Category Archives: Book Studies

Livening up Literature Studies

We just finished reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I’ve had a wonderful time, and the kids have really loved it. They clapped when we finished reading it, and they asked if we could read another book next. (Yes, but we are going to study persuasive text first.) Still, towards the end, our discussions were starting to fall a little flat. My first thought was “Ugh, I need to just fly through the last 25 pages and get out of this book and onto something new!”  But then I realized, it wasn’t the book. It was my teaching. My lessons were great lessons, but our structure was too repetitive. Read, partner talk, whole class talk, parter talk, whole class talk, etc. etc. etc., write.

So, last week, we did our reading. Then I divided the class into groups and assigned each group a literary element or an important quote. I gave them some guiding questions to discuss and asked them to create a poster showing what they learn through their discussions. I gave them 15 minutes to do this, which allowed me enough time to visit each group and make sure they were getting what I needed them to.

Then, they hung their posters on the wall around the room, and we did a gallery walk. Kids traveled with their groups from poster to poster, reading and discussing their classmates’ work, and taking notes. When they were done, they all sat back down and individually responded to prompts about the theme and symbolism. They did a really great job!  Their spelling isn’t perfect, and I could have insisted they refine their ideas a little more, but I thought it was more meaningful to validate the growth they were showing rather than insisting on perfection. And their artwork is incomplete. I did only give them 15 minutes. If this were a graded assignment, I’d have given more time. I do think it’s important to let students express creativity and take pride in their work. That just wasn’t my goal this day.


Filed under Book Studies, Elements of Literature, Lesson Ideas, Student Engagement


One of my favorite student projects these days is Fakebook! As the title suggests, students create a faux facebook page for a character, an author, a historical figure, a scientist, whomever. I love this assignment for so many reasons. It’s obviously engaging. Students love technology, and then the play on social networking? Instant motivation and engagement. Because of that, students tend to naturally differentiate this assignment. If nothing else, they practice their skills with plot and characters. But those who can tend to take this much deeper.

Check out a student’s Fakebook for Maya Angelou. She created this after working in a literature circle studying I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She did her own research on Angelou’s life and accomplishments to make the connections seen here. I was especially pleased to see that she’s studied the connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because we’ve been studying him quite a bit this year.

If you choose to use Fakebook, here are some quick tips:
1. Students have to select a name, add a friend, update a status, and input profile information first. You cannot save until you do.

2. After this, have students save frequently. Computers and the Internet are unreliable.

3. Make sure students copy down their URLs in PERFECT HANDWRITING. Even my students with the best penmanship have mistaken an x for a X, a U for a V, an s for an S or a 5. If you don’t correctly record your URL, you’ll lose the work.

4.  Play the tutorial video for your students, but also watch it several times yourself.

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Filed under Book Studies, Common Core, Differentiation, Lesson Ideas, Student Engagement

Differentiated Instruction – Literature Circles

Last year, I went to a fabulous training on the Common Core ELA Standards focusing on text complexity (shout out to Jen and Empower!). I got all fired up about presenting my students with increasingly complex texts and tasks. I decided to start small and pulled a group of 5 students to study a graphic novel version of Macbeth. They did this while the rest of my students worked in literacy centers. I teach a 2 hour block, and we spend the last 30 minutes working in centers and in small teacher-led groups with me.

That went so well that by January, I’d added groups studying Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. All but Bradbury are exemplar texts for high school, and I matched them with my 8th graders who were reading above grade level.

This year, I started again with just Macbeth, but recently I decided all 29 of the students in my advanced class needed a good challenge, so I wrote two more studies (The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Pearl by John Steinbeck). I either created or found videos to preview each of the books for my students. Most of them can be found on my YouTube page (along with some top notch concert footage!) Check out the super cool Macbeth trailer that my genius teenage sister Kaitlin made for me. (In case you were wondering, yes, teachers can give their sisters homework. I tried. It worked.)

