High FIVES All Around!

Who doesn't like big numbers?  (Besides the scale and your age, I mean.)

I am so grateful and excited about reaching a personal milestone on TPT... 5,000 wonderful followers!  To celebrate, I'm sticking with the number 5, so... for the next 5 days, 5 different items in my store will be marked down by 50% each day.  All you have to do is visit my store, browse through, and find them.  It's kind of like a scavenger hunt of savings!

You don't have to be a "follower" of my store to enjoy the savings, but if you're new to my store, consider following by clicking the star.  It's the easiest way to stay notified of new and updated items in the store.  

And, to make shopping easier, there are custom categories on the left. That way, you can get a little more narrow in your search if there's something specific you need for your classroom.

So stop by August 21st - 25th and take a look around.  I'll choose 5 different items every day, so be sure to check back each day to find the savings... I hope you find something that makes your teaching life a little more enjoyable.

Happy teaching!  :)


5 Awesome Back-to-School Boards!

I know it's only June, but some of you are already out of school livin' it up and some of you are totally eager beavers and are already thinking about next year... right?  If you're like me, you have a bad habit (or maybe it's good, I don't know) of rethinking EVERYTHING before the current school year even ends.  Does any of this self-talk sound familiar?

• "This summer, I'm going to completely reorganize my guided reading area."

• "My classroom library could be cuter and more inviting."

• "Are these curtains a violation of the fire codes?"

• "I wonder if those pom-pom trees I saw on Pinterest are hard to make."

• "I really need some new activities for the first week of school." 

Pinterest (thank goodness for Pinterest) is a teacher's treasure trove of ideas.  If you're looking for ANYTHING new and inspirational to help you prepare and get motivated for the upcoming school year, you're bound to find it on Pinterest.  Just use their search tool to discover tons of new ideas.  These are my TOP 5 "Back-to-School" Pinterest boards:

This board, Library Spaces for Kids, is a favorite among my Pinterest followers.  It is loaded with pictures and links to dozens and dozens of classroom (and home) libraries for children. They are cozy and inviting and inspiring to young readers. You'll find great tips for not only redesigning your library space, but organizing it as well.  

If you're ready to re-imagine your classroom, you'll find great photos and ideas on this board, Comfy, Cozy Classrooms.  It's similar to the board above, but it's focused on the general classroom space and not specifically the children's library.  The pins on this board are intended to help you create inviting, comfortable, home-like settings for children with cozy furniture arrangements, lamps, no-sew window treatments, and more.

Oh my gosh... who does not want to be more organized?  I'm usually pretty good at this.  I know this because I've been in some teachers' classrooms that you'd swear had seen a mini tornado whip through.  I'm talking years and years of "stuff" just piled and thrown onto shelves, into cabinets, behind bookcases, in closets, sometimes even the floor... you probably know this teacher.  (Do her a favor and share this Pinterest board with her.)  And even though I'm pretty organized, I always think it could be better.  This board, Classroom Organization, includes clever tips and strategies for making your classroom function a little better for you.  (Your super-messy teacher-friend may need a stronger intervention than this, though.)

Wondering what to do with a kid who needs to fidget?  Do your groups need to work on teambuilding skills?  Need to help teach kids what perseverance means?  Ready to rethink your discipline plan?  This board, Classroom Management, has several ideas for helping you effectively negotiate and manage student behavior to keep your classroom running smoothly.  (As smoothly as possible, I should say.)  

Ok, speaking of organization (and in the interest of being honest), this board is a little like my "junk drawer," although it's not junk.  It's just the place where I keep every other back-to-school idea.  So, in that way, it's a smidge more random, but it's loaded with LOTS of great ideas to help you get ready for the school year, including tips for Open House, the first week of school, icebreaker activities, and more.  You can check it out at this link, Back-to-School Ideas.  

Happy teaching!  :)


How to Use Wordless Picture Books

A book without words?  It seems like an oxymoron, right?  If there are no words on the pages, is it still a book?  Can it be "read?"  Will children be challenged to think deeply when they're only looking at pictures?

Yes.  Yes to everything.

