Sunday, August 9, 2020

Another Picture Book Lesson for the First Week of School: Chrysanthemum

Happy second week of August! I'm back with another picture book lesson that I LOVE to use the first week or two of school. 

In my last post, I shared how I use a picture book to introduce the first writing assignment of the year. Today, I want to show you how I introduce our first sharing assignment of the year. 

Please notice I didn't say the other "s word"--speech.  Shame on you, what were you thinking? I can tell you've taught middle school, my friend.πŸ˜‰  In my experience, the word speech conjures up all sorts of negative connotations in 8th graders' minds. They panic, procrastinate, and play hooky just to avoid doing a simple sharing assignment.

This leads me to wonder...what happens to us as learners as we grow up? Most preschoolers I know LOVE show-and-tell and can hardly wait until it is their turn to share. Fourth graders love the spotlight as they share experiences and their work. But something happens in middle school when students are called to share in front of the class. For many students, this is not a pleasant experience.

Folks, this is where we as teachers need to step up our game. The first speech sharing assignment we do has to set the tone for the entire rest of the year. We need our kiddos to know that this is a safe place to share and be heard. We tend to spend a lot of time teaching kids the speaking part of these assignments (make eye contact, don't read from your notes, etc.), but I think teaching students how to be good listeners is just as important, if not more so. Because of this, I do a lot of introductory work to set the stage.

To create a safe sharing environment, I have my kiddos work through different scenarios as I pretend to be the For example, we pretend that I am very shy and I dare to make eye contact with you, when you suddenly lean over to ask your friend if she wants to go grab a soda after school. What am I, as the speaker, probably going to think?

Or I am telling the emotional tale of my grandmother naming me as she is on her deathbed, and you start to giggle because someone made a face at you. What am I, as the speaker, probably going to think?

After working through several of these lessons in empathy, I inform my students that they will earn speaking sharing AND listening grades. Yep, both are equally important in my classroom. After all, don't we have speaking AND listening standards? 

Also, every administrator I have ever taught for has commented on the safe learning community we have established in my classroom. I believe that is the biggest compliment any of them could have ever given me. And I truly believe it is derived from this lesson during the first week of school.

And this important lesson begins with this important book...

Yes, many of the kids have already heard this book by the time they reach 8th grade. I just explain that this is the year that we learn to read like writers, and we have a different purpose in our reading. They buy it, and we move on.

In case you missed my last post, here's my routine for picture book reading time:

* I place the book under the document camera so everyone can read aloud. (Sometimes I use Vooks or Epic if I can't locate a copy of the book.)

*I remind students of our reading norms as needed:

1. Everyone pays attention to the book. No one is doing homework, talking, drawing, or sleeping. 

2. I read the entire book the first time with NO interruptions. I don't stop to ask questions or make comments (usually) and students shouldn't either. Most of us don't like our television programs interrupted by commercials, so we're not going to do that when we read.

I love to use different voices for each character in this particular book, so I practice to make Victoria, Rita, and Jo sound especially annoying. πŸ˜‰

Obviously, the social-emotional component of this story has to be addressed because: 1) It's a huge part of the story, 2) It will be an integral part of the sharing assignment that they will do this week.

We discuss that our names are the first gift our parents, and possibly other family members, give us. This makes them very special and personal to us. Because of this, we ALL need to be respectful of EVERYONE'S name and the unique story behind it. We reflect on the effect Chrysanthemum's classmates had on her and how that's not okay. 

I then share a personal connection of how I named each of my children. I explain the months of agonizing thought and care that went into every part of my children's names. I used family names, combined names, and borrowed the name of a childhood hero.

I tell them quick anecdotes of friends' and family's names. One of my college roomates was named by her mother pointing to a name in a baby book. My sister-in-law was named after her grandma's favorite soap opera character. A high school classmate was named after his dad's favorite baseball player. Finally, some families are like the Duggars and like to have all their children's names start with the same letter, and other families are really into alliterative names, so they choose names based on that. 

The kids always enjoy hearing these stories, and they become excited to share their stories, too.

Now it's their turn!

