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!  :)


Easter Science Fun

So, we had oozing pumpkins in October, a floating feast for Thanksgiving, windy blizzards in December, "Luva-Lava Lamps" on Valentine's Day, and a magic rainbow ring for St. Patrick's Day... so much holiday science fun!  

And now it's time for Easter.  (Which means Spring Break is close, my friends, and that is definitely worth celebrating!!)

This Easter Science set includes 6 investigations covering primary concepts like:

• our fives senses
• physical properties
• states of matter
• forces and motion
• sinking and floating
• mixing colors
• and scientific inquiry

You don't need very many supplies to pull off a whole week's worth of Easter science fun.  Remember, many parents LOVE to donate items to their child's classroom as a way of contributing, so don't hesitate to send home a wish list for things like Peeps™, chocolate bunnies, jellybeans, and straws.  You may have many of the other items at home... plastic Easter eggs (Does anyone else have 500, like me?), shredded grass, socks, and a slow-cooker.  And some things will even come from your own classroom (or a friend's classroom), like magnifying glasses.

Sneak peek?

Set the stage to observe and record what happens to a solid piece of chocolate when heated.  Some children may already know (or think they know), but because I want them to consider several possibilities, we talk about how heat can make some things harder, like when a raw egg becomes a hard boiled egg.  Heat can make some things larger, like when a marshmallow or piece of bar soap is heated in the microwave.  And heat can make some things disappear, such as water.  So what will happen to the bunny over time?    

The kids can also learn about wind energy as a force that sets objects in motion. Challenge the children to brainstorm ways they can move plastic eggs without touching them with anything.  Children will be given several objects to consider, such as a sock, a magnifying glass, a straw, and a shovel.  Through discussion and exploration, they'll discover that blowing air through the straw will move the plastic egg without any object actually touching the egg.

Other investigations in this set?

• Explore Peeps™ with all five senses, inside and out... yummy and sticky.  

• Observe what happens to Peeps™ when they are placed in various liquids.  

• Discover what it will take to make a plastic egg sink in water.  

• And mix colors to find out how the bright colors of a rainbow are made.

The investigations encourage collaborative discussion, inferential thinking, and writing to share and explain.  Recording sheets are included for each activity as well as a "Notebook Cover" to staple over the students' completed sheets.  If you'd like, you can see more here:

Happy Easter!  (And have a great Spring Break!)


Follower Freebie

It's spring... the time of year when you wonder if your most emerging readers you've coached for so long are going to catch up and close the gap... twelve weeks to go... yep, three months. 

More time, please.

For me, listening to kids try to sound out r-controlled vowels is like hearing nails on a chalkboard.  I know you've watched a reader try to sound out the word bird like this:

/b/ /i/ /er/ /d/

Even better, let's throw a digraph in there too and read shark:

/s/ /h/ /a/ /er/ /c/

This is why "sounding out" can't be the all-time go-to reading strategy for kids.  It doesn't always work and readers need to know that many single sounds are made with combinations of letters. 

If you have a few children who are still struggling to get the hang of r-controlled vowels, you can download these simple posters from my TPT store for free.  You could have them enlarged at a print shop if poster-size helps you meet your needs, or keep them small to use as a reference during small group instruction.  You can even place them in reading folders to aid in decoding or in writing notebooks to assist with spelling.

Happy teaching!  :)


Punctuation & Fluency

Punctuation is a big deal for readers.



Yes, really!

When kids understand how each punctuation mark works, they learn how to change the way their voice sounds at each mark... which makes them more expressive readers... which is part of being a fluent reader.  

I remember going through a horrible period of teaching several years back when fluency was being overly boiled down to "words-per-minute." Teachers everywhere, including myself, were holding timers as kids visibly shook with anxiety while they tried to read as quickly as they could.  Of course the children didn't understand a thing they were reading because they were concentrating so hard on speeding through the pages of the book in a race to beat the clock.  Obviously, reading at a snail's pace isn't productive (or even enjoyable), but reading like a hyped-up auctioneer is equally ineffective.  I'm so glad to see more and more children understanding that reading should be as smooth and as natural as talking.

Expression is a component of fluency that is sometimes overlooked in reading instruction.  Many features of a text impact expression.  Some include:

• punctuation marks
• bold, underlined, and/or italicized words
• understanding how the characters feel 
• clues in the illustrations (setting details, facial expressions, etc.)
• inferring suspense 

Punctuation is a tricky one.  First, there's the very basic understanding that readers need to notice punctuation in the text.  (But you know they don't.  New readers just keep going as if it were never typed on the page.)  Once they become aware of the punctuation marks, they have to know what to do with them.  If you're a primary teacher, you know this is no easy task.  It takes a lot of teacher-modeling and student-practice.