I asked students to take out their data cards and look at their Lexile levels and San Diego Quick reading levels. They are familiar with these scores because they have to use them twice a month when we check out library cards, but I didn’t want any “I don’t remember my level”s. I told students the Lexiles for each book and explained that for books with lower Lexiles (The Giver and The Pearl) that the assignments would be a little more complex from time to time. I told students to rank the books from 1 – 6 showing which they most wanted to read. As I did this, I reminded them that to grow as a reader, they really needed to match themselves with a book near their level. And they did! I had already decided what I wanted the groups to be, but with this guidance, my students mostly chose one of the books I wanted them to read. I had a few overly ambitious students and one or two wannabe slackers, but even so, no one was assigned a book lower than his/her 3rd choice. And since I hope to repeat these studies next quarter with different students reading different books  . . . no one really has room to complain. One girl was a little mad at me, but she got her second choice, and she did really well during her first week. I hope she keeps it up. Today we started week #2!

I’m going to post a free link to one of my studies … The Pearl. I also have weekly rubrics for each group, but I’m still revising those. Any feedback is appreciated!



Filed under Book Studies, Common Core, Differentiation

Right is Right – Teach Like a Champion

The moment you’ve all been waiting for has arrived! Week #2 in Life in Middle School’s book study is here.

This week’s strategy – Right Is Right — “Students often stop striving when they hear that their answer is ‘right.’ However, many teachers often accept answers that are partially correct or not totally complete. They affirm these answers by repeating them and then adding information to make the answer completely correct.”

When I read this, I thought it would be incredibly easy. I thought it was obvious. But this has actually been rather tricky. I am not guilty of telling students their incorrect or even partially correct answers are perfect. I usually say “Nice start, but we need more” or something like that.

My problem is that I tend to connect the dots for my students rather than letting them do that for each other. You know how students say things, and you totally get what they mean because you know them. But you restate it with more clarity and eloquence? Or maybe that’s just me? But it’s a problem. I’ve been trying to be more cognizant of that and avoid it.

But that’s brought up its own problems. My students don’t like being asked to be more clear or re-state. They don’t like spending more time on one question to come up with the most clear, accurate answer they can. I’ve had to respond with lots of praise for effort and lots of encouragement to keep thinking and making connections. I apologized to my students for not holding them to this high of a standard before (they wished I wasn’t so sorry), and I told them why things were changing a bit.

They were grumpy for 3 or 4 days last week about this. Today was lots better though. I hope it continues. I’d encourage you to try this out yourself. It may not be as simple as you think!

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Filed under Book Studies

No Opt Out!

Welcome to Week 1 of an innovative book study completed entirely online! Lauren from Life in Middle School will be hosting this study. Head over to her site to read other entries about this chapter, and please participate! If you have ideas, add them to the comments section! I’d love to learn from you.

This week’s strategy is No Opt Out. Essentially, this means that class participation is expected and strategies are in place to ensure that all students are engaged in the learning. This pretty much sums up my philosophy on how to teach. So, my no opt out strategies . . .

1. Overt Engagement – When I plan my lessons, I always ask myself what the students will be DOING. If I cannot see and/or hear them writing, reading, speaking, moving, etc. in a way that relates to the learning, then I planned my lesson poorly. So, for example, today I introduced new vocabulary words. I used a powerpoint with lots of visuals. I put a word and definition on the Smart Board. Students copied the definition onto frayer models while I read it aloud and offered a simply explanation. Then, they chorally repeated the definition. Next, I clicked to slide to show them pictures of examples and non-examples of the words. Students then turned to their precision parter and paraphrased the dictionary definition. Next, I ask one or two students to share their paraphrases. Finally, we add our explanation to our frayer models.  Once students get used to this, it takes 2-4 mintues per word. This is just one example. I do my best to fill my class with Kagan and other engagement strategies.

2.  Precision Partnering – Precision partnering is a great way of covertly engaging students. Before I ask just about ANY question to the class, I ask students to share with their partners first. This gives all students more turns AND provides a safe environment for students to take risks and share their answers with the class.

