Category Archives: Student Engagement

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

Vocabulary Ideas

Have you ever been at a point in your career when there are so many different things you want to do that you feel like a totally ineffective teacher because you can’t pull them all off? Tell me it’s not just me! I have so many things I want to do, but if I don’t take time to slow down, I won’t do them well. So I live in the state of wanting to do more but trying to be intentional to accomplish things and make the most of my time with my students. One of the things I’ve been tempted to skip is vocabulary. It’s easy, and kids seem to understand the words after just a day or two with new words. But I think it’s so important that students really take time everyday to master and review words. So, here are some of my favorite activities for vocabulary lessons.

1. Context Clues – Before I teach new words, I give students sentences with context clues for the words and ask them to write predicted definitions. Today, I wrote one sentence with each word, printed the sentences on separate pages in large font, and posted them around the room. We did a carousel activity. Students travelled in teams. They had 45 – 60 seconds at each poster to read the sentence and write a predicted definition in their journals.

2.  Frayer Models


I always have students take notes for their vocabulary words in frayer models. I modify my model so it has squares for student-friendly explanations, pictures, sentences, and examples/non-examples. We discuss the answers to their context clues while I use a powerpoint with dictionary definitions and pictures of examples and non-examples to present the new words. As a closure activity for each word, students paraphrase the dictionary definition and teach it to a partner.

3.  Drawing Activity – Students have 45 – 60 seconds to draw a picture that helps them remember the meaning of a word. Then, they hold it up and explain it to their partner. I use the sentence starter “I drew this for ___ because . . . ” Then, I repeat this activity with each word.

4.  Example and Non-Example Cards – I cut construction paper into small cards. I give each student the same number of cards as we have words. Sometimes I give sets of cards to partners instead of students. Students discuss words with teammates. They write an example of a word on one side of a card and a non-example on the other. They do NOT label the card. After 5-10 minutes, students stand up and find a partner from another team. They trade cards and work to label their partner’s cards with the correct words.

5.  Fan & Pick – This is a fabulous Kagan structure for vocabulary. Put students into groups of 4 and give each group cards or strips of paper with the vocabulary wrods listed on them. Team member 1 fans out the words like a deck of cards. Team member 2 picks a card and reads it. Team member 3 defines the word. Team member 4 coaches and praises. I have all of these jobs listed on a table mat, and for the next round, they rotate the map so they can rotate jobs.

6.  Roll a Word – Put students in groups … again, I like groups of 4. Give each group a stack of cards with the words written on them and a die. Students take turns rolling the die. Assign different tasks for each number. I like to have them spell the word, define it, use it in a sentence, give the part of speech, give a synonym or an example, and give an antonym or non-example. Students take turns answering for a set amount of time. Whoever has the most points wins. Sometimes I give prizes like stickers or candy, but usually, I just tell them great job, and they don’t care because the activity was fun.

7. Crossword Competition – I use this crossword puzzle maker to create a crossword using our vocabulary words. I give one puzzle to each team and ask each student to use a different colored pen or pencil. Students work together, but they must take turns answering a crossword clue. The team who finishes first wins and gets to help their classmates with the clues that stumped them.

8.  Find Someone Who – I try to do this activity the day before a quiz or a test. I print a Bingo type table listing several vocabulary words and blank spaces. Students can them move about the room asking their classmates to define words. Then the student writes the definition from the classmate on their papers along with the classmate’s name. They can only talk to each classmate once. I like this activity right before a quiz or test because they can take the paper home to use as a study guide.

9.  Ask a Word – I usually use this as a center. It’s super fun! I got it from that Florida site. Give students interview questions and have them conduct a faux interview with their word. Kids like this because they get to be creative, and teachers like it because students think critically about their words.

10.  Likert Scale – Another Florida activity. Students create a scale showing one extreme in meaning to the other. Their vocabulary word could fall anywhere along the scale. I love this activity because it helps kids learn the nuances of words and helps them learn to choose the correct synonyms from a thesaurus. Plus, kids love it.

Ok, your turn. I know you have them! Fabulous vocabulary lessons … share!

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Filed under Lesson Ideas, Student Engagement, Vocabulary

High Expectations

I naturally have high expectations for my students. Maybe it’s because I have high expectations for myself and couldn’t imagine myself failing. Really. In high school, I had an A in calculus, and I could have probably kept my A if I skipped my homework, but I spent all of my spring break solving 2 proofs … because I knew I could if I just kept trying. Not everyone is wired that way. If you’re a teacher, you know how few students are wired that way. I didn’t have much encouragement from my teachers. And my parents, honestly … they did encourage me, but they would have felt I was totally justified in taking some of that spring break time to myself, but it was never a conversation.

