Wednesday, November 8, 2017

5 Tips for Effective Parent/Teacher Conferences

Hey everyone!

It's parent/teacher conference season and I've got a new video with five of my best tips for making sure your conferences are as effective as possible!

Let me know what you think!! (You can download the one-pager at my TpT store!! Grab it here.)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Awesome Classroom Library Additions!

We all know how difficult it can be to keep up with all the great young adult literature on the market. With so many incredible books (and Amazon Prime!), it's an overwhelming task to stay on top of the best reads for our students.

So, I thought I'd offer a bit of help. Let me start with a recommendation:

Friends, this book!! I can’t even!! I read the whole thing in one day because I absolutely could not put it down. You will laugh. You will cry. You will cheer. Timothy will be your new forever hero! His love for his sweet baby brother will melt your heart. My students love this book so much that I’ve had to put a three-day checkout limit on it due to its high demand. Make sure to add this one to your library today!! 

Next, I want to encourage you to head on over to the amazing blog by Secondary Sara to read all about her tips to keeping up with new books when you're a busy teacher!

Finally, go check out this Instagram loop where several incredible secondary teachers shared some of the best new(ish) books to add to your classroom library.

Hoping this helps a little in keeping your classroom library fresh and exciting!

Happy reading!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spooky Snapshots

Hey, Friends!

So, it's that time of year :) My favorite season for some great writer's notebook lessons. I've said before that one of my favorite activities is writing Spooky Snapshots.

I've had several folks email me over the last few days asking if I had a good mentor for this. Typically, I draft a "mentor" in front of my students. This is always original and needs some revising to be considered "good." Anyway, I can't seem to remember to save my drafts along with some student samples, but I do have one that I wrote a few years back that I've used in a few different ways (in fact, parts may look familiar to you if you own my Lessons That Create Writers :):

Here is the text:

A bone-chilling breeze rustled the bare branches of the trees. Along with my boots crunching the frozen snow on the ground, the breeze, along with a random woodpecker and an occasional croak from a frog, were the only sounds you could hear. Ahead of me, stood the old church, its dilapidated tower a silhouette against the grey sky. Coming closer, you could see that the vines had grown so unencumbered over the years that the building gave the appearance of having been enveloped by the web of a gargantuan spider. The old man who served as caretaker of the church was there, as I could smell the burning of the fires that he kept lit in the drafty ruin of a building. As I approached the building, I could see he was burning piles of leaves in the old graveyard. The acrid smoke danced through the air and burned the insides of my nose with each breath I took. It was gritty in my mouth, leaving my tongue like sandpaper. Just as I was passing the crumbling structure, the fog began to roll in. Every noise was muffled. The wind rustling the leaves, the frogs croaking by the river, the woodpecker knocking on his tree all sounded as though you were listening to them from under water. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I quickened my step. My heart was thumping in my chest and it felt as though every nerve in my body was on fire. My breath was swift and shallow and sweat beaded on my brow. I began to run.

Anyway, I hope that helps those of you looking for a mentor!! If you do this lesson with your kids, I love to hear about it. Comment here or give me a shout out on Facebook or Instagram :)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

September Happenings

See what we've been up to in my ELA middle school classroom during the month of September!

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bone tired.

I love September for dozens of reasons, but holy cow!! I am so exhausted.

Back-to-school, prepping a classroom, paperwork, back-to-school night (for my students and my own kids!), beginning of soccer, paperwork, alarm clocks, packing lunches, paperwork, retraining my bladder to only pee twice a day, paperwork, wearing real clothes and shoes every day, laundry, paperwork, forming a PLC and setting an SGO... and all THAT paperwork.


Anyway, enough of my whining because I know that I'm preaching right now to the choir!!

Aside from all the crazy, I've got some great stuff to share from the busy month. My school kiddos are awesome and we've been having the best time getting to know each other.