I think some teachers look past wordless books because, well, there are no words. They seem like books for little kids... for "kids who can't read yet."  And they are great for children who aren't yet reading words, but they can also be very challenging for older children who are reading and learning how to think deeply about stories.  

They're ageless.

For the little ones (ages 3-6), wordless books give children the chance to actually process and understand a book all by themselves.  They learn about sequence and about how stories are structured.  They learn early on that clues for understanding can be found in the pictures, which is a critical reading strategy to know as they begin reading text in later years.  Learning how to be a storyteller, especially when supported by an adult, is a great way to develop a rich vocabulary, and because the books are not defined by words, there are multiple opportunities to elevate language skills while building the story.  And I love how wordless picture books take time. Because there are no words, there are also no cues as to when to turn the page. Readers can take their time on each page, studying the illustrations to make sense of the story.

But how can we use them in meaningful ways with older children?  I'm talking about children in grades 1-5.  Yes, 5th grade... kids who are ten.

Interestingly, wordless books tend to level the playing field.  Text can be intimidating for a struggling reader at any grade level, yet many standards and strategies can be taught using a book without words.  In fact, you don't always need text to create higher-order questions and engage in rich literacy discussions.  Often, less proficient readers will shine during the discussions surrounding a wordless book because more competent, conventional readers tend to put a greater emphasis on the text vs. the illustrations.  It takes a great deal of questioning, inferring, and synthesis to comprehend a book without words.  (Frankly, that's why I used to be scared of them.)

These ideas are packed with the language of rigorous standards and I've watched teams of older students work hard to process a wordless book.  Read through these, grab a wordless book that appeals to you, and give it a try.  I think you'll be amazed at the cognitive load it requires and the thoughtful discussions that will take place.

Reading Ideas
  • As with any book, have the children make predictions and anticipate events of the story by reading the title and studying the cover illustrations.
  • Students can understand different perspectives as each reader (or group of readers) constructs their own storyline.  They can compare and contrast different versions, justifying and explaining their decisions.  There is no one "right way" to read a wordless book.  This makes it perfect for developing the understanding that different people will have different opinions and perspectives based on their different types of background knowledge.
  • There is an element of close reading that can occur with a wordless book because there's much discovery that takes place after repeated experiences with the book.  On the first look, just enjoy the pictures and get a sense of what the book is about.  On the second and third visits to the book, really study the pictures and notice the details the illustrator uses... notice how the pages go together... how does one page "fit" with the one just before it?  Through collaborative discussions and a close study of the book, students will rearrange their own thinking and likely have new a-ha moments, leading to a deeper understanding of the story.
  • Give children sticky notes because they will have many questions as they work to understand the story.  This is an important comprehension strategy and is in the language of many standards.  I often see more questions generated from our time with a wordless book than a book with words.  A wordless book is like a mystery... and students will likely have a lot of questions.
  • Copy the pages of a wordless book and divide the class into three groups. Give one group the beginning pages, one group the middle pages, and the other group the final pages.  Challenge each group to sequence their own pages by studying the illustrations and discussing how the pictures go together.  Then, challenge the whole class to work together to put their parts in order.  Can they tell which group has the beginning of the story? Ask, "How do you know?  What clues are you using?"  Continue, working to find the middle and the end of the story.  (This can be harder than it sounds, depending on the book you choose.)
  • And plan to talk about synthesis at some point.  Wordless books often lead readers to change their minds... sometimes more than once.
Writing Ideas
  • Wordless picture books are perfect for creating writing opportunities. Invite children to write an original story to accompany the illustrations.  It can be really interesting to let groups of students work together and then have a "Share Fair" where each group presents their final story.  Compare and contrast the different versions.
  • Using a wordless book with strong characters, challenge the children to write an original readers theater script for the book.  Students can perform while projecting the pictures electronically on a large screen for everyone to see.  As an alternative, and depending on your available technology, older children can use iMovie, Keynote, or Power Point to produce their stories.  This could lead to a fun "Film Festival."
  • Allow the children to tape record their original stories, using a "ding" to signal when to turn the pages.  Let a class with younger children borrow the book and recording for their listening center.  Older children can be very creative with this, adding in sound effects, trying different voices, and including background music. 
  • I found speech-bubble and thought-bubble shaped sticky notes at office supply stores.  Use these to help children think deeply about characters. Because there are no words in the book, invite children to place speech bubbles near characters on each page and brainstorm the dialogue they might be having.  They can write their ideas directly on the speech bubble. Again, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about how different readers have different ideas... compare and contrast these ideas.  Sometimes, a character might not be speaking (you can tell by the illustration), but may be deep in thought.  These are perfect places for your students to infer internal dialogue.  Use thought-bubbles to encourage children to write what characters may be thinking.

