's making."

Instead of making a big fancy anchor chart during this lesson, I just used paper clips and sticky-tack to display their work.  This initial session served a great purpose, getting the kids excited about the writing they'd be doing and laying the groundwork for many of my upcoming lessons.  This upfront immersion also means I can get the kids actively writing right away because they know the total look of the genre... and if you have age-appropriate samples for them to refer to, they'll believe, "I can do that!"  


As a side note, this is an old chart I found from one of our letter-writing units.  This chart followed 3 days of me sharing literature written in letter-form.  The books were too hard for the kids to read, so I read aloud and then recorded their observations in a whole group setting.  I like the samples above better (because the kids were more engaged), but sometimes you don't always have the resources that are age-appropriate and I just didn't have enough letters written at their reading level to share. Still, they noticed a lot of features that became the important points of our work during this study.

Do you have any tips for us about the inquiry process?  Do you use it?  How?  Or when?

Happy teaching!  :)


My Sunny Spring Break

Spring break always seems to come when you need it the most.  But it doesn't last long enough, does it?  

I lived in Florida for more than 40 years and when you live in Florida you don't really understand "spring break."  Don't get me wrong... Floridians love spring break, but to us it's about "time."  Time off from school.  Time to sleep in.  Time to stay up late. Time to go to the beach... again.

But now that I've spent a year living in North Carolina, I have a new appreciation for spring break... one most of the country probably appreciates along with me.  And now I get it.

It's a break from the weather!

I've never been cold this many days in a row.  Yes, on random days in January, the temperature in Florida can reach the 40s, and it's true we're not prepared for it so we stay inside and huddle under blankets, but the next day will likely be back in the 70s and all's well with the world again. 

The weather in the mountains, however, is drastically different and I've worn my scarf more times in the past three months than I have in all the years I've owned it.  So this year, we planned to vacation in the place we just moved away from... yep, Florida.

Treasure Island Beach, Gulf Coast

We were so starved for heat, we made rookie-tourist mistakes and now all our skin is peeling off... just in time to go back to school.  That's attractive.  Oops.  But we had so much fun, we're forgiving ourselves for forgetting the sunscreen.

(This blog post has no educational message. I'm just going through my photos, remembering some of my favorite moments.)

Favorite Moment #1:  My sister Teresa came, too!

This was before we all became lobsters.  Always wear sunscreen!

Favorite Moment #2:  Sand Naps  

If you've never done this, it's one way to get really warm. 
It's like putting on a shirt that just came out of the dryer.

Favorite Moment #3:  Fishing and Boating

A sport fisherman in the making!

This wrecked barge sits in the shallows.  The little reef it has become is home to lots of fish.  The Sunshine Skyway bridge is in the background.  The history of this bridge is interesting... worth reading.

Favorite Moment #4:  Seeing Your Best Friends!

What's better than hanging out at your favorite pizza place with your best friends?

Favorite Moment #5:  The Sunset

Well, this was the best sunset shot I could get this trip.  Just before we were about to head to the beach, we experienced a small emergency (nobody was hurt), so... no beach sunset.  The sky is still beautiful, though.  Not much beats a sunset over the water. 

These pictures make me want to start my vacation all over again.

Maybe you've already had your spring break... maybe you've just packed and you're ready to start yours.  And maybe there is an educational message in this post.  Enjoy your time, collect favorite moments, and refresh, refresh, refresh.  That's a message that matters.  Spring break is a break... a vacation from the stuff you do day in and day out so you can recharge and restart.  I hope yours is (or was) amazing.  

And hey! ... DON'T forget your sunscreen.

Happy Spring!  :) 


Writing: Animals People Love to Hate!

Before I start, does anyone else think this shark's mouth is totally photo-shopped? I've watched my fair share of Shark Week episodes and I've never seen such a happy shark.  


When you're looking over your district's instructional calendar, do you sometimes think, "This doesn't quite make sense.  Are they kidding?"  I know they didn't ask for my opinion, but sometimes I scratch my head at the timeline or the way topics are grouped together.  These moments always lead to a fork in my professional road where I contemplate rebellion and chart my own course.  You've done this, right? Don't hide it... you've strayed.

And this is when some of my best teaching happens.  It comes from me, from what I know about my kids and what they like and where they are developmentally, from what I know works for them.  This was one of those times.  

Just so you know how this started, our curriculum calendar had informational writing and persuasive writing being taught at the same time during the same month, but in a way I thought was forced and disconnected.  Plus I wasn't sure how we'd do either one justice if we didn't somehow combine the two genres for the sake of time.  I knew I wanted it to be interesting, relevant, and connected, but I didn't have a clear vision... until my pool deck became inundated with frogs that weekend. 

I hate frogs.  