Like last year, I am starting the year with Writing from Lists in our writer's notebook and we are tacking Information Text in reading. The struggle is real going from two, 50-minutes periods of ELA last year, to one, 60-minute period this year. I can say that while I'm pretty much sticking to my plan , there is absolutely not one second of down time in my room. We work from the second they sit down, until the second they leave. The pace is hard.

So, without further ado, here is what's up in Room B208...


We've got two lists into our notebooks: "Things I Cannot Stand" and "I Can't Imagine Life Without...". We've only managed one "Fast Five" though. I am hoping to really get into a flow next week.


I am starting off the year with studying Informational Text.

Beginning with this unit allows for a much smoother transition into our Article of the Week routine.

I've added some great TpT products into my unit this year. While these products are not new, they are new to me, so I wanted to share.

First, I am in love with Hello Literacy's Short Text for Teaching Text Structure articles.

These are perfect for middle school students when you want to teach a skill and not have their performance be hindered by their reading comprehension. These texts are SHORT, interesting, and come in a variety of reading levels so that when you work on a skill, even your most struggling readers can participate. I've been using them like crazy!!

Next, I'm totally digging Deb Hanson's Summarizing Nonfiction: A Bundle of Activities!

Her PowerPoint is direct and easy to follow and I like the "code" (a.k.a. structure) she gives for writing a short, succinct summary.

And finally, I jumped on the ESCAPE ROOM bandwagon!! I had bought Darlene Anne's Escape Room ELA Comprehension and Writing Break Out Activity, over the summer.

I didn't wind up using it the way it was intended, though. Instead, I used their riddles and decoder cards to put together my own breakout activity.

So, after teaching the students how to summarize with Deb Hanson's PowerPoint and ISN page, I had the kids write summaries for ten of Hello Literacy's Short Texts. Each time they got a summary correct, they earned a few of the decoder cards from Darlene Anne's Escape Room resource. After completing all their summaries, and decoding the riddle (which gave them a clue as to where the key was hidden), they got to guess the whereabouts of the key. The "key" unlocked my treasure box (um... shoe box, really) that was full of candy and incentives (like homework passes and "sit anywhere" passes). 

It was so much fun. AND more importantly, the kids willingly read and summarized TEN nonfiction articles. I can't imagine what I would of had to do in the past to get them to be so excited to do that much work!!

I think I'm sold on the Escape Room/Breakout Box activity. They are a lot of work to put together, but if you get yourself some good resources from TpT, the prep time will be cut dramatically.

Reader's Workshop:

This year, our schedule has a 35-minute period of Reader's Workshop/STEM for all students. That means that every other day, my students get to independently read their self-selected books for 35 uninterrupted minutes.!!

"Yummy" is still my go-to book for reluctant, not-on-grade-level readers. They just LOVE this book.

This makes a great follow-up to "Yummy."

Also, I bought three Kindle Fires during Prime Day over the summer. They were $30 each. I know that $90 is a lot to spend on materials for your classroom, so if that's not your jam, I totally get it!! But, for me, it's been money well spent. I do have an Audible account (and have for a while) because I actually listen to most books now. (It's how I am able to stay on top of all the great YA literature that comes out at a rapid fire these days!!) So, it's been perfect because the kids can listen to the books that I've purchased. It's been AMAZING for our struggling readers!

Around the Room:

Ambient lighting. There are no words for how happy it makes me to not turn on those fluorescent lights every day. My Target lamps rock my world.

New anchor posters. Design your poster on the computer. Project onto the board. Trace on to large poster paper and voila! Beautiful new posters! (All my old ones were ratty and looked dated!) Love how my new ones turned out!!

My karaoke microphone. I've been wanting a microphone in my classroom for a while now for students to practice public speaking. This one is AMAZING! It's perfect for getting their attention, sharing important directions, and class discussions... and sometimes a little singing or "spittin' some bars" as my kids say :)

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Whelp, that's what's been happening in my room this last month! I know this is a long post, so thanks for sticking around to the end!!

I'd love to hear what's been happening in your room, so be sure to comment below or drop me a line on FB to share.