Sharing assignment guidelines: 

Visit with your parent(s)/guardian(s) about the story of YOUR name. It doesn't have to be a long, involved story--it just needs to be YOUR story. Here are some things to consider:

*Where did your parent(s) get your name? A baby book, movie, TV show, song, book, relative, hero, etc.

*Why did they decide to give this name to YOU? For example, did they decide to use this name because you looked like someone named this, did you have a physical feature that reminded them of this name (Raven = black hair; Rory = red hair, etc.)

*Do you know the meaning of your first and middle name(s)?

*Tell us as much or as little as you are comfortable sharing. Your sharing time must be at least one minute.

I usually assign this sharing activity on the first Monday of the year, and students begin sharing on Friday. In addition to interviewing their parents/guardians, I also have the kids write down what they are going to say. There are a few reasons for this.

1. It gives their story some organization. When they write the information down, it tends to have a beginning, middle, and end. If they just get up to speak, they tend to forget something and we get a lot of, "Oh, wait I forgot..."

2. It helps some kids not to be so nervous. If students know they have a paper to refer to (I don't let them read their paper), it helps ease their jitters. Also, sometimes just having something in their hands, helps give them a little added boost of confidence. 

3. It's the first gift I give their parents/guardians at parent-teacher conferences. I collect the paper from each student when they are finished sharing. I then hold onto them until I meet with parents in October. It's a great conversation starter, and I tell parents it's theirs to put into a scrapbook or memory box. I tend to see LOTS of these at high school graduation receptions, and it just makes my heart so happy. 


PLEASE NOTE: We all know that life isn't perfect. Because of this, not every student is going to be able to tell the story of HOW they got their name. Case in point, *I* don't know why my parents named me my name. By the time I created this lesson seventeen years ago, my mother couldn't remember details other than she just liked the name. That's okay because I still love my name! I share how people mispronounced my name as I was growing up, how I wished my middle name had an "e" at the end of it, and how my initials spelled another name that I loved.

I've had kids in foster care or whose parents have passed away, and we just focus on the positive. We look up what their names mean, if they think their names fit them, famous people who share that name, etc. They still get to tell THEIR story and not one student has questioned anyone's story over the years. No one. We're all so busy getting to know each other and enjoying our stories that no one ever questions how the story is told.


This activity makes me excited for school start! It is probably the BEST bonding experience I have ever used at the beginning of the year. We get to share a great book, set up our safe learning community, and learn part of each other's story. 

And like Chrysanthemum, I like to think it is "absolutely perfect."

Until next time, friends!

Monday, August 3, 2020

Picture Book Lesson for the First Week of Middle School

Merry Monday, everyone! I hope you all had a fabulous weekend and you're ready to take on the world...or at least your own little corner of it.

Today I thought I'd share a back-to-school lesson I have used for several years based on one of my favorite picture books. If you've read my previous posts about picture books, you know that I normally read them at the end of class and use them for a quick review of literary elements. However, I do occaisonally like to use them to introduce writing assignments. Students sometimes don't make the obvious (to us) connection between reading and writing, so I like to demonstrate that relationship from the very first week.

Although I usually do this lesson with 8th graders, I have also used it with 6th and 7th graders with some minor adjustments.

I say "lesson", but it's really kind of like when your grandma says "recipe"'s just a loose list of ingredients and instructions that you tweak to fit your taste or circumstance.😊

How I Spent My Summer Vacation by Mark Teague puts a spin on the tired, clichΓ© back-to-school assignment most of us grew up doing (and dreading) the first week of school. If you've never read the story, a young boy tells how his summer vacation took an unexpected turn when he was recruited to join a group of cowboys. What starts out as an ordinary trip to his aunt's house, quickly becomes a wild tall tale out on the open range.

I like to place my copy of the book under the document camera so everyone in the room can see the illustrations and the words. This is generally our first read aloud, so I like to set the ground rules for the entire year.

1. Everyone pays attention to the book. No one is doing homework, talking, drawing, or sleeping. 

2. I read the entire book the first time with NO interruptions. I don't stop to ask questions or make comments (usually) and students shouldn't either. Most of us don't like our television programs interrupted by commercials, so we're not going to do that when we read.

