May 31, 2021

What I'm Reading & Teaching in June

There's just a few days of school left and just enough time for some reflection and fun. Here's what I'm be doing in my classroom and my TBR for June.

May was not much of a teaching month between administering our school's benchmark tests (NWEA's MAP testing) and then our states standardized tests. This lull in classroom planning and grading made May my best month yet for reading. But that doesn't mean nothing happened in my classroom! Students did finish up a crossover research and narrative writing assignment and will finish their last novel unit this week. I have just a week and a half of school left in June to squeeze in some reflective activities and some fun.

Reading in June
In May, I read everything on my May TBR list; I am finally getting the hang of creating a monthly stack of books I want to read without hesitation. I'm still working on balancing genres, but did pretty well with that this month too; I read six YA titles (one was a collection) and six middle grades titles (two were nonfiction and the other four were audiobooks). I'm almost a month ahead on my goal of reading 104 books for the year, so I'm feeling pretty good about that too.

Here's what I'm hoping to read this month:
2. Walls by L. M. Elliott (young adult)
8. The Line Tender by Kate Allen (middle grades)

Teaching in June
My students just finished their final novel of the year; they had a choice between two parallel novels, Life As We Knew It and The Dead and The Gone, both by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Because of all of the testing in May, this novel unit was much less structured than the whole class novel or literature circles I did with students earlier in the year. We had a lot of informal whole class discussions about the two books because although the characters and specifics of the plots are different, the general events and issues are similar enough. Students enjoyed getting to hear about what was happening in the other book and comparing the characters' experiences.

To wrap up the novels, students will have a short and creative assessment that will hopefully be the perfect mix of structured and open ended. I'll ask students to focus on the thoughts the main character is having in the final chapter of the book. Students will choose three key words or phrases to represent the character's thoughts and then pull three pieces of evidence from the text to support those choices. Students will also add at least three images to reinforce the key ideas and text evidence. To support my special education students and lower level readers, I created a word bank of key words they could choose from. This is my first time using an assessment like this, so I'm hoping it is something that students will be successful with and not something that turns out to be much more difficult for students than I intended.

Despite all of the challenges in teaching and learning this year, I want students to reflect on everything they've accomplished this year and give me feedback so that I can make changes for next year. After grades are in, I'll have students complete an anonymous survey about their favorite unit, assignments, and books as well as the structure of my class and classroom. The other reflective activity I'm trying out this year is for students to create a virtual portfolio. They'll choose four of their assignments to show off, write a reflection paragraph, and then decide who they'd like to share their portfolio with. If the idea goes well this year, I would love to build it up next year into an in person event for families to attend (I can remember doing something similar as a sixth grader).

Each year, students are given a summer reading assignment, so I'll be previewing Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, the novel students will be reading as rising seventh graders, and passing along Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds to my incoming sixth graders. The "work" attached to reading is to send me an email reflecting on the character and conflict and making connections with the book. I also ask students to answer some fun questions about themselves. The summer assignments are not graded, so I like the email format which doesn't make a big show of who turned it in and who didn't. It is also a great way to preview students' writing skills and start connecting with students before the school year begins.

On the very last day of school, I've set up a summer themed mini-Olympics, similar to what I did the day before winter break. Students will create teams and compete in six rounds of activities, some are word or logic puzzles and others are games on Kahoot!, Quizziz, and Blooket. Since some of my students are remote and some will be in person, I'll use breakout rooms on Zoom to allow students to work together. And that'll be a wrap for the 2020-2021 school year!

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There's just a few days of school left and just enough time for some reflection and fun. Here's what I'm be doing in my classroom and my TBR for June.

May 5, 2021

Literature Circles: Selecting and Previewing Texts

Running literature circles in your classroom may seem daunting. Find out how I select books to offer students and having them preview those choices.

The idea of running literature circles in your classroom may be a daunting one. Maybe it is your first go or maybe it didn't work out all that well in the past. This series of blog posts will detail my experiences with literature circles in hopes of making your next go at it a little easier for you, more engaging for your students, and an enjoyable experience for everyone in the classroom. This first post is about selecting books to offer to students and having them preview those choices to find which books they'd like to read.

Selecting Books to Offer
Literature circle choices usually have some thread that binds them together. The choices may be all of the same genre, from the same time period, focused on the same topic, or connected to the same theme. How many book choices you offer will largely depend on your access to books, what your school has available and/or what you are able to purchase. You may also want to think about how many different discussion groups you want to manage in your classroom. More choices will likely mean smaller groups, but you could also break up larger groups of students reading the same book.

As you select books to offer as literature circle choices, you will want to consider offering a variety of difficulty levels,  lengths, and protagonists. Common Sense Media is a great resource for vetting the appropriate age level of a book if you are making a selection before you are able to read the book yourself. 

