Recent Posts

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Game Your Students Can Play Tomorrow

Games are the most elevated form of investigation.  ~ Albert Einstein

I just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson's wonderful Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn. I'll need to reread it, to be honest, because too often my mind began drifting to my own classroom as I read. I began asking myself if I was doing all that I could to engage students, and the answer was a sad and resounding no. My classes are severely lacking in game play.

According to Davidson, "Games have long been used to train concentration, to improve strategy, to learn human nature, and to understand how to think interactively and situationally." In the classroom, games capture and focus attention, increase motivation, and allow for complete, overt engagement.

My most often downloaded resource, in fact, is a Theme Game I created on Google Slides. At least one of my readers a day downloads this activity, which means that other teachers are seeing the value of game play in the classroom.

I readily admitted to my students that I created Bug, and it would have some, well, "bugs" that needed to be worked out. But students were eager to help in this regard, and our finished game is best described through the Google Slides presentation below.

What We Learned Together

1) We decided that certain modifications were allowed (simple switch, blend mend, one letter better) since they were sophisticated and advanced the game, while others were not allowed (adding a simple s to create a plural, adding both a vowel and a consonant together, reconstructing a word that has already been spelled). Students likewise dismissed the possibility of allowing prefixes and suffixes, deciding that those modifications didn't truly change the words enough.

2) We learned that four to five minutes was a suitable time for each round of play. Once each round finished, players could challenge their current partner if the match ended in a tie, or winners could challenge other winners and losers could challenge other losers, or, simply, anyone else could challenge any other classmate. Students didn't care whom they played; students simply wanted to play! My period one class of only eight students played using a traditional bracket to decide a final winner, but other classes were content to engage in free range play.

3) Students did begin to employ strategies. One clever student used "shrug" as her first word each time, instantly earning a power up and leaving her partner with a difficult word to manage. When her second partner countered with "shrub," this student needed to quickly adapt and used her earned power down to create "scrum." Scrum? Yes, this game encourages vocabulary development as well.

4) By game's end we concluded that, catchy name aside, every new game couldn't begin with "bug." Too many students were trying to play the same words each round, and too many rounds fell into the same predictable list of words. We decided that each new game should start with a different three letter word.

5) We played our games with large (12 x 18) paper and colored markers, but for a future game we're likely to play with standard sized paper and colored pencils. Students liked the visual separation that two colors provided, but the size format probably won't be needed in the future.

We would love to hear your recommendations, variations, and success stories! Want more word challenges? Try the Word Challenges posted at The Book Chook!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mentor Text Display Cards

I frequently use mentor texts in the classroom, and students find them incredibly valuable as exemplars for their own writing. 

But how many times have I asked, "Do you remember when we saw examples of this technique in one of our mentor texts?" only to be met with blank stares. Or worse, a student will say, "I remember in one of our picture books the author did this thing where she said something in a way that was cool and can you help me find that book?"

So this year, in an effort to maximize our engagement with mentor texts, I began to create Mentor Text Display Cards. For each exemplar text we study, whether it be a picture book, poem, article, or excerpt from a novel, I've posted a simple letter-size display card listing the book title, author, illustrator, genre, theme, notable text features, and a text excerpt (see example below). On a bookshelf adjacent to this display, I've shelved all of the mentor texts we've already read, as well as those I intend to use in the near future.

With just seven cards posted, already I've seen several benefits:
  • During free reading time, students will return to these texts since they're familiar and meaningful.
  • Students struggling to recall text features or literary devices will look to these cards for help.
  • Students now make discoveries of their own in their independent texts, and some have even suggested picture books and excerpts for future sharing. This, in itself, is remarkably revealing, because some students are pointing out features and literary devices that haven't been formally introduced through our other texts.
  • The collection of cards serves as clear evidence of our classroom goal to create a common culture of literacy, while recognizing unique attributes of each text that we share. 
While I created the first few cards, I see no reason why future cards can't be made by students themselves. The blank prototype card I've provided is easy to duplicate and edit. After reviewing the cards I've shared, you may also decide that what I've chosen to illustrate on my cards doesn't quite serve your purposes, so I welcome you to customize them as you see fit. If you're a Google Docs user, simply open the link that I've shared, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.

