Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Library Permission Slip

If you watched my video, The 4-1-1 on Reading Instruction, then you likely heard me mention my library permission slip. Since I published that video, a bunch of you have reached out asking for a copy of the one I used.

I am going to attach my letter below, but a few things first:

1. I do not remember where this letter came from originally. I know that I made a bunch of modifications to the model that I used, so most of it is my work. But, I cannot find the original source of that model and I wish I could give him/her credit for this.

2. Please modify this letter to fit your needs and accommodate your classroom library. You want parents to give permission for kids to use your library, not mine.

3. It is always good to check with your school librarian and administration to be sure that you can even have YA and adult books on your shelves. Luckily, my district is very open to all literature and our school libraries are stocked with all kinds of books! All of the books on my shelves are available in our building library, so technically I don't even need a permission slip, but I do like having one just to keep parents aware and to keep me on the safe side :)

Okay... that being said, here is my letter:

 Dear Parent(s)/Guardians,

        Reading is one of the most important skills your child will develop during their school years. It is also the cornerstone of our classroom.Throughout this year, your child will read, and read, and read some more, as practice is the only way to ensure our kids will grow as readers. Some reading will be required, but your child will also have opportunities to choose his or her own book for independent reading. I work to help all students find a book that he or she will enjoy and will help him or her continue to grow as a reader.
        In order to better match students and books, I maintain a large classroom library. I work hard to keep my library updated and full of books that are interesting, challenging, and accommodating for all the learners in my classroom. I am sensitive to ensuring that I have appropriate material in my library, but you and I may define the word “appropriate” in different ways. Because of this, I ask you to be aware of what your child is reading, so you may approve of the content. The books range from elementary to college level (everything from the beloved picture book, Goodnight Moon, to the works of Stephen King, master of the horror genre), so your participation is essential in guiding your child to appropriate and challenging material for him or her. Some books have been donated/purchased recently, and I have not had a chance to read them all, but I do my best to ensure the quality of the books available in my library.
        The books in my classroom library are never assigned, and some students may choose to read books from home or from your local library instead. Some students use the library often; others never at all. But, any student who checks books out of my library must have a parent or guardian sign below indicating that this classroom library letter has been read and understood.
        If you would like to meet and/or discuss our classroom library, feel free to call or email me. Thank you for your understanding!
(Your best bet would be to copy and paste this onto school letter head (or any document of your choosing) and include a line for them to sign at the bottom.)

Hope that helps!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The 4-1-1 on Reading Instruction!

Hey friends!

I've got a new vlog for you... and it's all about reading instruction!! Check it out and let me know what you think:

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Debating Game!

Okay... I've mentioned before that I'm super uncomfortable writing a blog post that is all about one of my TpT products. But, with that said, welcome to a blog post all about one of my TpT products!

And, I'm okay with it.

Because, for real, this product ROCKS! If I do say so myself :)

So, argument writing is hard stuff. I love teaching it. And eventually, I think the kids like knowing how to do it. But, it's hard. SO.HARD. Especially in the beginning.

I was looking for a cool way to ease us into it. A way to slide in so that it didn't seem so intimidating. An approach that made it seem exciting, even a little bit FUN! But, I couldn't find anything! And so, like anytime Google lets me down, I got creating and this little gem is the fruit of my labor!

The Debating Game is fun. My kids LOVED it! So much so that they asked to play it every day for almost a week during free write time.

And while playing, they are practicing supporting claims with reasoning and evidence... exactly the skill necessary for opinion/persuasive/argument writing! It's a total win-win. Fun and learning!

You should know, this product does take some time to put together, so please don't buy it if you need to use it exactly five minutes later. There is laminating and cutting and organizing involved in putting these together.

I made six total games for my classroom (I stored each complete game in a pencil case). I also went to the dollar store and bought one-minute sand timers and golf pencils to put in the case along with the game pieces for easy playing (though they are totally not necessary!). And you'll see I used a standard die, but there is a template for making your own dice to use when playing, so it is not necessary to have your own.

It took me about an hour to print, laminate, cut, and organize all 6 games. But, now that they are together they are ready-to-go anytime we need them. I definitely see myself putting these in a writing center, using them for an anchor activity for early finishers, and leaving them in my sub plans. The kids enjoyed playing far too much to put them into storage until next year!