With class sized around 24 students, I like to offer six different choices. I don't mind having some groups that are smaller and some groups that are larger; three students is usually my minimum and six students is usually my maximum. Most of my book choices will be at grade level, but I like to have at least one choice that is below and one choice that is above grade level to meet different students' reading needs. I handle length the same way; most books will be of the same length, but I like to have at least one choice that is fairly short and one choice that is longer to meet different students' reading needs. When possible, I like to choose protagonists with a variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences

Physical Previewing
If you able to have students preview physical copies of the choices of books, I put one at least one stack of book choices at each group of student desks and give the students time to preview each of the books, telling them to look at the front cover and read the details on the back (and inside flaps if it is a hardback). I also encourage students to read a few pages to see if the book grabs their interest and the writer's style and organization appeals to them. When students are finished previewing the choices, I have them rank their choices and turn them in to me.

Digital Previewing
If students are going to be previewing the book digitally, I create a Google Slides with a slide for each choice. On each slide, I provide the image of the front cover and a summary of the book. I also include a link to Amazon and show students how to use the "look inside" feature so they can read a few pages. When students are finished previewing the choices, I have them rank their choices in a Google Form to allow for easy sorting.

Other Considerations
Depending on the number of choices I am offering and the number of copies of each I have available to give out, I may have students rank all of the choices or just their top three. In addition to ranking their books, I may also ask students if there are students they do and do not want to work with, the size of the group they'd like to discuss with, and their usual role in discussions : leader, participant, or listener. Since I don't typically start the school year with literature circles, I usually have an idea of which role students take on in discussions, but it is good for students to self identify as later that can be used to help the student set goals for how they will participate in discussions.

Find all of my resources for literature circles here.

May 3, 2021

What I'm Reading & Teaching in May

In between school benchmarks and state testing, we're reading parallel novels from the Life As We Knew It series and writing a disaster narrative.

After another month of virtual teaching, I thought I would feel more comfortable and settled into a routine, but instead I find myself feeling more bored and frustrated. There's only so much shaking things up I can do while still feeling connected with my in person and online students. There's also so many aspects of teaching that are just more complicated with some students at home and some in the classroom. 

The good news is that there's only a little over a month of the school year left. The bad news is that next year may not look much different, but I can't process that right now, so I'm trying to actively ignore it. At this point though, I've taught in person, virtually, and hybrid, so whatever next year brings can't be more challenging. I've also got a repertoire of activities and lesson materials for all three scenarios, so next year will not be me recreating the wheel, maybe just fine tuning the spokes. 

Reading in May
In April, I read 9 books, six of those were young adult and the other three were middle grades (and all of those were audiobooks). This is the fewest number of books I've read in a month so far this year and I can't pinpoint why. I still averaged about 2 books a week, keeping me on track to reach my goal of 104 books by the end of the year, and worked through most of the titles on my April TBR list. However,  this month I want to be more conscious of what I am spending my time doing when I could be reading. I may be able to sneak in some reading time in class during independent reading time. Here's what I am hoping to read:
May has just barely started and I know it is going to be a whirlwind. So many teaching days are lost to testing: first our school's benchmark (MAP)  testing and then state standardized testing (the PSSAs). As we continued with our dealing with disaster narrative, I debated moving into a historical fiction narrative piece (students research a disaster to be at the center of their narrative) or our final novels of the year (parallel novels Life As We Knew It and The Dead and The Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer), and decided to do both at the same time. My periods are currently 80 minutes long, so we spend the first half hour dedicated to activities connected to our parallel novels, the second half hour on developing our narratives, and then the final twenty minutes of class reading.

Our narratives are still in the development stages. Students picked a natural or manmade disaster to be the focus of their narrative and then researched the disaster as well as its setting. I provided students with two lists of disasters as a starting point, but they could choose other topics with my approval. Incorporating a real disaster allows students to practice their research skills at the start of the writing process and practice MLA formatting for a bibliography at the end of the writing process. Once students have a grasp of what happened during the disaster and where it occurred, they create the main character for their narrative. Students have a choice of basing the character off of a real person involved in the disaster or starting from scratch. Finally students will map out the plot of their narrative, making the connection between the disaster they researched and the character they created. Before we start drafting, we'll work on writing dialogues and hooks. After drafting, we'll work through revisions focused on adding figurative language and imagery.

We just started our parallel novels last week. Both center around the disaster of an asteroid hitting the moon, knocking it closer to Earth, but have two different settings and protagonists. Miranda is a white high school sophomore living in fairly rural Southeastern Pennsylvania and Alex is a Puerto Rican high school junior living in New York City. As students started reading the first few chapters of their books, they explored nonfiction texts and media about asteroids, the relationship between the Earth and the moon, and the likelihood of a disaster like the one depicted in the novels actually occurring. Now that students are a few chapters in, they are tracking changes that have happened in the character's personal lives as a result of the disaster as well as changes that have happened in the larger world around them. Assignments like these allow students to discuss in groups of other students reading the same text, but we can also share out as a whole class and make connections between the two books. I am keeping the assignments are generic as possible so I can utilize them for both novels. Over the next two weeks, I will work in some grammar review using examples from the books. I haven't decided yet on a final project, but will try to work in something fun and creative after testing ends.

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In between school benchmarks and state testing, we're reading parallel novels from the Life As We Knew It series and writing a disaster narrative.