Saturday, May 1, 2021

Reading Aloud in Middle School


3 Reasons to Read Aloud in Your Middle School Classroom

We read aloud in my classroom. 

A lot. 

Like, A LOT a lot. 

Picture books mostly. But also the first chapter of a novel every Friday (#FirstChapterFriday), poems, interesting articles... even threads in Twitter have taken the stage in our classroom! But picture books are our preference.

As much as secondary ELA teachers seemed surprised by this, I am equally surprised how often this doesn't happen in middle schools and high schools.

Reading aloud with my students is one of the few times in my day when I am totally and completely content... "Zen" if you will.  To think that so many teachers deny themselves (and their students) this simple pleasure makes me sad. 

But, from what I am hearing, it's often because they know they might be told by a principal or administrator that it is a "waste of time." (Agh. How could anyone even say that out loud?!?)

Secondary teachers, I implore you: READ ALOUD TO YOUR STUDENTS. And if your principal or supervisor asks why you are "wasting time" doing this, tell them:

1. It builds community. 

There is a reason why almost every single elementary school lesson begins with a book: stories catch our attention and then bring us together! Long before people could read and write, they told stories. Stories are the glue of any culture/community/religion/family. They bring us "home." The first week of school, I spend far more time sitting on the carpet with kids reading then we do in our desks working. I can't think of any better way to kick-start our classroom community.

And if you need a few articles to back you up, try:

and THIS!

2.) It develops background knowledge. 

Did you know that the oldest person to ever learn to read was a 116? Did you know the first thesaurus was printed in 1852? Did you know the Super-Soaker water gun was invented completely by accident by a rocket scientist?

Guess what?

I knew every single one. And so would my students. And we learned it all from picture books!

Picture books are the cornerstone of my teaching. I use them all the time to teach virtually every skill covered in 7th grade ELA. We sit on the carpet (that's just my choice... it's not required lol!). I read aloud and show the kids the pictures. We discuss, ask questions, and Google stuff to learn more. 

While I choose the books for their ability to demonstrate a particular ELA skill, I also never take for granted the information the kids learn about the world from our reading. All this information creates a healthy "background knowledge backpack" whose benefits will last a student their lifetime. It is, as ReLeah Cossett Lent calls in her book Overcoming Textbook Fatigue (2012) "the glue that makes learning stick."

You can read more about the benefits of background knowledge...

and HERE!

3.) It brings joy.

Does this even need more explanation? Or further discussion? Well, just in case, here ya go!

and READ!

I do hope that if you are not one to read aloud to your big kids, this post has encouraged you to give it try. And, if you are challenged by admin on your rationale for doing so, you feel a bit more empowered to stick up for yourselves.

Do you read aloud to your kids? What are some of your favorite stories to share? Go find me on FB or IG and let me know :)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Show, Don't Tell: Getting Students to Add Details to Their Writing


No doubt you've advised your students to "show, don't tell" when helping them revise their writing. In my 16-year career, I've said it hundreds of times.

It wasn't until recently, though, that I started to explicitly teach them what I mean by "showing" and not "telling." I was inspired to start this after listening to some students peer conference a while back and hearing them all tell each other to "add more details" to their pieces. I then watched those students stare at their writing, trying to figure out just how to revise their work using that advice.

Now, I teach several lessons over the course of the school year all about how to "show, not tell." We focus on four ways authors show their readers what is happening:

This anchor chart, along with a complete lesson, is available HERE in my TpT Store.

This year, I upped the "Show, Don't Tell" game a bit by opening with this fun anticipatory set. I created an activity where kids need to figure out where I was based on a series of clues. I revealed the clues to them one at a time. The object of the activity was the be the first person to correctly guess my whereabouts with the least number of clues. Kids were only allowed to guess one time, so they needed to make sure they were confident in their guess because they couldn't guess again.

The day I did this activity, I shared it in my IG stories. Here is a snippet of my stories that day:

I had lots of people ask for a copy of the presentation I used in class, but I had to change the photos to ones that I have permission to use. I happy to say that the presentation is now available for FREE in my store, so head on over and grab yourself a copy HERE.

If you try this in your classroom, I'd love to hear how it turns out! I also always looking for other ways you teach your kids to "show, don't tell" so please share! Drop me a line below or hit me up on Facebook or IG.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Teaching Students to Revise Their Writing: Description or Story?

There is nothing easy about teaching writing to middle schoolers. The editing is hard enough: They are just grasping basic mechanics and conventions despite years of instruction. Their spelling is still developing. And grammar?!? You could spend all day working on that alone!