These sample pages are from one of my favorite wordless books, Chalk by Bill Thomson.  It's a fun story with bright illustrations and is a nice one to start with because it's not too challenging to comprehend.  My kids always like this one.

For more wordless picture book titles, see the photo at the top of the blog post.  My favorite books are pictured there and you can read the titles on the spines.  I'm always looking for new ones, though, so if you have a favorite (or you find one because now I've inspired you to at least think about wordless books... wink), let me know. 

Do you have a tip for wordless books?  

Happy teaching!  :)


A Backpack of Writing Ideas

My last post, Gathering Writing Ideas: 5 Tips to Generate Ideas, really should've been 6 tips because I totally forgot about this idea... A Backpack of Ideas.  This idea is similar to the strategy of using children's literature to generate writing ideas, but instead I use my own personal treasures to stimulate thinking about topics.  It's super simple, but very effective.

All you'll need is a backpack (or a bag or a basket... just something to hold your goodies) and then fill it with items you think lend themselves well to topics that are age-appropriate and interesting to the students in your grade level.  These are examples of some of the things I've had in my backpack over the years:

• my camera ... so I can talk about a favorite hobby

• a tennis ball ... so I can talk about a sport or game I like to play

• a dive mask and snorkel ... so I can talk about something I'm learning how to do

• a dog leash ... so I can talk about pets

• a trophy ... so I can talk about an "I did it!" moment

• a plastic frog ... so I can talk about something I'm scared of

• a picture of my cat ... so I can talk about something sad or something I miss

• a band-aid ... so I can tell the story of a time I got really hurt

• a sand bucket and shovel ... so I can tell about one of my favorite places to go

• a gift box ... so I can share about a special gift I once got

• a book ... so I can talk about things I collect

You get the idea.  The items in the backpack are completely up to you.  Think about the kinds of topics kids like and then gather items that will allow you to share and brainstorm story ideas with them.  The possibilities are endless.

At the beginning of the year, my main goal is to make sure the children have plenty of time and encouragement to collect writing ideas, so I pull 2-3 items out of the backpack during each writing workshop lesson, going through the same exercise as I take each one out:

1.  I make a big deal out of the item... "Oh my gosh, this dancing trophy is so special to me!"

2.  I share my memory... "It reminds me of the time I worked really hard to learn..."

3.  I model jotting this idea down on my Idea List in my writing notebook.  "Wow.  I can't wait to write about this one day."

4.  I invite the children to turn and talk to a partner about a time they worked really hard to do something challenging.  In first grade, that's usually something like riding a bike, learning to swim, or hitting a baseball.  

5.  I ask a few volunteers to share out their ideas with the whole group.  "Oh... that's a neat memory.  I think that will be a great story for you to write very soon." 

6.  I give them a few minutes to jot or draw their ideas on their own Idea List.  At this point, we're just collecting ideas, not actually writing the stories.  

Then I pull out the next item and start all over again.  It can take me a few days to get through the whole backpack, but the kids love it because they're eager to find out what else I have in the backpack... it's a total surprise to them... and they LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to talk about themselves.  The collaborative nature of these discussions also means that some children are getting ideas from other children, and that's good because not everyone can think of ideas as easily as others.  

TEACHING TIP:  Consider leaving the items out for several weeks.  Either prop them up on a shelf where everyone can see them or hang them from the ceiling with fishing line.  It can be very helpful to have them displayed so that when you're conferring during those first weeks of school and you kneel down next to that precious little one who cries, "I don't have anything to write about," you can have fun going through the items again for inspiration.  You can even invite them to create their own little shoebox of artifacts to bring to school.  Then, on days when they're stuck for an idea, they can search through their personal items for a story spark. (A family photo album is a great personal artifact to bring to school.  Pictures often lead to powerful memories for children and these are the seeds of stories.)