So, if you teach opinion/persuasion/argument writing and you are looking for a fun way to practice the skills necessary for this, The Debating Game might be for you!

My own students loved it and if you try it out, please let me know what yours think about it!

Happy Teaching!!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Teach This Lesson Tomorrow - Blackout Poetry

So, the other day, I have 8 kids that needed a catch-up day in writing. That meant that I had 18 other kids that would need something else to do! I wanted something quick and engaging, yet completely higher-level and creative. Enter BLACKOUT POETRY!

Blackout poetry is a blast and could not be easier! All you need are some markers and a couple of busted-up books that Duck tape can no longer save...

Newspapers can also work!!

The idea is that you give the kids a page and they block out or circle some letters, words, phrases, and sentences that, when read together, resemble a poem. Next, they use some markers to darken the rest of the page so that the words pop.

Here are some examples:

Cool right?!?

Anyway, this makes the perfect "in between" writing assignment, center activity, or sub plan! The kids really enjoy it and they have to do some serious thinking to put together something that makes sense. And when they are finished, they look awesome hanging in the hallway :)

Are you or your students blackout poets? I'd love to see some of your work!

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I'd be remiss if I didn't share the most popular blackout from the other day... from the minds of "trending" middle schoolers:

 (Don't worry if you don't get it! I had no idea what it meant until a few weeks ago!!)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Writing from Lists - The Video!!

If you've been a reader of my blog, then you know that writing from lists is my JAM! It's definitely one of my best practices and I can't tell you how much better, more authentic my students' writing became once I started using lists to generate writing topics.

I put this video together to give you a better picture of how I make list writing work in my classroom. I'd love some feedback, as I see more and more "vlog" posts in the future for Musings from the Middle School :)

Do you use list writing in your classroom? Think you'd like to give it a try? I'd love to hear from you!

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Academic Vocabulary

Every once in a while, I find some lesson or strategy or routine that fundamentally improves the learning in my classroom. One such routine is the systematic teaching of academic vocabulary words. Academic vocabulary are words that are routinely used in academic dialogue and text. They are the words that can often be found in questions/assessments for all subject areas and are scattered throughout standardized tests.

Long ago, during a guided reading group where I was working on writing structured responses to literary analysis questions in preparation for the NJ ASK, I discovered that, despite using the word at least a million times frequently in class, my kids had no idea what the word "cite" actually meant. I thought back to how many times I mentioned or saw in directions "be sure to cite from the text to support your answer" over the course of the year. Time and time again these kids were being asked to "cite" but they had no idea what that meant they were supposed to do.

After a little research, I discovered the world of academic vocabulary and from that moment on, I taught these words to my students.

There are dozens and dozens of words that can be considered academic vocabulary, but after spending some quality time with our district's reading and social studies series, I've narrowed the list down to the following words essential for middle school students:

  • affect
  • analyze
  • apply
  • argue
  • assess
  • cite
  • claim
  • compare
  • consider
  • context
  • critique
  • demonstrate
  • determine
  • differentiate
  • discuss
  • distinguish
  • effect
  • evaluate
  • explore
  • identify
  • illustrate
  • infer 
  • interpret
  • oppose
  • organize
  • paraphrase
  • process
  • recall
  • refer
  • strategy
  • summarize
  • symbolize
  • theme
  • valid
  • vary
  • verify
I introduce the words a few at a time and we practice using them. I point them out everywhere I see them and we talk again and again about their meaning. I hang posters of the words with their definitions in my room and refer back to them all.the.time.

This has made a HUGE difference in my students' learning. Their answers to structured response questions improved and I had a lot less confusion/questions about assessment items. (Before, I'd find kids would often say, "I don't get it" about certain test questions. I had always assumed that kids meant the concept the question was assessing... it never occurred to me that they were actually struggling with the wording of the question itself!)

Do you teach academic vocabulary to your students? Do you have a system for doing so? I'd love to hear about it!

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The academic vocabulary posters featured in this post can be found here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Teach This Lesson Tomorrow - Writing a Parody

Hi Folks!!