But once you can get kids to start producing work that looks like actual writing... meaning everything isn't "centered" on the page; there are actual paragraphs rather than one large block of text; and you can distinguish dialogue from narration, you are left with an even more difficult task:


Asking a middle schooler to actually rewrite all parts of their essay is like asking this middle-aged mom to get up at 5am every morning to exercise. Re: Expect lots and lots of whining, protesting, and dramatic body language.

It is true that when middle schoolers feel "done," they are, indeed, done. However, when it comes to revising, I've found that it's less about just not wanting to, and more about having no idea HOW to revise their work. And in working with teachers, I've found that it's sorta the same for them: they aren't exactly sure HOW to teach kids to revise their work. 

We all have great mentor pieces that we use as models for good writing. We use excellent excerpts, poems, short stories, picture books, even individual mentor sentences to SHOW kids what they should be doing. But, in my experience, if you don't show kids where that good writing started so they can see its evolution after the revision process, you aren't being all that helpful. It would be like if someone gave you a map that only showed your destination rather than the path from where you currently are to your destination.  

Recently, I was working on a personal narrative unit with my middle schoolers. Every.single.year I wind up with a slew of first drafts that are nothing more than a description of a favorite vacation, their favorite teacher, a mean kid at school, or a memorable class trip. These aren't stories, but rather itineraries or lists. Many include awesome similes and descriptive language, but at the end of page, they have nothing more than a detailed description of an experience.

Now, even though I use a BUNDLE of mentor texts, it's difficult for kids to see how those good stories evolved without first seeing where they began. Of course, we don't have access to all of Patricia Polacco's first drafts of my favorite mentors, and so I need to make sure that I create some first and revised drafts that kids can see.

For this specific lesson, I wanted to kids to understand that a personal narrative should be a story and not a description. To do this, I explained that their piece should have a theme, a take-away message for their readers to connect with. 

I use this fancy anchor chart to explain:

But then, I need to SHOW them what this looks like. I start by sharing the first draft of a "narrative." (You can tell the kids you wrote it or it is from a student you had previously... the lie is your choice ;) This piece is really nothing more than a pretty solid summary of a trip to Disney World. Most kids will read it and say, "it's pretty good." But... it's not a story.

After reading this, we will discuss what the author did well. There is description, transition words, and some figurative language. Then, we will look at our questions from the anchor chart. This is where you need to be skilled in orchestrating your discussion. You want kids to know that while there is good stuff here, it's not a story. There is a setting and we know the "characters" involved. But, there is no storyline to follow, no conflict, no character development, no theme. All this essay does is give a play-by-play of a trip.

Next, I will talk about how it's important to "write small" when you are learning. Ralph Fletcher talks a lot about "seed ideas." I'll ask the kids if there is anything from this piece, a tiny "seed" that has potential to be a good story. Ask questions like: "Is there a part you'd like to know more about? A part that might be a little more dramatic when told in detail? A part that sounds more interesting than the rest?" Lead the kids to decide that the part where the little sister gets lost sounds like it could have potential.

Explain that the writer decided to focus on just that part, too. And so they worked and worked and worked to revise their narrative to just tell that one "little" story, the story of the sister getting lost. Share the revised piece.

Talk about what is the same from the first draft. Don't skip this part! It's important that kids see that this new idea came directly from the first draft and so they don't necessarily have to "start all over again." Next, talk about the "story" that is being told - discuss the conflict, plot, and theme. Finally, work through the questions on the anchor chart. The answers for this piece will be much clearer than with the first piece.

Have the kids read their own narrative and decide if it's more like the first draft or the revised draft. If they say the first, ask them what they need to do to move toward the second. 

You will need to repeat the lesson lots and lots of times before they start to really "get it." I also recommend that you keep both versions of the draft on hand so you can easily refer back to them.

I have a copy of the anchor chart and drafts here:

(Note, the text on the slides is editable just in case you want to make some changes (or find a typo!!), so if you share them directly with students, they could delete the writing. You might want to change the slides to images if you choose to share digitally.)

I hope you see the value in showing kids both the "how it started" and "how it's going" drafts. For any important revision lesson that I teach, I always try to make a "before" and "after" so we can compare. You will be amazed at what a difference this makes when asking kids to revise their own work.

Happy Teaching!


Thursday, April 8, 2021

BookToks - Follow me on TikTok!

My spring break ended today. We had to cut it short due to opening a little late in September in order to be ready for pandemic teaching. My husband and four kids are all still off the rest of this week. It's hard to go to work when they are all home, right?!

So, I'll be honest... I haven't been too inspired to write over here. And that makes me so sad because this blog is my BABY!! But, pandemic teaching has me feeling all kinds of strange ways about being an educator. The gig that's been not only my career, but favorite hobby and source of such pleasure, has got me feeling a little down. I know we are all feeling that. And I know that next year WILL be better. But, gah!! I'm ready for summer!