On another note, my teacher heart is heavy for so many of our citizens over the last several weeks. Lots of destruction, and chaos, and heart-break. I have several students still waiting to hear from loved ones in Puerto Rico. Healing will take time, but I know that there are so many teachers who will be there giving their all to help our kiddos put their lives back together. To all of my fellow educators who do the hard work every day, even in the face of tragedy, my hat is off to you. Stay strong and be well.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Back to School 2017!!

Pictures of my classroom
Happy Back-to-School 2017!!!! Can you hear my excitement!?!? You can't??? Well, I'm screaming at you through the computer!!

Phew!! Friends, I am beat!! There is truly no tired like back-to-school TEACHER TIRED!! (Well, maybe just-had-a-newborn-and-also-have-a-toddler tired... but I digress!!)

So, we went back to school this week. I had in-service on Tuesday and the kids came Wednesday. So far, so good! Kids are awesome, love my schedule, love my team. We are certainly honeymooning!!

I've been sneaking snippets of my room on my Facebook and IG accounts this past week, but I wanted to sit down and break my classroom down for you and talk about what we did during those first three day. One of my goals this year is to highlight all the amazing TpT products that I use all the time that are NOT my own, so I'm going to be showing you those, too.

Classroom Tour:

Photo of my While You Were Out bulletin board in my classroom

This is the first thing you see when you walk into my room. My While You Were Out board is one of the BEST things I've ever done in my room. It makes absences a lot easier to handle.


For background fabric I used these flat hospital sheets. One of the 66" x 104" sheets did two boards. Easy and CHEAP!! I just made the letters for the days of the week on my computer. I used the KG Font Summer Storm.

Pictures of my 7 Habits display

I've been teaching this book for a few years now. You can find almost NO products to go along with it because the title is trademarked and the company is fierce about enforcing it!! But the amazing Amy Groesbeck created these editable templates that you can use to fill in with the 7 Habits information. To make the word "HABITS," I used the same KG Summer Storm font and I just cut the "7" and the circles from construction paper.

Pictures of my Teacher Workstation

This is my teacher work area. I don't sit at my desk much during the school day, but I did want a work space that makes it easy for me to move around, so I added a standing desk. Not sure who loves it more, me or the kids!?! I also put this teacher desk organizer on my regular desk. It's AH-MAZING!! A little pricey, but I love the storage, the white board space, and the privacy :)

The HEART of my classroom!! Book shelves are Walmart, bins are Really Good Stuff, lamps are Target (decorated with Washi tape), and signs are from Hobby Lobby.

Pictures of alternative seating

I bought two of these stools last year and my students LOVED them. They really stood up to a beating so I decided it was worth it to by some more.

Picture of Mentor Text bulletin board
My Mentor Text board gets lots of use throughout the year. I'll string some ribbon across the board and use clothes pins to hang the mentor pieces.

Pictures of Growth Mindset posters

Still in love with my Growth Mindset posters!! Frames are from IKEA and they are hung with Command Strips (my FAVORITE for sticking to cinder block!!)

Pictures of Article of the Week Bulletin board

This board will be getting tons of action through out the year. Read all about my Article of the Week routine here.

Picture of classroom decor

These are pages torn from last year's Erin Condren planner and framed in cheap Michael's frames that I spray painted white. (Lamp and "&" from Target. A former student made that "Smith" sign... so cute, right!?!?)

Pictures of Academic Vocabulary posters

These are my Academic Vocabulary posters. We refer to these words all.the.time!! Only bad thing is that I need to take them ALL down before state testing!!

Picture of I Can... bulletin board

This is my "I Can..." objectives wall. I absolute CANNOT remember to write down my objectives on the daily. But, I can remember ONCE to write them all down for the week. I created the letters and days of the week signs with the same KG Summer Storm font.

 First Few Days of School:

Over the first few days, we did:

Icebreakers that Rock from Cult of Pedagogy

The All About Me and Reading and Writing Inventories from my Back to School - The ULTIMATE Activity Pack 

I created a syllabus this year using the Infographic Creative Syllabus Templates from The Teal Paperclip. (Font is Amy Groesbeck's Taco Tuesday!) I love how it turned out!!