Looking to the future, I see some other uses for these cards:
  • Printed out, these cards can be inserted in the books they reference. That way, even if you choose not to use a book in a given year, a student can still benefit from the information the card provides.
  • Individual cards can be saved as pdf files, and these can be digitally stored for student access. My own teacher website has an index that would work well with this concept.
  • I chose to post my cards chronologically, since students will remember a book that was read "a long time ago" (two weeks ago!) and find it easier to reference if the cards are posted by occurrence. But I can also see posting cards closer to those shelves that they might reference. So my New York's Bravest card might be posted adjacent to the Tall Tale section of my class library, and my George Bellows: Painter with a Punch card might be located near the biography section.
  • As students read their own picture books (see the biography book reports here, for example), they can create their own display cards to illustrate the "take-aways" of their individual texts.
Via Google slides I've provided you several cards to get started (all the books on these cards have been featured on this blog), including a blank prototype for editing online, as well as a blank that can be printed out if you prefer students to create a card using paper and pencil. Again, you will need to open the link, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.

Need help teaching theme and theme statements? Check out this previous post at my How to Teach a Novel blog. You can also check out my write-ups or activities for any of the following books or stories featured on the sample cards:
I'd love to hear your ideas for these cards, as well as ways you plan to customize them for your own classroom.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Heroes of History, Part II

In an earlier post I shared how students used biography picture books to practice summarizing, recognizing opposing viewpoints, and citing textual evidence. Using the four-step process modeled there, students cut to the chase to tell what was "most needed to know" about their famous man or woman from history. So what's next?

Below I've shared some of the biography extensions and report options which students have completed over the years in my classroom. I'm sure you'll find a new one to try out!

Time Machine

As students read their biography, they take the usual notes, either on a prepared outline or free hand. When writing the report, however, the students pretend that they're able to travel back in time to interview this famous person. The most important details are then summarized in a question-answer format which reads in a more interesting way than a standard report. The paragraph students generated in the four-step summary process (above) serves nicely as the interview's introduction.

I've provided a sample of the interview format, but I highly encourage you to have students brainstorm their own interview questions as well. The brainstorming and sequencing process is an excellent introduction to the research process where students will need to formulate inquiries for themselves. Students will also discover that the unique experiences of any given person will in large part dictate the type of questions which should be asked. When reading Who Says Women Can't be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone, for example, one of my students was amazed to discover that Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by twenty-eight different schools in her pursuit of attending medical school. "I think I would have quit trying after the first ten schools said no," the student remarked, and I wondered what Elizabeth Blackwell herself would have said to her in return.

Some years we presented these in a talk show format, with partners playing the role of interviewer, and other years students chose to dress as the person they were portraying. 


24 Ready to Go Genre Book Reports is a wonderful teacher resource full of ideas for responding to books, and one project from this resource which students have enjoyed is creating a journal.

When I first began teaching, I assigned students a similar journal format, requiring at least three entries that reflected events from the person's childhood or teen years, university or training years, and years of notable achievement. Additional entries could be written at students' discretion.

With the popularity of scrapbooking, students began asking if they could include artifacts in their journals. Projects soon included replica photos, sketches, tickets, maps, currency, and so on. The journal covers likewise became more creative, with students creating covers that resembled television sets, suitcases, trading cards, shipping crates, cars, space shuttles, hats, jerseys, and wanted posters. 

A wonderful set of biography books which rely upon a similar concepts of "snapshots" from a person's life is the 10 Day series by David Colbert, which so far includes books on Anne Frank, Abraham LincolnThomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. If all students in your classroom read the same biography or autobiography, they could likewise focus on the ten most pivotal days of that person's life, with students possibly pairing up and writing a first-person account of one of these days.