But regardless of the reason, I have always asserted that students will rise to your expectations. I promise they will. Just clearly state them and give them the scaffolds and supports they need. Read up on your Vygotsky and his ZPD!

I read this NPR article tonight. I have tried a few times to start a discussion here, and I’ll keep trying. My expectations for my readers are high 😉 Please share your thoughts and what you do to hold your students to high expectations.

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Filed under Professional Development, Student Engagement

Socratic Circles

My exciting Saturday has been consumed with National Boards. I wrote one entire page. This is a big accomplishment. And I worked on my parent communication log, watched 2 more videos of my teaching this week which resulted in me thinking, once again, that I’m long overdue for a haircut, and I studied my standards. I was very excited because I bought really cool new pens and highlighters. Who doesn’t love that?

But I think the best idea I came away with (other than the fact that I should be having more fun on a Saturday) is the concept of Socratic Seminars/Circles. I’m not sure what the true title is. I’ve just been researching. I read a bit and watched some YouTube videos. My favorite is below. I like it because it shows real middle school kids, not adults, and because it centers on the writing of one of my heroes … such an overused word, someone I admire with a great passion, Dr. Martin Luther King.

I love the idea, but I have SO many questions. What about kids who blow it off? What about kids who get bored? Who don’t want to participate? Who don’t understand? What about assessment? How do I know this is really working and I do I prove it impacts student learning? (Yes, I worked on National Boards all day!)

Please share your ideas and your use of this strategy!


Filed under National Boards, Student Engagement

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

Sticky Notes!

With all that I’ve taken on this year (new teacher mentor program, National Boards, planning a Readathon), I’ve managed to work about 51 hours in the past 4 days. So, the best thing I have to talk to you about is sticky notes! I realized today that I’m starting to get a little obsessed with them. I’ve used them for 3 fabulous activities so far this year.

All of my sticky notes activities start with Jot Thoughts! Jot thoughts is one of my favorite Kagan strategies for student engagement. I love it because it never fails to engage 100% of my students. I suppose I should back up. When I refer to engagement, I am always thinking of overt engagement … thinking that reveals itself with action. Not that covert engagement is bad, but I teach middle schoolers who are addicted to technology, easily distracted, and for the most part, speak English as a second language. They learn so much better when they are overtly engaged. So, back to Jot Thoughts. The teacher gives the students an open-ended prompt or question. They respond by thinking and writing one idea per slip of paper. They place the papers in the center of their group … one big stack for the group. After 2 – 4 minutes of thinking and writing, they take turns pulling an idea from the stack, reading, and discussing it. This year, I’ve been using stickies instead of scratch paper. BTW, whoever came up with the term scratch paper? Weird! Anyhow, my sticky note Jot Thought activities this year . . .

1. Good Reading Strategies Anchor Chart

I teach a Tier III (RtI) Reading Enrichment course for a small group of struggling readers. I asked them the question “What do good readers do?” We did a Jot Thoughts activity, and as they reported to the class, I created an anchor chart. Then, we read an informational passage about the underground railroad and created a mini-book practicing 6 of the strategies the kids thought were most important. They chose all 6, but they were 5 of the 6 I’d originally hoped for. I think that it’s maybe because of the enthusiastic praise I gave when they answered the way I wanted, haha!

2. 6 Traits of Writing

I asked my students what they find in good writing? We did a Jot Thoughts and a quick lesson on the 6 Traits. Then, they posted their Jot Thoughts stickies on a poster showing which trait it falls under. I didn’t take pictures though.

3. Conflict

We took notes on internal and external conflicts. Then we did a Jot Thoughts activity to brainstorm examples of conflicts. As we were discussing the thoughts in our groups, we took turns classifying them as character vs. _____.  Then, they chose their favorites and added them to the anchor chart we created while taking notes. They were pretty clever, but names are blurred to protect the innocent … or not-so-innocent, according to some.

I don’t think it was 47, but still, a good character vs. society conflict.

If little girls do beat up one of my boys, that will indeed be a character vs. character conflict.

The other side says parents. I’ll teach them how to spell with!

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Filed under Student Engagement