One way I help my students learn this expressive quality is to share books about punctuation.  There are several choices out there, but my two favorites are Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka and Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.  Yo! Yes? has been a favorite of my 1st grade students for years.  They ask to read it out loud with me, over and over.  If you're not familiar with it, here are a few sample pages:

It only has two characters... a shy, timid boy and another boy who has enough confidence and courage to fill the whole school.  At first glance, it looks like a really easy book to read, but the author is intentional about so many things in this story, including the size of the words, the punctuation marks, the color of some words, and the facial expressions.  Because the words are easy to read (or learn), the children can really practice the way their voice should sound with each changing punctuation mark.  (As a side note, read the shy boy's part softly and ask the kids to explain why they think you're reading his words more quietly than the other character's. Most will infer from the illustrations that the boy is shy and they'll notice his words are smaller.)

I love the page with the words well.  It's a great way to show the children the power a punctuation mark has.  They have fun hearing how the same exact word can sound differently depending on the mark that follows it... the first boy is asking... the second boy is thinking.  

This next book, by Amy Rosenthal, is about a little exclamation mark trying to find his voice.  At first, he's surrounded by periods, but he knows he's different and that he stands out.  And then he meets a question mark who asks SO MANY questions, he instinctively yells "STOP!" and finds his loud, exclamation-marky sound.

If you need more resources for teaching fluency to your K-2 readers, your children may enjoy this BUMP game.  (My students LOVE these little BUMP games.)  It's a set of slides, but randomly placed throughout the slides are active verbs that keep the kids kinesthetically engaged as they stomp, clap, snap, wiggle, and BUMP!  The set helps improve rate, smoothness, and expression and includes practice slides for:

• 2-word, 3-word, and 4-word phrases
• punctuation
• underlined words
• understanding a character's feelings

You can check out the PREVIEW at the link below.

I also have a set of Punctuation Posters, if you don't already have a set in your classroom.  In addition to the posters, it includes a bookmark for the children to keep with them as a reference, either at school or at home.

Happy teaching!  :)


Fast Finds: A Vocabulary Activity

My family and I love the line of Cranium games.  (Talk about honoring multiple intelligences!  I think these game-makers have attended a conference or two.  Or maybe they're just smart people who know how differently people think.)

In one of their games, Cranium Cadoo, there is a category called "Fast Finds."  Each Fast Find card lists two things you have to find before the timer runs out.  For example, one card might say:

• something cold
• something fuzzy

The kids love this category because they can get up and race around the house and the whole time they're racing around, the teacher-me thinks, "This is great vocabulary practice!"

Playing off this idea, I started doing something similar during reading workshop and small group reading instruction.  I don't do this every day, but when I want to focus on vocabulary or new concepts, I work it into my plans.  You can either guide this work with a small group of students, or model it during the workshop, or have children work in pairs... all work well... and it works with both fiction and nonfiction texts.  

Small Group Examples:

In this "Day 2" guided reading session, I put four vocabulary words on each child's book prior to the rereading of the text.  I read the words to the group and ask them to go back into the text, finding a part that matches or explains each word.  (Not only is this a great exercise in comprehension and reasoning, but my ELLs and children with language delays really benefit from thinking through the word meanings.  If needed, you can scaffold the work with a simple picture on the sticky note.) Usually, I have the children work on their own first and then share with a partner or the whole group, depending on the time. Watching them reason as they make their choices is interesting to me and it's a great informal assessment.  Often, there are no "right" or "wrong" answers... as long as they can justify why they chose a certain part for a certain word and it makes sense, I consider the activity a success.  

I also use this Fast Find activity to see if children understand text features and to facilitate the sharing of opinions.  Example:

In this example, you can see the children have to find two text features (a caption and a key word), but they also have to choose something "cute" and something "scary."  These are important vocabulary concepts for my ELLs, but they also give each child an opportunity to think critically, make choices, and explain their opinions to others.

And I love using Fast Finds when we're reading fiction, too.  I can use words that help us practice story elements (a character, the setting, the problem...) or I can practice "feelings," as shown in this example from Elephant and Piggie's I Broke My Trunk!

In this text, you can see the students' choices really reflect their ability to comprehend the events of the story and infer meaning.  The author never uses these feeling words in the text, so the children must connect the dots of the plot, think about their prior schema, and study the facial expressions to reason through how the characters are feeling.  Again, I ask the children to support their choices by explaining their thinking, which is also a great way to develop their expressive vocabularies.  

I share this idea and others in my vocabulary pack, Very, Very Vocabulary. If you're looking for new ideas to help increase your students' vocabulary, take a look.  It's best suited for kids in grades 1-3.  

Happy teaching!  :)