As mentioned above, the paragraph students generate in the four-step summary process can serve as an introduction to the diary, as the entries themselves may not provide ample information for some readers to understand the importance of the subject's achievements.

Made in Quotes Cover
Lessons Learned

One of my students' favorite parts of the Time Machine assignment (above) is when they, in the guise of their famous person, are asked to give advice to future generations. Putting themselves "into the shoes" of this famous person and distilling the experiences of a lifetime into a bit of sage advice is a difficult yet rewarding task.

In Lessons Learned, students generate eight to ten tips that their hero might pass on to future generations. The advice can be published as beautiful quotes, using a quote making site such as Quozio, Quotes Cover, ReciteThis, or ProQuoter.

Here, the four-step biography summary is used as an introduction piece that acquaints the reader with the giver of wise counsel. The quotes themselves can be printed, or embedded into a Google Slides or similar sharing platform.


Since most students best understand a biography in strict chronological order, creating a timeline would be a good way for them to explain and illustrate important life events.

For creating an online timeline, I highly recommend, which I discussed at length in a previous post. Check out that post to see how easy it is to get started with Hstry.

Telescoping Story

Telescopic Text allows writers a chance to share a story just one bit at a time, while revealing small and large thoughts alike in a measured manner. You can best understand this site by checking out the site creator's example. To see how a text is entered and edited, and to see a pretty impressive Telescopic Text created by a seven year-old, check out the video below.

Students could use this site to create a slowly expanding narrative of their hero's life. What's great about the site is that it encourages elaboration, a tough topic to teach students who are often trying to write as little as possible.

Caveat: Students should register for their own accounts and learn the difference between saving and publishing (saving allows for future edits; publishing does not).

Newspaper Clipping

A newspaper clipping describing an important event from a person's life is a terrific way to get students to focus upon what really merits attention. The Fodey Newspaper Generator provides a very short format clipping (about 1000 total characters), which is just enough to provide facts without the clutter of details. The clipping to the right, for example, was created in response to A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, written by Matt De La Peña and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. While the picture book chronicles Louis' rise as a fighter, the newspaper clipping captures just a highlight of that life.

This newspaper generator (which I found at the Learning Never Stops blog) allows for more space and also an image, but fills in the rest of the front page with two nonsense articles. Students would need to screen shot and crop out the other articles if they didn't want them to show.

In addition to a stand-alone activity, the newspaper clipping could also be used as an artifact in the Journal assignment above (some students have also used the movie clapboard generator at the Fodey site for their journal project). 

He Said, She Said 

I previously discussed Google Story Builder in another blog, and I'm still a fan. It's a very neat way to show differing points of view. Take a second to check out my review.  

Here's a short Google Docs Story I created after reading Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero, written by Cheryl Harness and illustrated by Carlo Molinari. Note that activist Mary Walker disagrees with what a fabricated nemesis named "Nathan Properbody" has to say.

Students can create both sides of such a fictional dialogue, or two students can take on opposing roles and write from each viewpoint. The process will need some trial and error, and the resulting pieces can't be long, but it's a very different type of writing requiring some critical and creative thinking.

Looking for more tech tools to assess student learning? Be sure to check out this collection of over thirty of the best free sites I've found to assess students at all stages of learning process.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Create Interactive Timelines

If you're looking for an awesome online report option for biographies or nonfiction texts, you'll love Hstry is a site where students can create cool looking, interactive timelines with text, images, videos, and embedded quizzes. 

These are really good looking timelines! If you don't believe me, check out this sample on World War I, or this one about the History of Immigration in theUnited States. And your students can create timelines that look just as good.

In my case, however, I didn't want a timeline. My sixth graders had just read nonfiction books of choice, with topics as varied as fashion, venomous animals, and accidental inventions. I needed a venue that would permit them to show off their topic's most interesting facts. So in my case, my students used the site to create linear collages rather than timelines. The video below (which I created and hosted for free at Screencast-O-Matic) walks you through one of those projects.