Hope everyone is well. My family has been plagued with the stomach bug for almost two weeks now. We are just starting to emerge from the haze and put ourselves back together again. (I've had to miss two days of school, and as you know, there is nothing worse than unplanned sick days when you are a teacher!) Phew!! It was a tough one. I can't ever remember being THIS ready for spring to arrive!!

Anyway, I've got a quick one for you today, but trust me when I tell you that this lesson is a HOOT! This is second year that I've done this with my students and we all have such a blast.

The idea is for the students to write a parody of a song.

I start by showing Adele's "Hello."

Next, I show them this AMAZING parody done by third grade teacher, Mary Morris, from Tennessee.

Then, we discuss the meaning of "parody" (an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect) and I show BOTH videos again while we note the parts of the performance Mary Morris parodied.

Finally, the FUN part! The kids write and perform their own parodies! Now, you can allow them to select their own song, but in order to keep this lesson short (we spend three class periods total), I have them all use "Hello."

For students who struggle with this, have them select a topic and then brainstorm some vocabulary associated with their topic. In the picture above, the girls wanted to do a song about softball, so they made a list of words that go with sport to help them while the compose.

Last year, each and every kid SANG their parody to the class! This year, only about half sang... the other half read theirs like they were at a poetry reading while the "Hello" instrumental music played in the background.

Unfortunately, I didn't record our performances so I don't have any to show you (blogger FAIL!!) and I don't collect their papers because this is a speaking/listening grade (so I grade them on the spot while they perform). So, you are just going to have to trust me that this lesson is a blast! And it served as the perfect little "break" in between our compare/contrast and argument units :)

Let me know if you give this a try and how it works out! I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Get Your Shop On!!

TpT is having a sale and everything in my store is up to 28% off with promo code LOVETPT!

You can't beat these prices, Ladies and Gentlemen :)

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I've recently added some more units to my "Year of Writing Instruction" resources (Part 1 available here and Part 2 available here), so make sure if you already own this resource that you download it again to get the additions. If you don't already own this resource, now is the PERFECT time to purchase, as it is available for 28% off the cover price!

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Now is a great time to try out list writing in your classroom! This MEGA Bundle has everything you need to get your students excited about writing... and the price right now is AWESOME! Head on over to TpT and remember to use promo code LOVETPT at checkout!

Happy Teaching Shopping!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Big News!!

Hey Friends!!

I've been a bit quiet here on the good, ol' blog because I've been working a fun project :)

Musings from the Middle School Video!!

Yes, I've made a few (unbelievably simplistic!) videos using some cheap (unbelievably simplistic!) software in the past... but now, Friends? Hold on to your hats! I've gone total HD!!

I've got a fancy camera, a fancy microphone, fancy Adobe software, and I even hired an editor to make a fancy opener for my videos. I can't even tell you how excited I am for this! There have been so many times in the past when I'd be typing a blog post and I'd think, "Agh! I wish I could just bring you all into my classroom to show you what I'm talking about!!" And now.I.can.

The thing is... "vlogging" is kinda hard... especially if you are a super-type-A-perfection-demanding-mortified-that-I-never-lost-the-baby-weight-everything-must-always-be-just-right sort of girl :) I have a whole new respect for professional YouTubers and now some for-real advice I can give to my students whose only goal in life is to be "a YouTuber." It's not easy, folks. Not easy at all!

Anyway, I'm working on a whole bunch of video stuff. I've got some writing videos in the works, as well a series on reader's workshop. I'm sure once I get better at working the editing software and more comfortable behind the camera, I'll be pumping them out, but for now, it might be a little slow-going on the blog! Hang tight... I've got great stuff coming your way!

For now, I'll leave you with my first "new and improved" video. It took me five, yes FIVE, hours to get this very simple teacher tip from my brain to your screen.

I'd love some feedback! Also, let me know what you like to see/hear more about!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Host a Gallery Walk to Improve Writing

If you've read my blog or bought any of my writing products from TpT, then you know that I am a huge fan of the Read-Around-Group. I love when kids read each other's writing and learn from each other. I always find that the whole revising/editing process is much more effective after kids have read their peers' papers and can use them as mentor pieces to improve their own writing.

