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Inspiring Information – a Nonfiction Reading List

Unless you’re a modern day Leonardo da Vinci, I’m sure you’ve faced a topic or unit that you were required to teach that didn’t cause  an instant burst of enthusiasm. It’s perfectly natural, but I’ve found that teaching and learning require passion – genuine passion as children can detect phony from fifty yards away. When I don’t have that natural enthusiasm, I look for ways to generate it in myself. I’m sharing my process for tackling a unit that I don’t have a natural love for  in this series of posts. I’m looking at you, nonfiction.

Once I take a good hard look at the unit and myself, it’s time to dive in and learn more from people who are enthusiastic and passionate about the topic. Reading has never failed me, and there are phenomenal teacher authors who mentor me through their words – some I go back to time and again, some new who can shed additional light on a subject. I want to share with you these writers, and hope they can help you as they have helped me.

I started my teaching life as a history teacher, and found my way to Janet Allen. She writes in a real and honest way that has always made me feel that we were discussing strategies over a cup of coffee. Her works are a winning combination of a realistic assessment of some of the problems we face in literacy instruction combined with strategies that can be put in to place immediately. I know there will be strategies and ideas in these texts that will help me plan my unit.

My issue, though, isn’t planning, but passion. So I turn to Kylene Beers and Bob Probst of Notice and Note fame. If you haven’t read Notice and Note, stop reading this post and order it immediately. (Or ask your literacy coach, they probably have a copy. ) They have been teachers, they have worked with teachers, and they also write in a very accessible way. They have a passion for all things reading and in helping children become better readers and you can feel that in their writing. It is impossible to not become enthusiastic.

Nonfiction Reading Cover

In this work Beers and Probst work to define nonfiction, discuss how nonfiction reading has different requirements of the reader than fiction, and identify “signposts” that should tell the reader when to stop and, well, “notice and note”. The signposts are the real meat of the book, and it includes model lessons for each signpost as well. Well worth reading and discussing, I recommend it!

Once I have gone to my print mentors and immersed myself in a topic like this, I can’t help but become excited to teach it. Who are your favorite print mentors for nonfiction reading?




Nonfiction Notions

I love reading literature! I love to teach literature, and writing narratives, and writing about our reading! I sometimes miss how much simpler my life was when my focus was entirely on history, but I would not trade the last six years of teaching an integrated class for anything. Language, and how we acquire it, grow in it, become skillful in it is both a fascinating puzzle and a real responsibility because reading and writing are as important to our students’ development as breath.

I do not love reading informational text. Given the choice between a biography and a novel, I will choose the novel. Every. Single. Time. We are all asked to teach things we don’t love though, for the betterment of our students. When I am faced with teaching something I am not naturally passionate about, I challenge myself to find the passion. I firmly believe that passion is necessary for teaching because it is hard to convince your students to care about a subject or skill if you don’t.

The first thing I do in this case is challenge my assumption about the topic. Do I really not love it? I say I don’t love informational text, but I do love my new InstantPot, and I’ve spent hours researching recipes, watching YouTube videos, and troubleshooting dishes.  I say I don’t love informational text, but I watch the news every night, and read articles from the paper and magazines about things happening in the world. I say I don’t love informational text, but I love reading books and blogs about teaching – researching strategies and testing them out to see if they work for my students and myself. Hmmmm.

If I were honest, I’d say I probably spend half of my reading time as an adult consuming informational text and enjoying it. So why am I convinced I don’t love it? Maybe what I really don’t love is inauthentic informational text. “Test prep” informational text. Keeping the definition to just text, when in reality we receive information from multimedia sources as well. Reading informational text not to solve a problem, to answer a question, or  to make a decision, but just to check off the requirement. There must be purpose for passion.