I spent a good deal of time modeling the process of creating a Hstry timeline in class (and you'll need to do the same), but some students were still somewhat fuzzy on all the steps even after I finished. Plus, three students were absent the day I modeled the how-to. So I created the following video which walks students through the process. Note: do not make a video when all you have for audio production is a dollar store microphone. The project sheet to which the video refers is here if you care to see it.

One downside to this site is that (at present) students cannot publicly share their projects. So in my class we did mini field trips. Students logged in and set up their projects on their screens. I then randomly distributed our class name cards, and students went and visited the Hstry project belonging to the classmate whose name appeared on the card. While visiting, my students provided feedback via a form I created. After two visits, all students were allowed to return to their projects, read the feedback form, and then make corrections as needed. Following these revisions, we conducted two more staged visits, and then students were permitted to visit as they chose or return to their own laptop to improve their work.

Sample Applications for the Classroom:
  • Create a timeline of historical events.
  • Create a biographical timeline.
  • Embed multiple videos, each with its own quiz.
  • Do what my students did, and use it as a linear collage for a nonfiction book.
  • Create your own timeline (as a teacher) to provide students with needed historical context they need before a new unit. 
Notes and Caveats:
  • Again, student timelines are not publicly visibly (yet), and may never be, so plan accordingly.
  • Check-off sheets like the one I created are key to help students manage the content they're adding.
  • Looking for other creative, tech-oriented ways to create book reports? Check out these 23 iPad Alternatives to the Book Report.
  • No, I did not really read the book about chickens, but I did spend summers running a farm at camp, so I know my way around a chicken coop.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Heroes of History

Read below for Marceau's amazing story!
One popular conversation in education centers around "What is worth knowing?" To that conversation I'd like to add the question, "Who is worth knowing?"

When I ask students to name someone famous and the first reply I hear is "Kim Kardashian," I die just a little bit inside. Students don't seem to have an understanding of, or appreciation for, the lives of great men and women who changed the course of history. 

But biography picture books can help to remedy that.

Wiser Words Were Never Spoken

My high school daughter recently took her SAT and was describing the writing prompt she was given. She paraphrased the quote and named the speaker (which I won't reveal here), and then described for me the way in which she had crafted her response. 

I finally asked, "And did you include why that quote was so important, considering the person who said it?" 

Her reply: "Well, I had heard of him, but I didn't really know who he was." 

Opportunity lost.

Regardless of what some might have us believe (the PARCC assessment comes to mind), historical context does, in fact, matter when examining any piece of text, and history is the product of those who made it.

Students therefore need knowledge of heroes of history.

Getting Started

Before showing students even a single biography, I gave them some practice summarizing current events articles from Tween Tribune using the tried and true 5Ws and 1H. This required a significant shift in students' responses; after all, I had been encouraging them for months to elaborate, and now they were being asked to summarize an entire article in a single sentence. 

The Tween Tribune article "It's Even Too Cold for Polar Bears!", for example, was summed up as follows:

Due to her specialized diet designed to eliminate a thick layer of insulating fat, Lincoln Park Zoo's resident polar bear Anana had to be moved indoors last Monday during Chicago's record-low temperatures.

Note that in addition to the basic facts, the sentence also provides students with a model for writing a cause/effect relationship.

After some independent practice with longer articles (requiring even greater ability to discern important facts), we were ready to move on to trade books. 

You may want to follow along on the assignment guidesheet which you're welcome to download in pdf (or Word) and be sure to grab the blank sheet as well (also available as a Word doc). You'll notice that the instructional steps below differ somewhat from those given to students for their own work.

Just the Facts
For my mentor text, I selected Robert Burleigh's George Bellows: Painter with a Punch!, in part because while George Bellows' art might be familiar to students, the man as an artist was not. I also planned to return to this text in a later lesson on using opposing viewpoints to construct argumentative writing.