Holy cow!! Thanks for sticking with me if you made it to the end of this post!! I know that was a lot of information. 

Anyway, I am exhausted and that is all I've got in me right now. I'm so looking forward to an awesome school year and I have so much content I want to post.

Hope the year is off to a great start for you!!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

ELA - In 50 Minutes a Day!

For my entire career, I've had a lengthy block of time to teach ELA. (Note: For my district, ELA encompasses all the English Language Arts Common Core Standards.) At most, I've had 106 minutes, and at least, 90 minutes. I've always felt as though I had ample time to cover everything AND to do some fun, creative work, as well. I never felt stressed or overwhelmed. In fact, it was the opposite. I became extremely comfortable in my gig and felt as though I was adequately preparing my kids for their standardized tests and making them not hate reading and writing at the same time.

Since I started the blog, I've heard from so many of you about how to manage time. Specifically, how can you incorporate everything you see me doing in my large block of ELA into the more standard-sized block of 45-50 minutes per day. Up until NOW I've only been able to speculate about what I think I might do. Give some good guesses as to what I think I'd take out of my program.

But, NOW has finally arrived.

This school year, my district is overhauling our schedule. That means my 106-minute block of ELA is going to be just 53-minutes long.

Speculating and guessing is over. Talking the talk is over. 

It's time to walk the walk. I have to fit what I did in 106 minutes into 50 minutes.

Okay, so when I had a 106-minute ELA block, I typically broke the period up like this:

So... what to leave in and what gets taken away?

First and foremost, it's important to mention that my entire building will be getting 30-minutes of Reader's Workshop every other day (I can also work my small group instruction into this time!). This will be built into our schedule. Obviously, I wish that it were EVERY DAY, but alas, I have no control over that. Thirty minutes every other day is the best we can do. So, if you remove that from my schedule above, that means I have to fit 85 minutes into 53 minutes.

Also, the "break" gets removed so that means that I now have to fit 80 minutes into 53 minutes.

Something else important to mention is that our report card is now going to give just one "ELA" grade as opposed to a "Reading" and "Writing" grade. This means that I have a bit more leeway with grades and do not have to have students write as many formal essays.

Okay... so here is what I'm thinking. I've only planned till winter break because I have no idea how this is actually going to work! Could be I'm revising by the end of September! Ha!!

Important to note:

  • First, rather than teach THREE FULL narrative units, I'm going to be combining them into one unit. So, I'll use the mentor texts and mini-lessons from my Narrative Writing: The Bundle, but instead of having kids produce one "Lessons Learned" essay, one "Memorable Places" essay, and one "Special Treasures" essay, they will DRAFT all three, but only PUBLISH one for me to grade (it will be their choice which to publish). With our report cards being the way they were before, it was important that kids wrote and published all three for me to grade, otherwise I would not have had enough grades in my WRITING grade book to give an accurate report card grade. Now, I'll have all their reading tests and quizzes to combine with that, so I'll have more than enough grades in the grade book. 
  • I've made some big changes to how I'm doing Article of the Week. This means kids will have a ton of expository writing under their belt by the time we test in May. So, I do not feel the need to do any expository writing until after Christmas break. Our focus will be on narrative (both fiction and nonfiction).
  • The Greek and Latin Roots program that I use is from Got to Teach and can be found here: . It's TOTALLY worth the price!!
  • I have not figured out how to work small groups into my writing time! This is giving me a ton of angst right now, but I don't think I can find the solution until I spend a month or so "living" this new schedule. One idea I have to make every Friday "FREE WRITE FRIDAY" and pull my groups during that time. That's only about 20 minutes once a week, though, so we will have to see if that's a possibility. Small group instruction is SO IMPORTANT in middle school! Once I find a good way to do it, I'll get back to you :)
  • Due to the changes that I've made to our Article of the Week routine, it's essential that I start the year with teaching Elements of Nonfiction
  • My plan is to cover the same number of short stories that I did last year, but to spend less time on them. Before, I had the luxury of working with the same story for at least a week. Now, I plan to spend no more than four days (or less!) on each story and to just focus on whatever skill we are working on at the time.
  • We will work more on incorporating compare and contrast into our literary analysis so I do not have to teach a full compare/contrast unit in writing.

