Monday, March 28, 2016

My Top Five Favorite Purchases from TpT

Long before I ever sold a product on Teachers Pay Teachers, I was a consumer... and an avid one at that! But, there was a time before I was a consumer, when I was... ooh, this is painful to admit now... kind of a bit of a... how do I say this delicately?  ... a hater (insert bashful, embarrassed emoji here!).

I can remember being in my first few years of teaching and stumbling upon TpT in my late night Googling sprees that helped with my hours and hours of lesson planning. This was in the early days of TpT, before Deanna and New York Times articles and teacher millionaires. It was also before pretty covers and beautiful works of clip ART and fun fonts. Yes, TpT wasn't much to look at then... cumbersome Word documents created with Microsoft stock clip art and (gasp!) Comic Sans. No, TpT didn't really WOW! me at that time and when I'd click a link that led me there, I'd quickly hit that back arrow and resume my search.

But then, after I'd been teaching several years, things started to change. Standardized testing became the norm, Common Core took over, and suddenly, Pearson and Prentice Hall, who, when I began my career, were all but a stack of old, dusty textbooks hidden in a storage closet somewhere, were suddenly back in vogue! Promising to hold the key to Common Core and the foreboding PARCC and Smarter Balanced that were on their way, new editions of the big publisher products boomed back into classrooms everywhere. The "art" of teaching was replaced with their "science."

It didn't take me long to realize that this kind of teaching wasn't exactly for me. While lesson planning was suddenly a breeze - these programs offered more worksheets than even the most efficient teacher could use in a day - it wasn't really fun. It felt stuffy and dull. It didn't spur my creative juices. The kids were bored. I was bored.

Now, I'm not here to knock Common Core, or standardized testing, or data-based instruction, or big publishing. They are a piece to the puzzle and I accept that. But, while they've done much to promote the "science" behind learning, they've done little to foster the "art" that is necessary to make science-based instruction stick with our kids. For me, science-based instruction helps kids learn to decode words, but it's the teacher-artist who makes a child a life-long reader. Science-based instruction helps students develop number sense, but it's the teacher-artist who leads a child to become a passionate problem-solver.

And this is how I found my back to TpT! By this time, I was married and had two small children, so long gone were my 12-hour lesson planning sessions on Sundays. I can remember one afternoon wanting something more than a worksheet and a packaged PowerPoint to help my kids learn how to multiply and divide fractions (which, by the way, no longer just meant multiplying across and the tried-an-true "keep, change, flip," but now insisted on illustrations and detailed explanations, that even I, the teacher who took calculus and statistics in college because it was an easy "A," had to pretty much learn how to do!). A quick Google search led me to TpT, which looked entirely different than it had in my early years of teaching. I bought a $3 product - now with beautiful works of clip art and fonts that I never even knew existed! - that turned my 6th graders into bakers delving out desserts. What seemed so foreign and difficult to illustrate on graph paper, suddenly became fun and easy with pans of brownies. This $3 made the problems from our textbook come alive and, after two days of playing with chocolate, gave my students a deep and lasting understanding of a pretty complicated process.

From that moment on, I was hooked on TpT. Taking the scope, sequence, and science from our textbooks, and marrying them with the creativity and, most importantly, the experience of TpT sellers, made for some of the most effective and dynamic lessons that I'd ever taught. Lesson planning was fun again and my students loved coming to class. My teaching and their learning was taken to the next level.

So... that was a very looooong introduction to the meat of this post, which is, my top five all-time favorite purchases from Teachers Pay Teachers. These are the products that appear again and again in my classroom, the ones for which I'd gladly pay 3-4 times the amount I did.

In no particular order:

1. These Transition Tickets from ELA Seminar Gal. I've used these so many times, I've lost count. Quick writes, "do nows," writing centers, open-ended questions, formative and summative assessments... these little gems work for just about anything!

Transition Tickets

2. The Greek and Latin Roots products from Got To Teach. Love, love, love how thorough and easy to use these products are! My students get a new word list each week. I give them a few of the pages for homework/classwork and the quiz on Friday. It's a piece-of-cake way to get some writing grades :)

3. Any of the clip art from Ron Leishman Digital Toonage. His artwork is awesome for older kids - meaning it's not too "cutesy!" I use his images on so many things... worksheets, posters, labels, and bulletin boards:

4. Fonts from Kimberly Geswein. Never underestimate the power of a good font!! A difficult task in Times New Roman is a burden, but change the font and all of a sudden what was so intimidating before, seems a little less frightening, especially to students who are already resistant to learning.

                                                            Kimberly Geswein Fonts

5. Literary Yoga by B's Book Love. Fun, creative, kinesthetic... my middle schoolers absolutely LOVE these moves! I wasn't sure how they'd respond at first... I thought they'd laugh at me for even trying something so out-of-the-box. I could not have been more wrong! They play along every.single.time.

Alright! There you have it! My top five favorite TpT purchases of all time. Please know, I have so many other products that I've purchased and LOVED, but these are the ones that I use pretty much on the daily.

So, what about you? Any TpT favorites that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear from you!!

Happy Teaching!!


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Literature Circles

So the other day, I was looking at bathing suits for my kids at Target online. I put a few in my virtual cart, but then decided on buying from Lands End instead. Well, since that day, these bathing suits have been STALKING me via the web! I login to my email, and WHOA!! there they are in the side bar! Go to check Facebook, and BAM!! there they are in my news feed! Googling something for the 700th time that day, and BOOM!! those suits are staring right at me from the left side of the screen. It's equally terrifying and amazing all at the same time how a bathing suit can follow me around my digital world.