Once I have challenged my assumptions, I read, read, read. I’m reading an amazing book, Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers




Plot Structure Charts and Google Apps

My students and I recently finished reading War Horse during our World War I unit. We focused on summarizing the action and comparing/contrasting characters during the reading, because Joey changes owners and sides so frequently during the novel. I wanted us to wrap up or study with a review of plot structure so I decided to have my students create a plot structure chart in Google Drawing based on a template that I found and modified. When I offer this option again, I will have the students work in Presentation, so that is the template that I will share here.

Here is a sample of the work I received:

Sample Student Work Plot Structure Chart

Sample Work for Plot

(Note: I’m not sure what it is about working on computers that dulls my students’ sense of when to capitalize, but this is something we are working on.)

I spent a great deal of time coming up with a rubric for plot structure, because I felt the ones I had access to were too specific to the product and not detailed enough on the skill. I wanted something that would apply to any plot structure product, or for that matter, a plot structure conference or test. After much thinking, and much reading of sample rubrics, this was the end result:


You can download a PDF of the file here Plot Structure Grading Template OR this is the google docs version if you want to try out Goobric.

Things that went well:

  • Students were far more motivated working on the plot structure charts via the computer than they were doing them by hand first quarter.
  • Students saw a purpose for the analytic notes I had them take throughout the novel, many reported that they wished they had added more detail to their notes and felt that they would next novel. (Progress!)
  • The grading! It took a long time for me to settle on the criteria for my rubric, but it has made the grading quick and relatively painless. I copied the rubric right in to my student’s work, and highlighted their scores. I still made a few individualized comments, but overall, most of what I would have said was already on the rubric. I also plan on using the data from my students’ scores to plan additional instruction/practice on analyzing plot structure for those who need it.

Things I would do differently:

  • Use Google Presentation instead of Google Drawing. It would have been easier to insert the rubric.
  • Use Doctopus to distribute the file and Goobric to automate the insertion of the rubric into my students’ work.
  • I would have the students peer edit by sharing their Presentation with another student – I really wish I had taken the time to have the students do this.
  • I might even have the students post their finished projects on a Padlet for a digital gallery walk.

If you are interested in plot structure, you may be interested in the following post as well:

Plot Structure Questions Chart

Free resources for planning with the Common Core

I will be going full force with the Common Core and standards based grading this school year and have been reading anything I can get my hands on. I like to start with theI just wanted to share with you some websites that I have found useful in planning for Common Core instruction this year.

This is a collection of resources from the Illinois State Board of Education. I really like their ELA Teaching and Learning Strategies, for both Literature and Informational Text. Each standard includes Strategy/Lesson suggestions and ideas for assessment. I’ve included a screenshot of one standard below:

This site is from Common Core Connect, a website of the Tulare County Office of Education in California. This document, for each standard, lists the standard and its anchor, essential skills, academic vocabulary, question stems, and the standard for the grade below and the grade above. I’ve included a screenshot of one standard below:

These are also available as bookmarks that you could hole punch and put on a binder ring.

A last site that I am using in my planning process is the Marzano Research Laboratory, Proficiency Scale Bank. I am transitioning to standards based learning and I plan on creating proficiency scales for each standard I am teaching this year. I always like to look at examples, and there are many on this free website. You will need to create an account though. Here is a screenshot of a sample proficiency scale:

I hope these are helpful to you, and if you have any planning resources for the Common Core, please link them in your comments! Happy planning!

Reading to get ready for the Common Core

I’ve been reading a great deal about close reading as I prepare to teach the Common Core.  In close reading as proposed by the Common Core, the teacher decides what passages to analyze and creates a series of text dependent questions to lead students to a deeper understanding. There is nothing wrong with that, but the Core standards also value independence and how is a student going to learn to close read on their own if it is always teacher driven? 

Enter Kylene Beers and Robert Probst book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, which I just finished reading. This book shows you how to teach students six “signposts” commonly found in fiction that alert the reader to slow down and think about what the author is doing. These signposts teach students how to recognize passages worth analyzing on their own so that they can close read independently. The missing link!