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Okay, this is a start. I totally plan to do some VLOG posts about this topic because it's just too much to write! I think it will be a lot easier to record myself doing some actual reflecting on how this is going and changes that need to be made. It's much easier to express myself that way!

Anyway, hope this helps some of you! There is absolutely ZERO doubt that there are too many ELA standards to cover in a "normal" class period of 45-50 minutes (that seems to be average). Obviously, some things just will not get covered the way I think they need to be, but we are only human. We can only try our best and do what we can.

I'd love to hear how you structure your ELA period!! Please share any tips and tricks you have!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Article of the Week - An Update!!

Blog post about using an Article of the Week routine in your middle school classroo.

Note: Friends, this is a long post. And, in it, I am promoting a resource... something I've mentioned before that I don't like to do!! However, I feel so passionate about this product, that I just COULD NOT make it any shorter or not NOT share it. (And, in all honestly, expect a video coming soon!) This resource has been a labor of love and determination. In fact, I think I can honestly say that this is the resource I am most proud of in my store. Changing how to approach NEWS made such an incredible difference in how my students THOUGHT ABOUT THE WORLD! Each week, after introducing the changes in my Article of the Week routine, I was blown away at how much better they got at thinking, at reflecting, at arguing respectfully. By May, I remember wishing that I could get a few politicians and news anchors into my room to watch how beautifully disagreements can be handled and how passion and outrage and excitement can be channeled into the most enlightening conversations.

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The 2016-2017 school year, brought NEWS into my classroom like never before. The volatile political race had my students “feeling all the feels.” Some were angry, some were scared, some were desperate, some were passionate. Curious, confused, adamant, disengaged, enraged. You name it, I had a student feeling it!
Undoubtedly, all this emotion in the minds and mouths of preteens was troubling. But more concerning than all this emotion, was the lack of information and reflection from which it stemmed. Digging deep into their thinking, I found that kids’ feelings were not grounded in FACTS and THINKING, but rather they were just repeating a sentiment that they’d overheard, or found in a soundbite, headline, or (gasp!) meme. I came to see that my kids (who are merely a microcosm of the world) were not THINKING about what they saw and heard, but instead just assuming the thoughts and beliefs of the latest “bit” they’d consumed. This was not okay. This was not something that I was going to let just slide. I spent a lot of time reflecting on and talking with colleagues about what I was seeing (and not just in my classroom, but on my own social media feeds!). It seems that people today are accustomed to believing that the “right” answer is whatever they’ve been told by someone or something that they think they trust (whether that be a newspaper, a news anchor, or Twitter). Because they accept what they hear as “true,”  they wind up putting little (if any) thought into thinking about what they’d heard, contemplating the reasons for why they were hearing it, or considering what beliefs might run counter to it. Rather, they just consumed it, accepted it as truth, and repeated it.
Thinking back to my own adolescence, I’m sure this is typical. As a kid, I know I considered certain presidents “good” and others “bad” because my parents felt that way. In fact, I’m sure that this is how most thinking evolves in a person. Someone you trust expresses an opinion, you assume this opinion too, and later, you may choose to investigate this opinion further and it reaffirms or changes your thinking. The thing is though, I grew up without the Internet that we have today. Yes, it was around and helpful, but it wasn’t the continuous bombardment of bits and pieces of news commentary that it is today! Instead, my dad watched the 6:00 news and then he and my mom talked through it at dinner. There wasn’t a panel of commentators or professors or journalists affirming or condemning what was going on. No one was retweeting the headlines that seemed most sensational. Folks were not going on rants on social media feeds or turning the information into a meme. Facts were presented, my parents discussed them and drew conclusions, and I accepted or rejected their thinking.
Today, media is much different. It’s rare to find news just presents facts without an onslaught of commentary on the rightness or wrongness of the facts presented. Opinions are far more prevalent than facts these days.
To be clear, I am no expert of human psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., but I do know that when people stop THINKING for themselves about what’s going on, dangerous territory approaches. Allowing people to just become complacent with the news they are receiving is the underlying plot line of most dystopian literature! So, I decided that I wanted to make sure that my students didn’t become complacent; they were going to be thinkers! And I was going to use my Article of the Week routine to help me.
Now, I’d been using an Article of the Week routine for years. Each week, I’d give kids an article (always timely, well-written, and interesting) and had kids “work” with it. They had to read and annotate it. Answer some simple questions that assessed their understanding of it. And then usually answer one or two questions that showed some higher-level thinking. Please note, all the questions, even the “higher-level” ones, basically had right answers. Meaning, I could create an answer key for each article and use it to grade students on how well they were able to find right answers and the evidence that supported it. This time around though, I didn’t want students to just read and respond with information they garnered from the article. Instead, I wanted them to synthesize while reading and then reflect on the thoughts they were thinking. This sounds complicated, but really, it’s what we should be doing whenever we come across information.

