Tag 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

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Lesson Ideas, Student Engagement, Vocabulary

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Student Engagement

My Sixth First Day — Part Two

The second day of school is so much better than the first! And the third better than the second! I really don’t have as much fun teaching rules and procedures as I do teaching my content, but does it ever pay off! My students seem eager to please, and I’ve been eager to praise them as they’ve quickly picked up about a dozen procedures we are already putting to regular use.

And now as promised, here are the activities I used for my reading enrichment class on the first day of school. As I said Monday, my goals for the first few days of school are always:
1. Building community
2. Teaching students what I expect from them
3. Teaching students what they can expect from me

As with the activities in my language arts classes, I believe each of the activities below helped me make tremendous strides with all three goals. I began by teaching and practicing my procedure for entering class and warm up work just like I did with language arts, and I moved on again to a class builder.

Class Builder – Find Someone Who

This is an old favorite! Students receive a table filled with possible descriptions of each other such as “favorite color is yellow”, “was born in another country”, etc. They then move around the room, question their classmates, and write the names of students who fit descriptions. I have my students write their classmates’ names instead of asking them to sign the paper. I want to stress how important it is to learn each other’s names! I like using this class builder because later in the year, I use the same activity with vocabulary words. Students love it, and it’s a great review of the words we’ve studied all year. When used with vocabulary, along with a classmates’ name, students must write an explanation of the vocabulary words after hearing their classmates define them.

Policies Carousel

My job in this class, per my 8th grade team, was to teach my students about 8th grade policies for school attendance (including tardies and truancy), detentions, and the point cards we use to help keep students accountable for their behaviors.

I photocopied the information I had about each of these categories and posted the copies on the wall around my room along with some construction paper. Remember this?

I divided the students into 3 groups (small class!) and assigned them each a poster. They went to their poster, read about their policy and noted key facts. During this time, I played music and circulated the room to help them. When a song ended, they had to rotate to the next poster and repeat the activity. I use the carousel structure for vocabulary as well. We brainstorm examples and non-examples of various words. We find figurative language and sound devices in poems. It’s so fun! Kids are up, moving, talking about language, and even having fun. They might deny the having fun part, but their smiles and laughter give them away. Even in classes with close to 40 students, I’ve had great success with this strategy!

When my students finished rotating, each group brought the papers back to the class and read the summary notes. Then, they practiced precision partnering to complete some sentence starters I’d prepared to ensure they would walk away with the necessary information.

We ended the day with a quick reflection for closure. One more first day is history!


Leave a comment

Filed under Beginning of the Year

My Sixth First Day – Part One: Or, My Sales Pitch for Kagan

There’s nothing like a steamy 118 degree day to kick off a new school year! Personally, I’m not a big fan of the first week of school. I love teaching my content, but teaching procedures? BORING! Still, I spend my first 2 days with all my classes pursuing a few basic goals:

1. Building community

I teach cooperatively on a daily basis, so this is a big one. I find it to be so important that my students know each other and me, that I know them, and that they experience what it feels like and looks like to be part of a productive team.

2. Teaching students what I expect from them 

This involves instruction on the school rule, school and grade level policies, and classroom procedures. The content is pretty dry, but it’s not too difficult to make it fun. Still, it’s of utmost importance that my classroom run like a well-oiled machine, and now is the time to apply the oil. Actually, I don’t really know anything about machines or how they use oil, but that simile just seemed to extend itself outside of my control. Words can do that, you know. Oh, and in case you were wondering I do not WANT to know anything about machines or any type of oil aside from the kind my manicurist applies to my cuticles.

3. Teaching my students what they can expect from me

I do my best to make it very clear that in my room, we will get down to business. We will focus on learning without wasting time. We will have partner discussions and cooperative learning activities many times a day. Participation is non-negotiable. Further, I make it clear that I will respect them and care for them, but they won’t be coddled or given endless “one more chance”s (or really any “one more chance”s, in most cases).