The book is divided into three parts – the first explaining the authors’ thought process in the process of developing these lessons, the middle explaining the and defining the signposts, and lastly, the lessons themselves. The authors developed the signposts by reading the most frequently taught novels from the middle grades and high school to search for features that could be useful across multiple texts.  They originally had over a dozen and worked it down to the six most useful on the advice of teachers who were field testing the signposts. 

The six signposts are:

Contrasts and Contradictions

Aha Moments

Tough Questions

Words of the Wiser

Again and Again

Memory Moment

The book gives complete lessons for each of these, and suggestions for multiple texts. The authors were not attempting to write a book to help implement the Common Core, and in fact, you can tell they are not crazy about them. Even so, these strategies to bring the reader and text closer together can’t be anything but a good thing!

You can watch a video introducing the book here.

You can view online resources here.

Continue reading

Claiming my blog on Bloglovin

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Please forgive this non-content post, but I’m playing around with Bloglovin as my new blog reader and wanted to “claim my blog”.

Scheduling the Integrated Block

I am passionate about providing the optimum learning environment for my students. I read professional literature and stalk teacher forums and blogs, constantly on the lookout for new ideas. So, creating a daily schedule should be easy, right? Not so much.

I have tried it all – scheduling separate language arts and social studies time, creating integrated projects. doing some integration while maintaining a separate independent reading block. I haven’t been able to completely reconcile what I know constitutes best practice in reading instruction (student choice! time to read!) and the equally important need for students to experience connected learning (integration) until now. Two things have made this possible – the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and accepting that a schedule should be flexible.

The CCSS are elegant. There are ten anchor standards that are reflected in both literature and informational text, and that is providing the base for my schedule. Each day we will have two independent reading sessions, one focusing on literature (student choice!) and the other focusing on informational text. I am planning on bundling the standards and looking at the same standard through the lens of both literature and informational text. For example, I will start with the elements of literature and the features of informational text, then move to the structure of narrative text versus the organizational patterns of informational text, and so on. The standard provides an automatic integration based on skill/content. The informational text choices will be based around the social studies content, providing a bridge from skill integration to content integration.

My typical schedule then, would look like this:

  • Mini-Lesson for the CCSS – Literature
  • Independent Reading/Conferences
  • Mini-Lesson for the CCSS – Informational Text (this could be very short as it builds on the previous mini-lesson)
  • Independent reading/Conferences
  • Work on Writing (this would be attached to either the Literature reading session or the Informational text session depending on the type of writing we were working on)
  • Social Studies Mini-Lesson
  • Independent Work/Conferences (Choice Board)

The entire day then has a fairly seemless feel where all learning is either integrated by skill or content, which is my ultimate goal.

The other thing is that I have made peace with the fact that this will be a “typical” schedule, but that doesn’t mean every day. I have accepted that no one schedule will meet the varied needs of either my curriculum or my students!  I have approached this year building in time for performance tasks, because sometimes a learning opportunity cannot be confined to a 30 minute block or an hour.  If a performance task meets multiple standards, and we need the day to work on it after our independent reading, then we can take the day or two days or whatever is required. I am sketching out my curriculum so that I have available “blocks” of time for my students to have those experiences.

What sort of schedules have worked for you in integrating your subjects?

Common Core, Standards Based Grading, and Integration – oh my!

It has been awhile since my last post, and that has been because my head has been spinning with new ideas and new opportunities. For the last two years, I have had the opportunity to work on a two person team teaching Language Arts and Social Studies in a gifted magnet program. I have moved from teaching a 100 students, one subject, four times a day for an hour to teaching 50 students, three subjects (reading, writing, social studies) twice a day for two and a half hours. The push towards the Common Core, and the need to help students make the most of their learning time has led me to focus on integration and differentiation. This in turn led me to standards based grading as a way of facilitating these things and keeping my students focused on the learning they were doing. There has been more than a few changes in my thinking over this time, and I have grown tremendously, but I have been so busy reading, thinking, discussing with my awesome team mate, and just doing that I haven’t taken the time to post. I also wanted to wait until my thinking was clearer, but as I tell my students “writing is THINKING”, so I’m going to think out loud here and hope that you will give me feedback and help me become clear. Tomorrow I will start with the one skill that launched the most changes in my thinking – note-taking.