Annotation symbols for marking an article

Of course, I am not the first person to suggest using an article of the week to spark reflection.  Kelly Gallagher (all hail!!) has been having his students reflect on articles for… well, my guess is forever!! Similarly, many amazing teacher-authors have been talking about this practice in their books, or on their blogs for ages. But, typically when I read from these folks, they are talking about high school students, not middle schoolers. And, because their kids are older and have more mature brains, they are able to get them to reflect on how this article broadens their understanding of the world. 
My goal for this is not to get kids to start solving world problems – let's save that for high school! Rather, my goal was to get kids to read, connect, conclude, and reflect. That means they need to be able to read (and understand) something; connect what they’ve read with what is already in their heads; draw conclusions about the world based on their understanding and connections; and then reflect on the accuracy of their conclusions. Sometimes their connections, conclusions, and reflections lead them to thinking that is off-topic from the original article. THAT’S OKAY!  The goal is simply to get them to see that it is their civic duty to be presented with information and then consume it responsibly by thinking about it.

The three steps to completing an article of the week

When I first started with the “new” AoW routine, my students really struggled. They had thought reading an article and finding some right answers to a few questions and supporting those answers with evidence from their reading was difficult enough! But to make them do some thinking about their reading and then reflecting on their thinking? They thought I had lost my mind!
In the beginning, they hated that there was no “right” answer. They were uncomfortable being asked to read something and then spend some time silencing their unending mind chatter for some focused thinking. They had a hard time being able to put their own thinking into words. They also lacked the confidence in themselves to believe that their thinking was in any way relevant enough to slap onto something that I was going to grade. We certainly struggled early on.

But, after LOTS (and I mean LOTS) of modeling, practice, and discussion, my kids started to see that thinking, while not easy, was definitely something they could do. And when they shared their thinking, their thoughts rolling freely out of their heads, the discussions growing more interesting, more passionate, and more thought-provoking each time, they started to see that not only could they do it, they wanted to do it. 

Responding to an AoW

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In this product, you’ll find my lesson plans for getting started with an AoW routine whose objective is THINKING! I want to be clear, however, that your students will likely need a lot more support after this introduction. In my old AoW routine, I needed to dedicate very little class time to our articles, other than passing them out of Mondays and collecting them on Fridays. This will require more. You’ll want to be spending some time each week participating in those rich conversations that are so rewarding. You’ll also want to be sharing their work more so kids can see the wide variety of perspectives that can be found in your classroom. It takes some time, but it is certainly worth it! 

For the next week (up through August 25, 2017), I'm offering this product at 20% the list price. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it and how it is working for you in the classroom!

Happy Teaching!! (And happy back-to-school for those who've started already!!)