This makes me sound cranky, but trust me, if you don't firmly establish the norms, it can become a mess-around time. If everyone knows and follows the rules, everyone can fully enjoy the experience.

Teacher tip: Read through the story at least once so you know when to effectively pause, stress words, etc. This book is written in rhyme, so you'll want to make sure you have the rhythm down.

NOW we get to talk about the book. For the writing assignment I'm going to eventually give them, I want to discuss the following with students:

* Hyperbole. How/what did the author exaggerate to make the story more interesting?

*Tall Tale. We quickly discuss the elements of tall tales and some famous tall tale characters such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. We compare and contrast this story with a traditional tall tale. (I also work the term genre into this conversation.) We usually end up concluding this is a tiny tall tale. πŸ˜‰

*Rhyme Scheme. With the book once again under the document camera, we closely examine the text of the story from the beginning. The book is mostly written in an aa, bb, cc rhyme scheme with a pattern of a quatrain followed by a couplet

At this point, my 8th graders are usually thinking, "Holy cow! There's a lot more to that little kids' book than I thought!" And that is EXACTLY what I want them thinking. Muhahaha!

Other topics you could discuss, but please don't ruin the book by pointing out every little thing: 

*The teacher's reaction. Flip through each page to look at the teacher. Have students infer what she is thinking and how her reaction adds to the story.

*Vocabulary.  Discuss the meaning of the following words: wrangler, stampeded, charging, matador, and buckaroo. You could also discuss cowboy attire pictured such as chaps, bandana/kerchief, etc.

*Plot development. Discuss the exposition, rising action, climax, etc. of the story and place it on the plot diagram.

*Visualization.  Explain that readers should "see" a story. Point out how the illustrator shows Wallace envisioning his story as he reads.

The moment of truth! It's now the students' turn to write about their summer vacation using hyperbole AND rhyme! Because someone always asks...wait for long it has to be:

It needs to be at least 4 sets of the quatrain + couplet pattern (24 lines).

Folks, I won't kid you, this is hard for some of them! I give them a week to do the assignment and some really struggle with it. They'll come in before or after school for help, and it's a great opportunity for us to develop a connection.

Between you and me, I like that they find it rather difficult. It sets the tone right away that picture books are NOT "baby" books. Trust me, after this assignment, they never look at our books in quite the same way!

The years that I've taught sixth grade I've just had them incorporate hyperbole into their narrative. They could certainly try their hand at rhyming, but most of them couldn't do it consistently throughout the entire piece.

For seventh grade, I've had them write about their summer vacation using hyperbole and couplets. 

Of course, it goes without saying, I've also added other accommodations and modifications as needed.

If you'd like to read the book but don't want to do the writing assignment, here are a couple of other ideas I've tried:

The great debate. Was Wallace Bleff bluffing about his summer vacation? Have students decide YES or NO, and then defend their position citing evidence from the text and illustrations.  

Some years, this has turned into quite the lively debate! Key piece of evidence for Team YES: the phone booth and Aunt Fern supposedly calling it.  Also Wallace's own words at the beginning of the story: "Your imagination," they said, "is getting too wild..."

Team NO usually counters with the illustration on the last page: the teacher's hasty retreat and the tipped vase. 

Postcard Puzzler. Wallace's postcard in the story gave a few clues about his adventure, but it was rather vague. Have students create a postcard that gives clues about one of their summer events without actually giving it away. (P.S. The stamp they draw on their postcard should also be a clue.)


I hope this offers you some fun ideas to kickstart your year! Remember that the whole goal is to share a love of books with your students and to enjoy the journey together.

Until next time, friends!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Using Nearpod for Classroom and Distance Learning

Happy Saturday, friends! How on earth did it get to be August 1st already?!? I read today that August is like the Sunday of summer. How true, how true...except I'm feeling it's more like Sunday night.

Schools in my area open in two weeks with in-person classroom teaching. 😲


But let's not talk about that right now because a lot can happen in two weeks.