I hired a designer to redesign this blog space for me next month. My little corner of the Internet is going to get a "all grown up" makeover! I can't wait. I'm feeling excited for all that is to come for Musings from the Middle School. Big changes... big dreams... big plans.

For now... go follow me on TikTok! And have your students follow me, too. It will always be a kid-friendly site for excellent book recommendations!


BookToks with Mrs. Smith - “House Arrest” by K.A. Holt ##BookToks ##teachertiktok ##teachersoftiktok

♬ Lofi - Domknowz

BookToks with Mrs. Smith - “Restart” by Gordon Korman ##BookToks ##middleschoolbooks ##teachertiktok

♬ Lofi - Domknowz

##BookToks ##middleschoolbooks

♬ Lofi - Domknowz

##BookToks ##middleschoolbooks ##teachertiktok ##teachersoftiktok

♬ Lofi - Domknowz

Okay, friends. Thanks for sticking with me! I PROMISE I'll be delivering content soon. Hang in there!


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Toks on TikTok


It's been a minute.

I have zero excuses... just trying to teach my way through a pandemic like y'all! It's been a rough go.

Anyway, I really want to recommit to blogging on the regular. I love this blog and miss the reflecting, sharing, and connecting it allowed me to do.

So... let's hope this is the first of many posts in 2021.

Okay... over winter break, I did a thing.


I so obsessed. I learn so much scrolling this dang site every day. Totally addicted.

Anyway, I plan to create these Book Toks where I share a worthy middle grade/YA book with you. This will also be a kid-friendly space for book recommendations.

If you are a TikTok user, give me a follow. I'd appreciate it :)

I really hope you are well and hanging in there. This has gotta be over soon right?!?


The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is a stunning middle grades novel about life, death, love, loss, friendship, and wonder. ##booktok

♬ Lofi - Domknowz


Monday, September 28, 2020

Posting a Daily Agenda in Google Classroom

How is everyone? I put a post up over on Facebook yesterday and the responses just broke my heart. I know that we are not okay. I know this is not sustainable. I know we are drowning.

Taking care of ourselves right now needs to be our TOP priority. This year, I'm on elementary time and not middle school time. This means that if I wake up at my regular 5:15am, I have an extra hour to do 20 minutes of yoga (shout out to my girl, Adriene, who is nothing short of amazing!!), a Calm meditation, and drink my coffee slowly. You have no idea how much I'd rather just hit snooze 6 times, but I sorta think this morning ritual is SAVING me right now.

I do hope you are finding a way to take care of yourself. I know it's not easy for many of us to put ourselves first, but it's necessary in times like these.

Okay... sharing a TIP and a FREEBIE today!

Each day, when my kids come into our Zoom session, I have an Agenda slide on my screen. This Agenda slide accomplishes three things. First, it lets them know the day/date. Next, it our objective (learning goal) for the day and our plan for the day. Finally, there is a "Do Now" question they can answer in the chat. These slides have been so great that I'm pretty sure I'll use them forever and not just during this weird time.

The best part is that I have them pinned as a "Material" at the top of our "Classwork" feed and so I can update them each day on my master and the kid will all get the updated version next time they open it. This is SO STINKIN' HANDY when a student is absent!! They can just go to the slideshow and see what they missed.

I made a video of how I use these and it's up in my stories today on IG and FB. I've also saved it to my "Tech" highlight on IG.

You can get a copy of my template HERE.

I hope that was helpful :)

Okay, friends... hang in there! I know it seems impossible, but just do what you can, when you can, and remember to take care of yourselves.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Digital Reading and Writing Inventory

Tomorrow is my first OFFICIAL day of school. We were in all last week for professional development, but didn't have students. Monday is the big day.

I have not been this nervous about a first day in YEARS. I'm shaky, my head hurts, my stomach is queasy. Agh. Not liking this feeling at all.

It must be because so much of it is out of my control. Typically, I'm always a little nervous (but more excited-nervous than dread-nervous?!?!), but I know that once I get the kids in my room and we start chatting, everything falls into place.

Teaching virtually, however, complicates so much. Will the tech work? Will kids will able to log on? Will I be able to log on? Will the bandwidth cooperate?

It is a lot!

Anyway, I just wanted to hop on and share a Reading and Writing Digital Inventory with you that I just threw together. I always do a paper and pencil version of this and I love reading the answers. 

As you can see, I'm super into the black-background-catcus-inspo-quotes this year, so I hope you are cool with that as well!!

I know that most of you have already started and I hope it's going amazingly well! Wish me luck tomorrow... I'll post again soon to let you know how things are going.