But, just like ANYTHING in the classroom, no matter how effective, at some point, the kids (and you!) need a change and it's fun to shake things up! So, for this writing unit, I decided to forgo the Read-Around-Groups and replace it with a Gallery Walk.

The Gallery Walk isn't something new... folks have been using them for years in the classroom! A quick Google search will show you all kinds of ways that you can implement them in any subject.

Let me tell you how I made the Gallery Walk work in my classroom this week:

1.) Set up the room.

On each desk, I placed a rough draft (this is the 2nd draft of this paper that we've done and, like with Read-Around-Groups, kids didn't put their name on the top - just their birth date). I also put out a number card, a "nuggets of genius" paper, and a votive candle. I turned down the lights, put on some fun jazz music, and put our roaring fire video from YouTube up on the big screen.

2.) Give directions.

When the kids came in, I gave each of them a number and they had to go find the seat with that number card. After they all sat down, I explained that they will have three minutes to read the paper at that desk and leave the author a note about one of the nuggets of genius* they found in their piece.

3.) The Walk.

Every three minutes, the timer sounded and the kids got up and moved to the next desk. We continued this until the end of class. Each kid was able to read about 12-15 papers, and each writer got a note of 12-15 things their peers thought they did well.

4.) Debrief and Revise.

The next day, we talked about some of the good writing that we saw during our Gallery Walk and made a list of it on the board. Then, I set the kids off to work on their 3rd and final draft, encouraging them to include some of that "good stuff" in their own writing.

After all was said and done, I have to say that I liked this method a lot! The kids loved reading about their "nuggets of genius" and I was pleased to see how thoughtful some of the students were about what they observed. I'm thinking that I'll definitely use this method again - maybe even alternating between Read-Around-Groups and Gallery Walks for each paper we write.

Ever use a Gallery Walk? How do you make them work? I'd love to hear from you!

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*This year, I stopped marking all the stuff the kids did WRONG in their paper and replaced it with marking all the things they did RIGHT! What I found was that there were just SO.MANY.THINGS I could find that they did wrong... from incorrect punctuation, to forgetting capital letters, to using the "u" instead of "you," and so on! It was daunting for me and overwhelming for them to get a paper back full of corrections. Now, I focus on all the stuff they did RIGHT - their "nuggets of genius." I encourage them to look all the stuff they can do and keep on doing more of it each time! I am not sure if it's really made great improvements in the quality of their work (but I never found that "correcting" all their mistakes made a big difference either), but their attitudes about writing are a million times better (as is my attitude about grading their writing!) and for me that is the biggest hurdle to overcome!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Host a Book Tasting in Your Classroom!

January is rolling along and my kids (both my school and actual kids) are finally readjusted to our routine after winter break. While in real life, I find January-March the three most difficult months to endure because the weather hurts my face, at school it's a different story. January-March are, I think, the BEST months of teaching! By this point, students are well-acclimated to the schedule and expectations, and there is no looming break to look forward to. The weather, as I already mentioned, hurts your face, and the end of the year is still a long way away!! I feel like each and every day I have a captive audience. And that makes me HAPPY (despite the hurt-your-face weather!).

This week, we are getting ready to start our first round of literature circles. Our book choices are Wonder, Among the Hidden, Freak the Mighty, Al Capone Does My Shirts, and Running Out of Time. Gah! Don't you just love those books?!? I am so excited and can't wait to get started!

I've written before about how I make Literature Circles work in my classroom, but today I wanted to share how I get them started. It's one of my FAVORITE classroom activities that I stole borrowed from my friend, Janice Malone at ELA Seminars, LLC. It's called a Book Tasting and it's a hoot!

After I have the books picked, I make a "menu" for each one that features the book's synopsis and some reviews. Next, I set up my room with some super-cheap checkered tablecloths, paper place mats, and battery-operated votive candles (all from Amazon). A copy of each book is laid on the place mat. I stream some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, put my favorite roaring fireplace video on the big screen, and set out a basket of after-dinner mints.

When the kids come in, they are grouped into a "party" and led to their table. Once everyone is seated, they get about 10 minutes to read and discuss the title at their table. Then, each party moves to a new table and "tastes" the choice there.