When my daughter started trying to get me to see how cute they actually are, the idea for our new writing unit hit me:  Animals People Love to Hate.  The idea was that children would write informational books about less-than-lovely animals and include a part at the end of the book where they would attempt to persuade the reader to love (or at least like a little more than hate) the animal.  And I have to tell you, it was totally worth the straying.

I don't have this unit written out, but you'll definitely get the gist by reading through the description and seeing the photos.  It will be easy for you to make the unit fit your needs, but I do have all the research and book templates at the end of this post.

Preparing for the Unit
Even though each child was going to make their own book, I knew I wanted the children to work collaboratively during the research phase of this unit, especially so they could support each other while reading the nonfiction books and taking notes.  I also knew I would need to find books first graders could actually read, otherwise the research portion didn't stand a chance of being authentic and I'd be running around helping everyone read instead of coaching them through their research.  Our own classroom library was the best source of age-appropriate books and I supplemented with internet videos I bookmarked on each animal.  I was able to find enough material to make 6 different baskets of books:

• frogs
• bears
• bees
• snakes
• lions
• grasshoppers

I found plenty on sharks, but that's a topic many of my children already knew a lot about and, since I wanted this to be a process of learning new information, I kept the topic of sharks for myself... to use as my mentor pieces throughout the unit.

Then, I had fun introducing the unit (being totally dramatic about how lots of people don't like these animals) and invited each child to choose one animal from the list. Some chose an animal they already liked because they thought it would be easier to persuade the reader, but some writers chose animals they didn't like, challenging themselves to find reasons to change their own minds.  (This type of "shared control" works for me.  I limited their choices by listing only the animals I had good resources for, but the children had complete control over which animal they chose from the list. Don't get caught in a situation where a child chooses something obscure like electric eels and you suddenly realize all the books on eels are too hard to read.)  

Tech Tip:  Set up one computer for each topic.  For example, have one "Frog Computer" where all the frog videos are bookmarked and ready to view by the frog group.

Being a Researcher
After selecting their animals, we talked about what it meant to be a researcher.  I gave them templates for taking notes and a week to gather information with their group mates.  Because my kids are first graders, I wanted to support their research by scaffolding their notes.  You'll notice the templates guide them to look for specific information while they're researching... things like body parts, diet, habitat, predators, etc.  (You can see how this writing unit would easily tie into a science unit on animals.)  I also have pages where they can collect "WOW FACTS" and then a blank page where they can record any other notes that are of particular interest to them.

They used books...

And videos bookmarked on their group's computer...

Throughout the writing workshop lessons, I modeled my own research and note-taking with my own topic, sharks...

And the children kept research notes of their own in their writing notebooks.  These are sample notes from an average student.  Her topic is bears.

Time to Write
I can't say how long your class might need for the research phase of this unit, but mine needed a week to sift through the books and videos to get the notes they wanted.  Once we finished that, it was time to write.  This is when the children began working independently... I modeled, they wrote, we conferred, they shared with partners, we all gave feedback along the way... a regular writing workshop... and they were busy!  I gave the children the freedom to choose their writing templates so they could design their books in a way that was personally creative and meaningful for them.  The templates I used allowed the children to practice different formats and text features.  We had already spent a long time studying nonfiction mentor texts and now they were ready to make their own nonfiction books.  It was very exciting to see their different ideas emerge on paper.

I always modeled my own during the minilessons so the children could hear how I was thinking and making decisions about what to do.  One reason kids love nonfiction books is because they have a lot of graphic features, like comic books almost.  I added everything I could think of to my shark book... arrows, labels, captions, bold words, WOW FACTS, close-ups or "Zooms,"  and so on.  And since many nonfiction books rely heavily on graphic features, it's important to teach about different ways to illustrate their pages.  For example, on the page where I'm writing about the shark's sense of smell, it isn't necessary to draw the whole shark.  I modeled how I wanted the reader to focus on the nostrils, so I had to think of a different perspective when drawing.  The kids love this and they try it, too!

Here is a student sample from the little girl who took notes about bears.  She's really into apostrophes right now... not sure why.  We'll work on that later.  (January - First Grade)

(Wow... this is a really long post.  I wasn't planning that.  Kudos to you if you're still with me.)

Sharing and Celebrating
My students get super-pumped when they know they'll be sharing with an audience and we love to share with our second-grade friends in Trina Deboree's classroom, so when our books were all finished, we headed upstairs (where all the "big kids" are) to share our nonfiction / persuasive books.

This time, we had six students share publicly and then each 1st grader shared with their 2nd grade buddy, so every child had a chance to share with some type of audience.

And don't forget to save time for a celebration... they've worked hard!  My students are happy with music and anything that smells like sugar.  

If you'd like the templates for the research notes and writing pages, you can pick them up HERE.

Happy teaching!  :)