Edmodo – My Class Online

Edmodo is an amazing service, and it is free. I’m going to write in this post how I am using Edmodo in my classroom as you can easily Google it to find out anything else.

Assignments: Every assignment I give is on Edmodo. You can actually assign tasks to individual students or whole groups. You can attach handouts, links, or videos to the assignments – no more lost instructions. Students can comment on the assignment asking for clarification. These assignments then show up in student notifications, and can be turned in online. When I grade them I can use Edmodo’s annotate feature, or I can type feedback directly in to the student’s turned in assignment. They can continue to revise until the assignment is graded.

Calendar: All assignments show up in the student’s calendar, and they are clickable. This has been amazing for parents. Also, you can add dates for quizzes/tests/events. My teaching partner is on Edmodo too, so we can see each other’s assignments and coordinate due dates.

Updates/Announcements/Pictures: I can share what we are doing in class, and I can choose what to make public – Edmodo is a closed, safe environment but you can choose to make certain things public – no more double work on the school webpage. Also, students can interact with this content – asking questions or commenting.

Quizzes – you can create all types of assessments in Edmodo – short answer, fill in the blank, multiple choice. These can be graded within Edmodo and show you at a glance where the class is and where understanding is breaking down.

Parent Involvement: the absolutely best thing about Edmodo is parent communication. Parents receive everything you send the the student – every assignment, every direct message, the calendar, the quizzes – everything.

Slow shift to paperless – my district wants us to become 90 percent paperless in three years. Edmodo has allowed me to start that – I don’t print copies of study guides for the entire class anymore, only those without access to a printer. Edmodo also plays nicely with any Web 2.0 service you use via links or embedding – projects are completed, submitted, and graded online.

Students use Edmodo at school and home, and it is leading my class to a more blended environment.

#edcamp + classroom = #classcamp?

I’ve been reading a great deal about #edcamp on Twitter. At an #edcamp, the participants are the conference. The schedule of sessions is created the morning of the conference by the people who are attending. The goal is to create as many different sessions for each time slot as the space will allow. Presenters are more facilitators, collaborative documents are created about the topics, attendees include their social network in the experience by tweeting. If a session isn’t meeting your needs, you are free to walk out and choose another one – this is called the “rule of two feet”. Teachers seem to love this concept because it respects their voice in their own learning, and their ability to choose what will be most beneficial to them.

We wouldn’t be teachers if our own excitement about learning didn’t make us wonder “what if”. What if the rule of two feet applied to our classroom? What would school look like if our students had more choices, more ownership of their learning? What if kids could look forward to learning the way we do?

I’m thinking #classcamp (or # ____camp depending on the topic.

I teach younger students so I know I would need to provide considerable scaffolding, at least at first. I’m largely thinking out loud here, and I would really appreciate thoughts or ideas, especially if you have implemented something similar

My thoughts – give students (even parents or other teachers) a broad topic, such as World War II, Immigration, etc. See how many spaces in the building could be co-opted for sessions then create a schedule within the school’s schedule for sessions and allow students/parents/teachers to sign up to present in a googledoc. This would have to be done ahead of time, which I know is not true to the #edcamp model, but maybe that’s something we could work toward over the course of the year.

Students would initially “sign up” for sessions, also in google docs, but I think it would be important to preserve the two feet rule. If you knew your audience, your peers, were free to leave if your session wasn’t meeting their needs, I can’t help but feel it would make you step up your game. For students, it makes the research/ presentation/involvement more authentic – they choose and know their peers choose to stay or go as well. I know the etiquette would have to be taught/modeled but I still think that could be powerful on both sides.

I also would want to require reflection – #edcamps lead to active participation from its attendees.  Again, I’m just thinking out loud. Comments/suggestions would be appreciated.