3. Safe Environment – Speaking of safe environment, I am like a broken record when it comes to this. Not that my kids have any idea what a broken record is, but still. “In my class, you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, I encourage you to make mistakes and learn. However, I do require your best effort. You have to try your hardest.” I say this constantly. We’ve also read some research on mistakes and the irreplaceable role they play in learning. I do my best to respect my students and respond to them with kindness. Today during warm up, a student pulled the “I don’t get it” card. I referred him to his notes and said I’d check back in the next 1-2 minutes. And I did. And the student had found the information he needed, remembered the lesson, and attempted the work with a fairly good success rate for something we’d only introduced on Monday. I praised him for finding the information and assured him that I’m always around to help him, but in my opinion, the best way to help him is to teach him how to use his resources. Many times, I’ve turned this into a power struggle with kids. They leave feeling like I don’t want to help them, and I start to feel they are too lazy to try. This is so wrong. They just don’t feel safe. So I reinforce my high expectations, validate their frustration, and provide as much praise and pseudo-support as I can. (Pseudo-support = standing and listening or watching a student help himself while he thinks you are really helping … it works wonders!)

4. Revoicing – If, after having a precision partner conversation, I call on a student, and she really doesn’t know the answer, I simply say, “We need more practice with this. I’ll come back to you.” Then, I call on one or two other students. If they struggle, I quickly reteach and start again from the partner conversation. Most of the time, though, the other students give an accurate answer. Then, I return to the student I originally called on. I’ve learned that when a student is truly clueless, she really cannot even revoice. This is a valuable learning tool, and it sends out some good messages: (1) participation is not optional, (2) it’s ok to make mistakes, and (3) we sometimes take longer than others to learn, and that’s just fine!

Your turn! What do you do to keep your students from opting out?

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Filed under Book Studies, Classroom Management, Student Engagement

Private Practice?

I’ve mentioned before, but this year I’m pursuing my National Board Certification in Early Adolescent English Language Arts. If you are unfamiliar with the process, check out the video below.

To certify, I need to write four portfolio entries and pass a test. Two of the entries are responses to 15 minute videos of whole and small group lessons. I’ve barely gotten my feet wet with this process, but the experience has already been enriching.

Last week, two of my colleagues who are also candidates and I video taped parts of our lessons. Yesterday, as a part of a coaching event for National Boards put on by the Arizona K12 Center, the three of us sat down with a mentor who is already an NBCT. We watched each other’s videos and offered suggestions.

This can be scary! For some, criticism is hard to take even when it’s constructive. For others, we are so used to practicing behind closed doors away from any other adult eyes that it can be quite intimidating to let others in. And then there’s the one who didn’t get enough sleep the night before and is worried about her dark under eye circles, and OMG, someone needs a haircut! Of course, I am that third person. 🙂

But, what a valuable learning experience! And you really don’t need crazy technology to do something like this. We used a Flip cam our district owns propped up on books or baskets to get a view of the students working. I’ve already talked to some other teacher pals to see if they’d be interested in doing something like this every so often. I’d love to take turns with my teammates bringing a 5-10 minute clip to team meeting each week to provide each other with feedback. It’s time-consuming and a maybe frightening, but I’m willing to put in the time if someone will send me some good concealer and call my hair stylist for an appointment. If we really want to grow as teachers, it’s time to stop hiding out in our classrooms. Crazy idea. What do you think?

On a tangential note, I’m excited to announce that starting this week I’m joining up with a teachers’ book study right here on the Interwebz!

I just ordered this book on Amazon. It features 49 simple strategies, and we will be focusing on one each week. Each blogger will share ways s/he’s implemented the strategy that week. As readers, you’ll have easy access to all of the blog entries, but more importantly, you can comment and share your own ideas without going through the work of setting up and maintaining your own blog.

Check back later this week for my Strategy #1 – No Opt Out. If you know me at all, you’ll know I have A LOT to say about that (What do you mean I have A LOT to say about everything?) I’m looking forward to it!

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Filed under Book Studies, National Boards, Professional Development