In their notebooks, students jotted down a list of the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) and were asked to listen for those facts as I read the book aloud. I read the majority of the book, stopping to monitor understanding and also to ask if any of our facts had been discovered.

By story's end we had 

Who: George Bellows
What: painted pictures that weren't beautiful
Where: New York City
When: early 1900s
Why: to show emotions and power
How: showing scenes of everyday city life

Cobbled together after some discussion and experimentation, these facts became a fact-fixing sentence that sounded like this:

In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life.

Prove It!

Students knew that this was coming. What textual evidence backed up what we just stated? We found several sentences which might work, and finally settled on just a snippet of one quote, which we placed into a sentence that included both the author and book:

According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.”

So What?

But then I asked, "So what? Why did that matter?" And here's where students begin to see the light. Those people from history who changed the way others think, believe, or act tend to be those worth remembering. In the case of George Bellows, he and other students of Robert Henri went against the traditional belief that the artist's role was to paint what was beautiful. 

This led us to construct an opposing viewpoint statement to precede the summary sentence we had already drafted:

For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently.


This, naturally, led to the question of legacy. "What lasting impact did this person's life and work have upon us? Why should they be remembered today?"

I had to provide a bit of background here, discussing with students that at this time in history, many schools of art were wrestling with the role of the artist and the artist's responsibility to represent "real life." Eventually we came up with this closing sentence:

Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

Pieced together, the finished summary read as follows:

For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently. In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life. According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.” Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

An impressive summary once completed. But, could students could do it on their own?

Training Wheels

Armed with this model, students jotted down the sentence order in their notebooks as a quick reference:

I. Opposing Viewpoint 
II. 5Ws and 1H
III. Textual Evidence
IV. Legacy

Each student was then assigned a picture book biography from numerous examples chosen by the teacher. Some teachers might be surprised that students aren't allowed at this point to choose their own books, but I feel it's important that students approach the exercise with no preconceived notions about the person they're studying.

Students read the books for homework and completed the four step process outlined on the guidesheet. The following day they shared their first attempt with a classmate and made revisions based on that peer's feedback. I then had students switch books with any other student in the class apart from the one who had heard their summary. This guaranteed that by day three, two students would have read each book and could get together to compare paragraphs. This sharing led to much more productive revisions, as both students had intimate knowledge of the text and could offer more specific feedback on not only form, but also content.

I was surprised by students' success with the process. While some, as expected, followed the Bellows model precisely, simply swapping out details as needed, others departed from the model. A couple of students tried switching sentence orders when writing summaries of their second books, while others tried different grammatical structures while maintaining the sentence order we had established.

One student, not thrilled when handed Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was amazed to learn that this entertainer played a major role in the French Resistance, and led many Jewish children to safety. His paragraph, which he knew fell far short of paying homage to this unsung hero, reads:

Many people might think that miming is a fairly recent type of drama, but it is actually an ancient form of art that, because of sound movies, might have been forgotten; however, a talented young Frenchman named Marcel Marceau revived its popularity. After serving bravely in the Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, Marceau followed his dream of becoming an actor capable of moving the audience to laughter or tears, all without saying a word. According to author Gloria Spielman in Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, "By the time he died in 2007, Marcel had revived the ancient and almost forgotten art of silence." Because of Marceau's work, many performers who followed in his footsteps realize that it isn't what you say, but how your facial expressions and body gestures convey it.

Most surprising to many students was how much they enjoyed reading about people they had never even heard of (many students had already made plans for the next book they wanted to read). The skepticism I witnessed on the first day when distributing books was replaced with enthusiasm by day two of the assignment. And since then, students have been asking to do the assignment again, and many have naturally been begging to read biographies of their own choosing.

So What's Next?

While this lesson can certainly stand alone as an exercise in summarizing, I can see these simple summary paragraphs serving as introductions to other types of responses to biography, current events, and history.

In my next post I'll share some possible extension activities, as well as some of the more popular titles which students enjoyed.