And because a lot can happen in two weeks, two days, two hours, two months, many of us are loading our teaching arsenals with tools that we can use both in the physical classroom and during online distance learning. 

Boy howdy, do I have a wonderful tool for you today!
This is the preview of a lesson I created with an embedded video clip. On the right side are thumbnails of ready-to-use lessons from the Nearpod library.

If you haven't already tried Nearpod, you're going to want to hop over to their site and sign up for an account TODAY!

Here's my experience...

That fateful Friday the 13th of March 2020, our administrators called us into the library for a meeting. That in itself was nothing out of the ordinary because it was a teacher workday--we always had meetings on those days.

However, this meeting was different. The principals cautiously warned us that school might be closed in the coming weeks due to the increasing numbers of COVID cases, and we might have to teach remotely using online services.

They then had our school librarian give us a quick fifteen-minute rundown on using the Nearpod platform. Our district had purchased a subscription and IF we did distance learning in the future, this is what we would use for our lessons. We all set up our accounts together and looked at the variety of pre-made lessons available to us in the Nearpod library.

This is the cover of one of my social studies lessons. No matter where you teach in the good ole USA, fourth grade is all about state history and geography!

Well, we all know how that story ended. Our governor closed schools Sunday evening, and we all began our online adventures on Monday.

I have to say that due to that short meeting, the actual lesson planning and implementation for the remainder of the school year wasn't difficult at all. (Other aspects were difficult, but that's an entirely different post for an entirely different day!) I told you in my last post that my kiddos were used to using Google Classroom and Boom Cards for intervention time, so that was a huge plus. The kids had also used Nearpod in their library class, so they were ready to roll with that as well.

What is Nearpod?

If you've never seen a Nearpod lesson before, it is like a PowerPoint or Google slide presentation on steroids! The lesson is divided up into different slides, and there are interactive elements available to keep students engaged.

As the teacher, you can decide if you want to do a Live Lesson where you project the slides on your board and kids can also follow along on their own devices. (No worries about students getting ahead--lessons are synchronized and the teacher controls the lesson on all devices. Muhahaha!)

You can also choose to have kids do Student-Paced lessons where they log-on to a lesson on their own time and work at their own pace. This is the option we chose for our distance learning lessons.

The first few weeks, we pretty much stuck to the ready-to-use presentations available in Nearpod's vast library. They have lessons on almost any topic you can imagine, and they are available in different grade levels. You can also easily edit slideshows by adding and deleting material to make them suitable for your own students.

One of my slides with audio added. This is a huge bonus for struggling readers or ESL students...actually ALL students!

It didn't take long before many of us decided to create our own presentations using this wonderful new platform! You can import from Google slides or create right there on the Nearpod site. I personally liked to make my slides on PowerPoint because that's what I'm most familiar with and just uploaded the slides as jpegs. To each his own, and the Nearpod platform is very accommodating.

After you have your informational slides uploaded, here's where the magic happens....

This was my students' FAVORITE review activity! It reminded me of an old-school video game where the character you choose gets to move up the mountain every time you answer a question correctly. Parents even loved this feature!

You get to add all the fun bells and whistles! You can add audio, video, and various types of interactive, slides to the mix. My kiddos loved the "games" built into the middle and end of each presentation. Shhhh...we won't let them know about a little thing called formative assessment.

Things I loved about Nearpod

* It is a very easy-to-learn platform. Remember, we were pretty much taught the gist of it in 15 minutes!

* Students join the lessons in class or online by using a code. This is a terrific safety feature because kids aren't logging in using their own personal information.

* Reports are generated showing student progress.

* It's completely paperless.

* You as the teacher have full control over the content of your lessons. You can choose ready-made lessons, modify ready-made lessons, or create your own presentations from scratch.

* Audio and video can both be embedded to make lessons accessible to all students.

*Students can take virtual field trips.

*The interactive elements and "games" keep students engaged during learning.

Are you at least a little bit interested now? You should be! 

But don't just take my word for it, head over to the Nearpod site and check things out for yourself. Whether you're in the classroom, doing distance learning, or homeschooling, this is a great tool to add to your teaching repertoire! 

P.S. They have FREE options available, too!