TRICKY TIP:  Don't worry if your backpack is too small to hold all the things you want to put in there.  You can secretly add more items after school, when everyone is gone.  It'll be like the "clown car" of writing ideas.  By the end of the week, they'll wonder how you got all those items in there!  :)

If you try this idea, leave a comment below and let us know what you put in your backpack.  It's great to get ideas from other teachers!

Happy teaching!  :)


Gathering Writing Ideas

You know, some days are like this... it's just the way it goes.  And it doesn't just happen to kids.  It happens to me, too.  Sometimes, it seems like coming up with a good idea is the hardest part of writing.

Our writing workshop is one of my favorite times of the day, so helping kids generate and maintain a wealth of topics is critical to our success.  No ideas... no writing.  This is what I've observed over the years... children who have a hard time generating ideas to write about are the kids who either:

(1)  NEVER write anything.  Ever.
(2)  Write the SAME story over and over.  

(Like this one boy I knew who only wrote about sharks... every single day.)

And this little thing we teachers sometimes say to kids rarely helps, "Just keep thinking.  Something will come to you."

(It seldom comes to them.)

But these 5 tips really work for my students, even the most hopeless writers.  You need to know, these strategies are taking place within the context of an exciting writing community.  (Or what I hope is exciting.)  If most of your children have ideas and are eager to write, it will create a contagious feeling of anticipation in your workshop... you need that authentic feeling to help bring along your writers who are searching for inspiration.  They want to belong to this "club" of writers, so work hard to make it inviting.

I don't have writing workshop scheduled first thing, but I do manage to squeeze in a little teacher-talk like this on most mornings:  "Oh my goodness you guys... you won't believe this funny little thing that happened to me last night."  Or, "You know, I saw the sweetest little squirrel sitting on my patio last night.  He was trying to crack open an acorn, but he kept dropping it.  I can't wait to write about it later today."  This kind of authentic talk is important for a few reasons. One, I've identified myself as a writer, a person who thinks like a writer and who expects to write about life.  Two, I am constantly modeling the value of small-moments.  Don't underestimate this part.  Many kids think a story has to be grand to be good, so unless they've been to Disney World lately or met the President of the United States, they think they have nothing of value to write about.  This is one of the root causes of why some children won't write.  They don't understand the value of the small moments in their daily lives.  Model your own, no matter how small... the smaller, the better.  Three, most kids, especially primary students, want to be like you.  If writing is what you do, then writing is what they'll do too, especially if you look like you're having so much fun with it!  When you do this teacher-talk in the mornings, be joyful about sharing your ideas, but try not to make up stuff.  Kids can detect mini-fibs pretty well.  Keep it simple, keep it true.  That's the point.

Gathering ideas is a writing habit and, for some kids, it has to be developed over time.  You can help by noticing ideas for kids throughout the school day.  For example, when my kids and I are outside at recess and something funny or unexpected happens and we are surprised or start laughing, you will definitely hear me say, "Oh my gosh, that was so funny!  We should definitely write about that because I never want to forget this moment.  I'm going to put that on my idea list when we get back inside."  Or if a child tells me a story as we're walking back from the cafeteria, it wouldn't be unlikely for me to say, "Wow, that would make a neat story idea.  I think other people would like to hear it, too.  Can you add it to your idea list when we get in the room?"  What this dialogue subtly suggests is (1) writing ideas are all around us, (2) writers notice them, (3) writers collect ideas to write about later, and (4) the ordinary events of our lives aren't so ordinary... they're worth writing about.  