At the end of the tasting, after each party has sampled all the books, the kids rank their choices - "1" being the book they are most excited to read, "5" being the least - and give their sheets to me. Then, I group them into their Literature Circles. (Usually, I am able to give most kids one of the books in their top three slots!)

When I do activities like this with my 7th graders, I am reminded that even though their bodies are big and their mouths can sometimes be bigger, they are still just kids! They get so into the "pretending." When I was doing this with them the other day, after each party was seated, I overheard one kid saying to another, "Get your elbows off the table! You can't have your elbows on the table at a fancy restaurant!" And a bit later I heard someone telling a party-member to remember to "cover your mouth when you cough in a restaurant because you don't want your germs in the air to land on people's food!" Even after the book tasting was over, they insisted that I not remove the tablecloths and candles for writing class because it made the room a lot more fun :)

So, if you are getting ready to jump into a round of literature circles, or you just want to get your students to "taste" some different titles, give this a try!

Ever host a book tasting? Think you might want to? I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Writing Mini-Lessons (They are so much easier than you think!!)

The exhaustion, people!! Oh, the exhaustion! We've been back for TWO days, and seriously? I'm falling into bed at a most undignified hour! In fact, as I type this, I am noticing that it's already 9pm... way past my bedtime, folks, so I'ma gonna make this short!!

I've had several emails, blog comments, and questions in my TpT store about the mini-lessons that I teach during writing. If you have any of my writing units, then you know that many of them come with mini-lessons to teach during that unit, but not all of them. Several of you are wondering where I get all my other the mini-lessons.

Well, the answer is simple: from EVERYWHERE! See, several years ago, I gave up teaching vocabulary, grammar, mechanics/conventions, and even some parts of writer's craft in an isolated manner. I knew that the transfer when teaching this way was negligent and it took up a ginormous amount of my period. So instead, I opted to flood my kids with great writing and teach the lessons they needed to learn RIGHT FROM THE WRITING ITSELF. No more worksheets, or text books, or quizzes. Just lots of good writing that we observe, dissect, and imitate.

So, pretty much everyday, I share a great piece of writing with my students. (My favorite sources are the Chicken Soup books because so many of them are written by kids for kids. I will also use students' work from a previous year, with their permission, of course!) Then, after I read it aloud, I mark a few things that I really liked and want them to notice. Below, you can see a piece that I shared and the three things I wanted them to observe: the author's use of commas in a series, her word choice, and her closing.

We spent a few minutes talking about these things and practiced writing a few sentences that modeled how to use commas in a series. Then, I told the students to get drafting (we were in the middle of a narrative unit) and suggested that while they were writing to try to focus on their word choice, comma usage, and their closing.

As I walked around the room to conference with students, I noticed how kids are doing with these three things and provided some feedback. Then, at the end of class during "share time" and I asked students to share either: a.) a sentence that includes a series, b.) a sentence that really shows their care with word choice, or c.) their closing. BOOM! Mini-lesson success!!

Now, just because I shared this once doesn't mean they'll get it. And, some kids might not have an opportunity to practice that skill that day, so, as I share more mentors, I'll touch on these aspects again (and again and again!).

Throughout the course of a year, I will teach dozens of mini-lessons over and over. (Go ahead and just ask how many times I teach punctuating dialogue!! And they still struggle!!) That means kids will get lots of opportunity to observe the skill in action and to practice the skill themselves. Can you think of anything better?!? Authentic observation and practice?!? Awesome!

How do you design your mini-lessons? Any sure-fire strategies to share? I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year!!

Happy New Year, Friends! Just wanted to drop by and say, "hi!!" I hope everyone had a great holiday and that 2017 is off to an awesome start for you!

I've been enjoying my winter break with lots of family, friends, fun, and food! But, back to school tomorrow!! I'm torn about it... it's time for me to go back to work and to get my family back into our routine, but I'm sad about it, too. I'm going to miss my little people all day!! Spending 10 days in a row with them makes me realize just how quick my kids are growing. Slow down time!!

Anyway, I've got lots of great stuff planned for this blog, my TpT store, and my YouTube Channel in 2017. I just can't wait!! So, stay tuned! I'll be back shortly with my regularly scheduled blog posts!

Happy New Year!!