I really do think those 3 things are absolute essentials for any first week of school, but a great first few days containing those can have many different looks. I have two different preps, so I’ll share my agenda for my language arts classes today and my reading enrichment class later this week. FYI, my language arts classes are two hour blocks.

Procedures for Entering the Class
I introduced myself, helped students find their assigned seats and taught my beginning of class procedure first thing. Then we all played pretend as I so enjoy and headed back to the hallway. We re-entered the classroom applying our new understanding of these procedures. Students sat in their assigned seats, passed out journals, put their belongings away, and copied their objectives. We got this done in 4 1/2 minutes today … not bad for day 1!

Class Builder: Find the Fiction
Next, my students participated in class builder activities. These served all three purposes for the day. Of course, they helped to build community, but they also trained students on the procedures for different student engagement strategies I use, showing them how I expect them to behave and how they can expect me to conduct the class.

In language arts, I chose the Kagan structure Find the Fiction for today. First, I review the terms fact and fiction with the students. Then, I instruct them to write three statements about themselves: two that are factual and one that is fictional. I model this by sharing my three statements, but I don’t tell them which is fictional. I give students 3 minutes to silently write their statements, instructing them to draw pictures to go with them if they finish early. This prepares students for my Quick Write procedure which I’ll hit harder tomorrow. Next, I use the Kagan Round Robin strategy, which is so different from the round robin activities I did when I was a student. Seated in their groups of four, teammate 1 shares his/her statements and then 2, 3, and 4 all guess which statement is fictional before teammate 1 reveals the answer. This is repeated around the group. Then, we mix it up with the class. I teach the Kagan Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up procedure to get students standing, moving, and talking to someone outside of their teams. They share with one classmate and then return to their seats. Finally, I reveal my fiction and use popsicle sticks with student names (another common strategy I want my students used to) to ask a few students to share something interesting they learned about a classmate with the whole group. This is also a time for teaching my expectations for behavior when students are addressing the class: listen with respect and listen to learn. We spent a few minutes talking about what this looks like and doesn’t look like, and I gave them lots of specific positive feedback when they listened well.

Procedures Lesson
My grade level team divides up the logistical information students need to know and each teach a different topic on the first day. Some teach dress code, attendance policies, school behavior policies (though we all flesh that out on the second day), detentions, etc. My job was to teach our common 8th grade procedures.

I gave my students one minute to line up from tallest to shortest. Then, we numbered off and made 7 different groups. I assigned each group to a table and gave each student a handout with 8th grade procedures. I also assigned each group a different category of procedures. I instructed them to prepare a presentation to teach the class their procedure. I gave each group member a role to perform in their preparation and in the presentation itself. Then, I modeled this with the first set of procedures. Next, the groups had 15 minutes to prepare their presentations with summaries/paraphrases of the procedures, drawings, role-plays, and questions to ask the class. This helped me set up expectations for cooperative learning. Everyone has a role. Everyone must pull his/her weight. And everyone must be actively working for the entire time. Finally, we practiced listening with respect and listening to learn again during the student presentations.

It’s so easy to teach to the bell and forget how important closure is! But I told my students that their brains need to do something with their learning in order to help them file it away so they can remember it later, but also so that their brains are clear and ready for their next class. Today, we did a simple reflection. I asked students to respond to four questions in their journals. They shared out with their teams, picked up, and it was time to go!

Oh, and I threw a brain break into each of my classes as well! This helped with all three of my goals for this week, but it also got my students up and moving again so their blood was flowing through their brains instead of pooling in their feet. Thanks to our wonderful Coach G. for preparing a great flip book with lots of ideas for brain breaks!

Wow, that was a lot more typing than I expected. I guess we did a lot today, which is great! No wonder I’m so sleepy. Overall, I enjoyed my students, and I think I got pretty far with my 3 goals for the week.

If you are a teacher, I’d love to hear about your first day plans this year!

– Kristin


Filed under Beginning of the Year