People collect things they value, so let's collect writing ideas... because we value those, right?  That's the message this tip sends to kids.  This is another "writerly" habit... writers keep lists of ideas to write about one day. Because these "light bulbs" sometimes happen in a snap, I let my kids visit their idea lists any time an idea pops into their head (unless we're in the middle of something they absolutely can't miss).  It only takes a minute or two to jot down a quick idea and I want to empower them in this way so they'll develop this habit.  If I don't honor those moments when they happen, I'm sending the message that the collection of ideas isn't that important, plus they might forget the idea by the time writing workshop begins.  I always have Post-It Notes nearby, no matter where I am, so if I can't let a child go to their idea list (or a particular child might take forever and a day to jot down their idea), I'll quickly write their idea on a sticky note and tell them to go put it on their idea list.  That's a good win-win compromise for everyone. To piggyback on this tip, consider having a "Weekend Wrap Up" session on Monday mornings.  This is a good routine to get into to help children process their weekend, mining for ideas.  Also, let children share out their ideas, either in pairs, small groups, or to the whole class.  Kids get ideas from other kids and, often, one child's story will help another child remember something personal from their own weekend.  And last, think "therapy."  Writing can be very therapeutic.  I make sure I model all sorts of topics on my own idea list and I teach the children that I write about things that make me mad and things that make me sad, too.  I let them know that writing about these emotional moments in my life can help me feel better about them, so I make sure to have those ideas on my list, too.

It's common to use children's literature as mentor texts, showing students how other authors begin their stories, use details, and include elaboration, but don't underestimate the power of stories with strong kid-topics to help your writers generate their own ideas. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year reading literature with topics I think the kids will relate to... fighting with friends or siblings, being afraid of something, learning how to do something for the first time, feeling jealous, being in trouble, etc.  Kevin Henkes is one go-to author for these types of kid-friendly stories, but there are many titles that would work. Gather your favorites and be prepared to use them at the beginning of the year as you're establishing the enthusiasm for your writing workshop.  Keep them displayed near a banner that reads:  Authors get good ideas from other authors, and keep a growing anchor chart of possible topics the kids can write about.  In our classroom, I might call something like jealousy a topic or a theme, but each writer has to claim their own story idea for that theme.  In other words, jealousy is not an idea, it's the overall theme.   My modeling might sound like this, "This Kevin Henkes story about Lilly reminds me of a time I was jealous over my own sister..."  I'll share the story briefly with my children and then write the idea down on my own list for later.  Then, I invite them to share out with a partner about a time they were jealous.  Sharing good literature and making time for them to talk helps them generate a lot of ideas right from the start.  By focusing on this at the beginning of the year, I establish on day one how important I think this writing behavior is.  I could teach anything on the first day of writing workshop... I choose to teach:  Writers collect ideas!

I learned this tip after working with one of my sweet boys who had very little self confidence and a lack of vision for his life's stories. He just needed someone else to tell his story so he could hear it.  So, all I had to do was get him talking about something... his puppy, the bike his cousin gave him, fixing things with his Grandpa... and then just listen, the kind of listening where I watched his face carefully while he talked and imagined being there with him... not the kind of listening where I'm thinking about the 17 emails I need to answer as soon as he's done talking.  (Do you do that, too?)  I'd ask questions when I was confused or curious (that shows true interest) and then, when he was done, I'd say, "I really like that story.  So, when you write it, it might sound something like this..."  I'd start by telling the story a few sentences at a time and invite him to think about how it sounded.  Then, I'd walk away and let him work out getting those beginning parts on paper.  A few minutes later, I'd come back.  "Let's see how it sounds.  Oh, I love it. How do you think the next part might go?  Do you want to practice it out loud so you can see how it sounds with your first part?"  This type of oral rehearsal can really help the kind of writer who struggles to develop an idea and it has the potential to make the story come alive and sound worthy of writing.  He may have thought he didn't have an idea, but once he started hearing it, it made all the difference.  One piggyback thought on this is the strategy of giving a little bit of a boost.  I only do this on rare occasions because I worry about the dependency it may cause, but sometimes it can be helpful to write just the first sentence or two for a struggling emergent writer.  To see their story being physically written can provide the motivation they need to value the idea and continue writing.  One way I do this is by drafting their dictation on a sticky note.  In this way, the words are their own and they maintain a sense of ownership by having to rewrite the words onto their journal page. Some kids just need help getting-going with an idea.

Can you add to this list?  How do you help your writers when they don't know what to write about?

Happy teaching!  :)


Getting Ready to Wind Down

I love collections... books, bags, perfume... but one of my favorite collections is found on my Pinterest page.  I love Pinterest!  It's such a great way to find out what other teachers are doing well and collect ideas from all over the world.