Anyway, before I had to consider a restraining order against some nylon and Lycra, I used to think it was really cool how one day you would learn about something you hadn't known before and then all of a sudden you'd see it everywhere. Like when you learn a new word and then, like magic, that word is all around you! 

It's sorta like this question that I haven't heard once in the 18 months I've been blogging: "Jenna, do you do literature circles? If so, how? I'd love some advice." And then all of a sudden, in the last month, I've received some version of this question 7 times through either email, FB, or a comment on the blog. So, I figure it's time that I address it :)

Literature Circles Facts:

  • My students typically do 3-4 rounds of literature circles per year. Each round takes about two weeks. We tend to alternate with a few weeks of independent (always self-selected) reading, whole-class read alouds, and literature circles.
  • I try to keep groups to four students. On occasion, I'll allow three or five, but I find that more than four means there is a "quiet" one in the group who lets everyone else do the talking, and with three there may not be enough conversation to sustain a meeting.

  • I've acquired an INSANE amount of books over the years that I use for lit circles. Typically, I put about 6-8 titles out for a round of lit circles. About two weeks before we get started, I do some book talks, which are basically little commercials that I use to "sell" the novels. (PSA: this means that I've read every single book that I'm offering. Please, don't ever assign a book you haven't read yourself prior to assigning it. It can only lead to trouble!!) On choosing day, I let the kids do a "book tasting," where they get about five minutes to start reading each title. At the end of the tasting, they select their top three choices. Almost always, I can get kids into a group with one of their three choices.
  • Once kids are in their groups, they create a reading schedule. During the two weeks, they will meet 4-5 times, so they need to break up their book into 4-5 sections.

  • The kids do all their reading in class. Typically, students meet in their groups every other day. On the days they are not meeting, they are reading and prepping for their meeting. (I am not an advocate of homework. I teach in a district where some kids have huge responsibilities at home... like feeding and putting to bed their smaller siblings so that their parents can go and work their second and third jobs. Because these kids rarely have time, space, and most importantly, HELP with homework, I give very little!)
  • For each one of my classes, I usually have six literature circle groups going at once. Each day, three groups meet while the other three read and prep for their meeting the following day. Because I only have three groups meeting each day, I am able to sit in and observe all three groups for a bit (and since I've read each book myself, it's pretty easy to tell who has read and who has not!).
  • I don't do role sheets anymore. When I first started, I did, but I found the kids tired of them quickly. Now, in addition to their reading, I have students do some type of literary analysis activity (these are a collection of my favorites that I've used through the years!). 

  • In each group, I give each student a number from 1-4 (they keep this number for the entire book). Every two days, I assign a different activity a number (so I may assign a characterization activity the number "1," and a mood/tone activity the number "2," and so on. Then, after two days and every group has gotten to meet, I change the activities.). The kid in the group with that number does that activity for the next meeting. (Does that make sense? I forgot to take a picture of my bulletin board where I keep these activities organized! All I do is staple four file folders to the board and label them with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. Every two days, I put copies of a new activity in each folder. So, all the 1s in the group will grab their assignment from the "1" folder; all the 2s will take their assignment from the "2" folder; and so on.) By doing it this way, everyone is doing something different for each meeting... I find this really prevents boredom and keeps kids on their toes!
  • Meetings consist of the kids sharing their work. This is usually enough to spark some good conversation. However, if, after sharing, kids are struggling to talk to each other, I'll give them a set of task cards, like these, to help ignite the conversation.

  • I do collect their activities after each meeting and grade them. I give individual grades and not group grades.
  • After two weeks and everyone is finished their book, I let them do a little project to present their book to the class. Usually, it's one of these

  • I try to give them no more than 2-3 class periods to prep their projects. Then, I allow one day for presentations.
Agh! I'm sorry that I just dumped that all out there like that, but there was so much I wanted to say and I just felt list form would keep this from being a million words long!! I'm sure I didn't do a good enough job explaining, so please feel free to ask me questions about making literature circles work. And I am also sorry if this seemed like I was "plugging" my wares, but all three of the products that I mentioned came as a direct result from all the lit circle stuff I've accumulated over the years!!

So, are you a fan of lit circles? How do you run them in your classroom? I'd love to hear from you :)

Happy Teaching!!

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Power of a Picture

Last week, I got to take one of my ELA classes to a local university for some college fun! The idea was for students to get a little taste of the college experience. We met some awesome professors and took some tours of a few interesting places around campus.

One of the places we were lucky enough to visit was the campus art gallery. There were two exhibitions taking place in the gallery we were able to get a private tour of both. One of the exhibits featured work by the Wood Engravers Network. There were 60 intricate prints for us to check out and the kids really loved the experience.

At one point, I had everyone take out their Writer's Notebook and sit in front of picture that inspired them. Then, for 15 silent minutes, the kids wrote a story about their picture.

This may have been 15 of my most favorite minutes of my teaching career! All you could hear were pencils scratching on the page. They couldn't wait to share their stories when we got back to school on Monday :)

Ah, the power of Writer's Notebook!!

Anyway, this got me thinking about how great pictures can inspire great writing. So I thought I'd share some of my favorite pictures from around the Internets with you so you can use them in your classroom. In no particular order, here are some pictures that my middle schoolers have enjoyed over the last few months... spooky, strange, and unexpected really get their pencils moving!!

What gets your students in the writing mood? I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching (and Writing)!!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For more great pictures, check out Janice Malone's (ELA Seminar Girl) Pinterest page! She's got awesome writing inspiration!