As you're gearing up to wind down, I know you'll enjoy the ideas found on these 5 Pinterest boards... these are my TOP FIVE:  

{Click on each board to see more.}

This board is a good collection of general ideas for helping you end the year in fun and thoughtful ways.  You'll find games, gift ideas for students, and more.

Need a gift idea for your teammates or your own child's teacher?  This board is loaded with cute ideas for the teaching professionals in your life.

This camping theme is one of my favorite ways to end the school year.  Transform your classroom into a super-fun campground... read stories around a "campfire," make s'mores, go on a nature walk, and so much more!

If you're teaching summer school (or your school year runs through the end of June), you may need a few Father's Day ideas.  I just started this board last month, but I'll be adding more ideas to it as I discover them.

The 4th of July is such a special holiday.  If you're teaching summer school or working in a summer camp, check out these fun ideas to help you celebrate this American holiday.

I regularly add new ideas to each of my Pinterest boards.  If you'd like to make sure you never miss a new pin, Follow Me Here.  I hope the end of your school year is going smoothly. 

Happy teaching!  :)

Vocabulary Strategies

I think vocabulary is a big deal.  Not only do I want my kids to love the sound of language and become intensely curious about words, but I actually want them to remember new words and use them.  Sometimes, pre-packaged vocabulary programs aren't helpful in achieving these goals.  I've had to use (or rather I should say I've been given) crazy vocabulary resources where the words were chosen for me and were sometimes so random and irrelevant, the lessons were meaningless.  I don't have time for meaningless.

Plus, I want the kids to like me.  And when "school" doesn't make sense, they don't like me. And then they rebel.  And then I don't like them.  It's a vicious cycle, so I learned a long time ago to say "No" to meaningless.

Now, the kids and I usually choose the words we want to learn.  Tapping into their natural curiosities makes the most sense and keeping the ownership in our hands (vs. the words the publisher thinks we should learn) makes all the difference.

For the most part, I'm talking about our work with literature.  I understand that in science and social studies there are some very specific key vocabulary words the children must understand, but when it comes to literature, some of the choices are more subjective.  When I introduce a new book, I often spend time really studying the words and thinking about the words I can honestly envision us using in the context of our real classroom... words that will have life even after our time with the book is done.  I also think about tricky words that will keep my kids from comprehending the text if they don't understand the meaning.  Most importantly, I wait for teachable moments... moments where I can tell the children are confused or delighted by a certain word.  And these are the words we focus on.

The three strategies we use the most often are pictured on the big book above.  I have them written on large sticky notes so we can keep moving them from book to book until they have become a habit of thinking for us.  When we use these strategies with relevant and interesting words, our vocabulary grows and I begin to notice it not only in our everyday speech, but in our writing, too!




I think the key to these strategies is that they honor kids' interests in active movement, art, and performance.  They tap into what we know about multiple intelligences and are in stark contrast to some of the rote vocabulary activities that tend to come with the big-box series.

You certainly could make an anchor chart that looks just like the sticky notes, but use the sticky notes, too.  Because they're small and portable, you can literally move them from book to book and within the pages of the book, too.  For example, when we came to the word flatter in Mr. George Baker, we decided that "Use It" would be the best strategy for remembering this word.  In pairs, we practiced giving each other compliments and then responding with, "Oh, you flatter me!"  Having the strategy on a sticky note allowed me to move it to the page that had the word flatter on it so every time we reread the story, we remembered to try the "Use It" strategy.  Once the kids became familiar with the word, they began naturally adding word endings to it.

• "Mrs. Knight... Isabella said I'm good at hula-hooping.  That really flattered me."

• "Thank you for flattering me.  You are really nice."

And they work really well with ELL students, too.  (Sometimes I wonder why we have separate ELL strategies.  Aren't these strategies good for everyone, regardless of which language we speak?)  

I think the key is to be intentional about your word choices and then to be a good model, consistently and authentically using the words with and around your students. It's so fun to be a witness to a young child stretching themselves to use a new word. And boy do they feel BIG when they do!  

Happy teaching!  :)